I’m eight years old and everything is different.
We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.
The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.
Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.
One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.
When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.
“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”
He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.
He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.
Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.
Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.
Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.
I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.
It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.
We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.
After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.
On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.
I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.
G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.
I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.
He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.
This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.
He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.
After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.
I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.
I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.
Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.
I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.
At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.
G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.
One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.
I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.
I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.
G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.
The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.
I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.
When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.
I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.
The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.