Melting Away

This was the third hospital that my brother stayed in; he’d been at this one before. The name of the actual facility escapes me, but it was located down the street from a factory that made “Fruit and Nut” confections. My mother, sister and I thought that was a riot that there were two places with nuts on that street. Maybe we were just laughing because that was better than the alternative.

My father came over and I could tell this was going to be a turning point in the relationship with him. He was angry and upset that it had come to this. He was not happy about the price tag that he was assuming by sending my brother to this boarding school. I didn’t even know there were boarding schools in our metro area, but I guess when you got into the more upper class enclaves, you could find one. The Catholic school my brother would attend (which we all found ironic) had a seminary attached to it in addition to the regular high school.

Looking back on it, I think there was no place for any of us to find common ground. Everyone blamed everyone else in the scenario: I blamed my father for not intervening sooner and saving all of us living under lock and key years of anxiety; my father blamed my mother for not having provided more supervision to keep my brother away from the rougher elements that influenced him so badly; my mother blamed my father for reducing the child support and forcing her to work extra hours to be able to pay the bills that mounted as my brother’s depression and anger increased. There was no sympathy from any one of us for any on the other side of the fence. Instead, the battle lines were clearly drawn now: boys against the girls.

I got up and went to school every day. I wanted to feel grief and anger and something that would garner me the kind of attention and concern that was being lavished over my brother. But it all felt so stupid to me. Too much energy, too much drama, too much out of control. I could feel it all swimming in my head, but couldn’t find the words to reach out to anyone with to express how messed up I felt about it. Who would listen anyway? My parents and sister were all too busy dealing with it all themselves. My few close friends were doing the best they could diverting me away from it, but only a few really knew how bad things had gotten. I just wanted to close my eyes and forget. I wanted to have a different life, like some of my friends at school, with parents who didn’t yell at each other, with fathers who weren’t gay, with brothers who didn’t leave bruises.

I threw myself in, head over heels, into school. These people didn’t know what was going on behind the closed doors at home. They thought I was whoever I projected myself to be. I was the smart girl, just like all the other kids in my honors classes. Let them all think I had the same great life they all did. Perception could be reality, couldn’t it?

I tried, in that winter of 1986, to hold onto appearances, though I felt it all melting away inside.


My Brother, My Pain

It was winter, I remember that.

I came home from school that day and wondered where everyone was. Where was everyone? It wasn’t that unusual to find no one home when I came home from school; and I never saw my brother on the bus coming home from school. It didn’t occur to me to be that upset about having the house to myself as I made myself a snack, set myself up on the loveseat with my Honors History homework and turned on “Another World” and then later, “General Hospital”. Homework took up hours these days what with my Honors History and Geometry classes. I didn’t have English or Science right now which made the load lighter, but French 2 with the new teacher was also kicking my rear. Plus there was practicing…in order to do well in band and hold a respectable place in the flute section I was having to put in time pretty much every day practicing.

The level work meant that for several hours that day, I had no idea that my life was about to change dramatically.

Finally, my mother came home. A little earlier than usual, which always aroused suspicion on my part. My mother was hardly ever home before 7 or 8 pm on a weeknight. She generally decided now to wait out rush hour and get more work done, which led to a shorter commute. We never had a family dinner unless it was on the weekends.

She wasn’t carrying her briefcase, which also put up my dander. Her heavy shoulder briefcase was part of the headache and back trouble she was plagued with, because it was always present there on her shoulder. But it was missing.

“Your brother is back in the hospital,” she told me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. My brother was hardly ever present at home, and when he was, he was holed up in his room, nicknamed “The Cave”. The last time he went, he had threatened to kill himself. This time, they’d found drugs at school, and then again in his room. I stared at her blankly, feeling little except relief that I was going to breathe easier in my own home over the next few days.

“How long?” I asked.

“He won’t be coming back here to live,” she replied slowly. “Your father has agreed to take custody of him.”

Whoa. This was huge. My father, whose presence had dwindled greatly in our lives as my brother’s issues escalated, had always maintained that he couldn’t possibly assume custody of my brother. “Why? What’s changed? The fourth time is the charm?” I bitterly asked. I wasn’t exactly impressed with my father’s altruism at this point. I’d been sent away last summer to save me from my brother’s outbursts. He’d broken my wrist, hit me more times than I could count, put holes in walls and doors and stolen from all of us to the point of putting our whole house under lock and key.

“I guess he decided enough was enough. He’s going to send him to a boarding school.”

Ah, there it was. He wouldn’t have him live in the house he shared with his life partner in the upscale part of suburbia. That made more sense. I had lots of questions, but they all vanished when I looked at my mom’s face.

She wasn’t crying, but she was as close as I’d seen her throughout all of this. “I’m sorry, Mom.” At the end of the day, through it all, this was her kid. Despite everything he’d done to her, done to our family, she still loved him and she was heartbroken that it had come to this. It wasn’t going to get fixed, it wasn’t going to get better. She had to admit defeat.

“So am I,” she answered. “For everything.”

Tears for…Nothing

It didn’t take long before I found the boyfriend to be less than he was cracked up to be.

In a foreshadowing of a life where I had ridiculously high expectations, I got annoyed at every little thing my lanky boyfriend did. When he called, I was annoyed that he would interrupt whatever it was I was doing. When he didn’t call, I was upset that I hadn’t heard from him. I was less than impressed with the paper and pencil letters I received from him (remember this was in the days before email and cell phones, so living twenty miles from your boyfriend was a long distance relationship when neither of you had access to a car).

Poor Jeff was a good person who was trying hard to be what I thought I wanted, but I was more interested in the idea of having a boyfriend than the actual boyfriend I’d finally ended up with. There was no compelling feeling of “Oh, I have to talk to him” or “I have to see him” at all.

And so, on the night of the Tears for Fears concert later that fall, in the backseat of my friend Andrea’s father’s car, I broke up with my first boyfriend.

I never did learn to like that group very much, either.

A Boyfriend…Finally

The phone was ringing. In those days before the advent of Caller ID, you took your chances on who might be on the other end when you picked up the phone. These were also the days before cell phones, so the person on the other end could be calling for anyone in the house: me, my sister, my brother or my mother. I never wanted to talk to the people who were calling for my brother, and I never quite knew what to say to those who were calling for my mother or sister. My sister had broken up with her long time boyfriend Greg, so the phone was ringing often with people trying to cheer her up.

But this time, I had a feeling the phone might be for me. It was probably Jeff.

I’d met Jeff at camp this summer. The second year I’d attended Blue Lake I had finally felt like I’d found my place. I went back for creative writing, as did two of the girls I’d really connected with the year before. I lived in a quiet cabin of girls who I really liked, and met some wonderful new friends. One of those friends was Jeff.

Jeff was one of those guys who seemed more comfortable in the crowd of girls than the crowd of guys. He started hanging out with my girlfriends and I at the snack bar; we’d often spend our afternoon down time there talking, writing and eating the newfangled Reese’s Pieces (who knew you could have M and M sized bites of deliciousness?). Jeff played piano and as it turned out, lived only a few towns away from me in the suburbs. He was a year older than me, but couldn’t drive yet. Oh, and about a foot and change taller than me.

We’d exchanged phone numbers before leaving camp and by the time the summer was out, I’d attended a party at his house where we decided to become a couple. Jeff was, in fact, my first real live boyfriend. Which I liked. A lot. It was frankly about freaking time I had a boyfriend. I was in tenth grade, after all. Jeff was nice, he was thoughtful, and his parents seemed nice. Jeff was, in fact, adopted, which I found intriguing considering what had just happened earlier that year with my sister’s friend B. I asked him a lot of questions which he seemed not at all hesitant to answer, and so we started what amounted to a long distance relationship. A year later we might not consider it long distance, but while Jeff had a driver’s license, he did not have access to a car. I had neither, so it was hard for us to see each other more than once a week.

But then again, what with all that I’d seen go one between my sister, my sister’s friends, my mother and her friends and men, I was ready to take it slow in my first real relationship and let things develop without rushing.

“Hi Jeff,” I answered the phone, smiling.

Pregnant People Everywhere

My mother had a friend who was pregnant.

She was thirty something, and single. Being pregnant without the benefit of marriage was so unheard of but more especially, it was something that a teenager like me did not expect to find in adult people she looked up to.

Her friend was a colleague, someone she worked with down in the city, a lawyer. I loved Janice. She was easy to talk to, she seemed very interested in my teenage ramblings, and she was often in the office on Saturdays when I (still) accompanied my mom to work to finish all that she couldn’t finish in her twelve hour days during the week.

Janice was a feminist, outwardly so. My mother, she just quietly went on her way and did things because she had to as a single mother with custody of three kids in the 80s. But Janice, she took my mother to lesbian comics that raised funds for battered women. She seemed like a sixties rebel in 1985 clothing, and in fact, she was just that. My mother was married with kids during the latter part of the 1960s. She often joked that she missed the fun part of the era. But Janice, she was ten years younger than my mom. She still didn’t wear makeup or put mousse in her hair.

I marveled at the path she chose. The man was not interested in being a part of the child’s life, but Janice still chose to continue the pregnancy. As a “radical feminist”, she’d marched for the right to choose, but she knew it meant exactly that. A choice. And as a stable woman in her thirties with a good job, she was choosing to have her baby. I couldn’t stop asking her questions, the same questions I’d asked B a year prior: what will you do, how do you feel, what changes are you noticing, will you need help.

My mother was so incredibly supportive of her friend, when others turned away. While everyone knew that single women dated and had sex, no one seemed to acknowledge that an obvious consequence of sex, was pregnancy. No one seemed to care that birth control had a failure rate. It was all Janice’s fault for getting herself “in trouble”. I found her thrill in the path now laid before her courageous.

I knew that my mother was thinking back to her own pregnancy that she hid in silence twenty plus years ago and marveling at how little and how much the world had changed.

Mr. H.

I walked into the second period Composition class and took my seat. It was the second day of school and I was intrigued with my new teacher.

Mr. H was thirty two or thirty three years old; young enough to catch my attention. He smiled a lot and thoroughly seemed to enjoy the raucous group of above average tenth graders seated before him. The class had swollen to thirty one students, nearly unmanageable, but he wiped his chalk dusted hands on his blazer and kept at trying to engage us in a lengthy diatribe about the subtlety of semi colons.

He was tall; ridiculously so. He had a moustache in an era of Tom Selleck and Magnum PI; moustaches were in. He dressed appropriately for the job but with a youthful bent that made him seem cool and yet geekishly so at the same time. He talked about his kid, his wife, the new house they were building, the dog and by day three, we all felt that we knew this guy in a way that most teachers did not allow students to see.

He was quick with the information that we needed; he would spend the first fifteen minutes of class or so giving us the specifics about this piece of grammar or punctuation and then, as if like clockwork, he would start talking about current events or his tie or some tangent that got the kids raising their hands and chiming in. I’d had one other teacher like this, my gifted and talented teacher at the middle school, and I’d sorely missed this style of learning in my freshman year.

I was therefore nearly heartbroken when an office staffer came in during the second week of classes and informed ten of us students that a new teacher had been hired to relieve the over crowding in Comp 2 classes. My name was on the list to go over to Mr. B’s room. The rest of us looked around as if our new favorite toy had been taken away and marched the long walk to the new classroom.

I spent exactly one day in Mr. B’s room before I dropped the class and begged my guidance counselor to allow me to clerk in his office during second period. I had some flexibility in my schedule, I promised, and I could go back to Mr. H’s room second semester. I told him I’d learned more in the first week of school than I had in the last year about English and writing and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.

I spent the next three months waiting to be taught by Mr. H; another bend in the road made itself visible to me.

Bye Bye to the Australian

One of the other things that happened in the summer of 1985 was that I started to lose a little of my insane admiration for Rick Springfield.

I’d been writing letters regularly to Mindy Hart, Corey Hart’s mother. She wrote back about once a month or every six weeks with some sage advice for me. She told me how busy her son was getting, what with his second record having been released and having a hit song (“Never Surrender”) at the top of the charts. He was starting a fan club and everything was going fast and furious for him. I loved that this woman took the time to write to me, because I knew she knew a little of the pain and heartbreak I’d seen. I knew some of Corey’s family story due to magazine articles and several painful songs he’d recorded. He was estranged from his father and hadn’t really forgiven him for leaving their family high and dry when he and his brother were kids.

I was getting that really well from my own family situation. My father was drifting further and further out of my life. We went weeks on end without seeing him now and we’d all quit the therapy sessions with him (we still went with my mom). He was buying a new house with his partner and I was growing ever more bitter at the lovely neighborhood they were relocating to and the big house they were buying, the expensive trips they seemed to be taking, while my mother tried to make due on her state lawyer’s salary.

I wanted him to look around and see that perhaps his family was a little more of a valuable asset than the things and places he seemed to want to accumulate. But he grew more and more distant. The phone hardly ever rang with an invitation from him to do anything together; the overnight visits had stopped altogether.

I started to realize that me and my need for an older man to pay attention to me was creeping into other areas, like my crush on Rick Springfield. I was devastated that no one flagged my letters as standouts worthy of his attention. I thought for sure that someone would read my words and point them out to him as ones needing a response. Here was another man that was rejecting me, I reasoned. I wasn’t special enough to stand out to either one of them.

I get that this sounds irrational now, and I also understand that at the time I never connected the two as the same emotion directed towards two different people. But as I watched Rick Springfield take the stage again in 1985 for the second time, a melancholy that I could not contain washed over me. I felt so out of reach and so alone that I hardly enjoyed any of the show. The poignant tribute that Rick made to his own father during a song called “My Father’s Chair” was the only thing that drew any emotion out of me. The songs I loved were unenjoyable now. I just wanted to leave and forget all of the time and energy I’d directed towards my silly crush. I felt stupid, and I hated feeling stupid.

I was ready to move on. Tenth grade started with a new haircut, a new smile, new contacts and one less crazy crush.

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