Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Beginning

It's hard to say when the Summer of Cheesecake really began. In one sense it has always been and always will be. But if forced to pinpoint an actual beginning, it would be the winter of 2000. The entire world had just been in an uproar over Y2K and the world potentially ending. There was the frenetic countdown to doomsday as the world imbibed enough champagne to soften the blow of The End.

But the world hadn't ended - at least not in the conventional sense. However, in a dark house in Mesa Arizona the tiny shreds of my family's existence were about to unravel in a way that rivaled the end of the world. At 15, I was a catalyst for that unraveling - a fact that I still have not found a way to forgive myself for.

It was my sophomore year of highschool and I had just dropped out of school after being moved across Phoenix and into my tenth school in eleven years. By this time, my family was used to my inability to handle the social interactions of public school and just tended to look the other way when I declared that I was leaving school to "homeschool." The schoolwork had never been an issue - I was always a straight A student.

But from about first grade on, there seemed to be an evident design flaw in my internal makeup that made me absolutely crumble and fall apart in the school systems. It didn't help that every year my family moved, thus forcing me and my siblings into new school systems where we had to search out new friends and rebuild our lives from the ground up.

Kindergarten had been great - shortly thereafter a move from Fairfax, VA to Charlottesville showed me how difficult it was to begin again. As the only child of five in school at that point, my mother was at a bit of a loss as to how to deal with this struggling six-year old. Often she would take me to Dunkin Donuts for a treat and a pep-talk before dropping me off. Those would usually get me through, until I discovered the art of playing hookey.

By fifth grade I was a master and I missed as many school days as I could without coming up on any one's radar. Those days alone with my mom were paradise - I had her attention, and even if it meant laying on the couch watching "The Price is Right," I looked forward to being able to monopolize her time.

She was no fool either and understood on some level that I was taking the equivalent of "Personal Days." Soon she let me give up the sick act and I was able to leave my post on the couch and spend real time with her.

But every paradise has its shadow - and my time with my mother was colored with darker clouds than I ever could have comprehended at that time. Once in a car-ride home during those elementary school years she asked me, out of the blue, if I had ever inappropriately touched my little brothers. Given our strict religious up-bringing I knew that any touching in the "holy places" was considered inappropriate - and my young self was shocked by the question.

Part of me felt accused, and the other part of me wondered why she would ever ask such a question. My fumbling answer was that I might have accidentally touched them while cleaning them up during a diaper change, but my mind reeled to remember if I could have done something horribly wrong.

At that point in my life I began to question whether I had committed certain atrocities with no memory of them - my father had an incredible ability to have absolutely no memory of hitting us or cursing at us when we would tell our mom. Perhaps, I thought, I might have inherited this disease - but that was a thought I kept locked tightly within myself.

Another time during my hookey days my mother confided in me that she thought my father might be touching my brothers. She said that she had been seeing a counselor to talk about it, but had stopped when the psychologist had "begun shouting 'penis! Penis!'" At ten I didn't really comprehend what she was talking about and was frightened by the information, and the potential that people might randomly begin shouting words that I liked to pretend didn't exist.

Over the years these memories faded and became something half-remembered, like dreams and the things one reads in books.

After years of playing hookey, and spending significant time recovering from a broken collarbone in fifth grade and a devastating bike accident in sixth grade, the time with my mother had begun to be more like a strange other-world of gloom. I watched her suffer from depression in an unhappy marriage, I watched her struggle with her self worth and I saw her ever increasing battles with her health.

By the seventh grade my own structure was so damaged that I could no longer deal with school and I dropped out in my second semester. The "homeschooling" I did consisted of lackadaisical readings of the library of Encyclopedias my family had, with some drawing and reading to pass the time as my family didn't have the money to afford a accredited curriculum.

When I was twelve my family moved from Virginia to Arizona and another part of me caved in. While I managed to get through the first semester of eighth grade, the culture shock of the cross-country move had reverberated through me so deeply that I began falling apart again. My mother was too tired to fight me and I stopped going to school again. By the time high school rolled around I had found an inner reserve and managed to enroll again.

It was the only year I was ever happy in school. For the first time I easily found friends and even managed to find a kind, supportive boyfriend. Surprisingly, despite having made no real academic progress in the past semester, I didn't struggle and managed to come home with A's. Family life was a constant source of pain, but for the first time I learned that school could be an escape and friends could be a surrogate support system.

Then my family decided to move again. In part it was based on the fact that my mother found out I had a boyfriend. In our church it was strictly forbidden to date, as your spouse would be chosen for you from within the church. Sex before marriage was the deadliest sin, and my mother saw an opportunity to save me from what she considered a living death.

And that's how we found ourselves in Mesa Arizona. It was far away enough that my boyfriend broke up with me, and I was safe. My siblings and I all began new schools, and began rebuilding our lives. But this time I couldn't rebuild and I found myself in constant mourning for the life I had been torn away from. Bringing home C's and D's, I stumbled through the first semester before calling it quits. Our dad had been interviewing for a job in Hawaii anyway, so what was the point of trying? I simply went back to my encyclopedias and into a deep depression.

Looking back, I suppose that the depression eased its way into an insanity of sorts. A few shorts weeks after we had moved into our new house in Mesa, a neighbor came over to tell us that the previous occupant had shot himself inside. It took three weeks before anyone discovered the body - that, she said, was that lurking smell the house seemed to still have. Not long after I discovered the blood stains behind the refrigerator and the tiny, almost indiscernible, trail leading into the laundry room. There, I confirmed, was where he must have met his end.

The house seemed to bear the marks of his despair, just as it still retained the droplets of his blood in the wallpaper. It seemed to imbue and penetrate us all. We all sunk a little deeper into our own forms of madness that year. My father began to scream more, threatening us all more often with both verbal and physical violence. That year was the first time I remember him hitting my mother. My sister pulled away, my brothers were strung out on tension and chaos. I began to embrace that hungry feeling that settled into my body shortly after dinners made to stretch for a family of seven. Knives also began to have a haunting appeal as I began to wonder what it would be like to dig into my skin.

The madness culminated on a dark afternoon. My mom was laying on the bottom bunk in the room I shared with my sister; I sat on the floor facing her. Our eyes were wide, as though by straining we might be able to see some light in the gloom. She asked me what was wrong with our family. It was a conversation we had had many times before in the years I had stayed home with her. Never before had I had an answer.

But that afternoon a thought, long supressed and warped after years of hiding, inched its way from the back of my brain and to the tip of my tounge. Holding it back, I began to shake with the effort to fight it off. Finally it spilled out:

"I think I know."

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