Lies His Girlfriend Told Me
As I sat in my father’s new kitchen, half-heartedly painting the wall in front of me olive green, she played with my hair. Ryan, my brother, sat next to me with a smaller paintbrush and painted out “HHH” before slopping over it with more of that baby food green color. His shaggy, dirty-blonde hair made its best efforts to stay out of his eyes. His hair wasn’t long yet enough to play with the way that Miss J played with my hair. I could only imagine what my hair looked like from her point of view: the golden curls hit by sunlight as Miss J brushed it and curled it with her fancy curling iron.
When I wrote a paper about which woman inspired me the most, I used that particular Miss J. Not the one I’d come to know.
Janice Moody sang in my father’s choir since before I can remember. We’d watch Dad play his guitar and sing while the women behind him sang harmonies. Dad’s big belly supported his big white acoustic guitar. His church voice stayed low, unlike how he’d sing in the car. During the priest’s homily, the choir would leave their little stage and sit down in the row in front of us. That was our cue to climb on Dad’s warm and inviting lap for the ten or so minutes we had with him, depending on how long Father Terry wanted to ramble.
For a while, I didn’t know Janice’s name. I knew her as the lady who showed up to nine o’clock Mass at eight-fifty, and I knew her as the lady who did solos for the responsorial psalms between readings. I listened to her sing every other Sunday, trying to reach soprano notes that her vocal cords couldn’t reach anymore. I didn’t know the word at the time, but her voice sounded strained. When she stood on the pulpit cantering, her curly relaxed by her shoulders, as deep in prayer as the congregation should be. Her face, powdered perfectly with foundation and blush, looked confidently towards the back of the church as she sang for all to hear. When the rest of us were supposed to join in, she’d raise her dainty hand high enough to command the crowd into singing. After the song ended, she’d walk back down towards the choir’s stage, her knee-high brown leather boots clicking along the stone floor. I’d recognize her heels anywhere from the sound they made on marble.
She had two boys, both younger than me. Hayden and Ben hid their faces under shaggy dark brown hair, too dark for their pale skin. They enjoyed their video games too much to even think of going outside. Hayden, the eldest, only a year younger than me, landed somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. Because of this, he rarely acted his age. In church, we knew when a kid started to understand how the Mass worked when they stood and sat along with the adults, rather than sitting the whole time. Hayden always sat, acting more like a four-year-old than an eleven-year-old. When Janice whispered and snapped her fingers at her boys, they ignored her in a way that made my jaw drop. Boys will be boys, I guessed.
It seemed rather sudden when Dad asked us if we wanted to go visit “Miss J and her boys” (as Dad always called them) one evening. My youngest brother, Timmy, I found out, made friends with both of them through Sunday School. So we went.
She lived outside of Wilkes-Barre, in a town called Mountain Top that had large houses for rich people. Dad’s pale bronze van crept into the driveway as the sun hid behind the mountains for the night, the noise of the rumbling engine both familiar and loud enough to alert the people inside that we had arrived. From my front seat vantage point, I saw their rich-looking house: a large, skinny window sat halfway up the first floor and into the second floor and warm lights bounced from the ceiling and through the window. We made our way inside, and I hoped that it felt as warm as it looked.
Hayden and Ben were in the far right corner, at the kitchen island. Miss J, as she told us to call her, was busy tidying up after dinner. The three of them blended into the kitchen, full of dark colors except for the stainless steel-colored fridge, illuminated by the soft, yellow lights. Timmy made his way over to the boys, where they played some Pokemon game I had no interest in. Ryan and I stayed close to dad. We didn’t know this place. The rooms and walls were too big in their off-white colors (except the kitchen), so big that they swallowed the not-exactly-sparse furniture and decorations whole and left gaping spots of…well, emptiness. If we spoke, the walls would let our voices bounce first before gulping that down, too.
“Rachel,” Miss J called out to me from behind the counter. “I have some clothes upstairs if you want to take some home with you.”
Dad persuaded me to come up here for clothes. As an eighth grader, I wouldn’t say no to clothes. Though the school had a strict dress code, I needed out-of-school clothes and weekend clothes. I nodded wordlessly, and we girls walked up into her bedroom. The big bed in the middle and the warm, wooden wardrobe off to one side took up the most space in the small master bedroom. Strewn about on her king-sized bed, atop the pale golden comforter, lay clothes that were much too fancy for gym or play. And there were jeans, too, which I lacked. I picked them up and peered down at the size.
“These will fit me fine,” I said.
“I have more where that came from,” she said. “I’m looking to get rid of a lot. If you don’t want it, I’ll probably donate it.”
I left with a black garbage bag straining with clothes. Or rather, Dad carried it downstairs and into the trunk of his car. That’s how I met the person behind the iffy singing voice. You know someone’s trying to butter you up when they give you clothes.
When Dad put a payment down on the new house, we were told that Miss J and her boys were coming to live with us. It was her idea to paint the kitchen olive green and hang dark red metal stars on the walls.
“She’s going through a nasty divorce,” Dad said. “She’s been really stressed out, so it would help if she stayed here.” We three children nodded in understanding. “Also,” he continued, “we’re dating.”
Miss J helped me paint my room. The room was so small that we probably only used two cans of paint; I’m guessing the room’s original purpose was as a mini study. We giggled and played around, painting the main panels a baby pink and the connecting little humps a somewhat dark lilac. We also applied some pretty decals: pink, green, and purple flowers in circles to put in certain areas of the blank walls. For the times I slept over my dad’s house, the room fit the bill. For comfort, it didn’t really meet standards. My futon bed covered in pink paisley sheets, when converted into a bed, barely left any walking space. Even though I chose the colors, I don’t like the walls.
Miss J was so nice for the longest time. She’d offer to give us things, make us dinner or snacks, or even play games with us. We weren’t her children, but she treated us how she treated her own kids. It was okay, as long as I pretended she never said, “I never had a daughter. Can you be my daughter?”
Her dinners caused most people to gain five pounds in one sitting. Her beef stroganoff and steaks and chicken all tasted so good that the food weighed its victims down and stuck them in the chair. That was perfectly fine, as long as someone passed those mashed potatoes. And a little more beef, please. It was stuff that Ryan, Timmy, and I never really ate when we stayed with our moms. Timmy’s mom didn’t believe in cooking. Ryan and I had the same mom, a woman who worked night shift as a nurse. Mom’s only sleeping hours came in the daytime, when we came home from school. We told Miss J the latter part, about how Mom worked nights, and she had to sleep during the day.
“She’s not a very good mother,” she said.
I took a step back from standing in front of the water dispenser on Dad’s cold white fridge. How could Miss J, that nice woman, say something like that so nonchalantly? Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had recently come out, and I swore Umbridge stood in front of me. Miss J didn’t work anymore, but she used to be the secretary at Hayden and Ben’s old school. The point, however, is that she never worked twelve hour shifts on her feet. She didn’t answer screaming patients and then come home to sleep for maybe five hours, pick her kids up, and start on dinner before doing it all again. Miss J worked maybe six to eight hours. She knew nothing.
“She works a lot,” I said. “She deserves to sleep some.”
“Good mothers don’t have their children relying on themselves,” she said without even looking at me, like she’d won the conversation before it started and I should just shut up.
I had put this woman above my mother?
Miss J always had a glass of white wine at dinner. I sat nearest the window, having my chair practically pressed against it. Timmy and Ben sat squished between the table and the fridge, and we relied on them grabbing butter or ketchup or soda for us. Hayden and Ryan sat with the more room available, their backs to the archway between kitchen and middle, “computer” room. Miss J insisted on having dark red saloon doors to separate the spaces. It added the doorway from normal house to ugly, country-themed kitchen. Dad and Miss J sat across from me, about three to five feet away from the sink and back window. Dad didn’t look that far away from me at the time.
Dinner time is a place to talk about your day, speak what’s on your mind, and maybe even get some consolation for troubles. That’s what it used to be.
Miss J spoke, usually to Dad, about mind-numbing things. My poor ears picked up complaints beneath her mumbles. If she could speak, so could we. Timmy and Ryan started talking about what to do after dinner.
“No talking, please,” we heard from Miss J before she sipped her wine. “It distracts Hayden.”
My father and I, at his previous house in Ashley, would relax in the kitchen as he made dinner. I frequently had troubles, mostly relating to depression, so he would work through them with me and remind me I was loved. The kitchen was a Dad-and-Rachel spot. No one crossed that line, not even to go to the bathroom or get some Mountain Dew. The kitchen in Ashley, painted in a warm cream color, provided solace in a time where I needed it the most. Where this new kitchen was cramped, the Ashley kitchen was big enough for the four of us (Dad, me, Ryan, and Timmy) to feel at ease at all times. I relaxed at the sight of Dad throwing some steaks on the stove, watching the grease stain above the stove from that one morning we had bacon. Miss J didn’t like anyone in her kitchen if it wasn’t meal time.
Miss J ate salads with her white wine while we ate sloppy beef stroganoff with wagon wheels, which she thought were my favorite. (Why didn’t Dad tell her that my favorite was bowties? She remained dead-set on thinking I adored wagon wheels.)
“That looks good,” she practically whined as she looked at Dad’s plate.
“Get yourself some,” he said.
“I can’t eat that stuff,” she spoke in her mumbling voice. “I gave away all my fat clothes.”
Her fat clothes? Did she mean the ones she gave to me? Those pretty XL tops and comfy size 18 jeans? Did she mean the light blue jeans I was wearing at that moment, a little too baggy for my hips, and the pink-and-white sweater she gave me?
Her fat clothes?
I’m my mother’s clone, except that I have dry skin. We’re both overweight, but the pressure is on me to look almost better than her. I’ll always remember her condescending, but straightforward, remark: “If you’re on a date and a boy touches your leg, he won’t like your dry skin. He’ll never touch you.” To be honest, at least she told me this outright when I was seven. For most of my life, I’ve been aware of how unappealing I am, how I’ll never get dates, and how unattractive I’ll be if I “don’t put any effort towards my appearance.” Mom tells me to my face. I’ll give her that. Miss J doesn’t.
Is this how Miss J would condescend me? Mocking me sideways and snickering at me when I don’t know what I did besides breathe? Using my father as the messenger when she was unhappy with something regarding me? Would my father continue to be with someone who makes fun of his children, who he has said is his number one priority? Yes.
Because the snickering and sideways comments weren’t enough. Her ridiculous dogs (which I am allergic to) weren’t enough. Her constant migraines shrouded the whole house in complete darkness and silence with her light-blocking curtains. For the first year or so of living in that house, I had no idea what the colors of the front room were. She hated having shoes worn around the house, but then grew disgusted of the smell of feet. I’d rather be yelled at for wearing shoes than be told, not directly to me but to Dad, that someone’s feet smell something awful.
My parents divorced when Ryan and I were still in diapers. The court rules stated that Dad only got to see us once a week and every other weekend. Miss J ruined that one day per week. I spent most of my time looking at the pink walls of my room, which I started to hate. I wish I knew what Dad thought when I’d run away after dinner. Because Miss J would be curled up next to Dad on the couch or making us play a family game or telling us to be quiet. The Live, Laugh, Love and A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes stickers around the house told me, told Ryan, that this wasn’t Dad’s house. Dad just happened live here and provide transportation.
One year, on a stroke of luck, Miss J couldn’t get her parents to watch her two dogs. She refused to have them kenneled, and dogs weren’t allowed in our rented Dewey Beach townhouse. Either we didn’t go, or she didn’t go. The morning we packed our things in the car – we meaning me, Dad, Timmy, and Ryan – Miss J sobbed and cuddled her dogs as the biggest guilt trip I, someone with a history of emotional abuse, had ever seen.
“Why aren’t we going?” Hayden and Ben asked.
I didn’t listen, but sometimes I feel the answer could have been “because of her,” meaning me. I don’t know why. When I asked my father for just some father-daughter time without her on any occasion, he must have told her what I said. She glared at me every time something didn’t go her way. She wasn’t just crying on the couch like a baby for no reason. She was doing it so I could see what I was doing to her. But it wasn’t my fault. It just feels like it is.
Those five days in Dewey Beach without the Moody pack were the best five days of my life. Dad drove down, I sat shotgun, and Ryan and Timmy sat in the middle row in Dad’s van. We didn’t have to squish together because Hayden, Ben, and Miss J were “forced to” stay behind. It started with the trip down, where I took tons of pictures from the front seat. I laughed at a bug hitting the windshield, like that bug was all the tension over the past months building up. That splat released all the stress that would turn my hair gray, and I just laughed. When we got down to the warm, always inviting beach house with cool beach colors, a loft bedroom, and the beach across the street, Dad cried.
My brothers and I explored the house as usual before making our way into Dad’s room. His room, the kind of yellow that made your bones turn into jelly and pumps relaxation in your veins, was his alone this year. I sat next to his black suitcase, and then he sniffled.
“We’ve never had a vacation just the four of us,” he said. “I’m so happy.”
“Me too,” we each took turns saying.
While things went swimmingly at the beach (yes, pun intended – the trip was that good), things drowned back at home. Dad got a call from Miss J about how she dropped a bottle of his prized Crown Canadian whisky and it spilled and broke. He’d have to get another bottle. Luckily, Delaware has no sales tax. We got some to take home. No big deal.
No big deal, until he went to have some Crown at home. At least an inch was missing from two different bottles, and there couldn’t have been more than an inch left in the bottle Miss J “broke.” The one day, Dad dropped something into the hydrangea bush that hid the ugly front porch from the street we lived on. As he retrieved it, he retrieved other things: empty vodka bottles, wine bottles, beer bottles. If dropped from the porch, it landed exactly where he had found it. Nanny, my father’s mother and his neighbor, called a day or so later.
Miss J had gotten her license revoked temporarily. Hayden was somewhere, and she had to pick him up. She fell going down the concrete stairs, going to her car, and hit her head. Luckily, she wasn’t badly hurt. Just her ego. Her blood alcohol content was at least twice the legal limit. Though she never actually drove, she had every intention of driving. Now she couldn’t drive for a while.
We lived with an alcoholic. She drank because of Hayden, her very autistic child who screamed and freaked out and got babied. She drank because her ex-husband was emotionally abusive and called her mean things – at least that’s what Dad said Miss J told him. She drank because of her divorce and how “ugly” it was getting. She drank because her dogs barked so loudly. She drank because of her fibromyalgia. She drank because she couldn’t work. She drank because her children were home. She drank…
Dad kicked her out. By this point, we had had several conversations about how uncomfortable she made me and Ryan. Timmy didn’t mind, mostly because he was best friends with Hayden and Ben, and Miss J taught him at Sunday School and treated him nicely. She always invited Timmy out for things, like she “forgot” Ryan and I might have been interested in going to get snacks. Miss J couldn’t have a girl, so that role of pink-and-ruffles-and-lace-and-bullshit got forced on me without my consent. Miss J needed to get her life together.
We drove separately to a restaurant called La Tolteca, that her boys loved but my brothers and I didn’t like going to. A song came on the radio entitled “Bitch Came Back.” Ryan and I already knew the words, and we sang loudly. Even Dad started to hum and smile along, like he agreed that some girlfriends are awful and need to stay gone.
That was years ago, around 2011-2012.
After that, Dad started seeing a girl named Michelle. They dated twice before now, once when we were all younger. I guess I was supposed to remember her, but I didn’t. Immediately, she seemed so much better. She had well-tanned skin on her larger frame, and her clothes were so nice! When my brothers and I were reintroduced to Michelle, she had just gotten back from London and Paris, and she had gifts for us. I got a music box, which I still own.
Michelle never hesitated to let my brothers and I have some alone time with our father. Dad told her we come first, and she respected that. But we wanted her around! She invited us to her house to play games and eat our favorite pizza. She asked to be invited to things, but we had already included her in our plans. Michelle’s only flaw was that she needed to “put her face on before going out.” After she plopped some foundation, lipstick, and added to her thin eyebrows, she would go anywhere with us. She offered me friendship rather than a mother-daughter relationship.
But Dad and Michelle broke up. Apparently, Dad had been talking with Miss J too much.
Now it’s 2017 and Dad and Miss J are together again.
She’s not living with us this time. She’s a grown-up now, with a job and a house and responsibilities and an autistic son “under control.”
I held myself back too much last time. Even Nanny’s eyes went wide when she heard that they were together. Dad’s last girlfriend, Michelle, had been perfect. But apparently, he couldn’t see a future with her. He could with Jae (now we’re older, it’s not Miss anymore). That meant something more than being a decent fucking human being to your family.
Officially, they got back together in August 2015, just a month or so before I left for my first semester of college. I sat down with my father in the olive-green kitchen, once again a spot for confessions and consolations. I only remember how I couldn’t look him in the face. I didn’t want his eyes, the eyes that I inherited, to see me. He always listened to me, always looked me in the eyes. I found myself looking more at the washing machine, with a foot of random stuff pile on top of it. I got teary eyed while I told him how utterly uncomfortable I was around her. Especially because of what she did before. Because she still looked at me like it’s my fault they broke up. Because she still had to be right even about the temperature of her house. Because I’m right, and freak you (too polite to say fuck in front of strangers). Because the thought of her in my life again, in my brothers’ lives, made me seize up with tears and scream to a god that stopped listening to my prayers. Because now Timmy hated her, too. He got older, understood what we saw bad in her. It helped that Dad talked badly about her when they weren’t together.
Dad’s exact words are lost on me. In summary, he said, “People didn’t like Aunt Sue when she married Uncle Joe. People put on a smile and sucked it up for them. Then they were happy when they got divorced. People don’t like Aunt Donna until she’s had a couple drinks in her, but people still grin and bear it for Uncle Pat’s sake. And no one liked Aunt Yolanda, especially when she’s so much older than Uncle Kenny. But they smile for them. So why can’t I get the same thing? Why do I not get that?”
When I told him what Jae has done in the past, I can summarize his response as, “That was then, this is now. It doesn’t matter what you think of what she used to be. You don’t know her now.”
My opinion didn’t matter. I sat across from him, memorizing his graying brown hair, mustache, and beard. He started growing the whole beard around a No-Shave November a couple years ago and it stuck. He didn’t smile, but I knew behind his chapped lips were crooked teeth, the bottom jaw set out in front of the top half. He’d need something short of facial reconstruction surgery to fix that. He sat hunched over the table, and I expected one of our cats (which I was less allergic to) to drape around his shoulders and create a scarf. His elbows almost touched each corner of the table. His eyes looked at me like he’d always looked at me, like I was his favorite person in the world. Always have been, always would be. Until Jae.
I was eighteen. I didn’t have to see my father again if I didn’t want to. I could stop seeing him right now. Jae made me that uncomfortable. I wanted to shed my skin every time I saw her, but shedding skin would only be the start of it. Down to just my bones, I wouldn’t begin to relax. I almost opened my mouth, almost told him, “I’m excited to go away for college, so that I don’t have to see you or Jae for a long time.” I just tried memorizing his face. Because I’m older and could care for myself, did that mean I wasn’t a priority anymore?
I stood to get up and leave, but he swooped me into one of his warm tight hugs that made the outside disappear. He’s a big guy, my dad, but it was always extra cushion for my head next to his heart. I could wrap my arms entirely around him and lock my fingers together at the small of his back. His chin rested on top of my head, where it was always meant to be. At the crown of my head, he pressed kisses into my hair. His beard scraped against me, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But, I felt like he’d trade it for Jae in his arms.
I almost didn’t want to hug him before I left for my dorm room one last time. And I certainly didn’t want Jae to take a picture of it. I missed the idea of my dad more than I actually missed the man himself. Because him and Jae became one entity. That combined entity pushed me away from Dad when I came home for break. I’d hold his hand extending from the other couch as his other arm wrapped around Jae. The hand I held really pushed me away from my father, whose snoring I couldn’t sleep without in the first few years of my life, who understood my intense passion for Supernatural so much that he never rolled his eyes when I talked about it, who enjoyed my music to the point where he’d add harmonies to Avenged Sevenfold songs. Obviously I wasn’t wanted here.
On July 4th, 2016, I had another kitchen table talk with Dad. Jae and her horrid boys, who spoke less but annoyed with their silence, would be joining us for our holiday. Though now nineteen, I did still follow the schedule I had followed for the past sixteen years. Again I expressed to him my discomfort after a year.
“I felt like you said my opinion didn’t matter,” I told him, thinking back to about a year ago.
“I thought you were focusing on the past without even thinking of looking forward.”
“I was actually excited to go away for college,” I said. “I was happy to have some time away from you both.” I cried after that, I know. It rained during the fireworks, but that was the least of my worries.
Timmy joined the “I Hate Jae and Her Boys” club during our vacation with Dad in a place we didn’t want to go. Jae wanted to go there. We were hoping for a beach, not some house in the woods in Maryland three hours from the water with nothing to do but sit in the house. I was having emotional issues on top of everything, but everyone but Dad and Jae noticed that he spent the majority of the time with her. He barely checked up on his own kids, especially the 19-year old who focused more on finding a psychiatrist for her suicidal thoughts than being out in the sunshine and drinking the wine coolers he purchased especially for me. The highlight of that trip was the way down to Maryland, passing a sign that said Flintstone and listing to Timmy’s music. I hated the trip otherwise. Timmy did, too.
Dad and Jae spent most of the trip outside on the deck smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. I didn’t have the energy to knit, even though I brought a project to do. If I wasn’t on my laptop looking for a therapist, I just sat on the couch, too scared to ask if I could join my father outside. If I did, I sat near him. Jae sat next to him. I went unnoticed.
Timmy and the boys stayed downstairs. The house came with a pool table and a dart board, so they entertained themselves. Timmy later told me that Dad never came down to visit them or ask how they were doing. And it wasn’t like we could walk anywhere: it was a lake house nowhere near a lake or any civilization. We had to drive to see another car. Apart from Dad and Jae, we would all say the vacation sucked.
This year we’re probably going to New England, not a beach. We’ll be alone again.
As we get older, we see how our relationships to others change. We either become more important, or we fade into the ugly olive-green walls and get as much attention as a leaky faucet. We find ourselves thanking people for things we wouldn’t have five years ago. We find ourselves cherishing the spare moments we have before the real world comes back and reminds us exactly what we are to others. And if we’re wrong in how we think we’re viewed, well, no one tells us otherwise.
When Jae is working, I’ll relish the moments curling into my dad’s cushioned side, feeling the warmth of his golden yellow shirt and the smoothness of his worn-in jeans and sock-clad feet. I’ll focus more on his dry-and-smooth arm wrapped around my shoulders as I tuck my body up closer to him. We’ll watch mindless television, and I’ll let my head bob every time he lets out his deep belly laugh. Since I was little and sat on his lap as we watched Tom and Jerry, I’ve known his laugh and how it feels when pressed against him. It’s better than an embrace from a soulmate, finding common ground between enemies, and the warmth of a bed early morning in December, knowing you still have a few hours to sleep.
So when Jae walks in the room and tries to break us apart, at least the memory of my father’s love stays after I’ve grown cold.