I am dreading this overnight with my father and Brenda. I stare out the backseat window at the northern New Hampshire mountains, my red duffel bag at my feet, as I’m dragged along to a parents’ weekend hosted by my stepsister Jocelyn’s summer camp. The pine trees are dense with green, and the mountains blaze with hints of red sun.
My father drives with a closed mouth smile, occasionally talking to Brenda as if they’re alone on their honeymoon. “Isn’t this pretty, Honey?”
She caresses his neck while he looks ahead at the road, his hand on her thigh. “It is. I love you, Jim,” she says. Her brown hair is highlighted with blond, and her profile is prominent, her large nose pointed toward him.
“I love you too, Honey.” His smile is like that of a schoolboy who has his first crush. Last time the three of us were in the car together for a substantial amount of time, Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman,” came on the radio, and my father said, “This song always reminds me of Brenda,” speaking about her in third person even though she was right there. Other times he says, “Brenda’s posture is one of the first things that attracted me to her,” and she leans back further, her small pear shaped breasts poking into the air while he waits for a response I never give. What most people consider to be private, they speak of out in the open; even though I am used to this, I can’t help but think back to when my parents were still married, a picture of Brenda straddling my father on his office desk tearing through my mind.
The year my parents separated, when I was five, Brenda officially transformed from the fast typing woman with the long painted fingernails who took me for walks and bought me ice cream sandwiches to my father’s wife, a woman who, no matter how erratic or irrational her mood, is easier to please than to argue with. That year, before the separation, my mother made a surprise visit to Brenda’s apartment complex on a weekday at lunchtime, and my father’s Mercedes was parked in the lot. When my mother knocked, Brenda answered the door in her white terry cloth bathrobe while my father emerged from the bedroom. Brenda said, “It’s not what it looks like.”
We pass through a small town filled with antique shops, hardware stores, a small grocer, and I know we are nearing the Bed and Breakfast in Bristol, where we’ll sleep before heading to the camp in the morning. Brenda says, “Gina, did I tell you Jocelyn’s playing tennis? And losing weight?” She doesn’t turn around but looks at me in the side view mirror, waiting for my response.
I nod. “Yup, you said that. That’s great.” I’m uninterested but she expects me to smile, so I do. She always talks about Jocelyn this way, anticipating praise, as if taking credit for her daughter’s giftedness, her athleticism, her creativity, but to her face she calls her a bitch, a drama queen, spoiled and rotten. Brenda is the queen of back-and-forth, of messages that are mixed and mangled. Brenda is the type of woman who insists that I visit their house, but once I arrive, she announces that she’s bought two tickets for a sporting event or a show, and they leave me there alone for the night. She is the type of woman who says I am too skinny only a year after refusing me snacks because I was too fat. She is the type of woman who says, “Let’s go school shopping,” but once we get to the department store, she insists on taking a detour to the lingerie department to pick out something to wear with my father.
At twelve, I am the youngest of my father’s daughters. I have not yet begun to run wild, but I am thinking about it. I am on the cusp of girlhood and womanhood, the age where everything that has already happened is surfacing, impressions either fading or sticking.
A few years ago, I called my mother to tell her that Brenda refused to let me eat snacks because I was too fat, and when I hung up, my father told me that he had been listening on the line, that I wouldn’t be allowed to make or receive phone calls from my mother any longer. Now, each time I think of my hunger, I think harder about the bulges of fat near my armpits, or the way my inner thighs rub together; I am obsessed with my thinness. It won’t be long before I am throwing up an apple even if it’s the only thing I eat that day. It won’t be long before I’ll refuse to let anything sit inside me long enough to be absorbed, before emptiness becomes so familiar that I begin to crave it. I am at the age of a girl shaping herself into the woman she’ll become.
I am looking forward to seeing Jocelyn. Since my sisters are absent from these visits, Jocelyn and I have been stuck together, subjected to Brenda’s erratic rules—one day we’ll be punished for eating at the kitchen table and another day reprimanded for taking food anywhere but. We listen to her spew demands, and we prepare for her backlash: we must be up and showered by a specific hour, eat certain foods at precise times, appear in certain rooms when she deems appropriate, vanish when she sees fit, and always wear our happiest faces. Brenda saves the most unnerving conduct for when she and I are alone together, like when she takes me on drives across town to see a house where a man used to batter his wife until one day, he killed her. She turns off the ignition, and we sit in the parked car in front of the house and “look at it” while she tells me the same bits of his violence again and again. “This is where he did it, the sick bastard,” she says. Naturally, I am relieved by Jocelyn’s presence.
When our parents first moved in together, Jocelyn and I were seven and six. We played with Barbies and argued about who got to use which ones; I couldn’t relate with her demand for attention or the way she’d suddenly isolate herself, burying her face in a book. “She could read at four years old,” Brenda always said. I hated Jocelyn’s flimsy paper dolls and the unicorns decorating her room. I hated the waterbed I had to sleep in with her, resented how I was the invisible visitor crammed into her bed—hated how, for years, we’d receive the same birthday and Christmas presents in different colors, as if we were the same person, especially when we couldn’t have been more different. The one thing Jocelyn and I began to have in common was our desire to run away; we’d pack trash bags filled with clothes and wander out into the neighborhood, circling the block, looking for anywhere else to go. Over time I’ve become thankful for Jocelyn’s presence, our relationship similar to that of two people locked up in prison—cellmates who get along most of the time because we understand the small spaces we must maneuver, the way we must tiptoe, the precepts we must adhere to in order to survive.
In Bristol, Jean welcomes us into her Bed and Breakfast, greeting us with pamphlets of the area, mentioning waterfalls to visit, hikes to take, parks to picnic at. I loathe these houses—the long winding Victorian staircases, the pink floral prints on the bed spreads, the canopies over them, the shared bathrooms with old fashioned bathtubs, the kind with feet. It’s as if what should be beautiful is not; the grand mantles and the antique paintings are overrun by thoughts of ghosts waiting in the stairwell, people locked up in attics, children trapped in secret passages where no one can find them. Mostly, it’s our act I despise, the one where Brenda nudges me with jokes while in front of others, as if we’re like mother and daughter, or worse, friends. She’ll occasionally do this at home too, telling me how my father is good in bed at the dinner table, or say that she “worked long and hard” for our last name. Later, she’ll retract her friendship, tell me that I am nothing but my mother’s robot, her evil mimic.
Jean helps us with our bags, delivering us to a room for three. It has a queen-sized bed with nightstands on both sides, and a daybed against the opposite wall. She nods at me and points to the daybed. “And this bed is for you—this room is perfect for three.” I have always secretly wanted one of these beds, the kind Candace Cameron has on the television show Full House, the kind of bed that transforms into a couch, turning a bedroom into a living room. I study the comforter, its rose print like something out of a cheesy romance novel, and I contemplate how I’d change the spread if it were mine, sew something myself, like a patchwork quilt of different sized stars.
That night, I sit on the bed with my legs crossed, my duffel bag placed neatly on its edge, and unpack my hair ties and pajamas. My father has left the room, and Brenda starts opening the tall cabinet doors and rummaging around, looking past hangers and irons and the Bible. I want to ask what she’s doing, but I don’t talk to her unless I have to. I am used to her withholding information when I want it and providing facts when I don’t, like when she tells me about a group of criminals riding around in a white van snatching up kids my same age and weight, offering the details as if intending to warn me but using the tone of someone trying to instill fear: “You better watch out. It’s easy to lift up a kid who only weighs ninety pounds, like you.” Brenda leaves the room and I let out a sigh.
When she comes back, she’s wheeling a folded up army cot. She wears an expressionless smile, the kind of smile that’s meant to hide what she’s really thinking. She opens up the door to a closet wide enough to hang clothes but narrow. She wheels the cot into the closet and starts to unfold it, but the space is too cramped to unbend it all the way; the walls touch every inch of its metal rods. She stands outside of the closet, struggling to stretch the cot out completely, but the crease in the middle makes a V shape, a bend where a person’s waist should be.
My father walks into the room from who knows where, and I expect him to be curious, but he begins putting his pants and t-shirts in drawers.
“What are you doing? What is that for?” I finally ask.
“It’s for you, of course,” she says with her stiff smile.
All three of us had nodded when Jean pointed to the daybed, and said, “And this bed is for you—this room is perfect for three.” For a moment I wonder if I’ve dreamt that exchange, but then I remember who Brenda is. It’s not what it looks like.
The cot is bare except for a thin white sheet that’s bunched in the middle. I study the cot as if sizing myself for a coffin; I doubt that my body’s five-foot length will even fit into that closet. Brenda turns around and looks at me, her smile turned to ice, her beady, blank eyes staring right through me. I can’t ever tell what she is really looking at—her stare is empty, unreadable. “It’s like your own special room.” She says this with false enthusiasm, the way she tells me about haunted houses where blood drips from all the faucets, and then says, “We can go there,” as if I’m dying to visit.
I half believe my father might think that Brenda’s idea is odd since the day bed was obviously intended for me, but he is unfazed. He tells Brenda, “I just met this great couple, Chuck and Sheila, downstairs. Their daughter goes to the camp too.” My father always refers to Jocelyn as his daughter. He recently ordered my grandfather, who has always painted portraits of my sisters and me, to paint one from Jocelyn’s school picture as well.
“She’s your granddaughter.” I heard my father raise his voice from an adjacent room, where my grandmother rocked nervously and slipped me a twenty.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, as if attempting to make up for my father’s words, for the way he always says the wrong thing in the wrong way, for how he never has any recollection or remorse.
My father continues. “I was telling them how it’s our daughter’s first summer there—about how much she loves it. I also mentioned the Hyde School, and they seemed pretty interested.” The Hyde School is a boarding school they want Jocelyn to apply to.
Brenda says, “That’s great, Jim,” and spreads a wool blanket on the cot even though it’s seventy-five degrees in the room. “Here you go, Gina,” she says without looking at me.
I look at the clock: eight-thirty. What am I going to do in there? I have my journal and my book, Heaven, by V.C. Andrews. I don’t even bother to look at my father, who, since he’s married Brenda, has occupied no thoughts of his own. He acknowledges nothing except for her ideas, her words; it’s as if his brain has become washed by her. Not only does he never question her but he adopts whatever persona she takes on each day. If I try to talk to him about something, he discusses it in private with Brenda, and then calls me out to a room where they both sit, him yelling, “You are a spoiled little fucking bitch. You appreciate nothing.”
Brenda adds things like, “It’s not her fault, Jim—she’s her mother’s robot.”
I am not even close to tired, but I climb up onto the cot, leaving my pajamas on the edge of the daybed. The cot crooks my lower back, my legs still, my body begins to cramp. I want room to stretch my limbs, dissolve into the sheets, sink down into the crevice, break through the floor, and slide down some magical chute until I hit the ground and break free from this place. “I wanted to read,” I say, half hoping she or they, will change their minds. “There’s no light in here.”
I hear shuffling, and then Brenda shoves a lamp, the kind that stands on the floor, into the closet, but there’s no outlet, so she closes the door on the cord. “Problem solved,” I hear her say.
This is not a room. This isn’t even one fiftieth of a room—it is the length of my body. I think about Jean, the owner of this house, how she’d probably be alarmed to know that the daybed is empty. See, she’d said. Here is your bed. Perfect for three people. She is the kind of woman who probably taps maple trees and keeps bees—the type of woman who feeds her children farm-fresh eggs from free-range chickens she raises herself. She is the kind of woman who is a nurturer, a caregiver. Brenda, on the other hand, is the type of woman who steals kids’ fathers, sends them away to summer camps and boarding schools, shoves them into the closet. She is the type of woman who keeps a copy of The Joy of Sex on the nightstand, who hangs her lingerie decoratively about the house. She is the kind of woman who can determine your fate.
I assume the reason they want me in the closet is so they can have sex, and I’m sure they do, although I never hear it. I am thankful for the air conditioner’s loud hum, relieved that this
bed is absent of mirrors on the inside of the canopy, unlike their bed at home. In the closet, I realize how skilled I’ve become at blocking out what’s going on around me, how I’m able to sink so deep into myself that even I am left wondering where I’ve gone. In the closet, I remember a line from the movie Mommie Dearest, a movie Brenda has turned on time and time again: “If she doesn’t like you, she can make you disappear.”
In the morning, after having barely slept, I nibble at the fruit salad on the table while watching guests down greasy sausage links and pancakes with syrup. My father and Brenda engage in the small talk that happens in someone’s home rented out to visitors; they talk about the general store down the road, the view of the lake, how the hiking trails are mobbed this time of year, while I am silent. They ask people where they are from, where they are headed, introduce me as their daughter. I mostly look down at my plate. I avoid the eyes of strangers, afraid they will see through me—that their eyes will swallow me if they find out the truth—that I am perpetually held captive by these two, that I cannot trust them, that I have nowhere else to go.
We drive toward the camp down a long dirt drive. Yards in front of us, cabins are tucked into a large hill, and we move closer to a village of miniature wooden houses. To the left are tennis courts and to the right is an outdoor theater. We’ll watch the girls play tennis in white uniforms, row crew, stage performances. The camp is designed to encourage them to gain independence and character, to feel proud of their accomplishments, to develop their own ideas and opinions. Even though this camp is for girls ranging from nine to fifteen—even though I fall in the middle of this age bracket, I can’t imagine being up on a stage, changing into fitted uniforms when my own clothes are sizes too big—I don’t want people looking at or listening to me.
Brenda turns to me. “Did you know Jocelyn has a beautiful singing voice?”
I know this camp is for rich kids, and even though my father is footing the bill for it, I don’t live the same life as Jocelyn. I live most of the time with my mother—we eat leftovers, we shop at T.J. Maxx and Kmart, and we turn the heat down. The camp activities seem trivial to me; I’m not interested in sports. Next year, I will be the child failing gym class because I refuse to change my clothes on the rare days when I don’t refuse to go to school. I will be the one looking for escape, taking acid at friends’ beach houses at fourteen and running along the strip being chased by police. I’ll spend my summers in friends’ crowded cars clouded with pot smoke, passing wine bottles, crushing up pills, my idea of after school like those specials they play on television, the ones where the kids snort meth in the high school bathrooms instead of going to softball practice. I will not be Jocelyn with her summer camp and her boarding school and her expensive bras, her option of applying to any university, and I know this at age twelve; I know the kind of life that I am drawn to, the kind of life that I am on the verge of making.
Even though it is small, I love the cabin Jocelyn is living in, the way her roommate’s bed is only a foot away, the way their books are stacked on the small window sills, the handmade shelves. I love the trunk at the end of the bed—the concept of packing up our belongings and cramming them into a six-by-four-foot space, their presence reinforcing our readiness for adventure. I love the collages on the walls made in art class, the paintings—I feel alive in this cabin. I want to live here, inside this wooded sanctuary with a community of people, in a place that feels like home.
Next summer, the cabin will become unsafe. Brenda will snoop through all of the letters I’ve sent to Jocelyn, make copies of them, and mail them to my mother. She’ll call my mother on the phone and recite lines about finishing liquor bottles and smoking pot in my bedroom with the windows wide open, about lying down with boys and another girl, half naked while we let the boys touch us all over. Brenda will follow up the phone call with her own letters addressed to my mother—letters blaming my mother for my father’s cheating, stating that it was actually her fault since she “knew all along” but chose to keep her “head in the sand.” She’ll write letters in which she’ll call my mother a bitch repeatedly and then draw smiley faces in the space where she signs her name.
At dusk, the counselors lead us to Campfire Rock, a wooded spot with a clearing overlooking the lake. The sky is purplish black, and the girls wear white dresses that flash against its darkness. The girls begin to sing, some sounding higher while others remain low, each voice adding her own individual essence, her own version of a pitch that rises and falls, her own surrender to a changeless, shapeless tone. Although I’ve never heard any of these songs, there is one in particular, “Four Leaf Clover,” that, when the girls sing it, strikes me with an unmistakable ease, a relief I haven’t known I needed until now. I know a place where the sun is like gold/And the cherry blooms burst with snow. There is something about the girls’ voices reverberating against one another, the shine of the lake in the background, the burning smell of the campfire being lit in the woods that, when coinciding, carries an unerringness, delivering a moment in time when everything, despite all the imperfections that have come before and after it, is exactly as it should be. But you must have hope, and you must have faith. Surrounded by the faces of truly proud parents, good parents, I recognize an innocence in the girls’ voices, a purity I want to consume but know that I cannot. Despite this knowing, when the singing voices rip through me, I sense that I belong, meshing into this picture the way the red and striped maples here branch out over the water.
In this instance, it doesn’t matter that I will take a path that people seldom return from: that I’ll see mattresses on the floors of crack houses and drug deals gone bad; I’ll see friends collapse and hit the ground, their faces impossible shades of green; I’ll learn how to aid someone who has overdosed on heroin. I’ll visit close friends in jails and become used to identifying myself, lifting my arms for the guards, carrying Ziploc bags of quarters for vending machines. During these years, I’ll become a refugee of sorts, torn between wanting to roam freely and the desperate desire to attach myself to something, to anything. I will acquire a knack for falling in love with men who do not have the capacity to love me back.
It begins to rain, and I slip my feet out of my sandals and let my toes get soaked, sink into the mud. I haven’t spent much time in the woods other than at parties with bonfires and kegs of beer bought by my older sisters or the older siblings of friends, and I am drawn to the birches, to the lake, to the dirt. I want to sleep on the earth and be swallowed by the wide-open space. Here, in these woods, I have one of those intuitive moments that arrives almost by accident, when you are least likely to be looking for it. I feel a type of restlessness, a hunger that cannot contain itself, and I know for certain that the world is larger than my father and Brenda, that I will break free of them.
Years after my father and Brenda have divorced, I search for her online and find out that she works on the board of directors for a familial organization whose mission is “to strengthen individuals and families through community connections, service programs, education.” The organization offers parenting tips, prevents child abuse, and is meant to improve the lives of people and families. Brenda is also a guardian ad litem, which means the fate of unknown kids is in her hands. When I read the description of Brenda’s job, it reminds me of a girlfriend in high school whose dad I believed to be a kind-hearted family man, the only father I was comfortable alone in a car with—until one day in the bathroom at school, she lifted up her shirt to show me bruises and bite marks, the remnants of his morning routine. It’s not what it looks like.
But what I also remember is the sound of the girls’ voices in unison on that July day twenty years ago—a day when the wind rattled the trees and swallows sailed above the lake, a moment when I saw the dying sun shine glimmers of hope on the water, a hope that, despite everything I had to encounter along the way, eventually pushed me to the other side.