So Now You're Thinking 'Bout, All You're Missing--How, Deep You're Sinking, Round And Round And Dragging Down
Maybe I never knew them at all, these people I heard arguing down the stairs from my perch. I stood, quiet as a church mouse, at the top of the stairs listening to my parents arguing. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t intrusive. Yet it was a fight all the same. The signs were unmistakable. I heard the anger in the way my mother brightened her tone. I heard the frustration in the way my daddy trailed off his sentences. I heard it all in the way they were attempting to mask the animosity between them from me.
They knew I could hear them. Maybe they didn’t know I was listening to it all, but they knew of my prescence in the house. That couldn’t be avoided. I was still part of this family even when this family wasn’t very much of a family.
I looked down to my pointed fingernail on my thumb. I ran the edge of index finger along its jagged edge while the non-yelling continued. I wondered to myself if I could draw blood if pressed hard enough. I also wondered if that would be enough to take my mind off everything else. Pressing down with all my might, I couldn’t even break skin. I reckoned it was an impossible goal given the circumstances.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Did I honestly expect them to cease all their hostility the minute they saw their precious daughter bleeding from the smallest of self-inflicted wounds? Was that the crux of my plan? Maybe it was. I didn’t know what else to do. Eighteen years old—a soon-to-be college student—and I still attracted the nerves when my parents weren’t getting along. Hell’s bells, was I ill prepared to leave home yet. The heart of the matter was there was no one else to share the burden of anxiety with. Outside my parents’ home, I had friends. I had people like Patrick and people like Katie. Inside my home it had always just been my parents and me.
I didn’t even know what they were arguing about. The sounds came muffled and without substance. It was like listening to the wind talk to the trees; the voices ruffled in the delivery. It wasn’t so bad when I idly took in the gist of the conversation. At least then I heard a word here and there. It was when I pricked up my ears intently that the meaning slid away like an ice cube on pavement. The more I wanted particulars, the more the particulars become generalities.
Maybe it was the same whenever they fought, this dread. When I was younger I would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to my mother berate my daddy into submission. I would want someone to sit with me to vent to about how scary the prospect of your parents falling out of love with one another is to somebody so young. That’s the curse of being an only child. It made me a victim of having to accept the blame all onto me. It saddled me with thoughts of what I had done to cause their discontent with one another, with thoughts of what I could do to remedy the problem. It caused me to believe that I was the only person capable of making my parents love each other again like they were supposed to. Maybe if I had a sister or an older brother, they could have taken that mantle from me, but such was not to be. It was only me and my parents—no more, no less. When those two fought I came to rest in the middle because that’s the only place I could settle down in.
It was lonely.
It was scary.
It was my life.
I moved down the staircase in hope of getting a better listen. That was something I would have never attempted when I was younger. Graceful as I was, I was far too emotionally reckless to have kept my mouth shut if something troubling were to have slipped from their tongues. It would be like touching flame to an oil-soaked rag. I would have no choice but to burst into flames. I am a child of fire, after all.
I reached the foot of the stairs with barely a rustle. I could make out the silhouettes of the two of them in the den, back to me. I sat down on the bottom step, hoping against hope that the couch or my mother’s plants would be enough to camouflage me. I wanted to hear what the great fuss was all about.
When I heard my mother whisper about how upsetting it was to her that my daddy had seen her again, it took me by surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. The implications were far too dire to contemplate. I didn’t want to focus on what she was saying. I wanted him to deny it all. I wanted him to yell and get upset, say that he wasn’t like that. I wanted him to say that my mother was being paranoid. I wanted it to be as big of a lie as it could possibly be. It didn’t matter that I was technically an adult and the news that infidelities may have crept up into my parents’ marriage shouldn’t be as big of a shock as it was. I was their girl—the both of them. It didn’t work for me if they weren’t both committed to us as a unit, as a family. I might as well have been eight all over again and hearing the news that my daddy was dying, so tied into the concept of the unity of the Holins was I.
He didn’t deny it.
He only said that she was just a friend, the great lie adults tell each other when they don’t want to admit feelings don’t ever go away. He only said that she was an old friend and that my mother was being unreasonable. She didn’t control him. She didn’t have a say in who he saw and didn’t see. Then I heard her yell, the first yell all afternoon, that there were certain things you don’t do when you’re married. There are certain sacrifices you have to make when you make a commitment. You don’t stray and you don’t stay in touch with former flames. That’s the rules. He said that he didn’t stray and staying in touch didn’t mean touching her at all. That was the distinguishing characteristic. He wasn’t unfaithful. He never kissed her. He never touched her. He didn’t do anything with her. Not anything that would matter to my mother, at the very least.
Do you still love her? That’s what my mother asked him starkly. She might as well have asked him to shoot me in the head, so blatantly easy of a question it sounded to me. No, I don’t. That’s what my daddy would say. I was sure of it. No, I never loved her as much as you, dearie. That’s what my daddy would say. No, I’ve called everything off with her. You’re the only one that matters to me, Jean. That’s what my daddy should have said.
But that wasn’t the truth and he said as much.
He said that he couldn’t be the type of person to forget someone that mattered to him, no matter how long ago it was. He wasn’t built like that. My mother couldn’t ask him to be that person. Then he walked away from the den with no warning.
When he passed me on the stairs I expected to see him feigning embarrassment or even be a little frightened at what I’d heard. Yet when he did pass me all I saw was a fierce determination. My daddy wasn’t the type to fight my mother on a great many things, but when he did stand up to her I knew it had to be important. Something in the way his words fell like a ton of bricks atop my mother’s protestations told me that his convictions over this matter was intractable. He would be a bull in the pasture, ready to charge any and all who came close to unseating him from his position.
There was also something else in his look, something I had never seen before. It was the look of one peer seeing another peer for the first time. He didn’t stop to explain his words to me. He never explained who this mysterious former friend of his was. He just gave me this knowing glance, before trudging up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. In the glance was the implicit idea that I’d be going through the same argument someday. He knew that I’d have to come to a head over something similar. I don’t know if he expected me to follow in his footsteps, but I reckon he recognized that I was his daughter. I’d always be his daughter. I would always be made out of the same stern and jovial and intelligent gossamer bits as him. Maybe that was enough for him to filter out how alike his my life would proceeds or maybe he too felt like I did when sitting on those steps. He needed another face to reveal his feelings to. He never said the words. His pride wouldn’t allow that. But he knew I’d heard everything. The fact I’d heard everything and didn’t immediately rush to judge him made me a supporter in his eyes. Maybe that’s what the look spoke of. Maybe he was lonely and scared about how he felt too and just seeing my face was enough to bolster his pride.
At any rate, that was the last instance I can recall where I ever heard my parents fight. They stopped being perfect to me a long time before that. They stopped being the center of the world. Yet that afternoon I started to see them more and more as people capable of the same feelings as me. They could have been meek. They could have been humble. But that’s not the type of people they were. They were fighters. They were proud. They were stubborn.
Just like me.
More than that they felt the jealousies I felt. They felt the pain and the hurt and the suffering that comes from following your heart far too much and your head too little. I stopped seeing them as people who never ever fought and being scared when they did. I saw them for what they were; people whose moods and affections were transient as the tide. Sometimes they were more in love with each other than they could even stand. Sometimes they weren’t. It didn’t matter any more. I stopped concentrating on their fights. I started concentrating on the fact they were still together. I concentrated on the fact they found a way to never have to concede to one another to make their marriage work. I concentrated on the idea that something more than mere convenience kept them together.
We were all more than a unit stuck together. They didn’t stay married for me. They didn’t stay married because it was easy. They stayed married because love dictated it. You don’t ditch somebody you love. You never do.
That’s the rules.
That’s what my daddy had been trying to explain to my mother.
That’s the rules.
That’s something you never do.
You never forget.
The more I put Greg and I through the wringer, the more I realize that’s the ideal I’m fighting for. I’m not fighting for him to change. I’m fighting for my right to not change. I love him, I love him, I love him. But that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. And that doesn’t mean he can dictate who else I have in my life. And that doesn’t mean he can condescend to me and tell me what or what I’m not allowed to do with the rest of my life. He’s not the boss of me. I’m the boss of me. And right now the perfect solution would be to end things because it’s difficult to make things better with him. That’s what I should do.
But I’m not the innocent girl I was on the steps of my parents’ house. I don’t want the easy fix. I don’t want to play the I’m-hurt-please-hold-me card. I want to tough it out like my daddy and my mother. They were always strong in their marriage. I intend to be strong in mine. I’m not going to be the reason we fall apart. I know there’s a difference between doing what you should do and what you have to do. I should move on and be happy for myself.
But you never forget.
You never leave.
You love someone forever no matter what. No matter what.