I did plenty of things I knew I shouldn’t have done in that red-brick colonial in suburban Georgia: smeared grime from the unfinished half of the basement on the walls of the finished half; spilled ruby red sweet-and-sour sauce on the pearly carpet. During a sleepover, a friend even knocked a hole in the sheetrock as we rode sleeping bags down the basement stairs like sleds. It could’ve been any of those things or none of them that precipitated the beating I received from my father one night near Christmas, when I was 8 years old.
I woke up still aching from the lashes, which had left bruised stripes on my back and thighs and forearms in the pattern of the braided belt my father wore. My mind was addled, ringing, half-delirious. At school, I couldn’t sit comfortably, couldn’t concentrate or settle down. Eventually, with a little coaxing, I told a teaching assistant what had happened. From there I was sent to the guidance counselor, to whom I repeated the story.
That night, I told my mother about my disclosure. She frantically demanded that I take it all back. “Go see the counselor again tomorrow,” she said. “Tell her that you lied because you were mad at your dad.” Otherwise, she said, things would be much worse.
For as long as I could remember, my father had been physically abusive and my mother nervous and cowed by him, an unreliable guardian. He constantly threatened to leave her, something she was terrified of. He bullied her incessantly in front of my brother and me, once making her repeat the phrase “I’m a dumbass” ten times because she had mistaken the hours of a Chinese restaurant, leaving him without food on the table when he got home from work. For me, there had been beatings and threats, nighttime lockouts and odd cruelties — one afternoon my father stepped on my bare feet with his tennis shoes on; another time he strangled me after a brief, stumbling chase up the stairs.
Still, I was desperately afraid of what would happen if I finally transgressed too much — whatever that might mean, and whatever it would entail. The consequences were always nebulous. Maybe my father would leave us, and we would be poor. Maybe they would send me away somewhere, disown me. Maybe they would just stop loving me — you have to understand that this was the only kind of love I had ever known, and that it was the only sort of love I thought existed, with the rest being myth or fiction — and things would get even worse, as my father often warned they could.
So the next day, I went to the guidance counselor’s office and told her that I had lied. When an agent from Child Protective Services arrived later that day, I met with her in a small room in the school’s administrative office and reiterated that I hadn’t told the truth. I was just mad at my dad, I said, just a liar. She still made a home visit, where my mother chatted merrily with her about her interior decorating, inviting her to view the tasteful Christmas wreaths and garlands she had adorned the banisters with that year. Whether the agent really believed me or my mother, I never heard anything further from her.
And that was the beginning of my shitty adult life. The abuse didn’t stop, but my sense that I could do anything about it — which had kindled, I think, a small ember of comfort — had been abruptly extinguished. Resignation became the organizing principle of my entire existence.
Between the bouts of violence, my father complained often and dramatically that I didn’t love him, that I was surly and withdrawn, that I never gave hugs. Everything I did was wrong: the way I dressed, my friends (and sometimes lack thereof), the fact that I was squat, plain, and unlovely. The fact that I had told the guidance counselor about the abuse was adduced frequently as evidence of my meanness and disloyalty. My mother felt sorry for me, and sometimes furtively sent my brother to my room with painkillers to pass along after my father had beaten me. But that was the extent of her pity.
All throughout my childhood, there was a deep disjointedness inside me, something permanently bruised and always faintly aching, but it had been there so long I understood it as a native part of me. I was just melancholy, I thought, when I did think about it. Usually, I was just getting by. I assumed that was all there was.
I don’t believe that every present torment is caused by something in the past. My father likely has some kind of personality disorder or a cluster of them, and would almost certainly be a difficult person no matter his upbringing. But it always seemed to me that his childhood had limited his resources for dealing with everyday life: He had grown up in an appallingly unstable, abusive home, the subject of a custody battle between his parents — a mentally ill woman and her alcoholic husband — and his grandparents. His grandparents eventually lost, but it was too late for him to integrate fully into his family. That primal loss seemed to color his entire worldview. In small disappointments, he saw total abjection; in minor setbacks, an unending abyss; in interpersonal conflicts, complete and irrevocable abandonment. In the end, he just didn’t have much love to give.
“I hated being a parent,” he said to me, once. “It was hard. It was like being a ship captain and having to — get everybody to shore, on lifeboats.”
“I don’t love you,” he told me on another occasion, when I was maybe 13, “I don’t want you.” I wailed in animal pain that has never really abated.
In my teenage years, I began to wonder if the echoing darkness his parents had instilled in him had been passed on to me. I suspected it had been. I hated the features we shared — the black, round eyes, the snub nose, the diminutive chin. Maybe I had always felt strange and lonely because I was like him: fundamentally unlikable. Maybe I found it hard to trust because I myself was devious, unworthy of trust. Maybe I would never feel any other way.
When I was old enough, I tried to get away. I left the state for college; I even left the country for a time. Trips home for breaks were often miserable and tumultuous. Even as I graduated with honors and scholarships and found a little high-profile work, my father remained identically disposed toward me. Everything I did was still wrong, my husband wasn’t good enough, and my work was an embarrassment. Eventually, all of the physical violence tapered off, and only the occasional bitter, hours-long tirades remained, whenever I happened to see my parents.
And that, I accepted. The relationship wasn’t great, I reasoned, but they were the only parents I had. It wasn’t all bad, anyway; sometimes things were fine, and we were relatively happy — there were peaceful nights, and occasionally, laughter. At least my children would have grandparents, I decided; at least I would have some place to go if things really fell apart. I knew they would welcome that — that they almost hoped I would fail — based on the fact that my older brother had never left home, and that they seemed to like it that way, presiding over him as a permanent child. There were worse things, I thought.
I eventually settled with my husband far from them, in a city on the east coast. They followed me.
They began conspiring to move nearby when I got pregnant, without really consulting me. The full-court press was driven by my mother, who was determined to be a part of my child’s life, as though she needed another chance to get it right. Accordingly, she mustered courage to defy my father she had never been able to summon when I needed it.
The two of them had a hellacious fight over moving north, which erupted in a hotel in my city after a day spent unsuccessfully house hunting. I learned of its particulars only through occasional text messages from my mother and phone calls from my brother. My father had banished my mother from their bedroom as soon as they returned home, I understood, and she was sleeping in the guest room, with my brother guarding her.
One night during this marathon struggle, my mother called me in tears to tell me that certain things were going to come out during the divorce that she wanted me to hear from her first. My father would say she was a whore, she warned. He would say she had group sex with strange men, so she wouldn’t get anything in the split. She told me none of it was true, that it was dirty talk she invented for him, but that while he enjoyed it in the moment, he had become paranoid that much of it was true over time. I told her to leave him, to get away as soon as possible, and for a few weeks I thought she might listen.
In the end, I think my father realized he had little chance of survival without my mother — at least, no chance of persisting in the lifestyle to which he’s accustomed. The fact that she has always seen to the cooking and cleaning and the furnishing of his odd little comforts — like a boozy slushy he’s enjoyed in the same cup, with the same spoon, nightly since I can remember — likely convinced him that he couldn’t lose her. They reached a compromise: abandoning the search for a home in my city, instead relocating to the distant exurbs.
They bought a house an hour and a half from my apartment, and agreed that my mother entering menopause had caused a temporary madness which resulted in the cataclysmic fight. It was the kind of myth-making that allowed a shared life to continue, like the recasting of the Civil War as a grand tragedy rather than a triumph of good over evil. It was similarly discomfiting to closely consider.
We drifted out to their house on weekends, for holidays. I still found it nearly impossible to tell them no, and usually came when called. It was often hard to endure, with my father berating me or my mother for infractions imagined or real, and always quietly sulking that my husband ignored him. He had wanted my husband to defer to him as a kind of paterfamilias, shaking his hand and addressing him, maybe, as mister. But my husband mostly refused to speak to him.
My husband never asked me why I still had anything to do with my family. But I knew he wondered, and I know that you must wonder. So do I.
It had something to do with hope, or a perversion of it. I maintained a thin, wilting desire for things to change, long after I knew they wouldn’t. There was also a sick sense of sunk costs: I had already put so much into loving these people, desperately loving them, that I didn’t want to give up so late. I knew that if I managed to finally disengage from my father, I would lose my mother, too. He would make her choose him or me, and she would choose him. She always had.
And then there was fear. What if I disengaged from them, and he retaliated somehow, against me or my mother? What if they abandoned me much more decisively than I could abandon them — refusing to help me if something catastrophic happened?
That terror heightened with the birth of my daughter, whose arrival struck me with a kind of vulnerability I had never known before, as though I were wearing my heart on the outside. I knew I needed help, or that I would, eventually — some advice in the night, or emergency daycare during a sudden sick day. Didn’t it take a village?
And they wanted — urgently, frantically, madly — to see her.
Letting them have contact with her was an agonizing decision. If they hurt her, I thought, I would detonate every explosive I had always left dormant: I would call the police, I would retain a lawyer, I would write this story under my own name. I would tell every one of his asshole corporate golfing buddies: This son of a bitch beats up little girls. I would run a garden hose into the gas tank of that precious dove-gray Volvo; I would soak their drapes in kerosene and set their house on fire.
But I had reasons to believe they wouldn’t. That abusive parents often target a particular child to the exclusion of siblings and grandchildren is a well-known, if little understood, phenomenon. My father had occasionally beaten my brother growing up — once standing over him and lashing him with a belt each time he made a mistake reciting multiplication tables — but never with the zeal and malice he reserved for me. Why? One study from the 1970s found little support for the idea that abused children are different in significant ways from their non-abused siblings. “These children are, however,” the study’s authors wrote, “viewed more negatively by their parents than their non-abused siblings.” Why would that be the case? The authors answered that, too: “They are more likely to remind their parents in negative ways of themselves or others …”
The two-way mirror of child abuse: They look at you and see themselves, you look at yourself and see them. They destroy themselves in you, and you destroy yourself in despair or retaliation. Maybe the one thing we always had in common was hating his features in my face.
By my late 20s, I was a writer of modest means and relevance. I was thrilled if a speaking gig rolled in, and especially so when I didn’t have to pick up my own travel or lodging. When a suburban church in New England reached out to me about giving a talk in the fall of 2017 and mentioned that a parishioner would be willing to put me up for the night, I was eager. It was better than shelling out for a hotel, and cutting my honorarium in half. Any small windfall helped with the rent.
So I boarded the train with my suitcase and my baggage, both of which I felt were discreet and unobtrusive. I didn’t give much thought to Jen, the parishioner I would be staying with. She had emailed me after I had agreed to stay in her home. “I’m here to offer you as much or as little hospitality as you’d like,” she wrote. “We’d be delighted to have you stay with us, we really would. We are also happy to feed you, drive you, etc. Want you to feel welcome but not crowded, of course.” Extreme politesse, I thought. They have that in New England; it doesn’t mean they like you.
This permanent suspicion of being secretly hated was learned; so was its behavioral consequence in my nonstop, unsolicited apologies.
My train arrived after dark, on a cool evening. Jen and her husband pulled up outside the station in a dark SUV, and helped me put my luggage in the back. We chatted idly on the ride home, about shows we liked and social media. We ate in their kitchen, a vibrant, airy nook in their beautiful house, with its hardwood floors and walls full of framed artwork, some by professionals, some by their children. A rainbow-striped runner raced up the stairs all the way to a cozy attic room with a bed, a television, and a vase of fresh flowers on the nightstand, placed there for me.
For me. I marveled at the three stems of blue hydrangeas that night after dinner, chatting with my husband online. This place is great, I said. They have the life I want to live.
On the train ride home, I dreamed of their house, their lives. Jen was blonde and blue-eyed and beautiful; her teenage daughter was, too, and she kept an iguana in a terrarium in her room, which she showed me, his raspberry-dotted mouth and searching eyes. Jen’s son was 12, funny and confident, easily the most agreeable person of that age I had ever met. And Alan, Jen’s husband, was magnetic, with a wry sense of humor and a deep, resonant voice. The night I slept in their attic, Alan texted me to let me know he was leaving a soda outside my door. He didn’t want to scare me, he said, lurking around up there.
Jen and Alan’s kids loved them, and Jen and Alan loved their kids: kissed them, hugged them, stroked their hair. Jen’s son and daughter seemed to lean into her occasionally for touch, seeking that safe harbor, gentle reassurance. They played video games and ate SpaghettiOs, too, rode their bicycles with their friends, went to choir practice and played sports. And I thought — If I had what you had, I would never do anything else but lean into her, just basking in all that love.
Pain is didactic; it imparts knowledge. Abused children learn that the people who ought to love them unconditionally do not, and from that they deduce that they themselves are unlovable. But the fact of being unlovable never abrogates the need for love. Some abused kids look for it everywhere, some give up looking for it altogether, and some do both at once, desperately seeking love while convinced they can’t receive it. I had always been in that latter category, seeing shades of loving fathers and mothers everywhere I looked — in teachers, professors, managers, and mentors — but never trusting that their kindness was anything more than transactional or perfunctory. I told myself the same was true of Jen and Alan.
But a few days later, Alan sent me a message.
“My daughter whom you met,” he said, “announced to me that you’re who she wants to be. That’s never happened before. So, good work.”
I was astonished. My own parents didn’t want me to be their daughter; the idea that anyone could want to be me, or countenance their child wanting such, was absurd. I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything.
Alan waited a week before trying again.
He sent me a link to a video of my talk. “Did you like it!?” I asked, wondering why he was still speaking to me.
“It was like looking into the face of God and hearing the words, ‘you are my most perfect creation.’”
How strange, I thought, and resolved not to reply.
A few days later, Alan sent me another note, about a playwright I liked. I sent him an article about the playwright, puzzled by this effort at conversation. “Thx for sending this,” Alan said. Surely something was up. Who likes receiving unsolicited links?
The next day, Alan wrote to me about interesting goings-on at work. I haltingly replied. That night, feeling like I should disclose this odd correspondence, I told my husband.
“Why would this guy keep messaging me?” I asked. “Must be some kind of sex thing, surely.”
“Maybe,” my husband said neutrally. “Maybe he just wants to talk to you.”
There was nothing to do but see where it went. I liked chatting with Alan. He was in his mid-40s, with a good career and a curious, searching mind. He was witty and weird and self-effacing; he liked pulpy movies from the 1980s as well as high-minded nonfiction. We considered Martha Nussbaum and Mary Karr, mulled over Inside Llewyn Davis, mused about the news, and shared congruent politics.
And he complimented me — excessively, I thought, and often.
Once, I worried aloud I might be becoming a mommy blogger. “Good God!” Alan wrote instantly. “You’re not a mommy-blogger! I know those people. You’re 1,000 times smarter, more caring, and more aware.”
On and on like that. I felt ashamed of myself, thinking I was allowing myself to be taken in. One of these days, I thought, he’s going to ask for a picture of my tits.
But he never did. Instead, he and Jen sent a picture book for my daughter. And the next time Alan was in our city for work, we got together — him, me, and my husband. He started chatting with my husband, too, and over the next couple of months it became clear to me that he wasn’t keeping his conversations with me a secret from either my husband or his wife. My fear of an ulterior motive began to dissipate.
Around Thanksgiving, Alan wrote: “You know, you can be less-than-perfect in interacting with me. My opinion of you is locked in. If you care.”
I cared very much.
So much so that I began to feel I was hiding something from Alan. In mid-December, I told him about my father and the abuse. I wanted so badly to have a real friend in him. But that meant knowing why I was the way I was: all the anxiety, timidity, loneliness, shame. I worried he would respond with skepticism, or, worse, polite sympathy.
Instead, my telling him seemed only to confirm something he had suspected all along.
“Okay,” he replied, “now we’re cooking.”
A message over 1,000 words long followed. “In 1999, I was going to kill myself by a combination of drugs that I had compiled and hanging,” Alan said. “I was living in Los Angeles and suffering from crippling anxiety, depression, and OCD. I was excusing myself from work to go weep uncontrollably in the bathroom. I couldn’t sleep for doing push-ups for hours (I had sweet upper-body development, at least) and was adding an hour to my commute to park and re-park my car to get it positioned correctly between the lines in the garage. I had been clinically depressed most of the time since 1984 … Accordingly, various types of madness are intimately familiar, i.e., anxiety.”
It was raw and sad and it made me smile. We talked more about our childhoods, each of which were fraught with various species of abuse, and about our strained relationships with our parents, and our fervent hopes for our children. When he was in our city, we spent time together, and when he wasn’t, we plotted to see each other again soon.
The following summer, Alan, Jen, and their kids rode the train down to attend my daughter’s birthday party — a silly excuse for a get-together, but it had already been too long. The next month, my husband and I rode the train up to attend a concert with Alan and his kids. The night before the show, we all sat around a fire pit in their backyard while their two dogs lazed on the porch and fireflies twinkled in the grass. Skewers were plucked from the gravel and marshmallows produced from a kitchen cabinet; Jen showed me how to toast them just so. I had never done that before.
A group chat formed over text: Alan, Jen, me, my husband. We sent videos and pictures of our daily lives, vented about work, joked about the news. Soon, we were in contact every day. Jen became my go-to for questions about my daughter; I sent her countless snapshots of weird rashes and swollen glands. Alan and my husband held long conversations about their shared career paths. And all of us conspired to see each other again as soon as possible.
That fall, I had an important business meeting in New York City. Alan rode up with me, strolled around the town while I conducted my interview, and then met up with me afterward. My husband, Jen, and their daughter arrived later in the evening, and we all convened for dinner. That was where Thanksgiving came up.
“We would love to have you,” Jen said. She had never looked so beautiful to me as she did then, with her wide-framed glasses and her sharply tailored, evergreen leather jacket.
“We’ll be there,” I promised.
Walking back to their car, a drunk guy bumped into us. Squinting, he sized me, Jen, and her daughter up; he then launched into a serenade about how Alan ought to value us, his gorgeous wife, his lovely daughters. I held Jen’s daughter’s hand, and when the guy wandered off, we laughed.
I could have burst into a million stars.
Thanksgiving with Alan and Jen was perfect. It was also when I realized that I was cheating on my parents.
My options had heretofore been abused or alone. Now, my little girl lounged on Alan and Jen’s beanbag chair, shared toast with their dog, gnawed on one of the chocolate turkeys Jen had tucked beside each place setting. We celebrated my husband’s birthday, and went hunting for a Christmas tree, which we situated in the corner of Alan and Jen’s living room. I sat by the fire as Jen and her daughter strung lights up on its glistening branches. I had the distinct feeling, akin to the recognition of infidelity, that we weren’t just friends anymore. We were family.
I couldn’t think of another way to look at it. Someone else might’ve looked at the relationship as nothing more than a blossoming friendship between adults — and it was that, too. But while I felt guilty for unilaterally saddling them with the weight of kinship, I couldn’t help myself. When I was with them, I knew unconditional love. I found myself relaxing into the certainty of their kindness, their mercy, their comfort. Their advice was sound, and genuine; unlike my own parents, they didn’t seem to harbor ulterior motives. When we were together, it felt like home.
When we returned after the holiday, my father called me. That was rare; he ordinarily only called in the case of familial deaths. He was furious.
“Who’s sleeping with who?” he asked, “You sleeping with him, or is your husband fucking his wife?”
Nobody was sleeping with anybody, I explained. I just thought it would be fun to spend Thanksgiving together.
“Your mother has been walking around all weekend crying,” he bellowed. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
I wanted one good holiday, I admitted. It wasn’t as though our relationship was the best.
“If I’m so evil, such a monster, how come you let your kid around me?”
It was a good question.
Because I don’t think you have a problem with her like you do me, I said, dizzy with my own candor. And because I want to forgive you.
He said he didn’t need, didn’t want my forgiveness; he told me never to call or visit again. And where formerly there would have been this keening, wailing neediness in me — don’t say that, daddy, please, don’t send me away, don’t let me go — I now felt only faint disappointment.
Okay, I said. If that’s what you want.
By the time our daughter was heading to preschool, we knew we needed a home of our own, if only to start building equity instead of paying rent. But it was impossible for us to make a down payment: We had spent our early marriage paying off student debt. My own parents likely would have offered assistance, but only with strings attached, so I didn’t bother consulting them. When I vented about all this to Alan, he made a subtle but clear offer to help with the financing. I was taken aback: What about his real kids, I asked. He said he already had enough put away for their college expenses, and that this wouldn’t be a problem. Would Jen be alright with it, I pressed. She endorsed the idea, with enthusiasm.
We bought our first place, and celebrated it. Alan and Jen loved it; my parents hated it. It was too small, they said, and dingy. I ignored them.
In February, we went on vacation with Alan, Jen, and their kids, each of whom brought friends along. Each morning, we all convened at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, brought our plates of crêpes and eggs and salmon and toast and fruit and yogurt to the table, talked about our plans for the day. I was pregnant again, so while the kids went skiing, Jen and I went to the spa, sat with Alan and my husband in the lodge’s cafe, or trekked through the snow to a neighboring town to shop and sightsee.
My father called me one night of the trip, to suggest Alan and Jen wanted something from me, something nefarious, and that I ought to be cautious about them. I told him, somewhat flippantly, that I’d be on the lookout for any suspicious activity. There was a pause, and then he asked: “Why can’t you go on vacation with us? Why can’t you just do things with your mom and I?” There was a plaintive tone there I hadn’t heard before. I felt a fleeting pang of sympathy for them; they were being replaced, and they knew it.
I told him I just didn’t think we would have a good time together. We never had, I pointed out. All of the vacations of my childhood had been marked by meltdowns and panicked departures, usually a few days earlier than planned. They got to spend time with my daughter, I said. Wasn’t that enough?
Maybe that was what gave him the idea. From then on, my parents began waging a subtler war against my husband and I, using our daughter as a weapon and a battlefield.
Most grandparents are indulgent, but my parents became excessively so. They refused my daughter nothing, even when it meant endangering her. When she complained about sitting in her carseat, my father would direct my mother, who was usually fumbling to secure the buckles and calm the toddler, to undo the fastenings and let her sit unsecured in the car. My father fed her doughnut holes and ice cream, cupcakes and soda to the exclusion of any real food; our daughter would come home from weekends at their house bloated and sick. When my daughter fussed about potty training, my father made my mother put her back in diapers, setting her progress back weeks at a time. She was embarrassed by the accidents she had at preschool after spending time with them.
I begged them to stop, which my father seemed to relish. Let go of your anger, he would say, and let us love your daughter. He had no idea how to love; this wasn’t love, just another vector for abuse. When we refused to let them pick our daughter up, my mother would become distraught and unstable, texting me that she was crying, that she felt like she was having a stroke, that she feared she might die without seeing her.
On and on this went. I enlisted the help of a nutritionist to try to explain to them why they needed to feed our daughter sensibly; they refused to speak to her. I sent a cookbook of healthy recipes for toddlers, which my mother returned to me unopened. Eventually, we began making up excuses — birthday parties, illnesses, preexisting plans — that they couldn’t take our daughter to their house, which created an uneasy tension.
I talked to Alan and Jen about them constantly, seeking advice, or maybe just comfort. Alan had similar problems with his parents, similar battles. He was always gentle and reserved in his analysis, but his advice was always the same: Stay cool, don’t engage in the mudslinging, treat them like children, prepare to walk away for good. You’re never going to get what you want from them.
Alan and Jen came to town last summer, when my second daughter was due. They sat with me and my husband in the delivery room, waited anxiously in the hallway as the anesthesiologist slipped the thin tube flush with fentanyl into the recesses of my spine. They held my newborn as soon as she was dried and dressed, and ferried drinks and snacks to my bedside. I watched Jen cradling her in the afternoon half-light, with her blonde hair glowing like a halo, her face beatific. I asked them to be my daughter’s godparents, and they agreed.
Meanwhile, my parents were belligerent and reproachful. They refused to come to town to help with the baby, instead demanding that we stay at their house with the newborn for several weeks. That this would mean driving hours to take the baby to her check-ups and depriving my husband of his wife and children as soon as his paltry paternity leave ended meant nothing to them; they were deeply resentful that we were denying them this opportunity to spend time with the new baby. “When are you going to let her come out here without you,” they asked of the newborn, “so she can get used to us?” Never, I thought.
Jen rode the train down to help us with the baby, instead. She bounced her on her hip for countless hours, rocked her, swaddled her, carried her in a sling the first time we went out in what felt like months. While the baby napped, Jen did our dishes, laundry, and grocery shopping. I texted my mom, telling her explicitly for the first time that someone else was doing what she ought to be doing. Why couldn’t she come help me, I asked? She ignored me.
We started to demur more often when they asked to whisk our older daughter away for overnight visits, which angered them. They wanted a relationship with her and not me — around 20 weekends a year, they specified — that was more akin to a joint-custody agreement than a congenial family relationship. Clarity came to me in waves. I soon recognized what I had perhaps always known — that I would never be allowed to be happy so long as they were an overwhelming presence in my life. We had to get away. So I began to look for a new job, in hopes of moving closer to Alan and Jen.
Jen took me outfit-shopping for a particularly big interview last fall, and lent me a blazer of hers. She hugged me as I headed up the Penn Station escalator to 34th.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too.”
I got the job. In the spring, we’re going to move.
My parents can see all this happening; they know what I’m preparing to do, and they hate it. The final gift of good parents is an adult child’s preparation to live without them. My parents had never intended to bestow that — they enjoyed controlling me, crippling me, reigning over my adult life as though I were still a captive child. It took Alan and Jen acting as surrogate parents to help me complete my adolescence, a painful and unnaturally prolonged thing, stretched over a pitiless rack. I am ready, now, to walk away.
The last time I saw my father, it was late in the fall. He brought up Alan and Jen, suggesting with leering suspicion the unseemliness of it all.
“He wants something from you,” my father told me, referring to Alan. “I don’t know what it is, but it’ll be clear over time. Nobody does anything for free.”
“Maybe they just like me,” I said, “maybe they love me.”
“Sure,” my father said, dismissive, as though someone loving me were an absurd idea.
Since my childhood, I had disappeared into my mind when my father spoke to me. He always said the same things, anyway. I watched his face — my own weary, dark eyes, the same round nose, recessed chin — and felt my own thoughts crest over the sound of his words.
I realized then that everything I’ve always feared about walking away has already happened: I have already been beaten, I have already been abandoned, they had already stopped loving me. All of it had happened long ago, and I had been scraping by on the doomed hope that it might all change one day. But I knew it wouldn’t. I had nothing to lose by leaving them for good.
A shadow passed over my thoughts. Would I have chosen Alan and Jen if my own family had loved me? Or would I have allowed them to drift by in the stream of my life, pleasant acquaintances, nothing more? In that world, I thought, I would be someone else. What has happened to me has made me what I am. Maybe I was disfigured, emotionally and spiritually, by the abuse. But the void in my soul was also an open gate through which Alan and Jen entered my life, and changed it forever, for the better.
My father was still talking. “I mean, how fucking bizarre would it be if I started spending a bunch of time with some other guy’s kids? How fucking bizarre? Me, over 60, hanging around another man’s kids. That’s what I wanna ask this guy, man-to-man.”
That would be strange, I said, laying my napkin on the tabletop. But I’m not a little girl anymore.