Brian Gresko | Longreads | November 2019 | 19 minutes (4,752 words)
In seventh grade Ms. Applegate tells us what the word bastard means. (I have no idea now why this was relevant to the lesson, I only recall the defining of the word itself.) “A child born out of wedlock,” she says with arch authority from behind her desk. “The church doesn’t approve of such things.”
I startle in my seat, in the center row, about halfway back. She lifts a grey eyebrow and meets my gaze. “If you were born a bastard and baptized in the Catholic Church, it’s a sin. A mortal sin. For you and your parents, too. Of course, I’m sure none of you have to worry about that.”
I swear she’s speaking right to me, with a smirk on her lips. I’m sure she knows — that my reaction gave it away, or else she’d heard about it somehow. Maybe she can read minds.
Ms. Applegate is not like other teachers I’ve had at Visitation Elementary School. She cracks jokes, sometimes ones that go over our heads but which cause her to cackle. Throughout the day a small clique of the more lively teachers on the middle school floor lean in our doorway to chat or trade barbs while we silently complete pages in our workbook. When we’re done with our lessons, Ms. Applegate lines us up on opposite sides of the room for competitive spelling bees or trivia quizzes. She tells me I’m the smartest kid in the class but the worst test taker, words I take with me into high school like a prophecy, and she says I’m book smart but lack common sense. My dad says the same thing. And like him, she doesn’t pull any punches. The next year she won’t return — during the summer she’ll elope with her boyfriend, a practice which the nuns who run our Catholic school don’t approve of, and so they fire her. The church only accepts marriages conducted by the clergy.
This word, “bastard,” enthralls me. I’ve heard my dad use it, and read it in a Stephen King novel or two. I thought it referred to a bad person. But no, that’s me, I think on the bus ride home. That’s a word for what I am: a bastard.
After snack and Ducktales I hit my desk for homework. When Mom stops in to check on me I tell her. “Today the teacher told us this word,” I say. “For kids born out of wedlock.”
Like me, I almost say, but the words run the wrong way in my throat.
In a snap her whole face changes, the flesh falling toward the floor, like she’s taken off a mask and revealed her true self. Her cheeks hollow out, and spots of red blossom in their valleys. She perches on the edge of my bed, hands gripping the quilt for stability. She’s gone frail.
“And what word is that?” she says.
I’m curious about her reaction. Not the way a cat might be with a mouse, more like testing the waters, determining if they’re safe to wade into. She must know the word and why it’s significant to me, but I’m not going to say it if she doesn’t say it.
“I can’t remember. The word starts with…. a B, I think?”
Mom appears to be trying to eat the inside of her cheek. “And what did she say about this word?”
“That kids born like that, when their parents aren’t married, shouldn’t be baptized. And if they are, it’s a sin. Like, a mortal sin.”
She’s got that faraway look in her eyes; she’s on my bed in body only, I don’t know where her mind has gone. It’s clear to me now: these waters are not safe ones. They go deep and teem with monsters. Finally she asks, “Do you believe that?”
I shrug. This is well before I tell her I’m not sure I believe any of the shit they tell us at that school. “It’s what they say, I guess.”
She nods. “Well, if you think of the word, let me know.”
This word, ‘bastard,’ enthralls me. I’ve heard my dad use it, and read it in a Stephen King novel or two. I thought it referred to a bad person.
She heads across the hall to her bedroom and closes the door. I hear her murmuring on the phone with someone, as she does a few times a week. Again I shrug, this time to myself. Who she calls or what she talks about behind that closed door is a mystery to me, another secret.
At this point, I think it’s been three, maybe four years since my parents told me that my mom became pregnant with me when she was young and unmarried, and that her current husband, the man I call Dad, is not my biological dad. Aside from revealing this to me one night before bed, this is the closest we’ve ever come to talking about it.
That’s not to say I haven’t thought about it, though, over the years. And had feelings about it too.
At my Aunt Barbara’s for a family dinner, I crawl behind the overstuffed green armchair in the corner of the TV room and cry. (Why can’t I now remember why, what caused that first tear?) I wrap my arms around my legs, back to the wall. A sob swells and breaks through me like a tidal wave. The tears come so furious, I shudder. My fingers tremble. I’m full body weeping, salty and damp with sweat and snot, out of control. That sensation excites me a little, though it frightens me too.
I have three girl cousins: one my age, the other two older. “What’s wrong,” they ask, but I don’t answer because I don’t know. Then they tell me to cut it out. But I can’t stop crying or shivering; it’s like an emotional bloodletting.
At first they think I’m being silly, pulling their leg, but soon they worry. I’m usually sarcastic and goofy, not moody, not like this. They get our grandmom. With a voice as thin and cutting as a switch, she tells me to come out from behind that chair, it’s dusty. “You’re gonna catch cold.”
Whenever we disobeyed, Grandmom cursed us with illness. She herself had been raised by her grandmother, who came from the Old Country, England, during Victorian times. To my grandmom, physical ailments only plagued the morally weak. The common cold lay upon unruly, obstinate children like the mark of Cain.
But no matter her magic, I shake my head and refuse to leave my cave of carpet and upholstery. When we visit Aunt Barbara’s, the adults always deposit the children in the television room, where towers of VHS tapes provide hours of rerun babysitting: episodes of Kids Incorporated, Entertainment Tonight features on New Kids on the Block, Disney movies about princesses and animals and animals who are princesses. From where I weep, the mammoth set provides a gentle hum, and the lamps give the space a warm yellow glow. I don’t want to come out or go home, I only want to be there, alone.
Hands raised in disgust, Grandmom gets my mom. With her mom casting respiratory infections on me from over her shoulder, my mom’s tone is clipped and sharp. This is the voice of tension, of anxiety, of embarrassment. This is the voice Dad hates, and as such, it warns of the storm to come, should my brother or I fail to comply. Hearing Mom sound like this makes me cry more. “What’s the problem?” she asks, but my conscious mind can’t put a finger on it.
A cold cavity opens in the center of my chest. What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? Different. Full of dark feelings. Strange. Not really belonging.
Meanwhile, my cousins look on with eyes like full moons. Aunt Barbara’s house thrives on small scandals like this; I’ve become the night’s entertainment.
Once, while being babysat as a boy, I tried to squeeze myself between the basement and coat closet doors which — bizarrely — opened onto one another, making a narrow space I was warned was impassable but looked big enough for little me. With Grandmom downstairs ironing and my older cousin searching for her purse in the closet, I seized my opportunity, leaning into the divide between doors. Sure enough, my round and oversized head, cause for being called Charlie Brown by the bullies at school, got wedged between the two cheap pieces of wood, stuck.
My aunt’s entire clan gathered around — everyone except my younger cousin, who, now isolated from the pack by my body, wailed in the TV room behind me. In my memory I see them as if through a fish-eye lens, their worried faces oversized and distorted. My grandmother, back at her usual spot by the stove, predicted brain damage or — worse — permanent disfigurement; a malformed skull, hair loss, cauliflower ears. My Aunt and two older cousins, consummate catastrophizers, wept for me, and for my trapped younger cousin who now needed to pee, and even for the doors, which they worried might break or splinter and require replacing. My gruff uncle tried to squeeze me through slow, pulling my hair and raking my scalp in the process. “Jesus, no, not like that,” my grandfather barked. “You’ll take his ears off that way.”
My grandfather, Leo, was not much longer for this world, and though now a slope-shouldered pill popper instead of the blistering alcoholic of his younger years, he still tyrannized the family with a trenchant tongue from the kitchen table, where he spent his pajamaed days drinking cold coffee and watching a small black-and-white television set. “You want your ears, kid?” he asked, raspy voiced pitched low. “Do you?”
“Of course you do,” he said. Then, to my uncle, “Just give ’em a good push, like pulling off a bandaid. And stop all the damn crying! My Lord, you people are useless. The kid’s gonna be ok.”
One thing they all agreed on: it served me right. They told me not to run between those doors.
Just like then, when I won’t come out from behind the armchair, the entire family is drawn to me, all of them curious as to why I won’t stop crying. “What’s wrong, Brian?” one uncle asks me, the kindly one with palsy. The graceless gruff uncle looks down at me through the crack between the chair and the wall. He tells me to be a big boy and cut this shit out.
Finally my dad comes in, and I cringe. I worry he’s going to yell, but instead he moves the chair and approaches me in a crouch. “It’s time to go,” he says. I have to get up and stop crying. “What’s there to cry about?”
Everything. Nothing. I don’t know.
He offers his hand and helps me up. There’s a flurry of goodbyes but I don’t want to be touched. I’m sore and tender like a giant scrape. Every word has the potential to open me up again. My insides sit close to the surface. Everyone speaks around me, as if I’m not there. Maybe, my grandmom tells my mom, I’m getting sick. “You should take him to the doctor.”
In the car, it’s dark. From the front passenger seat, my mom sighs. She’s glad I came out from behind that chair; she was worried we’d be stuck there, at my aunt’s house, a place we visit often but which she hates. My dad says, “Yeah, that was weird.” My brother agrees.
I put my head to the cool window and stare as the lights go past, blurry and soft. Everywhere looks better than where I’m at.
And that’s all we say on the matter.
I hear the Wonder Twins in my head.
I’m an avid watcher of cartoons, Ducktales every day after school at 3, The Snorks and Gummi Bears each Saturday morning at 8 and 8:30. One of the UHF stations plays reruns of Hanna-Barbera shows from the ’70s and ’80s, like Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, Josie and the Pussycats, Jonny Quest (a smug rich boy whom I despised), and The All-New Super Friends Hour. The twins are part of the Super Friends — an unlikely part, as the eponymous friends are essentially the Justice League: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman; admirable adults with enviable powers. The twins are their childish sidekicks, tag-alongs who inevitably save the day. Even as a kid I recognize that’s pandering on the cartoonists’ part.
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And as such, I don’t like them. Nor do I like their ridiculous form-fitting purple bodysuits with Count Dracula style collars. Or how their black hair and pointy ears mimic those of Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Or how they touch fists and say “Wonder Twin powers activate!” while bright light spirals around them. Their powers are silly too. Jayna, the female, can change into the shape of an animal, which is cool, but Zan, the male, takes the form of water — an ice shard, or a cloud, or a wave — a ridiculous ability invoked at the whimsy of the writers. He might become a small puddle, perfectly placed for a bad guy to slip on, or a sky encompassing thunder storm. It makes no sense! Nor do their voices, which are high-pitched like those of little kids, though Zan sports the strapping chest of a weight lifter, while Jayna is all curves.
It’s been three, maybe four years since my parents told me that my mom became pregnant with me when she was young and unmarried, and that her current husband, the man I call Dad, is not my biological dad.
Worse, these sidekicks have their own sidekick, a blueberry colored monkey named Gleek whose toddler-like antics serve as comedic relief, though to my tween eyes the slapstick falls flat and only annoys, in part because the humor breaks the premise of the show. The Justice League are badass superheroes. Why would they take on these annoying apprentices? And why would Batman — The Dark Knight, for Christ’s sake! — tolerate a Smurf-colored jabbering monkey from outer space?
And yet, the Wonder Twins are not just tolerated, they’re taken under the Justice League’s wing, adopted into the family of heroes. Misfits who find a home.
I obsess over the Wonder Twins, thinking about them on their own in the Hall of Justice, bickering with one another. Bickering about me. Because one of them, the girl — woman? those curves confuse and compel — wants me to be bad, to misbehave, to yell and scream and run wild, to curse out my parents and leave home. The soggy handsome man-boy thinks that’s a terrible idea. He encourages me to be quiet, a good little guy, a rule follower. And then there’s that stupid fucking blue monkey. I don’t know what to do with him, or how to get him to stop laughing at me.
These arguments happen in my head at night, kicking sleep down the road a ways. Sometimes, I hear my parents watching the nightly news as I struggle to silence the Twins, more than an hour after flipping out my light. A few times the house goes still and dark, and I fear I might lie awake with the Twins fighting over me till morning.
These arguments also happen in my head at school, as I struggle to focus on mind-numbing lessons in religion, grammar, and math. And they happen on the bus as I stare out the window and pretend not to be visible, so the eighth graders don’t pick on me. They happen in the shower, and when I’m doodling, listening to bubblegum pop music in my room. They happen all the time.
Sometimes, these arguments aren’t just in my imagination, I swear they’re in my ears, that the Wonder Twins’ voices are as real as the one in my throat. Be a bad boy or a good kid. Scream and kick and bite or swallow it all down and say thank you. And always they’re accompanied by that mocking chimp’s laughter. I want to kill the stupid thing, to wrap my hands around its thin neck and squeeze till its eyes pop and it turns, well, more blue, I guess. Then I’d sink my foot into its corpse like one of those heavy rubber red balls we use for kickball, the ones that make such a satisfying thwack when they hit the asphalt.
Decades later, I’ll understand my imaginary relationship with the Wonder Twins as a kind of manic side-effect of panic, an extended anxiety attack turned to 11. My interior monologue with a talking jag, the words streaming out of control, a liter of Mountain Dew followed by half a pot of coffee and a pack of clove cigarettes. Mental soliloquies that take on a shape of their own, occupying space, palpable in my ears. Voices from the base of my spine, the seat of my monkey mind, twisted and bizarro.
I’ll come to see them as embodying the crack of trauma, the there-yet-not-there nature of shock. The estrangement I felt from myself, from what I knew to be true and knew now was not, incarnate. A pair, like me, in the nowhere zone between childhood and adulthood, neither here nor there. Equal parts desired and derided by my shattered ego. Envied even.
But that’s later, when distance allows me the space to symbolize and pathologize. As an adolescent, I only want them to shut the hell up.
When they don’t, I wonder: Am I going mad? Am I possessed by ghosts? Will I hurt people like the bad men I hear about on the local news my dad watches most nights, will that stop the Twins’ constant debating in my head? Because clearly being a good boy isn’t doing it. No, there must be something wrong in me, otherwise these voices would leave me alone. It’s like what happened with Luke Skywalker. No matter how much he knew anger was bad, the Dark Side called to him because he had darkness within him, from his father. And so the voices shame me as much as they scare me, because they’re proof something is rotten inside, at my core.
Finally, one Saturday afternoon, unable to read because the Twins won’t stop whispering in my ear, I tell my mom about them. She’s in her room, dusting, and she doesn’t understand. She thinks I’m joking. “What do you mean, you ‘hear’ them? Them, who? Is this some cartoon thing that’s cool now?”
She wants to help but you’re going to have to explain it better, Zan tells me.
She thinks you’re crazy, Jayna says. And you are.
“Stop being silly, Brian,” my mom says. “You’re not making sense.”
This makes me so fucking angry. At her. At the Twins. At myself.
I run into my room and leap onto my bed, beating my fist against the mattress in adolescent fury. I just want them to go away, I tell Mom. “I want to kill myself.”
I flip over and find her staring at me from the doorway, eyes glassy, the bags beneath them swollen with worry, lips pursed. Then she’s gone, and I cry. This confirms it then. I’m alone in this insanity.
Growing up, my parents tell me frequently that I’m like my grandfather, my mother’s father, Leo. I crowd my shelves with knick-knacks and tchotchkes — pewter fantasy figurines, stone gargoyles, Star Wars action figures — which I organize and straighten every week as I dust them. Sometimes my parents sneak in and move them around, just to see if I notice. When I do they laugh at me, because Leo liked everything kept just so, too. I enjoy big bowls of ice cream which I let melt into soup, like Leo. I take too long on the toilet, daydreaming, like Leo. They delight in pointing out how I take after him, in mocking me for it.
And so maybe, I think, as I weep on my bed, I’ll end up like Leo — an alcoholic who had to be checked into mental institutions for treatment, a man who terrorized his family and ruled over them like a crazed despot. Perhaps these voices are only the beginning of a deep dive into madness.
The next day my dad announces at breakfast that we’re going for a walk to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Dogs aren’t allowed and my little brother is going to stay home with my mom, so it’ll be only the two of us. We drive in silence, the radio playing classic rock. He still smokes at this point. Both of us have on grey and blue sweatsuits, which is the outfit he wears around the house and on the weekends, and so I do, too. As we pass the business and industrial parks on Route 363, I have a low feeling in my gut. He knows something’s wrong with me. Mom must’ve told him.
Sure enough, we’re only a few minutes into the woods when he asks me what the problem is. I pretend not to know. “Your mom says you threatened to kill yourself,” he says. “You okay?”
Asshole, Jayna says. Are you okay? Fuck does he think?
He’s trying to help, Zan says.
The truth I can’t utter — “Dad, I hear the Wonder Twins, not just in my head but in my actual ears, fighting with one another about whether I should be a good kid or a bad kid, and it’s scaring me because I can’t make them shut up” — weighs on my lungs. If I tell him, will he believe me? Will he have the power to stop them?
Tell him, Zan says. He loves you. He’s your dad.
No he’s not, Jayna says. Not really. Fuck him.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I say.
“You scared your mom,” he says. “You can’t say things like that to her. You shouldn’t say things like that at all. You’ll upset people.”
Told you so, Jayna says.
He tells me it’s hard growing up, but I have a good life. He and mom work really hard to make sure of that. It’s not like when they were kids. And you know, if kids in school are being mean, making fun of me, well, maybe I need to toughen up a bit. If I’m having a hard time I should tell someone, he concludes.
I don’t tell him that I did — I told mom, and she told him. Instead, I nod. “Okay.”
“You are okay, right?”
I never mention the Wonder Twins again.
In yellowing old photos of me as a preschool aged boy, I ride atop my dad’s shoulders at the Philadelphia Zoo, watching the giraffes with a bright smile on my face. I nap on our ratty brown couch, his big body blanketing my small one. I beam from my Pop-pop’s lap, my dad’s father, content and loved. A child at home in his identity and his family. Happy, at ease.
These photos appear to me as artifacts from another child’s life. That towheaded boy, with the unguarded grin, who knew himself to be true? My parents murdered him one night in my bedroom. Then they demanded I not just help hide his body but pretend to take his place. And because, as my dad put it, I’m a “good kid” — by which he means: a boy who wants to please, to conform, to not upset his mom and infuriate his dad or disappoint his teachers, a child scared of what might happen if he did — I silently did just what they asked of me. I replaced my personality with a persona. I stopped really being my parents’ son and instead started acting like him.
This role came with a cost. I paid in shame, anxiety, and hysteria, but these are not the only ways in which I paid.
Now, looking back, I see other emotions, the cold hard shadowy ones that lurked beneath my surface, out of reach from the sun. Rage. Depression. Confusion. An urge to destroy things, to hurt myself. Nihilism. I banished these feelings from my conscious thoughts, no matter how often they reared. I rarely allowed myself to experience them, speak of them, or even acknowledge their existence inside myself. Doing so would have violated the rules set for me by my parents and enforced by the conservative society in which we lived. The rules that demanded I be my father’s son, okay, fine, whole, lucky even, because I had it goddamn good compared to so many, certainly compared to my parents as children. And so I became alienated, estranged from others and, more profoundly, from myself.
I hear the Wonder Twins in my head…Decades later, I’ll understand my imaginary relationship with them to be as a kind of manic side-effect of panic, an extended anxiety attack turned to 11.
Even now, writing this, I’m struck by the cracks in these stories, the gaps in my memory. How they begin in medias res and end without resolution. How they seem a part of a longer story, and yet, perhaps I’m only connecting dots, drawing constellations in the dark. I will likely never know.
We shape and re-shape our reminisces as we age, the stories of where we come from changing to account for where we are, our vantage point determining what we see framed in the rearview mirror. But trauma follows no logic. Intense pain, whether physical or emotional, is raw and primitive, chaotic and messy, more animal than human. By its very nature trauma defies our rational mind’s attempts to organize it. And so we repress and erase, and find ourselves left not with a map of our childhood but a black sea full of icebergs, the majority of their cold bodies submerged, unseen.
In middle school, the only person I ever told about my secret paternity was my best friend, Adam. Late one night, at a sleepover, after playing Nintendo for hours on end, I reveal it to him in halting sentence fragments. We lay next to one another in the black, not touching or seeing one another, and I don’t think he said much other than “huh.” No questions. Nothing.
Today, I can’t blame him — in our repressed environment, we didn’t have much guidance in how to deal with things like this. Our emotions were foreign to us, most of all. But at the time I expect a reaction, either one that might soothe me or else confirm that my parents must be right to treat this fact like a badge of shame. Faced with his silence, I ball up the blankets in my fist. I feel so alone.
Later, after Ms. Appelgate’s brief lecture about the word bastard, Adam tells me that of all the curses in the English language, bastard is the one he wouldn’t use. “Really?” I ask, curious. We both have the mouths of drunken pirates. It’s hard to imagine any word being taboo, let alone one as innocuous as bastard. Could this have something to do with me?
“If we just let ourselves say whatever the hell we want, then our words lose power,” Adam says.
So maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. Or maybe it does? We’re goofing around on the sidewalk in front of my house in the way that adolescents do, doing nothing, talking about everything. He looks at me in a funny, knowing kind of way. Or at least, I think he does.
But that’s the thing, when you have a secret: everything gets viewed through its lens. Every message is a coded one, all saying we know about you, and it’s all true. Your father left you and ran away, he doesn’t love you because you’re not worthy of love. Your very existence is a blight, a sin. You caused pain and stress for your parents, and that’s why they don’t want to talk about it, about you and who you really are.
Is it any wonder that at times I felt things were very wrong with me? If we tell ourselves the same story — that we’re broken — and if that story is corroborated by those we look to for answers, then that ends up being our truth. A truth rooted in the body and manifested in voices, which whisper something is wrong, even as our conscious mind says, no it’s not, you’re okay.
But the body knows. You’re not okay. You’re not okay.
You are not okay.
A boy shattered never loses his cracks. Those breaks become part of who he is. And so he grows up an outlier. A stranger. An alien, even to himself. Becoming “okay” isn’t about healing so much as it is about recognizing you will never be whole and accepting yourself scars and all. But even then, sometimes “okay” is hard to find.
* * *
Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood(Penguin, 2014). His fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous publications.
Editor: Sari Botton