The Foolish Pleasure of Strangers
The first thing I remember from my mother's second marriage is the lights in my eyes. We were traveling through the dark cornfields of Kansas in her blue Malibu with my new Daddy Jim at the wheel. We had left behind Oklahoma, where I had so far lived my seven years. A giant truck rolled along ahead of us somewhere in the night, piled with brown boxes and our vacuum cleaner and card table, an orange sticker on every item identifying it as ours. My mother had a clipboard and list confirming safe arrival. Daddy Jim had found us a place to live in Denver and even knew the name of my new school: Edison. Edison invented the light bulb, I told him.
And, Daddy Jim added brightly, also the record player.
It was fall, when nights spin dark and empty. We had been traveling for hours, and though my mother said we shouldn't drive through the night, we were doing it because Daddy Jim said it was okay.
I woke suddenly to a flash. A pulsing red light chased shadows across the ceiling of the car. Weight shifted as Daddy Jim pulled over to the side of the highway. I popped up to see what was going on.
Stay put. Just be quiet, my mother said softly.
Daddy Jim turned off the car and as he leaned over to her side and opened the glove box, she asked him what was wrong.
I don't know, Sher.
He called my mother "Sher" like share. It gave their love an authenticity that I was growing to believe in.
A state trooper approached the window wearing a cowboy hat and carrying his notebook, and Daddy Jim asked for his jacket in the back seat. I gathered up the unfamiliar bundle and pushed it over to him. When the car door opened a cold arm of wind reached in. I pulled my coat around me and my mother huddled under hers like a blanket. They walked back to the trooper's car where I could see them talking, clouds puffing from their mouths.I leaned against the armrest with my cheek against the cold glass while my mother sat straight ahead staring into the night we had yet to drive. When I released a sigh, she said, "Tomorrow night you'll be sleeping in your new room. Won't that be nice?" I nodded and watched the red light of the patrol car flash on her face.
But when Daddy Jim returned, my mother dove in, "For Christ's sake, Jim! Couldn't you have left the car on? It's cold as hell in here!"
He started the engine and turned up the blower. As he looked over his shoulder and pulled the car back onto the highway he explained, "It was just a headlight. He just wanted to let us know one of our lights was out, that's all. We'll get it fixed in the morning."
Denver: We lived in a yellow brick house with two doors. Only one of them was ours. We had bare wood floors and windows that looked out on blank trees. Downstairs, in the basement, was my room, spacious with dark pink shelves for my books and toys. I had my very own TV, our old black-and-white portable, on which to watch Davey & Goliath's adventures in clay on Sunday mornings. And a cat with a black spot on her nose lived with us. Daddy Jim gave me a book of all the breeds of dogs. It had been his when he was a boy. I pondered the many sizes and hair lengths and finally chose my favorite: a wire-haired terrier. But we couldn't actually get a dog because it was against the rules.
I wore pants under my dresses against the cold and walked the few blocks to my school, an old-fashioned building with two stories. I was assigned a hook in the cloakroom where everyone left their wet boots and jackets. At recess I learned all the variations of hop-scotch and jacks and saw for the first time the word "fuck," painted on the side of a trash dumpster. One day we made pictures of the ocean out of dyed macaroni and shell noodles. We were studying the creatures that lived beneath the sea. When I brought mine home, my mother loved it so much she hung it in a corner of the living room.
At night I lay in my cavernous room with the trunks of the bushes growing thick against the windows that hung just below the ceiling. In the next room was the furnace with its voracious mouth licking flames. And above, my mother and Daddy Jim paced out the boundaries of their marriage. The floors creaked. Their voices moved to the back of the house, their bedroom, and then stillness fell upon the trees with the snow.
Denver was a place where Christmas could depend on itself. A ripe tree festooned with all our old decorations grew up in one corner of the living room and the snow gathered like a skirt around our house. On Christmas Eve we unwrapped presents, which we had never done before, and I received a lifelike dog made of rabbit fur.
But my mother hated the snow, taking it personally when it changed everything during the night.
"Goddamn this weather! I'll never be warm again!" she muttered, hugging herself in her velour robe.
The snow was the first clue that Daddy Jim would fail her. She couldn't forgive him for Denver. It didn't matter that each morning, before breakfast, he put on his leather gloves lined with sheepskin and his lumberjack coat and dashed outside to warm up her car. It ran, immobilized in our driveway, puffing clouds of bitter fog, until we were ready to go.
While the car defrosted, Daddy Jim and I would eat breakfast together while my mother did her hair and put on her make-up. I ate oatmeal or toast depending on how much time we had, but he always had rice. It was a strange habit of his. He usually boiled his rice on Sunday night and reheated some each day, adding milk and brown sugar. I asked him why he ate rice for breakfast. He said because he liked it. I thought it had a boring taste, and my mother also didn't approve -- she said only poor people ate rice for breakfast.
Then, Daddy Jim mocked, "I am poor."
At the time, our dishes were those she'd brought from Japan from when she was married to my father, an officer in the Air Force. As Daddy Jim ate his soupy rice and I ate my oatmeal, Mount Fuji was revealed in the bottom. While my mother prepared herself for her day, Daddy Jim and I excavated our breakfasts, bound together in overlapping fantasies of the simplicity of poverty and the peacefulness of the Orient.
When the weather finally thawed, I began to ride my new bike. I had never learned to ride before. My mother always said we couldn't afford it, but Daddy Jim found a bike with a basket on the handlebars at a garage sale, and I helped him paint it blue. My mother said when she was a kid she fell off her bike and broke her collarbone and never rode again.
Don't worry, Daddy Jim said to me. It's easy as walking.
I rolled up and down the sidewalk, teetering like an aerial artist on the training wheels. My mother stood in the front yard to watch, and when I got to the end of the street, Daddy Jim would come turn me around, giving me a running push back toward home.
Once, we went driving into the mountains which grew up in the distance around us. My mother covered her eyes when her side of the car had a view of the gaping, awesome valley. Daddy Jim pointed out the peaks and told us their names. He explained how they had to dynamite the mountain to widen the pass. My mother kept reminding him to keep his eyes on the road and slow down, but even she fell silent when we rounded the mountainside and saw in the distance a range cloaked in smoky clouds. At the lookout point there was still snow on the ground and it was windy. Daddy Jim hugged my mother to keep her warm, and I jumped up and down.
On the way back she kept saying, "I never thought it could be so beautiful."
"Wait 'til summer when the flowers come out," Daddy Jim said.
But we never went back to see the wildflowers.
Most things we did only once in Denver: One Valentine's Day at school -- the tall windows lined with white bakery bags pasted with red construction paper hearts, fat or anemic -- One session of crocheting red and blue pot holders in our living room with the other Bluebirds and my mother, our impatient Leader -- One perfect morning of waffles twinkling with real maple syrup. Only once I fell down the stairs and -- with the breath knocked from my body -- floated above the long flight of steps waiting for my mother to come running to hold me in her arms.
It was the raging furnace that finally enveloped everything. Snoopy disappeared. Wesearched for her all over the house, in the top and bottom of the closets, and then we went downstairs. In the basement everything extra we owned lived in boxes and suitcases stacked deep into the darkness. I knew where she was. I had myself been fascinated by the flames of the bright furnace. I took my mother's hand and showed her.
"No, no," she said, and dried my eyes.
I know now cats do not jump into fire. Their curiosity about what makes things move has some bounds. But I was sure if we extinguished the blaze, while the cold crept in through the walls, we would find among the ashes her small black bones still connected in the shape of a cat. When Daddy Jim opened a can of cat food in the dim basement storage room, Snoopy leapt out onto the cement floor and sat down to lick the dust from her back.
At night while I was supposed to be sleeping, the dance of my mother and her second husband across the floor became the movement of troops advancing and retreating in battle. The bodies became innumerable and no one came to rescue them from further indignity. The endless cascade of my mother's voice, the gasp of a slamming door, the flight of some fragile object across a room we lived in: These were their weapons. Sometimes I would lie awake and recall the film we'd seen at school about the ocean. Dipping beneath the surface, I'd swim into the blueness, following a school of yellow, flashing fish. I didn't have to worry about breathing because I was one of them, unnoticeable and bright, surrounded by friends. We traveled deep into the sea, past whales and sharks and giant clams, until we found a cave big enough for us all, and then we slept.
In the morning, when I mounted the stairs to get my orange juice, I was surprised to find the clean lines of the living room exactly as I'd left them at bedtime. And all the day I could believe that the battle was in my head, in the bushes above my room fighting each other for light and space to unfurl their leaves.
One night when they were arguing I woke thirsty. I pushed back the covers and slid out of bed. When I passed the storage room the orange light of the furnace was pulsing. I tiptoed up to the top of the dark stairs and into the kitchen. Everything there was clean. The chrome handles of the cabinets shone in the gray moonlight. Though they were close by in the living room they didn't notice me. I watched them from behind the table in the dark kitchen. Daddy Jim stood with his back to me, wearing a white T-shirt and work pants. My mother was out of view, but I could hear her.
"You immature, lazy, irresponsible liar! I don't know why I ever thought I loved you! You wouldn't know how to be a husband if your life depended on it!"
Daddy Jim stood slightly bent, still and silent.
My mother's voice rose again, feeding upon itself and the white walls like flames. She licked at the furniture legs and the round light fixture in the center of the ceiling. When she finally fell silent except for her sobs, Daddy Jim moved. I had forgotten that he was flexible and not solid. I had forgotten that a deep voice lived within his chest and the power to lift me onto my bike hid in his arms. He raised his fist and it came down against the wall, against the picture I'd made of seashells and dyed macaroni. Now there was Daddy Jim's blood red as paint messing my orange octopus and yellow fish. My mother slammed the door to the bedroom and left my stepfather holding his own wounded hand. I slipped back into the kitchen and down the cold stairs, past the orange fire, and into my bed.
In the dark pink box of my half-underground room, my hope for our new life had rooted itself. But by leaving its safety, I had become part of the world they created each night. It made me think me of the sleigh ride back home at Bell's amusement park. The last time I went there before we moved, I rode the necklace of cars spinning around a mural of polar bears, glaciers, and reindeer while songs from K-MOD blared over our screams. In the middle of the ride, when everyone else was lost in the beauty of their terror, I wanted to get off. I didn't panic. I didn't say a thing. It was then I understood that when you lift your arms for the bar to snap down across your lap you are committing yourself, sacrificing your own idea of safety for the brave, foolish pleasure of strangers.
The next Christmas we celebrated in our new one-bedroom apartment in Oklahoma where it did not snow. The flat, quiet land cradled us and the gifts we gave and received were easily forgotten.
Robin Bradford is a fiction writer and mother living in Austin.