Those of you that have lived through one know that a divorce doesn’t just happen between two people when theirs is a family involved.
It happened to us when I was eleven. My mom told me years later that from the moment she asked for a divorce until the day we moved out was around three months. Three months under the same roof with a man that knew I'd chosen to live with my mom.
My father was many things during his life. Before he died he was my friend. He grew emotionally and even spiritually more than most people do once they pass forty. The change wasn't easy for him, but he worked at it and for that I'm very proud of him.
But this is not a story of the man that I grew to respect and love, this is a story of a man that hadn't yet reached rock bottom. He was not a good father or a good husband, a fact that was a surprise to him. After all, he fulfilled his duties, provided for his family and was faithful, and in his book, those were all the bases. Unfortunately for him, he lived in the later part of the 20th century and not the later part of the 19th.
I spent my childhood working hard to become invisible. I got very good at it. Children were meant to be seen, not heard and not often seen. Even before the divorce was a tangible reality, our family was unhappy. Dinnertime was the hardest for me, because I couldn't remain invisible. Nothing I did was right and I was a common target. Starting at age eight, I would imagine building walls of brick in the pattern of Tic-Tac-Toe game so that no one could see in front of them or even to the sides. I would visualize the wall being built, brick by brick and then will it into existence. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
My father called me boy, never Scott, not until I was eighteen and back for a visit from the Army. If he started a sentence with "Boy", it was never good. It meant I was visible and that I'd done something wrong. There were so many rules to remember. I ran through them, adding to the list as new ones were created, usually after I'd done something wrong that he hadn't anticipated. Invisible was better and my room was a refuge. I was out of site and therefore out of mind, and I would spend most evenings playing or daydreaming. I wanted to lie on my bed, but it was against the rules before bedtime and I feared being caught. I used to love when my mom read me stories, but that was for little kids, not ten year olds. As much as I loved the stories, it was better not to get them than to be the subject of another fight.
I blocked out most of those three months from notification to moving day. In my memory, it was a long week. Only within the last few years, did some of the memories from that time surface. They rose like abandoned ocean mines, broken loose from their moorings without care for where they floated or what damage they caused. Some came while my father was in the hospital and some came after he died, as if his death freed me to remember. There were fewer than I feared, because while the atmosphere was more tense than usual, one day was painful in the same way as the day before and the day after. We all fell into our routine of agony, with few deviations.
One such deviation came at the dinner table. For once I was completely invisible, but I wanted nothing more that to be seen, anything to divert his attention from my mother. The fight had been building for hours. I wished it away. I prayed and wished and devised Faustian bargains in my mind to stop the rage that boiled over in my father. I'd seen them yell and scream and in some ways the worst of all was the silent, cold rage, but that night was different. I didn't hear or perhaps I didn’t want to hear what was said, but they were cruel, hateful words. Words you can't take back but can only apologize for, a thing my father never did.
The fight moved from the table to the kitchen, only three feet away in our doublewide trailer. My mom was backed into the corner and my dad was working himself up into frenzy. I'd been in that corner at school, watching a bully getting ready. They always seem to need something. Some trigger in their mind that justified the physical attack. My mom could see it coming too. I saw fear in her eyes that betrayed the rage on her face. I was sitting in my chair, afraid to move.
"Do it! Hit me, I know you want to!"
He raised his fist and I was out of my chair, a steak knife in my hand. He would not hurt her. I swore it. I couldn’t act without a trigger any more than he could, but my trigger was his fist. If he struck her, I swore to god I would shove that knife handle deep into his kidney. I was still invisible and I knew I could do it. Nothing existed but my mother's tears, my father's fist and the knife in my hand. I pictured the blade entering his lower back just above the belt and remembered from a story I’d read that I had to twist the blade to get it back out. God help me, but I wanted him to do it. I wanted to end the screaming and the tears and I wanted to stop being afraid all the time.
Something in her posture made him hesitate. The trigger he was waiting for didn’t come from her face or lips. He stormed out of the room and as soon as he was gone, my mother's will collapsed into more tears as she sagged to the floor. Still invisible, I put the knife back on the table and went to my room, unable to comfort her because I didn't think she could handle knowing I'd seen them and afraid she would know what I was so ready to do. I was eleven again, alone and afraid.
Time passed with my father sleeping on the couch and me going to school. I played with my best friends and tried to do anything but think. I remember the day he left. It was actually the day we left, but he had to go to work and we would be gone by the time he got back. My sister and I were at the front door. The sun was not up yet but I could see him on the front steps in the false dawn. He was sad. I'd never seen him sad and it looked strange on his face.
"I love you kids you know."
Then he gave us a hug and walked away. The first time the word love had escaped his mouth and it was divided by two and followed up with his departure. I couldn't watch him leave. I went back inside and waited to go to school among a maze of cardboard boxes. We were going to be late, though I can’t remember why. I’d missed half a day and my mom wasn't sure if lunch would still be served. Most things were packed away and all that was left was bread, butter and honey.
She gave me the toasted treat on a paper towel, honey soaking into the fibers. My throat was tight and the bread went down hard. I couldn’t taste the honey. I used to the towel to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The smell of butter was faint. She dropped me off at Horace May Elementary and I walked through the empty halls to the cafeteria.
"Your mom called, so I saved a tray for you. Would you like some chocolate milk?"
I nodded and took the tray with a quiet thank you. I’d never seen the place empty before. I ate the fish sticks on automatic pilot, dropped off my tray and went to class. All of the other 6th graders turned to watch me enter and I was sure they knew. Not just about the divorce or moving to a trailer park, but all of it. I'd never felt so visible. I took my seat and the teacher began to speak again. One by one the eyes returned to the front. I opened my book and turned the pages. They stuck to the honey left on my fingers, but the thought of licking them clean repulsed me.