It was raining while they lowered my father’s casket in the ground, next to his father’s grave in small-town West Texas. The mud splashing onto my funeral shoes seemed an appropriate piece of punctuation to the afternoon. I suppose some were crying. His first cousins stood by, stoic. At this remove of thirty-five years, I don’t remember what was said or officiated about. What I remember is that I chose to stand on the side of the grave with my “stepmother” (they had married three months before) and, oddly, across the grave from my mother who had always been the most important person in my life and who, despite a long estrangement from my biological father, had showed up at this funeral to see if she could be any comfort to me.
In my childhood world filled with visits to my abuser father, attaching to—even loving—my father’s girlfriends represented a path to safety. Imagine a maniac is in charge of your life, even if only on alternate weekends. Whether you eat is in his hands. How long you stand in the corner facing the wall as “punishment” is in his hands. Violent sexual abuse happened: not in the kitchen or living room but behind closed doors, events so distressing that my conscious brain wouldn’t let me know about them, via flashbacks, much later. I didn’t “know” those things; still, they became my instruction manual for life.
In the eleven years between leaving his marriage to my mother and dying young, my father was rarely single. The girlfriends he chose in his mania and depression were only a hair more functional than he was, but that margin of difference mattered to me. Take Mary K. who, in the tail end of a fight with my dad, poured a bottle of beer on my head. It wasn’t accidental. My mom asked me that when I returned home Sunday night, and I was sure; she had turned her wrist sideways and doused my toe-headed hair while I spluttered under the smell. Even as a beer-pourer, she was more of an ally to me than my dad was and I valued her.
One of his longest-lasting passions was a tumultuous relationship with Mary D. These were the dark years when he lived in a long-term motel in inauspicious Plainview, Texas. Summers, I slept on the green velour couch in his living-dining area. He abused both me and Mary D., but she was old enough to leave if she wanted to. One of the sole decorations in this apartment was a framed blouse, red satin, that he said Mary had ripped off in a fit of rage at him. He set it on a background of black velvet and, ever the emo artist with an unused law degree from Yale, hung it on the wall in his eat-in-kitchen.
Mary had divorced her husband after one black eye too many. She was raising her two daughters on her own in a squat, brick house near the edge of town. I carried the younger one around on my hip. When she and my father emerged from their rage-sex sessions in Mary’s bedroom, it was her eye I tried to catch. I thought I could read, in her quick glance, a barometer of his mood and what the rest of us—but especially me—could expect for the evening. Had he been fed, or would he come for me? Years later, I had a flashback clear as a film: inside my dark bedroom in Mary’s house, I’m marshalling all my strength to move the dresser so that it blocks the door and keeps him out, me safe until morning.
One fall, when Mary’s daughters were with their dad for Thanksgiving, I traveled to Iowa and met Mary and my dad in Cedar Rapids, her uncle’s town. When I exited the plane, I hugged her first. After dinner, someone showed me up the stairs to a child’s room, someone no doubt grown and raising his own family. I liked the navy bedspread, the grey shag carpet, and the optimistic sports pennants on the wall. I liked the dormer window that framed the twin bed where I would sleep.
Across the hall, an argument was brewing in my father and Mary’s room. Whispers grew to shouts. Outside my window, a tree limb taller than the house bent toward me. Soon, Mary stood in a crack of light in the door to my room and motioned to me to come with her. She led me out the front door and across the street to a playground, lit by a single streetlight.
I imagine that Mary wished to shield me from the contents of the fight or her feelings about it, but she couldn’t manage. She was too upset, and she had fallen for my I’m-an-adult act. She cried as we let the swings loll in figure eights. The streetlight cast our crazy shadows, impossibly tall and thin, meeting at our collarbones although the swings were two feet apart. “He says I’m a stone! Just because I don’t want to have sex with him tonight!” Did eleven-year-old me say, There there? Mary felt much better. Except for my love for her, I felt numb.
My father heard us coming up the stairs. He cracked the door of his room and reached out into the hallway. Mary deftly ducked into my room. I believe he was just as satisfied to connect with my thin wrist. This way, he could sate himself and also punish Mary. Perhaps she made herself believe that he and I would be having a chaste sleepover in that room. In any case, I was already numb and preparing to exit my body. I remember the rest of what happened that night from the vantage point of the top of the door frame. The next day, I was back to my efforts to be the sunniest person in the room at a dour Thanksgiving with strangers, and to cement Mary’s love and protection.
People who are kidnapped or held hostage will identify with their abusers and with the other captives held beside them. They will display the ultimate compliance in an unconscious bid to save their own lives. In my normal life with my mom, I knew how adults were meant to act. I knew dinner wasn’t cat food and punishments weren’t capricious. Here, the rules were upside down. In the face of danger and harm, I sought an ally where I could. Befriending his girlfriends, I could have some insulation when I was taken to a bar in the morning to watch the adults swim in pitchers of bloody Mary. Her arm around me made a difference. Later, a trip to the store to get feminine products beat trying to ride my whole period out on folded toilet paper. Maybe she would see that I got a dinner. These women were young and ragged and harmed, escaping abuse themselves and landing squarely back in it when they took up with my father. Their love for me was surprising, scrappy, and gorgeous.
By some measures, I was on the wrong side of the grave that day. In choosing to lean on my stepmother, I was looking in the wrong place for sense or comfort, things my mother could have actually provided. My dead father’s wife and I stood in the cold rain, extolling his many—we said—praiseworthy attributes. Wasn’t he this? Wasn’t he that? We will never be the same. On that day, and for many years after, my brain would not allow me to know the truth. This graveside was still my father’s world, and his rules reigned there. In that world, I was looking to this troubled semi-stranger to keep me alive for another day. On a day far in the future, I would glimpse the extent of the poisoned liaisons he built. Even then, I loved his girlfriends and the promise they had offered, and I closed my eyes from time to time to feel their touch again, wrapping foam curlers into my hair before bed, taming my hair within our shared world that could not be tamed.
Cameron Gearen’s full-length collection of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out in 2016 from Shearsman Press. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Dame Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives outside of Chicago.