Growing up I was uncommonly familiar with the floorboards in my house. On your tiptoes you could take a path from the kitchen up to the second floor without making a sound. You did not want to trip up and sink your foot into a creaking board or let anyone else know you were out of your room. There was a certain way to turn the door handles so that they wouldn’t squeak, and a way to ease the doors into their frame. That’s what you did, if you knew what was good for you.
The official reason was that my two younger half-sisters went to bed early and were light sleepers. It’s what I told friends whenever they came over. Just don’t wanna wake up the girls. The unofficial and painfully obvious reason was that our home was broken. It buzzed with a dull menace that raised the hairs on your neck whenever you had to slip out of your room.
My stepfather was what a friend of mine called “a true brute.” He was 6’4, a former pro-athlete with a combination of rage and impotence usually possessed by low-level mob guys or alcoholic game show hosts. Most nights he came home on the later side and stayed up eating Lucky Charms in front of the cold blue glow of the TV. I was also a night owl who liked cereal, but that’s where our connection ended.
Still torqued from his day at work on Wall Street, his real passion was speechifying. He loved a captive audience, and if he heard you were awake, he’d found one. The problem with these talks is they would inevitably turn to fights, and before long you were taking a beating. That was a fact of life, so like anyone, I adapted–hence the stealth strategies.
But adaptation is a slow process. One night, when I was thirteen, I embarked on my own cereal run in the kitchen–only to realize he was in the living room nearby. Hearing him put down his spoon, I turned and bolted up the stairs. I closed my door but it had no lock. As usual, I could hear his footsteps. This time I decided my best defense was to throw myself into an essay for school. The door handle creaked and moments later he sat across from me on my bed.
He wanted to talk family, his favorite subject. For him, the drama between my aunts, uncles, and most of all him and my mother, was an epic struggle, and he loved providing the oral history. He was a narcissist, later diagnosed with everything from borderline personality to bipolar disorder to psychopathy. So despite the fact that he was usually the cause of any given standoff, he saw himself as a Superman patriarch–even watching the original Christopher Reeve film obsessively–and apparently needed to project this idea to everybody at all times.
After a while I played my homework card.
“I’m working on this essay,” I said. His eyebrows shot up.
“Well I’m trying to talk to you here,” he said through gritted teeth. A couple minutes and I tried again.
“I really need to do this,” I said.
Next second I was on my ass, head ringing, then up against the wall. Watching him pull back his hand, I made a mental note never to fuck with the cereal while he was so close by.
When I was a kid I never knew anyone else going through the same thing. Later in life I’d meet a few of them. People who wanted to be invisible, whose homes were not homes. Most end up with a thick skin, though some remain as timid as they were when they were children. Others become monsters in their own right. I’d like to think that didn’t happen to me.
Halfway through high school I became rebellious and adopted the requisite Fuck You posture toward him and pretty much life in general. It didn’t change anything, and in fact, made things far worse. That deadening buzz in our house hummed on every night; but at least I felt like I was choosing the time and place of my ass kicking. That’s really the best you can hope for.
I still tread softly in my own apartment, still ease my door shut. I’m sure I’ll still be doing it in twenty years. Beyond that kind of physical tick, when you grow up with abuse you grow up prepared for the worst–which isn’t such a horrible thing considering the worst is usually what happens. The trick is managing all that dread so that, from a distance, it almost looks like strength.