My father ran his home like a kingdom, and he sat on the throne. There were rules for everything — what to wear, what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat, what to say, act and feel. Between-meal snacking was prohibited and food was counted in my parents' house. If one of my five siblings or I got too hungry and ventured into the pantry for a slice of bread or a cookie, punishment was inevitable.
My dad would organize "truth tables" to find the culprit. We’d sit around the dining room table while our dad asked us, one at a time, if we had taken the slice of bread from the box on top of the dishwasher, or the cookie from the pantry, or the apple from the refrigerator. We even had truth tables over who had used the last of the roll of toilet paper, signifying our use of more than the two allotted squares per sitting.
"Ivan, was it you?" my dad asked, making eye contact with his oldest son.
"No," he said, squirming anyway.
"Alysa, was it you?"
"Nathan, was it you?"
And on and on, until the culprit buckled under growing guilt and confessed. It took us more than a decade to realize that if we all confessed to the crime in question, none of us would have to bear the entire punishment.
My dad also kept track of mileage on the van. He took a passenger car to work every day, leaving the eight-person van home, with specific instructions that my mom drive it only in an emergency. If she had to go grocery shopping, she called my dad at work to ask his permission. If she had to take one of us to the doctor's office, she called my dad to tell him where we were going. Sometimes, if we begged long enough, she gave in and drove one of us to a friend's house or to the mall, and occasionally even to Ginger's Dairy for an ice cream cone. But we all learned quickly that taking the van without permission wasn't worth the penalty.
Upon returning home every evening, my dad analyzed the position of the van's tires in the garage. If he determined that they were an inch forward or backward from the position they were in when he left, he confronted my mother: "Did the van go out today?" Whenever he asked that question, we tried not to exist.
My mom would say quietly, "I went to the store." This conversation usually took place while she was preparing dinner, but she’d stop her chopping or sorting or cleaning.
My dad's voice would rise in anger. "Out gallivanting around, running back and forth! I work all day, and you and these lazy kids sit around and take, take, take. You're all a bunch of moochers."
It only took a few minutes for my mom to start crying. I think she cried partly because her children were watching her public flogging and partly because my dad left the room when she cried.
Everything in my dad's house belonged to my dad. I learned never to say I was going to "my room." My dad would always correct me: "It's my room. I'm letting you use it."
Borrowing a bedroom from my dad came with certain responsibilities. One such responsibility was to never shut the door. He needed to be able to see what I was doing in that room at all times. One time I challenged that rule so I could write in private. But then my dad wanted to know what I was writing in my journal. I felt my very person was being intruded upon.
"Stuff," I told him, shutting the book before he could see any of the words.
He made a grab for my journal, but I put it behind me and yelled for my mom. As he tried to reach around me for it, my dad muttered, "Ungrateful, immature brat!"
"Get out of my room!" I yelled at my dad, pushing him toward the door.
"Your room?" he spat. "I'll show you how much this is your room." He went to the furnace room for a tool box. When he came back, he removed the hinges on my bedroom door. "Let's see if you appreciate your privacy now."
My heart often ached from stifled feelings. In my father’s house, emotions were unacceptable at best and sinful at worst. I wasn't allowed to express anger, sadness or disappointment, and I wasn't even allowed to be too happy. Happiness was light-mindedness, my dad always said. So I learned to display only half an octave of emotions, nothing too high or too low. Any breach of the norm was penalized.
My dad's leverage for punishment came from his ability to remove us from his house whenever he wanted to. If we ever talked back, he’d ask, "Do you want to go sleep outside?"
We’d hang my heads. "No."
"Then you'd better find your attitude adjuster.”
I never knew where my attitude adjuster was, or how to adjust the silly thing, but I knew exactly what my dad needed. He needed to be right about everything, no questions asked. The sooner I bowed my head and squelched whatever emotion I was feeling, the better.
Dr. Adams' cult also worked like a kingdom. I glided easily from the tyranny of my father to the confines of the cult, readily forfeiting my will to Joel and Dr. Adams. I didn't realize the two kingdoms were at war until I was on the battlefield. The panic attacks every night reminded me that I was only fighting myself.
I broke off the engagement in January after wearing the ring for a month. I hoped my pain would subside if I gave the metal band back. To Joel, with his $400 ring around my finger, I belonged to him. When I told him I wanted to slow things down, he demanded I give it back.
"I just need some time to think about things," I told Joel as I handed the ring to him. We were hovering near the dying Christmas tree in the first sub-basement of his parents' house.
He asked with a sneer in his voice, "Are you saying you don't love me?"
I sat down on the ragged carpet and he seemed larger than life standing above me. The overhead light cast a halo around his head. "No, I'm not saying that," I started. "I'm just . . . confused."
"You're not going to find anyone better than me.”
When I didn't answer Joel, he sat down beside me and reached out for my hand. I moved away. "I'm just not sure," I started again. "We hardly know each other and we got engaged so fast. I think we should just date for a while and see if we really want to do this. I mean, there are things about you and your life . . . I just don't know if I'm ready to live with that forever."
I was feeling brave so I continued. "Like your debt . . ." I trailed off. Joel was buried under more than $30,000 in credit card debt with nothing to show for it. Dr. Adams' debt was more than triple that.
Joel demanded, "And what else?"
"Well, I kind of always thought I’d marry someone with an education. I think if you went to school you’d find lots of other options and you wouldn't have to rely on your parents."
"You said you supported lymphnogenesis." Joel's tone was accusing.
I appeased him quickly. "I do support it. I just want to make sure that we can be financially secure."
As I spoke, I imagined that the pain plaguing me every waking hour would disappear as soon as Joel registered for classes at the local community college. He’d glimpse a whole world awaiting him and he’d leave the cult, taking me with him.
But Joel’s tone hardened. "I wasn't sure either. I never wanted to marry a brunette or a woman with physical flaws."
I sat upright against the wall. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't like your nose," Joel started. "And I don't like the moles on your arms and face. And I really don't like your hands. They're too big for a girl."
I slid my hands underneath my thighs. "What else?"
"What about my weight?" I was 5-feet-10-inches and only 130 pounds.
"Well," Joel said. "Look at Kristi. She's at least 20 pounds lighter than you." That was true. Kristi ate even less than I did, sometimes existing only on lettuce leaves.
"I'm losing weight," I countered. That was true, too. Since the beginning of the year my appetite was non-existent. I’d been losing a couple of pounds a week. My ribs poked out from under my skin, and my cheeks were pale and taut.
"And your breasts . . . Well, there's not really enough to grab onto, if you know what I mean."
I crossed my arms around my chest and began to cry. Suddenly exhausted, I leaned over and rested my head on the floor.
Joel’s voice shifted. "When I look at you and really see you, I think, Forget this. Beautiful women line up to go out with me. Why would I choose you?"
I didn't have an answer.
Joel continued, his voice gone gentle. "But I love you in spite of your flaws. It's like, when you let yourself be mine, I can see past your physical imperfections. I think I can see your spirit."
"You can?" I looked at Joel through teary eyes, but I could barely make eye contact. I didn't want him to see my face or notice the mole on my left cheek again. I could no longer imagine anyone loving a hideous monster like myself.
Joel said, "Just put the ring back on and we'll forget this whole thing.” The size 6, dull gold ring was comforting as I slipped it back onto my finger.
Later that night I faced myself in the mirror. The dark brown mole, about the circumference of a pencil eraser, protruded gently from my left cheek. As I scrutinized my reflection, I found a similar smaller mark on my right cheek, wondering why I'd never noticed it before. A third little mole nestled against my hairline above my ear, and yet a fourth one glared at me from my left eyelid. I stretched out my arms and saw hundreds of the colored marks there. Despair settled over me like a snowdrift.
Joel was right. I was lucky to have him, lucky he was willing to look past my disfigurements and love what was underneath. But as I stared at my mole-covered reflection, I suddenly couldn't remember if there was anything underneath.
I picked up a pair of toenail clippers and positioned them over the mole on my left cheek. The jaws of the clippers encased the mole like they were designed for it. I pushed gently on the levers and a current of pain darted across my cheek. I pushed harder and a crease appeared around the mole. I pushed the levers completely together, and with a soft crunch the mole came off between the blades. A gaping hole quickly filled up with thick blood that seeped down my cheek, branding me in blood-red ink. I triumphed at the sight of my mole-free cheek even as blood continued to ooze from the wound. But then I remembered the hundreds of other moles on my arms.
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