The Only Way Out Is Through, But Sometimes It Isn’t: Part One.
My mother’s second husband was a choice I didn’t make.
“He asked me to marry him.”
“Did you say you’ll think about it?”
“I said yes.”
“Congratulations, Mom,” says my sister from the bed across from mine. My mother goes to hug her. Removing herself from my silence.
I’ll run away if you marry him, I say. I think I say.
My mom’s hugging my sister and they’re laughing and smiling.
This is a bad day, I decide, plotting my escape.
I’m almost double-digit 10 by the time they get married. They’d dated for a year. Over 10 percent of my life I’d dreaded that day. By 14, I had a countdown list of the months left before I’d finish school and would be able to leave home. I dreamed of making my own home, somewhere else, far far away.
From the moment I opened the door to that man for their first date, I didn’t like him. I recoiled at the sight of him. He loomed over me, huge-nosed and bespectacled face. His voice boomed, as if he contained a joke I couldn’t comprehend. What was so funny? The sense of foreboding soon manifested in his moods. “Quiet, he’s having one of his moods.”
Anything not to disturb the peace. We tiptoed around his volcano on eggshells. Don’t crack. Keep it together. His silence cut sharp through his joking repertoire on repeat.
“Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you — party pooper,” he’d sing, pointing at me.
Girls he called Gladys, boys George.
“Dog’s called ‘ask him’, my friend’s boat is ‘who cares?” I laughed on cue.
“Do it for me,” my mom would mutter. I did.
The drunken singing and just joking were better that than the fog of suffocating silence. The calm before the storm. Waiting, waiting for it to break.
Who will come out of the bedroom, back from work, today? Funny guy or monster man? Would he run with or kick the dog? Would I hand him his breakfast incorrectly, not pass the potatoes fast enough? Is it the sound of my footsteps? What would I have done to have really done it this time?
My 13-year-old star rose while his inherited family business disintegrated. I performed to packed audiences every night, while he sunk into liquidation. “He’s just depressed,” Mom would explain. He doesn’t mean to be mean. I’d misunderstood. There was always an excuse to soft-cushion him. I must just try harder, be more polite, not get in his way, and god forbid not annoy him.
“So much pressure on him.” She loved him, that’s why she stayed, she said.
Between the “but I love him,” there were a few “what have I done” moments too. We don’t talk about those anymore. The first on, their family-moon. She lay in their bedroom crying, listening to the daily tirade against me. He’d rant and scream about whatever despicable thing I’d done that day. Perhaps I’d poured my juice back into the jug. I don’t remember, it could have been anything, it usually was.
The first time he hit me, I threaten my mom, I’ll call child protective services, but I don’t. “He just disciplines differently,” she explains.
I’d brought my toiletries into the bathroom. The bath was running. He stormed in, how dare I take over the bathroom when his daughter was about to bathe? I didn’t realize, I protest, but I’m the liar. He saw exactly what I was trying to do! Take over. I wouldn’t get away with being a selfish little brat around him. He hit me hard on the back. Tears stung my eyes and I ran to my room, angry and scared.
Why am I so selfish? Am I so selfish?
My most shameful memory. We’re back in my mom’s home after he’d lost everything. Living with his two children and a third he step-fathered before his first wife left him. “Crazy bitch,” he slurs, but froths over her and his beer, at every family function. “You’re like her,” his daughter said fondly. She knew he had a temper, but it was her fault — “that slut” — that she left.
I used my mom’s toilet. She came to me, ashen-faced, “You must clean the toilet bowl, he says it’s a disgusting mess. You have your own bathroom to use, you mustn’t use that one anymore.” I’m humiliated, ashamed and disgusted with myself as I kneel on my hands and knees to clean it with toilet paper. I should have known better. Why am I so disgusting?
Mom’s in a panic and he is stonewalled and silent as death, couldn’t look at me. I’m a dirty piece of shit who should’ve know better. Piss stains mark the floor where his son repeatedly missed the toilet bowl. But that’s okay, my mom would clean it up.
Years later, I still feel the aftereffects. When I make a mess, spill, drop something, I’ll have really done it this time and my friend or lover will shun me. Because I’ve pushed them over the edge. I’m so annoying, taking up too much space, making too much mess. I’m talking too much, making it all about me again, and I’ll be punished for it. I’m relieved when I am — they’re right, and still surprised when I’m not.
We’d come back from an all-day braai. It’s bedtime and we’re all in our rooms, waiting for them to say goodnight. I wanted to look beautiful and so fanned my hair out all over the pillow. He came in and kissed me, hard, long, too long, on my mouth. It felt like minutes went by. Do I keep pouting? Let my lips go slack. I’m frozen by fear. Paralyzed in shame. It’s my first kiss. What have I done? What is wrong with me?
I made him kiss me. I should never have made my hair look so good. What will my mom say? Does he love me now? What about Mom? What did I just do? I’m so ashamed and disgusted with myself. He’s right, I do always look for attention. I pray he doesn’t remember kissing me like that in the morning. That the beer will wash it away. I think it does. He never mentions it again. I never fixed my hair like that again.
I make men do bad things to me, I learned that day. When I’m raped years later, I’m convinced I drove him to it. The power I have to make men act crazy. It’s not them, it’s me.
Once he took me shopping. To bond. To spend some one-on-one apology time perhaps? I try on two leopard print tops. Thrilled at the attention. Is this what having a dad feels like? He wanted to spend time with me, just us, to spend his money on me. Once he gave my sister a present, and now I’m getting a turn too. Which one should I choose? I’m trying not to smile too much. I can’t believe he’s looking at me.
Does he love me? A little bit? At the till, I turn to him, grateful and excited, but he’s staring out of the door. Checked out, not there, suddenly he can’t see me again. I realize he expects me to pay. I empty my savings to pay for the two tops because he’d said, “Both, get both.” We never go shopping again.
When his shouting starts, it’s a tornado blur. Muffled barking I’ve blocked out. His Hyde only hides when people are around. The more people, the better. From the blonde waitress to his brother’s wife, who writhes in shoulder shimmy shakes between his undivided attention. They always sit together at his family functions. It’s her turn then, and my mom’s far away.
His family cracks jokes about all his previous girlfriends. My mom sits with her painted smile, unblinking. She’s baked all day, but his family likes instant pudding instead. Why have a hot home-cooked meal when you can buy refrigerated food from the store? We don’t fit in with them, she doesn’t fit in with them. Why are we still here? When will it end?
It’s always darkest before the dawn, they say. They say that because the only way out is through. Except that sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, the only way out is away. I didn’t know that yet. I believed, if I were better, it would be better. “A leopard never changes his spots,” he’d remind me. But things would change, they had to because this couldn’t be how it’d be forever.
Stories have happy endings. Mine would, wouldn’t it?
I couldn’t wait to grow up to write my own, and at 17, I did. But, a decade later, after leaving my husband, with nowhere else to go, I returned. This will be healing, I’d thought. Forced back into the home I’d spent my life dreaming to escape from. I’m at my weakest, smallest, lowest point now. There’s no threat here. I’m in no bubble of confidence to prick.
But, there was… the only thing that bound us together. He was my mother’s husband.
This is a two-part series by Deborah Katz.
Tune in next week for the next chapter in ‘The Only Way out Is Through, but Sometimes It Isn’t’.