THE GRAY HOUSEThe Alone Game
When I was three, my parents and I lived in a small, gray, two-bedroom house on Main Street in my little town. I have only three distinct memories of this house, but they are so vividly stretched by my toddler brain that as an adult, I can no longer find the house when I drive by. The roof has been re-tiled and the outer walls re-paneled and painted a bland, neutral beige to go with the rustic red trim around the windows. Last week, I drove by three times trying to find it, unsuccessfully.
Dad refers to this place as "Frankie's house", but I simply remember it as "The Gray House" -- small, even to a three year-old, with high-pile brown carpet from the 70's and a shower stall instead of a bathtub, which seemed infinitely mysterious and I would often hide there, door closed, lights off, just to see if anyone noticed me missing.
Played against myself, the game was simple enough. My mom, a clerk at a nearby gas station, would work nights on and off during the week, while my dad had just begun a job in San Antonio, which is about an hour drive from home. Broke as they were, they couldn't afford a babysitter every day, so with my mom on nights, she would stay home with me and sleep. Usually, I would crawl into bed with her early in the morning after Dad left for work, or if she had taken up residence on the couch while watching a movie, I had to be right there. Either way, the result was often the same.
She kicked me out.
"It's too hot for you to be hanging on me" and "go play" were fairly common lines. I lived on a daily dose of PBS and the many adventures of Barbie, while mom snoozed on the couch with a blanket over her face, an orange and black crocheted affair made by my great-grandmother before her Alzheimer's kicked in. She would, of course, get up to make me a bologna sandwich with crunchy peanut butter and Cheetos, which I would eat off a paper plate, humming the Barney song and bouncing my curly hair back and forth.
Only children are weird. I say that with the experience of being an only child for the first seven years of my life, and it's the only excuse I have for the kind of child I was. The kind of child who sat alone in a damp shower stall, waiting for her mother to realize she was gone. Would she cry? Panic?
After an hour, maybe more, I gave up.Pink Bows
Our first pets, that I can remember, were Brandy and Tiny. Brandy was a pain in the ass of a cocker spaniel, jumpy and hyper, and Tiny a timid cross between a chihuahua and a rat terrier. Both dogs, however, loved to dig under the fence. Perhaps it was their bonding point, where Brandy was always knocking Tiny over and squashing her in her attempts to play, Tiny had proposed they simply work together in their efforts to escape. Productive collaboration, and effective -- until Dad installed the hot wire.
Now a hot wire is a low-amp electrical wire that one runs on spikes parallel to the fenceline as a deterrent for animals trying to get in or out of your yard -- in this case, two unruly dogs who would not stop fucking up the fence and whom we did not want roaming the streets and getting picked up by the city dogcatcher. The exposed wire burns more than shocks, but it hurts enough to hopefully prevent the behavior it's trying to prevent.
When I was a kid, between my dad and my grandma (his mother), I was quite possibly the cutest little white girl you've ever seen. My uncle Maurice, Mom's oldest brother, used to call me "little Niki with the golden-blonde hair", and in a town with a high hispanic population (as well as a hispanic mother), people often stopped to comment on how pretty I was and touch my hair -- a custom common to ward off Ojo
(a.k.a. the Evil Eye).
Part of it, of course, was my perfect Shirley Temple ringlets, but much of the credit went to my paternal grandmother, who exercised her significant sewing skills to cover me in handmade dresses any chance she got, which Dad supplemented on a daily basis with pigtails, red Mary Jane's, and a pair of white socks with different colored bows for each day of the week.
That afternoon, my bows were pink, and even in a dress, I was out in the back yard with a plastic gardening set and the two dogs, uncovering dinosaur bones and running from vicious velociraptors.
Jurassic Park was my favorite movie, okay?
I don't know why I did it. Curiosity, maybe. The morbid kind. Even at three years old, elaborate lies were my forte for getting out of trouble for doing something stupid, and as I stood there at the fence, in plain view of the kitchen window where dad was washing dishes, I remember being very aware of what I was about to do.
In Jurassic Park, when Tim, Lex, and Alan climb the fence of the Tyrannosaurus paddock, Alan pretends to be electrocuted.
"Why wouldn't he just let go?" I remember asking Mom.
"Because if he were being electrocuted, he wouldn't be able to let go. Electricity makes you hold on tighter."
Sound theory. I looked at the hot wire running around the fence, then looked at the fence itself, then at my dad with his head down over the sink. If mom was right, and I touched it with my hand, then something bad might happen, and I didn't want that. Smart kid.
I threw my red plastic shovel over the fence, and stuck my foot between it and the wire.
The pain was instantaneous. I screamed my lungs out for my dad, my little shoe caught on the wire as it burned my ankle and I too panicked to work it loose, while the shovel lay prone and disapproving in the grass on the other side. Dad looked up.
"The baby's stuck in the fence!"The baby's stuck in the fence.
As if he had known, Dad had connected the hot wire fortunately to a light switch at the back door, and the moment he saw me, it was flipped. I remember him running while I cried, hauling me out of my mire, and carrying me inside. When the crying stopped, I told him I was simply trying to climb over the fence to get my shovel, and while he didn't understand why the shovel was there in the first place, I'm sure he dismissed it as a stupid kid being stupid. I have a scar on my ankle, just over the Achilles' tendon, and a blackened hole burned right through my little sock with the pink bow.
To this day, Dad still thinks I slipped trying to climb the fence.Peanut Butter
When I was four, my mom moved out of the gray house and into a trailer down the street, with a man I don't remember. She was gone for a while, I think, and I don't remember seeing much of her during this time since her work schedule hadn't changed, and she didn't pick me up for visits or anything along those lines. Soon afterward, Dad and I moved out of the gray house as well, and into the white house, an old farm-style house with columns and a big front porch. I loved that house. Still do.
When a person files for divorce on their own, without the help or representation of an attorney, it is most successful when the opposing spouse is in agreement of the conditions. Often, this is the case when a couple is anxious to get away from each other, and more often when they have no children. A waiver is signed by the opposing spouse, and after the sixty day waiting period required by the State of Texas, and barring any technical errors in the paperwork, the divorce is granted. We in the legal business refer to this as a no-contest (or non-contested) divorce. When it happens with children, the parents have either come to an agreement over custody, or the opposing parent just doesn't give a shit.
Guess which one Mom picked?
I liked living with my Dad, honestly. Even though he worked excessively and far away, he made me breakfast every morning which I ate while watching cartoons on a black-and-white television with a dial and antennas, curled up at the foot of my bed in a nightgown. Dad got himself dressed, brushed my hair into pigtails, and dressed me in one of my patented Grandma fashions, bow socks and all. He went to work, and I went to preschool with a packed lunch and a smile. My dad was a good dad.
On the other hand, I never liked going to mom's house. I remember being there exactly once, with nothing to do, no television to watch, and only a jar of peanut butter in the cabinet when lunchtime came around. I remember being inside while mom and dad talked at the door, about what I have no idea, but I'm sure it had to do with their relationship or me, or that mom was barely managing on her own. She liked to party, and partying isn't cheap unless someone else is buying your drinks.
After that, I only ever visited mom at her parents' house.