I don’t mean to do it, I swear to god. I don’t even notice I’m doing it until someone else points it out to me.
Like the other day. I was just walking down the hall. I had my eyes to the ground, hands in pockets, when out of nowhere the dude in front of me asked if I was following him to the bathroom. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but I was still spooked because once he drew attention to it, I realized what I’d been doing. I had even been matching my footsteps to his.
I come from a big family full of big talkers. I guess that’s why I grew up so shy and diminishing. My dad always used to tease me when we had company over, saying I had run my mouth off enough and needed to let other people get a word in when I had been completely silent. I hated when he did that.
When I was a kid, I developed this little game. I realized early on that the more people talk, the less they tend to pay attention to their surroundings and the more they lower their guard. My mom would forget I was even in the room when she got on the phone, she would smoke (she told dad she quit) and call her mom a prickly old bitch (she once spanked me for saying “butt”) and other tasty tidbits. My parents put a stop to it pretty quick, though. My dad sat me down and told me I make other people feel bad when I stare at them. If I was older, I might’ve rebutted that he hadn’t stopped singling me out in front of company, why the fuck should I stop—no. Not really. Even now I’m still differential to a fault.
I had it hammered into my head from early in life not to be selfish. Even if I didn’t get a piece of cake, even if that meant someone else had taken two, I wasn’t to say anything. My mom also told me not to get mad quite a lot. I suppose after a while it became a habit, but I’m still not quite sure why she started in the first place. I asked her: was I an angry baby? That made her laugh. No, she said, I wasn’t. What kind of baby was I, then?
My mom stopped laughing and looked right at me. I’ll never forget this. Awake, she said.
I don’t have many baby pictures. My brother’s pudgy mug was pasted all over my father’s work desk when I went to dismantle his effects. My sister was on his mini-fridge, clarinet in hand, fist propped on a no-nonsense hip. At the bottom of the junk drawer I found three-year-old me. I clung upright to the bars of my crib, staring.
I never told any of them this, but when I was little I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t insomnia, or at least not typical insomnia. I was…afraid, for lack of a better word. It’s hard to put into words. I hated the night. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, per se. It was more like…I was afraid that the world that I saw at night was a totally different world from the world in daylight…and the night was the “real” world. No matter how warm and safe the daylight seemed, no matter how hard I tried to sleep through it, the night always came back, more solid than day. I was the only real thing in it, small and alone.
I would lay awake in a pitch black room with my sister snoring in the next bed over (they never let me have a nightlight) and my eyes would probe the corners of the room searching for any little sign of movement. I’m not sure what I was waiting for. No monsters, just…something, anything, moving where nothing was supposed to move.
Then I would get up. I would walk around the house. I would look at my family.
People are completely different when they’re asleep. My father was much less threatening, even his beard seemed limp. My mom lay like a stone on her side, mouth finally closed. I would walk through the rooms, wondering if my family was asleep or if they were really all dead…and did it make a difference? If anything happened to me, it would come to about the same conclusion.
If anything happened to me. Those were the words exactly. I don’t know how or why I remember them so clearly, so vividly, or why I expected something bad to happen.
I was only caught once. My mom opened her eyes suddenly when I was standing in my She-Ra nightie, stifling a snort of surprise.
Honeywhatisit? She phrased it in the form of a yawn.
I told her I wanted a glass of water. She sent me back to bed with a warning. It didn’t really matter, I was back the next night. And the next. And the next…
As an adult, I try my best to be conscious of these lapses, correct my own behavior, but stuff still gets through. Like that guy going to the bathroom. Or the dry cleaner’s.
I swear I was right in front of that guy the entire time. He called seven other people up while I waited patiently. Never once looked at me. He had the balls to get irate when I slapped my ticket down on the counter. Like I had been ignored on purpose.
When we were packing up old stuff at the house for goodwill, I found some of my old drawings. Not in my dad’s stuff. In a box marked hospital.
My mom said honey, we were so, so worried about you for a while.
And yet they didn’t think it was important to tell me?
Some of them were just typical childhood fare. Horses that look like frogs. Lopsided rainbows. A few of them deserved mention, though.
I can’t believe I drew these. They’re so creepy, and my child-self was scared of the Count von Count for fuck’s sake.
The subject was the same in every one. A skinny, tall(I mean house-height tall) humanoid scribble. They had a brown rectangle scribble for a body with black buttons scribbles, then a gap and then a series of black scribbles for hair, I guess. I never drew eyes on the face, whoever it was was probably meant to have bangs covering them. Only a smudge for a nose and a line mouth. Black, too. I used a lot of black in those. I figure the other, more normal drawings got lumped in because they went over their black quota and lost their sunshine happy privileges.
The funny thing is I don’t remember drawing those. At all. It isn’t like I’ve got this big chunk of my childhood missing, no it’s pretty much all there. But something like this…I wouldn’t have just stopped at drawings. Freaky shit like this I would have given its own mythos, I would’ve thought up a cool name like Skeleton Man or The Bone Grinder.
None of it really made sense until I went back to the house. Mom decided the place was too empty with dad gone so she consigned me and my sister and a shit ton of newspaper for the job.(bro moved out of state a year ago, probably saw it coming.) I’m in the drawing room (mom didn’t want me in the kitchen because I’m all thumbs) wrapping the old photo boxes. Kodachrome snaps of my grandparents back in upstate New York, battered senior portraits of my mom with a bouffant and my dad with sideburns.
…and then the one.
I could’ve spotted it a mile away, even cluttered in with the others. It wasn’t the only black and white in the box, but there was this..starkness to it(for lack of a better word) that drew your eye and holy shit you’ll never guess who was in it.
He was pretty tall, but unless he was in a model village I doubt he’d be roof-height. It was actually pretty close to my kiddy portrait, he had this thick overcoat that made him shapeless, with scraggly dark hair and a downturned slash of a mouth that made him seem like he was frowning.
That brought back memories. Mom would always corner me when we were in public places and ask why I was in such a bad mood. I would protest that I really wasn’t, my face just relaxed that way, and it would escalate to the inevitable moment where I would in fact become angry at her for humiliating me in public.
I just kind of gaped at it for a while. If I’d known she was in the room, I would’ve instinctively hid it. She ripped it right out of my hand. That made me strangely upset. I asked her who that was.
She didn’t even look at me. Your real father, she said, and walked right out of the room.
I have no way to know if she was being serious or not. If she wasn’t that was just fucking cruel. I saw her dump a box of paper into the bonfire later that day, the picture was probably in it. I should’ve just walked away, refused to help further until she told me what I wanted to know. But that would’ve been too bold, too selfish. Not me at all.
It was a few months after she escaped to Illinois that I hit upon the brilliant idea of looking at yearbooks from her high school. I mean, reasonably, the guy had to be around the same age. Maybe he was in there!
I was inexplicably excited at this new development. I hadn’t even been thinking about it all that much until that bolt of inspiration. I went to the county library and sifted through grainy senior portraits. He wasn’t in any of the grades.
Oh, I found him. He wasn’t a student, but I found him. There was a big splash page of the drama club, my mom was fifteenth from the front, face half-hidden by someone’s elbow. And there, off in the trees—
I’m not entirely sure what any of this means, even now. I’ve tried asking my mom but she just pretends I’m not even talking when I call her. I fucking hate when people talk over me, but her voice is so big and heavy, it just overpowers mine no matter what I do. I want to ask her why she has a picture of the guy who stalked her, how she got it and why she kept it all these years.
Because he was stalking her. He somehow managed to appear in nine out of ten of the photos in the book, group photos, candid snaps, you name it, he was there. Sometimes it just looked like he was casually out for a stroll, just happened to glance to the side and just happened to let his gaze fall on my mother. Others he wasn’t so subtle about it.
After I was done with that year I paged through the others on a hunch. Yep. Senior years, junior year, freshmen, sophomore, he was there like a bad penny.
I have this memory, really unclear, probably from early in my life, of my dad standing over me like a blond mountain and yelling at me. Not scolding me, full-on yelling at me while tears stream down my cheeks. I look over to my mother on the couch for support and she’s just clutching a pillow and looking off to the side like nothing’s going on.
I still don’t have context for it, but I feel like I’ve got an inspired guess.
I’ve scrounged relatives who still live around me for photos. My mom must’ve called them and told them to embargo any photographic trade with me, but I work around it. It’s easy to get past people when they don’t notice you.
He’s in almost all the pictures of her. Not just after HS, before, too. My favorite was the one from a fifth grade play, she clasps hands with other animal-costumed children, while his face peeks out of the construction paper bushes.
I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do about all this. I’ve found more questions than answers and I don’t feel any more enlightened for it. It’s not like I’ve changed, it’s like…it’s like the world has shifted slightly while I wasn’t watching. It’s dark outside and I’m walking through a half-lit house with nothing between me and the night.
I’ve found that if I stand very still for a while, I disappear completely. People walk right into me and don’t even notice.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to watch people, follow them through their day, but I do it anyway. What would that bring me except more heartache, more longing to be someone I’m not? When I walk I walk heel-to-toe, bring my feet down nice and hard. I talk with my hands, I find a visual cue helps people concentrate. People still drift when I talk to them, but I don’t get mad. It’s not their fault.
I’m trying, I swear to god