Of Three Girlhoods - My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine
By Noelle Howey
Picador Copyright © 2002 Noelle Howey
All rights reserved.
Coming Out, 1986
My mother's hatchback was parked in Section B, Aisle 12, between a small pile of beer cans and a battered Plymouth that looked as though it belonged on cement blocks. We were quiet.
I don't remember whether we left the house in the late morning or the early afternoon; I don't know if it was a Saturday or a Sunday. I can't say what we discussed in the car on the way to the mall, or whether we simply drove in silence. I didn't ask why we were going shopping all of a sudden, though I assumed we were trying to get out of my father's way. He looked pretty tired.
I watched the raindrops meander, forging crooked, loosely braided paths up the windshield. I had always been mesmerized and perplexed by the way rain crawls up car windows.
"Honey, are you listening? Do you understand what I'm saying?" my mother asked.
It was cold, even for late autumn, even for Cleveland.
"Yes, of course," I scoffed, buttoning my jacket.
My mother twisted in her bucket seat to face me as head-on as possible. That couldn't have been comfortable.
"I think you're not quite taking this in," she said.
Today, out of nowhere, right after our usual bowls of cornflakes, my mother decided that I needed socks, underwear, scrunchies — immediately. She hustled me into the car. "We're going to Penney's over at Randall," she said. "I'm not spending ten dollars so you can tell Debbie that you have socks from the Gap."
Randall Park was a strip mall behemoth with mud-streaked red carpeting, dry fountains, and third-tier retail establishments: Spencer Gifts instead of Papyrus, Frederick's of Hollywood instead of Victoria's Secret. I usually went elsewhere; thanks to purported gang activity, kids under sixteen weren't supposed to loiter in Randall without a chaperone. Anyway, I preferred the mall in Beachwood, or Bitchwood, as everyone called it, which had gleaming tile floors, perfectly squeegied skylights, a food court teeming with exotic boys from neighboring high schools.
We bought a whole armload of socks, and a plastic tube stuffed with panties in various pastel shades — a distant second choice after my mother rejected the thongs. She seemed anxious, fiddling with her keys, clucking her tongue.
While the clerk wrapped my panties in tissue paper, she asked my mother, "Honey, how's the weather out there? You know I hate not being able to see the outside from this place. It could be snowing for all I'd know!" My mother normally would've chuckled, "Oh boy, I just love windows, too. Well, it's raining right now ..." And three minutes later, she and the cashier — named Wanda, apparently, originally from Kentucky — would be laughing and patting each other's hands like long-lost childhood friends. My mother, the former speech therapist, would have instinctively started mimicking Wanda's phrases, her pauses, the places where her sentences would drift off. But today the clerk got no response. My mom simply smiled, weakly, and handed over her credit card.
Before we left the store, I ran over to the Misses section to ogle a pair of size zero side-zipper Guess jeans. My mother lingered in the aisle watching me, warily. "Well, we bought cheap so-ocks," I pleaded, elongating my syllables preciously. This poor-me-buy-me-expensive-clothes bit never worked, but I always gave it a shot.
My mother didn't even blink. "Okay, okay," she sighed. "Get whatever you want."
Mom walked slowly back to the car in the rain. I practically skipped ahead, clutching my bag of jeans to my heart like found treasure. Debbie will die, I thought gleefully.
"Come on," I yelled. "You're getting wet."
She tossed the remaining bags in the hatchback between the lawn fertilizer and her golf clubs. We got back in the car, and I flipped on the radio. "... easy lover, she'll take your heart but you won't feel it."
"Um, can I change it?" I asked tentatively, realizing that having been gifted with designer loot, I should probably tread lightly with my requests.
"Actually, can you turn it off?" Mom said.
She stared straight out the windshield, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel. Uh-oh. It's work. She's been fired. Suddenly my heart lifted. It's Dad. Maybe he's dying! No, that's terrible. I take it back. I'm sorry, God. Or whoever. I take it back. Make him just sick. Maybe they're getting divorced. Or he's moving. Far, far away.
"It's Dad. There's something I need to tell you."
My mother said one of the following things:
a) "Your dad likes to wear women's clothes."
b) "Noelle, your dad is different from other dads in that he likes to wear girls' clothes, and he wants to do it all the time."
c) "You know how you like fuzzy sweaters? Your dad likes them, too. Girl sweaters, I mean."
My mom doesn't know what she said either.
In truth, it doesn't matter. I remember exactly what I thought: You have got to be kidding me. There's no news like hearing irrefutable proof that you're not the sole cause of your parents' woes, your father's drinking, your unshakable feeling that you're not put together quite right and finding out the problem all along was your father's unrequited yearning for angora.
My mother was looking at me very intently and quizzically. "You understand, Dad has been doing this for many, many years. And he doesn't want to have to hide it from you anymore."
"It's a big secret that he likes to wear girls' sweaters?" I retorted, trying to keep my voice steady and fierce.
"Well" — my mother sighed — "yes. And we wanted you to know." I supposed I was scripted to weep, to riddle my mother with questions. Tough. I was not going to be upset about this. I had decided not to care about my father years ago. With that resolution firmly in mind, I immediately burst into tears.
"So, it's not my fault? That he's so ... like the way he is? He doesn't hate me?" I sobbed. "It's not my fault?" My mother says I repeated that same sentence twenty times. Despite my resolve not to crack, not to betray the fact that I actually, maybe, loved my father, once I started crying I couldn't stop. Nor could I stop feeling an overpowering sense of relief engulf my entire body, causing an almost anesthetizing effect. I blew my nose and wiped my face with my mother's sleeve.
"We're trusting you with this really important information, okay? You need to not tell anyone about this. You can talk about it with me, or your dad, or the therapist we've been seeing, if you want. She's really nice. But don't tell anyone about your dad. That means Debbie, too, okay? Dad could lose his job, we could lose the house, you could get teased at school. We need you to be an adult here, and keep this a secret."
My mother forced a grim smile. Her eyes were shot, her freckled face sunken and pallid, almost the color of jellyfish. For the first time, I realized my father wasn't coming out to me himself. My mother — kisser of paper cuts, attendee of parent-teacher functions, purchaser of produce — was on cleanup duty again. Of all the tasks not to push off on your wife, one might imagine coming out would be right up there.
"Sweetie," my mother said, registering surprise, "I told you your dad loved you. I always told you that."
"I know," I said, still exhaling. "You told me."
Had my mother or father told me the truth when I was sixteen, or twenty-five, I might have been beyond tears, and even beyond caring whether I was to blame for his obvious unhappiness. My father came out just in time.
Portrait of My Father as a Young Man
By the time I hit my mid-twenties, in the defensive manner typical of those urban apartment dwellers who shell out half their take-home pay to live in an overheated box with no bathroom sink, I would come to grouse about the suburbs. I would disparage their ubiquitous wood- chip-and-pebble landscaping, and the flags of neon watermelon slices flapping over every front door as though to announce, "We claim this land for Home Depot!" Yet in doing so, I'd play loose with the fact that the'burb where I lived from zero to fourteen — the 2300 block of Edgerton Road in University Heights, Ohio — is perhaps the most diverse place I ever encountered: teeming with African-American and white and Asian families, Italians and Jews, stockbrokers and plumbers and welfare recipients. On our block lived Mrs. Barnes, a jovial old gal who walked three miles every day, blizzards be damned, from her fake Tudor to the bowling alley; the Creightons, a black family whose son, Omar, secretly played Malibu Ken to my Japanese Barbie; the Filipino Durans with their two daughters, gorgeous in plum red lipstick and open-toed pumps; and the two anonymous, inseparable men in the brick house, who everyone figured were brothers or cousins.
I will also have to ignore the plain truth of my childhood, which is that I adored my suburb. Far from being a homogenous petri dish, University Heights seemed magical to me beneath its veneer of the everyday mundane. It's not simply that I was prone to a wild imagination, wherein a routine trip to the grocery store could be recast in my mind as a quest to find sustenance for the brood. My neighborhood encompassed the universe, both real and makebelieve. That's surely no different from virtually any child, for whom the entire world exists just below the height of the kitchen counter, for whom anything farther than twenty minutes away by car is unfathomably foreign. But my block, where I was permitted to wander, unobserved, without a sitter, was also a refuge. The loose lumber for a playhouse that never got built was a place to hide when my father's car rumbled up the driveway. The babysoft patch of grass behind the garage where the blades never sliced, no matter which way you rubbed them, was a place to curl up after he fell asleep, head slung back with mouth agape against the cushion of his threadbare recliner. I was never the kind of kid who'd get worked up about seeing a yellow-bellied thrush, but when my father was around, I was thankful to have a backyard, and by extension, a place to disappear.
My father, Richard, who — in one of those wincing ironies you couldn't get away with in fiction — was nicknamed Dick, was the shadow in the corner of the living room. He was a brilliant advertising writer, a talented part-time actor, and in seemingly desperate need of a few different twelve-step programs. Although I knew he and my mother had been high-school sweethearts, I couldn't picture them meeting cute over homework and exchanging phone numbers with a wink and a blush. Mom, Joanie; Dad, Chachi? I was a creative kid, but my imagination wasn't that good.
As far as I could tell, after coming home, he'd mix up a twelve-consonant vodka and orange juice (three cubes, two stirs, leaving the spoon on the counter), and then sleep, watch TV, drink, and sleep again. Occasionally, he'd shake up the routine by eating a salad. Other times he'd even speak, grunting a sigh of agreement with a curmudgeon columnist, or scowling at inferior full-page ads crafted by big-name New York firms. Since day one, I tried to stay as far away from my father as possible, and the avoidance seemed mutual.
He wasn't an overwhelmingly menacing presence. Physically, he was slight, five-ten with a baby face, a gut as pasty and rounded as proofed yeast, and a ten-hair comb-over. But boy, could he give you a look. The Stare, as my mother and I later dubbed it, was obtained by narrowing his eyes into slits while the rest of his face remained immobile granite. He didn't seem irritated or angry. His eyes simply went dead — as hard and unreflecting as milk glass. Thanks to his ability to conjure that stare, I was certain that my father merely tolerated me.
My mother was an optimist, but beyond that, she believed religiously in the power of rational thinking. If a behavior seemed explicable via any type of -ology, then it must be fixable. Logically, she knew that my father loved me, and, therefore, if we were forced together often enough, he would get better at showing his affection, until my father and I were happily do-si-doing at Girl Scout father-daughter square dances.
"Go sit on Daddy's lap," Mom would whisper, sitting next to me in the kitchen while my father lubricated himself into a half-drunk stupor in the den. "Noooo," I'd whine. "Noelle," my mother would say, "he loves you so much. Daddy just has some problems. He doesn't know how to reach out to you." She would explain to me that although his mother, my Grandma Howey, drowned me in affection, she had not been nearly as close to my father.
Mom went on to explain that my father was handicapped, emotionally, in the same way that some people can't walk or see. "You are so mature, Noelle," she told me. "You can help out your dad."
"Okay." I sighed. I did know — my mother often gave me this missionary pep speech. "Honey, give it a try. Come on," she would say, as she pulled me to my feet and, perhaps trying to lighten the mood, playfully patted my butt with an unspoken skedaddle. Finally, I would give in and plod with a Dead Man Walking gait to my father's recliner in the den, certain that I was going to disappoint my mother again by having failed to transform my father into Super Dad.
I was four. Or six. Or nine. It doesn't matter what age I was; the plot remains the same. I lurched to sit on my father's lap. He never moved. It was like sitting on the Lincoln Memorial. I leaned back and tried to nuzzle under his chin. Nothing. I twisted sideways in order to throw my arms around him. I could smell him, that trademark musk of Vitalis and Dial soap. Then he rustled the newspaper, trying to pull it from under my bottom without touching. "Can't you see I'm reading, Noelle?" He sighed. "Can we do this later?"
Later wasn't meant literally. He would fall asleep or, without a word, drive off to rehearsal. He acted in a local repertory company, and always played the part of the conniving bastard: Goebbels, a wife-beater, Nixon. After he left for the evening, my mother, in her usual sad way, would apologize for my father's behavior for the ten-thousandth time.
"He loves you, baby, he really does," my mother said, cradling me tightly. In kindergarten and first grade, I cried. In later years, I was able to hold myself together by counting things — kitchen tiles, blue posies on the wallpaper, lines on my mother's hands — until I got bored with being sad. The two of us would go to my parents' bedroom, where I watched TV while my mother pulled out a two- thousand-piece jigsaw or her crossword puzzle book, focusing her attentions on puzzles with easily obtainable solutions.
Now, in case it appears that I am seguing into a disclosure of brutality involving large metal belt buckles or having to clean bathrooms with a toothbrush, I should make a disclaimer: namely, that while my father was fairly unpleasant, he was by no means the worst around. My father could hardly compete with Jenny's dad, who whipped his kids daily, or Michael J's dad, who ended up in the state pen.
He even had interludes in which he was as gentle and wisdom-imparting as any TV father. These were called Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter. He would lavish gifts upon my mother and me, always grand gestures: the turquoise ring, the framed paean to fatherly love, the bicycle with training wheels. Better still were the fleeting, spontaneous moments when my father became the tickle monster, coming toward me on all fours while I giggled madly, or when we played keep-it-up with a half-deflated balloon in the dining room.
Yet these random acts of kindness could be more upsetting than when he was an out-and-out creep. Were it not for those occasional, wonderful moments, my mother would have packed our luggage and moved us out. I might have been able to distance myself from him and stay that way, instead of tumbling back, accidentally and in spite of myself, into caring about him again. My father was inconsistent, and inconsistency bred hope. So, despite wanting to hate him, I lay in bed at night devising ways to become more beautiful, more gifted, simply more, so that he could stay in his holiday spirit all year long. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dress Codes by Noelle Howey. Copyright © 2002 Noelle Howey. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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