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My Horizontal Life
By Chelsea Handler
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Chelsea Handler
All rights reserved.
Look Who's Having Sex with Mommy
I was seven years old when my sister told me she'd give me five dollars to run upstairs into my parents' room while they were having sex and take a picture. At that age I had heard of sex but had no idea what it looked like. I knew for sure that my parents were sexually active. My father had impregnated my mother on six different occasions, all of which she decided to keep, so it was clear to my siblings and me that there was a definite attraction. There were many times when we would hear loud bumping and raucous laughter coming from their bedroom. My brothers and sisters always reacted with disgust and, being the youngest, I would follow suit, but was never sure why. Without knowing exactly what the act of sex entailed, there wasn't any real reason to be revolted, but it had become second nature to pretend I knew something I didn't.
I was always up for a chance to make easy money. I had been wearing hand-me- downs since I was born, and by the age of seven was already sick and tired of my second-string wardrobe. I may not have known what sex was, but I did know that I needed to step up my wardrobe in order to be taken seriously in the first grade. "No problem," I said. "Where's the camera and how do I use it?"
I tiptoed up the stairs leading to my parents' bedroom with my sister Sloane following close behind. Their door had a lock on it, but it was old and didn't secure inside the doorjamb anymore. If it was locked you weren't able to turn the handle, but if you smashed your body into it, it would open.
I checked and saw it was locked. I would have to use physical force. Sloane crept back toward the top of the staircase. I set up for a running start.
"Ready?" I asked her.
"Go!" she whispered.
Seeing your mother naked is not something you easily recover from. Seeing your mother naked and jumping from one side of a king-size bed to the other with a nurse's hat on while your father, who is also naked, is chasing her with a bandanna around his neck is reason to put yourself up for adoption. Fortunately, I took the first picture before anything had a chance to register. The second picture was of my father heading toward me with a belt.
My sister was already down the stairs when I came running out of my parents' room. I jumped all the way from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Luckily, I had perfected this jump months earlier during three consecutive snow days. I did not dare look behind me to see if my father and his penis were chasing me; I just kept running. We lived in a split-level house, so at the bottom of the big stairs, there was a shorter set of stairs to the right and to the left. I went left and my sister went right. I saw her head for the basement and followed her in. Our basement doubled as the laundry room; the one room in our house my father had never been in.
"Lock the door!" she barked, as she scrambled to hide under a pile of dirty clothes.
"Oh, my God, Dad has a belt," I told her.
"A belt! He has a belt! I think he wants to hit us with it!"
"The one he wears with his pants?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "I think he wants to belt us!"
We were too scared to cry. This was it for me, I was sure of it. I was going to be murdered in my basement by my naked father, with a belt. I had never been hit by a belt before but had heard stories about it happening in poorer neighborhoods. Suddenly, there was the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs and then banging on the door.
"Open the goddamn door! Now! You two are gonna get a smack and you're gonna get it now!"
I stared at Sloane with big eyes. I wanted her to think of a way out of this mess. She was twelve and she needed to take charge.
"Ask him if it's with the belt or his hand," Sloane said.
I looked at her to make sure she was serious, then yelled back, "With your hand or a belt?"
I went closer to the stairs that led to the door. "Are you going to hit us with the belt or your hand?"
He was shaking the handle now. "No one's getting hit with a belt!" he shouted. "One ... two ..."
This was before there were time-outs, so my sister and I didn't know what to make of his counting. I wondered if his ABCs were next. He stopped at "three," and we braced ourselves when "four" didn't come.
Sloane was holding on to me for dear life. Her crying had turned into heaving, and now she started to shake uncontrollably. I tried to comfort her by rubbing her back like my mother did but was too preoccupied with my imminent beating to be very reassuring.
Since my sister had turned into a real mess, it was up to me to devise a plan of escape. At that moment, Sloane wouldn't have been able to lead a horse to our swimming pool, never mind leading me to my bedroom without getting my ass kicked.
"We have to go up and just let him hit us," my sister whispered.
"Ah, I don't think so. I don't make appointments to get hit. Plus, this was your idea and Dad should hit you both times."
"I want to get it over with!"
"No fucking way. I am not going upstairs to get hit."
This was the very first time I said "fucking" in front of anyone and I liked the way it sounded. I had heard my brothers and sisters use curse words but had never dared use one myself in front of anyone. But I had practiced alone in my room lots of times, trying out different cadences and intonations: "Fuck, fuck, fuck you, fucknut. Shit, shitstain, fucker! Go fuck a duck, you asswipe!" My favorite was, "What a fucking cocksucker." The plan was to say this casually to one of my new friends while one of our teachers walked by. No one in kindergarten ever really got my sense of humor, so I was hell-bent on making my mark in the first grade.
Saying the word "fucking" in front of my sister catapulted me to an instant state of authority. Sloane stared expectantly at me. I strained to hear what was going on upstairs. Suddenly, everything was very quiet. I fantasized that my father had forgotten why he had wanted to hit us in the first place. Maybe he was watching the stock market and found out that his eight shares of Noah's Bagels had quadrupled. Maybe if we stayed down there long enough he would forget all about what we did and actually be excited to see us when we came out. I could lie and say I was just looking for Q-tips and used the camera to block what I hadn't expected to see. Or I could say I just wanted help with my homework. My father loved when I did my homework.
We hadn't even been in the basement for a whole half hour when my sister started to complain that she was hungry.
"Where do you think Mom is?" she asked. My mother was the nice one, and she always protected us when my father was in one of his moods. I knew my mother wouldn't be mad at us because she was always defending us to our father no matter what we did. Especially since we had a lot to hold over her head.
All I would have to do is remind her of a week earlier when she forgot to pick me up from school and I had been accosted by a male predator on my way home. Our house wasn't even a mile from school, but some man slowed his car along the sidewalk I was walking on and asked if I knew any tricks. Upon taking a good look at an overweight older man with gray stubble, wearing a pair of coveralls, I bolted home faster than I'd finished the fifty-yard dash earlier that day. After a good twenty minutes of me berating my mother for not picking me up and allowing me to possibly be abducted, she hit the roof.
"But you weren't, were you?" she said. "Luckily you were able to outrun him!"
My mother is European and expresses her love through food and cuddling. She wasn't the type of mother who would make it to school plays or soccer games, but if you wanted to stay home sick, she was your girl. Whenever you'd go up to her room to cuddle with her, she'd pull out a KitKat or Snickers bar from her night table and look at you with dancing eyes. She is a very sweet woman but had zero tolerance for all the Jewish mothers in our town and wanted to avoid them at all costs. If there was a parents' night or a teacher conference, it was understood early on that our mother would rather set herself on fire; we were lucky if she showed up at our bat mitzvah. Unfortunately, my father loved any sort of school event and would usually show up hooting and hollering in the front row, wearing snow boots and a sweater covered in dog hair.
Normally, I would have expected my mother to knock on the basement door and explain to us how to avoid getting smacked, but who knew what kind of high she was on after her nude pep rally upstairs.
"I heard that men fall asleep after they have sex," Sloane offered.
"Dad didn't look tired when he was chasing me with his belt," I told her.
"I don't know if I can wait for Mom to come for us. I'm really hungry."
I climbed up on the dryer and took a seat. "Mom was wearing a nurse's hat."
"What?" She seemed concerned.
"When I walked in on them, she was naked and Dad was chasing her on the bed. I saw his penis."
"Ew? Ew? You're the pervert who made me do it!"
"I didn't think you'd really do it," she said.
"You knew I would!"
This was so typical of Sloane. She always backed out of a situation once controversy found its way into it. My brothers and sisters knew they could get me to do anything, mostly because I wanted them to like me, but Sloane was a different story. I wasn't sure I liked her.
"You are so double-faced," I told her. "I hate you."
"It's 'two-faced,' dummy, and I am not!" she said.
"Oh, really, what about the time with the Feinstein sisters," I reminded her.
A year earlier when I was in kindergarten and she was in the fifth grade, we would walk to school together in the morning. One day, two other sisters were on their way to school with their five-foot-tall Irish wolfhound following closely behind. They were telling their dog to go back home but the dog wouldn't listen. Sloane was scared because the dog was so big and kept growling at us. The girls were laughing at my sister for being scared of their dog, but in reality, this dog was scary. He was huge and mean and looked like he belonged in a wild animal park. He had a large open wound on his hind leg and looked as if he were slowly decomposing.
"Stop laughing at my sister, you dumb girls," I yelled. "Your dog is ugly and belongs in a shelter."
"Shut up," Sloane said through her teeth. "Shut up."
"Oh, look, Sloane needs her six-year-old sister to defend her," one of the girls sneered.
"No, she doesn't," I yelled, then turned to Sloane for some backup—only to see her running furiously in the direction of the school.
Years later I learned the word "turncoat" in history class. Had I had this kind of ammunition against her earlier, things might have ended up differently.
"I dropped the camera in Mom's room," I told her.
"Oh, that's just great." She stood up with her hands on her hips. "I have pictures on there of Marsha's sleepover party. We all took our pajamas off and took pictures while playing Truth or Dare."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because. We felt like it."
"I'm telling," I told her.
"Who cares?" she said. "It was only girls."
"Lesbian!" I yelled.
I knew what a lesbian was because my father's best friend from high school's wife left him for another woman and my father referred to her only as "the lesbian."
"I am not a lesbian. Shut up!"
"Yes, you are. I knew it."
"If anyone's a lesbian, it's you," she said. That shut me up.
"It's better for us just to go upstairs and get it over with," she said. "At least then we can eat something. I want a sandwich."
"How can you think about food at a time like this?" I asked her. "Do you think people at the Battle of Gettysburg had time for peanut butter and jelly?"
Switching tactics, she reminded me that it was a Thursday night and we would be missing The Cosby Show if we stayed in the basement. That would have been enough to drive any level-headed seven-year-old insane.
Even so, I was ready to stay in the basement as long as it took for my dad to forget about what had happened. I had seen his penis and did not think I would be able to look him in the eye any time soon.
I thought about escaping through our one basement window, but then I would only be outside and it was cold. Winter was not a good time to run away from home, especially without an overnight bag.
I wondered if my mother was actually mad at me too. I told my sister I would need more than the five dollars we had originally agreed on.
"No way! You got caught. That was not part of the deal! I'm not even sure I'm going to give you the five dollars!"
I smacked her on the back of the head. She tried to hit me, but I ducked. Then she ran toward the stairs.
"No! Don't go!!!" I yelled, but she was already up the stairs and out the door when I ran up after her to try and pull her back down.
I locked the door just as I heard her get another smack, but this one sounded like it was on her face. I listened as she started wailing. This upset me deeply. I wanted her to be a strong gladiator type, the kind of girl I envisioned myself at thirteen. A weight lifter with a steadfast disposition and a designer wardrobe. But she was a sissy, and I could not follow suit.
It was becoming clear to me that the only way out of this was to turn the tables on my father. Instead of running, I would never leave the basement. Not even if he begged me. I would tell him how sickened I was by what I saw and that I now had reservations about going out into the real world without a psychiatrist by my side. I would insist on therapy two to three times a week and also insist that it take place during school hours. I would demand an entirely new wardrobe and that they allow me to move into the master bedroom, while my parents took my room. I would make them beg for my forgiveness while threatening them with lawsuits: unfit parenting, involving a minor in sexual activities, pornographic exposure to a minor, the list would go on and on. I saw Irreconcilable Differences. I was no dummy.
My father knocked on the door for the last time that night. "Are you ready to come out and get your smack?"
"I want Mom," I said. There was no response from the other side of the door. I wondered how Sloane's sandwich tasted with her bloody lip. I wondered if the Huxtable children had ever walked in on their parents having sex. It was important to occupy my mind with other thoughts, so I decided to do some laundry. Maybe when my mother came and saw that all the laundry had been done she would tell my father, who would come to the conclusion that I wasn't such a bad kid after all. I took one look at the laundry machine with all its buttons and dials and decided sleep was more appealing.
I woke up sometime in the middle of the night after feeling something crawl over my foot. I jumped up and ran to the top of the stairs. Slowly, I opened the door. All the lights were out. No one was in sight. I went straight to bed and fell asleep.
My father came in my room at seven a.m. to wake me up. "It's time to get up, love." Then he walked downstairs.
I was ecstatic. Sloane should have listened to me the whole time! I got dressed for school, had a bowl of Lucky Charms in celebration of my personal victory, and brushed my teeth.
My father said he'd be outside warming up the car. You never knew which car this was because we had about ten in our driveway. My father fancied himself a used car dealer, but as I understood it, "dealing" meant buying and then selling. Cars would pile up in our driveway for years at a time, and on most mornings my father would have to jump-start one or more to get us to school. Each car was more embarrassing than the next and none were made in the decade in which we lived.
I went outside and jumped into the car that was smoking, which was a fluorescent turquoise Plymouth something or other with vinyl interior. I was flying so high from my victory, I decided to compliment him on the car.
"I love this color, Dad."
Excerpted from My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler. Copyright © 2013 Chelsea Handler. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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