Chapter One: Dear Old Dad
Once upon a time, I had a lot of trouble holding on to my lovers. I’m not talking about holding on in a literal sense; they weren’t slippery and there’s nothing wrong with my hands. I’m talking about holding on in an emotional sense. Ridiculous as it sounds, I used to think the reason for this was political, since I lean to the left and most of my lovers have been conservative Republicans.
Reality eventually intervened, however, and I accepted that the problems with my love life had less to do with politics and more to do with the lousy relationship I had with my father when I was growing up—and that my most trusted friend and advisor was a gargoyle.
As far as Dad is concerned, it was clear right from the start we weren’t going to get along. Mom said at six months I was throwing my bottles at him and at fifteen months mouthing words sounding suspiciously like toddler obscenities. When I was four, I decided our family wasn’t big enough for the both of us so I ran away from home.
Home was a three-bedroom brick ranch in a middle-class neighborhood that served as a buffer between Brightmore, a rundown area of dilapidated, boxlike frame houses, and Rosedale Park, a gated community of impressive Tudor-style mansions. Most of the houses in Brightmore had dirt front yards filled with plastic toys and rusting pickup trucks. The front yards in my neighborhood had nice lawns, neatly trimmed shrubs, and an occasional oak, elm, or maple tree. The homes in Rosedale Park sat well back from the road on beautifully landscaped grounds tended by the Mexicans who lived in Brightmore and drove the rusty trucks.
One morning after Dad left for work, I stuffed some of my clothes in a plastic bag and tied it onto the back of my tricycle with shoelaces. Cruising down the driveway, the wind blowing through my bowl haircut, I could smell the sweet scent of freedom in the air. At the end of the driveway, I turned north onto the city sidewalk and peddled top speed towards the corner.
The corner was the proverbial point of no return. Pulling my trike over the curb into the street was a capital offense. Once I did it, I could never go home again. I was sitting there contemplating my options when Mom caught up with me. Sensing my indecision, she decided to make like a lobbyist and offer me a bribe. The deal was if I agreed to abort my escape attempt, she would take me and my older sister Sybil to the Dairy Queen. Evidently, I found the prospect of an ice cream cone more enticing than freedom, because I turned my trike around and peddled home, licking my chops in anticipation.
My sister Sybil, a Goldilocks look-alike with long blond hair, big blue eyes and plump, perpetually rosy cheeks, was the bane of my childhood. Although she never seemed that smart to me, she managed to leave me in the dust when report card time rolled around. Her cards were usually accompanied by a note from a teacher gushing about what a pleasure it was to have her in their class. Mom insisted on reading the notes aloud, hanging on every nauseating word.
This was followed by Dad making a big show of taking $5 out of his wallet and handing it to Sybil as he grumbled how she was going to put him in the poorhouse. Once Sybil had received sufficient recognition for her outstanding academic achievement, Mom would hand Dad my card and all hell would break loose.
Life would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t grown up in the shadow of an older sister everyone seemed to think was perfect. I don’t think Sybil ever broke a rule, told a lie or mouthed off to anyone in her life. Nothing irritated me more than a teacher calling out my name on the first day of school and then adding, in a voice oozing with cheerful enthusiasm, “Oh, how nice! You must be Sybil’s younger sister.” It didn’t take long for the poor wretch to realize I was nothing like my sister.
In addition to having Sybil for a sister, the fact I was smarter than my Dad didn’t make life any easier for me. “The trouble with you, Alice,” he said at least a thousand times, “is you’re too smart for your own good.” Unfortunately, my superior intellect didn’t help much when we squared off, since my only weapon was a rapier wit, while Dad had allowance retention, grounding and corporal punishment in his arsenal. The allowance and grounding stuff didn’t faze me until I was a teenager, but I hated those damn spankings with a passion.
I’m a person with a pain threshold so low I cry at the possibility of pain. I absolutely abhor physical violence and firmly believe every time a mom or dad spanks their kid, they’re sending a coded message proclaiming, “It’s okay to hit”—smack-smack-smack —“someone you love” —smack-smack-smack —“if they tick you off.”
Eventually, it dawned on me that unless I was trying to earn credits toward a degree in masochism from the college of lifelong stupidity, I should keep my big mouth shut. The problem was once I stopped butting heads with Dictator Dad, I began taking out my anger and frustration on Mom, Sybil, my classmates, teachers and anyone else who wandered in range of my high-caliber tongue, which I kept cocked and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. My chronic hostilitis, the medical term for the disorder from which I suffered, resulted in my becoming the first girl in my elementary school to win both the title of Miss Unpopularity and The Girl Most Often Sent to the Principal’s Office. I spent so much time with the principal, we became great chums. Although he never admitted it, I suspect he secretly admired my extraordinary verbal alacrity.
Not surprisingly, I spent the majority of my free time alone. This explains why I became so addicted to reading. Of course this was decades before readers could achieve instant gratification via Internet downloads of e-books. To feed my habit, I had to walk five blocks to the library, check out all the books I could carry and stagger home under their considerable weight. After I had partaken of all they had to offer, I’d return the empties and repeat the process.
Turning myself into a bookworm was the first and most pleasurable of the many transformations I’ve undergone during my life. I was elated when Mom succumbed to the wiles of a door-to-door book salesman. Although Dad, who never once accused Mom of being too smart, wasn’t happy, he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. His only comment was the ridiculously overpriced collection of the works of Mark Twain, Pearl Buck, and Lowell Thomas would look great on the bookshelves he was building in the basement. As soon as the books arrived, I started reading and didn’t stop until I’d devoured every one of them, including Thomas’s horribly graphic Wreck of the Dumaru.
My life-long addiction to historical romance novels began when I was thirteen. This is the genre that puts forth the hypothesis all a woman needs to be happy is for a virile, incredibly handsome man to come along and ravage her until she is consumed by a passion she didn’t know she possessed…or could feel… or something like that. How my adolescent heart would pound every time the heroine quivered at some virile, incredibly handsome man’s touch. Of course, the women in these stories were invariably the most beautiful creatures to walk the earth since the start of the Cenozoic Era. They were so good looking both heroes and villains alike were overcome with lust every time one of these beauties sashayed by, their petticoats and satin skirts rustling as they passed.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed a virile, incredibly handsome man of my very own. But finding someone fitting that description isn’t easy when you’re in the eighth grade, so I did what women do when the man of their dreams isn’t available—I settled. The boy I settled on was Walter Silva. Walt and the lovely Kathy Crawford had just broken up, so I summoned all the courage I could muster and asked Walt to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. I could tell he was less than thrilled by the invitation, but the important thing was he said “yes.”
Mom understood a girl’s first dance falls into the rite-of-passage category. It wasn’t easy, but she managed to talk old Daddy Cheapskate into paying for a new dress. Unfortunately, she suffered some sort of severe mental disconnect. We ended up with a dress from the woman’s department that was, without a doubt, the ugliest dress in the world. The damn thing was the color of bile with a cowl collar and pleated skirt that hung well below my knees. I had serious doubts about buying the dress, but it was on sale and Mom confused me with unfamiliar terms like simple lines and nice tailoring. The truth is, I trusted Mom and she sent me to my first dance looking like a short middle-aged housewife with no boobs.
The plan was Walt would come to my house so we could walk to the dance together. He started snickering when he saw me and took off like a shot as soon as we got to the school. I finally tracked him down in the gym talking to Kathy, who was dressed in a frilly little pink frock, no doubt purchased in the junior department.
Apparently, the only reason Walt had agreed to go to the dance with me was to keep an eye on Kathy—who had come to the dance to keep an eye on Walt. As soon as they set eyes on each other, all was forgiven. They spent the evening dancing and sneaking out into the hallway to play kissy face. I spent the evening standing with my back against the wall in my bile-colored old lady dress, watching with daggers in my eyes. I don’t know how Kathy’s date spent his time, but since he didn’t punch Walt in the nose, I figured he must be a total wimp. I would have punched Kathy in the nose, but as I mentioned previously, I abhor physical violence.
Since Kathy was a member of my Girl Scout troop, I decided to confront her at the next meeting to let her know it wasn’t cool to steal another girl’s date. I had just begun articulating the specifics of my beef with her when the other girls in the troop jumped to her defense like a herd of angry lemmings. The way they saw it, Walt was Kathy’s boyfriend. Anyone with a brain would have realized they were going to get back together.
The next thing I knew, they were taking a vote on whether it was wrong for me to have asked Walt to the dance without checking with Kathy first. The result was a unanimous vote in the affirmative, with me abstaining. Once they were in a voting mood, there was no stopping them. Democracy has a tendency to do that to people. To my horror, I heard some idiot ask, “How many think Kathy is cuter than Alice?” The outcome of this vote was also unanimous, with me voting in the affirmative, because she really was cuter than me. Kathy abstaining because she didn’t want to appear conceited. That night, I told Mom there was no way I was selling those damn cookies again and I turned in my merit badges.
Not having a circle of supportive female friends, coupled with the impact on my psyche of reading all those romance novels, sealed my fate. By the time I was in high school, I was so boy crazy I’d skip school if I was having a bad hair day. Attracting the attention of the opposite sex became the most important thing in my life— with the possible exception of chocolate almond ice cream and Milky Ways. Why did I care if the other girls shunned me as long as there were virile, incredibly handsome pimply-faced, hormone-crazed teenage boys lusting after me?
Once I began dating in earnest, my repeated curfew violations didn’t sit well with Dad. He began sounding like a stuck vinyl record. “As long as you live under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules. As long as you live under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules. As long as you…”
Since I was such a smart girl, it wasn’t hard to come up with a solution to the problem. What I need was a roof of my own. My folks expected me to continue to live at home after I graduated from high school and enroll in the state university like Sybil. Instead, I got a full-time job working for a health insurance company. A few months later, the gargoyle and I made a dash for freedom.