Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Burning Alone

Burning Alone

The shadows of the trees reached like claws, trying to grab me as I ran away from the house. It was a familiar path, but I ran it for a reason I had never run before. I slowed my pace as the incline of the hill increased. Across from me was the dark park, a deep pool of shadows and corners, offering the perfect hiding place. But it was just too perfect. If I hid there from him, he was sure to find me. It was the first place he’d look.

As I kept running, my lungs burning, cheeks burning, neck burning, I felt like I was on fire. Not even the cool of the night air could quench the inferno that raged through me. But I was not angry. It was an adrenaline fueled fire that exploded through my eyes and caused my fingers to tingle with hot electricity.

A thought suddenly sprang to mind. I had to get off the road. If he didn’t find me at the park, he’d follow the road up and there was no place to hide for another mile and a half. I slowed my run and ducked behind a dirty, green minivan. Crouching behind it, I saw my breath come out in ghost like vapors. I held my breath. Nothing to give me away, except my pounding heart.

I recalled the only times before I had held my breath like this. When I was small, growing up in South Africa. The houses were poorly insulated, tin roofed, and A/C was only found in rich people’s cars. The nights were warm and muggy, with mosquitoes and the sound of the television coming from up the hallway. It was on those hot, muggy nights that I would lie there, eyes open like saucers, listening. Just listening.

There it was again. The sound. Like a footstep. Or a hand on the bars across the window. I would pull the blanket over my head and shut my eyes and hold my breath. And I would pray. I learned the fear of God, not from some boogie monster but from true terror brought on by the fact that I was about to die. Kids just like me were killed every night. What was there to stop them from killing me too?

The dog began to bark and a chill ran down my spine. There was only one reason why Brakenjan would begin barking like that. Someone was outside. My whole frame shook under the blanket, where the air was beginning to grow hot and damp. But as sure as I was that I was dying by asphixiation, it was still overcome by the fear of pulling the blanket down to see the grotesque, black face spread into a fiendish white grin before the knife fell or the trigger was pulled.

I would often wake up in the morning with the blanket still over my head, if the nightmares of the night had not woken me before then. When the fear came, when the nightmares came, when the noises came, when the barking dog came, sometimes I would scrape together the last pinch of bravery I had, not content to die under the blanket. I would throw it of and roll of the bed, crouching on the floor.

In that moment, ever shadow seemed to move with sinister intent. To a six year old it was the moment before the end. But then I would lunge towards the wall and inch along it towards my door. As long as I kept my eyes on the shadows they wouldn’t move. But I knew the second I blinked whatever was hiding in them would jump and grab me. So I waited until the very last moment to stop watching them.

And then I would run, as fast as my bare feet would carry me across the thick carpet towards my parents room. It was not uncommon for me to seek sanctuary there. Until I was five I still spent almost every night in their bed. And even until I was nine there were still nights when my mattress would be dragged into their bedroom and I would sleep on their floor. Being close to them, it was comforting. I felt safe.

One night, when I was eight, I was suddenly jarred awake. My mother’s heel quickly disappearing into the darkness. I sat up groggily and asked what was going on. Then I realized what she was doing. She was busy trying to open our safe. She had no use for our savings in the middle of the night. The only other thing she could be going for was my father’s gun. Which brought the question to the forefront, where was Pappa?

As she ran by, she apologized quickly for stepping on me and ordered me back to sleep. Later I would find out that the alarm had gone off. My father had risen and gone outside to check it out. The dog wasn’t barking, just growling. When my dad got there, he saw the tiny animal with a vehement grip on the calve of a black man. Immediatly he was outside, tackling the intruder.

My mother’s first instinct was the gun. What if the intruder had a weapon or a knife or something? She was not about to become a widow. So she ran into the room, forgetting about her sleeping sons on the floor, stepping on my head in her mad dash rush to the safe. Then grabbing it she ran to the courtyard door and yelled out to my father, who had wrestled the intruder to the ground by now, pinning his face into the gravel.

She yelled “Gun!?” and he replied “Rope!”

After the police arrived and carted the intruder away, my parents came in and told me the story. I slept soundly that night. Not only would I have an amazing story to impress my friends with the next day, but I felt safe knowing my dad was near.

At this moment hiding behind the minivan, I wished that I could still feel the same about him being near. But I may never again.

It began like any argument. He expected me, as his sixteen year old son to help him with the renovations. After a summer when I was thirteen, forced to help him with a fixer-uper house, I hated working with him. And everything he did irritated me. And everything I did irritated him. Some say it’s just the normal way that fathers and sons interact. I’m not so sure where it led us was all so normal.

When he forced me to help him with his projects, to make a “real man” of me, I would fight back the only way I knew how. I complained and whined and had the worst attitude I could have. Because it was the only way to assert my freedom. You may bind my hands in labor but you cannot bind my spirit!

And as I irritated him with my stubbornness, he grew angry... and quiet. His breathing became hard, as if he forced his every breath through his nose. His veins on his neck would protrude and his face would turn red. But he wouldn’t say anything. This would happen for a few weeks before he would punch a hole in the wall or kick the door open or smash a plate.

That sound. The sudden crash. That filled me with more fear than any sound I ever heard from outside my window. Because this was inside the house. The house that was supposed to be safe. In America where everything was supposed to be better. With my father, who was supposed to be protecting us.

And after that, he’d be fine. Like a volcanoe that had expended its lava, there would be nothing left and he would be tranquil and fine, like any other mountain on the mountain range. But deep down you knew he was accumulating magma again, getting ready for the next explosion. I’m not sure what was worse, his way of acting or the fact that we began to be okay with it. That it was beginning to become... normal. But the terror was still there with every crash of door or smashed plate.

Maybe that’s part of growing up. Getting use to things such as this. He seemed to think so. And he also seemed to think part of growing up was that we had to be toughened up to face the real world. Looking back, I’m thankful. I would never have been able to shed my idealistic or emotional self for my more logical and cold one had it not been for his “lessons”. These included constant mocking, degrading comments, belittling. Even when I tried to handle his stupid power tools, when I made a mistake he would just laugh and give me some sarcastic encouragement. I hated working with him. And it bordered on hating him.

Finally on this night I couldn’t take it anymore. I told him that his comments were mean, belittling, and that they hurt. I told him to stop. That he couldn’t treat me like this. His reply was that no one ever dared to speak to him like that. He said I was attacking him. That his degrading way of talking were a part of who he was. That he had no control over what he said. And that by telling him to stop I was attacking him.

My response was that everyone had control over what they said.

That was the comment that drove him over the edge. There is a surreal moment right after a shocking action, when both people stand still for only a second. But it feels like years that you just stand there looking at each other. I looked at him and the thought occurred like a distant echo.

He had just punched me in the face.

While he stood there, red faced, nostrils flaring, I felt like I was someone else, looking into this unreal scene. This couldn’t be me. This could’t be my life. Other people get punched by their fathers. Not me. Not my life. This had to be.... something else... my father protected me at night when the robbers came, he let me get in the covers with him to keep me safe, he could kick any robber’s butt. That was my father. Not this man who stood before me.

And slowly, still in that same captured second, the reality sank like a weight into my soul and began to blaze like a comet as it plunged deeper. I turned, and walked out of the back door, and began to run as that blazing comet set fire to my entire identity. Everything I was, everything I thought I knew, everything I believed began to catch fire and burn. And as I ran I felt tears rolling down my burning cheeks. This was not how things were supposed to happen.

Now, sitting behind the green mini van I finally let my breath out as I wiped my face clean. I took out my cellphone. I could call my best friend, Tim. He lived just a few blocks away. I could ask to spend the night. I could ask him not to tell anyone. Except I couldn’t. He was gone. Away on a trip to LA in a eight month program to help the homeless. He couldn’t help me.

What about my other best friend, James? I tried calling him. No answer. I tried again and again. Still nothing. I thought about my other friends, but none were close enough, none could get to me. I could not get to them. I was on my own. All alone. Sitting on the curb behind a dirty green minivan in the middle of the night. There was no one there for me.

Then the phone rang. The display read, “Home”. It wouldn’t be him calling. He never called. I thought about not answering. Let them wonder where I had gone. Let them worry about their son. Let them suffer a bit, to teach them a lesson that they will never ever lay a finger on me again. The phone kept ringing and the chill entered my bones. There was nowhere else to go. No one else. All I had was them.

I knew what would come. Apologies and regrets. Sentiments and empty promises. Sure he’d go to anger management this time. Sure he’d talk to the pastor this time. Sure he would change. In that moment, I closed my burning eyes and knew what was coming and knew what I was about to do and hated myself for being so weak, so scared. Like that little boy under the bed covers again. I opened my eyes and answered the phone.


My mom’s voice was the only one on the other end of the line.

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