Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Burning Alone (Draft 2)

This is the second draft of my Memoir piece, Burning Alone. While it is a work in progress I feel that this is probably the draft I will end up submitting to my writing workshop for review. I would like to express that, I hope I painted a better picture of my relationship with my dad in this, in that I really did strive to make it clearer that while he may have done a lot of things, and said a lot of things that I don't agree with, his motivation was always him trying to do good, the best way he thought he could. And that this is simply one side of many. In what ends up being the final draft, I hope to incorporate more of that, to paint a better picture of how he has many times come to my rescue when my car has broken down, or given me the tools that have helped me become who I am. And for that I will always be grateful. Because even this experience, as painful as it was, also helped to shape me, in a positive way. And I feel that life is really about taking the worst, most horrendous circumstances and events and finding the positive that can come out of that. So without further ado, here is Burning Alone, Draft 2.

Burning Alone

The shadows of the trees reached like claws, trying to grab me as I ran away from the house. Though I had ran the familiar path many times before, never before had I ran it because of fear. 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 with the sillouettes of basketball hoops towering over it, 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. There was still too much shock, too much raw emotion to figure out what I was feeling. 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 of suburbia. 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 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 outside. 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? Or doing worse.

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 or the large hands grabbed me up from my bed.

I would often wake up in the morning with the red and blue blanket still over my head, if the nightmares 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 out 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 at 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 was comforting. I felt safe.

On this specific night, when I was seven, I had been asleep on my mattress on the floor of my parent’s room when I was suddenly jarred awake. My mother’s heel quickly disappearing into the darkness above me. I sat up groggily and asked what was going on. It only took a second for me to realize what she was doing. She was busy trying to open our safe. She was going for 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 small alarm embedded over my parent’s bed had gone off. My father had risen and gone outside to check on the motion detectors. The dog wasn’t barking anymore, just growling. When my dad got there, he saw the tiny animal with a vehement grip on the calve of a black man, both snarling at each other as they were locked in combat. Immediately my father was outside, tackling the intruder to the ground.

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 called 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.

Back in the 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 all our arguments. There was the sickening, coiling feeling that sat like lead in my stomach as I heard his footsteps approaching. I knew what was coming. I had arrived home to find the garage door open like a gigantic mouth, the various tools and pieces of lumber lying scattered about the driveway.

“I’m fixing the back fence. Why don’t you come give me a hand.”

It was not a question. It was a command. I would sigh, get up straining as if the weight of the world was pressing me down in front of the television at that moment. I wasn’t going to pretend that this was fine because I wasn’t fine with it. I knew what would come. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him make me do this work without making him suffer just as much as I was going to suffer.

“What do you expect to get done, holding a saw like that?”

I closed my eyes and swallowed the bile that rose in the back of my throat at his words. Turning around to face him, I didn’t say anything. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, that was my mantra. While he was baiting me, I was treating his comments with the contempt I felt they deserved and refused to answer.

“Here. When you take the saw lean into it with your shoulder. Stop. No, not like that! Like this. Here. Let me do it.”

And thats how it always went. I had never cared about the proper way to hold a saw. And I never would. And I was okay with that. And the world was okay with that too, because they invented an occupation just to cater to people who didn’t care for woodwork: carpenters. So I was not about to start trying to saw the stupid piece of wood and if he hadn’t gotten it by then, then he won’t get the fact that at that moment he is sawing it instead of me.

“See. Easy. Now, you do the next one. We’re gonna keep sawing out here until you get this right!”

I wanted to protest. To tell him no. To tell him I had plans with my friends. To tell him that I hated his stupid sawing and his stupid lessons and his stupid ideas about what was character and what it took to get it and how to be a real man. It was stupid, ignorant, boorish people like him who gave us immigrants a bad name. A name I had tried so desperately to distance myself from through all these years in America. And here he was, trying to force his shit on me. But I couldn’t say any of that. A thirteen year old boy was not supposed to talk back when he was being taught a “valuable life lesson”.

“No. I just showed you how to hold it. I mean, think about it. Its only logical that if you put your force on that part of your arm–hey! Are you even listening. Pay attention! How do you expect to ever get anywhere in life, acting like a fricken faggot who only stands around and listens to opera and shit!”

My eyes narrowed. My cheeks burned with rage. Not only had he once again showed his incredible stupidity, he had dared to insult my love for opera. There were certain things in life that were forgivable, but somewhere I had to draw the line!

“What are you gonna do someday when you need to fix your own fence? Hmm? Are you gonna go ask your wife to do it while you sit inside and paint your nails? You sure as hell don’t have any niggers here to take care of that for you.”

At this point, I just stood up and walked away. Furiously, I stomped every step on the wooden stairs leading up to the house as if it were his head beneath my feet. A thousand voices of injustice screamed in my brain. This man. This, this, step-father, how dare he!

But at least I made him feel it too. He grew frustrated by the fact that I didn’t care. That I stopped trying almost right away. And that was the revenge I took. I would hand him the wrong tool on purpose. I would forget where the planks were supposed to go, and would drop all the screws on the grass on purpose. That would show him.

Inside I would sit down again, pick up a book, put it down, get back up, walk down the hall, turn around, walk back, sit down, turn the television on. Trying to summon normallacy, trying to tell myself that I didn’t care. That I was the one who was wronged. That I didn’t feel guilty. That I wouldn’t allow him to make me feel guilty.

Then there was that sound. The sudden crash as a plate was thrown against the floor. That filled me with more fear than any sound I ever heard from outside my window back in South Africa. 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.

It wasn’t the first time he threw a plate. Or punched a hole in the wall. And after ever one of his little outburst he’d be fine. Like a volcano 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. At first I felt bad, knowing that I had in part, caused his frustration to rise like that. But later, I just grew angrier at him. It was his fault that I was frustrating him to begin with. He should have just left me alone. Should have gotten the message and quit the whole, father-son manual labor fantasy he had in his head. It wasn’t going to happen.

It was later, at dinner time, when things went wrong. Through the years in this new country of TV dinners and strangers for neighbors, my mother had insisted in one thing; that everyone still eat together every night. So we had both sat and endured the silence that hung over that table. Gradually, normal conversation began to trickle into the air, until finally a collective sigh of relief could be felt from everyone at the table. That was until he brought the tentative and fragile peace crashing down.

“So, yeah, I really like the book. I might buy it.”

“Hah! With what money? Not mine.”

“You don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t have to. You’re just gonna waste more of your money on story books that won’t ever help you in the future.”

“And sawing will?”

“You better watch it, boy. You should be grateful that I am taking the time to teach you something you can use at least!”

My mother and brothers, realizing that the conversation was growing explosive, began clearing the table.

“Isn’t it true, boy, that you can’t just hide yourself away in your fairytales! The world is a cruel mother fucker and you better be ready to face it! To be a man!”

“A man like you? Who makes fun of me when I can’t do the things you want me to!”

“You don’t even try!”

“I did! A long time ago I used to try and you would say the same things! Calling me a sissy. Saying I was acting like a faggot. And I couldn’t say anything back to you cause I wasn’t allowed to. But I’m getting sick of it! You can’t talk to people like that!”

“You better shut your mouth you little brat!”

“See! There you’re doing it again! I can’t talk to you! I can’t say anything!”

“That’s right! Because you’re just a child! You don’t know anything! You just sit there and attack what I say. But what I say, the way I speak, that’s just who I am. And that isn’t ever going to change!”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way–”

“Shut the fuck up! You don’t know anything! You better stop attacking who I am! Attacking me! I am your father, you little mother-fucker! I can’t control the way I am, or the things I say!”

I didn’t say anything, as the heat simmered in the air of the room. I walked around the table, picking up my plate and carrying towards the kitchen. Turning around, I looked back at him, intent that I would not cry, not let him win.

“You’re just a child. Maybe someday you’ll understand, but until then you better hold your tongue!”

“Everyone can control what they say.”

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.

His words seemed to be distorted and distant as he said, “No one talks to me like that!”

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 ass. 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, put the plate still in my hands on the kitchen table, and then walked out of the back door. And I ran. And as I ran, that blazing comet falling inside 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. This was not what my life was supposed to be like.

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. I didn’t want anyone else to know. I felt ashamed. Guilty that I had caused all this to happen. But as I opened my phone to call him, I saw his last message to me and remembered that he was gone. He was in LA for the next few months. I couldn’t call him.

What about my other best friend, James? I tried calling him. No answer. I tried again and again. Still nothing. I thought about all the other friends and people I knew, but none were close enough, none could get to me. I couldn’t drive yet. I couldn’t 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 vibrated. The display read, “Home”. It couldn’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.


A chill bled into my soul as all the heat inside was extinguished with a sudden hiss. A slow curling trail of smoke rising like a prayer heaven ward over the ashes of my reality. The reality that my mom’s voice was the only one on the other end of the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment