The Best Part of My Christmas Vacation Was . . .
My stepmother lumbers past the kitchen table where I sit. A curled wisp of blue cigarette smoke trails behind her like dragon’s breath. She’s a formidable woman—heavyset, but not fat. I know that if ever I marry a woman described as formidable, it will speak volumes about the sad direction my life somehow took along the way. With a decade’s worth of hatred burning in my eyes, I watch my formidable stepmother disappear into the living room.
Gently tapping my pen against my front teeth, I glance down at my essay. I’ve written one sentence—The best part of my Christmas vacation was spending time with family—and it’s a load of crap. The best part of vacation was sitting home alone two nights ago, New Years Eve, stuffing myself with Oreo cookies and milk and watching Dick Clark usher in 1981. Fun, but I doubt I can write a one page essay about it.
I get up, pour myself a glass of Pepsi. Pepsi, The Breakfast Of Champions. I’d like to hear that come out of Bruce Jenner’s mouth. Every other weekend I stay at my father’s apartment, sleep over Saturday night. And every other Sunday morning, my stepmother storms into the kitchen wearing a scowl and a nightgown the size of a tent. First thing she does, every damn time, is light a cigarette and pour a glass of Pepsi. I’m hoping the combination will kill Lynette. That’s her name, Lynette—like Manson’s friend “Squeaky” Fromme, with whom she has a lot in common. But people like my stepmother don’t die until they’ve outlived everyone else.
I drop an ice cube into my glass, hear it crack. I take a sip. The sweet carbonation fizzes on my tongue. A thin, noxious cloud of Lynette’s cigarette smoke hangs and swirls around my head as I move to the edge of the living room.
“Don’t you bring that drink there! You know the rule!” Lynette calls from the master bedroom. Her voice is like a creaky door swinging in the wind.
Yes, I do indeed know the rule. The Rule. It’s been driven into my head every other weekend for the past ten years, since I was four. The rule is, no food or drink in the living room. Not a bad rule, fair, except this rule pertains only to myself. Sasha, my stepsister, is allowed to eat or drink wherever the hell she wants. She’s eleven years old and is, in every way, the bitch’s spawn. As I sit back down at the kitchen table, she emerges like a bat from her cave. She’s just woken up and is wearing sweatpants and a KISS T-shirt. Now I’m pissed off, because that’s my KISS shirt. From a box on the counter she grabs three Twinkies—one for each chin, I suppose. Moving to the refrigerator, she pours a tall glass of Pepsi. Like mother, like daughter. She turns to me, sticks out her nasty, fat tongue, and smirks. I jump up and hurl my pen at her, but my aim is off. The pen bounces off the fridge as Sasha waddles into the living room.
I turn to the kitchen window. The January sun is high and bright, but cold winter air cuts silently through the old single panes. I look down from the second-floor apartment to the driveway below. The crunch of tires rolling on gravel serves as my early warning system that Dad is home. From experience, I know that I won’t hear the crunch for a few more hours, when Dad is good and drunk. I look up from the driveway, to the window of the woman across the way. Sometimes she undresses in the window. Sometimes she catches me looking and smiles. Today the blinds are down.
Picking my pen up from the floor, I sit at the table. I need to work on my essay. I tap, shift, fidget, but no words appear. From the living room, the high-tech sounds of Pac-Man drive into my ears like electronic spikes. Sasha got an Atari for Christmas. I got a six-month subscription to Sports Illustrated, along with a direct order to never use the Atari without first asking Sasha. The order came from my father, with Lynette hovering like the grim shadow of death in the background. I didn’t say anything, just shrugged, but it really pissed me off. I’d been asking for an Atari all year. I listen to Sasha play for a few minutes, then drop the pen onto my notebook.
As she sits on the worn living room carpet, gazing up at Pac-Man chomping dots on the screen, she doesn’t hear me walk up behind her, doesn’t realize I’m directly above her until I squat down and rip a fart on her fat head. It’s a good one, one of those loud buzz-saw farts. Pleasing to the ear and to the rear, as my father would say. Sasha screams and runs from the room. I laugh, grab the joystick, and continue her game.
Her daughter’s scream brings my stepmother out of the bedroom. I feel her heavy footsteps, hear the floor squeak, but refuse to look over. She takes a long, hissing drag from her cigarette. Her wicked gaze burns into the back of my head. I stare at the TV but my senses are focused behind me.
“Why did Sasha scream?” she finally says.
I ignore her, keep chomping dots. Surprisingly, I’m having a great game. Lynette stomps over, bends down, shuts the Atari off. A chunk of rank ash falls from her cigarette, landing on the console.
“Hey! I had the high score!”
“I asked you a question.”
“I don’t know why she screamed. Probably saw her reflection in the screen.”
Lynette glares at me. There’s no light in those black eyes. “Did you ask Sasha if you could use her game?”
“I think you’re lying,” Lynette growls.
I shrug and get up from the floor. The Atari isn’t as fun as the arcade game, anyway. I like playing at the Space Center, with the games cranked up loud and the music cranked up even louder. Lots of Loverboy, lots of Billy Squier. Some of the older kids are incredible players. One guy, Johnny Forest, a senior with a Trans Am, can roll the Centipede game over. I steer clear of him, though. He yells at guys who talk while he’s playing, punches them if they get close enough.
I grab the cable box and sit on the couch. After pressing a few of the loud buttons—thump, thump, thump—I find Creature Double Feature on Channel 8. I swing my feet up and get comfortable. Then I realize Lynette is still in the room, staring at me.
She sees me look at her. She smirks. Leaning down near me, she pats her cigarette out in the end-table ashtray. I glance at the half-dozen butts and ashes, mixed together like a gray casserole. Kissing her would be similar to licking that, I imagine. Still staring at me, Lynette pulls a pack of Kool Filter Kings from her front shirt pocket and taps the lighter from the cellophane wrapper. Dangling the cigarette from her thin lips, she lights it, slides the lighter inside the cellophane, and places the pack in her pocket. Her eyes never leave mine.
I turn back to the television, but my stepmother doesn’t move. My eyes are locked on the screen, but I sense her staring at me. I feel it. Finally, I yell, “What?”
“Get your feet off the couch,” she says softly.
I look at my stocking feet. “Why? I’m not wearing any shoes.”
“Your socks are dirty. I don’t know how it is at your mother’s house, but at my house things are kept clean.”
I gesture toward Sasha’s empty Twinkie wrappers on the floor. “Really? You may want to inform your daughter of that.”
My stepmother’s eyes narrow. “Get your feet off my couch.”
I ignore her, watch Godzilla tear down some Japanese street wires. Then she moves in front of me and turns off the television.
“Hey!” I yell, jumping off the couch.
She approaches me until we are face to face, inches apart. I’m fourteen and almost Lynette’s height, but she outweighs me by at least fifty solid pounds. I’m frightened, but angrier than I’ve ever been.
“You will do as I say, boy,” she says in her grating voice. Her breath is hot and rotten. The large freckles on her face are more gray than brown. I realize she’s even uglier up close.
“No, I won’t.” I try to control my voice from shaking, but fail. “You’re not my mother.”
“No, I’m not,” she says with a thin smile. “Because if I was, I’d be out drinking all night at Hickory’s Pub every other weekend.”
“Fuck you!” I scream, then breathe in quickly as I try to take it back. I can’t believe I said that. Lynette shoves me with her cigarette-free hand, driving me easily down onto the couch. She’s much stronger than me.
“Listen to me, you little shit,” she says. “If you ever speak to me like that again I’ll beat you within an inch of your life. Understand?”
I spring up and face her. Our noses nearly touch.
“Bitch,” I say, almost in a whisper.
Then I brace for another shove, or slap, or punch. I’m almost hoping she does something, because I’ve decided to fight back. But instead, she steps back and smiles a malicious, yellow-toothed grin.
“You’ll pay for that, boy,” she says. Setting her half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray, she walks out of the room.
I stand for a full five minutes, listening, waiting. The cigarette is burning. I want to put it out, but can’t bring myself to touch something that’s been in Lynette’s foul mouth. A line of cigarette smoke rises, clouding the room like a fog. Finally, I turn Creature Double Feature back on, sit on the couch—feet up—and relax. But not completely. Never completely. Not in this house.
The tires crunch when my father rolls into the driveway a while later. I’m not sure of the time, but it’s dark and Wide World of Sports is over. His drunken footsteps echo from the narrow stairway. The kitchen door squeaks when he opens it. He’s whistling, which means he’s really tanked. There is a low, grating voice in the kitchen. Lynette. The whistling stops.
My father walks into the living room. His eyes are bloodshot and angry. Without a word, he grabs me by the arm, lifts me from the couch. Holding me tightly by the back of the neck, he shoves me through the kitchen. I catch a self-satisfied smile on my stepmother’s face from the corner of my eye, but I can’t turn my head. I try to stop my feet, but my father is strong and angry and handles me like a toy. He pushes me into the spare bedroom—it’s never referred to as my room—throws me onto the bed, and removes his belt.
“You’re going to learn some fucking manners, boy,” he says. I stare at the large bronze buckle—a Winchester rifle emblem—as he slides the thick leather through his belt loops.
Shaking in fear, I press myself back against the wall. My father’s face is red with rage as he lifts his arm and swings the belt down. I see the leather, brown and worn, clear as a snapshot, and then it strikes my back with a loud slap. The pain is sharp and immediate, and I cry out. I try to cover up but quickly my father whips me again. And again. Tears stream down my face. As the belt rises again, I roll over and kick out blindly. I feel my foot connect with something. The belt hangs above me momentarily, then drops limply to the floor. My father falls beside it, gasping for breath. His hands hold his crotch and his drunken face is contorted in pain.
If I wasn’t so scared, I’d consider kicking him again. Instead, I grab my duffel bag and hurry from the room. I throw my notebook and pen inside, then put on my shoes and jacket. My stepmother and stepsister stand, open-mouthed, in the doorway of the spare room as I leave the apartment. My stepsister glances at me before I go and I shoot her the finger.
I walk home, two miles, in the cold, winter darkness. The night is quiet; for much of the walk the only sound is my own steady breathing. I enter the warm, dimly lit house to find my mother sitting alone, reading a book. She is surprised to see me, then notices the look on my face, the duffel bag in my hand.