My father lived in a small white single-family home on a paved hilltop in Walpole, Massachusetts. There was a wooden porch with steep steps that went down to the concrete side walk. On the aluminum awning that protruded out from the top of the front door, raindrops tapped like pebbles at a lover’s window. Within minutes, an applause of rain could be heard as the drops turned into a summer storm.
The front door was open. My father leaned with his shoulder against the frame. At 6’4, he couldn’t stand upright without having to duck his head. His arms and legs were crossed as he stared off into the mist.
“C’mon, let’s go outside.”
I ran over to him. He crouched down to help me roll up the bottoms of my pant legs before rolling up his own. Rolling them up made me feel official like we were putting on our rainstorm uniforms and heading out to work. Barefoot, we braved the rain. My dad went down the steep steps first, continuously looking back at me, telling me to be careful not to slip. At the bottom, the pavement felt warm on my tiny feet and the water splashed with each step I took. Being on a hill, the water was rushing rapidly downward, like a river, and when I stepped off the curb, I felt the force against my ankles and believed it could take me away, but I wasn’t afraid because next to me was my giant.
He looked 20 feet tall. I mimicked his outstretched arms as he stared up at the thundering sky as if to say,
“That’s all you got?!”
We splashed about for what felt like hours, laughing and playing until going back inside. I’ve witnessed countless rainstorms with my dad since that day, but we never went out to play in them. I don’t know what was different then, but that was the only time I’ve seen him that happy. That memory is the reason rain soothes me today. Whenever it’s raining, I go to my front door, open it up, lean against the frame with my arms and legs crossed, and stare into the mist.
Anxiety accompanies me like a dark cloud, whispering in my ear,
“Don’t get comfortable bitch.”
I constantly feel like something bad is about to happen, and I’ll have to move again. My parents dated briefly as teens, but never married. After they split, my father joined the Army, and during one of his trips back home on leave, I was conceived. I lived with my mother and my older brother for eight years until my sister was born (both of different fathers), then it was the four of us. We were the family that received the food donations from the school on Thanksgiving.
I kept a folder from one of my fourth-grade classes containing some short stories and poetry I wrote. One story titled Going to Six Different Schools, listed each school I attended and something I liked about them. I didn’t want to write anything negative, I wanted to look perfect. I wrote about the kids I met at the Horace Mann Laboratory School, but I left out the part about after school and having to sneak back into my apartment because the Spanish kids chased me with a bat when they saw me; or the one time their older relatives (I don’t know if they were fathers, uncles, or what, but they were adults) made me eat worms they cooked on the grill. I wrote about the delicious pizza I ate in school but didn’t mention the roaches infesting our cabinets at home, or how I picked ants out of my cereal and ate it anyway. To this day, on the rare occasion I buy cereal, I search the box for bugs before I pour a bowl. I wouldn’t dare tell anyone we went to a warehouse to get free knockoff brand food. I was nine and already moved six times. I moved a few more times before I ended up on Liberty Avenue in Woburn.
The summer before going into 5th grade, my mother was informed there was a place available in the housing projects in Woburn. Liberty Ave intersected with Eastern Ave and right on the corner was the brick-red duplex, numbered 47 and 48; we were 48. The driveway was steep and at the top, three concrete steps rose from the pavement to a front porch. The door to the house opened into one large room we later separated with our couch, indicating the living room area.
My school, the Shamrock Elementary School, was right next to my house. On the first day of class, I met the first friend I’d ever had. He was a short Vietnamese boy with jet black hair. I approached him and said,
“Hi, I’m Rob.”
“Hi, I’m Tri.” (pronounced “G”)
“Like the letter?”
“No, it’s spelled T-R-I.”
“That’s weird, why didn’t your mom just spell it ‘G?’”
“It’s a Vietnamese name.”
“I am. My family is from Vietnam.”
“Where is that?”
“The other side of the world.”
Boom, we were best friends. I invited him to my house after school. My mom was a little surprised when I showed up with a guest, but she didn’t mind because Tri was studious and the first thing he said when we got to my house was,
“Let’s do our homework before we play.”
We played together every day at recess and either went to his house or mine after school. He taught me all about Jackie Chan (who immediately became my idol) and I watched every movie of his I could find. Tri and I practiced our version of martial arts during recess, sparring each other on the grass by the fence separating the school from my house, away from the sight of teachers.
As summer approached and 5th grade was ending, Tri informed me he was moving to Melrose. It was only 10-minutes away, but I didn’t know that. He might as well have said he was moving back to Vietnam because I was convinced I’d never see my friend again. I didn’t see him all summer, but during the following school year, I visited him almost every weekend. His new house had a large back yard for us to practice our Jackie Chan moves, and his basement was furnished with couches and video games. His mom brought us food constantly, telling me, “You’re too skinny, eat, eat!”
Tri had lifted weights and had a growth spurt, so when I saw him in the fall, he was several inches taller than me and muscular. I was mad when I asked,
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to work out? I would have done it too.” As if I could have forced a growth spurt on myself.
My house had a decent sized front porch with an awning covering it. As a teen, from the spring through the early fall (before it got too cold), when it rained, I’d take a chair from the kitchen table and bring it outside to the porch. I had a white, feather-filled down comforter I’d wrap around my body. I didn’t sit in the chair like most people would; instead, I would squat on it, my butt and feet on the seat. I’d tuck my chin between my knees and chest, with my cheekbones resting on my kneecaps. My arms would hold the comforter closed, hugging my shins tightly as I watched the rain fall. Then, I’d close my eyes and listen to the water’s symphony and feel completely at peace.
I spent the school year maintaining my routine I had with Tri the year before. I went to school, went home, did my homework first, then played. It wasn’t until seventh grade that I changed. I don’t know if it was the age or what, but whatever rage I repressed reared its ugly head that year. I didn’t do homework, I talked back to teachers, I got detention for disrupting class, but the worst thing I did that year was skip school for the first time.
The school bus picked up a group of us at the Shamrock and drove us to the Joyce Middle School across town. My friend Vic took that bus too, so I hung out with him and his friends at the bus stop. They were the cool kids that sat at the back of the bus. I was cool by proximity and usually sat next to Vic at the way back. We played all sorts of games that drove the bus driver crazy. Our favorite was a game we called “Red Light.”
The premise of the game is, one person goes to the front of the bus and must run to the back and touch the red light above the rear emergency exit. The challenge is, everyone gets to punch you while you run, until you touch the light. Between that game and severe birthday beatings, I don’t think I had a single bruise-less day that year.
Our bus was often late, especially when it was cold out. I think it was the driver’s way of getting back at us. One day the driver was so late, most of us assumed she wasn’t coming. Vic went home, and several other kids did the same, but I knew I couldn’t get away with going to my house because my mom hadn’t left for work yet. Instead, a kid I knew, Mike, who lived down the other end of Liberty Ave, asked if I wanted to go to his house and use his phone to call my mom. I accepted the offer and pretended to call her.
“She didn’t answer.”
“Okay, try back in a little bit. My mom told me I could stay home. You want to play Frogger?”
We played Frogger on his computer for hours. His mother came home on her lunch break and asked how we were doing. She asked if I had spoken to my mother and I told her I called a few times but couldn’t reach her.
“What’s her number, I’ll try.”
“Oh, umm, I just called, so she probably won’t answer.”
“Still, I’d like to speak with her to let her know. The school must have called her and said you weren’t there. I don’t want her to worry.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
“Let me try one more time.” I said.
I dialed the bank my mother worked at, and someone picked up.
“Hi, is Mary there?”
“May I ask whose calling?”
“This is Rob, her son.”
“Oh my goodness! Are you okay? Your mother is looking all over for you.”
“Yes, I’m fine, is she there?”
“No, she left. She was worried sick. I think she called the police.”
I hung up the phone and stared blankly at the wall.
“Is everything okay?” Mike’s mom asked.
“I have to go.”
I walked up the street to my house. It was empty when I went in. I decided to play it cool like I was there the whole time. I thought of a genius plan. I was going to say I was asleep and didn’t hear her when she came home looking for me. Shortly after, my mother walked in.
“Where the hell were you?!” She yelled.
“I was here, what’s wrong?”
“No, you weren’t, where were you?”
“I was here. The bus never came this morning. Everyone went home so I did too. I went back to bed.”
“You didn’t go back to bed because that’s the first place I fucking checked. Where were you?”
“I did go back to bed, but I woke up and went down the street to Mike’s house to play for a little bit.”
“Mike who? I want to talk to him.”
“He’s a friend from school. You can talk to his mom. She knew I was there.”
“Do you have any idea how worried I was? The school called me and said, ‘Your son isn’t in school today.’ I said, ‘Yes he is, he went to the bus stop this morning.’ Then they told me the bus broke down and all the kids got rides to school or their parents called in.”
“See? I told you the bus didn’t come”
“You should have called me. I called the police.”
“You called the cops? Why would you do that?”
“I thought someone took you. I was walking around yelling into the ground thinking you were buried alive.”
“Why was that your first thought?”
“I’ve never received a call from the school before about you. Never. I was so scared. I called the police, I called your father, I cal—”
“You called my dad? Mom! What the hell!”
“Yes, and he’s not happy about this. He’s on his way over.”
“I’m going out.”
“No, you’re not. You’re grounded.”
“Why? The bus didn’t come, the school told you that. Why am I in trouble for it?”
“Because you didn’t call me, and I had to leave work.”
“You didn’t have to leave work, you chose to leave work. I was fine. I was playing Frogger with Mike.”
“Yeah, I’m going to just sit at work when the school tells me my son is missing.”
I argued with her about my punishment until my dad arrived. He came in and told me to sit down on the couch. After giving me a whack upside the head, he asked,
“Why didn’t you call anyone when the bus didn’t show?”
“I don’t know.”
“Bullshit. You wanted to stay home. You should have called, or you should have walked to school.”
“I don’t know the way.”
“Well you’re going to know today. Let’s go.”
He made me walk while he slowly drove alongside me. He either felt bad or was too impatient because after ten minutes of walking he let me get in his truck and drove the rest of the way. He made sure to point out every landmark that would help me remember the route. When we got home, my mom and him decided that since the bus didn’t show up, I would get a warning, but if I skipped again there would be hell to pay. I didn’t skip again until high school.
My dad was a punishment when my mom couldn’t handle my brother and me. I didn’t really see him otherwise. He had me every other weekend up until I was twelve or thirteen, and then I stopped visiting him altogether. Most of the time I slept at his house, we didn’t interact much other than small talk while eating. There was the occasional game of catch, a couple trips to the arcade, but usually I sat at his computer while he watched TV.
I mostly remember seeing him because I was in trouble. I was afraid of him. He had a booming voice when he was mad. I often heard it in my head, angrily yelling my name, until my late teens.
When my brother or I acted up, my mom would say,
“Do you want me to call your father?” or, “That’s it! I’m calling your father.”
He wasn’t my brother’s father, but that guy was out of the picture, so my dad stepped in for discipline. He wasn’t abusive by my standards, but he did hit us. Spankings on the butt when we were little, but as we grew, they turned to whacks upside the head, maybe a shove once or twice to force us to sit down while he yelled. There was only one time when we lived in Everett I remember him taking it too far.
I don’t remember what we did wrong, but I know my mother had to be driven to her snapping point before she called my dad so I’m sure we deserved it. When he arrived, my brother and I were already in our room, in bed.
My dad came in and yelled at us for him having to come over so late, then he spanked me once and I cried. However, my brother, ever-so stubborn, grit his teeth and didn’t make a sound. That angered my father. He spanked him again, harder. My brother still held back. It got to the point my brother was literally bouncing off the bed from how hard my dad was spanking him. My dad realized he went too far and without saying anything, he stopped spanking him, and left. After he was gone, my brother let out his tears, turned to me and said,
“He’s not even my dad.”
Then he hit me. I cried again.
The only other time my dad scarred me as a kid I can remember is when he dawned a werewolf mask with eyes that lit up. He was joking around, but I was six or seven years old, hiding in the closet, terrified. Then he found me. He opened the closet door and put his hands up, imitating claws, as he howled and laughed. The eyes glowed red, the mouth wide open, the teeth looked sharp and fierce. I closed my eyes and screamed.
Dream a Dream
I had a reoccurring nightmare for years about a man in a trench coat with detective’s hat that cast a shadow, covering his face. His eyes and teeth pierced through the shadow. His smile was sharp and grew bigger as he transformed into a werewolf before leaping on me and ripping me apart.
The worst dream about it took place when I lived in Billerica, eight years old. I was in a parking lot, and for some reason there was a couch in the middle of the lot. My mother, father, and brother were sitting on the couch, laughing. There was no sound coming from them. Then, behind me, appeared the trench coat man. He smiled a big white smile that turned into sharp teeth as he transformed into the werewolf. He lunged at me, knocking me the pavement. I screamed for my family to help, but they didn’t notice me and kept laughing as he tore me to pieces. Suddenly, I heard music.
I sprung awake in my bed while gasping for air. Relief trickled over me. I looked to my right and my brother was sitting Indian style on the floor between our beds with his headphones on, loud enough I could hear the music. I looked to the doorway of my room and the trench coat man was standing there, leaning against the frame, smiling at me. I panicked, and he transformed into the werewolf and lunged at me. Just before he reached me, I woke up, gasping for air. I looked to my right and my brother was sitting Indian style on the floor between our beds, headphones on, loud enough I could hear the music. I quickly looked to the doorway. Nothing. I was really awake.
I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was rebellious. I looked for the easy route. In tenth grade I took accounting. It wasn’t anything advanced; we just learned how to balance a checkbook and stuff like that. I was maintaining an A until we reached the end of the year and our teacher brought in a copy of the final. It looked like a manuscript for a movie. My immediate thought was, I’m not doing that.
I did the math and concluded I would still pass the course if I didn’t take the final. When I brought that to my teacher’s attention, he wasn’t thrilled.
“You still have to take it.”
“Because everyone has to take it.”
“Everyone except for me. I’m not doing it.”
“But you have an A. Failing the final will ruin it.”
“I’ve made peace with that.”
“Well you still have to take it. This isn’t up for debate.”
“I’m not debating. I’m letting you know, I’m not going to take the final.”
“I don’t want to have to get the principal involved, but I will. Not taking the final isn’t an option.”
“You don’t have to get the principal involved. I’m just not going to take the final. Grade me accordingly and that’s it.”
“Go sit down, we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”
The next day I got called down to the principal’s office.
“What’s going on Rob? Why are you refusing to take the final?”
“Because it’s too long. I don’t want to take it. I’m never going to be an accountant.”
“Everybody has to take their final. That’s part of school.”
“Look, accounting is math, and I did the math already. If I get a zero on the final, I will still pass, probably with a C. It’s like having money in the bank. I can take a few days off work and live off my savings. Sure, I won’t have as much money in the account, so maybe I can’t go out next weekend, but I can still pay the rent. C’s pay the rent.”
He stared at me and rapidly blinked a few times, unsure how to respond. Then he asked, “C’s are acceptable to you when you could clearly get the A?”
“Yeah, I don’t care. C’s get degrees, right?”
“Yeah but would you rather have a doctor who got C’s in med school or A’s?”
“When was the last time you asked your doctor his GPA from med school?”
He stood there, mouth slightly agape. I’ve always had a knack for arguing from a realist’s perspective, even as a young child. My mother told me that when I was little, after we’d argue, I would apologize and then demand an apology from her for her part because there were two sides to every story, so we were both wrong in some way.
“That’s beside the point. Every student has to take their final and that’s that.”
“You mean to tell me there was never a student before who didn’t take a final? Nobody had the flu during finals? Nobody went on a trip? Nobody just didn’t care? Everybody in the history of Woburn High has taken their final?”
“Goodbye Rob, I’m calling your parents. Go to class. You will be hearing about this.”
I had to stay after the next day. My dad, mom, the principal, and my accounting teacher all were there trying to convince me to take it. I felt powerful in a way I hadn’t anticipated. There I was, surrounded by all the adults in my life who were supposed to have authority over me, and they were practically begging me to take the final. It fueled me to stand my ground. If I had more sense, I would have made demands in exchange for taking it. The meeting ended with them all agreeing I would take it. I made no such agreement, but they seemed to be satisfied with each other.
The night before my accounting final, I decided that instead of just sitting in class quietly, like I had originally planned, I was going to make a scene. I packed my comforter into my backpack. It barely fit. I couldn’t zip it up all the way. During our finals, we didn’t have to attend every class, we just came in at the usual time in the morning and went to whatever class had a final scheduled that day.
I arrived early. I found a nice spot on the floor, in the back of the classroom, and laid out my comforter. I had also brought my pillow. I snuggled into it and pretended to nap. I could feel the eyes of the students on me. I heard the murmurs and hoped they found it amusing. Suddenly, everything went quiet. My teacher had arrived. He didn’t notice me right away, he began talking about the rules of the final when he stopped mid-sentence. He saw me.
“Get up now!” He yelled louder than I expected. It startled me.
I turned over and faked a yawn, acting as if I had just woken up. His face was red. A vein was showing in his neck and forehead. He was not amused.
“Get out. Go to the office!”
I didn’t say a word, just packed my blanket back into my bag and picked up my pillow and left. The principal wasn’t there, so the office had me sit and wait for the period to end, then they sent me to my next final. I expected I would get in serious trouble, but the trouble never came. The semester ended, and I received a C in the class.
That teacher avoided contact with me for the remainder of my time at Woburn High and I didn’t see him again until my daughter had him as her assistant basketball coach when she was in elementary school. I don’t know if he remembered me, but I got a vibe like he didn’t want to speak to me any more than he had to.
I was a Junior the night Vic and I vandalized the school. We were bored, and Vic came up with the idea to take a large white paint bucket and fill it with hot water. We took two packs of white printer paper and put them in the water, mushing it into what was basically a giant spit ball. We drove to the school with the bucket and some spray paint.
The old Woburn High, the one I went to before they tore it down and built the one that currently stands, consisted of seven buildings. They were all side by side and connected by hallways. The one connecting buildings six and seven via the second floor was made of plexiglass. During the school day, you could see herds of students walking through it from the outside.
Vic and I arrived late on a Friday night. The first thing we did was spray paint a giant smiley face on the brick wall of building seven. We weren’t artistic. Then we took globs of our wet paper and chucked it at the plexiglass walkway. The front-facing side was covered. We couldn’t wait until Monday to see what people thought.
We got away with it. Word around school was Winchester High School kids vandalized us after losing a recent football game. The spray paint was quickly cleaned up, but the spit balls stayed on until they tore down the school to build the new one. I admitted to a few people I did it, but none believed me. Sorry Winchester.
My school antics were small compared to the real bad kids, the ones who fought all the time. So, I didn’t see it as that big of a deal when in seventh grade I was sitting in my math class, my desk by the open window, and I yelled,
Then chucked my book out the window.
I hated math, mostly because I couldn’t do it. In my tenth-grade math class, not accounting, but my actual math class, I never did the homework. When the day came that the teacher accidentally printed one less copy of the homework she handed out, I raised my hand and said,
“Miss Smith. I didn’t get one.”
She looked around the room, “Are there any more copies still going around?” The room was silent. “I must not have printed out enough.” She paused and thought about it for a moment. Then said, “Oh well, you wouldn’t have done it anyway.”
“Oh? Okay then.” I leaned back in my seat and put my feet on the desk.
She was right, I wouldn’t have done it, but I was angry she called me out on it, and slightly embarrassed, so I decided I would check out even during class from then on. I failed and had to retake it the following year with a different teacher. Even though I was a year behind in math, I still graduated on time.