Crazy Like Me, a novel in progress
When I got home, I found my father leaning against the front door.
For a sideways slip of a moment, I was eight years old and it was Dad’s weekend to drive downstate and take me back with him to the city. Even though I’d know to expect him when I got home from school, my stomach would still give a giddy lurch when I rounded the corner and saw the sun glinting off his landau-roofed red Plymouth in our driveway. I’d run the last two blocks, heart pounding, in order to fling myself into his sweaty, oversized embrace.
This time, this day, I wasn’t expecting him. There was a box, wrapped in brown paper and addressed to me in my grandmother’s crabbed hand. I figured maybe it was an early birthday present, so I picked it up and shook it a little, dismayed that whatever was inside appeared to be broken. But then, without ever having heard the sound before, I recognized it as fine bone chips and ash—what was left of my dad—sliding from one end to the other. It had the incongruously serene susurrance of a rain stick.
My grandmother had sent my father—without warning, without insurance—by parcel post. I think my dad would have thought it funny, but he could just as easily have been outraged by the perhaps intentional disrespect and cited it as further evidence of his martyrdom at the hands of his mother. I liked the times when my dad could find the humor and absurdity in things. More frequently, he trended toward paranoia.
My dad was crazy. That’s not even close to a politically correct term, but it’s the one I used growing up because I never had more specific one. He could have had some sort of personality disorder, been bipolar, maybe schizo-affective. I’ll never know, because he never saw a psychiatrist, and he was never diagnosed.
I think it was clear to everyone who met him that something was off. He wasn’t yet a teenager when he became obsessed with the idea that if he accidentally touched something (the first time, it was a tree trunk he’d randomly slapped his hand against on the way home from school), he had to go to any lengths to return to that object and touch it again in a multiple of three or Something Undefinable But Awful would happen.
By college, he claimed to believe that he had two gods assigned to him whose sole purpose was to make his life miserable. Goot, he said, was on duty Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; Terris took over on Tuesday and Thursday. On Sundays, they double-teamed him to make sure the day was deeply and profoundly bad.
I have never come close to my father’s flirtation with the edges of reality, but my soon-to-be ex-husband, Bryon, has insisted for years that I’m crazy, too. It hasn’t felt like it to me, but then again, maybe I’d be the last to know. Just because I know crazy when I see it might not guarantee I can recognize it in myself. Could be I’m like some raving lunatic gibbering about the phone company trying to siphon my brain out through my ears and misguidedly feeling superior to the guy over there who thinks he’s Lady Gaga. I’m fine, but that fucker over there? Cray-zee. Hoooooo boy.
Having a mentally ill parent is sort of like having allergies run in the family: you’re always on the lookout for symptoms. Was that a regular sneeze, or budding hay fever? Is that a mosquito bite, or the beginning of genetically inevitable hives? Did everyone lip sync to music and dance with imaginary partners well into their adulthood, or was that just me and the other Miss Haversham wannabes? I had no context. I was afraid to ask.
So I may or may not be crazy, depending on who you ask. But I am without doubt guilty of variety of offenses, and that guilt is fed by my own conscience and nurtured assiduously by Bryon. Our boys, six-year-old Finn and three-year-old Bean, have picked up on this and disingenuously pile on. “Daddy wanted to live with us,” I overheard Finn telling Bean just the other day, “but Mommy told him to go away.”
Mommy didn’t, actually, tell Daddy to go away, but that’s Bryon’s version of the end of our marriage, and at the moment, it appears to be the more potent of our stories for our boys. Ultimately, I guess, it doesn’t matter. We were a family. Soon, we will not be.
In a way, our marriage began dissolving the moment it began—not as in, we all begin dying the day that we are born, which sounds very Zen and beautiful and true and also facile and a little infuriating. But as in, it was fatally flawed from the beginning, and the crack that was apparent to me even then grew until it was a yawning chasm impossible to bridge. There were countless reasons why my husband and I should have split up any number of times over the decade we were husband and wife, and other, equally valid ones, why we didn’t. With time, those latter reasons lost their power. Finally, they weren’t enough to hold us together at all.
I’d probably never have fallen in love with a man like Bryon in the first place if I weren’t my father’s daughter. My dad was like an amazing Disney ride combined with weird, fun house mirror distortion and a trip down the rabbit hole to the most surreal of Wonderlands.
This was a man who used to put on his oldest clothes and a broken watch every time he filled my kiddie wading pool, so just I could have the pleasure of believing I was strong enough to “pull” him in, and he could delight me by pretending to sputter that I’d ruined his wardrobe and broken his watch. This was a guy could create an amazing underground cavern exploration experience using nothing but a sleeper sofa, his own vivid narration, and lots and lots of sheets. This was a father who would tell me about the far reaches of the universe while gently scratching my back as I fell asleep at night.
But this was also a man who careened the family car around the highway shouting that he was going to drive into an abutment and kill us all (on one memorable occasion, my mother simply snapped and screamed, “Well then, do it, dammit, just shut up and do it!”). This was a guy who routinely fell to the floor and rolled around, punching himself in the stomach and shrieking that he was a terrible husband and father. More than once, this was a man who straddled my mother and beat her across the face, back and forth and back and forth, all because she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of letting him see her cry.
I adored him. He terrified me. And, finally, he began to repulse me. Those accidental touches—always with the back of his knuckles—brushing against my shoulder, and then his hand darting back to touch me again—not once, not twice, but three times—they began to feel like a kind of molestation, like his craziness was something he was forcing on me against my will.
At the end of one of our last vacations together, on Cape Cod, he insisted I drive the rental car back to Logan airport in Boston because he’d become convinced all the other drivers were out to “get” him, and he was bent on driving into oncoming traffic. I was 14, and I’d never driven a car before.
I was scared as hell, but it clearly wasn’t safe to ride shotgun with my dad. So I took the wheel, literally and metaphorically. Being in the driver’s seat became the only way I knew to feel safe, and so I made sure to surround myself with people who were content to go along for the ride.
Bryon was the ideal passenger: handsome, funny, kind, and just eccentric enough to be interesting to a girl who was raised to believe that normalcy was dull. Most importantly, he was completely passive, willing to let me run him and our lives. Drawn by our mutual physical attraction to each other and lashed together by our intertwined dysfunctions, we stumbled along like drunks in a three-legged race. It worked surprisingly well for a while.