by Melanie Makovsky
Never Is A Promise, Fiona Apple
Christmas is a joke this year, and not the funny kind. It is a farce. We are sitting here in our pajamas opening presents as if it’s a normal Christmas, a typical Christmas, when it is anything but. I don’t remember ever wishing that it wasn’t Christmas, but today it is and I do.
I mean, this is ridiculous really. I’m 14 and Scott is 12, but it isn’t our ages that make this so awful. It’s the fact that we are, all three of us, sitting here performing this ritual and pretending we are happy and celebrating the most wonderful day of the year. We are pretending we are happy to help each other feel happy, but we don’t feel happy. None of us is happy, none of us will be happy, no matter how hard we try, and we all know that too. We’re doing this for each other, but also because we don’t really know how else to do this.
It is Christmas morning, and my dad is in jail. I don’t really want to talk about why. You can do the research yourself if you really want to know; it’s not hard information to find. The whole town knows because the damn newspaper made a big deal out of it, which is the only reason my parents told us what was happening. They didn’t want us to find out from everyone else.
Last summer, when I learned that my dad had been accused of — no, committed — a crime, I had what was probably the worst night of my life up to that point. There were just so many elements of it that hurt, but most of all it hurt because I felt like I had done something wrong too. The whole thing was ugly, but I had no knowledge of it until months into the judicial process, and then that night it was revealed that I, without any knowledge of my own, was a part of this. I hadn’t participated or even known about it, but I’d been attached to it by my parentage, and by the newspaper, so now I would suffer for it. My parents, at that time, believed that the result would be a probation sort of situation, so they reassured me that he wouldn’t go to jail, and that the worst of it was behind us. But I knew better.
It was summer break, sure, but all those people at school were still around. A couple of months of vacation didn’t make them go away, and their parents read the paper, and their parents knew whose daughter I was, and the closer it got to the first day, the worse it would get. And then I’d be back in the halls with those boys who harassed me.
Beginning in the second half of seventh grade, a group of boys began pursuing me. At first it was just little comments here and there, mostly about my breasts, but then the comments started becoming more hurtful, more sexual, and more graphic. “Does your dad sell watermelons on his farm? ‘Cause you sure have some.” Then, in eighth grade, it turned evil. I was assigned to a different school bus that year, and the boys who’d made uncomfortable comments in passing the year before now had my captive attention, and each other’s, for a full 45 minutes twice a day. In no time they were offering to pay me for sexual favors, placing bets with each other to see who would be the first to touch me, and making obscene gestures. Eventually they did begin touching me, and though of course I did what I could to prevent it, with so many kids stuffed on the bus, it was easy to press yourself up against someone and make it look like an accident. When nothing stopped them from that, they grew bolder, and one boy even leaned across several people to fondle me.
Through all of it, I knew I was being bullied, and I knew that it was wrong. But, in my mind, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They were young teen boys, and they had hormones taking them for a ride just like I did, and this is what happened to boys. They became so filled with sexual desire that they couldn’t control themselves. Years ago, when I was 10 and got my first period, my mother and I, of course, had “the talk.” Other than the new anatomical knowledge, though, I only remembered what she said about boys and their urges. She told me that if I kissed a boy he could get an erection, and then he would want sex. I had zero desire to kiss these boys, but somehow they still wanted sex. That was unexpected. What was worse was the way they enjoyed talking about it with each other, about me, about my body, discussing its merits like they were buying a car. I hated it, and depending on the day I responded with either thinly disguised fear or rage covering up my fear. Neither was affective. But the part that scared me the most was that inside I was hiding a secret, and that secret was that I liked it.
It was confusing to me to like something that was so wrong and so hurtful, but it wasn’t that I liked the way they talked about me and touched me. It was because they’d chosen me as their object. There were lots of other girls on that bus, and many more in the school, and all of us were pressed together in a building that is too small to hold us, rubbing bodies at a time when rubbing bodies can cause problems. But they picked me. I didn’t like that I’d been picked for this, but it meant that I was sort of important, it meant that I won. It meant I was sexy, and valuable, in a way. Sex was definitely not something I was interested in, but it was definitely on my mind.
The problem, now that I’m a 9th grader whose dad is in jail, is that they have a whole other angle to torment me about, and a whole other way of looking at me. Now, when they harass me, they ask about my dad, about how it feels to be his daughter, and not in a kind way. I’m no longer just a sexual object, I am a girl who has problems that make her weaker and more vulnerable, and they know that their arrows will pierce me deeper. And now that dad has been in jail for a month, there is no one I can, or should, involve in it. No one cares. Even if I went back to the vice-principal and told him what was going on now, it would be so easy for him to assume that I was only looking for attention. Maybe I was.
That’s what I’m thinking about this Christmas morning, sitting here in my very un-festive pajamas, next to a three foot tall Christmas tree made of plastic and wire. This is not Christmas, it’s a farce. Christmas is going out to Ronald’s Christmas Tree Farm on Thanksgiving and hiking around pointing out all the good-looking trees until dad decides one is good enough for him too. Christmas is being in charge of checking the C9 bulbs and replacing the dead ones while feeding them carefully up to dad, on a step ladder, hanging them with precision and usually complaining about it. Christmas is that big tree in the corner, and cookies and milk for breakfast, and a fire in the fireplace where dad burns up all the torn wrapping paper.
There is none of that this year, because there is no dad this year. No one wanted to put up a tree, but no one wanted to pretend Christmas wasn’t happening either, so we set up these little trees in the living room, one for Scott and one for me. No one wanted to buy presents, and no one wanted to receive presents. I’m still a kid; I still love presents, and my mom still hides them from us and wraps them and leaves them under the tree on Christmas morning for us to open. This year, though, I’m so angry about having to try to be happy on my favorite day of the year, when I know I can’t be. I feel cheated out of something I should have, the expectation of a happy day with a happy family, and so I cheated myself out of surprise presents too. Weeks ago I snuck into my mom’s bedroom closet and found all the unwrapped gifts, and I’m happy to report that at least I’m getting some good stuff out of this. I looked more than once, too, to see if she bought any more, and Scott joined me. We’re putting on a good show so we can have the presents, and because that’s what my mom wants. She’s hurting too, of course, in different ways, but she’s trying to keep everything the same as much as possible. Which doesn’t work. But it’s what she wants, she wants us to have Christmas presents and open them, so we do, but I’m not even trying to hide my frustration with this. I hate anything fake.
The phone is ringing now, and I’m assuming it’s going to be dad, and I’m annoyed by this because I haven’t even gotten a chance to open my cherry-red Airwalkers yet, and I want to get this done. You have a collect call from …..at the correctional facility, do you accept the charges? I don’t like talking to my dad on the phone this way, and watching my mom do it is pretty bad too. But it’s Christmas, and he’s probably feeling the worst of all of us, so I talk to him for a few minutes when it’s my turn. Then, there’s a surprise. Dad wants to read to us on speaker phone, and he wants to read something from the Bible. This is new.
I remember on the night that the Gulf War began, dad heard what was going on and wanted to watch CNN, and he did for a good hour, but then Scott and I, being little still, started whining because we wanted to watch Nickelodeon. Dad got really angry about our complaining really quickly, and yelled, “Our country is at war they want to watch Nickelodeon!” I felt pretty stupid when he said that. Mom tried to persuade him a bit, but he was unusually angry and worked up, so CNN stayed on. At some point that night, after staring at the news reels of night vision views of bombings, dad suddenly said, “How can anyone believe in a loving god in a world like this?!” It was loud and unexpected. He didn’t say anything else, and then mom put us to bed.
So now, feeling much more like an adult than I did then, I’m perplexed as to why my dad, who had so openly declared to us that he didn’t believe in a loving god, wants to read the bible. I’m listening to him now, mostly because I truly can’t figure this man out. The stories are nice though, and I can tell that he and mom want this to make me happy, so I pretend to be happy. I’m getting good at that.