In an early memory I’m six years old playing quietly in our family room in Kentucky when I overhear my parents talking in the kitchen. My dad suggests to Mom that I go to charm school for guidance on manners. It’s a vague memory; the context blurred and the topic faded as quickly as it was introduced. I don’t know how or when I learned, even, that a charm school was a place to better one’s etiquette, and it all seems entirely out of place given our middle class standing.
I was not by any standards a messy or impolite kid, but I often disappointed my mother, who was a compulsive neat freak. Play-Doh, scissor crafts, and nail polish were among an extensive list of forbidden items and activities in our house, and she likened me to Ramona Quimby, the messy and mischievous character in my favorite Beverly Cleary novels—though I never felt like I had nearly as much fun. My mom collected figurines that reminded her of each of us. My brothers’ were an infant (my baby brother Chris) and a monkey reaching out to be picked up (my colicky little brother Andrew who always wanted to be held). Mine was a smiling pig feasting on corn on the cob. I was a skinny kid, but I had a skill, that persists today, for hastily devouring buttered corn.
Rather than for my etiquette refinement, the suggestion of “finishing” school was more likely inspired by the constantly shifting expectations of my father. We reflected him, and our goal was to be polished, shiny, smooth on the outside, secrets on the inside. He ruled our house with a permanent scowl and mercurial temper.
“When you answer the phone, say ‘Vititoe residence’ instead of ‘hello’,” he began requiring when I was in my early teens. The idea of such public obedience was mortifying. I could imagine friends calling me and giggling after hearing me recite a formal greeting, and I was only on the verge of achieving high school status mediocre enough that classmates might forget their serial bullying of me in middle school. So, I avoided the phone ring, pretending not to hear, turning up my stereo louder. I think I only got stuck having to execute that order once, answering a phone call in the presence of my dad, and I don’t think he acknowledged my social sacrifice.
“When you come to the breakfast table on weekends, you kids should get dressed and brush your hair first, instead of rolling out of bed looking like animals,” Dad said. So, I’d sleep in on weekends until I heard him busy with activities outside of the kitchen. I became a master in active avoidance and finding rule loopholes. I navigated teenage independence with a tenuous balance of dodging conflict and defining the boundaries of my integrity.
When I was five, my dad pointed out tiny pieces of skin peeling from my cuticles, which I’d never noticed. He plucked them and told me to do the same as they appeared. I overachieved. I picked and picked, trying to smooth out everything. My fingers were bloody sometimes from too much skin peeled off in an effort to make everything smooth. Never smooth enough. Never polished enough. Eventually I got in trouble for picking too much, but by then I was addicted to trying to smooth, smooth, smooth and could not stop.
In my memory the entire decade of the 1980s is a panicked string of news warnings about kidnappings and stranger danger. How much of that fear was substantiated, I’m unsure. In second grade we were fingerprinted at school, so the prints would go on record with the Kentucky Task Force for Missing and Exploited Children. I had picked at my fingers so much, going far beyond cuticle terrain and now extending to the tips and sides of each digit, that the people taking prints had to work hard to ink good fingerprints for me. Certain fingerprints were taken further down the finger, as the tips were too smooth. I blushed and held back tears as I registered the concern on their faces. I’d tried to polish myself so much I’d erased parts of me.
Before I started sixth grade we moved to a St. Louis suburb, after a brief three years in a small Illinois town. Things weren’t going well at school, I was made fun of relentlessly for different reasons, and I felt incredibly ugly for the first time. When Mom was grumpy and shivering with the flu the night my dad had his company Christmas party at a Doubletree Hotel, my dad asked me if I wanted to go. The party theme was one of those murder mystery dinners with outside actors. I knew I couldn’t refuse my dad’s invitation without repercussion, but I also was intrigued and eager to leave the house.
I wore a dress and some blush. I felt pretty and happy to be included, to feel like an adult, even if it was sort of weird to be my dad’s “date.” There were no other kids in attendance. After the murder mystery act and dinner, of which I remember nothing, I was seated with my dad in a circle of adults. The buffet chairs were pulled from various tables to create a table-less conversation. Were there too many people to fit at a table? I recall a feeling of naked vulnerability, sitting around a ghost table in a cavernous conference room.
The adults in conversation were gracious to me, making small talk as they sipped their cocktails.
What grade was I in? Did I like school?
No, I did not.
My distaste for small talk must have preceded sixth grade, or…maybe its origin was right in this moment. The adults in suits and dresses and sparkly jewelry moved on to their adult conversations about work and…whatever.
A TV news anchor for the St. Louis evening PBS News Hour was present at the ghost table. Slender and glamorous in a suburban way, she had short dark curly hair done well–a hair goal for me. My own short curls were often the topic of ridicule at school because I had no clue how to control them. I think she might have also played a character in the murder mystery. She smiled a lot. My dad instantly liked her and his (nerdy! embarrassing!) love for PBS was an entrée to conversation. My dad inexplicably loved any documentary and subjected us to them on the regular.
I sat, ankles crossed, politely in my tights and dress in the circle. I watched everyone talk and accepted that I was not invited to their conversation. I was a good reflection of my dad. I let him brag about me. I did not pick at my fingers despite fiending to do so. I tried to pretend I was not dying of boredom. I wondered how Mom was feeling at home, sick and caring for my six- and four-year-old brothers. It was getting late. She would’ve put them to bed by now.
Adults began to bid their leave while my dad and Ms. PBS drank and laughed. At some point I began to feel that even though I was being the Perfect Version of Myself, I was a burden just for being there. My eleven-year-old brain detected something that made me uncomfortable, though my dad and Ms. PBS never touched, maybe other than a handshake. In fact, they were seated fairly far apart. But it was beginning to feel like they were the only people really there. The rest of us were fading away like that phantom table. Or extras in a rom-com.
Was she married? How come I don’t remember that—did I not look for a ring? In present-day review I interrogate and pressure my past self for clues. When you felt uncomfortable, can you explain why? Such a missed opportunity, being a fly on the wall at a moment in which I could have dissected how my dad started potential affairs. But all I felt was unease, something in the air I didn’t like and couldn’t label. Can a pre-teen smell pheromones? I would come to have the same sense again, a few years later, when a parent dropped me off after a babysitting job and got her first-generation minivan stuck in our snake-long sloping driveway. My dad offered to turn it around for her, asking her to move to the passenger seat I’d just exited. She seemed rattled when she left after he rescued her, unlike Ms. PBS at the Doubletree. Was this the last time I babysat for her? I ask my past self again and again. Did my dad scare off a coveted employer with his sleazy vibes? I do remember she was very pretty.
What struck me, more than a growing feeling of wanting to disappear or go home, was that whatever my dad was doing—laughing? Telling his dumb dad jokes? Fawning? Complimenting?—was working. He was charming Ms. PBS. This portly man with terribly fitting slacks, you actually like him? You, an attractive newscaster on TV, are falling for my dad? You should see him at home. I’ll give you two days. Count his smiles now, they are scarce when he gets comfortable, and he would find fault soon enough with you, too.
Finally, finally, finally we left. What if we hadn’t? What if they’d gotten a room and he’d made me wait in the car? Like he made my brothers wait when he visited a girlfriend after my parents divorced years later? On the way home my beaming dad asked, “Isn’t she pretty? Look how well she takes care of herself. Isn’t it impressive that she works? Wasn’t she so nice?” I nodded, “Yes!” to all things, in naive agreement. That curly hair she rocked! That alone was talent. And a newscaster! Mom didn’t even have a college degree.
“Would you like to have a mom more like Ms. PBS?” he asked.
My enthusiasm crashed. Unfair question.
He kept talking, comparing this stranger to Mom, home sick in bed, who chose not to work outside the home because he traveled all week, and if she did, she never would have left him alone sick to go flirt at a company Christmas event. And in fairness, my mom could clean up well too, when circumstances prescribed. She’d play up her doe eyes, gloss her lips in Clinique’s Black Honey shade of plum, and put on fashionable boots when my parents had to make an appearance somewhere, and I would be in awe. And she could light up a room with her smile and tell a self-deprecating story that would make you roll with laughter.
I stared out the dark window the rest of the ride home, a nauseous traitor occasionally offering a random chipper acknowledgement to please him.
“Do you want to listen to some music?” I asked at last.
Mom was a soap opera fanatic, and never watched PBS. But when my dad was home watching documentaries, I’d exit around 9 o’clock when Ms. PBS might show up on the air. I’d seen her on News Hour before the murder mystery dinner, but now I couldn’t see her the same way. And I didn’t want to be tempted to watch my dad’s reaction to her. I was an accomplice now, with shared guilt.
Decades later I finally admitted the event to Mom. She was neither upset with my “secret” nor surprised.
Within four years of the company Christmas party, my father lost his sales job that had forced us to move to St. Louis. We would be moving to Indiana for his new job. He claimed he’d been mistreated, that he said “one thing” to a female employee and she “took it the wrong way and blew it up.” He’d simply suggested that she consider wearing more make-up and “dressing more professionally.”
Mom discovered he was fired for sexual harassment. It was Missouri, early 1990s; not exactly the epicenter of female empowerment. In my adult life I’ve wondered often what he really did. How did my dad affect others’ lives, beyond that which I witnessed firsthand as a child?
Growing up, uprooting often and relocating around the Midwest (how many other times was this his fault?), the world outside our family often new, foreign, temporary, and our extended family fractured and geographically distant, the limited role models for living as an adult were my parents. I could be small, submissive and hidden like my mother mostly was, or charming, careless, and harmful like my father. I never fit well into either mold, but something-close-to-hiding seemed like the lesser risk to others.
Emily Schleiger is a writer in the Chicago area. She has studied writing at The Second City, Catapult and elsewhere, and improv and sketch at The Second City and Westside Improv. Her work has been published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Reductress, The Second City Network, and more. She’s also performed at a few storytelling shows and readings. She is a survivor of a short career in human resources, and a mom of two. She is currently working toward her MFA at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Follow Emily online here. If she has gone missing, please check anywhere hot buttered popcorn is sold.