I grew up as the oldest of four children in a family that had much too little money and far too much religion. My mother, being a dutiful Christian wife, was not really supposed to work outside of the house. My father went to a job in the morning and came home in the evening, and anything other than those eight long hours was not to be expected of him. He did not do dishes or mow the lawn. He didn’t take out the garbage or babysit. He did, however, school my mother on how to do all of these things, so that she could never complete anything from cooking a meal to trimming the hedges without his criticism.
This left the four of us, my brothers, sister and I, pretty much parentless. Our father was constantly enamored with one of his personal pursuits, which usually involved either killing an animal, or trying to mate with one. That is not to say that my father had sexual relations with anything four legged, to the best of my knowledge. He simply viewed my mother, and all women, to be animals. Women existed to work under a man. It said so in the bible, and the bible was the word of God. After church every Sunday, my parents would lock themselves into their bedroom for a few hours while the four of us fended for ourselves. We would eat candy and Little Debbie snack cakes, mostly, while we waited for an opportunity to assail our mother with complaints and requests.
“Can I make more Kool-Aid,” my sister would say.
“Can I ride my bike to the school to play?” my brother would ask.
“Adam said that I ate three Oatmeal Cream Pies, but I only ate two,” I would complain.
The last one must have gotten lost in the mix, I figured everybody would think. There was no way to keep tabs on all twelve of them, anyway. I lived under a constant threat of having all the snack cakes and cookies and candy eaten out from under me, especially given that our father was a compulsive and voracious eater, and that there were so many of us, and we were always starving for something.
My mother would be sad-eyed and she would be carrying the weight of her mysterious Sunday afternoon visits with my father, so she would acquiesce. My sister could always make more Kool-Aid. My brother could ride his bike anywhere he wanted, and the fact that I was sneaking fattening snacks would always hang heavy in the air, barely acknowledged and mostly ignored.
My father almost never emerged from his bedroom, which was situated just off of the kitchen, so that he could sneak into the cupboards, barely breathing and trying not to rustle any packaging as he stole morning, afternoon and midnight snacks. He listened from the comfort of his bed for my mom to busy herself somewhere other than at the sink, and then he would make his move, eating entire sleeves of crackers and tubs of margarine in one sitting. If you had a reason to visit him in his room, you would find him propped up in his bed with an assortment of foods resting on his bulging abdomen, laid out like a miniature multi-course spread.
It must have been difficult for him to grow as fat as he did though, seeing as how my mother spent approximately ninety-seven percent of her waking time standing at the kitchen sink, washing a never ending parade of cracked dishes. “Run water on your plate!” she would scream to no one in particular about twelve times per day.
We all made fun of my father behind his back, hated him for being so round and taking up so much of our precious and coveted space. One time, my mother baked a sheet of breaded fish patties for dinner, and my father emerged from his room, time and time again, to eat every single one of them. Nobody else wanted one. We had filled ourselves with the matching sheet of French fries, covered in a cascade of salt from our particularly magnificent salt shaker with holes the size of peas. I was a ketchup fanatic, too, leaving great pools of it behind after almost every meal. Ketchup was one of the substances that would solicit a, “Run water on your plate!” from my mother, every time.
So, my father ate exactly twelve breaded fish patties. He probably assumed that nobody would know. There were so many of us, after all. Anybody could have swooped in from playing outside or hunching in front of the television, beating Super Mario Brothers like it was our purpose in life. How could anyone possibly know for sure what he’d done? Those twelve patties would simply get lost in the shuffle.
I walked into the kitchen with a smeary plate of ketchup and set it down, dry, on the bottom of the sink. I was too busy with Level 8 to reach the whole way up and pull up the water faucet to turn it on. I turned to go back to my game, when I spotted my mother pulling the empty fish patty box from the garbage, and running her finger across the printed nutritional content, reading silently.
“How much did he eat?” I asked.
“He just ate one hundred and eleven grams of saturated fat!” my mother said.
It was funny and gross, and we hated my dad. If he had been a good dad or a nice person, this statistic would have been shocking. It wasn’t, though. Eating one hundred and eleven grams of saturated fat was the same in my mind as eating a turd or a human digit, or something. He was a monster. Of course he ate these things.
My mother didn’t find it funny, though. She pressed her palms to her face and rubbed up and down. This was a well known and easily recognized gesture in our household. It was my mother’s way of saying without having to actually say it… “I hate my life.”
I knew my father was disgusting. He made inappropriate sexual comments and snapped the straps of my training bra. Once, I rode to the grocery store with him and after we finished shopping and were pulling away from the parking lot, he pointed to an old woman with enormous, torpedo-shaped boobs and said, “See that lady’s boobs? You’re going to have boobs like that, someday.”
“No, I’m not,” I dismissed him, watching how they sort of melted from side to side as the woman walked across the lot.
“Yes, you are,” he said. “My mother had big boobs, and so does your mother. That means you’ll have them, too.”
I pulled my legs up to my chest and rested my chin on my knees, hoping to squash any potential out of my boobs. I was terrified of the promise of having a woman’s body. I was terrified to have a body he would notice, further.
He simply had an appetite for animal things, I guessed. He couldn’t even have been vocalizing all of his thoughts in that vein. How many times had I been walking in front of him while he made silent comments about my body? He thought that he hid things, his eating and his perversity, but everybody knew. Just like everybody knew about the last Oatmeal Cream Pie. I hated him because I was him.
I even wanted to kiss a boy. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but I knew enough to be excited and embarrassed my urges. His name was Jay and his parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Wanting to kiss any boy was explicitly disallowed, but it was especially terrible if you wanted to kiss a boy who wasn’t a Christian. That was practically like saying that you wanted to kiss the devil. We held hands once, and my skin felt all tingly and my head buzzed, full of blood and terrible, un-Jesuslike ideas. Ideas about laying down in a bed together and facing each other and kissing. That was somehow bad, I had gleaned from watching Days of Our Lives. I didn’t know why it was worse than kissing while you were standing up, but it was. Every time it happened, a grown up would rush into the room and change the channel or tell you to go outside and play.
I thought about it at night, laying belly to belly with a giant stuffed bear I had gotten for Christmas. I would whisper into the darkness about love and kissing, and try to imagine how it would feel to be something other than what I was. The pudgy daughter of a swollen pervert. I pictured that my name was something hip and very eighties, like Melissa, and I closed my eyes and pretended that I was something better. I pretended that somebody wanted me around, and maybe even wanted to be me. That would never happen in real life, not while I was one of three Amandas in every class I’d ever attended. Not with hair that didn’t behave and thighs that touched and made my K-Mart shorts ride up when I ran. Not while I quickly broke off squares of graham crackers and dipped them into peanut butter and shoved them into my mouth while I walked quickly away from the kitchen.
Jay was a Jehova’s Witness, at least. That meant that he was regarded with the same kind of subtle horror that people felt when they learned about my evangelical Christianity. A few times, I had a friend sleep over on Saturday night, and my parents forced us to attend church in the morning. At first, I had no idea that what was going on was weird, not even when my friend was frozen and staring in horror at the spectacle taking place before us. Everybody went to church, so what was the big deal? It was uncomfortable when I finally learned that not everybody’s parents spoke in tongues and cackled under the influence of the holy spirit, that not everybody had the woman seated next to them in the pew suddenly spring to her feet and start dancing down the center aisle of the sanctuary with enough fervor that the control top of her pantyhose was visible under the hem of her floral, polyester dress. I didn’t know what Jehova’s Witnesses did in their churches, but I could tell from everybody’s distaste for them that it must be something equally as embarrassing.
I was disturbed by my liking for this boy, though. I worried that one of Satan’s demons would be hovering around me, like they always were, and overhear one of my thoughts about kissing a non-christian. Then what would happen? I would be cursed, I could only conclude. I would probably become possessed, like my father always warned us about touching Ouiga boards or dabbling in other New Age things. Did having a crush on a Jehova’s Witness count as dabbling in something evil?
I asked my mother one evening as she tucked my brothers and sisters into bed, across the room from where I was laying. “Is it okay to be friends with a boy?” I asked. I had wanted to ask something bolder, to just come out and say, I’m in love with a New Age demon boy, am I going to hell? I had balked, though and my question came out all wrong and I was mad at myself.
“Sure, honey,” she said in a chirping, interested voice. “Who is this boy?”
“No,” I answered. “There isn’t an actual boy. I just mean, is it okay to be friends with somebody who isn’t a Christian?”
“Would this friend happen to be a little blond boy with a cute smile and pretty blue eyes?” she asked.
She knew! That description fit the Jehova’s Witness perfectly, and she wasn’t even warning me that I was about to burn in hell.
“No,” I said. “Nevermind. You’re just getting it all wrong.”
I was embarrassed, and she kept pressing me for further details of my illicit “friendship” with an unnamed boy. “It’s okay,” she prompted. “You can tell me.”
“It’s nothing!” I yelled, my face burning. “What about if we say that Jesus is stupid? Is that okay?”
She turned cold all of a sudden and stood up from where she’d seated herself on the edge of my bed.
“I’m just asking,” I said, nervous that I’d had an outburst that was going to actually get me burned for all eternity. I just wanted her to stop asking me about Jay with the cute smile and pretty eyes. It wasn’t any of her business. Still, though. Calling Jesus stupid had been a low blow. In my embarrassment, I had really hit her beneath the belt without thinking.
“You probably shouldn’t say that,” she said.
“Not me,” I corrected her. “The friend I was talking about. The one who’s not a Christian.”
“Your friend said Jesus is stupid?” she asked.
“Yeah…” I said, vaguely.
Now, not only was he not a Christian, he also probably went around calling the lord and savior stupid. I would never be allowed to marry Jay, and we would never get to lie down together to kiss in the bad way.
“I guess you shouldn’t be friends with that person, then,” my mom said.
“Okay, thanks,” I told her. “I won’t then. I just wanted ask.”
She shook her head and looked at me with mean eyes. I was always blurting things out like that because I was embarrassed all of the time. I hated looking stupid, so I pretended to be irreverent. I pretended that I just didn’t care. If you embarrassed me, then I would call Jesus stupid… or at least claim that I had heard that sentiment uttered, once, which was almost just as bad. I acted like I was a rebel, but really, everybody knew. I was just a big, fat nothing. I threw my giant teddy bear on the ground and punched him in the head. The next time I saw the Jehova’s Witness, I was going to make fun of him, just to be sure that nobody ever suspected that somebody as poor as me, who slept in the same room as her siblings, or somebody as chunky as me, the cuffs of all my shirts digging uncomfortably into my arms… just to be sure that nobody suspected that I thought I was fooling anybody. I would never be anything other than this. A fat girl from a too-big family and a too-small town in the middle of nowhere.