I didn’t eat much fast food as a child. Unlike many of my friends, my family ate dinner together every night. My Mother served the sort of home cooked balanced meals that lack originality but get the job done; meat, vegetables, potatoes and the occasional casserole. Ketchup, salt and pepper helped blend everything together to a palatable consistency. My Dad really loaded up on the salt, leaving a ring of white granules on the table once his plate had been cleared. He never held back on the complaints and I kept my mouth shut. While he loved to spur on the furious wrath of my Mother I lived in constant fear of her tirades.
“Goddamn, could this meat be any tougher?”
“Then you cook the fucking dinner from now on.”
“I wouldn’t make the dog eat this shit.”
“Fuck off and die.”
Between the lines they cared about each other in a strange and volatile way.
When I was about 7 things began to change, most noticeably, the dinner situation. We weren’t eating together quite as frequently. Some nights I was left to fend for myself, a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One afternoon my Dad brought home about 30 hot dogs from a gas station. I had never had a hot dog and I was so intrigued I must have eaten at least 5 of them, smothered in mustard and sweet relish squeezed from plastic packets. Our table was a mess of paper hot dog holders and soggy napkins, a crime scene of sorts, a portrayal of our current state as a family in the midst of a meltdown.
As the deterioration of familial structure became more apparent I grasped blindly for some sense of security and familiarity. Everything was falling apart, crumbling before me and I was helpless to stop it. One night I awoke to find my Mother in the kitchen packing Tupperware into a box. I asked her what was going on and she told me matter of factly that “we’re moving, just us”. The next day my Dad picked me up from a friend’s house after school. He was driving a car I had never seen before and he looked tired, worn out, defeated. He said, “we have to talk”.
We went through a McDonald’s drive-thru and he got me a Happy Meal and a milk shake. Not only had I never had a Happy Meal, I had never even been through a fast food drive-thru. Something was seriously wrong and no amount of processed meat, salt and sugar or the brief delight of a plastic toy could conceal the fact that the shit was about to hit the fan.
We walked to a vacant bench near the playground. Kids squealed with innocent joy, birds chirped in nearby trees and the Autumn sun glared off my Dad’s eyeglasses. He encouraged me to eat my hamburger as he sipped at the chocolate shake. I struggled to swallow the greasy meat and salty fries, each bite another reminder that everything was suddenly different and might not ever be the same again.
“Honey, you know how when you are bad you get sent to time out?”
I nodded my head, eyes cast downward. I had never been sent to “time out” nor had I ever even heard my dad use the term before but I was of course familiar with the phrase and the meaning of the word.
“Well, Daddy was bad and I have to go away for a while, time out for grown ups….prison.”
I stared at my food, carefully spread out on the waxy paper, the colorful box and plastic toy nearby as if for comfort.
“I don’t know for sure, Honey. A year, maybe more. You and Mommy are going to be okay, you just do what she says and be a good girl.”
I looked at my Dad only briefly, it hurt too much to know that this might be the last time I ever see him. That was how I felt, the final goodbyes, one last chance to make it right kind of moment. But there was nothing left, I was beginning the process of shutting down, a process that would continue for many years to come.
“Can I go play on the swings now?”
“Yeah Honey, go play.”
I walked over to the swings slowly, my head spinning before I even pushed off, feet sinking into the sand and hands tightening around the hard twisted metal of the chains. The cathartic rocking of the swings created a swooshing soundtrack to the spreading numbness inside me.
I felt abandoned and alone even as I slid in to the seat next to my Dad, his arm reaching around my shoulders in an attempt to reassure me that everything was fine. We were both too smart to believe it but neither of us brave enough to say it. He dropped me off at home and I watched him drive away knowing that life had changed, that I had changed, aged years in a matter of moments.
When I walked into the house, my Mother asked me,
“Did you have a good time with Daddy?”
“I had a Happy Meal.”