On any given Friday, around 5:00 p.m., I could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd or AC/DC blaring at a volume entirely inappropriate — even for Lakeside — from the rusted-out RV that would rumble to a stop in front of my mom’s house. I would stand in the entryway with anticipation, my blond pigtails bouncing above a pink Care Bears backpack. Sometimes I thought I was going to pee my pants from the excitement. By my sixth birthday, I had the lyrics to “Gimme Three Steps” memorized. The satanic music, as Mom called it, was Dad’s battle cry:
“Here I come, Kiddo. I’m comin’ to rescue you from repressed Protestant hell!”
I always wondered why I related so much better to my dad. Maybe it was because he was more like Willy Wonka on meth than a real father. He never grew up. He indulged his imagination at every psychotic turn. He was crazy, but in a fun way. When I visited on weekends, we ate Pop Rocks and drank Pepsi for breakfast. We stayed up too late, watched Spaceballs, and listened to Metallica at full volume on huge Marantz speakers. When I was a rebellious preteen, so was he. When I wanted to wear a French-cut bikini, instead of a conservative one-piece, my dad bought it for me in two colors, with sunglasses to match. After a weekend of mutiny, he sent me back to Mom’s house with an insubordinate attitude and wardrobe.
It was my dad, not my mom, who taught me how to apply makeup to accentuate what he called “my naturally killer looks.” He stopped just short of making me into a female version of David Lee Roth. Dangly earrings, frosty pink lip gloss, Vans, and Wet Seal shopping sprees. Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Mammoth ski trips, and Glamour Shots photo sessions. When I look back, it reads like one big meth binge.
“The Disneyland Dad,” as my stepfather liked to call him, started to skip visitations. Then the child-support checks, already sporadic, stopped altogether. These were the periods of radio silence. I knew he was out there in the darkness, but all I heard was white noise. He was a terribly charismatic and unpredictable drug addict. The excuses started off simple enough and seemed justified:
“Your mom told me you had a lotta homework, Kiddo, so I just took the weekend off.”
Months blew by without seeing him. It was as if my parents’ marriage was repeating itself. I stood in the entryway every Friday afternoon, waiting to be rescued by the screaming guitars, the booming bass, and the salty gasoline smell of his beach-bum Winnebago. But I heard nothing. Watching the sun set on rows of single-family homes, I felt angry. I hated how they all stood there, stagnating.
I am a dying breed: a native San Diegan. My parents were both Navy brats. You know that old military housing in Pacific Beach? Yeah, that’s where they met and fell in love. They attended Mission Bay High, back in the days when teachers would have to make an alternate-block schedule if the surf was higher than four feet. If they didn’t, classrooms would be empty, and staff would have to go to the jetty to round up students like dripping cattle. Go Buccaneers!
Most of us get the edited version of how our parents met, a romanticized PG version of love at first sight, or that high-school-sweetheart nonsense. Not for me. I got the all-too-factual rendition from Mom: “We did it in the back seat of a 1970 Thunderbird, and I fainted at our shotgun wedding.” I was conceived on Mount Soledad. That night, Dad convinced Mom that he knew the best place in the city “to watch the submarine races,” and she fell for it.
My parents got jobs at a faded San Diego institution — there was Picnic ’N Chicken long before KFC. All those barn-shaped Mexican drive-thrus you see today used to be iconic beacons of the now-defunct chicken joints. As high school seniors, my parents became managers of the most successful stores in San Diego. Mom was robbed at gunpoint in Mira Mesa when she was eight months pregnant with me. That’s when she finally quit. She doesn’t give up easily, and neither do I.
Staring into an old hope chest she passed down to me, terrible memories come rushing back. I see her wedding veil. She gave it to me so I could start to build unbroken dreams of my own. She was married to Dad a little more than two years before the trouble started. The guise of stability began to disintegrate, and his true nature emerged: late-night affairs, disappearing for days at a time, never filing a tax return. She tried tirelessly to make it work and almost lost her life in the process — twice. I’ve seldom heard her tell the story, but explaining why my first childhood memory is garishly bright and red is not easily forgotten.
Alone in my room I heard shouting and muffled sobs. I squeezed through a gap in the crib’s gate, my pajamas pulled tightly against my toes. Teetering toward the kitchen, I whispered, “Peekaboo,” and tilted forward around the corner. My dad’s hand was clenched around my mom’s throat. He straddled her, his knees pinned her arms, her hair splayed out on the green-and-yellow ’70s linoleum. At the end of his huge arm, his fist was covered in crimson. He plunged it again and again into her face, like a spring-loaded jackhammer. I whimpered. Time seemed to crawl as he turned his head away from her limp body to stare at me. His eyes glazed over with meth-induced madness. Jet-black hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. I was the distraction she needed to slither out from underneath him. As she carried me out of the house, warm tears mixed with the blood gushing from her jaw. I remember the chill of the early-morning air as her breath danced in the first light of day. Her matted hair was streaked with maroon. She spewed tiny red droplets as she cried, soaking the pink fleece of my pajamas. I poked at it. Sticky. Wet. Thick, like finger paint. She hoisted me up past the rusted mirror on the old blue Ford and onto the scratchy front seat, quickly sliding in beside me. But she wasn’t fast enough.