“Now what goes through these girls’ minds... ” Tera holds up a mutilated gummi worm that she’s pulled from the veggie bin section of the refrigerator “ ... I will never understand.” We giggle, and I murmur my disgust as she deposits the offending bit in the trash, casting accusing looks at her daughters across the room.

I turn back to the dishes and she to the stains on the counter. “My dad had us so terrified of the fridge that we never had these problems.” Scrubbing at potato-crusted pots, I can think of all my covert plans to sneak a cookie from the shelf, all the excuses I’d planned up ahead of time in case I got caught. I smile to remember myself carefully measuring the distance from the custard to the bread, certain that he would remember, wondering if he’d set up video cameras in our home.

What,” she whips about at last, “could he have possibly threatened you with?!”

It’s almost as if she wasn’t in my head.

“He ...” “He ...” What kind of answer is there to this? Aborted attempt after aborted attempt at a reason. An idea. But she would never want to know. There’s no way to make this less complicated. There’s no explanation for a father that you can’t even pretend to understand, and whom every single day you are reminded how you’ve never gotten past. I try again.

“My father had a temper,” and am pleased when she retreats.

“... OK.” She thinks I’m weirder than she used to, but hell, I’m doing the dishes. I guess that’s good enough to buy me out. I’m doing the dishes in a way that my father would never have approved of. Even that I’m always aware of.

Did he beat you? Did he hurt you? Did he did he did he did he?

How did he get in my head?

Dizzy. How can I tell myself the ways that I could never do anything without fear without asserting all the ways I’ve already forgiven? And the ways I’ll never realize what I’m forgiving or that I haven’t. Mitigating circumstances, and his lonely, lonely place turned to cruelty. He had nothing left but that coldness, turned to heat ready to melt a little girl’s skin when he had nothing else to scream at.

My father hit. But how can I explain that? He never bruised, he only screamed. And I was a conniving bitch, figuring out ways to run away in elementary school when my mother was out of town. He’ll never track me down and grandma will keep me safe until mom comes and won’t she be mad when dad has to tell her he’s lost me. Crying to my high school teacher how I couldn’t take it any longer. How he’d almost beat me. Almost almost almost. This was my pride on the floor where he’d left it – left it and left me with nothing.

My father hit. Of course he did. There were no warnings. No chances for redemption. There was no learning afterward, only increased convictions that this was not how it ended. There were horrible lashings out and the five-year-old’s conception that any minute now she could die, huddled in a corner, with every piece being destroyed. He pulls it apart still. He pulls me apart and lets me look at the pieces with a sadistic sort of pleasure as I scramble to remember who I am.

Hot water and suds, but I can’t make this clean.

My father hit. Oh no, no bruises, no matter how many times I wished for bruises because somebody then might try to take us away. Take me home. This can’t be it. No bruises. Oh no. The terror ran far, far deeper than that. The terror was words and an expression of pain. The terror was the absolute knowledge, no matter that I couldn’t yet articulate this understanding, that he had the power to destroy everything. His hand didn’t need to take me. He could do it by force of will. The terror was his face in the night, contorted and twisted and the sick little games he played. What kind of desperation put a three year old boy on a trike in the night, set to ride to the hospital to get his sister some medicine, terrified his sister was dying? For sport. For sport. What kind of sickness would laugh about it for years “We got him in his coat, but as soon as he got outside he started crying. He had no idea where to go!

This is my ability to read, hunched over index cards crying and muttering sentence after sentence with his shoe two inches away from my head in case I failed. This is the girl in the blue computer glare, hiding behind a chair and reciting her addition. And this is me, enraged, spitting into the sink because that way maybe I won’t have to vomit. This is how I never learned to fail, and I know it will happen someday. Someday I’ll prove what I already know: that I’m not perfect, and that all of you will hate me when you see that that is true. When I stand before you naked, through my work, and through my testimony, asking you to love me and certain this will happen again.

The shoe

This is me in a dirty sweatshirt fifteen years later when I can’t spend my money and keep eating and eating and eating, convinced that I’m amounting to nothing. Crying into a dishpan.

He never let me go. That lonely, bitter old bastard who set up so many walls in my head I can barely get out. I watch him when I go home and see his pain. His pain so much worse than mine, where he is, alone, with no way out. And I wonder if he could have been happier another way, or how I can hate a man who so clearly hates himself so much there’s no room to love anybody else. Not even a daughter who tried so hard...

I do the dishes. I laugh at my housemate’s daughters, and the way they never were threatened with having their hair chopped off if it fell in their food again. He could take anything. It’s not his fault. None of this mess that is me (THIS MESS!!!!!) is his fault. But I still can’t get up, and I can barely get into the fridge without cold memories, colder than the wilting lettuce in my housemate’s hand, of being caught, and falling, and wishing little girls could disappear.