She was the mother of one of my high school friends. She was the spitting image of Geike Arnaert, and she was shockingly young to have a sixteen year old as a daughter. She was in her mid 30s, perhaps, blonde, high cheekboned, model thin. Lest you think she was a MILF, she wasn't: there was nothing inviting about her demeanor, which was as icy as her blue eyes. Her husband was a sporty looking executive, the kind that belonged in New York or Hollywood. He was almost comically good looking, and he even had blonde hair too.
To look at them you would say, they are the epitome of married life. Gorgeous wife, trophy husband, large house on Cleveland's Gold Coast, a Tudor styled mansion that looked like it belonged in Brentwood, California. They had three kids and a big labrador.
I was the same age as Ashley when we were in a church group together in high school. Ashley had an acerbic wit, needle-sharp, and wouldn't let boys too near. Her mother may have had the breathy voice of Jackie Kennedy, but Ashley's was grating. She never invited anyone over to her house - ever. That was the rule, and everybody knew it.
Ashley was reluctant to talk about her mother and father, which I found surprising. Being German Lutheran, I grew up believing that I was part and parcel of my family, and to avoid talking about myself I would much rather talk about my parents. I was half my father and half my mother. How could anyone understand me without knowing my parents? I extended this belief system to others, but I found it was wrong to believe that children were universally proud of their parents. In time I learned that many children would want to disavow being products of their parents. They would rather remake themselves, to overcome the problems they experienced at home.
I didn't know this then, however, and so when I was invited over to Ashley's house, I was quite intrigued by their lifestyle, their house, and their perfect family. I was eager to meet the mother and father. All fathers were basically alike, weren't they? Gruff, somewhat detached. It was the mothers who ran the families, or at least that was my experience.
If memory serves correctly, I had asked or been asked to take Ashley to her high school dance. It may have been Homecoming or some winter dance. I didn't have any designs on Ashley - I just didn't want her not to go, so it seemed to make sense to take her so she could have fun with her friends.
Her mother and father wanted to meet this young man a week or two before the dance to size him up. So I was invited to spend a Saturday afternoon shooting hoops with Ashley's dad and brother, and then stay for dinner. I knew that Brad, the younger brother, had liked me, so how hard could this be?
The first memory was of their house. It was much larger than my own. Two nice cars sat in the driveway. The furniture was nice. An interior decorator had done the house. It was impressive looking inside and out. The second memory was of meeting Ashley's mother and father. They stood in the doorway together, a picture postcard couple, he in his cardigan sweater and she in her perfect blonde hair and slim pants. She actually had a wan smile - the first time I'd ever seen her smile. He had a crushing handshake and invited me in. I wish I was kidding about this, but I am not. This kind of first greeting makes a big impression on a kid in high school.
They invited me in and we all walked toward the kitchen for a Coke or something. Ashley was quiet because her father was doing all the talking, but the look on her face was something akin to terror. She looked like she wanted to die, and she was hoping I wouldn't say anything wrong.
Out of the kitchen windows (leaded glass cross braces, like you saw in church) I could see the backyard garage, a big half-court and a basketball hoop. Brad came down, but really wasn't eager to play. I was uncomfortable as hell with the small talk - everybody seemed nervous and on edge. I wanted to get outside and play ball. They asked about my high school - I went to a different school than did Ashley - what sports I played, what I was studying, where I was going to college, about my parents... I guess these were standard WASP questions of a kid who had no family in the United States. So I answered and we sipped cokes, and eventually - finally! - Mr. M invites us outside to play basketball.
Whew! A chance for some movement. No talking, just ball. I knew how to shoot hoops, so this was going to be fun.
And then it was not.
I don't remember much about the game except that Brad and his father got into a tremendous row. I'd never seen an adult play against his son so physically, and so unfairly. Mr. M was taller and stronger than his son, and yet he pushed him to the ground a number of times. Brad, in frustration and anger, slammed the ball into the ground. They began yelling at each other to the point of exchanging blows.
I didn't know what to do. I glanced at Mrs. M and then Ashley, who were disgusted at Mr. M's flareup. Their looks showed that this was not uncommon. Clearly Mr. M bullied the rest of the family.
It was an uncomfortable dinner. The father tried to smooth it over, like nothing had really happened. The kids were silent. Mrs. M put on her icy demeanor and served dinner, glad to have something to do.
I was never so glad to leave any house like I was that Saturday. No wonder Ashley never wanted anyone to meet her parents. No wonder Mrs. M was an ice queen. I couldn't imagine living with a volcanic temper like that, and being worried every day that the focus of his anger would be directed at one of his children, or his perfect wife.
The short term ending to this story is that Ashley and I did go to the dance and had a lovely time. I had to drive to her house to pick her up. I had to pretend to be nice to Mr. M. Mrs. M was her usual noncommunicative self. Any interest I may have had in Ashley had ended on that Saturday afternoon. She knew it, and she apologized for the behavior of her parents. This plagued her dating relationships throughout high school and college.
The longer term ending was that I hadn't thought about Ashley's mother for decades until I saw the Hooverphonic video, Eden. For a while I tried to imagine why any woman as beautiful as she was would stay with an abusive husband. Why didn't she walk out on him? She could have had any man she wanted. But she chose to stay. Later, after the kids were out of the house, she divorced him and lived in a remote part of Pennsylvania, away from any city and away from any of her children. She was never to remarry. He had many girlfriends, but he didn't remarry either. The younger kids had substance abuse problems. Ashley escaped that, but she never got over her feeling of being unwanted and unloved.
So this is how some perfect families are. On the outside, they may have everything you want. On the inside, all is bitterness and anger, abuse of innocent children, perfect people leading decidedly imperfect lives, like the rise and the fall of the House of Usher.
Geike Arnaert put her hands up to the television screen, looking trapped, scared, alone. She was the spitting image of Ashley's mother. It was those eyes. Those same eyes I saw on Mrs. M. The delicate features, so beautiful. But her eyes - they held nothing but pain.