Benson Family Secrets
I used to hide in clothes racks. My mother would take me to a department store like Macy’s and I would run ahead of her and get lost in the women’s section, burying myself in one of those circular displays. I liked the feel of the coats on my skin; smothering me, like some kind of woolen hug. Whenever a hapless grandmother would reach in looking for her size, I would grab her arm from deep inside and listen to her surprised wail. It never got old.
By the time Mom found me we were late. I held tight to her hand as we exited through the spinning doors onto Main Street. The block was closed to traffic and families moved to and fro doing last minute holiday shopping and waiting for the show to start. Word had come down from on high: Santa had been seen in the vicinity and was thought to be landing with his sleigh somewhere in downtown tonight.
We hurried along through the township of Summit, a suburb nestled on a hill and blanketed in snow. It was said to be the 70th wealthiest town in America, a crimeless borough made of sprawling homes. It boasted a major train hub into the city that bisected the town in half. In the business center, where we were, most of the owners lived in apartments above their shops. They tended to resemble English townhouses with their glassed-in studies hanging over the street like immaculately built cuckoo clocks. They were lit at night by street lamps designed to mimic old-fashioned, gas lanterns.
“Hurry up,” Mom chided, as she hurried me along. I had stopped briefly under one of these lights to look at something that had caught my eye. The bank was open late to show off the winners of the gingerbread house building contest. At least, that’s why I believed the bank was open late. I asked Mom why we couldn’t do something like that and she said something about it being too messy. I didn’t press the issue, mostly because I had a warm, Christmassy feeling in my stomach. Also, the Hess truck was back and it was better than ever this year and Mom said I might get it if I was good...
Mom used to be wealthy when she was my age, but now she was a single mom and I had to do aftercare and go to breakfast club. We lived with my Aunt and Uncle. Mom’s brother, Nick, drove a BMW and Sheila, his wife, worked in a bank, which is where they keep money. My Aunt’s rich, her family owned stock in a car company called Fort. They were so rich they had a big screen T.V. They couldn’t have kids of their own though and Mom said they always kind of looked at me as the child they never had.
Uncle Nick was the coolest. He would take me to karate in his European sports car. Afterwards, we’d stop at 7-11 where the stoned high school kids out front would yell “kee-ya!” in my six-year-old face. Then Uncle Nick would walk in with his feathered hair and flick his cigarette butt at them. On the way out, after we got Coke slurpees, those same kids would ask me in awe, “is that your dad?!”
And I’d say, “pshtt! I wish!”
I let Mom drag me away from the gingerbread display and didn’t even get angry, mostly because Mom had been tired lately. Probably cause she was gonna have a baby! The dad was this guy my mom was dating named Pete and Pete was a lot of fun. He was one of those charming, heavy set guys who carried his weight well and didn’t let it get in the way of a good time. He liked to say his beer belly was just more “cushion for the pushin,” whatever that meant. He’d come over on Sunday nights and he and Mom would watch T.V. with Nick and Sheila while I ate spoonfuls of cream cheese and did ninja rolls off one of the ottomans. Also, they let me have the T.V. box so I could decorate it with my dinosaur stickers! My favorite thing in the world was running at it, full tilt, and throwing myself inside so that it would topple over and I’d be stuck in there.
The girls wanted to watch “Murder, She Wrote” which was about a woman who looked like my grandma and solved crimes (something I thought all grandmas did), but Pete and Nick voted for “Man vs. Machine.” For fun, the adults asked me which I thought we should watch. And being starved for a male role model the way I was, I immediately sided with Pete, mumbling “Man vs. Machine.” My mom called me a traitor and laughed, but it still stung.
I used to hold hands between the two of them, shouting “one, two, three – weeeeee!” and launching my feet into the air forcing them to swing me. I thought about that as we passed the travel agency where Pete worked. Mom looked in expectantly, almost as if she thought he’d be there. But it was dark inside and closed. She seemed upset and I thought I knew why. I wanted a father figure just as much as Mom wanted a husband, mostly because it was common knowledge among my friends that if you had a dad you never ran out of money.
Still, I had a feeling I was getting in the way. A couple days ago, we had gone to the planetarium. We were supposed to go see “Edward Scissorhands” after, but during the light show I had to go to the bathroom (even though they told us that if you leave you can’t come back in again). By the time Pete found us the movie had started! We were supposed to be staying for a sleepover at Pete’s house anyway, so we just went there early. He had a big house with four floors! And when we played hide and seek, he stayed hidden for a long time, only coming out when I started crying (but only a little). That night he told me he ate cat food for fun and to prove it, he ate some in front of my Mom who laughed herself silly. I still think it’s gross...
I looked up at her as she led us on. She was wearing that denim jacket with the shoulder pads that she loved. She was beautiful when I was younger. She claims that no less than eight men asked to marry her. But she turned them all down, convinced that something better was just around the corner. She was almost forty now and had finally said yes to Pete. She was older than a lot of the other moms. Her hair had started to go grey by the time she turned eighteen and she alternately dyed it and let it grow depending on how she felt about aging that month. I think I knew somehow without speaking that Pete was her last chance at happiness. As a travel agent, he promised world travel. Infinite possibilities... That her dreams weren’t dead.
By the time we reached the cordoned off area, the snow was not so much falling as spinning around us, floating in the air like papier-mâché. Mom stopped to zip up my coat, a bomber jacket she had gotten me with a furry collar cause she knew that I’d look just like a World War Two flying ace or Maverick from “Top Gun.” A crowd had already formed around the fire engine that idled in the middle of the road, its ladder extended onto the roof of a nearby building. I followed it to find Santa on top of Place Vendome, where Aunt Lynn got her hair cut. Mom lifted me up on her shoulders to see him better. He waved from the roof, as dozens of parents took his picture for their kids. Carefully, he made his way down the fireman’s ladder, pausing every so often to throw presents. He looked just like he did in the Coke commercials.
I remembered I had met him once before, when Mom woke me up in the middle of the night. She led me downstairs in my pajamas, dragging my Teddie Ruxpin behind me. There I saw him: Santa, with his back to us, putting presents under the tree. It was only years later that I noticed Santa had my uncle’s heroin-chic waistline.
I never did thank them for the magic they made of my childhood.
I waved joyously to Santa from Mom’s shoulders. He looked much fatter than when I’d seen him last. He winked at me and tossed a candy cane to mom. Instead of being happy about it, Mom said we should probably go now if we didn’t want to get stuck in traffic.
We left before the rest of the crowd and made our way back to where Mom had parked, in the lot behind Liss pharmacy. She was helping me into the passenger seat of our pea green, wood-paneled Volvo station wagon when it happened. Looking out over the dashboard, she saw something that shook her up.
I asked, “what is it?” And she told me weakly to stay in the car. I disobeyed for the first but not last time in my life. She moved to shut the door, but my foot was in the way. I quickly unbuckled my belt and jetted past her out of the car, climbing atop a nearby bumper to see what it was that she saw. There, spinning a girl half his age, was Pete. He was kissing her and looked so happy. I couldn’t help but notice that she had no grey in her hair.
I turned to Mom. Of all the careful mothering she’d done, this was different. She couldn’t even pretend like this wasn’t a big deal. She looked weak, like she might faint; her skin the color of someone who missed the lotto by one number. I watched what was left of her youth leave her eyes. And I wanted to say something, because I was pretty sure I was the one responsible for Pete cheating. I put too much pressure on their relationship. But I just couldn’t bring myself to make the words.
In the weeks that followed, Mom seemed to wither on the vine. At night we would drive around and look for houses we were gonna buy with all the money we didn’t have. It became our favorite activity, motoring through rich neighborhoods and dream shopping. We’d imagine our lives and how different they’d be in each house. Her favorite was the one on Hobart Ave, a three floor Tudor with columns. I never knew what was so special about it, but Mom sure did.
Then one day, she was tired of doing nothing. She was tired of staying put. So, we took to the highways, where each new vista left her problems behind, if only for a moment. We started out with the shore, where it was too cold to swim. Ocean City was a boardwalk resort town in its off-season. I saw a building on the beach and asked Mom what was inside. She smirked and said it was probably a bath house. I asked, “who would swim in a bath when there’s a perfectly good ocean right there?”
She just shrugged and said, “men.” We splashed in a waterfall in New York State and woke up early enough to see a sunrise in coastal Maine. She took me sledding down a ski-slope. We fell down laughing at the bottom.
I was fully aware I was missing school, but Mom had gotten my homework for weeks to come. It seemed like I finished it in hours and soon nothing held us back. I was her partner in crime. We snuck into a movie once after our first one had finished. I was so panicked the entire time that she eventually told me she paid for the tickets. They were in her purse and she would show them to me later. In Michigan, we stayed at Aunt Sheila’s brother’s house and when he and Mom had had a few, he told me a yarn about how he had three pet alligators, even took his sandal off to beat them back with. How was I to know? I was too short to see over the bar.
We headed south in search of warmer weather, through the Florida back swamps, down the interstate to the tourist traps. After bugging Mom to see a real one, I remember perching on the edge of an alligator exhibit. When it jumped up and snapped near me, I hopped back and hid behind my mother laughing, frightened. Motels came and went, rest stops faded into the distance. Old coffee cups, mis-folded maps, and fast-food trash piled up in the Volvo. And I knew she was crying, even though she never let me see. It was hard to watch -- someone who was supposed to be solid, someone I was supposed to look up to -- was falling apart. I watched her belly grow. I can still see her sitting at a table in a McDonald’s play place, watching me run around, worn out by the road.
I took in America from the passenger window of a station wagon; watched as we raced the sun as it set over the Great Plains. I saw the amazing flatness of Iowa, the mind-numbing boredom of Nebraska. I watched as the hills turned to mountains in Boulder and changed to prehistoric deserts in Nevada. At a log cabin in the Pacific Northwest, I wrestled with some dogs, and just as suddenly, had to wave goodbye to them. Then one day, when Mom’s bank accounts read in the negatives, she knew it was time to come home.
Because you couldn’t have a baby on the road.
After giving birth, she was on her way back from Overlook hospital when she demanded that Nannie pull over at the travel agency Pete worked at, so she could show him his daughter. Men were visual learners she had been taught and who could deny how cute this kid was? Instead of Pete she found Pete’s mother who ran the travel agency and shoved my sister, Jesse, into her arms, telling her she was a grandmother now.
She never saw Pete again outside of court. I remember that time well, when Mom started eating a lot and gaining weight. Out of the blue, she announced that we had taken up enough of Nick and Sheila’s time, that we were moving out. This sucked! Most kids only had two parents and here I had three. Now all of a sudden, I was down to just dumb mom?!
Still, we only moved a couple towns away. The municipality of Long Ditch was nothing but a series of strip malls with small, colonial houses forced between them. A suburb of Newark, it was a commuter town no one was supposed to stay in for long. Mom, I know, thought it would only be a starter house, but nearly ten years later we were still living there.
As a fourteen-year-old, I could eat anything I wanted and not gain a pound. Recently though, I had stopped eating real food, choosing instead to take most of my meals at the gas station two blocks away. But to buy Mountain Dew and pound cake, I needed to scrounge up some cash. That’s what I was doing in my mother’s room, looking for spare change. She famously had a pitcher full of coins that she was convinced were worth more than their cash value ever since seeing a “60 Minutes” segment about a penny that was actually worth a grand. I just couldn’t remember where she hid the pitcher. Her bureau was no dice, though I did discover she owned an oddly-shaped back massager. I tried using it, but it kind of smelled. I tossed it aside and kept searching.
It had been some nine years since that terrible Christmas. No longer was I the adorable, cherubic youth with the chipmunk cheeks. As I entered my teen years it seemed like a cloud had passed over me. I had thick, dark hair and glasses and my mother, who I had been calling Janet lately, would often describe me to people as if I were the conductor of a small communist country’s symphony.
If anything, my moody exterior did match our house, the siding of which was not aluminum or brick or stucco, it was simply made of the same layered shingles the roof consisted of, only lighter. It was painted a dreary grey that really popped in the rain. Our house was the one on the block all the neighborhood kids thought was haunted. And yes, it was true the former owner died there, but Mom didn’t tell us that for years. It was probably why we got it so cheap. In all her time as a realtor, she had never seen a deal like this. The house was a work in progress to be sure, but $88,000 was still a steal. So what if it was under major power lines?
What we did know about the place was the ivy that covered half the house no longer gave it gravitas, it had started to eat away at the siding and at certain places, it had actually started growing inside. Sometimes I wondered how much longer the house would stand. The whole “fixer-upper” aspect had never really been addressed. It seemed like every room had some half-finished construction project in it. Hell, it was April and our Christmas tree was still up. It became clear that my mother had …