Honestly, I was lucky.
In a world where fifty percent of all marriages ended in divorce, my parents were on the right side of the coin toss. They loved each other, and they loved me, their only son. My childhood was full of scraped knees, trips to the aquarium, birthday parties with a kelidoscope of balloons floating above me, all the things you’d expect. When they weren’t holding my hands between them, they were holding each other’s, as if their fingers were pieces of a puzzle locked together.
My life was normal, blissfully normal. I was praised for good grades, grounded when I mouthed off (which was happening more and more lately), and given advice when I came home from school upset that my crush didn’t like me back. I never thought about the way other people looked at my family.
“I wonder where he got the black hair from,” my grandmother was fond of saying whenever she carted her ancient bones across the New York-Canada border.
This was usually followed with lip pursing and a lingering, judgemental gaze at my decidedly blond parents. Dad rolled his eyes, started in on the same old story about how it wasn’t insane to think I’d gotten my black hair from his side since his biological father- her first husband, need he remind her- had darker coloring. This got grandmother off that attack path, as any mention of her first husband was good for a one-year subscription to Cold Shoulder Monthly, but Dad was her favorite child and spared this fate.
It used to not bother me, but then I became aware of the fact that I was starting to look like a stranger in my family. What I had mistaken as my father’s jawline was starting to fill out more angular than his as puberty set in. My father was muscular, broad like a mountain, and I was the one wispy tree relators plant outside of new houses.
Maybe this is why he didn’t take much convincing, why after only one whisper from someone not his mother did he second guess his role in bringing me into this world.
It was mom’s turn to cook dinner, and I was watching TV when he came banging into the house. The wind pushed him through the living room, passed me without a glance. The door slammed an SOS against the wall. I got up and stepped around the slick, muddy footprints he’d trailed in on my way to close the door.
“Tell me this isn’t true, Jackie.”
My ears pricked. They never argued in front of me. I inched closer to them. He shook one white-knuckled hand at my mother, papers rustling in his grasp while the other gripped the doorway, his massive arm blocked the only exit. Mom muttered something, laughed nervously. My socked feet were silent against the tile floor.
“Please. Tell me this is some sick joke.”
His voice was frantic, pitched high and low all over the place. I stopped, the sound shoving guilt in the space where curiosity had been. Mom said something else, her voice warbling.
“Are you joking?!” Papers rustled and then crumpled.
“What do you want me to say, Francis?”
“Anything!” His shoulders were bunched up. “Tell me the kid I’ve been raising for the last thirteen years is my kid!”
It was a steel-toed boot to the gut. I reached out and steady myself on a wobbling wall. Their vioces were getting louder but I couldn’t hear them over the chaotic thump-thump-thumpthumpthump of my heart galloping up into my head.
“I’ve been supporting some bastard this whole time?!”
I stumbled towards the hallway of the house I’d grown up in, feeling my way through it since the word bastard was trying to pull me into a black hole. My room was a star in a distant galaxy, but I managed to float to it. CRASH! Dishes hitting the counter, the floor. I jetted through the space between my door and closet.
The closet was filled with junk, with dirty clothes I’d shoved in there the day before when Mom had told me to clean my roon. I kicked enough of it out of the way so I was sitting in the middle of it all. The walls were armor even when their voices, full of knives and barbed wire, cut into my room. I pressed my hands over my ears, but their voices were only muffled.
I fished my mp3 played out of my pocket and shoved my earbuds in, blasted some song heavy with guitars and drums, blasted myself away from this place.
This was the other side of the coin, and it was my fault. No matter how loud I turned up the music I could still hear him spitting out the word and branding me- bastard.