What do you call abuse that is not really abuse? How do you recover from something so insidious, so invisible, that it is hidden even from the victim?
My first memory of feeling something… off… was crawling into my parents’ bed on a Saturday morning, when we lived in a rented farmhouse with a large yard somehow both desolate and glorious. No houses were anywhere near. Across the road was a golf course, the roaring of the turnpike in the distance. On the property were three barns, an old windmill, an apple orchard, an empty chicken coop. And loneliness. I did not attend preschool. I did not have siblings or playmates, friends or activities.
On Saturday mornings, or at least this one Saturday morning, I climbed into my parents’ big bed in the chilly morning and watched with my father the TV that was in their room. I never considered entering the bed on my mother’s side, as even then, though we spent every endless day together alone in the farmhouse while Dad worked and went to school, we didn’t connect. We didn’t have the bond that I seemed to share with my father.
We watched the Mickey Mouse Club. Bernadette was my favorite. I thought she was so beautiful. I still remember the theme song and her chipper “I’m Bernadette!” However, in searching 1970s Mickey Mouse Club, there was no Bernadette mouseketeer, so perhaps I’m remembering Annette Funicello, or the Bernadette is from a different TV show altogether.
I lay next to him under the covers, propped up on a pillow so I could see the small screen, and even at four or five years old, while watching the colorful, delightful show I loved, there was a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, like nausea, that signaled to me that something was inherently wrong. But I was little, and maybe that sick feeling is only hindsight, the seed of all the inappropriate badness that would descend upon me later.
I know my parents slept in the nude. I know because they would walk around in the night, for a drink or to use the bathroom, even years later. That morning, or those mornings, when I was such a tiny girl curled up with my back against my father’s front, what was he wearing? Would he hurriedly dress, pull on pajama pants, as I pattered into the room, rubbing my groggy eyes?
Would I remember feeling that snake in the pit of my stomach if he had?