Wrapped Up in Skin, Hidden behind Eyes
My stepmother, Brenda, picks out a movie for us to watch: Fatal Attraction. Sitting on the sectional couch with her feet propped up on the coffee table, Brenda says, “Makes you think twice about where to put your dick.” In the film, Dan Gallagher, the lawyer, sleeps with Alex Forrest when his wife is out of town; he intends for the affair to be a one-night stand, but she ends up stalking him and his family. Near the end of the movie, she breaks into his house, sneaks into the bathroom, and as Dan’s wife wipes steam from the mirror, Alex’s face is revealed. The mistress is standing behind the wife; her frosted blonde hair coiled around her face, her mouth solemn and silent. She wears a long white dress with no bra, her nipples shading its sheer fabric, a butcher knife in her hand.
Brenda looks at me, waits for my response. “Well?” she asks. I say nothing, nod the way I always do when Brenda talks about dicks or sex, the way I do when she tells me about haunted houses where blood drips out of the faucets, or kidnappers driving white vans through town. Brenda wears her closed-mouth smile while she gazes at me, then straight ahead, satisfied with my compliance. I am nine.
My father the lawyer meets women on planes. When I am a teenager, I call his office, and the receptionist giggles, “Oh, hi Gina. He got tied up.” Somewhere over the Atlantic. Somewhere over the Gulf. “He’ll be back a couple of days later than expected.”
He is a natural when it comes to affairs—he moves easily into their illusory territory, into the arms of foreign women. He has flings with coworkers, with my mother’s girlfriends, with prostitutes; he spends his vacation time taking business trips with buddies who also cheat on their wives. He is the type of man who falls into the life of a woman and allows her to reshape him, design him as she sees fit. Each woman is his prospect, then his project, then his proprietor.
My father glided right out of his life as the bored husband with three young kids, then told us, without remorse, “I always cheated on your mother. She just didn’t want to admit it. She kept her head in the sand for years.”
When Brenda is promoted from my father’s secretary to his paralegal, and then to his wife, they move in together, and I see a paper, peel-off, name tag (the kind worn at a business convention) in their master bathroom: “Brenda Troisi.” Since it has already been used and is stuck to the windowsill of the bathroom, I figure it is trash. When I ask Brenda if she wants me to throw it away, she says, “Are you kidding? Don’t you dare. I worked long and hard for that name.” Her face reddens, and she stares at me with her cutting features: her sharp, pointed nose, her high, prominent cheekbones, the bulging whites of her eyeballs.
When my parents were still married, she was Brenda Smith, the secretary with the blonde feathered hair and the light laugh who told me jokes while I watched her long painted nails fly across the keyboard. She was the secretary my father sent in his place when he was supposed to have shown up at my swim-team practices; at five years old, huffing in the pool, I would look to the bleachers, scan the adult faces, and see her smile, flashing her straight, white teeth.
I mull over Brenda’s words, “worked long and hard,” think about what she might be referring to—offering to walk me down the road to get a vanilla swirl cone when my mother and I visited the office, ringing our home phone off the hook, sitting on my father’s desk in a miniskirt, legs uncrossed in hopes of seducing him. She stomps out of their bedroom, and I watch glimpses of Brenda Smith disintegrate into nowhere; I know that I am now faced with Brenda Troisi, a woman with incalculable dimensions, a woman with a look that pierces and a voice that penetrates the way Alex Forrest’s does in Fatal Attraction when she says, “I am not going to be ignored.”
Brenda pulls clothes from her closet and imitates the “wire hanger” scene in Mommie Dearest, where Faye Dunaway plays Joan Crawford, the mother who wakes her daughter up to beat her with hangers in the middle of the night. “I told you: no wire hangers ever!” Brenda flings outfits down on the bed, squeezes hangers out of neck holes, loosens clips from waistbands of pants and skirts. She twists the hooks of the hangers to show how easily they bend and looks at me with her frantic smile, her wild, beady eyes lost in their white spaces. She asks, “Imagine having a stepmother like that ?”
Even though Brenda implies that she is joking, with her too, I am always in trouble without knowing why. I put the towel back on the rack the wrong way; I rolled my eyes; I didn’t smile enough in front of the company; I am getting too fat or too skinny; I made the wrong sound or sigh when she was in the wrong mood.
When I muster up the courage to say I would rather stay home instead of visiting this weekend, she becomes a ventriloquist, whispering to my father while he yells, “You ungrateful little fucking bitch. When you’re twenty-five, you’ll realize what an asshole you’re being.”
Each weekend before my father picks me up from my mother’s house, in order to hide my crying, I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and douse my eyes with Visine; I study the creases in my forehead, the tightness of my mouth, while I wait for the redness to dissipate. I dread visiting his and Brenda’s split-level house with the back deck overlooking the pool, the hammock swinging from the oak, the neatly landscaped lawn. I see beyond their facade.
I know that most parents don’t call their kids fat, don’t say, “The longer you sit, the wider your ass spreads” or “You deserve nothing” and then take them shopping for school clothes. I know that most parents, while at a bed-and-breakfast for the weekend, don’t make their kid sleep in the closet even though there is an empty daybed against the wall, that they don’t coat these actions with words like, “It’s like your own special room, nice and cozy,” the way Brenda does. When I am at their house, Brenda says, “It’s a beautiful day out—let’s take a ride together—just you and me,” which really means that she will drive us to a house where a woman was tortured and then killed by her husband. We will park in front of it while Brenda narrates the details of the couple’s volatile life together. “That bastard. You never really know what someone is capable of, no matter how much you might think you know them.” I stare at the house as if it is something I have seen in a horror movie, wondering if and when she will drive us away from it, wondering if this is what Joan Crawford meant when she defined her parenting philosophy as “discipline mixed with love.”
Brenda talks about sending my sisters and me away all the time—“getting rid of us.” I am eleven, and my sisters are old enough to be absent from these visits, so I know that she is only talking about me. I remember her words while we watch the television movie, Small Sacrifices, in which Farrah Fawcett acts out the true story of a woman who is dating a man who does not want children, so she shoots her three kids and then claims that a gunman attacked them.
“What a sicko,” Brenda says and turns up the volume. I kneel on the living room carpet and play solitaire, slow to flip each card over. Red, then black, then red. My insides tense up. I try, as I always do during these visits, to let time slip by me.
Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like a Wolf ” blares through Farrah’s speakers as the gunshots sound. “I’m on the hunt, I’m after you / You feel my heat, I’m just a moment behind / I’m on the hunt, I’m after you.” Pow! Pow! Pow! One, two, three. I want to shudder, but I don’t. I keep my eyes on the cards, focusing on the queen of hearts, the dusty carpet, anything but the television. “Did you see that, Gina? This is a true story. It happened out in Oregon.”
“Yeah, I know. I think I heard that.” My stomach aches, twists as if it is being wrung out, as if my organs are constricted by my flesh, suffocated by my skin.
“I love this song. One of my favorites of all time.”
The TV blasts, “Mouth is alive with juices like wine.”
Brenda goes on, mentions that the movie is based on a book describing this incident, says that this is Farrah’s best acting job yet, but her voice fades. I pretend to listen; I look up and nod between her sentences. The music dulls into a faint hum in the background, and the sound of her voice muffles. I am becoming skilled at censoring what I can hear, wrapping myself with an invisible film that no one from the outside can detect. I have no bruises, no bite marks or broken bones, but I endure the pain until my body tingles, until I become numb.
When I am five, I see The Shining with my father. I watch Jack Nicholson play Jack the writer, a man who takes a job at a resort in the Colorado mountains and tries to murder his family. For years I will remember the haunting of the twin girls, the chilling drone of the trombones, the half-human, half-dead ghost emerging from the shower to seduce Jack, and I will run from the bathroom to my bedroom screaming. I see my wide eyes and quivering legs in the mirror at the end of the hallway; I see the terror of an image exploding behind me in the mirror, chasing me.
My sisters and I hear rumors that The Shining was filmed at the Balsams, a resort in northern New Hampshire where we learned to ski, where as a family we went on vacation each year. And where my parents, one New Year’s Eve, tell us that they have decided to take a break from their marriage. I stand by the king-size bed, my head its same height, while my mother explains that they are going to live apart, maybe try out dating one another for a while. Her face fills up with grief while my father paints himself with indecision, as if an actor unsure about which persona to develop: the worried father, the apathetic father, the disappearing father. I am too young to comprehend what this news means for my sisters and me, distracted by the notion that my parents will date again, transport themselves back to younger versions of the single selves they no longer recognize.
During the years when I am nine, then ten, then eleven, my mother picks me up from my father and Brenda’s house each Sunday evening at five thirty. At four thirty I plant myself in front of the picture window overlooking the driveway and wait for her to arrive. I stand there and grab on to the sheer white curtain, stare through the glass at the pavement, at the rows of hedges lining the driveway, at the front lawn. I watch and I wait, open and shut my eyes as if they are cameras snapping pictures of my future. Even though my mother is always late, I convince myself that she will never make it—that we will be doomed by her car crashing on her way to pick me up. I see flashes of her white Honda wrapped around a tree, her limbs twisted. I see myself standing over her coffin, floating ghostlike above the space where she lies.
I tremble as the clock ticks, as the sky darkens. I choke back the mucus in my throat. I can relate to Jack’s son in The Shining, to the way he is uncertain about what is happening inside his mind, to his fear of going crazy, his obsession with images of the dead twin girls and blood sloshing down hallways. Week after week, I gasp, trying to steady my breath as tears fall onto the carpet, as I fear becoming lost in limbo, stuck swimming in the purgatory of my father and Brenda’s space. In these moments, the moments when I become fixated with death, I sense that things are terribly wrong in the same way Jack’s son does when his father says, “I would never hurt you.”
When I am thirteen, my uncle, my father’s younger brother, dies from a heroin overdose. Brenda kneels on the floor of the living room and rifles through his things. She reads his credit card bills aloud. “I bet Chinese food is really good when you’re high.” She dumps out boxes of his Harley gear, his clothes and watches scatter on the floor like garbage. She shoves his black leather cap in my face and says, “You want to know what pot smells like?”
I already know what pot smells like; I say nothing. I am relieved by the sweet smell of the leather cap, transported to the backs of cars filled with friends with whom I smoke joints and blunts and take bong hits each day after school. At night I wait outside of convenience stores asking men to buy me booze, and they do. When no one is around to buy it, I steal—cheap wine and cigarettes, along with lip gloss and clothes. Soon, I will stop drinking and start dropping acid, mistake fireworks for fire. I will decide that I would rather hallucinate—stare at oaks swaying in the breeze, become mesmerized by their enormity—than do anything else. It is only in these moments after I have eaten bits of chemical-coated paper that I am able to care about nothing but the trees; when I am high, the oaks and pines turn into redwoods before my eyes, branches contort like limbs about to wrap themselves around me, tuck me into the nooks of their trunks, cradle me from the wind, save me somehow.
Brenda tosses items into a small trash can, blurts random remarks. “What a fucking mess; what an asshole. A loser.” I say nothing, even though my favorite uncle has died. Even though I am not unlike him.
Brenda and I follow our script to the letter—she, the overbearing, malicious stepmother, and me, the quiet, troubled teenager—execute our parts as if we have rehearsed them. My voice is soft: “Can I look through that box? In case I want something in there?”
She pulls the box toward her as if she has been appointed power of attorney. Instead of handing it over, she says, “You can have the cap,” and picks it up off of the floor to toss it to me. I try not to flinch as it drops onto my lap. I grab the hat, hold it by the rim, feel the coldness of its worn inside, touch the orange embroidered logo. I don’t look at Brenda; I accept my role. I am as solid as a statue, as predictable as a porcelain figurine behind the glass doors of their dining room hutch.
At my father and Brenda’s house, in the bedroom with the detached bunk beds and plain tan walls, a bedroom I have never moved into, I kneel on the carpet in front of the full-length mirror. I pull my neck upright, stick my chest out while I rehearse my lines: “I don’t want to come here anymore. I don’t think I should have to come here anymore. Please, don’t make me come here anymore.” I mutter sounds of these words; I study the curves of my lips in the mirror as I release them in whispers. I widen my eyes, narrow my eyes, try to release the furrow in between my brows, but it won’t go away. I close my mouth, frown, half smile. I stand up and make gestures with my hands: rest them on my hips, close them into fists, clasp them and let them hang down in front of me. The serious daughter. The assertive daughter. The sad daughter.
I have tried this before; I have measured my father and Brenda’s moods, waited for the best possible times to talk to them, but it is always the same. I develop a stutter, become flustered by the heat of blood in my neck, my jaw, distracted by the sound of my pulse. My palms perspire, and my head pounds. I avoid their eyes as I utter words, making up bits about getting older, about wanting to hang out with friends more. No matter how I phrase this, their response is always the same, despite a few words tweaked here and there. Brenda holds her glass of pink wine, her face without a trace of emotion, while my father yells. “You are so fucking selfish. You appreciate nothing.”
“It’s not her fault, Jim,” Brenda says. “She is her mother’s robot—you know that.”
I stand in front of them on the border of the kitchen and living room, the step up to the hardwood floor giving me height. He keeps going: “Oh, I know. Your mother and her three bears. Your mother, the bitch.” I shrink.
Each time in the mirror, while I decipher who I should be, I hope that this time will be different. That I will muster up the courage to say what I never do: that I cannot bear to visit my father and Brenda’s house any longer, that I think of the two of them as twisted characters in the horrific movies we have watched, that this is the only way I have been able to make sense of them. What I don’t say is that I have become a person who stands outside of myself and looks inward, that I cannot continue this pretense, that I have ridden the waves of these turbulent visits for so long that I have been gutted of who I was before ever piecing myself together; I am now utterly lost, searching for blueprints of who I would have been.
In front of the mirror, I am unrecognizable, a mass of anxieties wrapped up in skin, hidden behind eyes. I am Christina Crawford, who, unable to take it any longer, fights back when her mother strangles her, who finally speaks the unspeakable when she asks, “Why did you adopt me?” I am Alex Forrest, who knows what she wants, who won’t take no for an answer. I am Jack’s son, running through a labyrinth of snow-covered hedges, looking for a way out.
When my father is indicted for fraud, he says he “has to tell me something.” I have no idea what it is. I sit down across from his desk in his office like a client bracing myself for news of a maximum sentence. He explains that he is being accused of mortgage fraud even though he is innocent, that if he is convicted, he will be facing jail time. His face is grave; his eyes tear up. I don’t wonder whether he is telling the truth; I am indifferent. I sit stone-like, unable to feel anything for his pending situation, for circumstances that can change everything for him.
I have watched my father slide into and out of various roles without a thought: the husband, the adulterer, the lover. I have never known him. To me he could be anyone or nobody, the lines on his face and hands tracing back to a reality we have never shared. The distance between us prevents the possibility of this scene; I am not sure what he wants here, but I am guessing it is a dramatic moment between the two of us. Because I know what is expected of me, I play the role of the sad daughter—the worried and concerned daughter. “I’m sorry,” I say. I imagine what someone else, a girl who is afraid of losing her father to prison, might do or say, but I, the girl who feels relieved by the thought of my father’s absence, am hollow. We sit in silence while he looks at me, his head tilted, his face waiting. “I’m sure it will be okay,” I say.
In my twenties, I date a man who is still living with his ex-girlfriend; I am living nowhere, so we have sex on bathroom floors. We move from floors to counters, bath mats to showers. One of these times, after we strip one another, he calls me his ex’s name by accident, and I get over it rather quickly, more easily than I expect from myself. Even though I am in love with this man, a man similar to my uncle, a man who has a magnetic personality and an addiction to heroin, I am not upset for more than a moment. I am his ex; I am myself—what is the difference? He and I are bound by a common need to escape ourselves; together we shed our skin again and again. I have become used to alternate realities. I am used to trees talking, yellow lines swerving in the wrong directions along roads, people cropping up like ghosts and disappearing. I am used to being disappointed, then elated.
When he calls me her name, it echoes off of the bathroom walls, dissolves into these moments we have together. It is overridden by the way I fulfill what this man desires, by the way he believes he will get clean for me, by the way I am convinced I can help him kick his habit. I will expect that I can be both his ex and myself—both the addict and the savior. In these moments, it doesn’t matter that I know our union will not end well, that I will not be able to help or keep him, that I will never be able to let go of him.
I have only one photo from the stretch of years spent with my father and Brenda. We are in Montreal. I am in the sixth grade. I look skinny and pale, as I have stopped eating most days. My white T-shirt is tucked neatly into my pleated shorts, and I am wearing white sneakers and socks. My long hair is curled, my bangs a perfect puff, and I am sitting on a stone wall next to Brenda, my leg propped up, my chin in my hand, smiling. One would never know that the woman sitting next to the girl, along with her husband, the girl’s father, called her fat for years. That when she became this skinny, they sent her to a therapist who said, “Can you eat what you want and be at a weight that you want?” The girl nodded, and the woman said, “Then prove it.” There would be no way to know that each Friday, when the girl’s father drives her to the doctor to be weighed in, she convulses, cries to the point of hyperventilating the way Christina Crawford does when her mother douses the bathroom floor with a white cleaning powder and screams at her daughter, “Clean it up!”
I once read an interview with Christina Crawford, conducted just after she released Mommie Dearest, the book that the movie was based on, where the reporter mentions that the walls and mantles in her house are absent of photographs, that it is like entering a place where there is no indication of time. I imagine that she saw no point in framing a version of herself on a carousel, wearing a pink dress and flashing a huge smile, when, just beyond the periphery of the snapshot, she would see the truth—her mother cutting off her hair in a drunken rage, or making her stay at the dinner table until she’d eaten all of her raw steak. I imagine she refuses to remember the way she has seen things split open, pieces broken and jagged before falling away, before becoming lost.
A couple of years after I graduate from high school, my father tells me that he was at the commencement ceremony. That he sat by himself in the rain, saw me receive my diploma, then left. I imagine him, his head covered with a baseball cap, the scorned father in the bleachers. Perhaps he expected that people would see him there, crushed from his recent divorce, a speck in the crowd of families—parents and siblings, aunts and uncles grouped together, huddled underneath umbrellas. The lonely, rejected father. This is several years after the fraud charges against him have been dropped, but only a couple of years after he calls to say that Brenda is trying to take all of his money, half of his business—right around the time when he expects pity again, and I play the part of the caregiver who should feel compassion but can’t.
I am a bartender; I get paid to act. To feed people booze and food, assess their needs, give them what they came in for, all the while shielding myself from their hungriest, often times ugliest sides. My coworkers and I listen, joke, flirt—feign interest in people’s lives. We decipher their gestures, adjust our tones of voice, mend their moods. We accommodate by adapting to different temperaments and personalities; we try to make their pain subside. This job comes naturally to me; I have been doing it for years, and in many ways, it is easy.
Recently, after work, I went out for drinks with one of my regular customers, Bob. We talked about drugs—about him having never touched them—about me getting too far into them—about the men I have loved, particularly the one similar to my uncle, and about Bob’s successful marriage to his high-school sweetheart. “I’m so disappointed,” he said. “I can’t believe you’ve done drugs, dated an addict. You’re ruining it for me. My wife and I always thought you were such a prude.”
On the other side of the bar, in alcohol-induced euphoria or sadness, patrons paint our lives—label us prudes or sluts, loud or quiet, sane or insane, and we step into these roles for them—we fulfill their fantasies. After all, it is they who pay us. We pay in other ways.
We try not to let customers degrade us, but they often do, and in most cases, it is unacceptable for us to say so. We maintain composure even when the environment is stressful; we show no anger. It is in this business that people have said to me, “You are the happiest person I know.” But I am not—I am just doing my job. Sometimes I say this; other times I nod, smile in response to these remarks that set me up for a standard I can never reach. It is like being on stage or screen, what happens next prompted by our attempts to fill existing molds; I find myself once again unwavering, a ceramic fixture afraid of breaking.
When I mull over Bob’s words, I gather that my ability to adapt isn’t as essential as theirs on the other side—that loss is more prominent for those holding the illusions, those facing the realization that a person is not who they hoped she would be. It is human to gravitate toward what we want to believe—it is similar to the way we decide to deny or ignore death, the way its reality changes what we know about life. I like to think that I am no longer afraid to die, that I no longer have illusions.
When I watch movies, I react as if they are real. I scream, gasp, tremble. I have to get up and leave the room. My boyfriend, Derek, says, “It’s only a movie—why do you have that worried look?” It has become a joke between us. He reminds me that “these people are actors,” that it is “only a job.”
When we rewatch The Shining in the middle of the day, our curtains open, and the light spilling in, I make myself sit through the entire movie. The memories of scenes flash back: Jack’s son foaming at the mouth after he has a murderous vision, Jack’s wife screaming as he chases her with an ax. During the bathroom scene, the one that haunted me for years, I shudder as the beautiful woman transforms, as her smooth skin becomes covered with sores, as she becomes a skeleton. The difference between watching it now, as opposed to then, is that I know what to expect. I am able to distance myself in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid. I am not six or seven or eight trying to tiptoe through Brenda’s house, slip through rooms without her noticing, sneak outside to circle the neighborhood, pluck dandelions from people’s yards. I am not creeping into the shed in the backyard looking for a place to hide.
When The Shining ends, I get up, go into the bathroom, and look in the mirror. I study my reflection, pout my lips, try to figure out what Derek means by the “worried look,” something he mentions often, but I have never seen. It fascinates me that we don’t know the language of our own faces—the expressions we make unconsciously but never see ourselves—how it is up to others to construct their meanings, their purposes.
I hear Derek call to me from the living room. “Are you done watching scary movies for a while?” I turn on the faucet, let it run for a moment. The water filters the silence. I study the image of the person in the glass, contemplate the lines of the skin, as she looks back at me and nods.
Gina Troisi is a graduate of the University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, where she received her degree in creative nonfiction. Her essays have been published in several literary journals and anthologies, including Best New Writing 2010, Compass Rose, and the Concho River Review. She recently served as Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she completed her memoir, Shadows on the Sidewalk. She was a finalist for the 2012 Iowa Review Award in creative nonfiction and Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She works as writing-center coordinator at Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“Wrapped Up in Skin, Hidden behind Eyes” appears in our Spring 2013 issue.