Contributed by Robert Jeffries
His chest is pushed out and his eyes burn brighter than the fires of hell. I have just returned from school and walk into a ticking time bomb. The anger between my parents is evident. My mom’s voice sounds broken. My dad is screaming.
“I am sick and tired of you nagging me and telling me how to run this family!” he yells.
My mom looks at him with regret. She always begins by fighting back, then retreats because she knows she won’t win. I know how she feels. It’s taken me a few years to understand my dad’s fighting pattern – it’s either articulate and calm or belligerent. Never anywhere in-between. Mostly, he is able to negotiate with us calmly and I appreciate it when he treats me like the man that I am. But I know how my mom feels right now and I am tired of seeing her emotionally destroyed.
“Can you go to your bedroom to fight?” I belt out. As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know I’ve made the wrong move.
He turns straight towards me. “Excuse me?” he yells, his anger building, “Why don’t you go to your room? You cannot speak to me like that!” His eyes become more inflamed and lock with mine. I stare back with a mixture of challenge and defeat.
I know I’m going to lose, but the rage makes me stand my ground. “You tell me what to do all the time. So, what’s the difference?”
As soon as I ask the question, I know what the difference is: he’s my father.
His temper snaps. His hands ball into fists and in that moment I think he has forgotten that I am his son. That he loves me. His arm moves back and my world flips completely upside down as his fist flies forward and connects with my chest. The pain bounces through my whole body. My blood drains and my heart breaks into shards of broken glass. It feels like life has stopped.
I have never considered the possibility of my dad hitting me before. I look at him in disbelief while gasping for air, trying not to appear weak. I wipe away tears and try to look at him. His penetrating gaze tells me that I deserved what I got.
The pain is too much for me to handle, so I turn to walk away. He grabs my arm in an effort to keep this heated exchange going. He wants to be in control. But it doesn’t matter to me anymore, so I shake off his grasp. I want to go away and never come back.
I run out the front door, zooming past my dad. As soon as I get to the street, I try to take another step but as I push my legs forward, they buckle. I fall to my knees as my body turns to jelly. My heart is pounding out of my chest. The pain of the punch is non-existent because the pain of my broken heart is too strong. I close my eyes, trying to relax. I go to my one happy place, the one place I can always go to feel safe.
* * *
When I was seven, at the end of each day I would walk off the school bus and up the hill to our street with my brother, Jon. As we crested the top of the hill I saw my mom. She stood at the mailboxes in front of our red and white house each day, waiting for us. As soon as I saw her I threw my backpack onto my brother and took off running. My legs propelled me down the street, faster and faster, until I got close enough to jump into her arms for a big hug and to smell her musty perfume.
I would usually ask, “Where is daddy at, Mom?”
She would most often reply, “Daddy is in the shop outback.”
Then, I turned and pushed myself as fast as I could up our dirt driveway, with each stride my body filled with joy. The thought of jumping into my dad’s arms was the greatest thought in the world.
As soon as I reached the top our backyard opened up, filled with trucks, muscle cars, and motorcycles. I would scream out, “DADDY!” through the big, wide open red barn doors of the shop.
He would come running out, his arms wide open, and I would leap into his chest. For those brief seconds it felt like nothing could ever hurt me. It was always the best part of my day.
One day he hugged me, set me down and smiled at me like I was the most precious part of his life. “Son,” he said. “I love you. No matter where you go in this life, I will always be with you, for you are blood of my blood.” When he spoke those few words, my body became warm and my whole world felt complete.
I stand up in the middle of the street and try to regain my strength. I am afraid to go back, but I push the fear aside. I turn around and make myself walk to the house.
I enter the front door to find my mom sitting on the couch. I am relieved because my dad is nowhere to found. But as I think of how happy I am that my dad isn’t there, I look over at my mom. Her eyes are swollen with hurt and sorrow.
“Your dad is just having a hard time because he lost his job and we have no money,” she tells me as I take a seat beside her.
My heart sinks deep into my chest. I think about the last three years since my father has been out of work. He used to work in construction. I knew he was the best of the best, the go-to guy for everyone. But the economy changed things and his job wasn’t in demand anymore. He was laid off. Ever since, he’s done odd ball things and small jobs for friends to help bring in money for the family. We gave up luxuries like cable TV and eating out, and started eating more soup at home. My mom cleaned houses and tried to work harder to stay up on the bills.
Sitting on the couch next to her, I see my parents in a completely different light. I’m realizing for the first time how hard it has been for them. They never sugar-coated anything, but I know that they have tried to protect us from worrying.
I know that I have to be strong, despite the hurt I feel.
“Mom,” I say, “You just wait. You hear? You just wait.” I stand and walk toward my room with heavy footsteps. As I pass my dad in the hallway, I glare at him; we exchange an unspoken understanding about what had just happened. Closing the door behind me, I slowly sit on the corner of the bed, my body limp.
On the wall in front of me is a collage of pictures from my childhood. I focus on one in particular: I’m four years old, sitting with my family on a three-wheeler that my dad had built. I feel so removed from those carefree days.
Something is now very clear: I know I have to leave my childhood behind for the sake of my family. I have to stop playing sports and other things that require money. I have to give up all of my free time and find ways to make money for my family. I must do what has to be done.
I lift up my eyes and put my life into the hands of God. I ask for the strength to push on and the courage to forgive.
Robert Jeffries, age sixteen, is a junior at Scriber Lake High School in Edmonds, Washington. This story is from the student story collection, Behind Closed Doors: Stories From the Inside Out, which will be released in June 2014. For more information about this nonprofit program that helps teens to find their voice, please visit: www.weareabsolutelynotokay.org