"Fat legs, fat legs, fat legs," he said under his breath.
The radio was broadcasting gospel music in the comfortable minivan.
The soft piano music in "Because I'll Rise Again" floated through the air.
The gentle lyrics of the song graced the air. My mother always had this song playing: in every car ride and in our home throughout the day...
Go ahead, drive the nails in my hands Laugh at me where you stand Go ahead, and say it isn't me The day will come, when you will see!
There was also the mumbling of my parents in the front seats talking about my father's job and bills, and two of the other kids laughing and whispering together behind me, but I could still hear his taunt. A glance at my sister to my right revealed her to be listening to her music on her device.
Before the taunting started, I had been sitting in my seat alternating between looking at the bucolic, Rocky Mountain scenery and reading The Hobbit for hours.
I took deep breaths and tried to tune him out, but the rage was building because my parents, sitting a few inches away, were ignoring his antagonism toward me, as usual.
"Fat, fat, fat!" he said a little louder.
He couldn't stand that I was ignoring him so he was getting bolder.
“Faaaaaattty, faaaattty, faaaattty,” he was singing.
These various iterations of the verbal assault went on for about 15 minutes. Finally, I turned around and told him to shut up, peppering it with any insults I could think of.
"You shut up, you fat-leg pig," he said, flushed with excitment, unconcerned about the insults I had pelted at him.
He had accomplished his goal.
"You shut up Egghead: you stupid, idiot!" I was hysterically screaming these words at the top of my lungs in our minivan, the sound jarring my parents in the front seat out of their conversation.
My older sister and me were in the middle seats, and my three brothers, including Egghead, were sitting on the backbench seats. We had been in the car for half a day by then. We were driving from Illinois to California to go to Disneyland.
From the front of the car, I heard my parents talking to each other, "She's starting. Why is that girl always picking on him?"
My blood ran cold as I heard that: rage. If there were room, I would have turned around and strangled Egghead until he died.
By now, this type of scene had become a pattern that had been going on for years, but it had recently intensified. My obnoxious brother was a pest, and he had been making me one of his main targets over the last couple of years: soft, sensitive, silent me. I was two years older than him, but that was not stopping him because he had somehow managed to leverage that assumed dynamic of "older picks on younger" to make my parents react predictably and simply try to chastise or shut me up in every conflict between us.
Even if he taunted me for an hour, if I yelled or defended myself in any way, I was attacked by my parents immediately, while he sat back like the Cheshire cat enjoying the show. Sometimes the show could end with my parents slapping, punching, or hitting me with a belt. He was now constantly provoking me.
"Melissa, I see demons all over you," my mother screamed at me, giving me her full attention.
That was a serious accusation because my mother believed in demons, taking us to evangelical churches and movies that featured demon possession regularly as testament. She was one of those Bible-quoting Christians who believed that she was God's special human, in spite of anything she said or did.
"He is calling me names. He has been calling me names back there for hours," I was worked up, but I tried to measure my tone when talking to my parents, trying to avoid getting a backhand across my mouth.
"What are you talking about?" she spat out at me, exasperated.
"That is nothing but those demons all over you whispering in your ears. You are mentally ill," my mother yelled with conviction.
That is how I knew that there was something wrong with her God. Why would He let her destroy her innocent child? Either there was something wrong with God or she was not really the Christian she thought she was. I knew I was innocent.
My father – "That boy is sitting back there doing nothing to that girl, and she is just yelling and frothing at the mouth for no reason. That's crazy. Look at her. That's pathetic!"
"He is not doing 'nothing.' He is back there saying I am fat! He has been saying it, singing it, whispering it – everything!" I implored.
"YOU ARE MENTALLY ILL! He did not say anything to you! Look at you sitting up there covered in demons," my mother said, completely worked up. She was screaming at me so loudly that spit was coming out of her mouth.
I wished that my sister and twin brothers had heard him taunting me, but everyone had been in their own world while he was provoking me. Nobody was going to say anything in my defense.
My parents were not going to ask them now either, even if they had heard, because they had already screamed at me, and they were invested in making me the enemy right now. Authority can never back down in front of the subordinates. They had to take this all the way.
They did not even ask Egghead if he said anything to me.
I was twelve years old; It was not a time that I could tolerate a younger, obnoxious brother saying I was fat. My sister Belinda, 14, was in her own world, just letting me have my turn, as her teenage angst and behaviors put her in her own conflict with my parents. My youngest brothers, the twins Eric and Derick, 8, were in the back laughing and participating in poking and stinkiest-farts contests.
My parents' berating went on and on. My parents were alternating between assaulting my soul and sanity, and telling me that I had been trying to destroy our family with my ugly behavior for my entire worthless, evil demon-possessed life.
I can only imagine, as my parents attacked me, they were building themselves and everyone else up in the car, as I was accused of undermining everything great in the family. For that moment, I was the only problem: demon-possessed, mentally ill me.
If it weren't for me, everyone in the car would peacefully mind their business and be happy. Too bad that they had to bear this crazy, demon-possessed child who had infiltrated their perfect lives in the worst way possible: masquerading as a flesh and blood child.
The following day, we arrived in Anaheim. We were going to visit with Uncle Glen before going to the hotel. I had not seen Uncle Glen since I was about 5 or 6 years old. He was my mother's younger brother: about four years younger. What I remembered about him from the past, was a single visit in the middle of a balmy spring the day to our suburban home in Shorewood. That day he was wearing a fringed, brown, denim jack. He was sitting in the family room, and the lights were off, but he was wearing dark, wire-rimmed sunglasses anyway. He had a round face and, he was only a little taller than my mother. He just kept smiling and smiling. His white teeth were perfectly straight.
"Hey Missy!" he had said. I had run and hidden behind the couch back then, peeking at him while he talked a laughed with my mother. I was a shy little girl.
His apartment was neat, and well-decorated, though not too big. It barely had enough room for him and the seven of us. I remember us fitting on floors, couches, and stools.
Uncle Glen had just graduated from college. He had gone to the army some time after high school. After serving his time, he used his G.I. Bill to pay for college, and with the help of my grandparents, he had acquired a degree. Uncle Glen was the only one out of his six siblings to have a liberal arts bachelor's degree at that time. My mother was an RN.
Like my mother, he was outspoken, but the difference was, he was making sense and speaking calmly.
"I never did understand Marvin and Carolyn's relationship. I just didn't get it," he said.
Marvin and Carolyn were my parents.
"You see, my sister wasn't sexy."
"Boy! Shut-up," my mother said.
On the face of it, it could have seemed like he was just being ridiculous because why would any brother see his sister's sexiness, duh? It was impossible.
Yet, it did not seem possible that Uncle Glen did not know that. So…
Long, thick black hair – plain styling - straightened and roller curled
No make-up ever
Rigid personality and always right
Up on style and culture
I had never even thought about anything related to my parents' relationship. I saw my parents' relationship as this unshakeable bond that could never be broken on any level. They loved each other and were in love, but this other perspective, questioning how they could have even ended up as a couple, was fascinating.
As the day progressed, there was talking, laughing, and story swamping,
I listened to everything that Uncle Glen said with rapt attention. He deconstructed everything I had ever heard my parents say about anything.
"My brothers, Junior and George, you see…they are…" – he was breaking down the behavior of my other Uncles, who I had never seen sober. Uncle George was usually so drunk at family gatherings that I could only remember him sitting in a chair bobbing and rocking with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand. Uncle Junior was a funny drunk, laughing until he couldn't breath with every word that came out of his mouth. Besides my memory of them being inebriated, I also remember their infamous farting contests. Aunt Ella (Big Ella), the oldest sibling, would usually be the one to try to get them together.
"What's wrong with you two, grown-ass negros sitting there having farting contests! You ignorant niggas!" Big Ella would be hissing at every family gathering.
"Mama and Daddy were…" he reintroduced us to my now loving, sweet and even comical grandparents, who my mother had told me beat her, punched her in the mouth -- cracking her front tooth, and called her Little Fucker instead of her name Carolyn. He had stories describing them with more nuance than I had ever heard from my mother.
He also said grandma was an alcoholic. My mother was literally hopping up and down denying that. Uncle Glen started, "Mama was an alcohol--"
"What are you talking about," my mother actually screamed, cutting him off. It was as if the obvious had never occurred to her.
"Mama drank until she was drunk every single day of my childhood, and she still does," Uncle Glen said with a monotone, but confident tone.
"Kids, now your mother…" he told stories of my mother's childhood. Not surprisingly, she came off as a Pollyanna, goody-two shoes.
As he was talking, he was watching us all.
Finally, he started softly, "You know, in my psychology courses…"
"Oh, nobody cares about your old psychological courses! The Bible has all of the answers, and the Holy Spirit is here to guide us," my mother said.
I liked that Uncle Glen let her rant and did not feel the need to cut her off or respond crazily like the rest of her family did when they all got together.
"I read that these people out here in Sodom and Gomorrah are out here getting hypnotised by so-called doctors and remembering things that did not really happen. That is nothing but demons," my mother said with her typical hysteria.
"Carolyn, you think an entire state is Sodom and Gomorra? That is why it is difficult to take you seriously because you will say anything," he said calmly and smoothly, chuckling a little.
"Boy, I am a child of God!"
"Carolyn, what does that have to do with psychology?"
"Because you cannot let the word of man supplant God's word!"
"Carolyn, you have to learn to listen. You cut me off before I said anything substantive about psychology to make my point."
"I am not going to listen to SATAN!"
"Carolyn, I am Satan?"
Uncle Glen, talking calmly, and with big words, started unbraiding the family dynamic that he had been surreptitiously watching us play out over the hours we had been at his house.
My father, as if he had made an in-law pact to never challenge my mother's family, was mute, no matter what Uncle Glen said.
"Marvin let these boys play," Uncle Glen said, relaxed, when he noticed my father's placid expression change into a menacing threat when he glanced toward my brothers who were goofing around as usual.
Unexpectedly, my uncle turned his attention to me.
"Missy, why are you are over here all quiet holding in your feelings?"
I stared at him.
He was sitting on the floor, and I was on the couch. He reached up and poked my foot, smiling.
Just from watching our family for a couple of hours, he picked out I was sitting quietly holding myself in.
"You need to learn how to express yourself and be happy. Don't be so timid."
"Wait! You can see me in here? Uncle Glen, save me! I am a prisoner. Do you see me? I am here! I have laughter and happiness inside, but my family is holding me prisoner! There are doors, locks, gates, barbed-wire, moats with alligators. Can you let me out?"
I smiled at Uncle Glen and looked him in the eyes.
For once, my mother was silent.
For a few more minutes, Uncle Glen pumped me up.
"You are a smart, pretty girl…"
"So Missy, what do you do?"
He got out of me that I was winning all of my sprint races in track and field and composing my own songs on piano. He had me laughing and smiling. This was the longest and best conversation I had ever had with an adult.
"Just learn to relax when you are with everyone," he smiled at me with warmth.
That was it, but I exited that conversation a new girl.
I thought, "If only there were no parents accusing me of picking on Egghead when I wasn't every day. If only there were no pesty, insecure monster-brother amusing himself by trying to get me in trouble every time he felt badly about himself or bored. If only my parents weren't pseudo-religious rage monsters venting on their vulnerable children under the guise of parental authority."
I was connecting with Uncle Glen in my little way, unbeknownst to him. I suddenly felt I could breathe. I was feeling stronger. A corner of the prison wall crumbled. The sun shone through the crack. It comforted my eyes, and I felt my heart leap. Fresh air.
I knew that I was still in prison, but it was like having a pleasant visitor for the afternoon in my cell promising to see me soon when I get out.
The silence of my mother was palatable to me.
Later, when I went into the kitchenette to get a cup of water -- still at Uncle Glen's apartment, my mother cornered me. Your father is upset that you smiled at Uncle Glen and let him play with you. I immediately felt the monkey on my back, weighing me down. I did not know what that meant. I let Uncle Glen play with me when I did what? He poked my foot playfully like you would with any little girl, close family, that you are trying to bond with --normal, but not with me, I guess. I felt nauseated. Cage locking.
My father was a man who yelled unceasingly at the house. He was known to sadistically take magazines out of my hands when I was reading and try to discipline me if I protested. He did not know how to have a conversation with me without yelling or stretching his voice or personally insulting me to save his life. He had called me mentally ill over and over again. He backed-up my mother in all of her Christian child-raising foibles without question.
He did not understand why I did not smile at him but smiled at Uncle Glen.
I was speechless as usual.
I lay down in my cell. The pleasant visit was over, but the momentarily feeling of psychological normalcy lingered and smelled like hope. There was also the sun shining through the crack in the wall, showing that there was daylight just on the other side. I knew that I would be released from this cell one day, and I was going to walk away and not look back.