Ever since I posted Blocking the Door, I’ve gotten questions about how I got out. It’s a long story, so I will be posting it here in multiple parts.
In the summer of 1991 I was removed from the custody of my father and placed into foster care. The whole process took months, but the escape itself took only hours. The intensity of the situation I lived through was magnified by the way it all happened, which I could never have predicted. I have a difficult time even believing the story today. Since this is not fiction, the beginning I am choosing is just an arbitrary point in my life that gives the outcome the illusion of being inevitable.
My father and I lived on High Street in Portland, Maine. The apartment building was a modern but poorly constructed dumping ground for Section 8 recipients. The apartment itself was cramped and evil. The walls and windows were stained with the nicotine of my father’s cigarettes. His bedroom was a tangle of debris; black socks limp and abandoned, the bed a mystery of sheets and blankets, a large window with a shade that was always shut. Against the wall stood a cart with a grow lamp and several carefully cultivated orchids, whose beauty only served to augment the sagging despair of their surroundings.
I would spend as little time there as possible, locked in my room if I had to be. My friend Meredith would sometimes spend the night, and I would barricade the door with a chair. In those days I was afraid of him, but every ounce of terror made me more resourceful and more determined. Life was bad, but it was good too, when I could get away, either physically or mentally.
My schedule was tiring, but fairly regular. During the day, I went to Waynflete, the private high school I attended on an academic scholarship. Later I would visit my favorite coffee shop after school, then return home to nap until later. When my father’s consumption of various intoxicants resulted in unconsciousness, I would climb out my window and walk across town to Franklin Arterial where a number of my friends lived. Whoever was home, usually my friend Chris, would accompany me downtown to pick up Dice after he got out of work. We would buy as much beer as we could afford, and then either go back to the apartment or stay and drink on the docks. Despite my father’s cruelty, I had a fairly standard teenaged life: I did stupid shit while intoxicated, I was anguished over my infatuation with Chris, in turn tormented by his sleek but violent girlfriend. While this group would eventually become my surrogate family, I initially struggled to find a place for myself in it. Once I did, I was comfortable—temporarily.
Then, in rapid succession, the group was evicted from the apartment. Chris bought a VW bus and drove off into a booze-soaked sunset (itself a defining moment for me, one for another story). Dice stayed at my house, on the couch in the living room. I was happy with this arrangement because Dice was a buffer between my father and me. He tended to act less overbearing towards me when Dice was around. I don’t know if this was because Dice was, while not as tall as may father, still a pretty big guy or just because my father wanted so badly to give the appearance of being “the good guy”. The latter reason might also have been why he accepted this new dynamic into our household with very little complaint. I still despised him, but he wasn’t visiting me in my bed at night, and he wasn’t smacking me around during the day.
One morning, the three of us drove to Bar Harbor. My father was in the habit of taking weekend trips to Downeast Maine and Bar Harbor was one of his favorite places. Naturally, he was half-cocked on the way back and he wanted me to drive. I didn’t have a license yet, but driving the Chevy Celebrity wasn’t difficult and I liked the quiet roads. I had driven with my dad passed out in the passenger seat on logging roads near the Canadian border that were little more than dirt trails. I had driven in all kinds of Maine weather and never had any problem until that night. In the middle of a left turn, less than a half-mile from our apartment, my father woke from his stupor and thought I was driving too slowly. He reaches over with his foot and jams on the gas pedal. I couldn’t make the turn, especially with his bulk in the way of my vision and steering and I rammed the traffic light pole on the corner.
Dice and I cleared the car of his empty cans and walked home. My father tried to get the car towed by a friend of his before the cops came, but some guys closing the bar down the street saw the wreck and called emergency services. When the police came to our house, he told them he had been driving, and I’m not sure how he avoided going to jail, but they wrote him up and hauled the now-completely (as opposed to just mostly)-worthless Celebrity off to the impound. This was the start of the financial trouble that precipitated the move back to Biddeford Pool and the house I grew up in.
I refused to go without Dice. I don’t remember what I actually used as justification, but I knew I couldn’t stand being there alone with my father. I was so insistent, and he was so greedy for the extra money that he agreed. The three of us moved in May, after my junior year of high school. I was sixteen years old.
Once we arrived, I almost immediately got a job at the restaurant/convenience store/gas station/local hangout down the street. I worked at Garnache’s nearly every day, and I did everything. Cooked, washed dishes, served old ladies their morning coffee, got my hands greasy at the pumps, rung up the fishermen’s cigarettes. Chatted with the students from the University of New England, an osteopathic med school right across the street where my mom had worked when I was a kid, before she moved to Florida. They always thought I was one of them, but when they went back to their classes and dorms I kept schlepping away, then went home to my nightmares.
The house was doing awful things to me. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, and I had panic attacks all the time. It felt as though the memories of everything bad that had ever happened to me there were seeping out of the walls, like blood in a cheap horror movie. Dice didn’t know what to do or how to help, but he did his best. He would coax me out of the closet when I was wild-eyed and shaking with terror. He would hold me after a bad dream and talk to me soothingly when I was upset. He helped me in ways I couldn’t begin to thank him for, just by being there. And then he helped me too much.
My dad had also gone through some changes once he was back in Biddeford. He became even more erratic and confrontational than he was before. On one of his tirades he grabbed a phone book and started whaling on me with it. Dice was there and tried to get in the way, to protect me. It was the first time he had seen my father this violent and he was horrified. He did exactly the wrong thing, yet I am grateful even for that. My father of course immediately kicked him out, literally shoving him down the stairs of the front porch. When he realized that Dice couldn’t walk back to Portland, he relented somewhat and said he was going up north and that Dice and Dice’s belongings had better be gone when he got back.
We tried to move everything but just couldn’t. We had to take the bus back and forth from Biddeford to Portland and Dice had so many books, so many records he ended up leaving most of them behind. We had no idea when my dad would return but I knew it would be bad if Dice remained there. On one of our trips to Portland, Dice and I were at the Café No (cool coffee place run by Paul Lichter where I read poetry from time to time—the slogan there was “Where the Beat Goes On” but it’s gone now). We were trying to figure out what to do next. Paul tells me I have a phone call and it’s my father, who has returned and is absolutely furious that I am not at home. He wants to pick me up at Café No immediately, but I manage to calm him down and tell him I’ll meet him at Waynflete. The school was closed for the summer, but my advisor Gary Hertz lived on campus. I called him next, told him it was an emergency, and he said he would meet us there. I arrived first, and tried to explain the situation to Gary. When my father arrived, though, all conversation was cut short. He dragged me into the car, his big hands jerking me along by the roots of my hair. Gary was appalled, which would mark the first time I had ever seen him express any emotion besides vague concern or good-humored indifference.
When my father and I arrived back in Biddeford Pool, he placed me under strict house arrest. I was not allowed outside, even on the deck. I was not allowed to make or receive phone calls. I was not allowed any communication whatsoever. I was not allowed to lock doors behind me. He drove me to and from work every day. He usually didn’t call me at work, relying instead on the relative isolation and the pitch of fear he could inflict on me. He kept saying, “It’s so good that we’re finally alone together.” “I’m looking forward to all this time we have to spend together.” Even creepier: “You’re all mine now.” He would put his hands on me when he said these things, and this period of about a week he came the closest to admitting what it was he had done, and was planning to do to me. I would focus on the hard glop of bile at the back of my throat and be as still and quiet as possible. The worst thing about all of this now is that I cannot for the life of me remember one single night from this time. I do recall thinking I would go completely insane if I had to wait much longer to get out of there.
One afternoon while my father was away, I risked my life to call Gary. I have no idea what I said to him but I managed to communicate that I needed to get away from my dad. Gary agreed emphatically, and said he would find a way to help me. I hung up the phone just as my father’s car pulled into the driveway. I thought I was safe, but he came in screaming, “Who were you talking to? Who were you fucking talking to?” He’s already started swinging at me and I cover my head with my arms and say, “It was Gary, he called me, he was just asking about school, I swear it!” My father doesn’t believe me; he wants to call Gary to see if I’m lying. I give him the number, and in his rage he dials incorrectly. I see him do it, so I am already telling him to try it again when he comes at me for giving him the wrong number. He stops, and with utter calmness tells me he’ll kill me if the call doesn’t go through this time.
I sit there, my face white as he dials. He gets Gary right away, and amazingly enough Gary tells him the same lie I’ve told: “No, everything is fine, I was just calling about next year’s classes. Is anything the matter?” He keeps this up until my father calms down and allows us to call each other. He hands the phone to me and walks off. Over the next day or two, Gary tells me he’s found a place for me and that I should leave work early the following day so I can catch a cab to Portland without my dad knowing. He says the shelter at the YWCA is expecting me, and that he will also be waiting there with cab fare. I say thanks and start looking for clothes to wear.