When I was 11 or 12, I used to steal my stepfather’s dirty magazines.
Not for what you think, although I was curious too. Here’s what happened.
During the summer while my mother worked, I often had to spend the day with my stepfather at his small furniture store. So boring, even if I brought books and toys, and the days passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. And my stepfather wasn’t a bad guy, just a lifelong alcoholic who drank so much and so often he would sweat the excess vodka out his pores, and their sheets had large diffuse yellow stains wherever his body had lain and wallowed. I can still remember that rotten-sweet-musty alcohol smell, and when I’m around alcoholics today and catch a whiff, I’m triggered with the memories.
But back to my smut subterfuge.
The one-seater bathroom at his dusty small-town furniture store was about as spiffy as a filthy service-station stall, so I usually got in and out quickly, washing my hands carefully with the nasty gritty bar of Lava soap he kept on the sink. One day before I hurried out, I happened to look up and for the first time notice a shelf above the bathroom door. Huh. A magazine?
By standing on the toilet and leaning perilously forward, I was able to grab it. And drop it onto the grimy floor when I saw the cover.
I don’t remember the magazine’s name. It was a cheap, no-name-brand men’s magazine that probably should have been titled “Mountainous Mammaries” or “Titty City Galore!” I stayed in there, eyes popping, outraged and embarrassed but flipping through the pages until my stepfather asked if I was alright. I said yeah and flushed periodically to let him know I was still alive. I put the magazine back on the shelf again before I left.
Back at home that night, I looked at my mama and began to get resentful that my stepfather was “cheating” on her with a magazine about nasty old women with big old boobs. Poor mama. That’s when I started my campaign.
Every day from then on when I stayed at his store, I made sure that before I left, I would go to the bathroom, find whatever magazines he had and steal them. I would stuff them down the front of my pants, down the back of my pants, and even roll them around my shins and pull my socks up to hold them in place. Sometimes I walked out of there with 5-6 magazines secreted about my body, walking stiff-legged like a marionnette, but I was on a mission.
He started questioning me and eventually asked me if I’d taken some of his magazines. I looked him with wide, puzzled eyes and said, “I don’t think so. What magazines are you talking about?” He got flustered and changed the subject.
Eventually, when Mom picked me up in the afternoons on her way home from work, he started noticing my comically stiff magazine-reinforced bulk. And one day he told me he knew I was taking his magazines.
I gave him a dead-eyed look and asked what he was going to do about it — tell my mother? (Remember, I was 11 or 12.)
There was a long silence where — if we were in a movie — you would hear only a clock ticking ominously in the background. But he just shook his head and walked away.
From then on, he kept his dirty magazines in the store’s safe, where my mother found them once when putting away the day’s receipts. I was right — she didn’t like his magazines one bit.
* * *
Where did I get brass balls to speak to him like that?
I grew up tough. I had to be. From age 9 when they married, I had ringside seats to the Mama Drama as my mother raged, tossed out vodka bottles, enlisted me to search the house and yard and vehicles for his liquor stashes, cried and stormed, had a nervous breakdown, and sometimes beat him with one of her shoes. It got worse as I got older.
By age 11 or 12ish, I had absorbed my mother’s pain, appointed myself as officially on her team and despised my stepfather, even though he was an amiable drunk. I oozed loathing for him and everything about him. (Later, I saw him more compassionately, but that took me years.)
Around that same time, I remember that he and I were alone at the house one afternoon while he was trying to sleep off one of his near-daily drinking binges, and I was mad at him for being a smelly, snoring old drunk who wouldn’t take me to the store or to a friend’s house to play. So I was banging cabinets, slamming doors, turning on loud TV shows and generally just being an obnoxious little ass. I’m sure that I talked to him with utter disrespect when he emerged from the bedroom, his hair standing on end and his clothes rumpled, trying weakly to get me to be quiet.
Eventually, he called my mother and was whining in a booze-blurred nasal voice that, “She just won’t leave me alone.” I sneered, said, “Give me that!” and took the phone away from him. Took it away from him, a grown man. He shuffled off to his bedroom while I finished the conversation with my mother.
Yeah, I was pushed into an adult role way too early, learned that respect is earned and bitter disrespect is easy, and found that a fiery rage suit was a really good fit l when I felt unsafe and forgotten and alone.
There are days still where I feel my over-developed sense of outrage well up inside me and I have to take a deep breath and ask myself, “Is THIS, right now, what I’m so mad about? What am I upset about? Why? What can I do about it and still keep my moral compass?”
Deep, deep breaths.
I seldom struggle with my temper these days, because I have had many years to practice restraint. I automatically take a deep breath and seek perspective before putting someone on blast. But I remember well when a simmering vast pool of lava-like rage bubbled just below my skin daily. And it began way back when I was little, when my mother was raging, when I needed a thick tough skin, and there were no responsible adults in sight.
Stealing dirty mags and confronting my stepfather? That was small change. A speck of dust on my lapel. Easy.
And hard to forget.