Until I was 10, my best friend was a man 45 years older than I.
We did many of the things best friends would do. Most mornings we’d have breakfast together: He would have a coffee and a cinnamon twist and I would have an orange juice and a cranberry orange muffin from Dunkin Donuts. We would reach each other’s work: He would critique my homework and I would proofread his rental contracts. In spite of the gender divide, we would allow one to choose clothing for the other: He would pick out my dresses on those rare occasions I received brand new party dresses, always blue or yellow or green, and I would pick out his outfits, always some combination of a neutral short-sleeved cotton button-down shirt and light-colored jeans.
On some nights we’d stay awake until the early morning hours talking about religion, history, books, family. Others, we’d lay a blanket in the yard and stare at the sky. He’d point out the stars and teach me constellations. Occasionally we’d be interrupted by the headlights of a passing car or the orange burn of his cigarette. Sometimes I’d fall asleep and he’d have to take me inside and tuck me into bed. If not, then he would invite me on his bed where he’d read books, passages punctuated by his deep inhalation on a True Blue filtered cigarette.
We spoke to each other about relationships. I would confide in him my frustrations with never having a playmate, with my irritation with my younger sisters or how hurt I was by how I was ignored by my older siblings. He would talk about his childhood with his parents or occasionally about the challenges of being married and how important it is to be understanding of your spouse.
Dad and I were close.
Mother was always there, most of the time in the periphery of my life. When Dad and I had breakfast, she was at school. When I was ironing his clothes, she was caring for her mother-in-law. While we were looking at stars or reading or talking, she was working or caring for the babies or sleeping. I wouldn’t have wanted life without her and I was always struck by the incompleteness of my day when she and Dad were apart. But to me she was always the other half of Dad, the person who helped make him complete, not someone who I knew in relation to me. Dad and I were buddies and wherever he went, I went too. I don’t ever remember being without him. Mother was just a presence.
Dad and I could be friends because I accepted his authoritarian rule completely. If I wanted to make a phone call, I’d ask him first and then log to whom, the date, and duration in his notebook. If I wanted a treat, I’d ask him for the key to the refrigerator where they were kept. If I wanted to watch television or listen to music, I would first get the activity and the content authorized. If I wanted to go outside, I would ask him first and then never stray from where he could see me. Dad trusted me to follow his commands and so most of my requests were granted. Not so with my siblings.
Once, Wayne used one of my dad’s tools and didn’t put it back in the exact spot Dad had reserved for it (alphabetically located within the tool chest, ordered by measurement). Dad removed Wayne’s driving privileges for a week because a boy who couldn’t put little tools away couldn’t be trusted with a big tool like a vehicle. When he got the phone bill with Linda’s unauthorized calls to her boyfriend in another state, he removed all the phones from the house, locking them in his room. When Raoul put a key lock on his bedroom door (like my parents had on theirs), Dad removed the doorknob and hung a sign in the house written in red ink and sharp capital letters (his most stern typeface):
“IF I SAID IT ONCE, I SAID IT A THOUSAND TIMES. IF YOU LIVE IN MY HOUSE, YOU LIVE BY MY RULES.”
Life was harder for the older kids. It was easier for me. I was Dad’s namesake and the rule follower. The reward was friendship, closeness, affection. I was his confidante.
To be honest, I never knew what I was missing by having only a friend 45 years older. Like going to school and eating hot dogs, white bread, and American cheese, I thought having like-aged playmates was something ‘other’ children did, but not me. Linda set me straight one afternoon while I watched her fix her hair.
“Don’t you want to have friends to play with?” she asked, frosting her hair.
I thought. “I have Dad.”
Linda rolled her eyes a little. “I mean little girls your age. Don’t you want to do stuff with them?”
“Nah. I mean, I don’t know anyone anyway.”
“What about the MacDonalds down the street? They have girls your age.” She put her Aqua Net down to take a drag of her cigarette. She looked so beautiful.
“Dad won’t let me go in the front yard by myself!” The mere thought shocked me and seemed dangerous.
Linda shrugged and touched up her blue mascara. “Ask him. You never know. He’s gotta let you out of the house sometime. Otherwise you’re going to go to school someday and not know anyone.”
Later that night, while Dad was working on the Thunderbird, I tried.
“Hey, Dad? Tomorrow could I go down to the MacDonalds’ and play with Tonya and Tara?”
Dad poked his head out from under the head and brushed his comb-over back in place with a dirty hand. “I don’t think so, honey. I don’t like you going out without your mother or me.”
“What if they came over here?”
“No, your mother and I don’t want other people in our home.”
“Could you come over with me and we could play together? Maybe we could swim?”
He went back to working under the hood. “No.” And that was it. Repeated attempts didn’t even get me that far. The answer was no.
But the idea Linda planted kept working at me. During a rare exposure to television, I saw a Lite Brite commercial of two little girls playing together. I didn’t have a Lite Brite but maybe one of the McDonalds’ kids did. It looked like fun.
In a LaBelle’s catalogue was a picture of three girls playing Barbies together. I didn’t have Barbies but maybe the McDonalds’ girls did. Playing dolls together looked like fun.
But still, Dad’s answer was no. I mentioned other neighbors. The answer was no. Finally, he got short with me and he stalked into the office and pulled down his sign. He brought it into the kitchen and pointed to the words for me to read.
“IF I SAID IT ONCE, I SAID IT A THOUSAND TIMES. IF YOU LIVE IN MY HOUSE, YOU LIVE BY MY RULES.”
One afternoon Mother and I were outside pulling weeds out of the pea gravel front yard. I could hear children’s laughter nearby. Mother occupied, I tip-toed away until I found the laughter, the MacDonald girls playing in the sprinkler a few doors down. “Hey!” Tonya shouted. “Come play!” And, looking back to ensure Mother couldn’t see me, I did.
After that, we had regular self-scheduled play dates a few times a week. I would sneak out of my home often to play in their front yard, risking corporal punishment if caught. We’d play and laugh. I don’t know how many times we played together. It was a blur of girlish happiness, bookended by the delight of eating snacks like Jello and Oreos and playing with nearly new toys. Their dolls’ hair could still be brushed and each girl wore a silver “CTR” ring. I crushed on them madly.
Eventually, the unthinkably predictable happened. Tonya and Tara asked to visit my house. “We heard you have a pool!” Tara gushed. “Yeah! Let’s go play at your home?”
I demurred. “I’m not a really good swimmer.”
“That’s okay! We’ll teach you,” they offered.
That night I tentatively tried with Dad again. “Could I invite the McDonalds over to swim some day?”
“No,” he intoned. “I don’t want other people’s kids in my pool.” I turned to Mother and tried pleading with her. “It’s up to your father, Jenny.” I was out of luck.
Again the girls tried to invite themselves over. “Hey, when can we play at your house?”
“My grandma just died. My parents don’t want any noise in the house right now.” My grandmother was alive and living with us but at 98, it seemed like a solid half-truth.
This bought me a few days before they asked again. “Let’s go play with your toys,” they asked.
“My mom is really sick right now so I can’t have people over,” I lied. The girls held my hands and shared their sympathy. We kept on playing and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing it could be a while before they’d ask again.
That night, there was a knock on the door. We didn’t often get visitors so I rushed to the entryway. My dad answered. Hazel’s and Bridget’s mother was there with a casserole. “Hi,” she said brightly. “I’m Jane from down the street. Our daughters play together at my house? I heard you’ve had some rough times with your mother dying and your wife being sick and wanted to bring you a care package.”
Dad looked at me, hiding behind the half wall. This wasn’t good.
He looked at Jane and smile tightly. “I think there’s a mistake. My wife and mother are fine and my daughter doesn’t leave the house. But thank you for your kindness.” Jane’s mouth made a little “oh” as Dad closed the door with a certain finality.
Dad turned to me, his voice quiet, the tell-tale sign of rage. “How dare you leave this house.” My stomach tightened. “Go to your room before I spank you so hard you don’t sit down for a week.” And so I did.
That night, Dad put bolt locks on the doors, too high for me to reach. The backyard gates were padlocked, the door from my room to the patio was too. In a way it surprised me, but then again it didn’t. I was being treated like my older siblings. It took me days before I could find a way to sneak out and see the girls again. When Dad was working on the pool pump one afternoon and me fortified by a rush of adrenaline, I climbed over our cinderblock wall and ran down to their house. I left so quickly I wasn’t even wearing shoes, the summer-heated concrete giving my bare feet extra speed. I found the girls playing outside.
“Hi! Wanna play?” I asked in a gush of air.
The girls were chilly. “We heard your mom isn’t sick,” said one. “Yeah,” said the other, “and your grandma isn’t dead either.” I felt that same stomach tightening that’d happened when I talked to my dad. “We don’t like being lied to,” one said. I took the hint and returned home.
I couldn’t scale the cinderblock wall from the outside. Left with no other choice, I rang the doorbell. Dad answered. The consequences of disobedience were obvious and other than shedding tears, I don’t remember protesting.
A few nights later I was in the garage playing quietly on the concrete while my dad worked on a car. It was late, after midnight, when the desert cooled off just enough to make working outside tolerable. He rolled out from underneath the car and sat up to take a swig from his sweaty Heineken bottle. Dad brushed the back of his hand against his balding forehead as he swallowed and put the bottle down. He leveled his gaze with mine.
“Friends trust each other,” Dad said. “And once you break that trust, you destroy forever everything you tried really hard to create.”
And he went back to work.