Part 80: Good Riddance
We lived then in Oxnard, on a busy street called Pleasant Valley Road. It was 1977. We had two phones, both land lines, one mounted on the wall of a squat back house with a cement floor about thirty feet from the main house, and one phone in the living room of the main house. They were connected, the two phones, and you could listen in on conversations by covering the receiver with the palm of your hand while trying not to breathe, trying not to make a sound, which I did on occasion. I made sure to release the receiver as quietly as possible, but there was always a subtle click. Sometimes my mother would stop what she was saying. “What was that? Did you hear something?” I’d either hang up quietly or wait for her to decide it was nothing.
I slept in the back house, my parents in the main house. Almost twelve, I wanted space from them, from their loud arguments which seemed to burst forth out of nowhere. I used to listen to them fight to see if anything made sense, but it never did.
My father managed a restaurant attached to a motel in Port Hueneme, he was also the cook. My artist-mother shared a studio with another artist near the motel restaurant. I worked in the restaurant after school, my mother waiting tables, I washed dishes or bussed. Money was tight, but that didn’t stop me asking for things. I wanted to have new furniture– covered in plastic like I’d seen at other houses. I wanted new clothes so I could blend in. I wanted my mother to cut her long hair so kids would quit calling her a hippie. I wanted to hurry and grow up so I could have big boobs, a small waist and fleshy hips, maybe bleach my hair like the Gabor sisters.
One night, as I slept in the back house, the phone rang out, jolting me awake. I looked at the clock with one eye, half my face still on the pillow. Four-thirty in the morning. The phone continued to ring. I flipped the covers off, stomped over to the phone and yelled into the receiver in a dramatic fashion, “Do you have any idea what time it is?” I didn’t recognize my own voice; it was as if I’d morphed into Bette Davis overnight. I heard a woman’s voice, she just started talking, as if picking up a string continued from a prior conversation, only I had no idea who she was or what she was talking about. My reprimand didn’t seem to have an impact. I held the phone to my ear, trying to figure out what she was babbling about, when I heard a click.
“Who’s this?” My father said. I knew he wasn’t speaking to me; he was speaking to her.
“Who do you think it is?” The woman said.
“Hey, hang up the phone,” My father said. I paused for a moment. “I said hang up the phone,” he repeated, a bit louder. I slowly put the receiver back, holding it down for a moment, wondering if I might sneak back on. I decided against it. Plus, the cement floor was sending a chill from my bare feet through my entire body. I went back to bed, wondering what it was all about, but soon the dark silence lured me back into a deep slumber.
In the morning, I wandered through the back yard, the trees crisp against the blue sky, up the back stairs to the kitchen of the main house. Cinnamon and coffee made the air sweet. I’d forgotten the phone call, but it percolated back into my brain when I saw my father standing over the stove, a spatula in one hand, a pile of thick bread by the griddle. My mother sat at the kitchen table with her coffee, looking gloomy.
“I made French toast,” my father said. His short sleeve shirt was splattered with grease.
I grabbed a plate and a fork, and sat across from my mother, who looked at me and shook her head into her cup.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’ll let him tell you.”
There was a pause. My father put two fat pieces of French toast on my plate, sprinkled them with powdered sugar and cinnamon, drowning it all in syrup.
“Remember I told you about your half-brother and sister?” He was standing near me now, cologne and cigars mingled with food.
“Well, the half-sister, she’s coming here.” He went back to the stove and began flipping the French toast. “She’s getting on a plane. I pick her up tonight,” he said. His face was calm, his voice relaxed, as if he was talking about the weather or something he’d read in the TV Guide.
“She’s coming here tonight?” I asked.
“Yeah,” my mother said.
I knew that my father had other families before I was born. I knew they existed in an abstract way, but it seemed that they were somehow not available.
Over breakfast, my parents told me that the half-sister was seventeen, and her brother was nineteen. He didn’t want to meet us. Which made me wonder, why not? What had happened? I kept quiet, though.
“That was the mother on the phone. It’s three hours later in Pennsylvania. I guess she forgot the time difference,” my father said, laughing. The mother was my father’s fourth wife.
After breakfast I walked to the school bus. During the ride to school my mind was deep in thought, wondering what the half-sister would be like, if she would like me, how long would she stay? Walking across the quad to my first class, all these thoughts were swirling in my head.
Boy’s voices pieced through my bubble of thoughts.
“Look at her. She’s too skinny,” a boy yelled.
My head turned before I realized he was talking about me. I quickly wished I’d pretended not to notice. Three eighth grade boys standing around the gym teacher, all staring at me. The gym teacher looked exactly like someone who’d be cast as the guy who once played football. He liked to throw footballs at us kids, trying to teach us how to catch it, even the girls. He knocked the wind out of me once and pretended not to notice. The gym teacher was perpetually tan, his blue eyes always squinting, like slits in a Halloween pumpkin. He wore shorts no matter what the weather, and the way he combed his blonde hair (the part so far left it was almost to his ear) made his head look flat and square. They were all grinning, even the gym teacher.
“Hey toothpicks! She’s a dog, man,” a taller boy said. The boys starting barking, then erupting in laughter. I floated above my body, outside of my thoughts, thinking about how I was seen, how I might fix what was wrong. Where was my Bette Davis voice now?
“Hey, those skinny girls grow up to have the best bodies, guys. Trust me,” the gym teacher said, pausing for a moment, like he was about to say something profound. “Her and that Danielle girl, they’re gonna be the ones that fill out exactly right,” he said.
It was a real teaching moment.
I kept walking, trying to practice nonchalance, keeping my eyes down. How did the gym teacher know what I’d look like in the future? Was he keeping track of all the girls at the school, measuring how we’d develop? I picked up my pace and scooted behind a building, then up the stairs to my class.
The entire day, I kept thinking about the half-sister. When the final bell rang, I hurried to the bus. I wanted to clean before she got there. When I arrived home, my parents had cleared a room in the house, it’d been my father’s office. His desk, books, and papers now in the living room, the space looking crowded and junky. I tried to dust and vacuum, but nothing made it better.
I heard my father’s car pull up, doors and trunks opening and closing. Waiting nervously by the door with my mother, my father burst through the front door, carrying bags. The half-sister was right behind him. My eyes went straight to her. Her long, curly, ash blonde hair was pulled back in a thick, frizzy ponytail, her blue eyes lined with make-up, she wore a tight tank top and jeans, big gold hoop earrings––she looked older than seventeen. She didn’t resemble me at all. She was curvy, for one thing, curvy like a pin-up girl. When we finally spoke, she seemed confident, brash even, she had a way of speaking, a loud nervous laugh, an accent I decided was New York. She didn’t look or sound like my father, either.
My parents showed her the bedroom, where she began to unpack some of her stuff. I held questions in my head, but instead of asking, I hovered by the door of her room like a dork. I noticed she’d chewed her nails, they were rough and red, even the cuticles were gnawed on.
“Come in, I’ll show you my albums,” she said.
She played her Peter Frampton album. I’d never heard of him until then. The half-sister announced that she was going to be an actress, just like her mother. She showed a new wristwatch, she said my father gave it to her when he picked her up at the airport.
Over the next weeks, the half-sister got a job in a clothing store in the mall, the clothes seemed to be made of scarves, flowy and drapey, nothing like the clothes the half-sister wore, which were always tight and form fitting. She enrolled in a junior college, and auditioned for a local community theater where she was cast as “Dream Sharon” in the Woody Allen play “Play it Again, Sam.” The director cast her as the woman in a sexual fantasy scene the main character dreamed up. The costume required sexy lingerie. Her lines, which we practiced together, were basically saying the man’s name over and over, “Oh, Alan! Alan! Alan!” It made me feel important to help her learn the lines.
By the time I watched my half-sister perform on opening night, I knew I wanted to be like her. Maybe the gym teacher was right, I was going to bust out at any moment.
With part of her paycheck from the clothing store, my half-sister took me shopping at another strip mall, letting me pick out a shirt, any shirt I wanted. I couldn’t believe my luck. I wandered around the racks of clothing, trying to find the tightest top, a stretchy one, something I decided she would like. I found a top with tiny horizontal stripes; I decided the pattern might make me look…more. More of something.
She’d been living with us for only seven months, and she was showing me a way out of my situation. All by herself, she found out where our father was living, she got on a plane and showed up without her mother. She was bold, and had crazy stories about her life, like how she lied about her age to get drinks, and how she danced in a burlesque show with her mother.
One day, we planned to go swimming at the public pool. Our father drove us there, and when he dropped us off, he said, “I’ll pick you up right at two, meet you inside there,” he pointed to the main entrance by the pool. I opened my door, my half-sister already out of the car.
“You hear me?” Our father was looking at me.
“I’ll be there at two,” I said.
Our father drove off. We went to the locker room together, me and my half-sister, where we changed into our suits, mine a one piece, hers a bikini. When we left the locker room and walked to the pool, I was already turning inwards, worried about my flat chest and knobby knees. Looking down, I saw that my legs were turning slightly purple like they did when I got a chill.
All eyes were on my half-sister. She was confident, like a girl who was going places. I got in the water, and dog-paddled around, while she went for a proper swim. Up on the diving board, she took her time up there, looking like an ad for summer. After, she gave me a swimming lesson, and soon it was time to change into our dry clothes.
After we rinsed and dried off, my half-sister put back on her shorts, but left her bikini top on. I watched her carefully put her hoop earrings back in, they grazed her neck. After checking herself in a big mirror, we were ready to meet our father.
Glancing around outside she said, “he’s not here yet. Let’s go for a walk.”
“He’s never late. We’re early so––” she cut me off with a wave of her hand and said, “Don’t be such a worry wart. It’s just a walk.”
I shrugged, trying to seem cool.
She walked up the street ahead of me, her hips swaying. She flipped her wet hair over her shoulder, looking at cars driving past. A few cars honked at her.
I kept looking back where the pool was. We were too far away. My father would be waiting.
“Hurry up, slow poke,” she said.
A water delivery truck pulled up near her, and my half-sister stepped into the threshold of the passenger side, leaning in, talking to the driver. Did she know him? I slowed down, not sure what to do. She waved me towards her.
I walked to them and looked inside. The water delivery man was smiling at us.
“Come on, let’s go for a ride,” my half-sister said.
“No! We’re going to be late. Dad’s waiting.”
“So? He can wait.” They were both looking at me.
“Do you know him?” I asked.
“No. Just get in. What is wrong with you? Calm down,” she said.
My breath became shallow, and I began to shake my head. Without thinking, I bolted. I ran away from them, all the way back to the pool. I could hear her shouting my name over and over.
I saw my father there by the pool, pacing back and forth, his eyes wide. He looked down at his watch, his hands flopped to his side.
“Dad! Dad!” I ran to him, out of breath.
“Where’ve you been?”
I told him about the water delivery man, and that she’d gone with him. My father expressed shock, then anger. We waited for a while to see if she’d come back to the pool, but then the two of us drove back home in silence.
We parked in the driveway. “We’ll have to tell your mother about this,” he said.
The news blew my mother’s mind. She accused my half-sister of being a prostitute, a drinker, a drug user.
“I don’t want her around my daughter,” my mother said. That girl was going to get me kidnapped, according to my mother. There was a back and forth about what to do.
She arrived, by way of a ride, perhaps the water delivery man or someone else, and casually walked to her room and shut the door, as if nothing had happened. My parents confronted her, calling her out, telling her to pack her bags, telling her she had to go.
My mother was in a rage. I was angry, too, but didn’t know why. My feelings existed in a difficult tangle. As my half-sister was heading out the door, our eyes met. I shouted, “good riddance!” A phrase I’d heard in a movie. I yelled that out as my half-sister stood frozen, fear in her eyes, bags over each shoulder. My mother slammed the door in her face.
Almost immediately, I regretted yelling those words, good riddance.
For months, every time the phone rang, I ran to answer it, even if my mother or father answered it first. I’d stay on the line, hoping it was my sister. But she never called. I didn’t know what happened to her after that.
I wouldn’t see my sister again for over thirty years.
My half-sister at age 17 in our back yard on Pleasant Valley Road. Photograph by Stacya Shepard Silverman at age 12.