James was my stepfather from the time he married my mom when I was about 4 until the time he divorced her when I was about 13. That was almost 20 years ago and I've only seen him a couple of times since, but something of him stays buried in me and comes out in startling ways.
For instance, I channeled him perfectly this weekend when SK was at my house. After her shower, I noticed the bathroom rug hadn't been returned to hang on the edge of tub like I like it. I called her over and she came, from the living room, with innocent, curious eyes, expecting me to point out an unusual bug or something equally interesting and benign. Instead, I pointed to the crumpled rug and said "why?" She quickly bent and fixed the rug then, very kindly, asked if it had been necessary to call her over and "rub her nose in it."
Of course I found myself apologizing immediately. It had just come out of me so naturally -- this was the mirror image of a much repeated scenario from my childhood. James would call me and I would, with much dread, go to him. I'd find him standing, for instance, on the landing to the basement where I had left the light on. He would tell me to stop forgetting to turn off the light and then he would stand there, ominously, in front of the light switch waiting for me to walk over and turn it off.
If he'd been a different person -- kinder, friendlier, easier -- he would've flipped the light off himself and then reminded me later. Or maybe he would've found me in the house and said, "hey, kiddo, you left the basement light on, go turn it off." But he wasn't a different person, he was cold, aloof, domineering, angry James and the way he "taught" me to turn off the basement light was scary and a little humiliating.
I've been thinking a lot about him and our relationship since channeling him Sunday night. He frequently escapes notice when I'm psychologizing and therapizing myself. I often scrutinize my bitchy stepmother and emotionally manipulative dad because they're still in my life, albeit infrequently, and they're still just as bitchy and manipulative as ever. Even my mom, who has been much less awful in the past ten years, gets plenty of attention when I'm trying to diagnose my patterns and traumas. Why has it taken me so long to get around to examining how James helped create the huge mess that is me??
Well, as awful stepdads go, he doesn't rank with the worst stereotypes and that has helped him just a little. He didn't beat me or molest me, he didn't drink or smoke, he didn't hit my mom and he had a good job. In fact, he was a workaholic and we hardly ever saw him, which was a great blessing because, despite not beating or molesting me, he was still no picnic to be around. Looking back now, I can appreciate that he had his own fucked up psychology and was pretty uncomfortable with himself and his life and especially with all the people in it.
When mom, who is gregarious and funny, met him, she saw him as a sort of fixer-upper kind of guy and, feeling equipped for the renovation, she married him. Needless to say, mom's renovations were unsuccessfully and, if anything, he only got worse after they were married because he no longer had to pretend to have a personality. "I don't have to keep acting," he actually told her, "now that you've married me." Wow.
"Not acting" meant he frowned all the time, hardly ever smiled, had no friends, hardly spoke, had no sense of humor, only laughed occasionally at the television, and made everyone he was around uncomfortable. He had a terrible temper and even though I can only vaguely remember the reality of his yelling, I very distinctly remember watching him clench his jaw and flare his nostrils, which always implied to me that he was holding back a rage that, unleashed, would probably annihilate our whole block.
I had basically no relationship with him at all, even though I grew up under his "care." He never looked at me and the only time we ever spoke was when necessity required words or when I was "smarting off" to him, letting my snarky, scorpionic sarcasm take brave jabs at him when I was feeling particularly valiant or provoked. If some misfortune found us crossing paths in the dark, narrow hallway of our house, we both rush by awkwardly, eyes averted, silent. Whenever the whole family went out together (rare, but at least once a week, to church), I refused to sit behind him in the backseat, insisting on sitting behind mom on the passenger side and forcing my brother into the other side. He didn't seem to mind.
I couldn't stand James and can't believe I lived in a house with him for all those years, never feeling at ease, never feeling comfortable. What is more surprising is that I haven't looked more closely in all these years at his impact on my continued feeling of discomfort and dis-ease in the world. How I still walk down halls pretending not to see people. How I assume everyone who sees me will see me as he did: with cold indifference or open hostility. And how I have never managed to trust men emotionally -- how I can laugh with them and joke with them (as one of the boys) but I can't manage to really care about them or feel that they care about me.
SK will note the places where this assessment could be taken deeper and expanded, and I know she'll be right. However, as I sat this morning thinking about James and his impact on my life, I felt him only as a huge knot with strands coming out all over, tangled beyond recognition in so many aspects of me. Looking at the knot is my first step towards untangling it. Hopefully the next steps will come.