Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.7]

Ryan didn’t come home for spring break that year. We hadn’t spoken much since Christmas. He was going backpacking with some “frat bros.” Dad and I found a day to take a long bike ride and when we got to our usual resting spot, he dropped a bomb on me.

“Honey, I need to talk to you about something.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering what on earth this could possibly be. I had never perceived any secrets between us.

“Well, I’ve met someone. Actually, I’ve known her for a while, since high school really. We were in the same class. Her name is Bridget. We met in the park the other day. I’m taking her out to dinner tonight, and then we’re supposed to go on a bike ride tomorrow if the weather is nice.”

These were the last words I ever expected to come out of my dad’s mouth. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me that he would try to meet someone after my mom, but it just hadn’t. I knew I should be encouraging and positive, but something inside me revolted at the thought of my dad spending alone-time with this woman, especially bike riding, which was our thing.

“Oh,” I said. “What does she look like?” Don’t ask me why that mattered.

“Well, she’s very attractive. About five four, slim, dark hair and hazel eyes. She works with your Aunt Patty. Patty thought we might get along, so she encouraged us to get back in touch.”

“Oh,” I said. “What’s she like?”

“Hmm. I don’t know a lot about her yet, besides what I knew about her in high school. I do know she’s been divorced five years, doesn’t have any children, and is Catholic. She loves music and is very nice.”

No children. Good. But, “Catholic, Dad? Really?”

“Hey. Who knows what will happen? We may not even hit it off.”

That’s true. And what could it hurt if my Dad had a lady-friend? If I was a good daughter, I should be happy for him.

“That’s interesting, Dad. Kinda weird to think about, but interesting.”

“I know. It’s kinda weird for me too. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

Well, it WENT. And went and went and went and went. Within a month, my Dad was practically spending every waking minute with Bridget. He talked about her a lot. Too much. We were formally introduced over dinner at her house. And, honestly, she seemed perfectly friendly and genuinely nice. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was: the person my dad turned into when he was around her. He talked in a squishy baby voice and they had strange little pet names for each other, like Olbie Johnson and Nolbie Johnson. Were those real people’s names they’d stolen or did they completely pull them out of their asses?

Dad never took his eyes off her, finished her sentences, openly gloated over all the things he loved about her, and practically tripped over himself trying to help her push her chair in. Once, he even dabbed something off her face with a napkin. It was beyond loathsome. I was deeply, deeply disgusted at his behavior. I watched her lap up all his adoration and attention with a huge smile on her face. She was clearly smitten too. Why was this so disturbing to me?

I faked my way through the dinner and then Dad said, “Hey, Michelle. You can go ahead and take the car home. I’ll have Bridget bring me home later.”

I drove home with daggers in my eyes. And why did her name have to be Bridget?!

I began seeing less and less of my Dad, and when I did see him, Bridget was around. He was listening to completely new music now. He was reading new books.

HE WENT TO CHURCH WITH HER!

I confronted him on that one, to which he replied that he was only doing it because it was something Bridget cared deeply about and she sang in the choir and he wanted to hear her sing. He wanted to know everything that was going on in her world, and religion was a big part of it.

On top of everything else, she was turning him into a hypocrite.

One evening, someone had dropped me off at home after an away game and I found the front door locked. The front door had never been locked before. I didn’t even carry a key with me. It. Was. Never. Locked. I walked around the entire house. There were no lights on. It struck me that my Dad was probably at her house. I jogged the eight or so blocks in my cheerleading outfit to her house. My dad’s car was out front and there were lights on inside. I breathed a sigh of relief; it occurred to me I didn’t have a backup plan if they weren’t there. I walked up on the front porch and rang the doorbell. I heard muffled voices, some footsteps, and saw the lights turn off.

Thinking they must just think I was a stranger, I decided to knock on the door and yell, “Hellooo! It’s me, Michelle.”

A light came back on and I could see movement through the venetian blinds, but no one came to the door. I started to panic. They now knew it was me and just weren’t answering. I found myself furious and sobbing. I’d had enough. I was going to confront them both! I couldn’t just allow them to ignore me now; I’d stepped aside enough times already. I walked around the side of the house, which was dark, and knocked on another window. I saw more movement and heard more shuffling. By now, I was practically crazed. I started to walk toward the back door when my dad came around the corner.

I was so happy to see him I was about to run and hug him. Before I could, he walked up to me, and grabbed me by the shoulders.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he growled.

Through my sobs and confusion, I muttered, “Umm. The front door of our house was locked. I couldn’t get in. I didn’t know where else to go.”

“Why didn’t you bring your key? You’re interrupting us! It’s very rude and inconsiderate of you! What’s the matter with you?”

“Dad! ME? What’s the matter with YOU? I don’t even know you anymore. I hate you. You care more about her than me. I hate her. I want to go live with Mom.” He grabbed me gently by the arm and put me in the car.

As we drove home, he said, “Michelle, listen. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a woman in my life I cared about. Your mom and I never really got along and I can say we didn’t really love each other for many years. I am very in love with Bridget; she’s perfect for me. In fact, I’ve asked her to marry me and she is moving in soon.”

“What?! Please say you’re joking, Dad.”

Then he used a tone with me I’d never heard him use before. It was distinctly cold. Distinctly firm. “Look, that stunt you pulled with Emily and the car…well, that is exactly the sort of thing that could keep Bridget from marrying me. She lives a very prudent life and does not want scandal. We both believe that you have gotten out of control and if she moves in, you will have a mother figure again and someone to look after you when I’m out of town.”

“But Dad! A mother figure? She’s never had any children. What does she know about mothering? Besides, I don’t need another mother. We’ve always gotten along great, just the two of us. You’re all I need.” I softened these last words, hoping he would snap out of his insanity and remember how great things were when it was just the two of us.

Instead, he matter-of-factly asserted, “You’ll be going off to college next year and, well, it’s important to me that you don’t wreck this.”

The world, my world, shifted in that instant. My dad, as I had experienced him, was gone. It seemed futile to express my opinion. Dad and I were so clearly on opposite sides for the first time there seemed to be a cavern between us. I sat in silence, paralyzed by fear and dejection. I remained despondent about the events that occurred all around me over the next few months.

First, Bridget moved into my dad’s bedroom. A lock was placed on their door. She rearranged all our rooms to look like her house had. Dad let her fill up the entire basement—our basement—with her leftover furniture and boxes. He said he’d find another place to read his books; they were thinking about expanding the house anyway. I was given a 10 p.m. curfew. I was to tell them everywhere I went, with whom, and what we were doing. I was to eat the food she cooked or feed myself. Dad sat me down and told me what I could and couldn’t talk about around Bridget.

“She thinks it’s horrible you are on the pill—that you’re sexually active at all, for that matter. Since she is a member of this house now, she can set rules too. One of them is absolutely ‘no boys in the house.’ Never get into her personal things. Pick up after yourself. She works hard to make the house look nice, so keep it clean. Make sure you clean your hair out of the sink and bathtub. Don’t make noise in the house after 9 p.m., as that’s when she goes to bed and you know how early she gets up. Ask before you use the phone and don’t stay on it too long. These are just common courtesies. ”

I could barely take it. I was too hurt to even ask Dad to spend more time with me out of fear he would say “no,” or invite Bridget along. I stopped trying to probe him about what he saw in her. She was so different from us. I stopped trying to subtly bring up all the ways he had changed. He couldn’t see any of it. He was totally blinded.

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