Daddy was teaching Mummy to behave, and I never actually felt his elbow connect with my jaw as he drew back for another punch.
Just a loud click! as my teeth met. Then the carpet filled my world. Even their screaming and shouting faded into hollowness, with the thuds of Daddy’s fists on my mother’s body taking on a hollow, popping sound.
I was more confused than hurt. Daddy had told me I had to look after Mummy while he was being a soldier, and now when I tried to do just that, when I tried to be good, Daddy hit me too. I just didn’t
He hadn’t actually told me to stop, so I launched myself at him again, and one of my little fists caught him on an ear. Obviously it was hard enough to catch his attention, because when I woke up, the house was quiet. My parents’ room was trashed, lamps knocked over, the bedspread was bloodied and torn, a mirror broken. So was my lip, and so was my Mom.
But she healed. And so did I. Although we were never the same again. But the war of words, the constant sniping, the putdowns, the rules, “You aren’t allowed to cut your hair,” raged between my parents, into my teenage years. Until I saw Dad shagging a woman on her desk at work. At least, he was doing funny stuff on top of her…. hey, it was the 80s, I was barely fourteen, I knew nothing about sex. When I told Mom I had seen Dad with another woman, she went icy calm. She was terrifying. He walked in the door and she told him to get out. No histrionics, just, get out.
I used to love brushing Mom’s hair; it was waist length, fine and silky. She hated it. Two days later, her hair was in a bob, and she never grew it again. I still have her ponytail. Dad took it very personally. Mom didn’t give a shit.
I think emotional abuse is probably the worst kind there is. While the divorce was in progress, Dad came to ask my brother and I who we wanted to live with. They had obviously decided to let us make a choice. My brother said he would stay with Mom. In spite of everything, I loved my Dad, he was exciting, volatile, a dreamer and one was always on one’s toes around him. Guess who I chose.
Fuck. Mom exploded, threatened to kill herself, and Dad retreated with his tail between his legs. It was the first of many wars between them, although they usually involved him not paying maintenance for us on time. Even though we were dirt poor, life was quite smooth. “I’m
looking to you now to help with the house and your brother. You’re an adult now,” Mom said to me. I was 15 years old at the time. I never had a childhood; I’ve always been 42.
We lived in a caravan park because we had no money. But her iron-will prevailed. Mom worked long hours and was eventually rewarded with a promotion. With the promotion came a house. A real one. When we moved into the semi-detached house with wooden floors and gracious high pressed ceilings, we felt as if we had arrived. My brother and I had our own rooms. Awesome! No more stinky boy sharing my tent. Yay.
I know it wasn’t ideal, but I bear no grudges, Mom did the best she could. My parent’s relationship remained tumultuous after the divorce, and I think for as much she professed to hate him in protracted conversations with me, she loved him with a bittersweet passion. “He’ll shag anything with tits,” Mom would say, then grow quiet as her mind drifted off, I know not where. But I think she used to imagine herself safe in his arms. Then, when I was about 15, in a heated conversation
with Dad about how well Mom was doing without him, contrary to what he believed, he called her a slut. I broke his nose for his idiocy and lack of respect towards women. Especially his lack of respect towards Mom. Dad and I were never really close after that.
Dad was really strict with us kids, although from about the age of six, the paddling of errant butts became my mother’s duty. Looking back at it now, I realise it was probably more to save herself a beating than it was to actually punish us. “I’m going to kill you or those kids, make a decision!” Dad would yell at Mom, as she struggled to break my brother and I up from one of our interminable fights. Although her weapon of choice was his wide brown army belt, my refusal to cry
despite Mom’s artistic application of the belt across the back of my legs, caused me many quiet hours in my room as I ‘thought about why I was being punished!’
Like hell, all I could think about was leaving home as soon as I could.
And so it was, when my kids were about seven and eight respectively, with their little bottoms high in the air and their tearful faces looking down on their beds as I raised my police belt in response to yet another minor infraction, I realised I had become my own nightmare.
I had become Daddy’s girl, in almost every way. I never hit them with my fist.
That much degradation, horror and annihilation of trust, I managed to spare my babies. I can still remember it now, how that belt burnt my hand, and how quickly I dropped it. Snot en trane, I tell you. I cried, the boys cried, promising high and low to be good, tearing my heart out as I sought to reassure them I loved them. I realised, the ghost memory of my mother cradling the child that had been knocked unconscious by her father, had saved me, and saved my children.
I just hope and pray the rescue happened before my children learnt how to be their grandfather…
Published in 2007 – Breaking the Silence: Murmurs of the girl in me
Jo thought if she vomited once more, just once more, she’d actually burst an artery. As it was, she was wobbly on her hands and knee’s; head hung over the toilet bowl, her body ready to launch another bout of dry heaves.
“Get a grip!” Jo said aloud, then rolled onto her back, the cool bathroom tiles bringing the ceiling back into focus for her. She lay there a bit longer, fighting off the fear that threatened to turn her inside out. “Ok, shower, then get dressed, then you can have coffee… no scratch that”; she said to herself, as her stomach heaved in protest. It helped to talk out loud. “I have a plan. I can do this!”
She tried not to think about the day ahead. The day she had been dreaming about for over a year. The day, which was the culmination of endless visits to therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, the pain of the nose job. The embarrassment of laying her heart and soul on the line at work in front of the HR manager, the CEO, and finally, everyone at work. Staring down the nervous giggles. The horrors of having a nightmare come true, being called ‘thing’ by a female colleague who refused to share the restroom with Jo. That had taken a few sessions to work out, to realise it was the other persons issues, and not a reflection of what Jo was trying to accomplish.
Today was her first time at work as Jo. Today was the first day of Real Life.
“Oh shut up,” she muttered to the clamour in her head.
She had planned meticulously for months for this day. Transferred to different department so she wouldn’t have to deal with clients. Grown her hair. Dieted. Exercised. Chosen her outfit (Pantsuit, smart flat shoes, and light blouse.) Surreptitiously studying the women at work, Jo believed she had chosen well, blending her own style with what was popular at work. Matching bag. Light makeup. Studs in her ears. Naturally plucked eyebrows. Easy on the perfume. “Moisturise, Moisturise, Moisturise.” Shit. Voice. “Moisturise, Moisturise, Moisturise.” Better. Not yet great, but the coaching was paying off.
“So what’s with the big freak out?” she asked her reflection, which stared back at her. Gentle brown eyes looking out of an everyday face. She twisted her face left and right, still not familiar with her new nose. It took a lot of years off her…
Joburg traffic was nice, she mused. People were so wrapped up in their little worlds; they never took notice of anyone that wasn’t threatening to beat them to a robot. Plus, at this early hour, the road was quiet. Jo had chosen the flat shoes specifically because she wasn’t used to any kind of heel, in any kind of situation, let alone driving. Her reasons for getting to work early were twofold, again, carefully thought out. She didn’t want to get stuck in traffic, melting behind the steering wheel under the early morning African sun, and she wanted to slip into the office, as invisibly as she could. Except perhaps, for the boss, very few people beat him to work.
The security guards eyes widened as Jo swung the door open. When he recognised her, his jaw dropped open in surprise. “Crap! Forgot about this bit!” she thought frantically. Robot like, she stopped his stammering “uh… uh… uh…” with a hand in the air. “Hi Mike. As you can see, there have been a few changes. Please get me a new security card by the end of the day. Here’s my new name,” she said, writing it down for him on his notepad. She passed through the turnstile, turned, smiled, broke the old card “Do women do that?” flashing through her mind too late, and gave it him. A bright “Thank you….” and she was in the lift, not even able to remember how she arrived there.
Flopping against the wall, dry heaves of fear racked her body again. Finger shaking, she found her floor and pressed the button. Fortunately it was quite high up, so she had time to settle herself by the time she stepped out the lift. Her shoes slapslapslapped on the floor, the noise magnified by the silence of the early morning office. Measured steps, practicing the walk, concentrating, trying not to hunch and be smaller, and not paying attention, her boss exploded out of a side office, papers flying, new shoes sliding, limbs colliding.
Slightly stunned, sitting on the floor opposite her boss, Jo snapped, “Do you mind!” Some part of her watching the two of them sitting on the floor, covered by paper and handbag paraphernalia, filed the show of strength for a later discovery. Then she started laughing. And so did Jo’s boss. “Not at all!” he laughed, running an eye over the delicate ankle chain peeking out of her trouser leg, lifting an eyebrow, and then moving to her face. She felt honour bound to do her best not to bray with laughter at his expression when he recognised her, and she was partially successful, with only a snort setting them off again.
In an effort to regain some dignity, she tucked her legs under her, and began sorting through papers and deodorant and eyeliner and paper and pens and notebook and… “Here, let me help you,” he said, standing now and leaning over her, offering his hand.
“It’s ok,” he assured her, seeing her initial hesitation. “I promise not to throw any more papers at you. And if this is the worst thing that happens today, then it’ll be a good day.” Pink now, Jo gained her feet with his help, packed her bag and started helping him pick up the paper mountain. Recognising it, she looked at him enquiringly. “Yes, I know, your old clients. I’ve spent the last three days telling everyone you…your predecessor was head hunted, and we then hired you. Most of your contact is over the phone anyway, nobody knows them better. You’ll be meeting only new clients. I was taking the liberty of setting up your new office,” he spoke rapidly as he walked in front of her, then paused outside an office door, which had been empty ever since the last account manager had left, six months ago.
He opened the door, went inside, and dumped Jo’s client’s information on the desk inside, dwarfing the little pot plant on the desk. Turning to her, “Come in, come in. Sit down,” this last gruffly, when he saw the tear trickling down her cheek. “You’ve got a lot to do. I’ll pop in later to see how you’re doing,” he threw over his shoulder as he exited hurriedly.
Jo sat down behind her new desk, opening a drawer. There she saw her new contract, in her new name, for her new position. She signed it, put it in her out tray, and then bent her head over her desk.
The boss was right, she had a lot of work to do.
Published in Trans: Transgender life stories from South Africa. Edited by Ruth Morgan Charl Marais & Joy Rosemary Wellbeloved. Published by Fanele – an imprint of Jacana Media (pty) Ltd.