On the hill behind the house where I grew up, lived a giant weeping willow tree. Every time I passed that willow to get to my friend Jenna’s house, I yanked off a switch to whip through the air and make that cool whooshing sound or maybe even at someone before throwing it to the ground. When coupled with the memory of that time I whipped Jenna with my Strawberry Shortcake book bag at the bus stop one afternoon, I am struck with the realization that I may have been a monster-child.
I loved that willow tree though. Jenna was pretty great too, and I should mention she whipped me back with her own book bag. I just happened to win that fight because I was tougher, though I was terrified of Jenna’s father. He was a barely-there but larger than life figure in their quiet, perfect home because he had a lot of rules. Be quiet, no messes, never ever go in his home office. He kept it locked most of the time, though once I saw the inside, so I know it wasn’t a meth lab or torture chamber. They lived in the same model as our own house, and he had claimed the largest of the extra bedrooms as his office. When he worked upstairs, he called from a separate line down to the kitchen to ask what they were having for dinner. Jenna’s dad towered over everyone and he always seemed to be wearing a shirt and tie, though that can’t be possible. He scared the hell out of me.
Jenna’s dad flustered me so badly I once rang their doorbell and when he opened the door I asked “Can Jenna eat?” instead of “Can Jenna play?” Another time I rang their doorbell when there was an ownership dispute over a cardboard condominium Jenna and I had constructed in her basement for her cat. Jenna’s dad answered again and when I asked for my cardboard back, he laughed in my face and shut the door. And that time Jenna and I thought it would be good idea to take her cat, an ornery Siamese, for a dip in the kiddie pool, he came barreling out of the house, beet-faced and yelling. I took off so cartoon-fast that I may have left dust clouds in my wake.
Jenna’s dad drove a shiny sports car with the vanity plate JEP1. (There was no JEP2.) One Saturday I was at their house for a slumber party when Jenna’s dad came home from the hospital. He had wrecked JEP1 the night before and walked through their garage door into the family room wearing a white dress shirt covered in dried brown blood. The shirt still looked crisp except for all that blood. I had never seen so much before. He went back out to the garage for something and I locked the door from the inside so he couldn’t get back in. No one saw me do it. In a minute or two, we heard him pounding on the door and someone let him in. He yelled at us “Who locked that door?!” but we only stared at him wide-eyed and silent. He finally gave up and went upstairs to his office or bed or who knows. I never told anyone about that before. You’re the first to know.
Around the time of his accident, parents started to whisper about Jenna’s dad. I heard things about another woman and cocaine. Jenna and her family moved suddenly one night in the fall of sixth grade. We had just started middle school together, and I was devastated to lose my best friend/arch nemesis. I heard they foreclosed on their home, something that never happened in our neighborhood. They moved a state away and I went to visit her once in their cramped townhouse and Jenna’s dad scared me once again when he came downstairs to his office in the basement while we were watching a questionable movie about vampires and virgins. But he seemed preoccupied and got what he needed and left us alone.
I lost touch with Jenna for years and found her again via Facebook. She’s the picture of success: a blond, beautiful Pilates instructor with a handsome husband and two little girls that look just like their mom. Jenna said her father died years ago from liver disease. It turns out he was a chronic alcoholic. He didn’t fit the picture we have of drunks. He was tall and mighty. He wore a suit and tie and drove a fancy sports car. And then I guess he smashed his sports car and lost their home and continued to fall away into nothing. It’s a sad story, for sure, but you know, it doesn’t have to end that way for any of us.