I haven’t told you this yet, but when I was six and my parents were shopping around for lessons, it was a tossup between ballet or karate. I mean, I’d watched The Karate Kid, and I was hooked. I wanted my own training montage of kicks against a blood-red sunset. Yes, please.
I asked my father to go with me to check out a dojo, and he refused. You’ll see people bleed, he told me. You won’t like it.
Please. I just want to look.
So, it was ballet.
But when I am 16, my father has put ballet behind me. I dream of it on the nights when I don’t dream of Kitty, who died last year. In my dreams, I walk into a studio and grip the barre and know I have come home. In my dreams, there is always a way back.
Waking up hurts. There is no way back. I tried dancing en pointe a few months earlier, and my toes bled like I had never trained at all. My muscles are not the same. And really, none of that matters because my parents will not pay for it.
I need to find other dreams. I should have been thinking about college, about the SAT, about degrees and jobs—the way my classmates were. But I don’t think about any of those things. I think about feeling safe. I find a Tae Kwon Do class in a community center, twice a week for $35 a month. I have to convince my parents. Now that I’m no longer a dance protégé, they are reluctant to spend money on me. But you wanted me to make friends, I tell them. It’ll be a good way to make friends.
At my first class, I am desperate to make a good impression. My ballet teachers had grown so impatient with my cowering terror. This time I won’t let anyone see that. In the gym, I stand on the mat in sweatpants and a white T-shirt and smile at the teacher, Ms. Henkel. My ballet teachers always complained that I didn’t smile enough. Ms. Henkel doesn’t complain. She asks me to throw a punch, and I smile. To kick. And I smile. She smiles back. It isn’t hard to look like I’m having fun because I am.
For my first month, lessons are one-on-one.
When I join the adult class in the fall, sparring is thrilling. Then, one day, an aggressive, blond black belt in his twenties is paired with me. He doesn’t say Don’t worry or I’ll go easy on you the way other advanced students do when they see my white belt. He glares at me. The teacher gives the signal, and we circle. He throws a punch. I block.
The other advanced students give me that win. If I block in time, then I blocked. Pretty good for a white belt. Not this dude. No, he spars with me like I am his ancient nemesis, and he has a score to settle. He knocks my block away with such force that my wrist snaps. Something audibly pops. Pain shoots from my wrist into my fingers, up my forearm.
If my Mormon 16-year-old self could have conceived of it, I would have thought What the fuck, dude? The pain worsens throughout class. My mother picks me up, and I ride home, my right wrist cradled in my lap. That is my last Tae Kwon Do class for nine months.
* * *
My father says there’s no need to take me to the doctor. It’s clear that I simply don’t have the pain tolerance for martial arts. You don’t have what it takes.
Other days, he orders me to carry a jug of milk to him where he lounges on the couch. No, he says when I use my left hand. With your other hand.
As I struggle and grimace, tears springing to my eyes, he says, You can stop pretending now. It can’t hurt that bad.
But it does. All day. Every day. It feels like a constant, throbbing headache in my wrist. Any activity with my hand intensifies the pain, so much so that I cry. It interrupts sleep. I have to write all my homework with my left hand, and my teachers—miraculously—have patience with my slanted, kindergarten handwriting. My mother secretly goes to a drugstore and buys me a brace. It doesn’t help the pain, but it keeps it from getting worse.
Still, no one takes me to the doctor.
My father sees me start to cry sometimes in the midst of chores. Once, I turn to rush from the living room before the tears come. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.
He grabs my shoulders and spins me around. He pushes me down into a chair. “Oh no you don’t,” he says, leaning over me. I try to stand, and he shoves me back down. “If you’re going to cry, you’re going to cry in front of me.”
I do. I can’t help it.
Winter comes and goes. Spring comes. I get to join a class trip to Paris. My parents, miraculously, pay for it. In all the photos, I am wearing the same caramel-colored brace my mother bought me. By now, it smells like cheese.
* * *
Summer comes. Chronic pain does terrible things to the brain. The worst, for me, is the fatigue. I don’t have it in me to care anymore. I care about nothing and no one. I don’t reach out to friends. I sit alone in my room, staring up at the sky, exhausted with living. Pain, when it goes on long enough, is like a buzzing in your ear. You just want it to stop.
My father invites me to go for a ride in his new red sportscar. He pulls into a parking lot, sun hot on the asphalt. “So, you’ve been wanting to learn how to drive a stick,” he says.
Before I was injured, I had asked him to teach me countless times. But now?
I’m cautious. “If you’ll show me,” I say.
He tells me to switch seats, so I do.
“Now, grab the gear shift.”
I gingerly rest my hand on it.
“Now push in,” he says.
I hold up my wrist between us, the brace now pilled and stinking. “I can’t,” I say.
“I told you to push in.”
I glare at him. “I can’t.” I say it forcefully. Then, slowly, like he is stupid, “It. Hurts.”
“Do you want to learn or not?”
“Look, why don’t you just show me?”
“What would be the point of that?” He is grinning now, ear to ear. The same grin when he used to lock me into the bathroom.
“I hurt my wrist,” I say, “But you won’t take me to the doctor, and now you’re willing to teach me?”
“Now’s your chance,” he confirms. “But if you walk away now, I’ll never teach you.” He is smirking. He thinks he’s holding an ace.
I shove my door open. “Unlike you, I actually want this to heal one day,” I say and unbuckle my seat belt. I climb out and walk to the passenger side and stand there, waiting.
The great thing about depression and fatigue? I could wait until we die there. I simply do not care.
We drive home in silence.
A few weeks later, my mother drives me to a doctor’s office. I am diagnosed with a soft-tissue injury, torn tendons and ligaments. The doctor notices I have hyperlaxity and prescribes a long regimen of physical therapy. But the wrist doesn’t heal right. It isn’t the same for years. It’s too easy to reinjure. One day, many months later, I reinjure it just getting out of bed.
But I return to Tae Kwon Do in July. I had written a few times to my teacher, promising to return. I am welcomed back. We all stay late after class one night, flipping through my pictures of Paris.
This round, I win.
* * *
But that month, the night terrors begin. I have always had nightmares. But these are different. It is a hellscape, emptied of all lives but two: my father and me. In these terrors, I am hunted. There is no electricity. No lights. I am chased through dark high school hallways, an echoing cafeteria, the stand of beech trees behind the high school.
My father is trying to kill me.
He is always armed. Usually with throwing knives. Once or twice with a shotgun.
Even in the dream, I marvel that he never runs out of knives. Never has to reload.
The dream ends one of two ways: he kills me, or I wake up first. But even waking up, I am not safe. I tiptoe to my door to check it is still closed. Sometimes I drag a table in front of it. Or I set a booby trap of the glass candle holders my mother has littered my room with. That way I will hear him if he comes for me.
I doubt reality. I trust the nightmare.
Sometimes in the nightmare, I try to go on the offensive. Tired of running, tired of the dream always ending the same way, I try to kill him.
I never succeed.
I learn this: In the world of dream-logic, you cannot kill your father.
You cannot undo his existence without undoing your own.