I’d never seen anything like it before.
There was no yelling. No tension in the air. No feeling like you were stepping on eggshells and had to watch what you said before you said it.
It was nice. Freeing.
Drew and Viola went on eating, unaffected by how their parents looked at each other, as if they were still newlyweds on their honeymoon. It was normal for them. Normal family behavior.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ever seen my parents act like that. I couldn’t remember because it’d never happened. Not in my family. I knew then my parents weren’t in love. They were together for appearances, and it hurt. Watching the Fisher family interact showed me what I had been missing all those years. The adoration in the room was almost contagious.
Looking back, I could remember a time where my mother would at least pretend to be happy. She’d paint a smile on her face, cover up the hurt and pain she’d be feeling, and tell me everything was just fine.
Then she eventually stopped pretending. I was just a kid, but I knew. I heard my father yelling over inconsequential things, and I saw the way it affected my mother. I didn’t realize just how dysfunctional my family truly was. Until I saw what it meant to be a family, how a man was supposed to treat his wife, and how loving the Fishers were to one another.
Drew and I grew up together, but we didn’t grow up the same. He was rugged on the outside, but wore his heart on his sleeve. After that dinner, I prayed for a family like the Fishers. But every day I woke up in a house that served as my own personal prison.
When you’re told to get over it and be a man, you bury any feelings that threaten to surface. Showing emotion meant you were weak, and if my father saw weakness in me, he’d exploit it. I learned to be numb. Men don’t cry, he’d tell me. Men definitely didn’t show remorse.
I knew, even as a young teen, that my dad was a hardass. He never said he loved me or my mom. He didn’t express love or show affection or give any indication at all that he wanted us. We were a burden, and yelling was his way of communication. It was his way or the highway. His iron fist ruling eventually what drove me away. Once I left, I swore I’d never move back home, regardless of how much I struggled. Struggling was better than being around the man I grew to hate.
The first time I ever liked a girl, I was eleven years old. She was in the Sunday school class that my mom made me go to every week. I knew she liked me, because every time I sat by her, she’d avoid eye contact with me and she’d blush anytime she caught me looking at her. A girl who sat on the other side of her giggled and stared at me. The more she laughed, the more I wanted to scream at her to shut up. Stop laughing. Stop looking at me. Why the hell is she laughing at me?
It was the first time I’d ever felt uncontrollable anger. I didn’t understand it. I jumped up, mumbled an excuse about going to the bathroom and hid out until the class was over. My palms were sweaty and my body shook with anxiety.
My first reaction to a girl’s attention was to yell at her. I knew yelling was rude and would’ve been completely out of line, but it was my gut instinct. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I understood exactly what had happened. Yelling and anger were the only emotions I’d been taught growing up. It was the only means I had of reacting to an uncomfortable situation. Then when I met Viola, the urge to protect her overwhelmed me and for a while I thought maybe I wasn’t like my father. But then she started asking about boys, and how she could tell if a boy liked her, and I could only see red. My throat tightened, my hands balled into fists, and I nearly drew blood from my teeth sinking into my bottom lip. The urge to scream at her came out of nowhere and I barely managed to stop myself.
Her soft voice calmed me down, and I reeled my emotions back in check, but I knew from that day forward, a part of my father would always be inside me. He’d been treating my mother like that for years, and now I knew—I was built from the same blueprint.
I didn’t have to protect Viola from boys at school.
I had to protect her from me.
“Hey, Travis.” Jeni’s voice brings me out of the past and back into the present with a small wave and knowing smile as I wipe down the equipment. “Lookin’ pretty good out there.”