Candy for Dinner in the Desert
– Memoir (Excerpt) by Rocky Halpern –
There is a monk who prays at the top of the world.
Even though he is only made of rocks, every year people travel to the top of Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley to pay their respects to him. The tragedy is the closer you get to the praying monk the less he looks like a praying monk at all. In close proximity, he is solid mush, a hint of a shape, an underwhelming formation. I’ve seen him only at a distance but I’ve been looking for him in the shadows since I first came to the desert. The monk keeps his eye on Arizona, and the monk watches our story unfurl. I wonder what he thinks of us, of my family, of the state of mankind. What a blessing, to be made of rocks, I think, for the emotional malleability of humanity is what makes our condition the most unbearable. That people can change their formation and become unrecognizable is devastating. A rock can only change into a new kind of rock through immense stress caused by an increase of heat and pressure. That monk has remained the same on top of that mountain since I first saw him at four years old. I wish I could say the same for the other men in my life. It’s nice to know something that cannot change, even if it is a lie up close.
I’m not from Arizona, but it helped to raise me anyways. I feel oddly defensive when I have to admit that no, I wasn’t born there, no, I’ve never had a permanent address there, but listen, I have done my time in the desert. My parents first met at a party while they were both attending Arizona State University in the 1980’s. My mother was a sun-soaked party girl with a brilliant smile and an endless entourage of girlfriends and gay boys to go out and dance with, and cute fraternity boys to kiss. People have always been drawn to my mother. Anyone who spends more than five minutes with her can see why. She is pure light: so kind, so forgiving, so trusting, so willing to believe with doe-eyed fragility that good things are still coming, even when all evidence suggests otherwise. Enter my father, scowling in a corner, nursing a beer, strung out on a combination of coke and weed, and looking like a crossfaded-Jewish-Morrissey-in- a- cut-almost past-the-nipple-t-shirt-turned-tank-top.
It was a love so fast and pulsating that it gave my mother whiplash. She became consumed by my father, and went home with him that night after the party. His roommates were sitting by the door in a circle, passing a bong around, barely moving. They did not acknowledge my mother at all. The room was almost empty, except for a mammoth, neon-orange armchair. It was in the center of the room in front of a dinky television set. As the months passed and the tumultuous romance progressed, that orange chair became a point of contention.
My mother has always wanted so much for my father. She had a way of gathering up his pain and ennui in her hands and seeing flecks of gold where others saw a light dulled by the suicide of his baby brother and his molestation as a child. The latter, my mother understood all too well. She suspected there was a tortured artist trapped in there, one with an endless fountain of stories and songs and an unbridled passion for creation. Something wonderful coming out of something tragic: that was how my mother thought it could be. My father had some traits that suggested her fantasy version of him could be true. He was sweet, sensitive and romantic, but he was also crude, wild, unhinged, abrasive, and uncaring. It was hard for her to reconcile that a man who would leave a solitary rose on her pillow and write love poems on fast food napkins, could also be the man who refused to stop driving when they were moving to Los Angeles and the U-Haul burst open. My mother’s precious, glamorous 80’s garb was strewn all across the highway, and my father screamed at her as if she had somehow caused the disaster. My mother’s friends and family spent years watching how my father treated her; they didn’t understand why she kept accepting so little. They saw an antisocial, 26 year old college dropout with no future, someone who spent the first family party my mother invited him to sulking in his car and getting high. She did not understand how such a brilliant and misunderstood mind was content to sit in that garish orange chair, doing lines of coke, staring at the wall, creating nothing at all. The abuse that my parents suffered as kids made them both crazy, but in different ways. My mother became fiercely protective: a defender of those who (like her) could not speak up. She saw it as her burden in life to bear her own secret gracefully, so as not to destroy the family. She became a silent martyr, a statue, taking her cue from the silent monk. Now my father, the sexual abuse he experienced filled him with rage, and he took that anger out anywhere he saw fit. Nothing could ever be his fault. Having that in common made them both more reckless than I think they might have been otherwise. Something like that happening so early on in a life is to accept death implicitly.
Instead, they accepted each other.
She wanted him to have a big life, with her, with me, even before I existed. Their relationship had spanned an entire decade, two states, five cities, and countless breakups and makeups before I came along. I always assumed I was an accident. And to my father, I was. But I’ve since learned that my mother messed up her birth control pills on purpose, “just to see what would happen”. After she took the test, she gave my father an out. My mother told him he didn’t have to stay. It was never about trapping my father. She felt she was supposed to be a mother; it’s what she wanted more than anything else, more than pretty clothes, more than him. At 32 I think she was getting afraid she might never have it. My father couldn’t commit to anything or anyone in his life, and he was not pleased about my mother’s surprise. He left her, and she accepted it. I still don’t know why he came back. I’m not sure she understood either, but nine months later; there the three of us were.
After becoming pregnant, my mother realized that if she wanted her baby to have things like diapers and food and shelter, she would need to be the one to provide them. So, my father became the stay at home kind. In the beginning, the arrangement worked well: he was a doting caregiver who meticulously mashed peas by hand to make me organic baby food. My stuffed animals each had detailed backstories and different voices, alternating from squeaky and high pitched to low and gruff. My father was an endless source of entertainment and imagination to me. I loved adventuring through San Francisco strapped to his back, squealing and delighted as we zipped through the streets on his bicycle and he yelled out the different Winnie the Pooh animals he swore were just outside of my line of vision. Piglet and Owl did not live in the Hundred Acre Woods, but rather among the hippies and stoners lounging in the sun glazed grass at Dolores Park. Having a baby softened him, at least for some moments in between. My father is best with babies, and puppies. Babies and puppies cannot argue with him.
My arrival into the world served as a catalyst for my mother. It gave her purpose, a reason to care for and protect her existence in a way she hadn’t before. My birth forced her to grapple with what it meant to be responsible for another life. And who was allowed near that precious life. The man who molested my father was not a part of his life anymore. The man who molested my mother still had a seat at our table. But my father didn’t know whom he was breaking bread with. No one did, until I reached the same age that my mother was when the abuse began, about two years old. My mother looked to me and to her brothers who were starting their own families and knew that she needed to speak up. In case, god forbid, what her father did to her was some genetic mutation that ran through the Fritz bloodline. As if this beast she lived in fear of was one that could be cured, something to keep an eye on like high cholesterol. I am uncertain if any amount of truth telling, antibiotics, potions, praying, chanting, wishing, begging, believing, could ever change a thing like that. But knowing my mother’s heart and her stubborn kindness and forgiving nature, there was no way she would ever drop a bomb like that on her family if she wasn’t going to help put the pieces back together, or at least try to. So she gathered up her parents, her three brothers, and told them a story: a story that her father, my grandfather, already knew. The characters were all present as they listened to my mother recount her secret childhood. There was the childhood she shared with her three brothers that happened in baseball fields with strawberry juice dripping down skinned chins. My mother has often told me stories of an idyllic childhood in the carefree land of the 1960’s where her and her siblings would have free reign to play outside without fear of stranger danger. There was no threat larger than the one that loomed inside, safely tucked under the same four walls.
My mother has described that day in her parent’s house as something out of a Greek tragedy. My grandmother stood before my mother who was being held up by her brother Michael, frantic, demanding to know what was going on. My grandfather stood in the corner with his head bowed. He didn’t try to deny anything my mother said. He stood still and took it. My grandmother was about to learn something that she could never unlearn, like Oedipus seeking a truth that would end him. There was no taking this back, and once my mother revealed what the family patriarch had done, my grandmother couldn’t stop screaming.
IS THIS TRUE? IS IT TRUE? IS IT TRUE?
The devil may have once lived inside of their house, but my mother said God healed her family that weekend. My mother was the martyr daughter, a silent sacrificial lamb until I came into her world. The goal shifted from being protect the family at all costs to protect her at all costs. But she was also too good of a daughter, too well versed in martyrdom to completely cut that tether to her parents. My father wanted my grandfather dead. My mother wanted her father to be present in my life, a censored version- a version I would come to cherish and love. Though my grandfather had taken so much from my mother, she couldn’t stand the thought of taking his granddaughter from him. Distance became the middle ground solution. So, we left San Francisco behind. It wasn’t safe for our family, new and malleable, something worth defending back then.
By the time I reached eleven years old I began to feel like someone new and untethered to my parents. I wanted to prove it. In my mind, a way to do this was leaving the name my mother and father picked for me behind. I wanted to be an iconic single named entity, like Cher. So would begin my life as Roxi.
We moved away from New York, but to my parents I’m sure it seemed like all the good parts of me stayed behind. I was no longer a complacent houseplant, being repotted and transplanted by the unhinged will of my parents. The pattern of trying to physically flee the secrets that plagued us was not panning out, but my mother continued to gnash her teeth against the odds anyways. I was on the edge of tween hell and taking it out on anyone in my path. I might not of had control over my circumstance, but I could control how people saw me and what they called me. Roxi took over when Rachel was too weak to go on.
I was eleven and felt myself dying of old age. Fatigue and misery filled me, and the constant sunshine of Orange County, California in spring made time seem endless. Going to middle school, my parents, even my own body bored me and made me feel captive. The only thing I cared about was musicals. So it wasn’t all that shocking when I introduced myself by a different name on my first day of middle school.
Everyone calls me Roxi.
The words I spoke to my sixth grade English teacher were emphatically untrue.
No one had ever called me Roxi in my life. But I saw the new school as a chance to recreate myself. And my parents had recently taken me to see the musical Chicago. Roxie Hart was everything I wanted to be. With an unparalleled ability to lie through her teeth and act without fear of consequence, I tried my best to channel her fierce and reckless stupidity into my life. I stopped caring about school and homework and my peers. I wanted to be left alone to lip sync the In the Heights original cast recording in it’s entirety in front of my mirror and eat stale croutons in my bed.
The absurd thing was that my teachers and peers really did call me Roxi, just like that. It was so easy to change myself. And I loved that feeling of transition. I peeled off Rachel and stepped into a new reality. Like Roxie Hart, I was enamored by a good façade, and only slightly concerned about how easy it was to get others to go along with it. The more it felt like the walls were closing in around my sad life, the more I wanted to buck off my old self and show everyone I was a force to be reckoned with.
Do you know what they do to guys like that in prison?
I was thirteen years old and my father was driving me to middle school when he asked me this question that I did not understand. Wild-eyed and high, he zipped through the winding hills of Orange County like an escaped convict mid pursuit. It was a standard school day morning with my father. He was listening to the The Howard Stern Show, slurping glugs of coffee and Kahlua from a Styrofoam cup, and yelling.
Much like Howard Stern, my father liked to yell about everything: Anti-Semitism in Keebler Elves, the overlooked brilliance of performance artist Karen Finely, Frank Zappa, Twinkies, Rosie O’Donnell, and on this morning, pedophilia. My father’s morning tirades always spanned a variety of topics, but pedophiles seemed to be one we circle back to more than others, especially as I got older.
The question was a warning, but I did not understand whom it’s for.
That year I spend all my time with Nikki and Monique, two fellow middle school aged weirdos who love Pete Wentz, primitive MySpace memes, and eating slightly melted dollar candy in the grocery store parking lot.
One sweltering afternoon, we decide to make the trek from Monique’s house to Nikki’s house, where there is a pool. As we clomp past rows of Spanish style manors with gangly palm trees that line front yards, I text my father to let him know where to pick me up from that later that evening. Not even 10 minutes after we get to Nikki’s house, my father shows up, honking erratically and yelling out the car window. He gets out and pounds on the front door, screaming and cursing until my attention is caught, insisting that we have to go right fucking now. He pulls me from the house, frantic like there’s a bomb about to go off inside. He drags me into the car, scowling at my friends who are watching the scene unfold from the window. My friend’s and I never speak about the instance. Three years later, I find out about Nikki’s father; the hidden cameras in the bathroom, and the videotapes, hundreds of them, with saccharine titles like fun pool party and 10th birthday celebration.
It was the first time I came to understand that no one can sniff out a predator better than another predator.
Later that summer I was shipped off to spend two weeks with my Grandparents in Arizona. The pact my parents made about never leaving me alone with my grandfather seemed to have expired, or been forgotten, or maybe my father just stopped caring and hoped I was ugly and fat enough at that point for the problem to never arise. I don’t know if the trip was a punishment or vacation my parents needed from me. It was probably a combination of both. Save for a very small handful of instances, I had never been alone with my grandparents before. I had been with them and my mother at the same time, but this was the first time I would stay alone in the guest bedroom of their Arizona ranch style home. At thirteen I could not interact with an adult without scowling or rolling my eyes. It was a long and harrowing few weeks for the three of us.
My mother’s parents were Italian Catholics, and church was not negotiable, though I did put up a valiant fight. On a Sunday morning, my grandfather and I sat in the living room waiting for my grandmother to finish getting dressed so we could we leave. Even at the height of my attitude problem, I could never feel anything but love and appreciation towards my grandfather. He was always taking care of me in ways that felt so foreign. Even if it was something small like cooking spaghetti together in the kitchen, or being able to make a mistake without fear of being berated, my grandfather made me feel safe. He took care of my mother and I. It felt he was both of our father’s at times. My grandfather’s demeanor was cheerful and collected. I’d seldom seen him lose his temper and I’d certainly never heard him saw a curse word before. But in that instance, he seemed plagued by something. And the way he spoke that day chilled me.
Church isn’t a place for a guy like me
He said this and could not look at me. And then he showed me all his teeth and told me he was going to hell. It wasn’t a smile. It was a grimace-a warning.
What the fuck?
That’s all I remember thinking. It was my turn to avoid his eyes and instead gaze upon his dark, olive toned feet, plump and thick in his house sandals. We sat in frozen, awkward silence, the muted Cowboy movie the only sign of life in the room. The moment was tense and weird and I didn’t know why. I’d never seen my grandfather somber before. I had never seen him express any negative emotion before, I realized. He was never angry, so I never felt afraid with him. It was easy for my grandfather to play the part of the good guy. I think that enraged my father even more.
They say that those who cannot do, teach. And those who who cannot teach, they eat.
My grandfather was a big man too. I had never known him another way, but through pictures I have been able to surmise that he began gaining weight around the time that he stopped abusing my mother. I believe he trained his body to crave an insatiable appetite in the way of the feast, sparing the flesh, even if it was 16 years too late. It’s one thing to stop, but there is no taking back.
You can puke back up what was once consumed, but no matter how quickly, no matter how fast you might pull the pieces back, it will never be food again, only mush, only a hint at the food you once thought you loved. You cannot put back the taste, the flavor, the way that it felt the first time there was something besides air on your tongue.
Is that why I ate too? To curb a desire that would, if I let it, destroy my friendships, relationships, family ties, make me into a monstrous fiend?
What dark desires do we swallow into ourselves?
Rocky Halpern is a writer, sex educator, lifelong nomad, and recently earned his MFA in creative writing at The New School. He is the 2019 recipient of the Bette Howland Nonfiction Award, and currently working on a memoir about his experience coming to terms with being a gay, transgender man during a time in his life when he feared being a man was synonymous with being a monster. He is a theatre nerd, lover of trashy celebrity memoirs, and the color pink.”