Kev sends me a text, “listen to this song when you get a chance.” I feel it might be heavy, so I put it off until I head to bed. It’s a song called “Darling Be Home Soon,” and three chords in it hit me like a ton of bricks. I sit in my bed, bawling as Joe Cocker’s voice trembles and quivers in my ears with raw emotion to match mine. The backup singers balance it all out with the perfect amount of soul, and I can’t help but smile as I crumble.
The song transports me back to the feels and memories of my Sunday drives with Dad.
We’ve done this drive so often; I’m confident he could do it with his eyes closed. Daddy lets the car coast in neutral on the down slopes; we wait with wide eyes and smiles to see how far the momentum will take us. I dance my hands through the open window air, the sun, as it sets, paints the world a magical hue, hills roll by, and unforgettable tunes spill from the speakers. I hold out hope that the road will never end.
We turn onto a quiet country road, the last turn before Mom’s apartment building, and I ask him to stop at the crest of the hill. We watch the sun sink below the horizon. He leaves the car running while we say our goodbyes; I watch him drive away.
The Sunday blues wash over me as I open the door to greet Mom.
On longer road trips, I usually exhaust all of the patience of my fellow car dwellers’. When I have nothing more to say, I rest my head on the window and fix my gaze on a guardrail or a power line.
My eyes drift slightly out of focus, the way one does when trying to make a magic-eye poster appear. Eventually, the lines fall into a dance; they undulate and intertwine in a seamless flow. The guardrails slither along with smooth rises and falls. These animations vary in length and intensity, often ending abruptly but always promising an esthetically pleasing performance.
The roads are my freedom, and the car, my loyal friend. I get my license as soon as the law allows. If my 1991 Mazda 626 could talk, she’d divulge incriminating secrets. I drive for the catharsis of it, for the music, the cigarettes, the downshifts, and the apexes. My thinking twists and turns back on itself like the country roads I navigate with mindless ease. The scattered playlists burned onto compact discs weigh down my visor and fuel my angst. My tendency to overthink everything propels me to stay lost on back roads, my happy place.
I’ll always prefer the drive over the destination.
Be home soon, darling.
I’m taking a shuttle from Reading to Philly. Dad and I say our bittersweet goodbyes, and I jump out of one van and into the next. I sit shotgun next to a balding middle-aged man named Tim. I’m expecting to fill this short trip with a phone call, but I quickly realize that I’ll spend it getting to know my co-pilot.
Tim is relaxed, easy-going, and slightly guarded. Unlike myself and most of my family, Tim is not a speeder. With no sense of urgency, he creates a comfy ride. We discuss my destination. I explain that my Soul Sister, Bestie invited me on an adventure in Italy. I had turned her down in college when she offered me free room and board overseas; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity a second time around. I tell him of my plans to visit the town where Dad was born. Tim inquires, so I give him a brief history of how Dad’s family immigrated from Italy and settled in America. Inevitably, we land on my family’s restaurant, the Temple Hotel, and as I’ve heard so many times before, Tim says,
“Oh, you’re dad is Perry! I know Perry.”
Tim’s connection to Dad is through his late father, Tom. His father worked the third shift at a local factory, and he often found solace at my family’s restaurant. After working into the wee hours of the morning, Tom and “the boys” would shoot pool, play shuffleboard, and drink their worries away.
Tim is in mid-story when my phone rings. With uncanny timing, it’s Dad. After his concerned parental advice, I ask if he remembers Tim’s father. He sifts through his memory as Tim eagerly awaits the answer. After 30 seconds, Dad lands on it,
“OH YEA, Tommy! I remember him; he worked the third shift. I played pool with him. He died young, didn’t he?”
I relay Dad’s reply; Tim smiles with a nod. We all share the same sentiment of how small the world is; I send my love and hang up the phone.
Having lost his dad at the age of 16, I can tell Tim is touched by this connection. I wonder if he is picturing our fathers playing pool together back in the day, as I am, or wondering how their children, thirty-some-odd years later, have found themselves sitting in a van together.
We fall quiet.
I soak up the sweet silence as we stare fondly ahead at the open road.
© Katie Pendergast 2021
I eat my subsidized lunch in the guidance counselor’s office during Banana Split Club twice a week. I sit among my fourth-grade classmates, who can relate to having (un)wanted stepparents, feeling like a ping-pong ball in the game of custody, and to the aching feeling that maybe, somehow, it’s all our faults. When the counselor takes an interest in our emotional well-being, the world becomes blurry. Tears stream from my eyes like melting ice cream on a scorching summer day.
My parents got married when they were nineteen and expecting their firstborn, Michael. He’s funny and rageful, like mom. Eight years later, Kevin came along; he rebels against the status quo and has a kind heart. Lastly, I ripened in a womb laced with stress as my parent’s marriage transitioned from bad to worse.
Three years into my life, my parents go their separate ways; and like a ship with a slow leak, we all go down with them. I’m a walking compilation of a pair who feel more like a strange dream than a reality. I swim in the grey muck between them, wondering how I ever came to be.
My nails take the brunt of my worry - brittle, damaged, and rough around the edges; they depict my inner world. My expectations for perfection have already started. Later on this year, I’ll go to therapy, and like Mary Poppins’ carpet purse, my bottomless baggage will take decades to unpack.
It’s no wonder that when I’m grown, my bookshelves house many titles urging me to live up to my fullest potential.
I’m six when Maurice enters the picture. He is fresh out of jail when they meet. I wear a mauve-colored dress at their wedding, Mike walks mom down the aisle, and Kev stares spitefully at the ceiling of the church during their vows. The wedding cake topples over during transport to the reception, foreshadowing the mess to come. Mom and Mo’s honeymoon phases come and go with his sobriety.
I’m sixteen when mom becomes Born Again, and she meets Marvin. Per Mom’s request, I wear her first wedding dress at their wedding, as in the dress she wore the day she married my dad. Mike gives mom away one last time. Kev lives in Seattle now and declines the invitation. Of the three of us, Mike has the unique experience of attending all of our mom’s weddings.
A man with a teardrop tattoo on his face sanctions Mom and Marvin’s marriage. The bizarre ceremony melts away as I get lost in the teardrop; has he lost someone, killed someone, spent time in jail? Maybe he loved Cry-Baby the movie as much as I did.
A banner hangs above our heads, “People are sinning, and dying, and going to hell, what are you going to do about it?” I ponder the question; the answer is obvious.
I’m going to hell.
During their mission hall reception, I study Marvin like a cold case detective. It doesn’t take long for me to notice he treats women as the subservient sex. I trust him as much as I trust my mom.
I listen intently to a story told on Marvin’s behalf; it’s one of addiction, desperation, and a “coming to Jesus moment” where Marvin runs straight into the arms of salvation after finding a dead body in a trashcan. I look around the room to gauge the response.
Am I supposed to clap?
I tether myself to the dysfunction; I don’t realize that I’m holding scissors the whole time.
© Katie Pendergast 2021
#YourStoryIsTheScript #InnerChild #InnerChildWork #ChildofDivorce #WaitingforKatie #ReturnToYourself #BeBrave #StayWeird #KatiesaurusBlog #Autobiographical #Divorce
Sometimes just for fun, I slide a chair up to the counter, grab the pack of cigarettes next to the glasses, and I flush them down the toilet. I break them in half first and watch the tobacco swirl around the bowl like paper confetti. I wait for the explosion of anger, and I giggle with nervous satisfaction when they come stomping around the house to find me.
“They’re bad for your health, ya know!” my pint-sized self sasses back.
I’ll grow to love cigs, and starting at 16, I’ll spend twelve years of my life smoking them, but I can’t possibly know that yet.
My dad pays Tammy to do the groceries and to keep the house together. As a single dad and a restaurant owner, he has little time for much else. Tammy is a dancer, but not the kind that I think she is. She has a hairless dog named Creature. I grow a fondness for the weird little guy, even the off-putting feeling of his skin.
My dad’s architecturally uninteresting house is an unfortunate color, the shade of roadside filth. The stucco exterior looks like the builders didn’t finish the job. On Holidays we sometimes take family pictures in the neighbor’s yard. My dad positions the tripod and runs into the shot.
Every other weekend and every summer, Kev and I share a room and bunk beds. When I can’t sleep, I stare at the life-size Boyz N The Hood movie theater cut-out that lives in our room. If my bladder wakes me up in the middle of the night, I’m often shaken awake by toilet water greeting me with a splash. The toilet seats are usually up.
On Sundays, I track down my woobie and pack up the rest of my belongings into my Minnie Mouse duffle bag.
They outnumber me, three guys to one Little Katie, yet it feels like home.
© Katie Pendergast 2021
Words Bleed Through Napkins
Fresh out of college, jobless, and five months into living with my parents again, I questioned if my photography degree would get me off their couch. A newspaper ad, of all things, is what led me to the next open door. It advertised a product photographer position at a men’s clothing company twenty minutes up the road in a small town. It seemed out of my league, but I applied anyway. Art school touched briefly on commercial photography and focused more on the starving artist’s life path. I found myself equipped in the middle, on the more confusing ground between the two.
With naive and unsteady confidence, I gave the interview my all. And I got it.
I became the new in-house photographer for a men’s clothing company.
I had an oversized desk in an empty studio that my employer entrusted me to fill. Tasked with making a list of everything I’d need to get the studio up and running, they assured me that I would be in touch with the right people to help me do so. The company purchased a twenty-five thousand dollar camera and told me to use it well. My twenty-something brain could not even comprehend that amount of money. Next, they introduced me to the young woman, the studio intern, a photography student at a nearby college. She would fulfill the Digi-tech duties and help in whatever way she could. What the hell would I teach her?! We were peers. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would become a life-long friend and a gift to my life in many ways.
It seemed I had “arrived” at adulthood, yet I didn’t feel so adult.
Behind the company’s namesake stood an endearing CEO. I liked to say he took flying lessons - literally and figuratively. He showed up for work with a goofy grin and an equally goofy golden retriever in tow. At the Holiday party, he danced with a chair, all while rapping homemade rhymes about the company’s performance and people. A page straight from Michael Scott’s playbook, and I loved every minute of it.
When the CEO went through a divorce, he tearfully announced the news at a companywide quarterly meeting and gave an awkward yet sweet speech about family. He eventually became well enough to date again and asked for my help setting up his dating profile on JDate, a dating site for Jewish singles. He asked me to keep that last part between us. Sometimes, if he saw me in the hallway, he would run out of a meeting to tell me his progress on the site. I adored him and his humanness that he let spill so freely. He owned a successful company, yet he made me feel like an equal.
My three years with that company made me realize one of the biggest secrets of adulthood - that no one has it figured out, and life is complicated, especially as a grown-up. Big salaries and fancy titles don’t obliterate the clicks and pettiness; they don’t inspire the slackers or alleviate the ass kissers; they don’t tame the cheaters; they don’t disarm the bullies. I kind of thought it would be different, but I started to see that adulthood could be even messier than high school.
I digress; let’s get back to the words bleeding through the napkin part.
Less than a month into this grown-up job of mine, I found myself in New York City, studying with a studio of freelancers that had been shooting this company’s products for years. I felt alive, like a big girl, navigating the city alone. I became an observant student for three days, soaking up as much as possible from these big leaguers. I enjoyed the fancy catered lunches, the lessons on styling, and the veteran photographer’s lighting tips.
Everything I witnessed seemed enchanted - painted in gritty elegance.
Fall of 2007, I didn’t have a Facebook account yet, Instagram didn’t exist, and the iPhone debuted months before. I had a flip phone that functioned in the simplest of ways; it required three minutes of my time to text a friend, and it never tried to sell me anything. Life seemed a little simpler; back when I still had stashes of MapQuest directions stuffed into the nooks and crannies of my car, when I didn’t capture a photo of every shiny thing that thrilled me. Back when I took in my surroundings. Back when I interacted with strangers often.
After my first day at the NYC studio, I drove to the neighborhood where I stayed with a friend. Needing to kill some time before he got off work, I walked around the block and stopped at a small restaurant, claiming a barstool near the windows. The bustling sidewalk behind me contrasted the sleepy vibe of the dank and narrow establishment. I noticed my closest bar neighbor, a man of few spoken words. So few, he talked to the bartender via napkin. He grabbed one of the many bar napkins within reach and wrote messages to her. Intrigued and thrilled by this peculiar communication vehicle, I sat and waited, periodically gazed at my not-smart phone, and did my best not to stare at him.
All the while, hoping one of those napkins made their way to me.
Hunched over the bar, he glanced about. After a pause, he’d turn back to the napkin and continue to compose a message thoughtfully. When complete, he’d slide the napkin-gram down or up the bar, carefully delivering his messages while bypassing puddles from clumsy drinkers.
A couple of sips into my second beer, the first napkin arrived.
In my mind, I called him Napkin Man. He seemed to have walked right off a page in a book. Was he a method actor preparing for a role? His slightly bizarre movements and way of communicating fascinated me. I could almost see the pixy dust swirling around him.
We conversed via napkin for a while; each exchange required more napkins than the last. Napkin Man asked poetic and slightly defensive questions, ones that beckoned me to look past the status quo and to see the absurdity in it all. I didn’t always know how to answer him. His messages were saturated and heady; they cut through the fluff with shade. Even so, I couldn’t help but find joy in our conversation.
I could feel the evening creeping in and my time to move on near. I closed out my tab and put a halt to our napkin convo. I asked Napkin Man one last question, “can I bum a cigarette?” He hopped off his barstool and gestured for me to follow. I stuffed all the napkins in my purse as I made my way to the door.
On the stoop, my hunch affirmed, he talked. His soft mumbles kept my ears bent to hear the fragmented wisdom he spewed. He paced from the curb to the stoop while we smoked our cigarettes together. I watched him dance between his fellow New Yorkers as they passed. I don’t remember much of what we shared when our conversation turned from napkin to audio. I do remember the magic in his peculiarity and the rawness of his spirit.
A few drags left on my cigarette, and my phone rang. I said goodbye to Napkin Man and left him weaving his hypnotic dance amidst the busy walkers. He left me with a purse full of napkins and an excellent story that would sit with me for the rest of my days.
I later got rid of most of the napkins except for one. I glued it to a notebook and carefully preserved it. Nowadays, the sentiment on that particular napkin has more weight - much more than it had back then. I’m often left wondering what I did before my smartphone helped me do everything I could ever imagine.
And every day, I dance between letting go and reigning myself in on the busy sidewalk of adulthood.
© Katie Pendergast 2021