Behaviorism, Arjun Saatia
TW: Domestic Violence, Drug Abuse
I loved when my father explained his tattoos to me. I’d stare wide-eyed and mystified at the letters scrawling across his skin, the images of little ink men battling one another on my father’s forearms. With all the sleeves cut off his t-shirts, I could see each rib of his abdomen poking through his skin, both arms covered to the point of obscurity. He looked like a comic book come to life.
“Who’s that?” I once pointed to a figure on his right bicep, a robotic-looking man with a red mask and long antlers popping out of his skull.
“This is Cyber-Ant, my comic book character I’ve been working on. He’s half-man, half robot with the genetic mutation of an ant!” My father exclaimed, spreading the skin across his forearms so I could get a better look.
He’d then engulf me into his fantasies, his world of spaceships and interdimensional creatures I’d never dreamt of. He told me tales of galactic invasions, planets exploding, and bad police-aliens always chasing after Cyber-Ant.
“I even made a character for you, too! Her name is Zarena. She’s Cyber-Ant’s sidekick, and she always helps get him out of tough situations, like breaking him out of jail, being the getaway driver, stuff like that.” He shuffled papers around his desk, his wrinkled fingers grabbing stacks of scribbled paper and dumping them into our laps.
“I know they’re gonna be famous. When you’re older, you can help me sell the books! How would you like that?” he’d ask me from his desk chair, smiling wide with pale, blue eyes, rifling through the drawings.
“Yeah! We’re gonna be rich and famous!” I chimed in. He believed his creations were his token to a world of prosperity, and I couldn’t help but believe in them too. The thought of
working with him as a business partner was a dream come true, the promise of everlasting attachment.
He pulled the collar of his shirt down to his sternum, revealing an inked graphic on his left breast. The tattoo depicted a heart, torn and bleeding with bullet holes poking out, and an arrow shot through it. Circling the decaying heart was a yellow banner with “Sarena” written over it in black, cursive writing.
“This one’s for you, because you are my heart. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. You’re my world, my everything…you’re the best thing I ever could have asked for.” …
One of the earliest memories I have of my father is of him sitting in a green plastic chair across from me at a metal table, wearing a brown jumpsuit with a singular zipper down the middle. His parents would sometimes drive me up to Somerset to visit him in the state correctional facility, and, as a child, I never questioned why he lived so far away in such a large, concrete building. I imagined the building as a castle, the men toting grey uniforms and hip guns its armed protectors.
“Daddy, who are all these people?” I asked him, looking around the visiting room. Families sat at tables surrounding us, their laughs and shouts morphing into an overwhelming buzz of activity.
“The people with brown jumpsuits live here with me, and their families came to visit them.” His hands suddenly made their way underneath my armpits with rapid jabs and I shrieked in laughter as he exclaimed, “It’s the tickle monster!”
After my laughter waned, I looked around again.
“Why can’t you come home with us?” I asked. My grandparents looked at each other, probably wondering if they should have brought me for another visit in the first place. My grandmother chimed in. “Sarena, we talked about this—”
My father interrupted her. “Don’t worry Snoogie, I’ll be home as soon as you know it; I promise! I just got into some trouble, so I have to stay here for a while.”
My grandparents sighed, mumbling under their breath. Before I could ask more questions, he redirected my attention to a different topic.
“Now, why don’t you tell me how kindergarten is going? I hear you’re becoming a great little artist!”
Those young years went by in a blur. I grew accustomed to envisioning my father as a distant figure of my imagination, one who bears letters and gifts through the mail, but never one to set foot in my home. The realization he’d eventually come home never dawned on me.
One day after first grade, I skipped outside and saw my grandmother’s car waiting to pick me up. Hopping inside the backseat of her Saab, I realized we had another passenger in the front seat. With pale skin, a bald head and two lip rings, the stranger turned around and smiled wide. “Snoogie, it’s me! I’m home now!”
I tried piecing the puzzle together. I hadn’t heard the term Snoogie for months. “You remember me, don’t you?” His smile wavered. Suddenly I connected this odd looking figure to the man we visited in the cinderblock castle: I hadn’t recognized him outside of a jumpsuit. I looked to my grandmother for further approval.
“Your father is home now. He’s coming to live with me and your grandfather.”
He started cracking jokes as we drove home, reaching from the front to tickle me under my arms whenever he had the chance. By the time we reached home, I felt comfortable with him once again. He put his arm around my shoulders as we walked through the door.
“I’m so glad to be home again, Snoogie. Look at you, already six years old! You’re all grown up!”
“I made a new drawing today!” I exclaimed in response, excited for the reappearance of a father figure.
“That’s great! You’ll have to show me,” he hugged me again. “We’re gonna have so much fun together! And don’t worry, I’m here to stay now.”
He began picking me up from school on his allotted day of the week, generally Wednesdays, and took me to the tattoo shop where he worked. I wasn’t sure why our only day together was Wednesday, but I suppose now it had to do with parole and supervised visits. I just knew this was the way things were.
I loved helping him work at the shop. I’d stare in awe as he showed me the tattoo guns and little capsules of ink, and he worked hard to keep my hands out of reach from the needles. “One day, when you’re old enough, you can come work here with me! We can be business partners. I’ll do the tattooing, and you can be the piercer!” He waved his hand through the air, showcasing our promised land.
“You mean I get to give people earrings?”
“Yeah! You’ll love it.”
I was thrilled. I was never old enough to help with any arduous labor, so he taught me how to print scans of drawings that customers wanted as tattoos.
“You just put the drawing I give you into the machine, then wait for the paper to come out. It’ll be yellow with purple ink. We put the purple drawing over the person’s arm so we can draw over it with the tattoo gun,” he explained.
“You mean you trace it like you showed me?”
“Yeah, exactly! Look at you, already catching on…you’re gonna do great!” I took my duties seriously at the shop. Upstairs in his black leather chair, clad in rubber gloves, he’d hand me a drawing. I’d run downstairs to the basement where the machine lay waiting, and as soon as it spat out the scan, I’d run the page back up to him.
“Does it hurt?” I asked one day, pointing at his tattooed arms.
“Nah, it’s not that bad. It feels like this!” He rapidly jabbed me in the arm with his finger while making a “zzz” sound, and I laughed because it tickled and kind-of hurt at the same time. …
One of my favorite stories my grandmother would tell me as a child was of the humble beginnings of my father, a hero, who, against all odds, was born with a gift and destined for fame: at least to me, anyway.
“Your father had a lot of difficulty in school growing up. He was born premature, had ADHD, and always had behavioral problems,” she sighed, sitting on my bed while tucking me in. “We got his IQ tested, me and your grandfather. The doctors recommended it.” “And then what happened?” I asked. I already knew the answer.
She sighed again, wiping her hand across her face. “In almost all categories, from science to math to reading skills, he ranked so low they realized he had a learning disability.” I leaned forward for my favorite part.
“All except one, though: art. He ranked so high in art, he’s technically a genius.” My eyes sparkled, a smile beaming across my face. My own father, a genius! This was the story of the hero with a sad background, the underdog who ends up saving the day. Superman was no match for my father. Who needs a suit and cape when all my hero needs are pens and paper?
I sat in the passenger seat of my father’s beat-up Sedan, watching him drive while singing along to Eminem—one of his favorites—and laughing at how animated his movements were, his hands flailing in the air. When “Mockingbird” began with a slower tune, he sat still for a moment, his eyebrows furrowing.
“Your mom is a fucking bitch, you know that?” he yelled, pounding the steering wheel. “Why?” I asked, biting my thumbnail.
“She’s always trying to keep us apart. I’ll never let her take you away from me.” His knuckles turned white from gripping the steering wheel, his foot pressing farther down on the accelerator. I gripped the strap of my seatbelt.
“Just remember, it’s you and me against the world! I promise I’m never going to leave you. I love you so fucking much.” His words sat uneasy in my stomach, but I wasn’t sure why. Instead of responding, I watched the scenery go by and pretended we were running away to conquer the world together, just me and him, like he always promised.
“Maybe we’ll run away to Mexico together. How’d you like that?” he asked. “We can eat a bunch of tacos!” I exclaimed, smiling again.
He laughed and continued driving. I thought about our lives in the future, me working in his tattoo shop and helping him with his comic books. Heck, maybe we’d always live together. I would be okay with that.
I’m not sure if my grandparents knew the ride coming home and chose not to tell me, or if they found out the same time I did. I like to believe the latter. We had just arrived home on my tenth birthday after they’d picked me up from summer camp.
I hopped out of the RV, my eyes focused on the front door. My mother exited the house and ran to embrace me, gripping me while exclaiming, “Happy birthday, Hunny! I’m so glad you’re home!”
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, looking around the empty yard. She released her grip, sighing before responding, “Sarena, I’m sorry…but he won’t be able to make it.” “What? Why?” My voice broke.
“He got in trouble again. He was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be,” she replied, eager to change the subject. “Let me help you with your bags!”
He told me he’d be here for my birthday. I shouldn’t have been surprised he broke his promise, but a daughter never stops placing faith in her father. After all, our role models are still only human.
I looked down at the grass, my foot fumbling with a loose clump of dirt. “But it’s my birthday…”
She hugged me again. “I know, Hunny. It’ll just be us and your grandparents for now,” she smiled, “Come on, let’s get you unpacked. We have a big day planned!” …
Dad would send handmade figurines carved out of soap when he was away, his birthday and Christmas presents to me when he couldn’t be there, painted like his comic book characters or our family members. He even created a couple board games for me out of cardboard. I started checking the mail every day after school as my new routine, waiting for a new present.
“Did you get my package?” he asked one day over the phone.
“No, not yet. What is it?”
“You’ll have to wait and see!” he laughed. “I hope you like it. I’m sorry I can’t get you real Christmas gifts, but this is the best I can do.”
“It’s okay. I love your gifts,” I replied without thinking, eager to cheer him up. They were better than any toy he could buy.
“Don’t worry. When I get out, I’ll buy you all the presents I missed while I was away!” …
I sat alone on the school bus one day after sixth grade, staring out the window. It’d been over a year now since he’d been arrested, and he was due to be released any day, but my family warned me not to get my hopes up for him to be home on Christmas.
I waited for 11:11 every day and night, making the same wish each time for him to come home. I only believed in superstitions when I was desperate.
As the school bus rolled to a stop, I got off and walked down the street towards my house, staring down at the gravel.
It’s because of those prison guards, isn’t it? It’s their fault he’s not home for Christmas. There was no use wishing anymore. He’s not going to make it, is he?
That’s when I heard it, a loud call bellowing from the end of the street.
I shot my head up as the figure from my dreams came running down the street. There he was, barreling towards me with a wide smile, hoisting up his sagging sweatpants. Dressed with a backwards cap and too large of shoes, he was exactly how I pictured him to be. I dropped my backpack, running down the street towards him. He was here, really here, and I thanked the heavens for making my wish come true.
He embraced me half-way down the path, picking me up and swinging me around full circle. “Oh Snoogie, I’ve missed you so much! I told you I’d be home!” he cried. I beamed as he set me down. “I can’t believe you’re here! This is all I wanted for Christmas!”
I smiled as we walked back home, gripping his hand and picturing the years to come. This time would be different. This time, he would stay.
“Sarena, God is real. I know it. You know why? Because he picked me. I have proof.” I sat cross-legged on the living room couch, watching him pace back and forth, wringing his hands together. I never thought of God as anything more than an old man sitting high in the clouds, some vague figure we learned about in school.
“Why? Does he talk to you?” I asked, watching his hands run along his face and arms. “No, but he sends me signs,” he said, facing me, “ever since you were born. He’s been trying to tell me something.”
God chose my father out of all people? I always believed my father was special somehow, but now I had spiritual proof. “Wow. Like what?”
“Alright, get this,” he started pacing again, “I always saw the number ‘3’ and ‘1134’ a lot. You know ‘3’ is a biblical number, right?” He paused, looking back at me. I nodded. Catholic schooling had done its job.
“I started seeing it everywhere recently, so right before I got locked up the last time, I went to New York to try and figure it all out. I was breaking parole, but I knew I had to go,” he rationalized. “I only had three hundred dollars on me, which was weird already. But then I was walking down the street with a pocket full of change, and I saw a guy taking donations for a homeless organization. I went to pull out some change, and you know what came out first? Three pennies!”
I never stopped to ask why his pilgrimage to New York superseded the law. “There’s more. When that happened, I told the guy, ‘Oh man, something weird is going on.’ He asked me what was up, and I started telling him all the other times I kept seeing the numbers everywhere.”
He started talking faster, his voice raised.
“So, right when I finished telling him the story about seeing ‘3’ and ‘1134’ everywhere, he stopped me. He says, ‘Dude, turn around right now!’ So I did, and you know what I saw?” “What?” I leaned forward, gripping my knees.
“Right behind me, the huge Time Square clock read ‘11:34.’ Can you fucking believe that?” He was practically jumping now, his arms flailing beside him. “It’s proof that God’s real. You see? That’s why I had to go to New York. I know I shouldn’t have broken my parole, but I had to!”
I nodded along, not quite understanding what he meant, but I believed him. I figured sometimes you have to break the law in order to do what you know is right.
“Sarena, come here. I want to show you something,” my father whispered, “Come to the living room.” I followed him to the couch, watching him pull out a white envelope from his pocket.
“You’re eleven. You should probably know what this stuff is by now,” he said, opening the envelope so I could look inside. It looked like little bundles of grass all pressed together. “It’s weed,” he explained. “Have you ever seen it before?”
“No, of course not,” I laughed nervously, feeling like I was being let in on a dirty secret. He folded the envelope back up and stuffed it into his pocket.
“I just wanted to make sure you knew what it looked like, so you know you get the real stuff in case you start smoking. I mean, you should probably wait,” he added, “but you just need to know what you’re getting.”
“Uh, okay, yeah. Thanks,” I replied, scratching my arm. Something about the whole ordeal felt off, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Don’t tell your mom or grandma about it. Just keep this between you and me!” …
The sun poked through the blinds, pulling me out of sleep. I heard my father’s footsteps descending to his basement bedroom as I prepared for another day of seventh grade, and I smiled as I remembered he’d be driving me to school.
As I sat at the kitchen counter eating a bowl of cereal, I heard Dad’s footsteps ascending the basement stairwell behind me, then a loud crash of the basement door being thrown against the wall. There’s Dad! I thought, and turned to say good morning.
With wide, bloodshot eyes bulging from his skull, he raced over to me. My smile faded.
“Sarena! Sarena, I need to talk to you, okay?” His hands shook, moving from the top of his head, running over his face, to scratching his arms. “You know it’s you and me, right? It’s you and me against the world! Nothing is going to stop us from being together, you hear me?” His hand made its way to my shoulder, shaking my body as he spoke, his face inches from mine. My throat grew tight.
“Yeah, Dad, of course I know that…” My voice trembled.
“They’re never going to take you away from me, you understand? I’ll never let anything happen to you, ever!”
I gripped the hem on my pants, waiting for him to stop. He never acted like this before, and part of me wasn’t sure if I was still sleeping, if this was some dream I needed to wake up from.
After that, he ran back down to the basement. I turned back to my cereal bowl, figuring I should just ignore it. As I retreated to my bedroom to get dressed, I heard my mother come downstairs to the kitchen, and soon after, footsteps from the basement stairwell again.
My parents’ voices began echoing from the kitchen, which wasn’t an unusual occurrence, so I ignored them. I withdrew to the bathroom to brush my teeth when I heard my grandmother’s bedroom door creak open. “What’s going on?” she asked, making her way to the kitchen.
Then the screaming began. “Oh God, Jason, stop!” My father’s name. I paused mid brush, waiting for the next sound. And then, “Sarena! Sarena!” over and over, my grandmother screaming for me. I dropped my toothbrush and raced down the hallway.
I stopped mid-stride when I came to the kitchen door. There was Dad, his back towards me, facing my mother. His right arm was raised and brandishing a pen in his fist, my mother
cowering behind him. My grandmother shrieked from the corner of the room, covering her face with her hands.
“You’re not going to take me away from her, you fucking bitch! Never!” he screamed, pointing the ballpoint pen towards her. She held the landline in her hand as she cried, “Jason, you’re delusional! You’re never going to drive her to school like this! Look at yourself!”
Then, in the swiftest of motions, his left arm formed a fist and swung, his knuckles colliding with her jawline. She dropped to the floor as he towered above her, taunting her with his fist.
“I’ll kill you, you fucking whore!”
I have to get him out of here. I have to make him stop.
My reaction was instantaneous. I ran towards him, arms extended, and hugged myself around his torso, pulling him backwards.
I was only attached to him for a moment until I felt hands pulling me from behind. My mother and grandmother had enough motherly instinct to pry me off him, my safety suddenly the main concern.
Why are they pulling me away? I have to help him! I can stop him!
I wrestled their grip on my arms, but it was no use. They pulled me away, and for a moment, my father stood facing me.
All his movement stopped. His eyes stared through me, cold and unknowing. I didn’t even recognize him.
After that, he backed up then ran out of the house. I tried to break from their grasp and run after him, but their hold was solid as they shrieked for my grandfather. I grew limp in their arms as I watched him go. Part of me knew he’d never come back.
POLLOCK MAN IN CUSTODY AFTER HIGH-SPEED CAR CHASE.
No. This can’t be happening. There, on the front page of Pottstown’s newspaper The Mercury, was a photo of my father, wretched in a blue jumpsuit, being escorted by police as he exited a patrol car. His eyes were swollen, bruises lining his arms.
My grandmother wouldn’t let me read it. At first, all I saw was the photo of him and the headline, but later that night I found it crumbled in the trash.
Jason Pollock, 37, was arrested yesterday morning after a domestic dispute and stealing a neighbor’s car… After crashing the car, he reportedly attempted to kidnap two girls waiting for the school bus.
No, that’s not possible. He would never do that. I know he wouldn’t.
The girls fled as he broke into a nearby house and demanded the resident for the car keys.
I gripped the newspaper tight in my trembling knuckles. I didn’t want to keep reading, but I did anyway.
After crashing into Pottsgrove High School, Pollock fled on foot until he was apprehended by patrol officers.
On September 16, 2010, The Mercury was distributed to each of Pottstown’s 22,661 residents.
22,661 people witnessed my family’s collapse on a single page of the town’s newspaper. …
No one drove me to school anymore. When I entered homeroom the next day, I heard whispering among my classmates, their eyes following me as I walked in. Mrs. Marley, our
homeroom teacher, called me over to her desk before I sat down. She took her glasses off, leaning forward.
Hi, Sarena … listen, I read what happened in the paper. I just want you to know I’m so sorry, and I’m always here to talk if you need someone.”
I looked down at my feet, overwhelmed with shame. I couldn’t stand to look at her. “Thanks, Mrs. Marley,” I mumbled, retreating to my seat.
This happened in each of my classes that day, and I hated it every time. There was no sympathy a middle school teacher could offer me that would bring my father back home.
I went down to his bedroom later that night, standing in the middle of the room. I shut my eyes tight, trying to visualize him there with me. I kept thinking I’d hear his footsteps descend the stairwell, him calling me his favorite pet name, but there was nothing. A new silence filled the house, a cold loneliness he left in his absence. The emptiness grew thicker in my throat with each day that passed, a heaviness weighing on my shoulders every time I saw his empty bed, his empty desk, his empty car. He took a part of me with him when he left, and I didn’t think I’d ever get it back.
I couldn’t stop him. This is my fault.
“Dad, it isn’t true, is it?” I pleaded, gripping the phone as I paced around my bedroom. My family didn’t let me talk to him for days, maybe weeks, and I was desperate to hear his voice again.
“No, of course not, Snoogie. I would never do that,” the frantic voice responded. I sighed in relief, running my hand through my hair.
“They lied on the police report, too. I never threatened Mommom or your mom with a knife. You know that!”
“Yeah, of course,” I replied, remembering the ballpoint pen.
“I can’t believe they wouldn’t let me talk to you. You can’t trust what they say about me. They’re lying.”
When will we be able to visit you?” I asked.
“Not for a long time, Snoogie. I have to wait until I’m officially charged,” he sighed. “I’m such an idiot. I knew I shouldn’t have left the tattoo shop. The last time I checked the clock that night, it was 11:34, and I knew something bad was gonna happen. But I told you I was gonna drive you to school, and I didn’t wanna let you down.”
Not sure how to respond, I decided, “I miss you so much, Dad,” murmuring into the phone.
“I miss you too, Snoogie. I’m such a piece-of-shit dad.”
“No, you’re not!” I reacted, “I’d never ask for a different dad.”
“Yeah. You’re the best dad I could ask for.”
We had to wait almost two years to find out exactly how long he’d be in prison for. His sentence kept changing, the most I’d heard being twenty-one years, but the parole board began adding years on his sentence, ones left over from old sentences when he got out early on good behavior, so we never really knew how long he’d be away. I’d find my letters from him thrown away by my grandparents, so each night, I’d check the trash to see if there was any contraband
for me to find. I still hadn’t had the chance to see him, but I waited each week for his phone call, praying for our reunion.
“I’m not going to be home for a long time, Snoogie. A real long time…” he told me one week over the phone.
“How long, Dad?” My voice nearly broke as I asked.
“At most, it’ll be sixteen years…but I might get out in eight if I’m lucky. It’s the damn kidnapping charge that’s putting me away for so long,” he mumbled.
“But that’s not fair! You didn’t even do that!” I cried.
It was silent over the phone for a moment, until I heard him sigh. “Well, yeah…” I gripped the phone tighter.
He sighed again. “I’m so sorry, Sarena. I didn’t want you to know… I yelled at them to get in the car, because I knew they saw me steal it,” he went on, “but it’s not like I was planning to do anything! I was just so fucked up on that PCP shit that I didn’t know what I was thinking. I was bugging out.”
I stood silent, trying to form the words in my mouth. “You…you lied to me?” “It was only because I didn’t want you to know!” he reasoned, “I didn’t want you to think I was a horrible person…”
“I don’t, Dad, I don’t!” I injected, “I just want to know the truth…” I felt the words crumble off my tongue.
“It was the drugs, I swear! You know me. I would never do something like that for real. That’s why you should never do shit like that, because it messes you up.”
I felt myself going back and forth. Was it really his fault? I mean, he only did it because he was high, right?
“You still love me, don’t you?” he begged me. I snapped out of my mental debate. “Of course I do, Dad. I could never hate you.”
He sighed in relief. “I love you so much, Snoogie. You’re the only person that’s ever been there for me. As soon as I get out, we’ll make our own business and produce Cyber-Ant and Zarena! I have so many plans for our future.”
Two years turned into four years. No longer a twelve-year-old who barely managed her way through middle school after Dad’s arrest triggered a grueling depression, I grew into a high school sophomore, a sixteen-year-old struggling to get out of bed each morning, a kid feeling like something was stolen from me and never returned. Lingering at the depths of this despair was a belief, planted and buried at the moment of my father’s assault and cultured through the years of adjustment to his absence.
I couldn’t make him stay. I wasn’t good enough.
When friends complained about how dorky their fathers were, or how embarrassed they felt when their dads insisted on picking them up from school, I couldn’t help but feel cheated out of the life I craved. Each time the words “dad” or “father” were mentioned, I’d curl my fists and
dig my fingernails in my skin. Any reference to fatherhood was a punch to my gut, a reminder of a void in my life I had no hope in fulfilling, and the only person I had to blame for it was myself.
“It’s bullshit what they’re doing. I still haven’t started my new sentence yet!” my father’s voice boomed over the phone.
“But you said you might be starting it this year…how can they do that?” I was getting tired of hearing the same news each year.
“They’re trying to make me finish my old sentence before starting a new one. They said I don’t feel enough remorse for what I did or something.”
“I mean, do you?”
“I know I shouldn’t have done all those drugs. They make me crazy. But your mom was threatening to take you away from me and I just got so angry.”
“Uh, yeah, I get it…how long is it going to be, Dad?”
“I should be starting it soon,” he reassured, “Don’t worry, it won’t be that long!” Not that long? How long do I have to wait?
“Anyway, keep up with your writing and drawing. We’re gonna be such a great business team when I’m out!”
Leaving for college gave me the escape from home I longed for, but it didn’t change the situation. I tried burying the memories in hopes they’d be forgotten, but ignorance isn’t the same as healing.
I once attended a self-help forum—a four-day conference aimed at helping you become “the best version of yourself you can be”—during my sophomore year of college. I was skeptical, extremely so, but my roommate talked me into it.
“I really think you’d get a lot out of it, Sarena. You’re in bed all day, you haven’t gone to class, and—”
“Anna, I’m fine, seriously. Don’t worry about me.” I tried brushing her off, but I knew she had a point. I rarely left my room unless required, but even then, I lived most days in a foggy haze. I could feel myself slipping away, slowly losing interest in everything around me, but I couldn’t muster the energy to care.
“Just give it a chance,” she pleaded, “I’m worried about you.”
The first day of the conference provided no magical results, but on the second day, I had my “breakthrough.”
“I want you to turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them something you’ve never shared, or rarely shared, with anyone else. Share if you wish,” the moderator instructed in front of the crowd.
I sighed, turning to the frail, middle-aged woman beside me, her nametag reading “Gale.” “Well, my dad was arrested when I was in seventh grade,” I shrugged, “but that’s life,” I chuckled.
She didn’t laugh. “Are you angry at him?” she asked, peering at me.
I laughed again. “Well, no, not really. It’s not really his fault, you know?” Her eyebrows wrinkled. “If it’s not his fault, then whose fault is it?”
I stopped laughing, feeling the blood run from my face. She didn’t need a verbal response to know the answer.
“You know it’s not your fault, right?” she asked, placing her hand over mine. I laughed again, a nervous reaction, and looked down at my hands. “Well, yeah, I know that…”
“Sarena,” she said, and I looked up, meeting her eyes, “It wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault.”
I sat still for a moment, gripping the edges of my seat. I looked back at the moderator, then at Gale, then down at my hands. I felt my eyes become blurry and my throat tighten, and suddenly, I was running out of the lecture hall. I ran down a maze of hallways and plopped myself down on the floor, crouching in a ball in attempts to silence my weeping. Her words rang in my ears, and for the first time, I felt the weight of guilt released from my chest.
Later that afternoon, I called my mom. “I need to talk to you,” I rushed over the phone. “Mom, I’m so sorry. I blamed myself and you and Mommom all these years.” I could barely get the words out before the sobs took over my voice, and I held my hand over my mouth, shutting my eyes. “I thought I wasn’t good enough to make him stay…”
“Sarena, I’m so proud of you,” I could hear her own tears clogging her voice, “It was never your fault. It wasn’t any of our faults.”
It took me months to write him the letter, but once the words came, I couldn’t stop them. I took a deep breath, staring at the blank paper in front of me, “Dear Dad,” written at the top. I tapped my pen against my forehead, took another breath, then set pen to paper.
I blamed myself for you leaving for the past eight years, and only now have I finally realized it was your fault all along. You took those years away from me, and now I can never get that back. Didn’t you ever stop to think about how your actions would affect our family?…Your intentions do not justify the impact. How can I trust you to keep a promise when all you do is break them? You broke my heart before anyone else ever could…
The letter was nine pages long. Without reading it over, I put in an envelope and placed it in the mailbox.
“I read your letter. It made me depressed as fuck,” my father’s voice echoed over the phone line. I didn’t feel like apologizing anymore. “I’m such a shit dad, aren’t I?” he asked, tugging at my heartstrings, but this time, I didn’t take the bait.
“You hurt me a lot, Dad,” I decided, “and I never could tell you that, because I loved you too much.”
“I think about what I did to you every fucking day. I never wanted to hurt you, ever…” “I know, Dad,” I sighed, “but you did.”
There was a pause, then, “Do you hate me now?” I could hear the desperation in his voice.
I sighed again, tired of having to console him. “No, Dad, of course not.”
“Because you can, you know? I get it. But it’d break my heart. You’re the only reason I can make it through being here.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
I sighed, then answered my father’s call. I never saved the contact in my phone, but I recognize the 800 number as soon it appears on caller ID. I began pacing around my dorm room. “This is a call from the state correctional facility of Somerset. This call will be recorded…” the automatic voice cited.
“And monitored. To accept this call, press ‘5’ now…” I muttered under my breath, having the recording memorized after years of the same robot operator.
“Hey Snoogie! Can you believe it? I’m more than half-way over,” my father exclaimed over the phone, “only six more years to go!” I stopped in my tracks. “Wait, really?” “Yeah, last November was the eight-year mark.”
“That’s great, Dad…”
“I can’t wait to go on family trips and hang out with you when I’m out,” he rambled. “And how’s that comic-book class going? I’m glad you’re taking it because it’ll be good stuff to know when Cyber-Ant gets famous! You’ll help me get him published when I’m out, right?” “Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I murmured.
“You still believe in him, don’t you?” he pleaded.
“Yeah, Dad,” I reassured him, restoring his faith out of guilt.
“Oh, that’s great, Snoogie! We’re gonna make a great business team, just you and me. Cyber-Ant and Zarena are gonna make it big, I know it. Don’t worry, I’ll be out soon. I know it’s six more years, but we’re almost there.”
Six more years. The words jumped around in my brain. It’s already been eight years. “Man, that’s crazy…” I mumbled in the phone.
“I know. At first, it goes by really slowly, but then you look back and realize it’s been so long. It’s crazy how quickly time moves in here.”
About the Author
Sarena Pollock · Susquehanna University
Sarena Pollock graduated from Susquehanna University in 2020 with a BA in Creative Writing, where she was the recipient of the Gary and Elizabeth Fincke Outstanding Senior Portfolio Prize. She is the author of After the Impact (Chrysalis Press, 2019), and her work appears in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Albion Review, and Laurel Moon, among others.
About the Artist
Arjun Saatia · University of Central Arkansas
Arjun Saatia is an Indian-American graphic designer and illustrator based in central Arkansas. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art with an emphasis in graphic design from the University of Central Arkansas. This piece first appeared in Vortex.