You’d bring a puzzle home. The kind where you have to figure out how to separate metal links. You’d tell me you’d know my IQ by how long it took me to solve. I’d try for a few minutes before you couldn’t stand it any longer. You’d grab it from me. Show me how easy it was to solve. It was common sense. The implication was that you had a large IQ while I struggled with my tiny brain.
A few days later, I’d hear you on the phone or at the corner store, proudly describing how you “fucked with your kid.” How you played a “mind game” on me. How it took you hours to solve the puzzle. But you loved to mess with my head. The voice on the other end of the line would laugh. Or the man at the counter would slap your back. “That’s a good one,” they’d say.
It would always happen on a Saturday morning. I’d lay reading in bed when I’d hear you shout up the stairs. “If you get ready in five minutes, we can all go to Disneyland.” Your shouts would wake your six-year-old daughter in a panic. She’d look like she might start to cry but the possibility of Disneyland made her swallow her tears. Your youngest daughter would be already pulling off her pajamas and digging in a drawer for something to wear. She knew the drill. I’d beat them to the bathroom where our mother brushed our hair as we brushed our teeth.
Rushing downstairs, we’d find you in your recliner, the remote control on your thigh, the television just coming to life. “Six minutes and twenty seconds. No Disneyland today,” you’d say without looking at us. Disappointment would hang thick in the air as did tension. We wouldn’t dare cry or show sadness. Visible weakness would give you a new target. A new game to play. A new mind to fuck. So we stayed silent.
Or we would find you at the bottom of the stairs, tapping the side of your Casio watch, the one with the built-in calculator. “Four minutes twenty-five seconds. New world record,” you’d say. “Jump in the car.”
We’d walk out the door feeling triumphant, piling into the new brown Ford Aerostar you brought home one day—from where we did not know. You’d start to laugh. “You really thought we were going to Disneyland, didn’t you?” You’d leave us sitting in the car, laughing as you walked all the way back to the house.
Or maybe you’d start the car and pull out the driveway. The curve of the 5 freeway on-ramp would remind us of the rides we’d go on that day and we’d think to ourselves, “This is really happening.”
Halfway to Disneyland, the sign for Camping World would appear. We’d hold our breath, waiting to see if you’d say, “Let’s go to Camping World instead.” Inside we’d want to cry or plead, but we’d laugh, feigning a breezy manner as if we couldn’t care less whether we stopped or pressed on. It would feel like the pages of one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books we got from the library, but we were never the ones who got to choose.
You’d pull off the freeway. At Camping World we’d sit in a tent display staring at the floor for hours while you looked through fishing rods and camp stoves. For trips you’d never take us on. You didn’t even like to fish. We would wait. We would listen. We would stay alert. We would hope you wouldn’t make a scene or get in a fight with an employee or customer. At least we could hide in the tent until you were finished.
Why did you do it? Did it make you feel smart? Did you like the feeling of being in control? Was it easier to cause pain than to feel whatever made you like this?
None of us would ever speak to each other during the “games.” We would follow Mom’s lead and wait quietly. She would never console or comfort. She would never distract us with a game of our own.
We wouldn’t look each other in the eye. We wouldn’t tell each other it would be okay. We lived in our own minds, counting seconds, cars on the road, miles on the freeway, customers walking by.
Maybe when you finally came to get us from our tent, you’d say you were too tired to go to Disneyland. We’d return to the car and drive home.
Or you might say, “Alright, let’s go.”
Or maybe you wouldn’t even stop at Camping World at all. You’d just laugh and say, “Just kidding.” And we’d continue down the 5 to the happiest place on earth.
If we made it to Disneyland, the game would be over—for now. We won. Disneyland would be our prize. Our family would pull into the crowd of families, each happier than our own, until we became part of the mass, indistinguishable from the others. For a few hours, we would be content. We would pretend we were normal, if normal was wanting to be with you.
We began to play these games in our minds, whether you were there or not. We wouldn’t trust each other. We wouldn’t trust ourselves. We would live alone in those minds, with our whispers of doubt. We knew that even if we were perfect, we couldn’t choose our fate in this world. We were just along for the ride.
You should be proud. In the end, you won. That’s the best mind fuck of all.