The number 9, on a sticker, stuck to the side of a red radio/cassette player. The number is my age. It is there to distinguish my radio from my brother’s identical radio. They are gifts from my mother. My mother left me. I listen to my cassettes in my bed at night. I have to punch the radio to get the left and right channels to play in sync. It’s a cheap radio. My stepmother yells, What is going on in there? I can’t punch the radio anymore. I either listen to the bizarre delay between channels in my earbuds, or I stop listening to it altogether.
I don’t like to listen to the radio. I listen to albums. Experimental bands. It can drive Carol mad so I listen to the classics and a favourite band of ours when she’s in the car.
In the 1990’s, I sit in an empty house, playing the new CD of this band, holding the booklet in hand, following the lyrics and singing along. At the other end of the city, Carol lies in her basement bedroom, listening to that CD. Her favourite band. One of my favourites.
In 2018, Carol has to pay back Rick for his tickets to see OFB (our favourite band). I tell her to make sure to shortchange him.
In 2015, Carol and I see OFB and spend over a hundred dollars on beer. We would’ve been best friends in high school, Carol says, drunkenly. We both love OFB so much!
In the year 2000, in preparation for exams, I destroy a radio with a baseball bat. It feels good to destroy something, to make something look how I feel. After exams, I pack up and go home. My dad meets me at my car. He says, I’m sorry but you can’t come home. You and your stepmother never got along well and I think it’s best that you go somewhere else. Your mother has room for you.
Now she has room for me.
I was never a happy child and I feel guilty because comparatively, my childhood wasn’t all that bad. The fact remains, in a world where dads leave their wives and children, it was my mother who left. My mother who I saw on the odd weekend. Her dingy little apartment downtown. She worked many part-time jobs as she struggled to make ends meet. I’d bike around town, visiting stores with pennies in my pocket, trying find enough to buy a single gummy bear. Eventually, I gave up on penny pinching and stole from my parents or swiped the merchandise from the store.
Road trip time. Where are we going, mom? To visit my boyfriend in jail. Let that be a lesson to you kids: don’t drink and drive.
I’m parked outside a liquor store past midnight. The police pull me out of the car. They take me to the station. Shut up, is the officer’s answer to all my questions. He says I’m blowing way over. For some reason, he decides to drive me home. The address I tell him to go to doesn’t match the one on my driver’s license. It’s my mother’s house, I say. I’m no longer welcome at my father’s.
Mom finds me a difficult son to live with. I work and I drink. I have an on again off again relationship with Marie, a cheater. Mom tells me to stay away from her. I can’t. If I stay away, I’ll be alone. Mom gives me the silent treatment. I call dad. I need to get out of here, I say. Mom finally talks to me. It appears that dad called her. You lied to me, mom says, so I was upset.
They all lie to me. Mom lied to me, Marie lied to me, Carol lied to me.
In 2018, mom says people make mistakes. You must try to make it work with Carol. Mom made the same mistake. She cheated on dad with a loser. A stupid, drunken loser. I learn that I married my mom. Carol says she married my dad, not her dad. My dad knew to move on, though. My dad lives in a big house. He doesn’t have to work anymore. He takes vacations. Mom is past retirement age and has to keep working, no vacations, ever. She says she can leave her boyfriend anytime. She’s not attached to him. Dad is attached to his wife. His wife does everything. She’s like his mother but not quite. His mother was vicious.
Stop crying, you little baby, says grandma. I can’t. How can she be so mean? I want to go home. Home is right across the road. But still, I know I’ll really be in for it if I run home. I hide in the garage.
I’m 17 years old and grandma lies on the hospital bed. What do you need for your music career? She asks. I’ll buy it for you. How is Anna? Anna is my first real girlfriend. She has never hurt me, never betrayed me. She has a calm demeanour. She never raises her voice at me but she also won’t ever disagree with me. She’s too agreeable for the sake of keeping me happy. She is losing her identity. I will leave her soon. I can’t stand that feeling in the pit of my stomach when I am around her. I have to end it.
Grandma dies and I buy the piece of music gear for myself. It sits in my basement today, in my little recording studio. I end my relationship with Anna. I did not cheat and I wasn’t pursuing another girl. I did the right thing. I miss her but all we could ever have was that one year together. It wasn’t meant to last.
It’s the year 2001 and I see Anna at the bar. She’s more beautiful than she was in high school. I’m sorry, I tell her. I’m sorry if I treated you poorly. You didn’t treat me badly, she says. After you, I had a boyfriend who hit me. He treated me badly. I’m so sorry, I say. I hope you find someone special, I say. I’m sorry it couldn’t be me, I think to myself.
Mom, stepmom, grandma, Marie, Carol, they all hurt me. They are women in my life that hurt me. They are not all women. I know this because Anna didn’t hurt me. I know there are more Anna’s in the world. I know many women are hurt by men, but I also know not all men hurt women. I know this because I don’t hurt women. There are more Jack’s in the world too.
If a man who does not hurt women finds a woman who does not hurt men, all would be right in their world.
They would be a team, not opponents.
They could handle anything together.
Be devoted to me. I promise I’ll be devoted to you.
Please, before this bitter world turns me from Jack to Joe.
A grin widens on a bearded face. You can’t keep me hidden away forever.