For the first years after the divorce, my dad flew up from Florida and I rode Amtrak from Baltimore and we met at home, in Wilmington, bunking with my grandparents through Christmas in their dark white house on Woods Road, whose brick back patio was permanently caked with ash and dried leaves. Through panels of tall windows in the family room you could see the patio and the hill steeping to train tracks half a mile below. When the local freights came through every 90 minutes, the house didn’t quite rumble, just shivered.
There was a kind of fraternity hanging with my dad one-on-one. We stayed up in the living room after everyone went to bed, watching movies, too restless and lonely to sleep ourselves. The early evenings always accommodated a stop off at Blockbuster and 7-Eleven, where my dad bought a pint of Cherry Garcia (I now know how weird that is–for most people Cherry Garcia is the last resort Ben & Jerry’s flavor). I liked the time we rented The Pink Panther, because we could both understand the humor and it was a relief to know that my dad, usually so stoic, could belly-laugh. And when his laugh slowed, he smiled at me brightly, the weathered lines on his handsome, tanned face deepening.
We had a favorite movie, too: Contact with Jodi Foster. Her character travels to space alone and rediscovers the father she lost as a child on a fantastic alien beach. I can’t remember how many times we watched it. My dad’s love for the movie left me feeling like the way to reconnect with him would mean sacrifice; leaving Earth and everyone else behind. I started saying that I wanted to be an astronaut, and the following year my grandfather bought me a mini-telescope.
Usually it was movies of this nature that we picked—uber-dramas or really inane comedy. But one year, during the Christmas Break of third grade, we were roaming among the racks and my dad picked up a VHS box. Poltergeist! I remember how eagerly he said it. When I hear adult friends of mine say that the original Poltergeist is their favorite scary movie, I have to assume they enjoy it for the same reasons my dad undoubtedly did—nostalgia, the elements of camp noticeable to an adult, that maybe add a humor and a remove to the experience. But I was eight. Watching a little boy get sucked in by the carnivorous tree outside his window only confirmed my worst suspicions about what was really possible during a dark night.
Having seen the movie just once, I can tell you without Googling a thing what the little girl says through wild static when she’s trapped inside the TV: “Mommy… Where are you… There’s someone here with me!” The fear that rose like a fever when I watched Poltergeist at eight years old comes back in a pale wave when I even think of that part, 18 years later.
So why didn’t I say something as we were watching and I became sick with fear? Here’s the thing. Those hours with my father were my most coveted moments: at that age I saw him 24 to 72 hours a year, and, save a few drives here and there, this was the only time when it was just us two. He liked to sing me the song “Blue Moon”. I remember wondering once how often blue moons came around, and if it was more often than he did.
When Poltergeist was mercifully over, the tape ran out and a screen full of black and white static popped up. The sound and sight of it brought the worst part of the movie back, full force. I launched into a series of questions, “Has that ever happened?” “But do you think it could ever?” “Do you believe in the Devil?” “But Mom-Mom and Dada are Catholic do they believe in Him?” And while I was baiting him, investigating just how much danger there really was in the world, my dad’s face became more and more drawn. I hugged my knees, the blanket thrown off as if to shed light on my own body, to keep it undisguised, and my dad was a shadow, standing tall in front of the bookshelf where the TV was situated and glowing behind him.
I’m sure he had answers to my questions. But what I learned from Poltergeist, my first (and for many years) only scary movie, was that adults are unsuspecting and oblivious; that kids are in touch with the evil pulse of the world; that innocence is not only inevitably lost—as Persephone is to Hades—but the only time when a person has no fear; that bad things happened to good people.
The following day, my dad flew home. Mom scooped me up, and we drove back to Baltimore in the white Toyota, to the apartment across from Johns Hopkins that was her graduate student housing. If you have ever moved and then shortly thereafter visited home, you know that returning to the new place can be deregulating. The first night after Poltergeist and without my dad, I looked for somewhere safe in my mind and I couldn’t find it; I looked for somewhere safe in my new bedroom and I couldn’t find it. When I slept the nightmares started almost instantly. I think the movie Wedding Crashers has probably stripped “night terrors” of its gravity, but that’s what I had. I woke up screaming for three weeks. Finally—a measure of my mom’s frustration and heartache—she called my father late at night and put him on the phone with me. The only communication they’d had at that time was via lawyer – she’d put the key in the little gold mailbox in the lobby and draw out letters that said things like ‘Brown & Bentham & Johnson’, sighing.
I ran desperately with the cordless house phone into the little bathroom next to her study, which my mom called the Maid’s Bathroom. I had never seen a maid except for on TV, but I felt safer in there, as if nothing could happen to me in a space that had once belonged to a proper person with a tight bun and an apron. I sat on the toilet seat with my head in my hands and the phone so close to my left ear that it buzzed. Whenever you need me, baby, I will be there for you. Tell me what’s wrong. I’m here. I cut him off–so nervous I could taste acid in my throat–and asked in a whisper: Can you come and get me? And in devastated compassion he told me the truth: No. Not now.
The streak of nightmares stopped, and the months that followed were strange. I “stole” a girl in my class from her best friend and scheduled play-dates with her constantly, all the time convincing her that she was really a witch and possessed. That I was, too, and that dark magic was real. One afternoon, I told her that the Devil was dressed like a vampire and lived in my closet. We got so worked up, we didn’t dare leave my bed and risk setting our feet on the ground. When her dad picked her up that day, she was air lifted out of there.
When I was manipulating my friend, trying to pry away her innocence, I felt better. But on my own, I felt a dullness surrounding me. It seemed impudent to be happy, knowing what I knew after Poltergeist. Unsafe. So I developed a new strategy: instead of being a target, as a good, happy person (because bad things would happen to me), I would try being bad, as an experiment. See how sharp the edges were.
My mom and I were in the apartment for several more months before she had a job offer that took us to New York, but before we left, I had a final sinister dream that remains as vivid and clear as my own reflection:
I am Little Red Riding Hood, walking through the forest with my basket in hand. In my right periphery, skirting the forest and also headed for Grandmother’s house, is The Wolf. I smirk because I know the story; that he will meet me there and try to eat me. I continue to Grandmother’s house, thinking that with knowledge I can outsmart him. So distracted am I by this thought that I don’t see the blue alien in front of me until it’s two feet away. On the outside, the alien isn’t so menacing. Just, alien. Blue, thin, pointed head and bug-eyed. He doesn’t speak and neither do I, but I reposition myself to look right at him. I think, if I bare my teeth and become terrifying, he will not hurt me, because he’ll be afraid. And so I bare my teeth. A moment later, the alien opens his jaw wide to reveal two rows of huge daggered teeth, and his black eyes are saying that he sees through me to the fear at my core. I know I’m about to be eaten, and I wake up.