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On Werewolves and Vampires

One of the last times I saw my dad, we planned to walk a few blocks from my St. Louis apartment to get pizza. It was late May but already sweltering, and I was eight months pregnant. My toddler, Becca, was only one and glued to my side most of the time, weary of my growing belly and new furniture and car seats showing up. I had just landed a job as a professor, so I was fairly happy but also careful as usual around my temperamental father.

He was always quiet around me; I did most of the talking, and that day was no different. When he rang the bell, he already looked exasperated that I didn’t answer within 15 seconds. I still needed to find my keys and my daughter’s shoes, which I knew he wouldn’t like. I started chattering mindlessly about our day at the park, sing-songy in tone, trying to uplift the mood.

When I was a teenager, I listened to The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” quite a bit, and felt that the song nailed him:

“No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man,
to be the sad man,
Behind blue eyes.
No one knows what it’s like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies.”

Growing up, our house was governed by his set of rules, and breaking the rules brought sudden, sharp consequences. One couldn’t open a can of Coke or take a bite of banana without finishing it. One couldn’t leave a pair of shoes out. One could never touch the wallpaper. Spilling milk was a crime, despite the idiom.

Because he never said more than a few sentences to me even though we lived in the same house for 17 years, he had been a mystery to me as a child: What had his parents been like? Why was he an accountant? Did he believe in God? Why was he so strict? Why didn’t he ever talk to his two sisters? I never found answers, and eventually I stopped wanting to know.

The one chance I had to discover something was the time I met one of his sisters when I was 27. I waited for her at a restaurant and finally saw a worried looking woman approach the door and then change her mind, deciding to go back to her car. I ran after her. “Are you Anne?” I asked. She nodded. “Let’s go back to the restaurant,” I said. What was this woman so hesitant about when it came to her brother? I still don’t know, but I realized she cared little about forging a relationship with my brother and me.

Eventually by the time I had a baby, it grew clear that my dad and I were never going to understand each other, but perhaps we could get a slice of pizza together once in a while. The only thing we have in common is that we both run every day, in snow or sleet or ice. Whereas he is a stoic vampire, I am an emoting werewolf, all howl and bark and bite.

That day, though, he bared his vampire fangs at me, and I bared my teeth at him. Once I put my daughter’s shoes on, grabbed my wallet and shut the door, I could feel the heat emanating from him. Finally, it became clear that he thought my one-year old was walking too slow. He grabbed her hand from mine, and started walking quickly with her, forcefully, and she fell. He dragged her on the sidewalk, and her knee began bleeding. My firstborn, also a werewolf, was never one to suffer in stony silence and the entire street could now hear her wails. I caught up to them and picked her up. I stood as tall as I could, even though he still towered over me. I started screaming, and this was never my style with this man. Brooding in silence, jogging until my nipples bled or my toenails fell off, sneaking a cigarette, that was my style. Screaming in public at a man I feared for half my life, not my style. I screamed that I forgave him for being abusive with me, but that I would not allow him to act this way with her. He refrained from speech and movement, his face oddly blank and expressionless, while I winced noticing bystanders turning to stare at us: a weeping child and a very pregnant woman howling at an aging man.

In Judaism, we ponder forgiveness each year, fasting and atoning for our sins. Forgiving is thought to be a mitzvah, a divine command. I wish I was strong enough for all of this, but I still may not be.

A few weeks ago, I used the word “abuse” in a conversation with my mother and she denied the word, saying that it did not apply to her, nor did it apply to me or our fam-ily. I stared her down across the table and understood that this was something she needed to believe.

But I don’t believe it. Abuse is a word that most people don’t want to hear, most people don’t want to think about, but I am going to keep saying it until I don’t need to say it anymore.

All my life I ran after words, and he gave me none of them, but I found them an-yway. In many ways, this is why I am a feminist. So I can use the words. So I can look him in the eye at my brother’s upcoming wedding and introduce him to his grandchildren. It was the words of the women writers, the sisters, the mothers I read for so many years that strengthened me that moment on the sidewalk when I was 32, and I will always thank them for that.

– Jamie Wagman’s work has previously appeared in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues and The Adirondack Review, among other places. She teaches Gender and Women’s Studies and American History at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana.

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