Monsters Under the Bed
(Transcript from the podcast The Second Page, for the theme "Monsters Under the Bed")
There were no monsters under my bed. There were no monsters in my closet, though sometimes at night I imagined there was a vampire, suspended upside down by his toes from the same rack that by day concealed my sunday school bests. What these crawlspaces did offer, though, was a temporary refuge when I was afraid. While other children feared some otherworldly being would reach out from under their mattress at night, I knew it was a small space…one that my quasi-emaciated, double-jointed body could climb under and warp my arms, legs, and spine into, becoming part of the bedsprings..
This was no place, though, for solace. This was a place for me to be fearful, and hope I was safe. Everyone checked under the bed in hide and go seek, but I could not quickly emerge, quickly unfurl my limbs. My closet offered no Narnia.
The first time I hid a bed was when I realized, to my horror, that my father could imitate the voice of Disney’s Maleficent flawlessly. As an adult, when I hear her icy “well!” I almost think of my father’s untapped potential as a Disney villain drag queen, but as a child I very honestly believed my father was being temporarily possessed, with the intent to find me, choke me, dismember me, burn me in ethereal green flames. The worst result for both of us was a rough hug and my father’s eyeache from staring, never blinking, into the depths of my being, but five year old Seán never stopped fearing for his life or his soul. These episodes would come at random, when I least expected them. My father would be mid-phrase in a ragtime tune on the piano, me somersaulting on the floor nearby in time, when suddenly the music would cease and my father’s head would turn to stare at me. “Well!”
Terror. Abject terror in that way that adults would never realize or be able to distinguish before it hit. I’d pull myself up and run up the stairs as fast as I could, recognizing my father was barely moving, inching his steps slowly toward me. I could not resist. I doubled back, peeked, calm again and intrigued. NOPE. NOPE. NOT OKAY. LOOK AT THOSE EYES. RUN. I’d run up a few more steps, stop, turn around. SLOW BUT TERRIFYING. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. DO YOU WANT TO LIVE TO BE SIX OR NOT. FOOL!
My bed at the time was not lofted, so I ran into my father’s room instead, with enough space underneath that there was a little stepstool nearby to let me climb up into bed with my parents when I had a nightmare or wanted pancakes at 6:00am. I would toss it aside and crawl to the back, a triangle space that my parents were much too large to reach, and I would wait. As I steeled myself, I would crawl back and peek out, where sometimes I would nearly pee myself when looking up I would be face to face with my father’s face (“Well!”), and sometimes I would collapse in relief as his eyes went back to normal and I saw his loving adoration again (I would cling to his leg and tell him it had happened again and that I was so glad he was back, and he would act like had no idea what was going on, but his smile and wink gave himself away).
I returned to the closet, and under the bed, as a young adult. There were many things to be afraid of in my family. In retrospect, I am immensely fortunate to have come from a family where physical abuse was not a possibility. I’ve heard harrowing stories from some of my friends, other Oberlin alumni, about flashes of violence that ruined their lives and the lives of their siblings. My parents did not do this. They were in, however, a marriage entirely out of necessity. At some point after my younger brother was born, it became very clear that my parents were not meant to be together. They became completely inept at communicating together whenever a topic involved their opinions, egos, or any conflict. As a sixth grade student enrolled in a series of peer meditation seminars, it became startlingly clear that no technique would get them to speak rationally to one another. If I pulled them apart and caucused with them (and let me pause for a moment of levity here to admit, yes, I used the phrase “separate and caucus” regularly in middle school, and yes, I was the target of a lot of harassment, not all of which was completely unwarranted), they had a tendency to redirect their frustration and anger at me.
I, on the other hand, was not to show emotion. A good Southern man does not cry around his friends or family, but does so (if at all) discretely, does not speak of it, nor his emotional anguish. So at some point in high school these two roles, soundboard for a broken marriage and stolid straight man who would become a breadwinner for future grandchildren, collided. I returned to my bed. Unable to fit under the bed more than halfway now, I turned to the closet and carefully checked it for sleeping vampires. Then I stepped in, kneeled on the piles of sleeping bags, closed the door, and wept.
This wasn’t the first space. At first, I cried openly, and inevitably took the brunt force of being told to stop, repeatedly, that it was not helping, that it was all within my control. This never helped. Sometimes, I hid under the stairs in the basement, where my screams into my balled up hoodie would be muffled. Other days, I took my dog out on a walk through the forest that bordered the land across the road, where I’d find solitude and would let loose not barbaric yawps, but queer, fragile ones. But the cold set in in the fall, and I was seen pacing in the basement when my father came down to do loads of laundry. Other times, I was simply grounded, unable to leave. The pile of blankets in the dark became my solace, only for extreme days, when I could muster the energy to leave pillow forts built for protection, but could not bear to leave my room.
It ended, though, abruptly. I don’t know what triggered that particular episode. Part was undoubtedly my father’s anger over what would someday become a divorce, manifesting itself in inane demands of his children instead. Another part was knowing, inside, that I had been raised my entire life to hide who I was (a gay, emotional man, capable of transgressions, who made mistakes). At some point I realized I had lived much of my adolescence in a double life; this horrible waste of a human being that I was in this closet was richer and more fulfilling a life than the perfect Christian role model I embodied around company and adults.
Then, weeping silently in the pile of sheets, pillows, guest blankets…my father opened the door and saw me trembling in the fetal position on the floor, a nearly grown 16-year-old man. I yelled at him to leave me alone, to go away, that I needed space. He yelled louder, and shamed me. I forget what happened next, how I managed to break out from the closet and past my father’s grasp, how I found myself walking for half a mile into a park adjacent the trails I ran along with my dog, sat in the dark on the curb, calling my friend Jacqueline and this straight man named Andy, one year my senior, who I wanted nothing more than to be—rebellious, in the eyes of my parents, but independent, in my own. And the first male body that I came close to that made me tingle with sexual desire and lust, desire and lust I swallowed silently when we changed for band competitions or sat around when he smoked, talking about bodily fluids found on his girlfriends’ living room curtains and exactly how they came to arrive there.
I bawled until Jacqueline’s beat up car (celebrate diversity bumper sticker peeling off the back bumper—a welcome sight in a conservative Kentucky town) pulled up alongside me. There was at least one hug. We ate waffles at a rundown Waffle House about ten miles away, twilight having turned into full darkness, my confidants instilling in me the knowledge that I would someday be independent, gone, and my parents would be sorry for missing the adult me, and I would blossom into a powerful being, capable of greater empathy than the quiet polite gentlemen that had been my role models.
Then, they dropped me off a while from my home, as I’d been banned from seeing these friends ever again some months earlier, and I walked home, to my punishment, and worse, the steely silence that would wedge itself between myself and my family for the rest of time. My father and I eventually grew closer, warmer, though there are many things I do not discuss with him. My mother and I grew further apart, physically when she moved to New Zealand after leaving our family, emotionally when she and I stopped speaking. That space is still there, and I don’t think it will ever die. But Andy and Jacqueline were right— though I don’t speak to them any longer, nor have any idea who they have become, I am the man they described to me that night, the boy who overcame his monsters by running away from them until one night, when he grew up.