This memoir excerpt was written by Alana Woerpel in Catapult’s first 12-Month Novel Generator graduating class
. Over the course of sixteen months, the author encounters information that forces her to face her own complicated past and and to negotiate an imperfect present. Rape, violence, abuse, secrets, truth, politics, marriage, motherhood- all must be held up to the light. It’s a story of how we survive, even when survival is tenuous at best. And beyond mere survival, this is a book abouthowwe choose to live.
I can see things that others can’t.
It makes me good at my job as an interior designer.I can walk into an ugly room and see its potential for beauty.I know where to remove walls and where to add windows and doors.I can intuit what fabrics and furnishings will appeal to a person, sometimes even before I’ve met them in person. If I think hard enough I can choose an outfit for a meeting and wind up dressed almost identically to my client.
There are other things I sense, like the energy of a place or a person, both the good and and the bad. I once had a difficult client who couldn’t commit to a design scheme, no matter how many choices I presented to her. In the middle of yet another frustrating meeting, I suddenly felt terror seeping like a toxic gas from her pores, terror not in having to make expensive choices and live with them, but terror that her social peers might find her choices lacking. Another time I was hired by a dapper gentleman to decorate an important historic estate.Most meetings he would take charge. At the first meeting in which I’m alone with the wife, I notice her hands fluttering when she talks about her husband’s expectations with the decor and I’m suddenly struck with the knowledge that her button-downed husband abuses her.I don’t want to ‘know’ these things, feel this energy.But from an early age my experiences began tuning me, tightening the strings of my being, making me sensitive to the slightest shift in the air around me.
It began on a Halloween night when I was four. My mother had just picked up me and my two year old sister, Gwendolyn, from the woman who watched us while my mother worked.On the way home I chattered on about trick-or-treating, about my costume, about the candy I would get.We lived in a poorer section of Rochester, New York, on a street that dead-ended into Lake Ontario, where the lake’s frigid winds coiled and lashed up our road like an angry viper.My mother pulled up the car and began gathering my sister and some bags to carry to the house.I ran ahead, charging into our shotgun-styled house, where one room opened onto the next in succession, like a telescope from the street-front to the alley in back.“Daddy,” I called.“Daddy, we’re home.”I found him in the second room, on the floor, in a shiny slick of dark burgundy.
“Mommy,” I cried, “come look!Daddy’s playing a Halloween trick on us.”
I didn’t know I was supposed to scream until my mother did.When I howled my sister joined in.My mother shoved us through the telescoping rooms to the kitchen at the end of the house.There we stayed,my sister and I planted atop the counter near the phone while our mother made the calls, half-speaking, half sobbing.I remember a family friend showed up first, a man with ginger hair in tight curls and wide sideburns to match, a usually jolly man whose presence seemed incongruous in our grief-stricken kitchen.
That’s where the concrete memories stop for a spell. There’s a brief scene, a gray day in a wintry meadow with rolling hills.But it’s not a meadow.I’m looking down at a grave marker.Though I will not be able to read its words until I return next over three decades later, the dates etched in stone say that the man below lived twenty three years.What they don’t say is that he took his own life with a shotgun and and left behind a beautiful wife and two little girls.
I don’t remember our mother taking us to Florida just a couple of months later to visit my father’s parents who were wintering in Florida.I don’t remember our mother meeting a man named Patrick there, nor do I recall being introduced to him.But it must have happened, because they were engaged within days of meeting in the apartment complex’s laundry room.It was my grandmother’s doing.While she and my mother tackled our laundry, my grandmother noticed the handsome young man was stuffing baby cloths into the machines.He left once the machine began their cycles, prompting my grandmother to bet my mom that he’d return with a cold beer in his hand.He did.
“Your wife must be happy to have a husband who helps with the laundry,” my grandmother ventured.
The good looking guy with the beer in his hand answered.There was no wife.She had died, leaving him and two sons.
Concrete memories begin again in the family room of a brick rancher on a cul-de-sac in Sandy Springs, a suburb of Atlanta.I wake to a family room with a raised red-brick hearth.A player piano dominates the most prominent wall, cardboard tubes stashed above it, holding scrolls that will make the keys dip and twang of their own volition. Wide sliding glass doors open to a patio.I’m asked to stand at attention in front of a strange man.
He recites a litany of words, “Dad. Daddy. Pop. Poppa. Father. Sir.You may address me by any of these.But you may NOT call me Patrick.Not anymore.”I couldn’t fathom why I was standing there.And I certainly didn’t remember ever calling this man anything, let alone Patrick.
It was April, barely six months after our father’s death, and my mother had married and moved the three of us to Atlanta. Instantly I was the eldest in a family of four children.People compared us to the Brady Bunch, a popular TV show back then about two families that become one.Patrick had two boys from a first wife who had died suddenly the past year from an embolism to the brain, a side effect from hormone rich birth control pills.The youngest boy, Thomas, was one.In a strange but fortuitous coincidence, the older son, Pat Jr or P.J., was born on the same day in the same year as my little sister.Patrick adopted Gwendolyn and me.His name replaced our real father’s on our birth certificates.They created the illusion that we’d always been a family.The coincidence of the birthday allowed Gwendolyn and P.J. to become instant ‘twins.’ The fiction worked largely because my younger siblings had no memories of their previous lives.My parents went on to have three more children together in quick succession, all boys.
I was the only one who remembered that we had a life before, the only one who could dispute the fictionalized version. I carried the knowledge alone until I was eight or nine.I don’t recall what prompted me, but one night as my sister and I lay pre-sleep in our shared room, I whispered across the dark canyon between our twin beds.
“You know, Gwyn, Patrick’s not our real dad.”
She didn’t reply right away.I wondered if she was sleeping.Then she replied tentatively, “You’re teasing me, Alana. Don’t.”
“No, I’m not teasing.He’s not our dad.You and me, we had another one.In Rochester, New York.His name was Jimmy.And he died from a gun on Halloween night.Don’t you remember?”Silence.“P.J. and Thomas aren’t our real brothers.And the others are only half-brothers.”
“No, I don’t remember.I really don’t.I don’t remember Rochester or another dad.” She was crying.
“I’m sorry, Gwynnie” I said.“I thought you remembered, even just a little.”
In a tiny voice, my little sister asks, “If Patrick isn’t our dad and P.J. isn’t my brother, then how can we be twins?” I don’t know how to answer.
We’re quiet for a minute, then Gwyn asks in a voice even smaller than before, “Is October 4th even my real birthday?”
I feel guilty for breaking the news so harshly and realize I need to assure her, even as her questions were opening new sinkholes of uncertainty for me. Could birth dates be faked?
“I think so.” I say. “I’m pretty sure you guys were both born on that day.”
While growing up I never stopped feeling badly for shattering the only reality my little sister had known to that point.But decades later Gwendolyn would tell me that this knowledge saved her life.That Patrick was no blood kin to us would be a tenuous lifeline to which she and I clung through hard times.
Alana Woerpel has been a mother, a wife, and an interior decorator for over twenty five years in Charlottesville, Virginia.