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Roxy's Story

V. C. Andrews

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  “You see the door?” my father asked, pointing his thick right forefinger at the entrance of our East Side town house in New York City. “Pack your things and get out. Go on, get out,” he added, poking his finger in the air repeatedly, as if he were trying to hit the invisible button that would make me disappear.

  Mama stood next to him looking even more terrified than I did, her beautiful cameo face shattering beneath the storm of his rage. She was always easier to read than I was. I never showed my father fear, cowered, or retreated, which only made him angrier. In fact, my defiance usually grew stronger as the volume and intensity of his anger boiled over like hot milk. There was simply no middle ground for either of us to occupy, no well of compromise from which either of us could draw a cup of calmness. Ironically, I was too much like him.

  “You think I won’t?” I fired back.

  “No. I think you had better,” he replied with a level of determination I had never seen him reach. There was no hesitation in his eyes and nothing that suggested an empty threat. This time, there was no doubt that he meant what he had said and how he had said it.

  I glanced at Mama again. She looked far more surprised at his firmness than I had ever seen her look. She confirmed his determination for me. She could see that Papa wasn’t simply having one of his spontaneous temper tantrums. Her eyes were wide open now, her lips trembling. In fact, her whole face looked as if it was vibrating as she paled. She even stepped away from him. I had no doubt that throughout their twenty years of marriage, she had never confronted or witnessed such fury in him and had no idea what else he might do. We had been circling each other like two martial-arts warriors for months lately. This confrontation was inevitable.

  “Yes, sir,” I said, then clicked my black leather shoe boot heels together and saluted him. The proper way to salute was one of the first things he had taught me when I was a little girl. After he taught that to me, emphasizing how smart and snappy it had to be, with my palm to the left, my wrist straight, and my thumb and fingers extended and joined, I saluted him every time I saw him. In the beginning, even he was satisfied, and Mama thought it was cute, but after a while, he saw that I was really mocking the salute, doing it so often, practically every time he looked at me, and he began to be annoyed by it and eventually forbade me to do it.

  Now whenever I did it, especially with my heels clicking, it was as though I had set off a firecracker in his brain. At the moment, the veins in his neck pressed boldly against his skin. Pea-size patches of white at the corners of his lips began to spread like a rash. He looked as if he had swollen into some horrid ogre who could heave me and all of the furniture out the window.

  My father wasn’t a terribly big man. He was a little more than six feet tall and had broad shoulders, but he didn’t look like a weight lifter or a lumberjack. Having been brought up in a military family, he had a cadet’s perfect posture, so he always seemed solid and battle-ready, even though he had rejected the military life and had gone into investment management and financing.

  His father was General Thornton Wilcox, who was once considered a top candidate to command NATO. The gilt-framed two-by-four picture of my grandfather in full dress uniform with all of his medals glittering hung in our entryway hall and loomed over us the way the picture of a saint might hover in the home of a religious family. The light positioned above it seemed to highlight the dissatisfaction I had no trouble imagining in his face. My father’s older brother, Orman, had followed in his father’s footsteps, but not mon père.

  Even though no one came right out and said it, I knew that in my grandfather’s mind, my father was a great disappointment. I knew that both my grandfather and my uncle ridiculed my father’s decision, treating him as if he were somehow weaker than they were, and in a family where affection and emotion were considered weakness to start with, his father and brother had little trouble thinking of him as an outsider.

  I never saw him or my mother shed any tears at how his father and his brother treated him, but there was no question about where he stood in their eyes. Even though no one clearly had said, “You’re not one of us; you’re no Wilcox,” the words hung in the air between them like some foul odor whenever they had occasion to meet, which was happening less and less, anyway.

  So I guess that pointing at the front door and telling me I was no longer part of our family wasn’t all that big an emotional leap for my father. His family had all but done the same to him. That old expression, It takes one to know one, probably fit him, but I’m not laying all the blame at his feet. I’m not looking for some psychological rationalization or a comfortable excuse for what I had done and what was now happening.

  No, I’m not going to deny being the top choice to model for a problem-child poster. Mon père had threatened to disown me many times and had suggested more than once that I be sent to one of those isolated behavior camps to experience tough love, but I really didn’t want to believe that he would actually reach the point where he would firmly and permanently want me out of his life the way he obviously did at this moment.

  I looked at Mama again to see if she would interfere and rescue me. She appeared to be wilting quickly in the wake of my father’s overwhelming rage. As if she were trying to keep her body from breaking apart, she wrapped her arms tightly around herself. She looked like someone in a straitjacket. No, there was no sign of my getting any help there. This time, she wasn’t going to step between us as she had many times previously. I knew that especially lately, she was coming to believe that I was irretrievable, too.

  No matter what the reason, opposing my father was one of the most difficult things for her to do. She was about as devoted to him as any woman could be devoted to her husband. From overhearing conversations between her and some of her friends, I knew that she was constantly accused of having no mind of her own and permitting my father to run her life. But I also knew that my father had convinced her that I could be a devastatingly bad influence on my little sister, Emmie, his and Mama’s golden child, their enfant parfaite, and that possibility also caused her to stand back.

  They weren’t even supposed to have Emmie. After my difficult birth, Mama’s doctor had advised her not to get pregnant again. I didn’t know all of the medical reasons, but I did know that her getting pregnant, even nine years after my birth, was a dangerous thing for her to do. When I heard she was pregnant, my first thought was that my father wanted another child because he was so disappointed in me. He wanted this child so much that he was willing to risk my mother’s life. If I had any doubts about how low I stood in his list of priorities, Mama’s pregnancy confirmed it. Every time he closed his eyes in my presence, I suspected that he was wishing I had never been born.

  “Norton, s’il vous plaît,” Mama said softly. That was the extent of her resistance that day. She came from a family in France where men were treated like kings. That’s where the Napoleonic Code established the supremacy of the husband when it came to his wife and children.

  “No!” he screamed at her. “No more. I want her out of my sight.”

  His shout bounced off the walls and rattled my spine, but I didn’t show it.

  “No problem,” I said. “Relax. The feeling’s mutual,” I added as coolly and calmly as I could, and went to pack my things, sucking in my fear and shock. As I walked by him, I thought I could actually feel the heat in the air.

  When I was honest with
myself, I admitted that I had always expected this day would come. Secretly, I had planned for it, hoarding money, considering what I would take and what I wouldn’t and where I would go first. My parents didn’t know, but I had recently been seeing a college boy who had his own apartment in the Bronx. He was always trying to get me to stay overnight, and I had done so once, lying about sleeping over at a girlfriend’s home. Now maybe I would stay for quite a few nights.

  As I packed, I heard them arguing downstairs. Comments such as “You remember we were told that tough love was our only hope” and “Let her see what it’s like trying to survive out there” floated up the stairs to my room. I could imagine my mother wringing her hands as she chanted, “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu.” That wouldn’t impress my father. Calling for God’s help was something a soldier did in battle, and surely my father was thinking that this battle was over. Not that his family was very religious, anyway. To me, it seemed that they thought of churches the same way they thought of the officers’ club, just another place you visited from time to time to remind yourself that you were special.

  My sister, Emmie, heard nothing of this argument. She was fast asleep in her bedroom, snug under her comforter, her teddy bear dressed in a soldier’s uniform beside her, its glass button eyes catching bits of light seeping through the curtains. Emmie was nearly nine years old and admittedly very bright for her age. Unlike me, she had a warm, very outgoing personality. She was easy to love. I was more like a seamless walnut, impossible to crack or get into. You had to smash me to peel off my hard shell. I trusted no one and believed that everyone was selfish like me. Even nuns were doing what they were doing solely to get themselves into heaven.

  It seemed to me that my father had been complaining about me from day one, not that I could remember day one. But he often made reference to my infant days, describing how difficult and stubborn I could be. It was safe to say that my father rarely, if ever, complimented me about anything. It was as if he thought that one compliment would open a fortress, and I would rush through with all of my bad behavior. Although I wasn’t particularly looking for excuses, I suppose a good therapist would say that mon père was at least partly responsible for how I had turned out. My father might not have chosen an army career for himself, but he certainly ran our home and family as if we were a military unit. Sometimes I thought he wasn’t my father; he was just someone in charge, someone assigned guard duty.

  I wasn’t exactly Miss Popularity at my school, either, but I was close enough with some of the other girls to hear about how their fathers treated them, fawned over them, and, most important, made excuses for any of their failings. Some of the girls enjoyed playing their fathers for sympathy and bragged about how easy it was for them to get “Daddy” to do anything for them or let them do anything. Even the girls who came from very conservative and religious homes seemed to have more freedom and longer leashes than I had, not that I ever paid much attention to my leash.

  Although I was good at hiding it, a therapist would surely say that right from the beginning, I had more fear of my father than love for him. I could recall how he loomed over me ominously when I was a little girl. There was such an obvious look of displeasure and frustration on his face. I could almost hear him thinking, Is this the child for which my wife almost lost her life?

  I couldn’t begin to count how many times he had told me about my birth and Mama’s flirtation with death. Sometimes he made me sound like an infant assassin, a spy planted inside her. Mama would try to tone him down, but he was ready with his far-too-graphic and detailed description of how difficult my birthing had been. Eventually, I realized that the memories haunted him and not her. He had gotten her pregnant, so he, not she, bore more responsibility. For what had they taken this great risk? Yes, for what? I didn’t need to hear him say it. I knew what he thought. They had taken it for this little monster, this grande déception they had named Roxy.

  I believed I suffered with mon père’s anger more than Emmie because I was born closer to his break with his own father, not that it was in any way my fault. He had made his choice long before Mama became pregnant. He had wanted to be who he was and do what he was doing, but he couldn’t escape the guilt. There was just too much family tradition haunting him. In making his decision not to be in the military, he made all of his ancestors and especially his own father and brother seem inferior and stupid for dedicating themselves to national service. Maybe because he felt so bad about himself and his family relationship, he had less patience for me. I was a perfect scapegoat.

  Or perhaps all of this really is just my way of looking for an excuse. After all, when it came to finding an excuse for something I had done or failed to do, I was an expert. In fact, other girls often came to me for suggestions when they were about to get into trouble. I could prescribe excuses as easily as most doctors could prescribe antibiotics. I was tempted to open an “Excuse Stand” and charge for them.

  Did I do bad things in school? There’s a question that answers itself. Does it snow in Alaska? From kindergarten on, I was impossible. I hated sharing anything with anyone. I was aggressive and bullied whomever I could. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had probably had at least a dozen fights—in the girls’ room, in the hall, or on the school grounds. I could kick and punch like a boy. Some of my fights were with boys, in fact, and I didn’t lose. I got a few bumps and bruises, but none of that caused me to retreat. I think my lack of fear for my own safety and of pain did more to terrorize my opponents than anything else.

  Mama was trekking a path right into the concrete sidewalks between home and my grade school to have frequent parent-teacher and administrator sessions because of my bad behavior. Whenever my father was brought in, called out of his office, the follow-up was even uglier. He didn’t believe in things like time-out, sitting in a corner, or losing privileges. What kinds of privileges did a ten-year-old really have, anyway? No television, parties, or movies? I could live without any of it so well that it frustrated him more. No, it was only his thick belt that gave him any hope, but I frustrated him there, too.

  Just as I was almost immune to the pain that I would suffer in a good yard fight, I was also immune to my father’s thick belt. Tears would come to my eyes. I couldn’t stop that, but I kept my lips sealed and my tongue paralyzed. I didn’t even moan. I stood or lay there like a piece of wood. I knew my skin was nearly burned off sometimes, but I wouldn’t cry out. Finally, he would give up, declaring I was simply impossible. I would come to no good. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He expected that he would stand in our living room one day and point at that front door just as he had today. Sometimes I thought he was actually looking forward to the opportunity. It had finally come, and it wasn’t because of some final straw. The accumulation was just too much. He couldn’t swallow down another rule being broken, another law being disobeyed.

  My schoolwork was in shambles. I was barely passing most subjects and failing a few in the twelfth grade. I had a good chance of not graduating. Earlier that year, I had been caught smoking some weed in the girls’ room. I suspected a girl named Carly Forman had informed on me. A few weeks before, I had stolen away her boyfriend, Walter Martin. It wasn’t hard to do. Carly was determined to hold on to her virginity. I knew Walter’s buddies were with girls who were just the opposite, and he was taking some heat for his failure to score. Carly was very proud and vocal about her innocence. For me, attracting and tempting Walter was like shooting fish in a barrel. Although he wasn’t bad-looking, I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. I did it only to get back at Carly, because she loved spreading rumors about me and looking down on me.

  Twice this month, Mama had been called and asked to come to school because of the way I had used French words to curse out my teachers. My father had married Mama in France and had brought her to America. She still spoke French at every opportunity and did so with me and even with him from time to time. I was good at picking up some curse words and creating some very nasty images, in addi
tion to becoming quite fluent in the language. Because of the way I looked when I spoke, my teachers suspected that what I was saying was inappropriate, so they got translations that I was sure turned their faces red, especially Mrs. Roster, my science teacher. She came down on anyone who used “damn.”

  I suppose if I listed the mothers who called to complain about me, the fathers who spoke to mon père complaining about my influence on their perfect daughters, and the three police arrests for shoplifting over the last two years, I could understand why both of my parents were feeling defeated, especially when they looked back at the years of disappointment.

  Five nights in these last two weeks, I had come home well after midnight. Twice I snuck out of the house when I had been “confined to quarters.” Papa actually used that terminology. He had tried to keep me contained by forbidding Mama to give me any money. Once in a while, she snuck me a few dollars, but for the most part, she was more afraid of defying him than I ever was. I had a stash of money that I instinctively knew I would need someday, so I didn’t touch any of it, and I was always trying to add to it.

  This particular day, I got caught stealing fifty dollars out of Carrie Duncan’s purse during P.E. I denied it, of course, but Carrie’s father had given her a twenty with a bad ink smear on one side, and that twenty was in my possession. I was suspended again and couldn’t return without both of my parents meeting with the dean. It looked very ominous. There could be an effort to have me sent to some other school or brought before a judge again, only this time with more determination to have me placed in a juvenile detention center or something.

  Two weeks before, I had met Steve Carson at the Columbus Circle mall. I saw him reading the cover of a novel in the bookstore. He looked very interested in it, and then he put it back on the rack. I thought he was a very good-looking guy, about six feet tall, with a swimmer’s build. He had soft, wavy light brown hair and patches of freckles on his cheeks but a look in his face that gave him a more mature expression. I prided myself on always being a good judge of character and personality. I knew how to read people’s eyes, the way they looked at other people, and the small movements they made with their lips. Innocence and insecurity were always easy for me to see, as was arrogance.