Long ago, a wholesome, neutral restaurant with a bright orange fiberglass roof and an equally hopeful blue sign stood off the south side of Sunrise Highway in Massapequa. My father would take my mom and me there often, probably to discuss child support amicably in a public setting. I’m sure he didn’t tell his bombshell wife at home about it.
A regular pastime was hiding. Crawling under the pews at church was a great way to say hello to parishioners who were not expecting it, and an effective way of meeting people in Macy’s was to hide in free-standing clothing racks. At Howard Johnson’s, I planted myself under a booth at the farthest end of the dining room and maintained a fox-hole view of my parents. It was not a pleasant conversation, so I hid under the table until my father sent our lovely waitress over to take my order.
My dad would watch me when my mother attended AA meetings, so the first thing I’d do after he had spent twenty minutes or so trying to put me to bed was to leave my bedroom and hide. He would panic once he figured out I was nowhere in sight, more than likely abducted while he was in the bathroom, and I felt awful about that, but not enough to reveal my hiding place. It was too good. I watched him frantically pace between the den and the kitchen, perfectly concealed and folded up like a dinner tray between the marble end table and couch. Just when he’d all but exhausted his search and was about to call the police, I leaped out and darted back to bed. He found me safe and sound on his final check-in, and, because he was too tired from my antics, placating his ex-wife and then explaining to the new wife that he was at his first wife’s house, he’d forgotten what I had done in the first place.
But, before bedtime, he would indulge me by being a student in my favorite game of all time, School. I would have the classroom set up in my room. Most of the students, an assorted rapt and captive audience, were a motley bunch of worn-out stuffed animals seated around a miniature chalkboard in a horseshoe formation. It was the perfect game for me, as I could ham it up and be as bossy as I wanted. I’d prop my dad up off to the side as filler and did not call on him often. He was more of an audience member than an active participant, and because his mind ran hot like mine, no doubt he’d get squirrelly.
‘Sweetheart, can I be the teacher for a little while?’
I relinquished my role as Educator of the Year and gaped in horror as he shifted the student body to his liking. I wasn’t crazy about one doll, a blond Raggedy Ann with an unraveling mane of yellow yarn for hair; he’d put her front and center. MaryAnne was a celebrity in my father’s classroom, probably to get me back for hiding from him all the time. He had a tremendous sense of humor, but lacked the insight and self-regulation many of us refer to while parenting so we don’t completely screw up our offspring.
‘Good morning, MaryAnne! What a beautiful dress!’ MaryAnne donned a blue and white gingham jumper. I always gripped it while swinging her around my head.
‘Attention, class. Please put your notebooks and pencils away; very good.’ He would clear his throat to get into character. Also, he’d insist on being all the students’ voices, which would really send me reeling. I needed some creative control, particularly in dialogue. ‘Students, we have a spelling bee today; I hope you’ve all studied. I can see MaryAnne has come to class well prepared. Now, everyone,’ he stated, glancing back at me jumping up and down, ‘let’s settle down, class. We have a lot to cover today and not much time.’ He’d adjust his pretend spectacles.
‘Students, I’m sure I needn’t remind anyone, but there is to be no interrupting while someone else is speaking. Everyone will get called upon, so please wait your turn.’ Then he’d do a high-pitched, muffled voice. ‘Mr. Gioe, can I use the bathroom?’ My father looked directly at the teddy bear sitting in a rocking chair. ‘You might have mentioned that ten minutes ago, Winnie. Lena,’ he addressed my other teddy bear named after my Aunt Lena, who had sewn a miniature dress out of remnants earlier that summer when I stayed with her in Richmond, ‘please spell the word, CAT.’
Then, he’d do the voice. ‘C, A, T. ‘
‘Very good, Lena!’
‘Pick me!’ -that was me.
‘Class,’ He removed an invisible handkerchief from his pocket, shook it out and proceeded to clean his pretend spectacles. ‘we need to stop yelling out of turn or there will be no recess. Ernie, please spell DOG.’
‘D, O, G.’
‘Magnificent! Winnie, please spell the word, BAT.’
‘B, A, T. Can I go to the bathroom now?’
‘Brilliant! Yes, of course you may, you clever bear!’
This went on for some time. Finally, he turned to MaryAnne, The Golden Child. ‘MaryAnne, please spell, RAT.’
‘R, A, T.’
‘It’s my turn! It’s my turn!’ I shrieked, pulling out my hair.
‘I didn’t see you back there, Jennifer. Are you ready for your spelling bee word?’
What a question. Yes, I was ready.
‘Jen, I’d like you to spell,’ Long pause here.