MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
For as long as I can remember, I have always had the feeling of not quite fitting in, not being the same as everyone else.
I'm certain that is why I became a writer. Even as a toddler, at nursery school, junior school, I was friendly with everyone, without ever being part of the group. Standing on the outside, watching. Always watching. I noticed everything: how a sideways glance with narrowed eyes could say so much more than words ever could; how a whisper behind a delicate hand had the ability to destroy you for the week; how an outstretched hand from the right girl, at the right time, would see your heart soar for hours, sometimes days.
I knew I was different. The older I grew, the more that difference felt like inadequacy; I wasn't pretty enough, or thin enough, or simply enough. I couldn't have put words to it, certainly not when I was very young, other than looking at those tiny, perfect, popular girls and wanting, so desperately, to be on the inside, to be the girl that was always picked first for sports teams, rather than the one left until last.
When adolescence hit, I became the friend the boys all wanted to talk to, to confide in, to find out how they could possibly make my best friend, Olivia, interested in them.
I was such a good friend, even though I fell head over heels for every last one of them. Adam Barrett afforded me two months' worth of daydreams about how he would realize, as we were sitting on the floor in my bedroom, the Police playing on my record player in the background, that Olivia was not the answer to his dreams after all; he would suddenly notice the silkiness of my hair (always far silkier in my daydreams), the green of my eyes, the fullness of my mouth, as he woke up to the fact that I was so spectacularly beautiful (which I wasn't), how had he not noticed that before?
After Adam Barrett it was Danny Curran, then Rob Palliser, and of course, Ian Owens. None of my daydreams came true, and at fourteen I finally discovered a great way of easing the pain of all those unfulfilled dreams, those unfulfilled longings, those misplaced hopes.
Gary Scott was having a party at his house. It was a sleepover, the boys sleeping on one side of the giant loft, the girls on the other. Everyone was ridiculously excited, this being the first mixed sleepover. Looking back, I can't quite believe the parents allowed it, given the raging hormones of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old teenagers, but I suppose they thought we were good kids, or that they had it under control.
The parents were there, of course. They were having a small gathering of their own; the laughter of the grown-ups and the clinking of their glasses made its way over to us, at the back of the garden with a record player and a trestle table stocked with popcorn, plastic cups, and lemonade.
Ian Owens was my crush at the time. He had become my very good friend, naturally, in a bid to get close to Olivia, who was, on that night, standing under the tree with Paul Johnson, her head cocked to one side, her sheaf of newly highlighted blond hair hanging like a curtain of gold over her right shoulder, looking up at Paul with those spectacular blue eyes. Everyone in that garden knew it was only a matter of time before he kissed her.
Ian was devastated. I was sitting on the grass talking to him quietly, reassuring him, praying that I might be second choice, praying that he might lean his head toward mine, might brush my lips gently with his, spend the rest of the night holding me tightly in his arms.
"I took this," he said, gesturing to his side, where a bottle of vodka was nestling under his thigh.
"What? What do you mean, you took it? From where?"
"I found it in the garage. Don't worry, there's tons more. No one will notice. Want to?" He nodded his head in the shade of the trees, to a private corner where we wouldn't be seen.
Of course I wanted to. I would have done anything to keep Ian Owens by my side a little longer, to give him more time to change his mind about Olivia and fall in love with me.
I got up, brushing the pine needles from my jeans, aware that there was a damp patch from the grass. I was in my new 501s. Olivia and I bought them together and went back to her house to shrink them in the bath. Hers were tiny, and looked amazing when we were done, drainpiping down her legs. Mine flapped around my ankles like sails in the wind. I had a small waist but great big thighs, so I had to get a big size to fit, which meant they had to be clinched in at the waist with a tight belt and were huge all the way down.
I never looked the way I wanted to look in clothes. I had a new plaid shirt from Camden Market that I really liked, and had smudged black kohl underneath my eyes. Peering from beneath my new fringe-I had cut it two days ago-my eyes looked smoky and sultry, the green sparkling through the kohl. I liked the way I looked, which wasn't something that happened often.
Maybe tonight was going to be a first for me. Maybe Ian would like the way I looked too.
I followed him into the small copse of trees at the end of the garden, as he brought the bottle out and took the first swig, grimacing as he sputtered, then spat it all out.
"Christ, that's disgusting." He passed the bottle to me.
Of course I didn't want to do it. Watching the look on his face, how could I ever have wanted to taste something so vile, but how could I back down? I gingerly took the bottle, swigged it back, felt the burning going down my throat, then swigged it back twice more.
"Wow!" Impressed, he took the bottle back, this time managing to swallow.
Within minutes, I felt like a different person. Gone was the shy, awkward, ungainly adolescent, and in her place a sexy siren. Suddenly the curves I had always hated so much became sexiness personified, my new fringe a sultry curtain from behind which I could peer with bedroom eyes.
The warmth in my body spread out to my fingers and toes, a delicious tingling as I lost my inhibitions and flirted with Ian, stunned that he responded, that we moved from awkwardly standing next to each other to lying on the ground, heads resting on our elbows, my hair dropped over one shoulder in what I hoped was a pretty good imitation of Olivia, both of us giggling as we passed the bottle back and forth.
"You're really pretty," he said suddenly, the smile sliding off his face, the bottle sliding to the ground as he leaned his head forward, his lips inching closer to mine, his eyes starting to close, my own eyes closing in tandem. And there we were, kissing, as my heart threatened to explode.
It was everything I had dreamed of, his hands snaking through my hair, my own wrapped around his back, unable to believe I had been given license to touch this boy I had loved for so long, license to hold him, to slip my tongue in his mouth, listen to him sigh with pleasure. He pushed me onto my back, lay on top of me, kissing my neck as I looked at the stars, knowing that if I were to die tonight, I would finally die happy. I would have done anything in my power to make that moment last all night.
We heard a noise, someone coming, and he jumped off me as if stung by an electric shock, refusing to even look at me, pretending we had just been out there drinking, nothing more. The disappointment was like a dagger, which twisted and turned as the evening progressed and he didn't come near me again.
What could I do other than pretend I was having a great time, and how could I not have a great time with my new best friend, vodka, when vodka had made me feel so good? Maybe vodka would take away this searing pain, make me feel beautiful again.
For a while, it worked. I danced, and laughed, and attempted to flirt with other boys to try to make Ian jealous. I remember laughing hysterically at something, then all of a sudden the laughter turned into wracking sobs. I don't remember anything after that.
It was my first introduction to booze, blackouts, and the transformative effect alcohol would have on my life.
Alcohol made me beautiful in a way I never felt the rest of the time. It filled me with a confidence that had always been missing. Alcohol made me fit in. And if the night ended with a period of time that I could never remember in the morning, well, so what. I never seemed to make too egregious a mistake, nor do anything so terrible I was ostracized forever. If anything, it cemented my reputation, not as a shy, lonely girl who was always standing on the outside, but as the center of the party. In fact, it wasn't long before everyone knew that a party didn't get started until Cat arrived.
* * *
The drinking became a little more of a problem when I went to university. My parents had never been particularly present while I was growing up, so one might presume if I was going to go off the rails, why not do it at home, but I saved it for when I went away.
I was enough of a disappointment to my father. I didn't need to give him yet another excuse to help me understand I was not the daughter he wanted.
My mother had left her native America when she fell in love with my dad while working for a year as an au pair in Gerrards Cross. She seemed happy when I was very young, then spent most of my teenage years in what I have always thought must have been a deep, albeit undiagnosed, and possibly clinical, depression.
I can understand why.
What I couldn't understand is how she ever ended up with my father in the first place. He was handsome, and I suppose he must have been charming when they were young, but he was so damned difficult, I used to think, even when I was young, that we'd all be much happier if they got a divorce.
I would sit with friends who would be in floods of tears because their mother had just found out their father had been having an affair, or their parents had decided they hated each other, or whatever myriad reasons drive people apart. And these friends would be crying at the terrible fear of their families breaking up, and all I could think was: I wish my parents would get divorced.
It seemed to me that if ever there were two people on the planet who should not have been together, it was my parents. My mother is laid-back, funny, kind. She's comfortable in her skin and has the easy laugh you expect from all Americans. She was brought up in New York, but her parents died very young, after which she went to live with her Aunt Judith. I never knew Aunt Judith, but everything about those days sounds idyllic, especially her summers in Nantucket. You look at pictures of my mum from those days and she was in flowing, hippie-ish clothes, always smiling. She had long, silky hair, and looked happy and free.
In sharp contrast to the pictures of her with my dad, even in those early days, when they were newlyweds, supposedly the happiest time of a relationship. He insisted she wear buttoned-up suits, or twinsets and pearls. Her hair was elaborately coiffed. I remember the heated rollers she kept in the bathroom, twisting her hair up every morning, spraying it into tight submission, slicking lipstick on her lips, her feet sliding into Roger Vivier pumps.
If my father was away, she left her hair long and loose, wrapping a scarf around her head. She'd wear long gypsy skirts with espadrilles or sandals. I loved her like that most of all. I used to think it was her clothing that changed her personality, that in the gypsy skirts she'd be young and fun, dancing around the kitchen with me, singing the Carole King songs she loved at the top of her voice. But of course it wasn't the clothes, it was my father's absence. When he was away, she could be herself, not having to worry about pleasing anyone.
I like to think that my mother had no idea what she was letting herself in for when she married my father. We never talked about it until after he died. My mother prizes loyalty above all else. I didn't know that, of course, during all those childhood years I spent praying for their divorce, but now I realize she would never have left him, however unhappy she might have been, however many days the depression was so dark, so debilitating, she didn't get out of bed.
There was nothing I loved more than going to a friend's house, because their mothers were around. I loved my mother more than anything, but the house would be empty and quiet when I got home. I would help myself to something from the fridge before traipsing up the stairs to my parents' master bedroom, pushing the door open to find my mother lying propped up on pillows. On a really bad day, the curtains would be drawn, the room in darkness. Often she'd be asleep, and I'd pad over to her side of the bed and stroke her arm. She'd rouse, giving me a sleepy smile, pulling me down for a kiss and a hug, wanting to hear all about my day, her only access to the outside world. I couldn't stay long, though. She didn't have the capacity for too much stimulation, and on those days, the bad days, I always saw the relief in her eyes when I said I had to go back downstairs to do homework.
Still, even during the darkest of times, I never doubted her love for me.
On a good day the sunlight would be streaming in through the window and she might be reading magazines, or a book, sipping a glass of iced tea. On those days I could stay for hours, or at least until my father got home. We both always knew, half an hour before he was due to arrive (and thank God he was always punctual), we had to maintain the status quo: The curtains had to be drawn again, the TV turned off. My father would go in to kiss her, and the metaphorical shades over her eyes would be drawn again. I saw it happen over and over, and I knew, even then, that it wasn't glandular fever, or mono, as she said, but something else.
And I knew, even then, that my father was, if not the cause, a major contributing factor.
My father could be fun, but it always felt like an act. However light-hearted he might have seemed, it was entirely eclipsed by his need to control everything around him.
There were times when I felt loved by him, but only when everything in his environment, including me, was absolutely perfect. When my hair had been blown out and rolled into soft curls, held back by a pretty ribbon; when I was in a ruffled, feminine dress, patent Mary Janes, and lace-trimmed ankle socks; when I was quiet, well behaved, respectful.
The other Cat: the wild, tearing-round-the-garden-with-her-friend, disheveled, ample-thighed, growing into surly adolescent Cat? That Cat he hated. Perhaps hated is too strong a word for it, but from the moment I turned thirteen, I don't remember ever feeling loved by him.
He would look me up and down, with little attempt to hide the sneer. "You're going out in that?" he'd say, and I, who had looked at my new Doc Martens in the mirror with such pride, such excitement that I could show them off to my friends, would feel instant shame. "You look ri-di-culous." He'd shake his head to himself and mutter, as my cheeks would turn scarlet, and I would want a hole in the ground to open up so I could disappear.
"You're never going to get a boyfriend," he'd say, behind his paper. "Wearing those ri-di-culous clothes. Can I remind you that you are, in fact, a girl?" And I would want to claw his eyes out in rage.
I hated him for how he treated me, and I hated him for how he treated my mother. He did exactly the same to her, telling her what to wear, berating her for saying or doing the wrong thing, so she made herself disappear in the best way she could, by going to bed. For years.
And me? How did I deal with it? With my friend vodka. And a whole host of other new friends if vodka wasn't available. There was gin, with whom I had a brief but intense relationship while I was at university. Gin and tonics seemed the height of sophistication, but consuming the best part of an entire bottle of gin on its own was not. Even now, at twenty-nine, I can't touch gin. The very smell of it makes me think of the hours and hours of deadly bedspins, the hours and hours of throwing up the next day. If not gin, there were many, many happy times with tequila, including, yes, the infamous worm on a beach in Mykonos one summer.
There was always wine, and beer, although somehow beer didn't seem to count. My tipple of choice was hard: I would always choose a bottle of Jack over a bottle of champagne.
My father couldn't stand my drinking. And I couldn't stand him, so in that sense I suppose we were compatible. Once I finished university and moved up to London to do a journalism internship, which led to this job on the women's desk at the Daily Gazette, I barely saw him.
My mother was a cook when I was very tiny, before my father had worn her down. She filled my toddler years with baked treats that reminded her of home: apple pies; muffins, and not the English kind, the American, cakey kind; chocolate chip cookies, which, to my friends who were being raised on chocolate Bourbons, Jammy Dodgers, and Garibaldi biscuits, seemed the height of glamor.
During the dark years, if she cooked, which wasn't often, it was bland and dull, a reflection of her life with my father, a reflection perhaps of how she felt about him.
When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I had an immediate sense of him not lasting long. I have no idea how I knew. In the beginning all the specialists were saying things like prostate is the good one to have, very slow growing, etc., etc., but I knew he wasn't going to be with us for more than a year.
I didn't feel bad about it. Which I still feel bad about. I remember calling my mum one day from work, just a few weeks before he died, and he'd been rushed into hospital because he was spiking a fever. My mum had to go because he was barking at her about what to bring him from home, and I remember hearing his harsh voice in the background, and closing my eyes, just for a few seconds while I said a silent prayer: "Please put him out of his misery," I said. "Please let this be the end."
It wasn't. He clung on for another three months. I went to see him a handful of times. It had been awkward between us for years, and the penultimate time I went to see him I had to fortify myself with booze or I might have ended up saying something I'd regret.
I had a bit more than I intended, and I'll admit, I was extremely ... happy when I walked in the room.
"You're drunk," he managed to sneer, through the tubes. I just looked at him, the booze having exactly the intended effect. His comment floated over my head, and I kissed him on the cheek, steadying myself on the bed railing because I very nearly fell on top of him, all the while having no reaction at all.
The last time I saw him was awful. In the three weeks since the last visit, he had shrunk to half his size. His hair had gone, leaving a few wisps of white; his face entirely sunken. He was in a drug-induced coma by then, the pain medication knocking him out most of the time, although occasionally he would rouse for one of the nurses to feed him ice chips to assuage his thirst.
I had absolutely no idea what to say to him, this man I had struggled with my entire life. I wanted something seismic to happen at the end. I wanted him to wake up so we could somehow forgive each other, say we loved each other, move on with some sense of closure, for I knew this would be the last time I saw him, but he didn't wake up, and nothing was said. I just sat awkwardly in a chair I pulled up next to the bed and looked at him. After a while I slipped my hand into his and stroked it, remembering how strong I thought he was when I was a little girl, how much I had loved him when I was tiny, when he thought I was perfect, before I grew old enough to fill his life with disappointment. I remembered slipping my tiny hand into his when I was small, how he looked at me, his eyes filled with ... well. Not love, exactly. Sometimes love, but it was always mixed with a little confusion.
"Who are you?" he'd sometimes say, affectionately. "Where did you come from?"
"This is my changeling," he'd introduce me to people, which made me feel special until I grew old enough to read fairy tales myself and realized a changeling is a fairy, elf, or goblin baby who's put in the crib to replace the stolen, perfect baby.
I did cry, though, that day in the hospital, holding his hand. Horrible as this is to admit, I think I cried less because my dad was dying than for the dad I had never had. I cried for the missed opportunities, for not having a dad who loved me unconditionally and unreservedly. I cried for not having a dad who accepted me exactly as I was.
And I think, in amongst the tears, I cried with relief.
My mother grieved appropriately for a woman who had lost her husband of almost thirty years so tragically, and then, after six months, she blossomed.
Looking at her now, you would never imagine she had ever experienced a day's unhappiness in her life.
Copyright © 2015 by Jane Green