an excerpt of He Never Liked Cake
“Look at those tits.”
I was wearing my favorite outfit that summer, a cornflower-blue Ann Taylor dress made of soft, jersey cotton. The dress was hardly form-fitting, and nothing about it invited the usage of tits.
“Since when did you get those?”
“I mean, look at ’em. Look. At. Them.”
He was staring at them.
I felt a lump in my throat. I tried to swallow it, tried to swallow the overwhelming vulgarity of… tits. It felt like my esophagus was filling up with lead. I was choking, suffocating, until I allowed hot tears to pour down my cheeks. I wiped them away and gripped the handles of his wheelchair until my salty, wet knuckles turned white.
I was fourteen. He was my father.
That was the longest summer of my life. It may as well have been three summers. I can only recall sharp splinters of memory that cut consciousness into a blur of wearisome, muggy days that fell somewhere between the solstice and the equinox.
That summer he spit orange juice at me, a deliberate attack from straw to face. That summer he was OK with getting naked, jerking off in front of me. That summer he taught me a poem, a poem so I would know every cuss word in the English language. That summer was catcalls, broken dishes, slammed doors, restraining belts, IVs, tantrums, pills, spills, license-plate numbers and lukewarm cans of vanilla Ensure. It was my adolescence, too, but I don’t remember much about it—except, of course, my tits.
* * *
I feel as though I own a day. I feel I’ve earned the rights to it. It is a Tuesday that lies in the back of my mind in fragments, in a pile of objects.
The sketched lines of the flowers on the wallpaper, the stars flung across a black sky, the defogger lines on the rear window of my grandparents’ Civic, the flecks in the linoleum floor, the sliding glass doors, the yellow lines on the highway, the seatbelt in my mom’s Accord, the leaves of the cherry trees that lined the driveway, the silver antenna of our late ’90s cordless phone, the patch of stairway carpet where I spilled coffee and kept it a secret, my white bathing suit, a red dog collar patterned with white bones, empty flower crates, fat raindrops, the speed bump on Delaware Trail, the fringe on a checked blue tablecloth, a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, a glass paperweight, the ceramic cup in our downstairs bathroom, an oversized T-shirt that read “Art Crimes ’96.”
I’ve never asked my mother what she remembers of that day, or my father. I have an idea of what they would say. They would both tell me for different reasons that they don’t remember.
I shot straight up in bed. The digital clock in my room glared 5:14 a.m.
“Hey, hey, Peanut, it’s me,” my dad whispered, groping the object swaying directly above me. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I just bought you a T-shirt. Go back to sleep. It’s still early.”
I grumbled, knowing that whatever it was he had bought me was an extra large.
“Dad,” I mumbled, disoriented. “What are you—wait. What time is it?”
“Shh, it’s early, Peanut,” he whispered into my ear. He pulled the sheet up to my chin to get me to lie back down. “Don’t wake your mom.”
“No, Dad…” I fumbled for sleepy words and sat up again. “You can’t go to work today. I had this dream and mom was . . . in this accident . . . and . . . she—”
“Shh,” he said. “It’s early. Mom’s fine. I’ll get you some water.”
He left my room. I sat in the black dark, listening for the water to run in the bathroom.
“Take some of this,” he said as he brought a ceramic cup up to my face.
I gulped the water. It was lukewarm and I thought it tasted a little like clay, even though the cup was years old and couldn’t possibly taste like anything, except maybe soap or toothpaste.
“Mom was in this accident . . . in my dream . . . and…” I protested, now with more consciousness. “Just please don’t go to work today. Just stay home, please.”
“Will you relax?” he said. “I’m going to drop off a car at a dealership in Pittsburgh. I’ll be home and we’ll go skiing. I’m picking up Jackie and Sarah on the way home. Go back to bed, ya ninny.”
He pulled the sheet tight around my shoulders and kissed my cheekbone. His mustache tickled.
“I’ll see ya later, Peanut,” he whispered. “I love you.”
“Love you,” I yawned into my pillow.
I heard the creak of the floor under his silent footsteps, the exasperated pants of our Golden Retriever, and the slow whine of the screen door falling back into place. I was out before it clicked shut.
10:39 a.m. Sun streaked through my room. I decided to stop fighting the light and get up. I swung my feet over the side of my bed and Meagan rubbed her wet nose on my shins. Repulsed and groggy, I padded out to the hallway. I opened the door, tapped my thigh, and coaxed her outside. In the hallway I found a yellow slip of paper tucked under a glass paperweight on my mom’s desk. A list, her neat slices of angled letters written on invisible lines.
Weed the back walk
brush the dog
I put it back under the weight and skipped to the kitchen. I filled a bowl with a heaping mound of Doritos, knowing that it was a terrible choice of breakfast food and something that both of my parents would highly disapprove of, unless it was after noon and accompanied by some form of lunchmeat between slices of wheat.
No one was home.
After mindless hours of flipping between spring-break game shows on MTV and Pop-Up Video on VH-1, I realized it was pouring outside. I raced out to the back porch.
“Meeeeaaaagan!” I screamed. “Meeeeaaagan! Come on, pup! Let’s gooooooooo!”
I stood in the downpour and called her name. I tried to whistle for her like my dad did. I couldn’t whistle. I couldn’t make my lips work the air to produce that shrill sound like my father could. His whistle pierced through the trees and neighbors’ yards. He used it to call his dog and his daughter home.
I went inside and pouted in my room, standing at my windowsill, arms folded, staring across the yard at our neighbors’ house. It was well into the afternoon and I sat down on my bed, still in my pajamas, fretting about the lost dog and all the trouble I’d be in and how the Western PA weather was going to ruin my afternoon of waterskiing. Thunder cracked. I stood up, yanked on a tee shirt and a pair of cut-off jean shorts and slipped my feet into a pair of permanently-laced K-Swiss.
“Hi, Pat,” I said, standing on my neighbors’ stoop with a sheepish look, drenched from the rain.
“Hiya, kid,” she said. “It’s raining and you are sopping wet. Get in here, will ya.”
She sat me down at her kitchen table and brought over perfectly proportioned PB&Js made with her homemade elderberry jam. Between sticky mouthfuls I whined about the stupid dog and the stupid weather. While she cleaned our dishes, I slumped in my chair, moping and pulling at the fringe on the blue and white checked tablecloth. She brought over a stack of Thin Mints, went into the mudroom and returned with her umbrella and the keys to her truck.
“Come on. Let’s go. We’ll go find her.”
Fat, bulbous raindrops smeared into a thousand tiny specks as I watched the wipers snap spastically across the windshield. We headed down the driveway and the truck rattled, the sound of gardening tools and empty flower crates. Today, with the rain, it smelled of fresh earth.
“I hate Meagan.” I was crying. “I hate her, stupid dog, damn dog. Why?”
I rolled down the window and stuck my face into the rain, screaming her name over and over again through tears and thunder. The truck rolled over the lonely speed bump on Delaware Trail, our own tar-and-chip road. Pat tuned the radio to an oldies station. We headed down one block to Lake Latonka Drive, the paved road that ran the three-mile circumference of the lake.
Meagan loved the lake. She was a happy dog who made friends with every lakefront resident within half a mile of our house, always after easy access to water, geese and anyone willing to throw a floatable object off a dock repeatedly. Her love of water was her biggest fault. Recently my mother had decided the dog was no longer going to come on the boat with us, because every time we anchored she jumped overboard. Minus the wet dog smell, it wouldn’t have been a problem, except she never wanted to get back in the boat and my dad would have to lean over and sweet talk her to the stern, where he’d drag all wet, squirming sixty pounds of her onboard. It was an ordeal.
We turned back onto Delaware Trail.
“I’m in so much trouble,” I said, whining my fate to Pat. “She is such a stupid dog. This is the worst thing that could happen today.”
I sat in the passenger seat messing with the air vents and imagining my death, certain that my mother was going to kill me because this was at least the fortieth time this summer that I’d have to tell her I lost the dog. The clock blinked to 4:27 p.m. I had been sure we’d find Meagan after driving around for more than an hour. Pat parked the truck under the basketball hoop, and I slid out the passenger side, defeated. The rain had let up and the sun came out as the clouds rolled off the blue sky. I trudged through the mucky grass back to my house, fixating on the loud squish of my saturated sneakers.
“Janna Marie!” Pat yelled when I was halfway between houses. “Look who’s on your porch.”
Damn dog. There she was, sopping wet, reeking of lake water, lying on the top step hanging her muddy paws over the edge with a big, panting grin.
I grabbed her by the collar, red, printed with white bones, which hung limp around her wet, matted neck. I had bought it for her for Christmas, with my babysitting money. I shoved her in the garage and retreated to the basement.
* * *
“I’m home!” my mom yelled into the hallway. “Jannaaaaaaa? Why is the dog in the garage?”
Meagan trotted in with her, carrying the stench of wet lake dog. My mother dropped her purse on the hall chair and went upstairs. She never wanted to do anything until she could change out of her work clothes and wash her face, not even have a conversation. I was a loquacious kid, like my father.
She yelled down for me to turn on NPR. I went to the dry sink in our hallway, opened it and fussed with the tuner and volume on a complicated arrangement of radios, tape decks, and the new CD player that my dad had stacked and wired to speakers throughout our house. My first attempt blared Jimmy Buffett in every downstairs room.
“The news!” my mom yelled, annoyed.
“I know!” I yelled back, annoyed.
A couple more failed attempts and then Bob Edwards was recounting the day’s events, which were centered on a potential war in a desert somewhere. I didn’t listen. I was irritated and impatient for my dad to get home. NPR reminded me of school mornings. NPR and the smell of coffee brewing was enough to make me want to sleep through breakfast. I turned up my boombox, sat on my bed with the cat and opened my pink diary to write—complain—about my stupid day and my stupid dog. I finished the entry, thankful for the blue sky that was here in time for Dad to get home. He would have my friends with him, and he was taking us skiing. Soon.
The phone rang. I waited two more rings and ran into the hallway to grab it.
“Hello,” I answered. “No, this is her daughter. Yes, just a second please . . . MOM!”
I held the phone to my chest and raced up the stairs. “I think it’s some salesperson.” I yelled over the sound of running water in the bathroom.
“Why?” she said.
“Cuz they can’t pronounce our last name.”
I slid the phone across the carpet so she wouldn’t have to meet me at the top of the stairs. I listened for her to answer and sat down on the steps, out of sight. I heard a loud thud. Afraid she would catch me eavesdropping, I scooted down the rest of the stairs and turned the quick corner to my bedroom. Straining to listen, I stood beside my bed. I heard her yell. Not a word, just a loud sound. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I heard her come half way down the steps.
“Janna, you need to get changed.” Her tone urgent. “You need to change right now. We have to leave.”
“Why?” I protested, trying to take the imminent whine out of my voice, because she hated whining. “Mom, why? I just put my suit on and Dad’s com—”
“Your father’s been in an accident and we have to go to the hospital.”
The afternoon’s thunderstorm had mellowed to a downpour, leaving the PA turnpike slick, covered in a thick sheet of rainwater. The big, white body of the 1996 Chrysler Sebring rode the highway like a hovercraft. Its tires spun freely above the pavement, gliding through the water, never connecting with the surface of the road.
Somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, Herman Stillman had set the cruise control. The speedometer read 62 mph. It was an easy ride. The two car salesmen talked of makes and models and families and hobbies over the drone of the pelting raindrops.
The clock on the radio blinked to 4:30 p.m.
They were a few miles from the exit to the dealership where Herman would drop off John with the Sebring, and then return to Pittsburgh in a Honda. It was the second leg of the trade. Earlier that day John had taken a used Honda to Herman’s dealership.
Herman cruised along in the left lane, hands cradling the wheel, glancing over as John told stories of the beautiful women in his life—his wife and daughter. He noticed an accident blocking the right lane ahead. He thought to slow down so he could pass it safely. He tapped the brake pedal. Nothing happened. He pounded it to the floor. Still nothing. No slowing down. No brakes. The car started to slide left, toward the cement barrier that divided the highway.
He spun the wheel to the right to avoid the collision ahead. All the way clockwise. Nothing. No steering. No braking.
4:31 p.m. Somewhere in that minute, Herman had lost control.
Hours later, the police would say that “Mr. Stillman was driving too fast for weather conditions” and that the car “began to hydroplane; at certain points, riding on water an inch above the surface of the pavement.”
John braced himself. He was wearing a seatbelt. They both were. Buckled up, for safety.
The tail end of the Sebring slammed into the cement barrier, leaving red and orange shards of taillight scattered across the wet pavement. The car careened into the right lane. The passenger-side door smashed into the bumper of a green Taurus with a blow that folded the 3,000-pound Sebring in two. The windshield cracked into a thousand glass veins and burst.
Herman and John hit heads.
Both men were unconscious as the Sebring snapped back and forth, trapped between cement and steel for the next tenth of a mile. Crashing back into the cement barrier, which crunched the hood. Then ricocheting across the highway, where the botched passenger side took a second beating from the green Taurus.
Then the tires found traction, allowing the safety mechanisms to kick in. Both airbags deployed and the seat belts locked tight. The mangled car screeched to a halt, sixty seconds after Herman first tapped the brakes,
4:32 p.m. Five cars littered the highway. The Sebring was at rest, crushed between the green Taurus and a black, Chevy Beretta.
Passengers and drivers crawled out of the tangle of metal. Witnesses rushed over from their safely parked cars to investigate. Arriving cars slowed and pulled over to the shoulder. The northbound highway started to clog. Someone called 911.
Herman had pulled himself out of the mauled Sebring. He was confused. He walked down the highway, in the rain, away from the wreckage. He had hit his head. He had a headache. What had he hit? What had he hit his head on? What happened?
Traffic backed up, and the interstate was eventually blocked off. A slew of police cruisers appeared, parking around the mess of metal and fiberglass. Some officers asked questions to the people standing around and others made calls on their radios. One ran down the highway after Herman. Most began to sift through the debris, assess the damage, count the drivers and the passengers, deduce the missing—the ones who were not walking around confused.
Fire trucks arrived in a cacophony of blaring sirens and flashing lights. The Jaws of Life rolled up to the heap of cars to tear away twisted hunks of metal, battered doors and broken sections of frames. Most of the metal being pried away from the pile was white. The task was becoming precarious.
An EMT called Life Flight. Reporters from the local paper and TV station showed up. It was chaos and sirens and rain and phone calls and shouting and maneuvering. A spot was cleared for the helicopter to land, as close as possible to the ambulance, which was parked as close as possible to the Jaws of Life.
A single gurney had been prepared, empty, soaking up the rain. Almost everyone was okay. Herman was okay.
The crews worked to delicately free a man from the heap. He was alive—alive and kicking, screaming, throwing his arms and legs in every direction, at every face. He was angry, senseless and covered in blood.
His violent thrashing made it extremely difficult to pull him safely out of the wreckage and over to the gurney, where several EMTs strapped down his arms and legs and wrapped belts around his torso and head. They had to keep him from hurting himself. His clothes were stripped away, and he was hooked up to wires that fed information to machines that could more accurately measure his damage. His belongings were tossed to someone who zipped them up in a plastic bag, while someone else searched for his license so he could be called to and questioned by name. Names draw attention, focus people in traumatic situations.
“John!” they said. “John, can you hear us? John. Stay calm. Look at me.”
John was incoherent, foaming at the mouth, fighting and bellowing loud, freakish sounds. He was making no attempt to understand what was being asked of him. He had no control. Simple things were failing. His head was swelling.
Within seconds he was silent, his body limp. His nerves numb with the proper sedation for a helicopter ride. His condition was determined severely unstable, and calls were made to the nearest trauma unit with the capacity to handle an injury of this magnitude. Doctors and nurses would be curbside when the helicopter landed. It was now a race to keep him alive, to keep his brain from swelling to the point where it would lose the ability to instruct the vital organs. There was no wound. There was nothing to see. But inside his skull his brain had been jarred and the gray matter bruised. The pressure building could be fatal. There was a chance he might die. Everyone involved found those odds to be quite likely.
On land the mess was cleaned up. The cars were towed away and the glass was swept off the pavement. People got rides from friends and family members happy to hear that no one, no one they knew, was hurt or being rushed to a hospital emergency room. Someone came for Herman. The news crews left and traffic started to move again.
A man’s dress shoe lay wedged between a steering wheel and a white door frame. Its brown leather had been ruined by the rain. Abandoned in the bedlam, no one had bothered to pick it up and find its owner. It belonged to a left foot.
Born and raised near Pittsburgh, Pa., Janna Leyde is now a yoga teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is the author of He Never Liked Cake, a coming-of-age memoir that tells the story of growing up with her father’s traumatic brain injury. When she’s not on her yoga mat or out in life or working on her second book about yoga for brain injury, she is making use of her master’s degree in journalism from New York University by contributing to health and wellness magazines and blogs.