Brian Kornell

Part 2 of 3

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, about a ghost.

Once, in high school, during one of my parent’s quiet times, I decided not to refuse an invitation to a friend’s party. The girls I hung out with, and I was the only boy in this group of friends, weren’t the type to drink or break any rules. They wanted to play board games, listen to R.E.M, and debate how fast an Imperial Starship could really go. These girls, these friends, were the ones that didn’t snicker or call me a fag when I said Princess Leia was the Star Wars character I wanted to be most like. They understood I admired her toughness, her wit, her ability to take control of a situation, to lead a rebellion.

By ten, almost all of them wanted to go to sleep. I had to go home because this was where it made a difference I was a boy. Boys weren’t allowed at a girls’ sleepover even though I had no attraction to any of these girls or any girls. My friend’s parents suggested I call my parents to come pick me up. There was a fraction of hesitation because I knew they would not come get me. They were not those kinds of parents.

But I felt the need to pretend. I dialed. The cord of the phone tangled tight together, which made it impossible to stray too far from the spot. If they picked up, I would have had to say something, but the line was busy and I was relieved.

“Hi. Mom. It’s me.”

Busy signal

“Yeah, it’s over.”

Busy signal

“Ok. Ok. See you soon.” I returned the receiver to its cradle. It fell. I caught it before it hit the floor and hung it up. I turned around. “They’ll be here in five minutes.”

I said my goodbyes and waited outside at the point where the driveway met the sidewalk. Without a watch, in that pre-cellphone time, I had a terrible sense of how many minutes had passed. It felt like I had been standing there for at least fifteen minutes, but it was probably more like two. Either way, I can’t take standing here anymore. The girl’s parents watched from the living room window. I waved at nothing on the street, hoped they bought that I was flagging my parents down. I turned and waved at the parents in the house, already prepared to say that my parents were meeting me at the corner. But they didn’t ask. The light by the front door went out.

The clouds covered the stars and turned the moon into a fuzzy, useless nightlight. I was only a half mile from home. Shorter than the distance I walked to and from school. At first, I walked as fast as I could. I had lived in this place all my life and this was the first time I had wandered the streets alone after dark. I could have gone anywhere, done anything I wanted. But there were potential dangers in the shadows between every house. I tried not to look at those spaces as if the dangers would give me a pass as long as I didn’t look at them. But I slowed down as I walked up the path that led from the neighborhood into the parking lot of the elementary school.

Flood lights illuminated the parking lot, the playground equipment on the grassy patch in the middle of all the concrete and asphalt. Being able to see what was around me made it more comfortable to be out there alone. Suddenly, there was no rush to get home, so I ran up the slide. My feet banged against the metal, echoed off the brick building with no worry of who could hear. I swung on the swings. The air cool, not yet crisp. The crickets in the distance, the yawn and squeak of the metal chains as I passed back and forth above the dirt below.

A car rolled by the mouth of the school’s parking lot. I became very aware of how far away other houses were, that no one knew I was out here. The swing continued to squeak as I headed west, towards home. Tree roots had cracked and uprooted the asphalt path that led out of the school grounds.

For a second, I thought I heard footsteps behind me. I stopped. I couldn’t see anyone in the dark. When I’d been in my house, searched for someone in the dark, I knew he was there, but there were walls and doors to protect me. Out here, they could be right next to me and I wouldn’t know. Screaming wouldn’t do any good because the neighbors no longer responded to shouts in the night. I turned the corner. My house was in view. No one was behind me. I walked. Caught my breath. The bay window in the front of the house was lit up, the couch, the hutch on the opposite wall visible through the gauzy curtains. I couldn’t see anyone inside. Both of my parents’ cars are in the driveway. I simply had to touch my finger to the door for it to open, it never latched right.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, about a ghost.

“Show me that ass,” I remember my father’s voice zoomed down to the foyer from the other room.  The door floated out of his jamb, refused to stay closed even though I had locked it. I walked up the stairs of the split-level house from the foyer to the living room/dining room area. This was the scene I encountered: my mother on her back, holding onto one of the legs of the dining room table. My father stood over her, tugging on the legs of her sweatpants, pulling them off.  “Everyone else gets to see it, let me see it,” he shouted.

My mother looked at me. “Help me,” she said. There is something called the bystander effect when a group of people witness a violent act, no one will help because they assume, hope that someone else will do it. I remember wanting someone else to step in. I wanted to walk out the door. But I was the only bystander. I had no reasonable expectation that someone would step in to break this up.

I pushed my father, and even though I had already grown taller and wider than him I was still surprised that I could push him hard enough for him to fall onto the dining room table. In one effortless move, he stood up and smacked me full force across the face hard enough to make me stumble backwards. My mother ran upstairs. A door slammed shut.

My father shoved me into the wall. Tackled me as I tried to get away. Despite my size, he rolled me onto my back, pushed my legs up into the air. He grabbed the waist of my jeans, tried to yank them down, but they were too tight to budge. I squirmed and struggled to escape. There’s no bystander for me. His grip a bruise waiting to happen. He pulled me closer. I swung my legs back and forth in an attempt to break free. He was all upper body and I was all lower. He smacked me on the side of the leg, missing my butt. He pushed my legs further back for a better angle to spank me and his grip loosened enough to allow me to finally kick. I kicked him in the face, in the chest. Again and again until he fell back. I didn’t hesitate, I ran to my room. Slammed the door shut, and sat against it so that he couldn’t open it. None of the kid’s bedroom doors had locks.

The next day I remember my father and mother sat at the kitchen table, discussing the grocery list as if nothing had happened.  “You know you knocked one of his teeth out,” she said as I sat down across from them at the table, as if he didn’t sit right next to her.

“I didn’t,” I said.

He lowered his head.

“You did,” she said.  “You shouldn’t have done that.”

Not another word would be said about it or any of the physical altercations in my house until years later when I went with my father to see Star Wars: Episode III. In the bathroom after the movie, both of us were washing our hands when he said, “Sorry, I used to smack you around.”

There was no hesitation to find the right words. He said this as casually as if he had said, can you hand me a paper towel?  I never wanted an apology, but I wanted acknowledgement that it had happened. And here it was. And I didn’t know what to do with it.

The hand dryer seemed to take an extraordinary long time to evaporate all the water from my skin. He stood behind you waiting to use the same machine. There was little chance that I couldn’t respond.  “Doesn’t matter,” I said.

I wish I would have said something like, I am broken. And you are one of the people who broke me. Acknowledgment of the events wasn’t enough. I wanted acknowledgement of the impact they had on me. I should have told him about my nightmares, about how tense I could get when people touched me, and that he was part of the cause of this.

But then what? The damage had already been done.

Never leave without saying goodbye: a rule set by my mother. One I remember she broke.

She often slept during the day since she worked the opening shift at a local restaurant, so even if she were asleep, I remember the rules dictated you were to tip-toe into her room, the cling of cigarette smoke visible from the light that snuck through the closed curtains. She was a light sleeper, so I never had to do more than whisper for her eyes to twitch behind the shrouds of her eyelids. She never opened them. But she moved her cheek for you to kiss her goodbye. One of her worst fears was for me or one of my siblings to disappear without her knowing where we had gone.

I remember her telling me this had happened to her as a child. She had come home from school to find that her mother and older sister were gone. No note. No forwarding address. No goodbye. No warning. Her and her younger sister left behind to fend for themselves against their father. He would throw them in the rose bushes in front of the house again and again. Their legs, arms, faces, scratched and bleeding. This was his idea of a game. She said she dreaded and oddly looked forward to it because it was the only time she remembered her father making time for them. It would be years before she would see her mother or older sister again.

Once, on one of her days off, I made the mistake of leaving for school without saying goodbye. At the end of the school day, I came out of the building to find my mother in her car, waiting for me. I was never picked up from school, so I knew immediately something was wrong. I got in the car. She sobbed, clutched at her chest with one hand, as she drove, and made me promise to never just leave.

Can the fear of abandonment be genetic? So encoded into your DNA that you fear this regardless of how aware you are, intellectually, that it makes no sense to feel this way because you have never actually been abandoned. You just have the fear of abandonment.

Once, a boyfriend, my now ex-boyfriend, left in the morning without saying goodbye. We were hundreds of miles away from home. I didn’t hear him get up. I didn’t hear him leave. I fell asleep with him there and when I woke up he was gone. A panic tried to take hold. But I knew exactly where he went. He was a few floors down in the same building. I knew he’d be back. All of his clothes were still there. People who leave take things with them. But, I still had that moment of fear. I don’t call or text him even though I wanted to because I know this fear is unfounded. Later in the morning, he texted to see how my day was going.

Please do me a favor and never leave without saying goodbye, I texted back.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” he said.

But I needed the reassurance that he was coming back more than I needed uninterrupted sleep. Saying goodbye, I’ve learned, is a promise of return. When nothing is said is when you have to be concerned the absence is permanent.

If a haunting, if ghosts, are simply a repetition, then this is a memory about a haunting, about a ghost.

I don’t have a disclaimer that reads, if he cares about you, if you care about him, be sure to always say goodbye or he’ll think you’re abandoning him. Saying goodbye is supposed to mean closure. The end of something. Yet, I learned an alternate meaning.

Part 3 of Brian’s essay will post next Monday.

Brian Kornell’s writing appears in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, Luna Luna Magazine, OCHO, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up gay in the Midwest as well being closeted and married until he was in his early thirties. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (@briankornell) or on Tumblr (

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