My dad had moved out six months before and I was barely hanging on. To my bedroom windowsill, actually. Two stories above the ground. It hadn’t occurred to my five-year-old mind that if I climbed out, I wouldn’t be strong enough to climb back in.
I knew I wasn’t strong enough to scale up the outside of the house and catapult myself through my window. That’s what Prince Valiant would have done. Climbing out the window and then jumping back in was a compromise, a workable shortcut. Or so it had seemed at the time.
I had been playing in my room, another compromise. My room was in the front of the house, over the garage, which was below ground level, with a sloping driveway up to the street. It was a single-level three-bedroom stucco house in North Berkeley. There were three steps outside to the stoop, then a small dining room just inside the front door, a cozy living room and kitchen just beyond. My sister Jessica’s and my mom’s rooms were at the end of the hall, in the back of the house.
There wasn’t much space to move around in my room, but playing there was better than playing in the rest of the house, or in the spacious backyard with its one big, beautiful tree. Outside my room I might be seen by my sister or my mom or Mom’s boyfriend. My sister always wanted to join me, but she was only three and didn’t take direction well. My mom was always asking me questions. “What are you doing, sweetheart? Looks like fun.” I appreciated the affirmation but not the interruption. And Tom, the boyfriend, would just watch me and not say anything. It made me nervous.
Tom had moved in with Mom a few months after we moved to this new house. Mom and Dad were selling the old house, because they were getting divorced. I had a very limited grasp of what that meant. Clearly it meant that my dad wasn’t living with us anymore. My sister and I still saw him on weekends. That meant he could still read the Sunday funnies to me. My favorite strip was Prince Valiant. I loved Prince Valiant. I had the same haircut as Prince Valiant. I had been Prince Valiant for Halloween. Twice.
Beyond Dad living elsewhere, divorce clearly also somehow meant that this new guy was living with us. He was big and sturdy and mostly very kind and gentle. I didn’t trust him.
I didn’t like that he slept in Mom’s room. I would develop yearnings that got me out of bed at night and led me to knock on her door. “Mom, I need another blanket.” “Mom, I’m hungry.” “Mom, I need a glass of water.” Whatever I could come up with. She would always get up, and come meet whatever flimsy request I was making. I’m sure she saw through it. But she smiled anyway and gave me a blanket or a cookie or a glass of water.
Those were reassuring moments, but invariably Tom’s voice would come from the bedroom: “Come back to bed, babe.” And my mom would walk me down the hall and tuck me in, and she’d be gone. And I’d be alone with my confusion and worry.
When I was with my dad, I’d ask him over and over to explain divorce to me. I’m sure he tried to be direct; that was always his preference. I can imagine him explaining that he and my mom just didn’t want to live together anymore, that they didn’t want to be married to each other anymore. But nothing he said made sense to me. The closest I came to comprehension was when he translated the conflict into new language: he told me that he and my mom had gotten to the point where they “didn’t want to play the same games anymore.” That I could relate to. I didn’t like playing the same games as my sister. I didn’t really like playing with anyone else.
Alone, I created and inhabited my own reality. I wrote, directed, and starred in my own dramas, with myself as the only audience.
Some days I was Superman, some days Batman, some days Spider-Man. But mostly I was Prince Valiant. Strong and brave. A little reckless. Sometimes funny. Very menacing when angry.
I learned to confine my play to the constraints of my bedroom. I discovered to my delight that most of the fun of pretending to be someone else was in the feelings you created. It didn’t really matter what you were actually doing. I could jog in place for a moment and feel like I was running across a field. I could swing my cardboard Singing Sword and battle evil knights and monsters, just so long as I kept the strokes compact enough so I didn’t knock over a lamp. But every now and then, I hungered to expand my canvas and inject just a little more reality into the game.
That day, for example: Aleta of the Misty Isles had needed rescuing from the Tower of the Black Knight. As a Knight of the Round Table, and her beloved husband, it was up to me to vanquish her captor and liberate her. The only way into the Tower was through the window. And so I’d made the very astute judgment that climbing up the outside wall was beyond my ability, and the somewhat less astute assessment that climbing out the window and then propelling myself back in, to create the effect of having just climbed up the outside wall, was perfectly doable.
I couldn’t have hung there very long. Lacking the strength to pull myself up, how long could I really have held on? Twenty seconds maybe. Eight seconds to realize that this wasn’t going to go as planned, eight seconds to get the attention of first my sister and then my mom, four seconds for my mom to pull me up. It seemed like a lot longer. Not because I was terrified. I don’t remember being scared at all. A little embarrassed. But I never panicked. Somewhere in that first eight seconds, I remember thinking that I might be able to hop off the garage door handle on my way down, using that to break my fall. Yeah, that could work, I thought, visualizing myself nailing the move with Spider-Man-like agility and grace.
A faint skeptical voice inside gently reminded me that I had already slightly overestimated my dexterity once that afternoon. It was possible that this maneuver might not work out as well as I was visualizing it.
So I called out for my mom. Instead, it was my sister who came. I remember Jessie’s face above me in the window. She didn’t look scared either. A little curious maybe. At three, the world was just barely beginning to make any sense at all, and her brother hanging out a window must have seemed novel, but not alarming.
My voice was stern: “Get Mom. Now. Fast.” She scampered off, calling out, “David’s stuck, David’s stuck.”
And then my mom was at the window. She was definitely scared. “Oh my God, what are you doing?”
It’s hard for me to imagine that I didn’t get scared at that point, seeing how scared she was. We were so intertwined emotionally. I didn’t know how to separate my own elation from her obvious delight when I slid down the slide or handed her a finger painting. When she was sad, so was I. So seeing her terrified in that moment, how could I not have felt scared too? But I don’t think I was. I think I felt past her worry to her concern, to her love, and all I felt was important.
She grabbed my wrists and started to pull me up. I fully embraced being rescued and was surprised by how much I liked it. I remember letting go of the sill, and going completely limp. “Jesus, David,” my mom scolded me, “Help me, goddamn it.” I felt a little disappointed, but started using my legs to walk up the wall and scramble back into the room.
I don’t remember much about what happened next. I’m sure she scolded me some more. But she was never a good scolder. I’m sure once I explained what had happened, she would have found it endearing, in spite of herself. She would have made me promise, promise, promise never to do it again. I promised.
And I have kept that promise to this day, never again climbing out a window like that. I suspect that these days I might be strong enough to make it back inside, but I’ve never felt the impulse to test it. After that day, I became even more adept at the art of fantasy, requiring less and less of the world to sustain my internal adventures.
But as much as fantasy nourished me, there were still things that mattered to me in the life beyond my bedroom. I missed my dad. I was worried about my mom. Once, when we were alone, I asked her point blank if Tom was the reason Dad was gone.
“Oh no, love,” she insisted. “Tom moved in because Dad and I split up, not the other way around.”
Separating causes from consequences wasn’t really something I was able to do yet though. I just knew that there was something wrong with this guy. He had to go.
As proficient as I was at fantasizing myself a powerful knight, I realized that I was too small to confront Tom. But I didn’t feel powerless either. I could hear something in his voice when he called out “come back to bed” after my second interruption of the night. There was an edge, a note of urgency, a sigh before and after. Something dark that he was trying to keep hidden. If I poked at it, maybe I could keep him from getting too comfortable in my house, in my mom’s bed, until my dad showed up to get rid of him.
Unlike with the window, I made no conscious plan. I simply increased the nightly interruptions from two to three. Then four. “Mom, I’m too hot.” “Mom, I can’t sleep.” “Mom, I finished my water. Can I have more?” And sure enough, that sharpness in his voice became more severe. Once, before she came to the door, I heard him groan, “You’ve got to stop coddling him.” But she came anyway. Filled my glass, tussled my hair, tucked me back in.
And then the last time came. I knocked yet again, made my request, but this time it was him at the door, bursting through it, eyes ablaze. He grabbed me, picked me up, stormed down the hallway, through my door, and dumped me into my bed. He slammed my door shut and was gone.
I was terrified, distraught, and I sobbed into my pillow. I had been expecting something to happen, but really had no idea what. I had been jabbing a wasp’s nest with a stick, knowing that it was dangerous, but not really knowing why.
I heard my mom calling out for me, but she didn’t come. Did he stop her? Was she afraid of him too?
He moved out not long after that. I don’t actually know how pivotal that one event was in my mom’s decision to break up with him. There were other explosions she recalls, and it probably was more of an accumulation of misgivings that emerged for her. But I certainly thought I had been the one to vanquish him.
I felt relieved and hopeful. I even felt a little triumphant, although I didn’t have the kind of pride in victory that Prince Valiant always seemed to have. In the panels after an important conquest, his face would always turn upward, lit by the sun, radiating pride and confidence and righteousness, as he stood over the limp body of his defeated foe. But I still felt pretty good. A win is a win.
It turned out to be a mixed blessing. My mom soon met another man, Pat, who was also big and sturdy and kind and gentle. And not nearly as easily provoked or defeated.
By that time we had moved three hours away. Jessie and I got to see Dad only every other weekend. He had a new girlfriend named Barbara who usually came with him. He wasn’t going to move back in with us.
Even though passive aggression was far less effective with Pat, I found it a hard habit to break. Provoking enemies to show you their dark side might not be as satisfying as taking them down in one-on-one combat, but it was hard to pass up any pathway to power.
As I wrote above, climbing out windows never became a habit. But pretending to be what I wanted to be, and hoping it would take, that habit follows me to this day.