Like everyone who’s walked modern Earth, my story started before I began. Its first words whispered millennia ago. Ancestors I’ll never know inscribed the introduction. Every chapter maps a generation’s path. Each page is bound to a sturdy spine. These acts are my preface, not my plotline. A pen passed down, an inkwell that runneth over.
Linz, Austria. The 1930s. Nazi death camps were well underway. Adolph and Bertha couldn’t stay. They stepped aboard an overcrowded ocean liner. Setting sail for Ellis Island, they immigrated to the US, then moved into a tenement in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Starting over was tough, but they made ends meet. Adolph ran the corner grocery store. Bertha stayed home, kept house, and raised two kids. First came their daughter Hattie, then ten years later Joel—the boy who’d one day be my father.
Joel grew up on the living room couch. His beginnings were more than modest. He never had a birthday party or learned to ride a bike. He was color-blind and awkward. But Joel had one thing going for him—he was brilliant when it came to numbers. At seventeen, he went to Stanford on a math scholarship, then studied statistics at Princeton and Yale. A man who’d come from nothing with three Ivy League degrees. He was just twenty-five years old.
Rhonda, my mom, was born in Brooklyn too, but she grew up in blue-collar Connecticut. Her father Morris, a British immigrant, worked in a Timex factory. She had an older brother Barry who was depressed. Her mother Shirley cooked a mean cheese blintze. Like most girls her age, Rhonda was raised to aspire to be someone’s wife.
Rhonda moved to New Haven and taught nursing at Yale. That’s when she met Joel. At first, she didn’t like him, she found him pushy and crass, but she thought that she could change him. She knew he was smart, that he would land a good job, make money, and provide. Besides, all her girlfriends were getting engaged, and she too wanted to be a bride. At the end of their first date, Joel walked Rhonda home. She said thank you and goodnight. Then, she tried to close the door. Joel forced it open with his foot. He wasn’t ready to leave just yet. He expected something more. Rhonda may not have said it then, but I think he really scared her.
A few years later, Rhonda and Joel married, and moved to white, heteronormal Anyplace, USA. After the birth of their first baby, a little girl named Daniele, Joel’s behavior grew more erratic. The first time he hit Rhonda, she was surprised. After that, not so much. She wouldn’t dare leave him, she was too far in, and they had a second baby on the way. One day, Joel grabbed Rhonda’s throat and slammed her into the kitchen wall. She begged him to let go, she was terrified—she was also seven months pregnant. With a closed fist and zero remorse, Joel punched her tender stomach. She barreled over, fell to the floor; laid there sobbing, wincing in pain. Disgusted by the sight of his pathetic wife, Joel screamed in Rhonda’s face. He didn’t help her up or apologize. He didn’t ask if she was okay. Instead, he turned around, feeling like a big man, left her there and walked away. He could’ve killed their unborn child. That might have been exactly what he wanted.
Two years later, I was born. Into this place people insisted was home. Nobody, especially not I, had any idea what was coming.