There is a story the family likes to tell every time we get together. They think it’s hilarious. They laugh and laugh each time like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. Even though I was only 8 when it happened, they still like to tease me for it. I don’t find it funny. It hurts, actually, like reopening a deep wound that never properly healed and rubbing vinegar and salt into it. For years, I just smiled or chuckled along anyhow, hiding my pain just to feel included. I don’t anymore. Now, I’m writing it as it happened from my perspective. I’m taking my story back.
“Krystal, I’m going to the bathroom.”
My big sister was playing an arcade game with my two step-brothers in the game room at Pizza Hut. She didn’t even take her eyes off the screen when she hurriedly responded, “okay, okay” waving me away like a pesty bug who was persistently bothering her.
That evening, we were well into the second summer we spent with my dad after the divorce. It was Friday night which meant pizza & a movie. Generally, that meant just us kids and our stepmom ordering delivery and watching a movie rental at home; however, Dad was actually off this Friday night so we went out instead. Once Krystal, Joe, & Kyle cleaned their plates they pooled their change together to see how many games they’d be able to play. Rarely invited or included, I chose not to even try that time, avoiding the hurt from their reluctance and eye-rolls. I stayed at the table with Dad and Debra until they started arguing and I recognized that my presence was once again a nuisance. I had to the use the restroom any way so I got up and walked towards the other kids who were immersed in their games. I had to let someone know where I was going. After telling Krystal, I shuffled away from the collective noise of three loud children enjoying themselves and I headed towards the door with the little figure wearing a triangle around its middle.
I may have been in the bathroom for 2 minutes, 3 tops. When I came out, the restaurant was quiet. I turned a corner and saw an empty game room. My heart started racing. I rushed into the dining area to see an empty table, a cash tip left under a water glass. I bolted to the door, swung it open with great force, & looked at the empty parking lot where my Dad and Debra’s vehicles had been. Sprinting to the edge of the lot, I stretched my gaze down the street, surveying all the vehicles, looking for something familiar. Nothing.
It hit me like a big MACK truck; they left me.
I leaned against the brick building and waited for them to come back. Surely, they’d realize their mistake and turn right back around. It was really hot outside. My thick bangs started to soak with sweat and matte to my forehead.
Back inside where it was cool, I meandered around the restaurant trying not to be seen by the workers. The joint was pretty empty. All the other tables where there had previously been people eating were cleared out. I wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. But what could be worse than being left by your family and then being forced to talk to strangers? At 8 years old, I felt the answer was nothing.
They weren’t coming back. That became clearer with each passing moment. I inhaled the deepest breath I could, taking in oxygen, reaching deep inside to find even the tiniest ounce of bravery. There were several men dressed in black and red busily moving around behind the big counter. I took them each in one by one, assessing their movements, their stature, searching for the kindest pair of eyes. The winner was a dark haired man about the same age as my dad. He was relatively fit for someone who worked in a pizza shop, I thought. Cautiously turning around the counter into the “Employees Only” area, in a quiet polite voice I said, “Excuse me.” He turned to me with surprise. I suspect he didn’t realize there was still a customer in the store. With a good head on view now, I deduced I made the best choice I could.
His eyes were blue and full of warmth. “Hi There, How can I help you?”
“My family left me.” I said with embarrassment.
“They what? Are you sure?”
“Yes. I went to the bathroom and when I came out they were gone.”
He scanned the dining room for any trace of movement. He turned his head towards the front door, squinting to check out the parking lot.”Maybe they are just waiting for you in the car. Let’s have a look.”
I didn’t bother telling him I already had. He escorted me towards the door. At the sight of the empty parking lot, he looked back to his coworkers who had all stopped what they were doing to watch us and he silently mouthed the word “wow” as if I couldn’t see him. It hurt. Even this stranger was in disbelief.
“Do you know your phone number?”
I was ashamed to respond, “no.”
He looked down at me, bewildered. He walked away, bringing back a chair, set it down beside the counter and then gestured for me to sit in it.
“Why don’t we just wait a bit. I’m sure they’ll be right back for you.” He went back to his business.
I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I was never any good at crying in the middle of the scariest occasions. It always came later. I also was never any good at crying in the midst of strangers. I knew they weren’t coming back. This poor man had no idea what to do with me. He still had hope he wouldn’t have to do anything at all.
Then I remembered, I knew the address. I wrote to dad all the time throughout the year when we were with Mom. I got down from the chair and gently tapped the kind man on his back. “17 Twin Oaks Drive. Shiloh, Illinois 6 triple2 1.”
“Is that your address?” He was stunned.
“Yep.” I didn’t want to explain to him how I knew my address but not my phone number. He stared at me blankly and I stared back.
After consulting with his fellow workmates, he presented a young guy to me. “This is Troy. He’s going to drive you home.”
I was hesitant. Should I trust this Troy? Did I have any other choice?
“Okay.” I agreed.
I followed Troy out to his little dirty white car with a big Pizza Hut sign on top.
He opened the door behind the passenger’s seat & shoved a bunch of his belongings to the other side. I climbed in the car and buckled myself in.
When the car started moving, my stomach dropped. I instantly regretted my decision. What if he’s a bad man? What if doesn’t take me home? He might hurt me. He didn’t make much conversation. Occasionally, when we’d come to a stop he’d ask, “does this seem like the right way?” From the backseat, I’d just nod. I kept my hands carefully folded in my lap, sitting up as straight as I could. If I’m good, I thought, he might be good to me. The longer we drove, the less blurry the outside world seemed and the more things began to look familiar. I know that big tree with tire swing. I’ve definitely seen that house and birdbath before. He’s going to take me home. It was monumentally relieving when he turned down Twin Oaks Drive. He came to a slow crawl and waited for me to point out our house on the right hand side of the street. “This is it. Stop. STOP.” He did. I said, “Thank You” before slamming the door and darting up the driveway.
The tears were flowing before I reached the front door. When I opened it, I was bellowing with anger and fear. Debra was sitting at the end of the couch closest to the door. Dad’s head was in her lap and his legs were sprawled out down the couch. Joe and Kyle looked quite comfortable sitting on the floor in front of the television. Krystal casually walked out from the hallway and with the usual annoyed attitude she gave me said, “Why are you crying?”
I couldn’t believe it. WHY AM I CRYING?! Did they leave me on purpose?
I shouted at the whole room, “YOU LEFT ME AT PIZZA HUT.”
All three kids started laughing. Dad sat up. “What? No we didn’t.”
“YES YOU DID!” That’s when I realized they didn’t even notice I was missing. The answer to the question I asked myself earlier suddenly changed. What could be worse than being left by your family and having to talk to strangers? Finding out your family didn’t even know you weren’t there.
Through my tears, I gurgled out, “I told Krystal I was going to the bathroom.”
Everyone looked at her. Either she honestly didn’t remember or she didn’t want to get in trouble and, as per usual, would rather make me out as the liar. “No she didn’t.” She was concise and unwavering.
I yelled back, “YES I DID!”
Dad and Debra were arguing again.
“She was with you.”
“No I specifically remember seeing her head in your truck.”
“No, she said she wanted to ride with you.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “You’re BOTH WRONG. I didn’t ride with EITHER OF YOU. I RODE WITH THE DELIVERY GUY.”
The room erupted in laughter. Bitterness overtook me. I cried harder.
Dad saw my face and came over to try to hug me. I pulled away.
I hated them all now. I was always an outsider in this family. Now, I was also an afterthought.
I was delivered to my family like a fresh hot pizza they forgot they even ordered. Instead of being happy to receive me they were arguing among themselves and mocking me. Instead of, oh yeah, I forgot we ordered that, what a welcome surprise, it was oh yeah, I forgot we have another daughter. That’s exactly what I felt at the center of my being.
I knew I was the odd one out. It’s why I preferred living with Mom. I knew sometimes it annoyed them that I didn’t go along with whatever they liked or wanted. Despite that, I believed that they loved me. I didn’t know until that instant I could be so easily discarded. I was so invisible to them they hadn’t even realized my absence.
While I can recognize and appreciate the humor of a child being delivered by a pizza delivery boy, when you ARE that child, it’s unamusing; in fact, it’s tragic.
When you’re young, events like these happening to you don’t only become fun anecdotes, stories to tell later in life. People build themselves as reactions to their environments. When you’re young, even at 8 years old, the things that happen around you and to you begin to dictate who you ultimately become. This taught me what I would believe as a truth about myself for many years to come, I am forgettable. This particular incident would go on to concrete my internal independence from my family. It was the exact stimulant needed to create everlasting distrust and to permanently shut them out. I’m not sure that reaction was conscious or intentional; it was instinct, survival. It was a very hard, very early lesson on trusting no one but yourself.