When I was a kid, I remember learning to say my complete address as if it were one word. I repeated it often, sometimes in my head; sometimes out loud, as if it was both a personal mantra and a natural detail to include when introducing oneself. Hi! My name is Jonathan Nichols, and I live at 10866 Weisiger Lane, Oakton, Virginia 22124. Mind you, it’s pronounced “Why-cig-err,” and not “Why-sing-er”. I could never understand why people struggled with that one so much.
The house that address belongs to sits on the top of a hill, at the head of a cul de sac, on top of a larger hill, in Berryland Farms – a neighborhood whose name I’ve since learned is ridiculous. If you were to look up from the cul de sac, you’d a two-car garage and a breezeway, with the left half of the structure hidden from view by an unkempt thicket spilling down the hillside. Trudging up the steep driveway – which is not recommended during icy weather – reveals a brick walkway and the two-story building’s broad, white face. With nine, black shuttered windows and a crimson front door, the whole affair looks picturesque when it snows – like a stock image in an unpurchased picture frame.
Wandering past this, the front lawn curves around the left side of the house to meet the backyard, bringing into view a large, wooden deck that spans the length of the building’s backside. A set of narrow stairs leads down from the platform, resting on a concrete slab set into the verdant half-acre hillside. The limits of this area are marked on the left and at the back by a pair rough, gray, wooden split-rail fences. But in the back left-hand corner, behind a couple of dead trees, there’s a small gap where the fence lines meet – just big enough for a child to slip through with ease. Growing up, I frequented this portal with increasing regularity, learning that beyond it lay a world removed from my own, one filled with lifelong friends and smiling, second families.
Coupled with the gap in the fence, I spent an equal amount of my childhood escaping through my mailbox. Growing up, one of the few things my father passed down to me was a love of superheroes, and he spent our first few years together regaling me with stories of growing up and reading The Silver Surfer and Thor during the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics. In 2002, my inherited fandom exploded into its own Golden Age, with Spider-Man serving as the era’s patron saint. The whole of my life aligned around his exploits. I watched Spider-Man fight the Green Goblin and save Mary Jane on the silver screen, I posed my two Spider-Man action figures on their little, plastic platforms, and, starting in June of that year, I was whisked away every month in the pages of the Amazing Spider-Man comic book. For the next 10 years, an issue would appear in my mailbox monthly, bound to a cardboard rectangle by tight, clear plastic. And printed on one side of that cardboard were two pieces of mailing information. My name and my address:
10866 Weisiger Ln, Oakton, VA 22124
The tethers to places beyond my home were invaluable. As much as possible, my days were spent in other people’s homes, with other people’s families, and my mind was filled with other people’s worlds. The process was subconscious at first, but as I grew older, the effort became desperate. Because when the sun went down, the rooms inside my home became the districts of a city. Some of them, like my room and my sister’s room, were safe, and others were dangerous. But the danger was always preceded by the stench of alcohol, and the air always threatened to explode into vile curses or crying no matter where you hid. Unlike the comics I held onto like lifesavers, I wasn’t sure who the heroes of this city were supposed to be.
My family has been divided for as long as I can remember, and the lines of battle separate my mother, my sister, and I from my father – the aggressor. For a very brief window, I think I managed to balance my parents’ relationship in my mind. I weighed my father’s red-faced, screaming visage against the idea of the typical patriarch and my mother’s dour, pursed frown with the put-upon matriarch. But my sister and I quickly became aware that something about this dynamic was different; something was wrong.
At family dinners, prepared earnestly each evening by my mother – always by my mother – my father conducted himself like a mad king, drinking half-glasses of whiskey until he sagged in his chair and ordered that the same songs be played over, and over, and over again on the stereo in the next room. An infinite loop of “Gaslighting Abbie” by Steely Dan, and live versions of Peter Gabriel’s “Shaking the Tree” and “Steam” soundtracked these madhouse engagements, until my mother – hiccuping beneath the weight of several glasses of wine – finally alluded to her displeasure in the softest of voices.
As soon as her timid challenge arose, my father pounced upon the opportunity to exercise his inhuman powers – as if he’d been waiting all night for this moment and wouldn’t have let it occur in any other way. The air would leave the room, and his smoldering figure would produce an impossible gravity, sucking the whole of reality into his destructive orbit. From his lips, insults flew alongside drunken spittle, branding my mother as “fat,” “bitch,” “pathetic,” “stupid,” and, increasingly as he got older, “cunt.” Sometimes my mother would fight back, prolonging the tirade, but more often than not, she would simply stand and ask for our help in cleaning. We would deposit our dishes in the sink, and sneak away to hide in our rooms for the rest of the night. My father would bring himself to his feet, and spend the next few minutes telegraphing his anger like a child: smashing plates, clattering silverware, knocking over chairs, and slamming doors. Through each of these tirades, his eyes stayed fixed upon my mother, burning one sentiment into her night after night: Don’t fucking cross me. I could kill you if I wanted.
The following morning – every following morning – we woke to find the fallout of the evening’s detonation: a reality that carried along as if nothing had occurred the night before. Nothing would change. Perhaps my father would begin a half-week bender, but all this led to was everyone sneaking very quietly around the house for fear of waking him. More often than not, we would be back at that dinner table within the same week, repeating the same songs and the same dance over, and over, and over again.
“Am I the villain in your life?”
My spider-sense goes haywire. What I thought was a ride home from a playdate at my friend’s house was actually a trap! I should have known as soon as I saw who was picking me up.
“N..no.” I stammer out. My father’s cold eyes appear in the rearview mirror, and I quickly turn my head to look out the window.
“Your mother says you think I’m the villain in your life.”
This is always how my father’s monologues went. His wife became your mother, a phrase he loaded with so much vitriol that it became yet another expletive, and she was always to blame when things went wrong. No matter what, she found a way to thwart his idea of himself and the world he inhabited.
But had I said this? Had I muttered this in one of those confusing moments of confidence between her and me? I must have. It was true. Saying it, though, when locked in a cage with him like that was too dangerous.
“You’re not…” I half-whisper. Outside, the sun is starting to set.
Every Labor Day, Berryland Farms had a massive cookout next to the tennis court and playground a little ways behind my house. Families spent the last few hours of summer eating food from large aluminum pans while the children ran about and the parents drank. This Labor Day, I’m either 8, or 9, or 10, but no matter what I’m about to head back to school at Sunrise Valley – a school none of my neighborhood friends attend. This is our last hurrah.
The day winds down, flies amass around the remaining food, and the sky begins to darken overhead as neighborhood volunteers break down the event tents and tables. Everyone’s drunk, and a little disjointed, and my best friend Calvin Vitaletti isn’t sure where his parents are, so my mother and I walk him home to ensure he’s safe. We see him off when we reach the top of his driveway and then double back, walking by the now deserted tennis court and playground. Making our way under a group of pine trees, the back of our house becomes visible. As we approach the opening in the fence, a voice cuts through the darkness.
“Where the hell were you?”
My father materializes in the shade of the dead trees in our backyard. Grabbing the fence posts to steady himself, he squeezes his pot-bellied torso through the portal, his flaming eyes locked on my mother as he staggers towards her.
“Ms. Vitaletti came looking for her son, and I didn’t know where he was. She kept asking me, and I couldn’t answer her. She started crying. I couldn’t answer her!” Every word he spits at her is heavy, pointed, and soaked in booze and venom. This is all her fault. She made him look bad.
My mother pushes me aside, raising her other arm in front of her out of fear. Suddenly, my father jerks his body forward and swings an arm at her, clasping a hand tightly around her outstretched wrist. In a frenzy of curses and stumbling flesh, they fall onto the root-knotted, pine-needled forest floor. As my mother lands like a pool of moonlight on the underbrush, she yells to me:
“Jonathan! Run and call the police!”
Turning away from the struggle, I slip between the fence posts and fly up the hill, my short legs pumping against the grassy incline. The wood of the deck stairs clatters beneath my feet as I leap up onto the platform. I cut right, leap over the steps to the deck’s upper tier and arrive at the back door. As I twist the loose, brass knob and push forward, the wood of the door sticks and creaks loudly before clattering out of its frame – it always swelled during the summertime. I enter the living room and make a hard left towards the kitchen, the patter of my feet switching from carpet to hardwood before stopping abruptly as I reach up towards the silver cradle of the phone, the receiver’s bulbous orange buttons flaring to life as I pull it from the dock and my fingers go searching for the nine, the one, and the one again.
“Vienna Police Department, what’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice asks.
“My Dad just pushed my Mom down in the backyard!” I shout back as my heart races and my body shakes.
“Ok, son, don’t worry we’ll send someone right over. What’s your address?”
Come on, you know this one.
She assures me the police are on their way and tells me to keep myself safe. I run down into the basement and try to bury myself in a chair. I pull my legs up to my chest and hold them there with my arms, crying as I hide my face behind my knees. I don’t know how long I was there for, but eventually, the door to the basement opens.
My father says nothing as he descends and walks in front of my chair, kneeling down on one knee until we’re eye level. When I finally muster the courage to meet his gaze, I’m greeted by a pair of icy blue, bloodshot eyes bugging out of a stone face. He raises a hand.
“If you ever call the police again,” he says in an alarmingly clear tone, pointing a ruddy finger at my chest.
“I’ll pick you up.” He folds his finger back and brings his fists level with one another, never breaking eye contact.
“And I’ll break you over my knee.” He clenches his jaw as he slams his fists down over his flexed leg. He stares at me with the same fire he directed at my mother night after night. Behind it, the same message: Don’t fucking cross me. I could kill you if I wanted.
I say nothing. The threat hangs in the dead air between us. I think I was sobbing as he got up to leave and head back upstairs, but I don’t know for certain. All I remember is hearing his voice again a few minutes later, floating down the stairs in a disgusting singsong:
“Oh, Jonathan!” he trills “Your police are here!”
No, no, no, I hear you say. They already did that one. It was way back in 1993, four months before you were even born. Bane broke Batman’s back in Batman #497. Everybody knows that one! And that’s the problem with comics, isn’t it? They go on for so long, they’re guaranteed to repeat plotlines. Sure, there are minor differences in each issue – Catwoman fights Bane in this one, the neighbors call the police this time – but each story tends to end the same way. The villain is sent to Arkham, or the Negative Zone, or the Vienna town jail, but soon they reappear as if nothing had happened.
Over time, you notice something about these stories. They insist on their significance, implying each time that this! is the dramatic conclusion of the hero’s entire history. Except it never is. But even if you stop believing them, even if you stop reading them, they’re still there. I canceled my subscription to Amazing Spider-Man when I left for college; I’d outgrown a story I started reading when I was a child. But even though I’d left, as my sister had before me, new issues of my family’s story kept arriving to the house. Sometimes my Mom would call me – always late in the evening – and tell me about them. And when I returned home, I could sense their weight somewhere in the house, added to the piles of back issues I had hidden away in the corner of my old room.
Nowadays, I keep my comic book fandom at arm’s length. In my mind, there’s nothing there for me anymore, nothing it can teach me about the real world I’ve shaped for myself. Occasionally, I’ll return to it, picking up a new issue hoping that this thing from my childhood will suddenly show that it’s changed alongside me – grown in some way that reflects my growth and creates a space for conversation. But it never does. It’s just the same stories, the same actions, the same songs, and the same patterns repeating over and over again. Ad infinitum; ad nauseam.
There is one thing, however, that these two parts of my childhood taught me, and it’s crystallized in the final pages of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, pleads with the omnipotent Jonathan Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan, asking for validation of his actions:
“I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.”
“‘In the end’?”Jon replies, turning to face him. “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”