debbie millman

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Learning To Smoke

I’ll never forget the weekend Ben brought his kids around to meet me. It was about two months after he’d started seeing them again and he finally felt that the time was right. We had separate apartments in the city, but together we had a big house in the Catskills, with a Jacuzzi and a garden and dense woods all around. But that weekend I had to stay with Amanda and Jesse way up the mountain, until the “appropriate moment.” The time finally came Sunday morning. It was a warm June day, I was wearing my hair in braids—Ben liked it like that—and he brought the kids over. Margaret was curious, Michael was younger and more tentative, and overall the tone of the afternoon was cautious—like band members auditioning a new drummer. Was I going to play too loud or too fast?

After a few hours we decided to go to a movie—someone else’s reality for a few hours—and then we went for pizza. Margaret was almost a teenager and couldn’t keep her eyes off of me; she watched me smoke, reapply my lipstick after we ate—she even asked me to braid her hair the way I braided mine. I was touched and flattered, and suddenly felt something for this skinny freckle-faced kid who seemed so desperate for love and attention.

The ritual of that afternoon was repeated many times, weekend after weekend, and new events were thrown in once and a while: swimming in the creek by the house, shopping for cowboy boots for Margaret in town, and bowling. Mostly we had a good time together. Margaret got frustrated with me when we bowled, complaining that I did everything so well, and she was so bad at everything thing she did—but I tried to teach her and after she got over her awkwardness at being shown how to do something, she relaxed and had fun.

Ben was on his best behavior then, basking in the glory of having his kids back, smothering them with presents and money, never getting angry or irritated. I wondered how long it would last and which kid would be the first to tick him off and begin to see how violent he’d become in the five years since their mother had left him.

I never thought it would be me. I saw Ben kick a dog once, threaten the mailman and the garage attendant, even fire a few of his best employees. And while he yelled at me, and sometimes scared the shit out of me, I never thought he’d ever raise a hand to me.

In November, we all decided to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Ben knew I wasn’t much of a cook, but he begged me to put something together, this being a year he felt he really had something to be thankful for, his kids being back and all. So I got a turkey and ingredients for stuffing and pumpkin pie and did the best job I could to make a meal they would all like. Margaret and Michael and I got all dressed up and Margaret even wore some make-up.

Something happened during the Giants-Redskins game, I don’t know if it was because dinner was running late—after all I wasn’t experienced at cooking a turkey and didn’t know how long those damn birds needed to cook, or maybe it was that the Giants were losing so badly or maybe it was because Margaret and Michael were bickering, but as soon as we sat down for dinner I knew something was going to happen.

“What’s wrong with the turkey?” he demanded to know.

Nobody answered. There was something in his voice that had us all paralyzed.

Margaret finally broke the ice. “Tastes fine to me,” she said, her mouth full.

He ignored her. He asked again, but this time directly to me. “What’s wrong with the turkey?”

I looked at him. I didn’t want to look scared, because that always made it worse, but I was scared.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “You tell me. Don’t you like it?”

“No,” he replied, “I don't.” And with that he threw his plate across the room, sending turkey flying all over the sofa. Then he got up, sent his chair reeling, and charged through the room and out the glass sliding doors onto the deck. Michael started crying. Margaret was biting her nails. “What should we do?” she whispered.

“Lock yourselves in the bathroom,” I replied. “I’ll take care of him.”

Margaret dragged Michael off his chair, and she pushed him into the bathroom. Ben was still screaming outside, carrying on about our lack of appreciation, our selfishness, our self-centeredness, and his inability, no matter what he did, to succeed in making us happy. “Can’t you just once, just once,” he hollered, “be happy for my sake?” I went outside to try and calm him down.

“What do you want?” he said as soon as he saw me. "Where are the kids?”

“They’re OK,” I answered. “They’re in the bathroom.”

And that was it. I guess he felt embarrassed, humiliated that his kids had hidden from him, but in that brief second I saw his eyes flash and I knew he had gone over the edge. He grabbed the garden shovel and lunged at me. I took off. He ran after me. And off we went into the woods surrounding the house, me running in my Thanksgiving outfit, him screaming at me, cursing and chasing me with a shovel over his head. Somehow I out ran him. It was dark and I ran and ran and ran and ran, and suddenly there was no more yelling and I stopped and knew I was alone. I crouched in the woods, my heart pounding. I believe I stayed this way for several hours. I don't know; I lost track of time. Finally, I could breathe again. I realized I was freezing, my arms were cut and my feet were aching. I slowly started to walk back to the house. All the lights were off and the doors were locked. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to bang on the door; afraid I might start everything all over again. I tried the cars. One of the doors was opened. I crawled in, curled up in the back seat and squeezed my eyes shut as tight as I could. I was shivering. I fell asleep.

A little while later I awoke as Ben opened the car door. I remember recoiling in fear, and then I noticed he was crying. “Baby, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please come inside.” He was blubbering. He begged me, pleaded with me to forgive him. I was numb. I didn't say anything. We got out of the car, and slowly walked back to the house. I went directly in to the bedroom and immediately fell asleep. In the distance I vaguely remember him whispering over and over again how much he loved me and couldn't live without me.

In he morning Ben pretended nothing had happened the night before. He was in a gregarious mood and made large gestures of affection to all of us. He had a small plane and insisted on taking Michael out flying. He gave me $500 and told Margaret and me that “the girls should do a little shopping.” He dropped us off in town on his way to the airport. We shopped and Margaret asked me if I would teach her how to smoke. I told her I would, when we got back to the city.

5 Comments:

Anonymous c said...

you are writing about my life and ... it tears at my heart.

11/28/2006 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger peter said...

This post has been on my mind all day and literally woke me from sleep just now because i realized that i had neglected to comment on it. A harrowing experience, and an excellent piece of writing.

11/29/2006 01:38:00 AM  
Blogger minus five said...

this reminded me of growing up with my mom. its too bad i didn't know you back then because i could have fought him for you.

11/29/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger riveraphobia said...

You are one talented woman, there's no doubting that. I have nothing but admiration for all of your endeavors, especially since I know how hard you work and how much passion you pour into projects. But Debbie, my love, you need to learn to take your time. The tale is too rushed, key details which often add mood and subtext are unavailable (what kind of house are they having Thanksgiving in, for example? Is it mock-Tudor, a rambling country home, an airy space with potential for drafts? What does the sky look like? What does Ben look like? Telling details add nuance, a bit of savory for the reader's often prickly tongue) There is nothing wrong with "telling," as long as you are "showing" as well. This is fine work, but it could be even finer with some polish, and, most importanty, some new drafts. Any writer who can withstand the frustration and boredom of multiple drafts, is, well, a WRITER.

11/29/2006 05:52:00 PM  
Blogger HQ said...

Moving, meaningful stuff. Did you leave him? What happened to the children? More.

11/29/2006 11:06:00 PM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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