Read an Excerpt
Remember to Write from Your Unique Perspective
I think one of the things that makes me unique is that as far back as I can remember, I have always talked to a lot of things besides people. I found it comforting, a way to prove that I existed. From early childhood on, I was haunted by the feeling that no one could hear me.
I was not without my reasons. My mother, Joyce, demanded and usually got all of whatever attention was available. She was beautiful enough to have stumbled into an accidental modeling career when she was seventeen just by waving at a photographer at the beach. Dressed in her yellow plaid shorts set and a big straw hat, she looked like a cast member of some seldom seen television show greeting smitten fans. A few months later, when her picture turned up in hundreds of inexpensive frames for sale at discount drugstores, it made my mother a local celebrity. Unfortunately, because she’d signed a release and accepted fifty dollars, she never received any more money. But once she realized that people knew who she was, she felt entitled to dominate any gathering, large or small, whether or not she had anything to say. I figured out, early on, that getting a word in edgewise wasn’t going to be in the cards for me. So I became a quiet, obedient kid, good at blending in, easy to overlook. I learned to cope with my need for attention by creating my own private personal rituals to make myself feel special.
As early as second grade, I’d take the phone into the closet when I got home from school and call local radio shows so I could dedicate songs to myself. Then I’d spend hours by the radio, switching from station to station in the hope that at least one deejay would say, “ ‘You Light Up My Life’ by Debbie Boone goes out to the girl who lights up everybody’s life, Dawn Tarnauer.” I never did hear anyone say it, but I kept right on hoping. While I waited, I would pretend to host my own TV show. For guests I would interview whatever was available: my plastic horses, my stuffed animals, my mother’s cat, my chair, my own reflection.
But The Day Everything Changed was the first time that anything ever answered me back.
I was born to the prefeminist version of my mother, a woman with a constantly lit cigarette and a perpetually jiggling leg, bored out of her mind but not sure what to do about it. I think she saw her firstborn much the same way she did her never finished pieces of découpage: as something that needed more work than she had time for. By the time I was five, I had figured out that the fastest way to my mother’s heart was to fetch her cigarettes and tell her everything was going to be okay.
Halley, my sister, was born when I was six. Sometime during that pregnancy, my mother turned into a feminist. She dropped her découpage work (which consisted mainly of hatboxes shellacked with magazine clippings of female faces that looked like her own) in favor of something called “creative breakthrough parenting,” where she learned that she could offset parental neglect through the use of extravagant praise. I remember not quite trusting all her suddenly effusive reinforcement, even finding it kind of embarrassing. But it worked like gangbusters on Halley, who loved hearing that her preschool drawings were “as good as Matisse” and her one-finger piano compositions had the precocious brilliance of a grade school Beethoven. This despite the fact that neither of us really had any idea who those people were.
Of course, now that Halley and I were both effortlessly producing masterworks and our careers in the arts were assured, my mother rationalized that her presence at parent-teacher conferences and school events would be gilding the lily. This was fine with me. I was comfortable living under the radar. But it was different for Halley, who grew up feeling entitled to center stage and wondering why it seemed to elude her. When she auditioned for the seventh-grade play, Miracle on 34th Street, and was cast not as the lead but as one of the two dozen Christmas shoppers, it triggered in her an obsessive desire for a persona that everyone noticed. Soon she was dying her curly brown hair blue black, then red, then blond, and then black with orange streaks. She also started dressing more and more theatrically, favoring oversize round sunglasses, a dark head scarf, and a floor-length faux-fur coat—kind of an unintentional homage to Jackie O at Aristotle’s funeral. But despite her valiant efforts, Halley never succeeded in gaining the moniker she wanted, which would have been something as simple as “the mysterious girl dressed in black.” If the kids remembered to call her anything at all, it was something less mythic and more direct, like “dork.”
In that way, Halley was a chip off the old block. Because as we got older, Joyce, our mother, kept searching endlessly, tirelessly, for her true life’s calling. A new image was usually the first sign that things were about to change. She bounced from long-haired flamenco dancer to short-haired Scientology acolyte to buzz-cut-wearing animal- rights activist who walked picket lines at pet stores, held fund- raisers for rescue organizations, and chained herself to a five- hundred-pound Galápagos tortoise at Marine World. There was always something more pressing for my mother than paying attention to her daughters. It was clear to us that if we demanded too much of her time, it would have to be unfairly stolen from condemned animals. By taking care of ourselves and asking for nothing, we believed we were helping puppies and kittens stay alive.
On the surface, Halley and I probably looked like nice if slightly eccentric girls. Our grades were okay. We weren’t out partying or doing drugs. But on closer inspection, we had constructed a yin and yang of defense mechanisms, neurotic tics, and eating disorders. While I was busy hiding bags of pecan sandies under my bedspread to make sure I was never more than an arm’s length from sugar, just a few feet away Halley was diligently dividing a single package of celery into three days’ worth of meals.
Fortunately, there was a father in residence to help this teeter- tottering family create some stability: Ted Tarnauer, owner and general manager of a small but popular vintage car repair. Ted was very proud of his history as a rockabilly guy from the days of Levi and the Rockats, a glimpse of which could be gotten by scrutinizing the triptych of dusty warped black-and-white photos in plastic frames that hung on the wall by his desk at the shop. Though taken from below stage level so he appeared to be fifteen feet tall and 50 percent nostril, you could still recognize him: the young Ted, his big greasy blond hair swooping into his face, his skinny body curled like a question mark over his guitar, looking handsome and arrogant, sporting a curled-lip sneer that spoke of meth and moonshine. This was Dad’s real passion. He put a lot of time into perfecting the authentic fifties outfits he wore when his band, the Cheaterslicks, played. Even now he was very pleased when girls under forty got crushes on him and was proud when they sometimes said he looked like Brian Setzer. (Though the older ones more often referenced the mature Conway Twitty, which was also fine, but he liked it less.)
Ted was quite the talker. It didn’t take much to launch him into a monologue so impenetrable that his friends worried there might be no bathroom breaks. Yet despite his retro rocker exterior, by middle age Dad had morphed into a right-wing neocon who wrote in Pat Buchanan’s name on ballots where once he had written in Duane Eddy.
From early childhood on, Halley and I worshipped our daddy but were constantly worried that he might leave. We knew he was unhappy. It was hard to miss, since he had a tendency to break down and weep after a couple of beers.
To say nothing of the fact that by the time I was in third grade, I was finding him asleep on the couch in the morning when I left for school. The realization that I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen him in the bedroom with Mom, caused me to lie awake at night, plotting ways to make him happier. As it turned out, homemade greeting cards and blueberry muffins weren’t what his life was missing. He left our home for good when I was ten.
Less than a month after he moved out he announced his intention to marry a woman from the neighborhood whose car he’d remodeled. It was unnerving that she looked enough like my mother to be her sister. The nuptials, which took place a few months after that, were a big festive event with a meticulous, if somewhat desperate, retro fifties theme full of hoop skirts, pegged pants, and Jell-O molds. The Cheaterslicks played. Everybody danced the Lindy hop.
The following day at school, I had my first asthma attack.
From that point forward, the only time I could count on seeing my dad was when each of his new romances imploded. Then he’d reappear with bribes for us in exchange for helping him pack. “I got some more cool stuff for you,” he’d say, revealing a box of things he took out of the cars he got from salvage: pencils, reading glasses, comic books that were missing a cover, gloves with the fingers stuck together, bobble-headed Dodgers. “You girls take whatever you want,” he’d say, “but first do Daddy a favor and stuff those Road and Tracks into that black gym bag.”
By my late teens, I was tall and blond and tan from swimming, running, surfing, and riding my bike. I was in good enough shape to wear a bikini without flinching. Even though my grades were all B’s and A’s, I was an insecure mess. When I think back to that period, I see myself as kind of the flip side to the Girl from Ipanema. Because although I was getting my share of attention from the opposite sex, I remember a lot more people saying “Jesus Christ, Dawn! Are you nuts?” than going “Aaaah.” Like when I decided to get married right out of high school to someone I barely knew, in an unintentional homage to my parents.
In keeping with the Tarnauer family tradition, my first husband, Neil, was domineering, helpless, and prone to spontaneous bursts of theatrical emotion. Like Dad, Neil was equal parts in love with his own dramas and the selfless way I offered rapt attention.
When I met him, I was working the midmorning shift at the Lunch Box in Simi Valley, the only job I could find when I graduated from high school. I was feeling anonymous, directionless, and at a loss when Neil and his big, big plans appeared one day like a door to a world of limitless possibilities. Neil was fourteen years my senior and knowledgeable about lots of things: the stock market, the environment, politics, civil law, filmmaking. We got married at City Hall a month after we started dating and moved to a two-room apartment in his hometown of Fresno, where, he claimed, his connections would work to our advantage.
The plan was for us both to get jobs, pool our money, and produce a series of documentaries about the deadly fungus endangering the health of many species of frogs. With Neil’s knowledge and my energy and support, we were poised to accomplish great things. Right up until the day Neil got a job tending bar at the Scoreboard, a sports bar downtown. He quickly became so enamored of his new role as the local long-haired authority on absolutely everything that he didn’t even notice when our dreams of glory began to die on the vine.
Without them, it became harder for me to ignore the fact that sex with Neil reminded me of being in bed with one of those waving mechanical Santas that department stores put in their Christmas windows: every move, every word, always the same, and in the exact same order. This unfortunate set of associations would have been less distracting if I hadn’t noticed one night that his moans of passion sounded a lot like “Ho-ho-ho.”
By year three, about the same time I was giving up
hope in general, I found a large black-and-white Labrador- Newfoundland mix, abandoned at the market. He was about eight years old, the vet thought, and seemed to be in good health. No one knew why someone had tied him to the shopping cart return and just left him there. He didn’t bite. He didn’t cry. He didn’t pee in the house. He was very affectionate. He knew “sit” and “down.” The only other information available was that he was wearing a red collar from which hung a small round silver tag that had been engraved with a single word: Swentzle. Assuming it was his last name, I conducted an exhaustive search through local phone books for his owner. I even put up posters featuring his picture under block letters that read, “FOUND. HEY EVERYBODY! LOOK! IT’S SWENTZLE!!” No one called.
By the fourth day he was following me everywhere, greeting people no matter what their circumstances, like some kind of dazed goodwill ambassador. Just as tickled to meet someone new at the scene of an accident as he would have been if they climbed in through the window in the middle of the night, Swentzle was democracy in action. The most amazing thing was that once Swentzle arrived, life with Neil seemed to get better. Swentzle distracted me in the best way possible. Right up until the day that Wayne, the manager of The Scoreboard, informed Neil that the Sacramento County Department of Child Support was planning to “assign” 50 percent of his wages after taxes for child support payments. If I hadn’t walked in on Wayne explaining the whole thing to him, I still wonder if Neil would have ever mentioned it to me.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were married before?” I gasped. “How could you forget to mention you had a kid?”
“Ah, it’s one of those things I’m trying to put behind me,” he said. “I’ve got my doubts the kid is even mine.”
Turned out Neil had never paid a penny of the thousands of dollars in child support he owed to the mother of a seven-year-old boy in Sacramento. She had a pretty good case against him, since Neil had been married to her for six and a half years. I was thunderstruck.
“How many people do you think are going to listen to what we have to say about endangered frogs once they find out you’re a deadbeat dad?” I said.
“Well . . . I figured once our documentary started raking in the bucks, I’d, you know, try to pay her something,” he said.
“I thought all the money we made was going toward helping the frogs,” I said, immediately feeling bad for stiffing some poor underfinanced little kid.
Neil’s solution was for us to buy a school bus and live on the road while we figured out how to raise money.
The next day I took my private stash of ones and fives and the birthday money I’d been wisely hiding in a Tampax box and bought bus tickets back to L.A. for Swentzle and me. At the time, I was filled with shame about running away from a marriage, especially one that everyone warned me wouldn’t work. I hated proving all the naysayers right. But what never really occurred to me was that I was finally taking a step toward turning my life around.