Catherine's Temporary Escape

We were afraid of John's father. He was loud, intense, strict, angry, and demanding. He had the reputation for being the meanest Dad in the neighborhood and my friends and I didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Miller's yard if we didn't have to. But I liked John. He was friendly with a surprisingly gentle nature, a good athlete with a great sense of humor. We played little league together and we hung out in the neighborhood.

John's family was ultra-Christian and very conservative and John's Dad wore his Politics and his Religion on his sleeve. John went to the Catholic school so we were neighborhood friends only since me and most of the rest of the neighborhood gang went to public school.

It struck me as odd that John's ultra-conservative and very religious father had been previously married. The Mrs. Miller I knew was John's step-mother but John rarely talked about his real mom and the rest of us never brought it up.

The second Mrs. Miller seemed to be pregnant every year growing up. John had four half-sisters – Catherine, Rebecca, Sarah, and Veronica. Catherine was a year or so younger than John and sometimes she hung around with my kid sister Diana so I was most familiar with her, more so than the rest of the Miller kids who were younger and not really in my sphere of existence.

None of the Miller kids interacted with the rest of the neighborhood pack much – they attended different schools, they worshipped at a different church, and their parents seemed to put up a lot of barriers and restrictions that prevented the Miller kids from becoming part of the neighborhood group.

John was required to tell his step-mother where he was going, he had to be home at certain times, and he wasn't allowed to leave the neighborhood without permission (and that was rarely given) so we often left the poor guy behind if we were riding our bikes downtown or to the river or over to Greenville. I felt bad about that but we weren't about to limit our own adventures just because John wasn't allowed to have fun.

Mrs. Miller was attractive enough (younger than the stern Mr. Miller by several years) but she never seemed to smile. I suppose having four daughters one after another and a step-son to raise, as well as a house to take care of, not to mention dealing with her forceful husband, left the second Mrs. Miller with little to smile about! She was polite but I never got the impression that she particularly liked me, especially as John and I got older.

I sensed that the Second Mrs. Miller didn't like young teenaged boys hanging around her daughters. I was rarely allowed inside the Miller House and I never went upstairs where the bedrooms were. I definitely noticed the crucifixes and other religious items, paintings, and statues around the house.

We never crossed or lipped off to Mr. Miller. He had no qualms about getting up in your face if he thought you were being a wise-ass or otherwise disrespectful. He never touched us but we witnessed him pushing and shoving John on more than one occasion. He could be belligerent toward his son in public, especially at sporting events, and he had no problems dressing poor John down in front of the rest of us. It was uncomfortable witnessing that sort of stuff but John never reacted, he never spoke back, and he never said anything to us about any of it later even when we were witnesses to some sort of confrontation. It was like we pretended nothing unusual had happened – denial, I guess.

I always felt like I was missing out on something with John. Although friendly and funny, he was also guarded and secretive – never revealing too much about himself or his family and as much as I wanted to say something about what was going on we both knew it was taboo and off limits so we continued the charade of acting like everything was normal and okay.

I was surprised when John stopped playing competitive sports once little league was over. St. Anne's Catholic had good sports team but John didn't get involved even though he was good at sports. He also didn't participate in any community leagues. I guess he got tired of being ridiculed and embarrassed by his father.

I played football, basketball and baseball for Hillsboro High so I was flat out busy with sports, school and washing dishes at my part time job at Johnny C's Diner. With John attending the Catholic School, we really didn't see much of each other anymore except on an occasional weekend around the neighborhood. I missed him but we were both busy with our different lives.

Besides, to be honest, I really didn't miss mean Mr. Miller or the unhappy second Mrs. Miller all that much! I'd see John's step-mom driving the family's blue mini-van packed with the kids, the back bumper covered with Pro-Life and anti-abortion stickers. She never looked at me. Occasionally, I'd hear Mr. Miller's loud voice booming out from the Miller yard – barking some order or repudiating one of the kids for doing something he didn't approve of. He'd stop in at Johnny C's for a coffee-to-go occasionally but he barely acknowledged my existence if our eyes met. It was all very strange.

Near the end of baseball season sophomore year, I was standing along the third base line during batting practice when Snake Simpson smashed a liner from the batting cage. I never saw the ball coming and it bashed into my temple, knocking me unconscious. I suffered a blood clot and I was in the hospital with a fractured skull for more than a week. My parents insisted that my sports career was over and seeing how I (supposedly) almost died I wasn't about to argue.

I sat around the house feeling sorry for myself for a few weeks but with the extra time on my hands I figured I had the chance to re-connect with John after not seeing him for so long. I was surprised that he hadn't visited me in the hospital or when I got home but I suppose he was busy with his own life.

I walked down to the Miller house on a nice afternoon and rang the doorbell, hoping to chat with John. His kid sister answered the door and for a minute I wasn't sure which one it was – they all tended to look alike and it was easy to be confused.

"Hello?" She said sullenly, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Hi…." I fumbled to figure out which sister I was speaking to.

"Catherine," she replied with annoyance when she realized my confusion.

I blushed slightly at my gaff but in fairness I hadn't see Catherine – or any of the Miller kids for that matter – in a while. My sister Diana had the same story as me. She was busy with her life at Hillsboro High and with Catherine attending St. Anne's Catholic their friendship had suffered the same fate as me and John's.

Seeing Catherine now, I was surprised at how much older she looked even though she still wasn't allowed to wear makeup which exposed acne on her face. Her long blonde hair was thick and full and beautiful and her eyes were penetrating, even though she refused (or was unable) to smile. She was wearing a long summer dress – I rarely saw any of the Miller girls in jeans or shorts now that I thought about it.

"John around?" I asked.

"No," Catherine answered curtly. "He doesn't live here anymore."

I was stunned by the unexpected revelation and at first I wasn't sure what she meant. "Where'd he go?" I asked with confusion.

"Vermont to live with his mother," Catherine announced. She glanced over her shoulder as if she was afraid someone might hear her. "Maybe you should go," she said quietly.

I was old enough to figure out that John's departure had created angst and stress within the household. I was about to turn and leave when the second Mrs. Miller came down the stairs carrying a basket full of laundry. She frowned when she saw me through the screen door.

"Randy," she said critically, as if I had something to do with – or maybe approved of - John's exit. "There's no reason for you to be here," she said coldly.

I have to admit my feelings were kind of hurt. It was bad enough John disappeared without so much as a goodbye but here was the second Mrs. Miller giving me the chilly evil eye and Catherine staring at me as if I had scurvy.

I didn't bother saying anything as I turned and walked off the porch, pretty sure I'd never be back at the Miller house again – not that I was complaining about that. They were one weird family!

Still, I was bummed to learn that John had moved away. I assumed it was his choice – but who knows, maybe the old man kicked him out for some unknown reason. It felt weird and incomplete to realize I wouldn't be seeing John, as if there was something I needed to say to him for closure. We had known each other since we were seven and now, almost ten years later, to know that he was gone without a goodbye and that he was most likely never coming back left me feeling empty and guilty. Was there something I could have said or done? Did I fail him as a friend? Did he not care enough to give me an explanation? When did he leave – before I was hurt or after?

I had never experienced the loss a friendship that felt so final before.