CW: This piece contains depictions of domestic violence
When I was ten, my family loaded up our Datsun 200B station wagon with our shit and made the long journey from Bendigo, Victoria to Esk, Queensland — a small tourist town about an hour outside of Toowoomba. We were going to visit our grandparents on my dad’s side for Christmas. None of us kids had ever been outside of Victoria. Both Mum and Dad worked in the same carpet factory where they met before they married, so it wasn’t very often that we had the spare money to do something like this. I was excited; my mum had organised some passes so we could go to a couple of theme parks on the Gold Coast and I loved seeing my grandparents. Grandpa was a skinny, introspective but warm and funny man who taught me quietness and how to go on long walks. Grandma was large, boisterous and quick-witted with her thick Tennessee accent. She was also an incredible cook, and we all knew we’d be in for tables full of Southern comfort food.
I remember the thrill of crossing the Murray at sunset. We’d got a late start and I could already tell my dad was getting mad. I knew what he was like, what it meant when his jaw began to clench. I could see his neck tightening from the back seat, but Mum didn’t let him ruin the moment. Reflective cats eyes glowed on the crash barriers as we rounded the curves just before the sun went down. The long limbs of rivergums made beautiful archways over the highway and it made me feel like we were in the Batmobile. Every time I thought we were about to reach the border, there’d be another winding bridge over a billabong. Eventually the road straightened out and the trees receded to reveal the river. A sign said Welcome to New South Wales. My mum led us on a chorus of yells. Goodbye Victoria!
The car was cramped and torrid the next day as we made our way along the bleached and barren farmland of the New England Highway. Tensions escalated with an argument about the difference between a corner and a curve. Mum braked on curves because to her they were corners. Dad decided this was only to spite him, to make the day go longer. My sisters played I spy. His muscles tightened. Our car broke down halfway in a hot and dusty shithole called West Wyalong. The streets were narrow and deserted. A huge faded banner hung across the main street between two light poles that read Merry Xmas. Mum and I went for a walk to find a payphone while my sisters helped my now unravelling dad unpack a picnic lunch at the Lions Club Park where the Datsun had rolled to a stop. The NRMA referred us to some asshole mechanic who condescended to my mum so intensely that even at my age I could sense his intense misogyny. I told him he better ‘shut up and stop calling my fucking mum ‘madam’ and fix our car’. He muttered something sarcastic to Mum about me. I rolled my eyes at him and we left. There didn’t seem to be any escape from men like this for us. Waiting back at the park was Dad, who by this stage was pacing, impatient, hungry, grinding his teeth and waiting for one of us to do something that justified a violent reaction. My sisters were playing in a water fountain on the other side of the park. I don’t even remember what we did or what the reaction was. I just remember loud red and black flashes of pain and screaming. I don’t know if it was my pain or my mum’s pain. We felt the pain together.
We eventually made it to Queensland. It rained the whole time. Mum and I listened to frogs in the backyard each night while she smoked. Grandma’s cooking had taken a backseat to looking after Grandpa who was now in the early stages of dementia following a series of mini-strokes. Dad seemed calm and in good humour for a little while. He enjoyed being with his mother. I sat quietly with them on the couch and watched bad horror movies on TV. Grandma would always mute the commercials. More arguing about road rules and traffic marred our side trip to the Gold Coast. I nearly fell out of the Tower of Terror at Dreamworld because the attendant didn’t connect my seatbelt properly. My dad laughed it off callously, and I tried not to cry.
I’d like to talk about how in spite of it all, these kinds of experiences bonded me with my mum and my sisters. Unfortunately that is not how trauma works, for me anyway. I’m thirty-three years old and I’m still trying to figure out how to be close to my two sisters. I asked my psychologist and she told me to start with small things, so I messaged them in a group chat with a screen cap of a sponsored ad that had popped up on a news website I had been reading. The caption read: Family road trips – the perfect place to bond. Both of them replied: hahaha. It felt like a good start. I’m still getting used to touching or hugging my family. I don’t have a problem with intimacy in friendships. I love to hold people who are close to me, but there is a repellent feeling when I try to be close to my family.
My dad robbed me of intimacy with my family. He robbed us of our safety and the warmth we could offer each other. He robbed us of celebration. Last year my sister invited our dad to her house for Christmas lunch because his new family was elsewhere and she pitied him. I was furious with her. She knew I wouldn’t be able to come. I felt like I was nothing to anyone. I haven’t spoken to him in person for years. I’ve asked him to stop contacting me. It helps to stop the nightmares. I couldn’t be with my family on that day. He continues to rob us of constructive interaction. A few months ago I had a fight with Mum about him on the phone. I’d never hung up on her before until then. I couldn’t believe he could still affect us. I sent a text message to him. I told him to remember what he had done. I told him to remember how he had hurt us. He told me to get over it (I can’t). He accused me of being on drugs (I’m not). He used my sister’s Christmas lunch against me, he told me it had meant that they had forgiven him (they haven’t), that this was all my fault (it isn’t).
I hate seeing other families together. I hate families. I hate that they get to celebrate, that they get to be together. I hate Christmas. I’ve been having nightmares again lately. In the nightmares there is a red and black flash and screaming. In my nightmares my dad swerves us off the road like he did the time we tried to go to Queensland. In my nightmares we are pulled on to the side of the Pacific Coast Highway. We are lost and my dad is hitting my mum again and we can’t escape the car and we are all crying. In my nightmares my dad and I scream in each other’s face until I wake up. My mum and sisters told me this year we can have a special lunch together on Boxing Day that my dad can’t come to. We’ll eat whatever we can manage to afford. Mum will clean boxes of knick-knacks off a fold out table where the cats usually sleep. I’ll tease my mum because she still hates to eat vegetables. I’ll try to let my family touch me.
Aaron A. Matheson is a non-binary musician, writer and primary school teacher living on Wurundjeri land. Their music can be found at https://aamatheson.