It was the summer before sixth grade when Dad moved out. It was a surprise to no one that my sister, Susan, would go with him—she was a real teenager now—and Larry and I would stay home with Mom. The two of them would move to Seattle and get an apartment, and we would visit with him on weekends. That was the idea anyway. The primary upside to my parents' divorce was that Susan would be out of my hair, and I'd get the bedroom and its dresser drawers all to myself. With her gone, I was the oldest in the house—that included my mother, who was as absent from our lives as Dad and Susan.
For the first time in her life, our mother was free to experience her revolution from within. Even though she had to work, it was obvious that she enjoyed it much more than she'd enjoyed staying home with us and playing the role of housewife. Now she was free to reinvent herself once more. She promptly got a job at the General Phone Company (chief rival of Dad's employer, Pacific Bell) and got really politically active in AA. In short order, she'd become the delegate for the entire state of Washington. This meant she had to speak at many conferences, and she left my brother and me alone during long weekends, to our great pleasure.
Once school started in the fall, there was a sharp contrast between our old and new lives. I was entering middle school, and it was the first time I was expected to take care of myself—get my brother up in the morning, take a shower, eat something, and get us to school on time. After school it was Doritos and Pepsi in front of Donahue; then later I would prepare frozen Salisbury steak dinners for us in the microwave. At least there was always an array of processed foods to be found in the kitchen. Mom was good about shopping—it was the way she took care of us.
Whenever Mom was going to leave for a few days, she would take us to Sound City (the record store) and buy us anything we wanted. Larry and I would choose posters and records and issues of Hit Parader and CREEM, MAD magazine and Monster Mag. She stopped trying to dictate our bedtimes, so we stayed up late watching Saturday Night Live and monster movies. This is when we discovered KISS. Pop culture as parental penance.
Besides my brother, I didn't really have many other friends, though we did often play in the cul de sac with Jessica from across the street. She was the first girl to confirm for me that I was probably gayer than I wanted to be. At age ten and 11, I needed a peer to confirm the weirdness of what was happening to our bodies, and Jessica was the same age. Even if she didn't live right next door, even if I'd liked Susan more, I would have wanted to hang out with Jessica. She had boobs and a wild older sister who threw parties with soundtracks by Heart when their parents were out of town. The family came from Texas and had a mysterious dad who'd worked border patrol outside Mexico. Once he'd made the switch to Canada, the family brought the Texas up to Washington.
Jessica's mom had a distinctive accent and, like my parents, had different regional names for everyday items—she called a vacuum cleaner a "sweeper." When she called Jessica in from the yard, she'd always yell her first and middle name together: "Jessica Marie!" As if there was another Jessica nearby who needed that clarification.
Their dad had a stash of Hustler magazines in the garage that he didn't try to hide and a ton of guns and ammo that he didn't bother to lock up. Whenever I was over there, I came to expect to feel like I was in danger. It made things exciting. One day during hide-and-seek, Jessica and I kissed. I think for her it was just practice for middle school boys, but for me it was transcendent. It happened a few times and eventually stopped, which made lying near her in our sleeping bags during overnights in the backyard excruciating. We never spoke of it. Once the school year started up in the fall, Jessica got busier, and I saw less of her. I never expected things would go any differently.
That fall, Larry would become my first drug buddy. We liked the way smoking pot made music sound like we were swimming in an 8-track. That sealed it for me; I needed the daily ritual of substance abuse and rock 'n' roll. Vodka and Coke in my collectible Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil glass went best with the swirly phaser breakdown of "Whole Lotta Love." Thank God the two coincided in my life while I was still young. What a waste of music not to take drugs!
Larry and I visited our father and discovered that he was still openly dating the woman from the AA meetings—and she had two little kids, who we were expected to hang out with. We were pretty disgusted, but what could we do? He was happy. Parts of his personality seemed brighter and more optimistic whenever he had a new girlfriend. He started listening to ABBA! He wore Jovan Musk! He began wearing a sheepskin jacket with a cowboy hat. Our father who hailed from Brooklyn suddenly preferred to listen to Swedish pop music and dress as if he lived in Oklahoma. Larry and I agreed it was easier to just go with the flow, keep the peace, and suffer through some awkward meals. It was worth it for his new, relaxed approach to rules and curfews.
We preferred living with our mother because when we were home, we were usually alone. The joys of being latchkey kids! But it took only about nine months before Mom's absences alarmed the neighbors enough that they reported our abandonment to Child Protective Services. One day after school, a strange woman knocked on our door and asked where our mother was and if she often left us alone on weekends. Then more questions: "What do you eat for breakfast?" "How do you get to school?" I knew instinctively that our mom was in trouble, and I should lie for her, but my excuses ("She's working, but we see her all the time") were not convincing enough. I felt betrayed by the neighbors and felt watched and paranoid. Which one of you fuckers called the cops?
Dad had to move back from Seattle to take care of us. Which meant Susan was back, too, and Mom moved into a nearby apartment. Susan now possessed a kind of citified worldliness that ensured Larry and I would be corrupted anew. By 13, I was openly carrying a pack of cigarettes—a habit that benefited the whole family if someone happened to be out. It was a different smoking culture then; I even remember lighting up with Dad at that age in the grocery store. Dad remodeled the spare room that he'd used as a darkroom for his photography and made it into a tiny studio apartment with a private entrance for Susan.
He ran a much tighter ship than Mom, which I resented. There was a chart on the fridge that tracked the days and who was expected to do what, when. We each had one week on call for a specific task—dishes, vacuuming the rugs, making dinner—stuff a mom or a wife should be doing. (At least Dad gave me an allowance of $20 a week to buy cigarettes.) Maybe to make it up to me, he bought me a full drum kit.
When I was 13, I'd signed up for the school jazz ensemble. Our band teacher suggested I try the clarinet or the flute, since those were the girl instruments. I did get to play a soft treatment of a Karen Carpenter song for the annual performance, but all the real drum parts went to the other drummer, Jason. The following year, I joined the marching band and had been practicing on a rented snare, learning to play "Yesterday" by The Beatles. I had a standard-issue rubber practice pad to put over the top, and I would play the first Cars record over and over on different parts of the drum, even the rim, and I'd play as if I had a full kit in front of me. Now that I had my own kit, I could practice all the time and increase my repertoire. I quickly learned to play "Riff Raff" by AC/DC. I had it on a record— If You Want Blood You've Got It—and every day I'd drop the needle over and over, stopping and starting. I kept the drum set right next to my bed and played as often as I was home.
Maybe it was triggered by my parents' divorce, or maybe I was feeling weird and defective at the idea that I might be gay, maybe it was in my genes. Whatever the trigger, I had all this aggression, and I needed to channel it. Anger is just one letter away from danger. I liked the idea that I could play an instrument that girls weren't supposed to, that I could pretend I was someone else. Playing music, I could leave my body. And I loved that drumming hurt.
Drumming is a bloodsport, like boxing. It's not for wimps. Part of developing the necessary stamina is to teach yourself to play through pain, something that women do particularly well. I'm giving this kid lessons right now, and we've been doing a lot of double-bass work, and the other day he got his first big blister and was surprised by how much it hurt. He really didn't like it when I told him he had to pop it—that the only way through is to nurture those calluses. Your hands have to be like leather. But that's just number one—that's not even the painful part. When I'm playing, I am hitting those things as hard as I can. It's not uncommon to smash a finger on the rim or to open up fresh blisters or old wounds. Some people tape their fingers and ice their knuckles, but I prefer to let it bleed.
Excerpted from Hit So Hard: A Memoir by Patty Schemel. © 2017. The book is out now from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.