I was three when my mother was put away and seven when my father met Lupe. We were living on our ranch in Cheyenne then. She wasn’t old enough to be my mother, but I liked her. She introduced me to mariachi music and Frida Kahlo through the paintings she’d brought with her from Mexico.
She was an aspiring artist herself, and had turned our spare room into a studio, which made everything seem a bit more lively. I’d often come home from school and find her covered in paint, half finished easels propped against the wall.
While my father hired a few ranch hands to help, he’d always make me feed the horses in the afternoons. Lupe made it into an activity we could do together. I told her the names I’d given them. Our spotted quarter horse was Bambi. Our paint horse was Dorothy. They were friendly, and soon they’d taken a liking to her too.
One afternoon, after we put their feed back into the shed, she sat me down. “Michelle,” she said. “I really like your dad.”
I said nothing.
“He told me about what happened to your mom, and I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
In those days I still hadn’t fully grasped what it meant that my mom had been put away. We’d visited her once, and it hadn’t gone well. She’d barely recognized me and started screaming nonsense at my father, and we’d driven all the way to Boulder to see her. From then on she’d become a forbidden topic of conversation. As much as it pained me to think about, she was already a distant blip in my memory.
She continued. “Listen, your dad asked me to marry him. And I want to say yes. And I know I’m not your mother, and I don’t want to try to be. But I like spending time with you too.”
I’d noticed a thick, dark bruise over her eye then, but I was still too young to fully understand. My father hadn’t started hitting me the way he later would. “Yes,” was all I said.
She hugged me tightly. “I’m so happy,” she replied.
She was with us for seven years. The first year was when I, along with the rest of the world, were introduced to the Beatles. It was a cold day in February, and the snow outside went all the way to my chest. My father was still out one of his regular outings to the local bar, and Lupe was in the living room. She had the fireplace on and was watching The Ed Sullivan Show. “Want to watch with me?” she asked.
I nodded. She extended her arm and I put my head on her shoulder. This was nice. Even if she was more of a cool older sister than my stepmother, she made me feel loved in a way that neither of my parents had been able to.
I had apparently been living under a rock because I’d never heard of the Beatles or had any idea who they were, and yet Lupe told me that there had been some five hundred thousand people waiting for them in New York. Because of it, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
And then the curtain fell and I saw them. My eyes were immediately drawn to the lead singer.
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you…”
For the next fifteen minutes I didn’t take my eyes off of him. During the second song, they flashed their names. He was Paul. Paul McCartney. They spoke a little at the end. British, it seemed like. His accent was nice. The others said things too, but Paul mattered most to me.
I was nine, almost ten that year, and as far as I knew, boys were still gross. And yet, I asked Lupe where we could buy all of their records. I wanted to listen to the music over and over again. I wanted to keep looking at Paul and listening to him sing.
“They are cute, aren’t they?” Lupe said with a wink.
We sat there for a moment, and I was still processing what I’d just watched. “I wonder where your dad is,” she said. Even though it was a Sunday night and I had school the next morning, Lupe told me we could have a girl’s night. It was only seven, but it felt a lot later.
We put on the radio. She made us hot chocolate and I got out a piece of paper and my colored pencils and started doodling. I drew flowers and hearts and my name with Paul’s. “Michelle McCartney” did have a nice ring to it. In the middle of the paper I drew me. I was older. My makeup done, my hair styled in a beehive. Next to me I drew Paul. It was our wedding. Lupe was my maid of honor, naturally.
I showed her as she served us our hot chocolate. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “We should put this on the fridge.” She told me to sign my name at the bottom. Once I did, she took it and fixed it to the fridge with a magnet.
“Some time I’ll have to you show you how to paint. You’re already a lot better than I was when I was your age.”
She sat down next to me and we kept drinking our hot chocolate. We talked for a little while longer before we felt a gust of cold air and turned to see that my father was home. He stumbled toward us, and I knew that something was wrong. I saw Lupe start to shake.
“She should be in bed,” he spat.
“Don’t talk to me that way,” he responded. Then, he hit her, right in front of me.
Lupe screamed and I started yelling at him to stop. He was scaring me and I wasn’t sure why he was acting like this.
Then, he saw the picture on the fridge. “What’s this?” He took one look at it. “He’s never going to marry you,” he told me. Then he crumpled it up and threw it on the floor.
Lupe started yelling at him now. I was terrified and I had no idea where to go or how to help, so I went into my room and started crying. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened before. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and hear them shouting, but in the morning, everything would be fine.
When I got up to go to school, neither of them were awake, so I tried to put it out of my mind. And when I got home, only my father was there. I noticed my drawing was hanging back up, crumpled though it was. He stared at me as I walked in. I said nothing to him because I had nothing to say.
“Lupe went to the grocery store,” he said.
I didn’t respond. I went to fix myself a snack.
“Mitchie, I’m really sorry about last night,” he continued. “I just lose control sometimes.”
“Don’t go to bars so often,” I remember saying. Even though I was only nine years old, there was a part of me that knew that something was terribly wrong, that this wasn’t the way that parents were supposed to act. And yet, I pushed those feelings down.
“I want to make it up to you,” he said. “Lupe said you really like that band that was on the Ed Sullivan show last night. I thought maybe I could buy you one of their records, if you want to go into town. Then maybe we can get hot chocolate after.”
In that moment, that was all I needed. Years later, I’d tell Jay about all of this, how I should have known better.
And he’d say to me, “You wanted to believe he really cared. There’s nothing wrong with that.”