Chapter 1 – What Makes Me Tick
This most recent Christmas wasn’t a good one for me. I mean, most of ‘em aren’t. But I really do like Christmas. I like the feel of it. Like, the weeks leading up to Christmas where I can chill by the fireplace in our nicely decorated living room with the tree all lit up while listening to some Vince Guaraldi piano shit and baking cookies on the 23rd with my siblings and all the lights strung up on people’s houses – that shit’s great. But other shit…other shit just ruins it all for me. Four years ago when I was writing Life of a Manchild, I tried addressing why I don’t like Christmas in a chapter called “Bah, Humbug!” but due to a lack of self-awareness, I kinda missed the mark. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter showing a typical holiday season conversation between me and my mom:
“Fuck you too Tim, you selfish bastard. You don’t even know what Christmas is all about. It’s about family.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It is about family – not about getting stressed over what you have to buy for everyone and what extravagant meals you have to make. That shit doesn’t matter. You think you can get drunk and act like a fuckin’ jerk to everyone and we’re supposed to equate it to love because you got a ham in the oven and presents under the tree? I’d rather have a mom who’s not a raving psycho, downing bottle after bottle of wine to deal with the pressure than have either one of those things. How do you not understand that? Can’t we just forget about it all and relax – have a pleasant holiday season for once?”
“How am I supposed to relax when I gotta go to thirty stores in the next two days, wrap a hundred gifts and make sure we got all the dips and cookies together to go to Uncle Al’s for Christmas Eve? You think all this holiday cheer just magically drops outta the reindeers’ asses every year?”
“Are you fucking retarded? That’s what I’m trying to tell you! You don’t have to do any of this shit. Look what these traditions do to you every year – look what they do to us. They fuckin’ destroy our family. Every year you get so worked up about all this bullshit and it ruins Christmas. I’d rather have no gifts, no decorations and no Christmas ham than an angry drunken mother I don’t wanna be around. Fuck! I fucking hate Christmas and wish I didn’t come home. This is fuckin’ bullshit!”
In writing this, I was on to something. I knew the way my mom always acts around Christmas bothers me very deeply, but back in 2014 I didn’t really hit the nail on the head with this piece. I didn’t dig deep enough and come to see how that behavior fits into the bigger picture. You see, in that last paragraph there I say, “Look what these traditions do to you every year – look what they do to us.” And that’s a total cop-out. That’s evasion. That’s beating around the bush. That doesn’t get to the root of the issue. It’s not our traditions that ruin Christmas every year, it’s not our capitalist materialist culture and it’s certainly not about parents telling awful nasty lies to their children about some jolly old fat-fuck who flies around the world every December 24th giving presents to kids. What ruins Christmas every year for me is in actuality the unexamined paradigm of our family structure and the previously undefined roles I play in it.
I don’t know very much about the homes my parents grew up in. I know tidbits. I’ve picked up this and that over the years. Never once had either one of my parents sat me down on the sofa and told me the story of their life like Bob Saget at the beginning of a How I Met Your Mother episode. What I know about my dad’s house is that he was one of eight children – the second oldest to be specific. As a young man his dad was a Marine who fought in the Korean War and then later on, like my dad would eventually become, a Chicago firefighter. The last time there’d been an entrance exam for the CFD back in 2014, my dad had been pushing for me to continue this tradition, telling me it’s the best job in the world and that I’d be a really good fireman. I wrestled with this in the months leading up to the signup deadline for the test never doubting neither that it’s a good job with solid benefits nor the fact that a physical specimen such as myself would make a good firefighter. Nonetheless, something just felt off and after much introspection I ultimately decided that whatever part of me wanted to join the department had not been the authentic me but rather the broken, needy part of myself that would only have been doing so to get the validation from my father that I’d never gotten. Had this been the case with the child inside my dad back in 1980 when he joined, jumping up and down, waving his arms around, shouting, “Hey dad, look at me! I’m just like you now! I’m a fireman! Am I good enough yet for you to pay attention to me and my feelings!?” I’m not sure. I asked my dad once if this rang true.
“No,” he said. “I never wanted to be anything but a fireman. I remember the day I got the call. I was taking some classes over at Wright College at the time. And I was in this biology class. I didn’t give a shit about biology. I only took it because this one girl I was into was in the class. And at the time we were dissecting these baby pigs or something. I dunno what they were. But after I got the call that I was in for the fire department, that afternoon I dropped outta school and drove down the alley to throw all my books and that pig into somebody’s garbage can.”
“Yeah, okay,” I replied, “fair enough. But what I wanna know is why? Why did you never wanna become anything but a fireman.”
“Because it’s the best job in the world.”
And he’s never gone into any more detail than that.
I don’t know of any specific incidents that ever happened in his house because my dad’s never talked to me about such things, but it seems widely agreed upon that grandpa liked to drink and had a mean streak. What isn’t agreed upon – let alone mentioned – is how the whole family was forced to live in denial, never being able to tell anyone outside the house the things that happened there so they could keep up the appearance of a big happy family. I think this large-scale cover-up scheme had been masterminded by my grandmother in an attempt to save herself from shame. I was told that at one point my grandfather had left my grandmother to go live with another woman for a period of five years but no one was allowed to say a word. Anytime someone called the house or came to the door looking for my grandpa, instead of saying he was gone, the kids’d just have to say that he wasn’t home. Knowing this, I had a very uncomfortable time a couple years back at my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Speeches were given and toasts proposed to the happy couple and their six decades of marital bliss while I sat there looking around at the smiling faces feeling like I was in the Twilight Zone. It’s no wonder my dad has never been able to admit to any of the pain he’s caused my mom and us kids over the years with his drunken bullshit – it’s cuz he’d never gotten any sort of validation for his own suffering. His whole life he’s been stuck in this sick narrative of the happy family, the healthy-looking apple with the rotten core. His whole life he’s been forced to live a lie. And I really feel for him and all he’s gone through. That said, I firmly believe your own suffering is never a valid excuse for begetting the suffering of others. I mean, it’s terrible to suffer as a child but it’s on you to man up, accept what you went through and break the cycle instead of blindly marching on into your adulthood and paying that shit forward to the next generation. The way he treated my mom over the years was despicable and, in spite of the understanding and sympathy I have for my father, I do not condone his immature behavior in any way, shape or form. I personally have never acknowledged my parents’ anniversary and never will because, in spite of its legal status, there is no real marriage there and there never has been.
As is the case with my father’s childhood home, I don’t know of any specific incidents that I can relate to paint a picture of that in which my mother was raised. I only know the general scheme of things. My mom was one of seven – the second youngest. Her closest sibling, her sister Mary – the third youngest, six years older than my mom, the one who’d always take her places and do things with her – had died in a car accident when my mom wasn’t even old enough to comprehend what death is. My grandma, whom I never met, was described to me as somewhat depressed and unable to cope with the death of her daughter and would sometimes sit around the house doing absolutely nothing all day long. My grandpa – who died by the time I was seven – was a tool and die man who made guns during World War II that loved playing golf, watching golf on TV and drinking shots of hard liquor in the basement until he hit the floor. In the basement bathroom, my mom said that there’d been a dent in the wall across from the toilet from all the times my grandpa would pass out sitting on the john, unconsciously falling forward and just smacking his head there. In that era it was out of the question for a breadwinning man such as my grandpa to lift a finger around the house and since my grandma was in no condition to attend to her womanly duties, things began falling apart. As my mom so often has said, “There were always piles of junk everywhere. My mother always saved everything. It drove me crazy. I was always too embarrassed to ever have anyone over at the house. And the most my dad would ever do about it was accuse my mom of being ‘a lousy housekeeper.’”
Obviously I’m no psychoanalyst, but just based on years and years of observing my mom’s behavior I’m gonna go ahead and say that everything I just mentioned in the previous paragraph had an enormous, permanent effect on her concept of self. I’m guessing that to this day she’s still never properly processed the grief of having lost her sister, the best friend she had at that tender young age. Her dad was too drunk and distant and her mom was too busy attending to her own grief to give my mom the attention she needed to really understand what she was emotionally experiencing from having lost someone so close to her. Her needs went unmet. She must’ve been very lost and hurt and confused and scared and vulnerable and just plain old downright insecure in her own existence as someone just as susceptible to the fate that had befallen her sister. And since these emotions were never properly dealt with, they went underground and took on the form of a nagging, ever-present anxiety. Emotionally she’s never felt safe. Everything always feels out of control, like her whole world could be turned upside down at the flip of a switch. Because it already had been. And who says it couldn’t happen again? And to compensate for the insecurity of her inner-experience, she began doing everything in her power to control her surroundings in the physical world, resulting in an overdeveloped sense of responsibility in caring for others and keeping everything really fucking clean all the fucking time as if her life depended on it because, on a subconscious emotional level, it kinda does.
As the story goes, once all the rest of her older siblings had gotten married and moved out, the responsibility of all the neglected housework had been assumed by my mother. Then about a decade later, when my mom’d been about twenty-years-old, my grandma passed away from colon cancer. It was just her and her brother John (six years younger than her) left with my drunken grandpa, both of whom she fed and took care of on top of keeping the house neat and tidy. My mom went on to get married at age 28 after having dated my father for seven years. I don’t know exactly at what point in time my Uncle John urged my mom to leave their childhood home – to move out and save herself from my grandpa’s bullshit – but for a brief period before my parents had decided to shack up in their first apartment together, my mom had a place of her own and resentfully recalls it as one of the happiest times of her life. And I can understand why. She had a job and paid her bills on time. She never had to take care of or clean up after the bullshit of any other irresponsible adults. She was responsible for herself and no one else. She was an independent woman. But however fondly remembered that sense of freedom is by my mom when she thinks back on how miserable her life has been with my dad, I’m guessing that during the time in which she was actually experiencing it, she probably felt her life was kinda stupid and pointless and empty and anxiety-provoking and couldn’t wait to get married and start a family. Because she never had any hopes and dreams of her own. She didn’t know herself well enough to form any hopes and dreams. Her incessant drive to control everything around her at all times never allowed her the time to sit down and think about what she might actually need and want out of life. The only thing she knew how to do was take care of other people. Because she’d been doing it since she was a little fucking kid. And it unfortunately came to be the only thing she ever felt she was capable and worthy of doing in life.
To me, my dad is a one-dimensional guy. He likes to work. He likes to drink. He likes to watch sports. He likes to play sports. He used to have a sense of humor. He was strong and handsome back in the day and I’m sure he must’ve been pretty charming during my parents’ courtship. But like, the guy’ll do anything to hide from his own feelings. He doesn’t wanna deal with anything that might cause him pain. Well, emotional pain, that is. Physically, he’d suffer all day and take some warped sense of pride in it. His father was a Marine after all and the more miserable a Marine is, the more respect he deserves. As so well-put by author and ex-jarhead Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art, “Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don’t know how to be miserable.” There’s no doubt that this inherited mentality is what led my father – during his thirty years on the job – to purposefully neglect to wear his mask in fires as he crawled over dead bodies down smoke-filled hallways, dragging a line behind him, ready to hose him down some flames. He wanted to prove to everybody (or maybe just his dad?) that he could “eat more smoke” than any other guy on the department. That he was the biggest badass of them all. Ultimately, that he deserved to be loved. I can’t help but think about the look of pride on my dad’s face as he’d brag to us kids about his smoking-eating abilities every time I hear him coughing. And after that, the same thought always pops into my mind. Whether it’s from what he’d jokingly refer to as good smoke (cigarettes) or bad smoke (from fires) is irrelevant – there’s nothing honorable about suffering unnecessarily.
It’s obvious my dad loved us kids and worked his ass off as a fireman while developing and running his own window washing and gutter cleaning business on the side so he could have enough money to provide us with the opportunities to build the best life possible. He did everything he could to ensure I was athletic and physically capable, teaching me to catch, throw, hit, jump, run, swim and ride a bike at an early age. All that stuff is fantastic and I’m nothing but grateful for everything he’s given me. But at the same time, it must be said that he never wanted to be a disciplinarian. He wanted our approval and our admiration. He wanted to be our friend. All that telling-the-kids-what-to-do shit – that’s their mother’s job. He never wanted to be the guy to make us sit down and do our homework, he wanted to be the guy who came home from the bar and drunkenly roughhoused with me and my brother on the living room floor. He didn’t wanna be the one to get stern with me and let me know that throwing snowballs at cars ain’t cool cuz it’s wrong to damage other people’s property and that it’s dangerous because I could cause someone to lose control, crash and die; he wanted to be the one to tell me about the time when he was a kid when he hit a truck driver in the face with a snowball on Milwaukee Avenue and how the guy got out and chased him around the neighborhood. And like, don’t get me wrong, it was a cool story to hear and something that I could brag to my friends about that they were jealous of because their dad’s would never say something like that. Their dads would never drunk drive home from a Cubs game that got rained out and purposely swerve to hit puddles and splash people standing there waiting with umbrellas at bus stops for our entertainment. That was legendary shit. My buddy Barrett who was in the car along with me and my brother was blown the fuck away. We laughed our asses off. It was great. But it wasn’t necessarily what I needed as a kid. I needed some guidance. I didn’t need a guy fondly reminiscing to me about all the times he cut class at Gordon Tech to go sit by the river and smoke cigarettes or how he used to contemplate suicide while sitting on the rocks near Foster Beach or about how he used to smoke pot on the bus on the way to basketball games and didn’t seem to have any regret at all that he was too high to play to the best of his ability. I needed someone to tell me that there’s no real satisfaction in rebelling without a cause. That in doing so I’m only hurting myself and that it’s a dead-end road. But my dad never gave me that. He never gave me that because he never realized it himself. He hates authority. And he hates responsibility. And these are the primary reasons my mom always claims that, “I raised my kids while my husband was out sitting on a barstool.”
Whereas my dad would get drunk with his buddies on pretty much every day he wasn’t at the firehouse (two out of every three days – they worked 24-hour shifts: one day on, two days off), my mom hardly ever went out with her friends when I was a kid. She’d go out once a month for “club night” with the girls. Don’t let the name fool you. My mom didn’t take ecstasy and go to raves. Club night entails a group of about ten women sitting around eating snacks, having drinks, laughing and crying with one another while watching new episodes of a show called Knots Landing. And this was the one night a month my mom would ask my dad to watch us kids. He’d agree, but he couldn’t do so without first spending the afternoon at the bar getting nice and shitfaced before coming home to watch us, making my mom feel really uncomfortable and causing her to second-guess her decision to try and maintain some semblance of a social life.
My dad’s never once looked at the bills and hates doing any sort of work around the house be it a bigger project like painting or cleaning out the attic or everyday stuff like cooking and cleaning and taking care of the swimming pool. He wouldn’t even wash or iron his own uniform to wear to the firehouse. Most pathetically in my opinion had been how he wouldn’t even set his own alarm to get up and go to the firehouse – this just became another responsibility passed down to my mother. But even if she did set the alarm and he happened to be too drunk from the night before to hear it going off on the kitchen counter from the couch in the TV room (the TV room served as his bedroom until we got the basement finished and he took over down there) and ended up oversleeping, that shit was her fault. And my mom would – we all would, cuz his violent shouting would wake us up too – start her day off by getting yelled at and put down after my dad burst into her bedroom and began drunkenly clambering into the uniform that she’d so neatly pressed for him.
As you can see, my dad doesn’t know how to empathize – he doesn’t know how to put himself in anyone else’s shoes and doesn’t know how to look at himself from the eyes of another person. His communication skills are shoddy at best. He hates intimacy because real closeness to someone else would force him to get in touch with the feelings he’s perpetually hiding from, that he’s in denial about. I mean, the guy hasn’t even acknowledged that he’s gonna die one day. He’s 62 and my sister was asking him what his final plans are just in case he were to pass away because he does after all drink and take Klonopin and smoke a pack of cigarettes every single day. “So you think you’d like to be cremated or buried?” she asked him. “I don’t know,” he replied, visibly disturbed by the question. “I don’t like to think about that stuff.” This high level of emotional immaturity makes my dad come across as a big kid trapped inside a grown man’s body – as someone who needs to be taken care of. Although he has the potential to be a lovable guy, his emotional unavailability leaves much to be desired as someone’s choice in a romantic partner and any emotionally healthy independent woman would’ve kicked his ass to the curb long before they even considered tying the knot. However, when my dad and mom met, the caretaker personality of my mother and the Peter Pan syndrome of my father came together to form the perfect storm – a codependent match made in heaven. A drunk-ass guy that doesn’t ever wanna grow the fuck up and the enabler woman that’s gonna make that possible by holding his hand and wiping his ass until the end of time.
My mom is the most selfless, giving person I’ve ever met in my life. She’s abnormally empathetic. When her kids aren’t happy, she’s not happy. She’ll listen to us bitch about any problem we might be having in our lives and then drop whatever she’s doing to help us solve it. On top of working full-time giving her heart and soul putting homemade soups together and meticulously assembling sandwiches at a small neighborhood Irish deli for fifteen years to help pay for our education and now during the past two years nannying for a pair of someone else’s kids and treating them as if they were her own, she’ll not only rush home to make her family a meal every night but also compete with me to do the dishes afterward. She is constantly keeping inventory of everything in the kitchen and of all our toiletries and she goes shopping to as many as six different stores however many times a week she has to to keep the shelves stocked – to Aldi for fruits and vegetables, to Wal-Mart for low-cost name brand products, to Butera for perpetually on-sale Land of Lakes American cheese and other miscellaneous items, to Jewel and Walgreens when she sees in an ad that something we need is on sale and to good old reliable Happy Foods for meats and milk. If, however, for whatever reason she’s failed to stock up on a needed item and you just wanna make her aware of it as neutrally as possible so she’ll pick it up the next time she’s at the store…well, then it becomes a great to-do. She’ll start beating herself up over it and saying stuff like, “Oh, I wish I knew. I was just at that store. I’m really sorry. I could run out and get you some.” And I’m like, “No. Please. That’s not necessary. No special trips. Just next time, whenever you’re already going to that store for whatever other things that are already on your list, please pick that up for me.” “Okay, sure,” she says, “but I’m really sorry though.” Then next thing you know, mom’s made a special stop in Butera on the way home from work that same day to pick me up that bottle of sriracha I’d requested and it just feels so…it just feels so very fucking wrong.
Sometimes on Friday nights when I can see my mom is completely fucking exhausted, I’ll say, “Long week, huh Mom? What’re your plans for the weekend?” And she’ll say, “I’m doing nothing this weekend. I’m relaxing.” And I’ll say, “That’s good. You deserve it. And you really need it.” But then I get up the next morning and it’s not even 9am yet and my mom is already making a pot of soup for some elderly neighbors and relatives, preparing three meals that my sister can take with her to eat while she spends the next few days at her boyfriend’s apartment and after all that has plans to get our own dinner in the oven and will make salads then dust, sweep, mop and vacuum the entire first floor while that pot roast is cooking at 350° for the next forty-five minutes to an hour. If you couldn’t tell, my mom has a drastically different idea than most people of what it means to relax. Just watching her bounce around every day like a pinball trying to do thirty different things at once, getting all worked up and giving off all this negative energy, complaining to everyone about all she has to do makes my fuckin’ head spin.
I hate letting myself get sucked into my mom’s never-ending I-don’t-know-how-to-sit-down-and-relax mania but I happen to be a bit of a caretaker myself that operates on guilt so it’s kind of inevitable. I remember that ever since we moved in to this house during the summer of ’95 my mom always talked about getting some landscaping done. In addition to an oddly placed flower box built into the front lawn and the leftover two-and-a-half foot diameter stump on the side of the house from the big old-ass tree that used to be there ‘til we got it cut down after one of its branches broke off and crashed through the terra cotta tiles of the neighbor’s roof during a thunderstorm, we had at least seven ugly bushes/shrubs ranging from knee-high to fifteen-feet-tall on the property that she wanted gone. We didn’t have the money for it and there was no way my dad was gonna do it but I wanted to make it happen for her. I just wanted to see her happy. So around April of 2004, my sixteen-year-old self put some fuckin’ gloves on and got to work. What I had at my disposal’d been an ax, a spade, some pruning shears and a foot-long handsaw with tiny teeth. Cutting the bushes up above ground, stuffing ‘em in lawn bags and getting ‘em out to the alley to be hauled away by the garbage men was no problem. Getting all the roots and the stumps out though was a real bitch. I would use the spade to remove all the dirt surrounding ‘em then just whack ‘em with the ax ‘til my hands bled. I played baseball that year but was out there on weekends and every day after school that I didn’t have a game or practice. I was very determined to see that job through to completion.
Eventually I got everything out except that big old stump on the side o’ the house. I saved the worst for last but didn’t let it intimidate me. I chopped that fucker for hours on end – ‘til the head broke off the ax and mom went out to buy me a new one. Then I chopped some more. We were having the basement finished at the time by this carpenter named John and his associate Bernie – guys who I ended up working for – and they’d see me out in the yard hitting that stump every day ‘til there was nothing left. One day they asked my mom, “How do you get your kid to work like this?” And she said, “I don’t have to do anything. He does it all on his own.” And they were very impressed. And that’s why they hired me. And to this day, every once in a while I still get a call from John to help him out with whatever he’s got goin’ on.
But to be honest though, I’ve always had a problem with the response my mom gave to the question, “How do you get your kid to work like this?” Sure, I was never asked or told to go out there and do what I did but I don’t think you can really say that I did it quote unquote “on my own.” I mean, for as long as I can remember I’ve always been my mom’s shoulder to cry on about my parents’ fucked-up financial situation and whatever sort of conflict she may be having at work and the abusive loveless marriage she’s “stuck” in. And at the same time she’s never let us forget that everything she does, she does for us kids – especially being overworked at the deli and staying in the marriage she always complains to me about just so we can have the money to go to good schools and so we can continue living in a nice neighborhood. With all that guilt on my head, how could I possibly live with myself not having done all that landscaping work and not having taken on a bunch of other big projects around the house over the years that I’ve never really wanted to do, that I’d begrudgingly seen through to completion, never openly complaining but gritting my teeth and being angry at myself the entire time? I couldn’t. It’s always been my job to try and rescue mom from her unhappiness. That’s just who I am. That’s just what I do. And sure, she’d be happy for a day or two. And I loved that feeling of life-affirming satisfaction I’d always get knowing I put a smile on her face with my efforts. But it was never long before the next complaint about her husband or job or finances would override that day or two of happiness my hard work provided. And I’d be left feeling devastated and resentful, like all I’d given of myself to change her mood had been for nothing.
Well, 2004 was a long time ago. But on a daily basis, as a thirty-year-old guy living at home in the year 2018, sometimes I feel so guilty about how run-down she’s getting that I go against what I feel is my better judgement and volunteer to help her out for the day. She most often says, “No, you got your own thing going on,” and I feel immensely relieved that I’m able to appease my conscience by looking like a good guy for having offered myself without having had to do any of the work to prove it, but sometimes she actually does accept my proposals. And the times she does allow me to help, she’s always saying things to me like, “Oh you didn’t have to do that,” and “Oh, thank you, thank you so much,” and I’m just like, “Hey, chill the fuck out. Stop thanking me for trying to pull my weight around here. You’re not my slave. You’re my mom. This shit’s a team sport. A familial system cannot work if one person does everything. It breeds resentment. And how ‘bout instead of going on these random cleaning sprees, we have a schedule with specified assignments that each person is responsible for staying on top of? And if you make a list of what you need, I’ll go to the grocery store for you. Because I look at you and I see how very tired you are. You’re trying to do too much. You can’t keep up. You’re killing yourself.” But my message is never heard.
The sole purpose my mother has come to recognize for herself in life is taking care of everyone else – it’s literally become the very meaning of her existence. She wouldn’t have the slightest fucking idea who she is or what to do with her time and energy if she stopped running around like a fool for everyone else and letting my old man treat her like a doormat. My mom doesn’t know who she is or what she needs or wants because she’s never taken the time to find out. And you’ll never be able to find out what you need and want if you spend every waking minute of every day pampering those around you. It’s this dramatic self-sacrifice – this assumed martyrdom – that leads her to be so resentful when her own needs (whatever they may be) inevitably go unmet. And the resentment builds and builds until she can’t take it anymore and feels the need to get drunk on wine and lash out at her family, blaming everyone else and treating them like oppressors, passive-aggressively biting her fist and shouting things like, “Look at these rags I wear! Can I ever buy new clothes for myself?” or “I’m a single parent that never gets any help around here while everyone else just sits on their fuckin’ asses all day long! Can I ever just sit down on my fat ass for once and read this fuckin’ newspaper that we spend all these hundreds of dollars a year on?” or “I’ve been in this fuckin’ kitchen all day long cooking for everybody else! Can I sit down and watch tv yet, God? Haven’t I done enough yet today? Would that be okay, God?” And the obvious answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. Yes you can. The only thing that’s preventing you from doing so is recognizing the paradoxical absurdity of marching around the house bound at the ankle by a ball and chain, crying out against this cruel fate others hath bestowed upon you, self-flagellating with the whip you hold in one hand and purposefully ignoring the key to your freedom which you hold tightly clenched in the other.
Until recently, until after I’d yelled in her face enough times to cease and desist, I’d catch my mom sneaking downstairs in the basement to grab my laundry out the dryer and folding it for me. “What the fuck are you doing!?” I’d shout. “Don’t you have enough on your plate as it is!?” And she’d always get all defensive and angry that I’m angry at her for usurping my personal responsibilities and go, “I’m just trying to help!” And I always return with, “You’re not helping me! You’re hurting me! You’re making me feel weak and incompetent! It’s my responsibility to fold my own wash! Just keep your fuckin’ hands offa my clothes, you fuckin’ psycho!” And she’s always like, “Yeah, okay, whatever Tim,” acting all hurt and indignant as she walks away. “I was just trying to do something nice.” And then I’m sitting there with my hand on my head wondering how in the world it’s possible that I’m left feeling like I’m some sort of abusive asshole for wanting to fold my own laundry.
I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating those confused, frustrated feelings I just described. And I thought about all the other times over the years I’d been left feeling that way after interactions with my mom. And, as much as it hurts me to admit, I arrived at the very difficult-for-me-to-accept conclusion that my mom – the woman who’s always done everything for me, the woman I feel I owe my life to – subconsciously tries to make a woman abuser out of me to solidify her role as a martyr. I feel immensely guilty just thinking that so you can imagine how difficult it is for me to put it into words here. But I mean, think about it. Any time she was ever angry with me when I was a kid she’d tell me that I’m a male chauvinist pig just like my father and that I think I can do whatever I want just because I have a little thing hanging between my legs. So as a kid who did something wrong, as a punishment I’m being psychologically reduced to the man I’m scared of who I see come home drunk and yelling at my mom just because…just because I happened to have been born with a penis? That’s some sick shit. But then again she has told me that I used to spit in her face when I wouldn’t get my way when I was a little kid because I saw my dad do it when he was wasted and on a rampage so I guess she had a point.
In my adult years, everything that really really bothers me happens when my mom gets drunk. Over the years I’ve told her that if she wants to drink then it’s perfectly fine but please, please do not interact with me. If you put even a sip of wine in your system, pretend I don’t exist. Don’t call me when I’m traveling if you’ve been drinking and when I’m home, don’t come up to my bedroom where I’ve been hiding from you because I know you’ve been drinking to try and talk to me and ask me if I wanna watch TV with you. Just don’t do it. Just have your drinks that you need so bad and leave me alone. But it never works like that. Because it’s not the drinks she’s really craving. That’s not what it’s all about. What she’s really got a hankering for is to unload all her resentments on everybody else. And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting by yourself enjoying your “one glass of wine” and your “one stinky cigarette” you tell yourself you’ve earned after a hard day of work. What you need is targets to aim and take fire at. What the booze is here is just an excuse/permission to carry out these depraved whims she gets for passive-aggressive vengeance on her family.
What she does now is – before coming into the house after she’s finished her day of nannying and dropped the kids off at home – she’ll hang out in the garage pounding glasses of wine, smoking cigarettes and playing solitaire on her phone before coming in the house fully convinced that we don’t know she’s drunk. But to me and my sister, it’s obvious. Her eyes are glassy and she’s a totally different person. The mom we know and love is gone. But we can’t say anything. Because she’ll get super defensive and deny that she’s drunk, say that it should be okay for her to have one glass of wine after a day of running around, doing everything for everybody else. So we zip it up. And at this point she’ll either complain about her workday or some person in her life who isn’t acting the way she thinks they should or she’ll start enthusiastically telling what she thinks is a really funny story. And at this time she’s hyper aware of my body language and my facial expression. I know I’m being scrutinized for the reactions she’s hoping to get outta me. And if I don’t let out a big sigh and sympathize with whatever she’s complaining about or laugh at the totally-not-funny story she just told with an unnecessary amount of irrelevant details thrown in, she’ll say, “What’s wrong?” And I’ll be like, “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.” And she’ll say, “Nothing’s wrong? Then why are you acting that way?” “Acting what way?” “I don’t know, you seem like you’re down or something.” “No mom, I’m not down.” “Hmm, seems that way. You just look…I dunno.” And I’ve learned to just say “No mom, I’m fine” and then walk away to go hide from her up in my bedroom. But many many times over the years – back when I still had hope for her and thought I could get through to her by being honest – I just wouldn’t be able to hide what I’m feeling and say, “I’m sorry mom. I don’t agree with what you’re complaining about” or “I didn’t laugh because I didn’t think your story was funny and I shouldn’t be expected to fake emotions I’m not feeling just so you can feel good about yourself. I don’t like you when you’re drunk. You make me feel super uncomfortable. You’re very mean and hurtful and I really wish you’d stop doing this.” But instead of her saying, “Oh my god, you’re right!” how I naively hoped she would, it’d always turn into a big thing with accusations about how I never do anything around the house and how she’s the only one who ever does anything and it’s all so very exhausting for me. It makes me feel worthless and hate myself and wish I was never born. And she never apologizes on her own because she’s in denial. She refuses to see herself in this light. She just sees herself as this really good person who’s just trying to do good all the time that everyone else is always working against. But if I do actually confront her when she’s sober about her disgusting drunken behavior she’ll cry and apologize and say it’s because she feels trapped in her marriage with dad, that she drinks because she’s lonely and doesn’t feel loved. And I comfort her and tell her of course she’s loved, maybe not by dad but by us kids. She’s thankful that we understand and we’ll have a nice couple days without booze as she goes back to doing everything for everyone until the next time the dam bursts and it’s the same shit over and over and over for years and years and years.
So like I said, I deflect her bullshit when I can and go hide out in my room when I know she’s been drinking but since she controls dinner and as a human being I have to eat, interacting with drunk mom is kind of inevitable. So when my hunger starts getting the best of me, I leave behind whatever book I’m reading or whatever Spanish-studying I’m doing up in my bedroom to keep myself from going insane in this house and head downstairs to the kitchen. More on that in a second. But first, a little background info.
Recently, towards the end of January, I went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with my mom, my sister, my brother and his girlfriend for my birthday. It was a nice meal and afterwards we made a fire in the living room, ate some ice cream cake my sister made and played a few rounds of Scattergories. Although he didn’t go out to dinner with us because he was at the bar, my dad joined in on the Scattergories when he got home which was a pretty big deal for me because dad usually doesn’t do any family-related stuff. Overall, it was a nice birthday. No drama. Just laughs. I would’ve preferred not to have gotten any presents because a nice chill time with my family is really all the presents I need, but everyone still got me something anyway. My mom gave me a card with a hundred dollars in it. My dad gave me a card with no money in it and a message saying he wishes me all the best in the future. I thanked everyone for their gifts and for sharing my birthday with me and I eventually drove my brother and his girlfriend back to their apartment in the city.
The next day, mom’d gotten pretty drunk after work in the garage. After I’d come down from my bedroom and while I was eating dinner, mom complains to me how dad’d yelled at her earlier. I don’t ask any details but she continues on anyway. She tells me she bitched at him on my behalf for not having put any money in my birthday card. And then he said to her that he still planned on giving me something – that he was thinking of getting me a gas card. And then she told him that that’s fucking stupid because “Tim hardly ever drives so why would he need a gas card?” and tells him that he should just give me a hundred-dollar bill like she did. And that’s when dad blew up on her. And I could read by her intonations and posture that she wanted me to pat her on the back for sticking up for me like that. But instead of doing that I said, “If dad happens to get me a gas card, I’ll give it to you or Teresa. It’s not a big deal. I had a really nice birthday and I didn’t want gifts from anyone. And to be honest with you, I don’t feel right taking that hundred dollars you gave me. You work hard for your money and you’ve given me enough over the years. I’d like to give it back to you so you can spend it on something that you’d like to spend it on.” And she was deeply offended. She started laying into me and droning on about how no one appreciates her. I tried eating my meal as fast as I could but couldn’t reach the end before I ran out of patience and yelled at her to shut the fuck up. And immediately, once she’d pushed me over the edge like that, she turned it around and said she couldn’t believe I was yelling at her for doing such a nice thing like trying to get money for me from my dad especially after she’d just given me a hundred dollars of her own hard-earned money the day before. She said, “I’m always stuck between a rock and a hard place with you two – you and your father always gotta give me such a hard time.” I was violently enraged at the injustice of it all. I was ready to kill her. But I took a deep breath, ignored her attempts to manipulate me, scarfed down the rest of the meal, did my dishes, thanked her and went up to lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling in my bedroom.
You see, these situations are really quite dangerous for me. I’ve always been open and honest with my mom over the years about my thoughts and feelings and when she’s sober she listens and shares her thoughts and feelings about things with me in return. That’s why I feel my relationship with her is way better than the one I have with my dad to whom I’ve never spoken about anything that isn’t totally superficial. I put my trust in her. I make myself vulnerable to her. And incomprehensibly, she uses these things I’ve entrusted her with over the years as weapons to get me riled up when she’s drunk and looking for someone to provoke into abusing her so instead of taking some responsibility for her own unhappiness and working towards making positive changes, she can continue being this tragic martyr figure perpetually complaining about how she never was able to enjoy any of her life because of what everyone else has always done to her and made her do for them. When she does this, when she uses my vulnerability against me as a weapon, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. It makes me feel like dropping to my knees and shouting, “Why have you forsaken me!?” It’s like, I’ve never punched anyone in the face in my life – male or female – and I don’t want to. But there have been several times my mother’s pushed me so far, drunkenly insulted me so very deeply that I’ve literally picked up the chair she’s sitting on, dumped her on the floor and gotten in her face with my fist cocked back ready to give her black eye #3 from the hand of a Lally male. But I never give her the satisfaction. In the deciding moment, I always summon the inner-strength to restrain myself, leave the house and go for a long walk. Because I have to. Because for me it’s a matter of life and death. Because being a woman-beater is below the standards I hold for myself. And once a woman-beater, always a woman-beater. There’s no coming back from that. There is no redemption. I couldn’t live with myself. I’d have to commit suicide. And I ain’t ready to die just yet.
I don’t know what’s happened to my dad in recent years, but it’s quite obvious that he’s suffering very greatly. He doesn’t sleep at night, he mutters to himself all day long and can be heard yelling “FUCK!” at the top of his lungs twenty-four hours a day from where he lives down in the basement. Perhaps this is the result of never having stepped out of the denial he was forced to live in as a kid and coming to terms with the pain inflicted on him by his drunken Marine father and controlling mother in that household he grew up in. I don’t know, because my dad’s never opened up to me. I honestly don’t think he’s ever even opened up to himself. Sometimes when I hear him swearing I go down to the basement to see if he’s alright and he puts on this phony “everything’s A-OK” voice and says, “Yeah, I’m fine. I just checked my clothes in the dryer and they weren’t dry yet.”
You see, washing his clothes several times a day is part of this OCD-like routine my dad’s developed. His day can’t be over until every item is checked off the list of rules he’s set for himself. The rules sometimes change. Sometimes a rule is added or substituted for something similar, but once a rule’s in place it’ll usually stay that way for at least a couple months. The rules are never verbalized and if you ask him about it, he’ll straight-up deny it. But the rules are real from the perspective of an observer who can see how visibly distressed and pissed off he gets if he’s behind schedule or if someone’s doing laundry during the times of day that he needs to use the washer and dryer.
I haven’t been following his routine closely as of late because quite frankly it depresses the shit outta me, but as of last year he’d have to start off every day listening to the entirety of a 22-song Warren Zevon greatest hits album. After that he’s gotta put his towel in the dryer. Once the towel’s sufficiently warm, he can take his shower but he can’t set the dryer back to zero and just shut it off. He’s gotta let all the time he put on the dryer to heat up the towel run out even though there’s nothing in it. This drives my mom – the one who deals with and gets unnecessarily stressed about all the bills – absolutely apeshit. I’m not sure if it’s before or after the shower, but at some point in the morning his iPod is put on the charger. After his shower (let’s say it’s the fall and temps are cool but not yet cold) he puts on whatever set of socks, underwear, t-shirt, sweatshirt and pair of jeans that has become his outfit of choice for this particular moment in time. He then comes upstairs and slams the basement door. Any time he goes in or comes out of that particular door – even in the middle of the night – he never twists the handle and shuts it gently, he fucking slams it. And you can hear it throughout the entire house. And sometimes it doesn’t always stay shut after the first slam. So he gives it multiple slams until it’s good and closed. Then he goes out to the street and sits in his truck. He starts it up but before putting it in drive, he’s gotta smoke a cigarette. This is the only cigarette I’m certain of exactly where it fits into his schedule. In actuality, he’s smoking all day and all night but I don’t know where the rest of the cigs fit in to the routine. I do know, however, that he can’t finish a pack of cigarettes. At any given time, he’ll have four or five packs sitting on the dresser in the basement each with one or two cigarettes in it which I’m pretty sure he’ll eventually combine into a single pack and smoke ‘em from there. I asked him why he does this one time while we were working together. He said, “I dunno,” and shrugged. And I replied, “I think you do know. I think it serves a very specific purpose that you consciously understand to be irrational and silly which is why you don’t wanna say it out loud, but at the same time you can’t let go of it because it’s part of a routine you’ve constructed to protect yourself from facing unpleasant feelings. Why do you do it? Why can’t you finish your cigarettes?” He again brushed me off with a shrug and an “I dunno.”
So once the cigarette’s been smoked in his pick-up truck, he drives over to the Lucky Grill on Talcott for breakfast where he eats the same thing every day. After breakfast he comes back home, opens the door to the basement, slams it shut, goes down, gets his iPod, comes back up, slams the door again and without asking anyone what’s going on with their day or how they’re doing informs whoever’s around that “I’m gonna go for my walks” and heads out the front door whereupon he drives over to Caldwell Woods to begin “getting his miles” for the day. He’ll be gone for an hour or two before coming back to the house, stepping in the front door and reporting to anyone he sees how many miles he just got (usually a mile or a mile-and-a-half) as well as his plans to go charge his iPod for fifteen minutes. He’ll also ask if anyone’s called for him while hobbling over to the cordless phone hung from the wall in the kitchen to look for a flashing light on the part of the device that’s mounted to the wall that indicates a new voicemail. If the light is flashing, he’ll take the phone with him down to the basement to listen to the voicemails in hope that it’s a window washing customer requesting his services. Needless to say, the door is slammed before the descent.
After coming back up fifteen minutes later with his slightly charged iPod and slamming the door, he heads back into the kitchen and hangs up the cordless phone. If he’s received any text messages on his cell phone from anyone that day prior to that moment, he’ll seek out my sister, my mom or me and ask us how to delete them because he can’t have anything in his inbox. In spite of each of us having taught him how to do this at least a hundred times, he’s never put in any effort towards learning how to delete text messages on his own. But it’s weird cuz sometimes he actually will delete his own messages for a day or two but then come back for like two weeks in a row after that saying, “How do you delete these text messages?” and handing us his phone. So, I don’t really understand what’s going on there. I just know that most of the time, at this point in the day, dad’s going to ask one of us to help him delete his text messages.
This text-message-deleting component had been my least favorite part of the routine around the end of 2016 when my dad had been having an affair with some woman (or man) named Pat. Up until his 61st birthday in November of that year, he had a flip phone which he could more or less operate on his own. He’d still ask us for help from time to time, but it was never really “a thing.” But for some reason or another that I’m not sure of (my mom’s convinced that it was so this mysterious Pat character could send him naked photos of him/herself, but of all the messages I was asked to delete including ones from Pat, there had never been any nudes) my dad had been telling my mom and my sister how much he really wanted a smartphone. So in the days leading up to the 6th of November, good old mom runs out and buys him some sort of not-too-complicated Samsung smartphone, sets it up for him and gives it to him for his birthday.
Now, when my dad talks on the phone, he talks absurdly loud. We can clearly hear him from upstairs when he’s talking to people on the phone down in the basement. And so that same night, the night of his birthday, after he’d gone downstairs, my mom was sitting in the living room and hears my dad talking to someone on the phone – the very same cell phone that she’d just gotten him as a present – about how much he misses her and her quote unquote “sweet bod.” Needless to say, the woman who gave this man three children – not to mention nearly forty years of her life – was incensed and went downstairs to confront him with a, “Who the fuck was that!?” And dad just yelled, “Mind your own fuckin’ business!” And mom went upstairs and cried in her bedroom where we did our best to comfort the woman who repeatedly insists on putting her hand in the flame in spite of knowing damn well the destructive properties of fire.
Every time I was asked to delete his messages and saw something from Pat over the course of the following two months, I felt so ashamed of my father. But like I said earlier, he’s incapable of empathizing. He’s incapable of understanding how much less I think of him for all of this. Or maybe he just plain old doesn’t care. That’s also a plausibility given the fact he’d even asked my mom to help him with his phone not too long after the incident when there were clearly texts from his girl/boyfriend on there that he wanted deleted. And initially she’d blow him off and say something like, “Why don’t you ask Pat how to do it?” And he’d get all pissed off but she’d stand her ground and wouldn’t help him. Then on Christmas Day of that same year, I was sitting at the top of the stairs and heard dad making a similar call from the basement. He was leaving a message on Pat’s phone, saying something like, “I miss you babe. Call me.” As far as I can tell, I don’t think Pat ever called him back. Never saw another message from her on his phone. Cuz if we’re being honest here, unless Pat is looking for someone to take care of, my dad doesn’t have much to offer women. She probably realized, “What the hell am I doing with this emotionally-stunted retard?” and stopped answering his calls. So eventually, in the months to come, he again began asking my mom to delete his text messages for him and she’d again give him the old, “Why don’t you ask Pat how to do it?” And he’d fly off the handle shouting, “I haven’t fuckin’ talked to Pat in months, you stupid bitch! Fuck you!” It was almost as if he was mad at my mom for opening up an old wound by bringing up the name of his would-be mistress that’d rejected him for his incomprehensible level of immaturity. Nevertheless, he continued to keep asking my mom to delete his texts for him and – as everything else always has without changing – things went back to business as usual around here.
So anyway, after the text messages have been removed from the inbox, he makes known his intention to drive back to the woods to “go get a few more miles.” Had he not had any text messages to do away with at that point in time, he would’ve made that “miles” announcement right after hanging up the cordless phone. This sequence is repeated anywhere between one and three more times on any given day and, truth be told, he really can’t be bothered during this time. Well, to be fair, he can’t be bothered at any time about anything by my mom because she always wants to talk to him about, ya know, adult stuff and he just doesn’t wanna hear it. For example, if my mom’s trying to get their finances sorted out and she wants to ask him some questions about their insurance plan or his retirement fund or the massive debt they’re in and the bills they’re short on – including money he owes to other people for carelessly backing his truck into their cars at the woods while on his walks (he did this twice last year) or hospital bills for a drunken accident he had last summer in the basement doing god-knows-what during my sister’s graduation party that resulted in several severed tendons on a blood-gushing hand that needed to be operated on – he barks that that stuff’s not his fuckin’ job, that he makes all the fuckin’ money and that it’s her fuckin’ job to figure all that shit out. Not always but more often than not, he’ll also take this time to belittle the work my mom does and mock her relatively weak earning power, angrily shouting something like, “Why don’t you get your own fucking pension!?” And then he’ll slam the front door on his way out to go get some more of his all-important miles which he expects admiration and respect for getting.
Once he’s decided he’s done enough walking, he’s gotta come back to the house to announce the total mileage he’s racked up for the day and again see if anyone’s called for him as well as check the mailbox to see if he’s received any outstanding payments from window washing customers. If there wasn’t any mail in the box and none on the table in the dining room where we traditionally put the mail after we’ve brought it into the house, he’ll ask whoever he sees, “We haven’t gotten any mail yet?” to which we always reply “no” and he’ll start telling us the names of the people from whom he’s expecting checks and what for (window washing, gutter cleaning and/or snow removal).
After that’s done, if he doesn’t have any new texts he needs deleted, he drives over to Jersey Mike’s in Park Ridge where, like Cheers, all employees know him not only by name but also by order. I’m not sure what his sandwich of choice is at this particular moment in time but there’d been a streak of at least six months during which he got a Philly cheesesteak served Mike’s Way every single fucking day. And so he brings the sandwich back to the house and sets it on the buffet by the basement door which he proceeds to slam as he goes downstairs for five minutes. He comes back up and slams the door. He grabs the sandwich, brings it in the kitchen and puts it on a plate, throws out the bag and the wrapping the sandwich came in, pours himself a glass of milk, eats his lunch and checks the Sports page to see if the Cubs or Bulls or Notre Dame play that night. He can’t read the listings on his own and will say to whoever’s around, “I don’t have my readers on, what time,” and/or “what channel’s the game on tonight?” And then he goes downstairs. From here on out, I’m not even going to mention the door-slamming. It’s tedious. Just know that it happens any time he goes down to or comes up from his bedroom down in the basement.
It’s now four or four-thirty in the afternoon. At this time he takes off his chosen outfit and puts it in the washing machine (with, I believe, the dirty towel from the morning), throws on the sweatpants and t-shirt he sleeps in, lays on the couch and watches the talking heads arguing with each other on ESPN. When the clothes are done washing he moves them to the dryer. He goes back to the couch and lays back down. Several times during the drying cycle, he gets anxious and goes over to open up the dryer to check just how dry his clothes are at that particular point in time. If they’re anything short of satisfactorily dry, from upstairs we’ll hear a loud “FUCK!” coming up through the floorboards. This checking and swearing pattern is repeated until his towel is declared dry-enough whereupon he jumps in the shower, dries himself off, takes the same outfit from the dryer, puts it back on, hits “go” on whatever time’s left on the dryer so it can run itself out and then comes upstairs. And at this point he asks my mom (or me or my sister if my mom’s not around), “What’s for dinner?”
The “What’s for dinner?” part of the routine is easily my least favorite part of the day. It’s the clash of the two personality types. It’s Mom the Martyr carrying her cross up to Golgotha and Dad, King of Neverland waiting for her at the top of the hill with a hammer and nails in hand. I mean, even in the days before this routine came into being, the issue of what mom was making for dinner was always used as an excuse for dad to unload his rage on her. He’d come home shitfaced from the bar when we were kids and we’d all be eating dinner as a family and he’d pick up the plate of food she made for him and scrape it in the garbage right in front of us then pick up the phone and order a pizza from Moretti’s that he’d only eat like two pieces of after he finished that daily 12-pack of Corona he always kept in the fridge. He’d even come home one time and, after a bit of bickering with my mom, just threw his fuckin’ meal at the wall. And my mom’s left crying, picking pieces of shattered porcelain up off the floor and scrubbing off the wall the food that she put so much time and effort into making. It’s fucking painful to watch.
So many times over the years I’ve begged her to just stop cooking for him, to detach, to let it go, to just let him get his own food from the bar every day, to stop continually setting herself up to get shit on by a man that couldn’t care less if she’s alive or dead. But she’s never listened. She always reasons, “We don’t have enough money for the bills! We can’t have him spending an extra twenty dollars on dinner every night! How the fuck do you think we’re supposed to pay the tens of thousands of dollars of debt we owe when he’s always spending money we don’t have!?” And this is normally when I shut up. Cuz, I mean, she’s 100% right. How can I argue with that logic? Dad already goes to the pub every day – including the holidays – and lays a twenty on the bar. He also smokes a pack of cigarettes a day which is another twelve dollars. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days times twelve dollars plus another three-sixty-five times twenty is already $11,680. That’s super irresponsible. And, she’s right. There’s no reason another $7,300 a year should be spent on his dinners when she’s already putting in so much time and effort every day to prepare a homemade meal for the family. Of course any reasonable husband would understand that you’re not gonna get exactly what you wanna eat every single night of your life when someone else that’s not a paid chef has dedicated herself to cooking for you and your kids, but there’s no doubt you get what you need. All mom’s meals got protein, veggies and carbs. And that’s just the main course. She always makes salads too. And they ain’t bullshit salads either with just lettuce and croutons. They got everything. On top of the lettuce she’s got tomato, cucumber, onion, avocado, chickpeas, shredded cheddar and homemade buttermilk ranch. I grew tall and strong on her cooking. It’s kept me alive and healthy for thirty years and for that, I’m very thankful. But my dad on the other hand doesn’t see it as something to be thankful for. He finds it to be a major inconvenience. And his childish reactions to the answers he gets when posing this dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question make me sick to my stomach.
Sometimes mom tries to avert the tension of the “What’s for dinner?” moment by confronting him earlier in the day. She’ll catch him in between one of his walks and say, “Hey Dan, I was thinking about cooking pork chops tonight, will you eat that?” And he’ll growl, “I haven’t even eaten my fuckin’ lunch yet!” And she’ll say, “Yeah, I understand that. But I’m trying to get a head start on dinner and…” He’ll cut her off. “I fuckin’ hate pork chops. I ain’t eatin’ that shit.” And he’ll slam the door and leave. But then later in the day he’ll come up from the basement when it’s time to go to the bar and he’ll see me or my sister and instead of asking “What’s for dinner?” because he already knows, he’ll say, “Tell mom I’ll eat her pork chops. I’m going to the bar for a couple beers. I’ll be about an hour.” For the most part, my mom has found this sort of open honest communication with her husband about what she plans on cooking for the evening to cause more stress than it’s worth and just makes the decision on her own and then we all sit around awaiting the six o’clock hour when dad crawls out his cave wanting to know, “What’s for dinner?”
Every once in a great while he openly accepts what my mom is cooking but he most often scowls and informs her that he’ll – although with great reluctance – do her the favor of eating her meal that night. Sometimes he’ll say, “Fuckin’ casserole? I’m not eating that shit! I wanted pizza or ribs!” and storm out the house like a two-year-old who refuses to eat his vegetables. It’s on these nights we assume that he’ll be picking something up from the Iron Horse Ale House on Northwest Highway and don’t prepare him a plate. On one of the rare nights on which he’d been enthused about what was on the menu for the evening, my mom’d prepared him a nice big slab o’ ribs done to perfection and coated with a nice healthy layer of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbeque sauce. On the side he had a baked potato but probably no vegetables because as he’s stated a million times, he fuckin’ hates vegetables. He was very pleased with the meal and had even said so to my mother. Dad retreated back into his layer and not long after, mom went up to bed. Seemed like that was all she wrote for the day, but no. Fifteen, twenty minutes later the basement door comes flying open and bangs off the wall. Dad goes charging up to the second floor and bursts into mom’s bedroom. “You stupid fuckin’ bitch! You broke my tooth out with your ribs! I like ribs that fall off the bone! Not fuckin’ stupid bullshit ribs like the ones you make! Fuck you, fuckin’ cunt!” And he rumbles back downstairs and slams the door twice as hard as he normally does. The man’s tooth fell out and he swallowed it without even knowing as he enjoyed a delicious homemade meal. But then he’s running his tongue over his teeth in the basement and notices something’s missing, panics and is gonna blame my mom for it. Never mind the fact that he hasn’t been to the dentist for a cleaning in over twenty years, has been smoking a pack o’ cigs a day for over twice that time and has the teeth of a mummy. It’s fuckin’ Sue’s fault. It always has been and it always will be.
So anyway, back to the routine. After dad asks what’s for dinner and decides whether or not it’s worthy of him eating it, he always informs us that, as if we didn’t already know, “I’m going to the bar for a couple beers. I’ll be about an hour.” Anywhere between one and three hours later, dad drives home and pulls in the alley to empty his ashtray in one of the garbage cans on the side of which he sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t decide to take a piss, drives around the block, parks his truck on the street, comes in the front door, announces to whoever he sees that, “I’ll be five minutes,” and goes down into the basement. During this time, mom drops whatever she’s doing and runs to the kitchen to heat up his plate in the microwave and also to get his silverware and napkin on the table if she hadn’t done those things already when she finished eating her own meal. She used to pour his milk too but that angered him and he’d shout, “I’m capable of pouring my own fuckin’ milk!” so – like folding my laundry for me – that’s a power she’s conceded over time. Dad comes upstairs and eats, often while drunkenly mumbling about how much he hates whatever he’s eating. “Fuggin’ chicken…what is this bullshit…fuggin’ sucks…” During this time he also rips the Sudoku puzzle out the A&E section of the Chicago Tribune that my mom always complains about having to pay the subscription for. If anything’s happened to the Sudoku puzzle or if it’s not there for whatever reason, he gets exceptionally angry.
In the summer of 2016, one of my brother’s good friends died. She was run over by a car while riding a bicycle. He and some other friends often go over to this girl’s mother’s house to all eat dinner together in her remembrance. Before one of the first dinners they’d convened for – actually, I think it was the first dinner they’d convened for after her passing – maybe a week or two after the funeral, my brother had briefly stopped at home to chill for an hour and say what’s up. My brother lives further in the city and only stops home once every couple months to check in around here. He’s successfully separated himself from this bullshit and keeps his distance. I don’t blame him. Even though dad may not have seen Danny or talked to him for those couple months since his last visit, his routine simply does not allow him the time to stop and talk to his own son. So to my understanding, when dad saw Danny that day it was basically just a, “Hi, bye, I’m going to the bar for a few beers, I’ll be back in an hour,” type interaction. That said, I know that he was aware Danny’s friend had just died because I was there when my mom and sister told him about it as he passed through the kitchen the day the three of us had been by the table talking about when and where the wake and funeral services were set to be. So that night when dad got home from the bar and had been eating whatever disgusting dinner his stupid ugly fatass bitch of a wife was forcing him to eat, he couldn’t find the A&E section. His precious Sudoku puzzle was missing in action and he was convinced that Danny had stolen it from him. I don’t know what happened to the A&E section that day, if it’d accidentally gotten thrown in the recycling or what, but Danny definitely didn’t take it. He had no reason to. Nevertheless, dad calls up Danny’s phone while he’s out eating dinner with his dead friend’s mother and leaves a bunch of messages angrily accusing him of stealing his fucking Sudoku puzzle and bitching about how he’s gotta go to the store now and buy another Tribune. Fuck you, Danny. You’re definitely the selfish inconsiderate jag-off in this situation.
So, back to the routine. In spite of whatever hateful mumbling my dad lets out while eating his dinner, upon completion of the meal – after he’s washed his dishes – he’ll automatically say to my mom who’s almost always on the reclining chair in the TV room at this time, “Good steak,” “Good chicken,” “Good whatever-we-ate. Thanks.” One time he said, “Good pot roast, thanks,” and she replied, “It was actually a pork roast, but you’re welcome,” and he walked away mumbling, “I don’t give a fuck what it was, fuckin’ bitch.” And then after he offers my mom this empty thanks, he’ll wish us a good night and go downstairs. At some point before going to bed herself, my mom will resentfully rewash my dad’s dishes because – I can attest to this, it’s not just her being a control freak – he does a horrible job. He leaves the plate and silverware all greasy with chunks of shit dried-up on ‘em and milk still in his glass when he hangs it upside down on the dishrack. It’s a joke. So after that stuff’s taken care of, mom’s officially done for the day and allows herself to go upstairs to bed.
Back in the basement, dad climbs back into his sleepwear and again washes his chosen outfit and towel so they’ll be ready for him in the morning, flips ESPN back on (unless there’s a Cubs or Bulls or Notre Dame game on a different channel) and gets to work on his Sudoku puzzle. “FUCK!”s are intermittently heard from the basement as he checks the status of his clothes in the dryer. Dad comes up one or two times in the middle of the night for cookies and milk. The door-slamming never fails to wake up my light-sleeping, anxiety-ridden and evermore resentful mother who then spends the rest of the night tossing and turning, worrying about anything and everything.
A few more notes I’d like to add are: like his packs of cigarettes, my dad can never finish the laundry detergent he uses for his obsessive clothes-washing. There must be ten bottles with a quarter inch of detergent at the bottom of each of ‘em on the shelf above the washer. Same goes for the Chips Ahoy! and Oreos my mom buys for him that he eats in the middle of the night. He always leaves one or two cookies in the old one when he goes ahead and opens up a new package. Same deal with toilet paper. In his bathroom in the basement, sitting on the window ledge above the john are around fifteen rolls of TP, each having no more than twenty-five squares remaining of the thousand they all began with.
When it comes to Christmas, I’m not really big on the whole gift-giving tradition. That said, I’m not a total fucking Scrooge either. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving one thoughtful gift to each person you really love in your life. Every year I do the same thing. I spend fifty dollars on each member of my immediate family. That’s four gifts at fifty bucks a pop, all of which I buy on the same afternoon and that’s it. I’m done with Christmas shopping. And I’m very pragmatic in the gifts I choose for people. This past year, I got mom a gift certificate to a nearby Mexican restaurant so she wouldn’t have to cook one night. I got Teresa a gas card from the station she always fills up at because she’s in the car every day driving back and forth from work. I got Danny a gift card to some trendy restaurant/bar down near where he lives in the city where he and his girlfriend can go and enjoy themselves because I know that’s the sort of thing they like to do. And for my dad I got fifty bucks worth of soap, bungee cords and sponges that he can use during the upcoming year’s March-through-November window washing season.
For every Christmas and birthday and Father’s Day for as long as I can remember with the exception of this most recent birthday and Christmas 2017, I’d always gotten my dad a fifty-dollar gift certificate to Ace Hardware. It’s where he gets not only all his buckets, squeegees and razor blades and the other aforementioned window washing supplies we use, but also from where he gets such gutter cleaning equipment as Echo brand leaf blowers, 2-stroke engine oil and lawn bags for the rare cleaning-up we do when we’re not just hiding the debris we blew out people’s gutters by blowing it under their bushes. The reason I didn’t stick to this seemingly functional and practical status quo is as follows.
For my Father’s Day 2017 shopping I went over to the Ace on Northwest Highway to stop in and pick up the usual but to my dismay some dorky-looking pimple-faced fifteen-year-old dipshit had been the only one behind the register.
“Uh, hey,” I said to him. “Can I get a fifty-dollar gift certificate?”
He didn’t know where they were, ducked down and began half-assedly looking around under the counter. Logic told me that if he doesn’t know where the gift certificates are, then he’s never done this before.
“Hey dude, they’re on the wall behind you.”
So he starts fucking around on the register as I skeptically watch him pressing a bunch of buttons from the other side of the counter.
“Is there anyone else around that could maybe help you out here?” I asked.
“No, I got it,” he assured me before printing up a receipt and handing it over.
“Okay,” I looked at the piece of paper that said GIFT CERTIFICATE with the requested monetary value, “but don’t you gotta slide the card itself through the machine to activate it? Ya know, to get the money on the piece of plastic here?”
“Are you sure?”
I give him a Larry David staredown and examine his face. I know that he’s wrong but for some reason can’t summon the wherewithal to call his bluff and demand a talk with the manager. I reluctantly hand him fifty dollars and walk out the store. On Father’s Day I give the gift to dad with the receipt taped around the plastic card and explain to him the situation about how the gift card itself is probably not activated but if he has the receipt he can show them and they’ll be able to check on their system and see that none of the fifty dollars I’d given them had yet been spent. He nods, brings the gift card downstairs and forgets about it.
Fast-forward to October. Dad’s been to Ace many times since June when I gave him that gift card but he’s still never used it. While dad’s drunkenly shoveling dinner in his face, he announces with a mouthful of food – part of which goes flying out before he uses his index finger to dab it up off the table and put it back where it came from – that he needs to go to Ace the following day for a new bucket and some sponges. I remind him that he’s still got fifty bucks from me that he could and should – I hate the idea of my hard-earned money going to waste – put towards the purchase. He goes, “Oh yeah. Okay. Yeah, I’ll use that.”
“But dad,” I warned. “You remember what I told you about that card back in June when I gave it to you?”
Of course he didn’t.
“When I went to get that card for you from Ace, the teenage dipshit behind the counter didn’t have any idea what he was doing so most likely the gift card itself has no monetary value on it. Bring the receipt. Show the cashier the receipt. They can scan the barcode on it and everything will be okay. You’ll be able to use the money. I repeat: if the gift card does not work, show them the receipt. Got it?”
My mom and sister were also in the kitchen listening to me reiterate this.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.”
So the following evening dad decides to stop in at Ace after going to the bar. I’m up in my bedroom when he comes home and I can hear him say to my mom, “That fuckin’ gift card Tim gave me didn’t work and I didn’t have any more cash on me than the twenty I brought to the bar so I had to charge that stuff from Ace.”
My mom hates when my dad charges stuff and I’m sure she’d been ready to tear into him about their massive credit card debt but before she had the chance to do so, I ran downstairs and said, “What the fuck, man? What’d I tell you yesterday?”
He has no idea what I’m talking about.
“Yesterday when you were eating dinner, I told you some important information you needed to know about the gift card. What did I tell you?”
Just a blank, glassy-eyed “I’m a million miles away because I drink on Klonopin” stare.
“I told you something very specific that you were supposed to bring along with the gift card. What was it? What did I tell you to bring?”
“The receipt! That’s right. And why did I tell you to bring the receipt?”
“I don’t fuckin’ know!”
He was beginning to show his anger in an attempt to shut me down so I’d stop questioning him the way he always had. But I’m no longer the kid I once was who’d tremble and cower before the rage of my father.
“I told you to bring the receipt to show the cashier. Did you show the cashier the receipt?”
“It doesn’t fuckin’ matter!” he shouted. “The lady ran the card through the machine and said all the money on it was used up!”
“No she didn’t. That’s not what she said. I’m almost one-hundred percent positive she said something more like, ‘There’s no money on this card.’”
“Well, what’s the fuckin’ difference?”
“You tell me. You tell me why I told you to bring the receipt yesterday in the kitchen and you’ll have the answer.”
He just couldn’t follow my logic.
“Alright, well fuck it,” I said. “Where’s the receipt?”
“I threw it out because they said there wasn’t any fuckin’ money on it!”
“Wait. What? You threw out the gift card? Or you threw out the receipt?”
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me! Where are they? Where’d you throw them out?”
“I dunno. The fuckin’ garbage at Ace.”
“Where? Where at Ace? What garbage?”
“The one by the door.”
“Alright. I’m gonna go get it.”
So me and my mom get in the car and drive over to Ace Hardware on Northwest Highway. During the ride mom says to me, “I can’t believe that a cashier would take advantage of dad like that.”
I look over at her and go, “No. Just no. We’re not doing this. We’re not putting the blame on the cashier for taking advantage of him. Not this time. It’s all his doing.”
“He’s a braindead retard, Tim. He can’t take care of himself. People take advantage of him.”
“First of all, what secret motive could a cashier possibly have for telling dad there’s no value on a card that really doesn’t have any value on it? Hmm?”
“The cashier should have at least asked him if he had a receipt.”
“You’re right. A good cashier would’ve done that. But that doesn’t mean it’s the cashier’s fault. It’s dad’s fault he didn’t produce the receipt because he’s self-absorbed and irresponsible and doesn’t listen to a word anyone else says. And it’s dad’s fault he’s a braindead retard. I know addiction is a disease and all that and don’t get me wrong, I feel really bad for the guy and all the pain he’s in but this is the path he chose in life. No one made him decide to deal with his pain by trying to drink it all away and to numb it out with pills and to develop this fucking ridiculous OCD routine that now governs all our lives. You’d think someone would’ve come to realize that after two stints in rehab. But no. It’s always back to the same shit. How much understanding can you honestly lend someone for having gone through a rough childhood? He’s never made an honest attempt to face these feelings he’s so afraid of and to change. He’s never been held accountable for anything. He’s never apologized for anything. And it’s because he’s never had to. Because we as a family have no standards. We cover up his messes. We let him get away with everything and we take him back with open arms. We’re all mad at him for a little while but then our guilt gets the best of us and we go back to feeling sorry for him because he’s ‘so dumb and helpless and doesn’t know any better.’ And he always makes us regret it. It’s bullshit. It’s so fucked up. It’s fucking me up. It’s gotta stop.”
The atmosphere in mom’s Ford Edge was heavy and we sat in silence for the rest of the ride. We pulled into the lot, got out the car and soon discovered there was no garbage by the door – neither inside nor out – but just to the left side of the entrance there’d been one of those commercial ashtrays that are long, tall and skinny with a little hole on the side at the top that drops down into the flower-pot sized compartment at the bottom where the cigs extinguish themselves. “Maybe he crumpled it up and threw it in there,” I thought to myself. So I take the ashtray apart and look around and it’s not in there. So then I look back towards the parking lot. Over up on the edge of the sidewalk that runs between the store and the lot by a pile of pumpkins and a stack of hay they got on sale for Halloween had been a cylindrical garbage can about three quarters full of bullshit. My mom and I look at each other and say, “Are we really about to go digging through this fucking garbage can right now?” We decided we were. So I rolled up my sleeves and began taking out every piece of trash one-by-one and piling it on the side of the can while handing my mom every receipt I came across so she could check ‘em. Ten, fifteen minutes later, we reach the bottom. Nothing. Time to regroup. Mom calls dad and tells him what we just did. She asks him to specify exactly where he threw out the receipt. He tells her that he handed the receipt to the cashier to throw out for him. I say that that doesn’t make any sense considering handing the cashier the receipt is what he was supposed to do in the first place. Nevertheless, my mom and I head into the store to talk to the lady behind the counter.
“Yeah, I remember,” she said after we described my dad and the situation. “He didn’t hand me anything to throw out. He handed me the gift card and when it didn’t work he made the purchase with a credit card. I returned both cards and gave him the receipt for the purchase he just made. He put his credit card back in his wallet and then put the receipt and the gift card in the bucket he just bought and then he walked out of the store.”
Me and mom get back in the car and drive home. Once inside, I grab dad’s keys and head out to his truck. I open up the back and pull out the bucket he just bought. Nothing. While I’m out there I check the glove compartment as well as the compartment between the driver and passenger seats. I check the floor under the seats. Nothing. So then I walk around to the alley to check all our garbage cans where he needs to dump out his ashtray every day on his way home from the bar before coming in the house. No sign of a receipt. I go back in the house and go downstairs where dad is working on his Sudoku puzzle and watching ESPN.
“So,” I began, “the garbage can you originally thought you threw the receipt into – if you’re in the parking lot standing facing the door to go into Ace, was that garbage can on your left side or your right side?”
He took a moment to think about it.
“It was on the left side.”
“No it wasn’t. There was a small ashtray on the left hand side but I took it apart and there was nothing but cigarette butts inside. And beyond that is the sidewalk. And there’s no garbage can on the sidewalk. And beyond that is the street. To the right of the door is the whole stretch of parking lot. And the can was about twenty feet or so to the right of the door on the sidewalk that runs between the store and the lot by a pile of pumpkins and a stack of hay. We took out every piece of garbage one-by-one. It wasn’t in there.”
“And the cashier to whom you supposedly gave the receipt and the gift card to throw out – she didn’t mention the receipt. She said you only handed her the card and she gave it back to you after it didn’t work and said you put it in the bucket you just bought before leaving the store.”
“That’s where it is. It’s in the bucket out in the truck.”
“Yeah…except it’s not. I already checked.”
“Hmm…” he furrowed up his brow.
“You really have no idea what you did with that receipt and gift card, do you?”
“Why do you just make shit up all the time?”
He gave me an “I dunno” Klonopin shrug, not offering any reasons as to why he’d rather live in his fabricated version of reality than to step out of the denial he’d prefer everyone else was a part of.
“I’m very mad at you,” was the last thing I said before walking upstairs to admit to my mom in the kitchen how guilty I feel for scolding poor helpless innocent dad.
Receiving gifts from my dad is a whole ‘nother issue. I have a hard time receiving gifts from dad because the only real gift I’ve ever wanted from the guy was to stop smoking cigarettes and taking pills and being such a selfish drunken asshole and to put in a real honest effort towards being the husband and father I know he’s capable of being – or at least the husband and father he once upon a time had been capable of being before all this irreparable damage had been done to his brain and to all our personal relationships with him over the years. And accepting any gift that’s less than that has always kinda felt like I’m signing my name next to the X on a contract that says, “I’m totally okay with everything that goes on in my house.” Which I’m totally not. And I never have been. And so, in accepting his gifts I feel like my integrity is being compromised. And if my integrity is compromised, I’m not living up to my own standards of who I think I should be. And if I’m not living up to my own standards of who I think I should be, I fucking hate myself. That said, most of the time dad usually just gets me a gift certificate from Dick’s Sporting Goods in recent years or from Sports Authority back when that place was all the rage for all your sporting good needs. The best gift I ever got from him, however, had been for my thirteenth birthday when he’d driven all the way up to Gurnee Mills Mall to buy me one of those three-person water balloon launchers from the Bass Pro Shop up there. I was so fuckin’ happy. My dad, my brother and I would take that thing into the backyard all the time and use it to shoot all kinds of shit at the house of the sex offender who lived across the alley. Some guys bond with their dads by going fishing together. I bonded with mine by launching high-velocity snowballs at the molester’s house. What can I say? That’s just the way it was.
To his credit, dad has gotten me some nice “son” cards over the years for milestone birthdays and graduations with touching messages printed by the card company as well as nice notes of his own about wishing me all the best in my future and how he couldn’t have asked for a better son scribbled in there, but he’s so insecure about his feelings that when giving it to me he’ll look totally embarrassed and say something like, “I’m sorry for getting you such a gay card.” And I’ll be like, “It’s okay, dad. It’s a nice card. Thank you.”
You see, the thing about me when it comes to my dad is that deep down I still long to have the good wholesome trusting loving sort of father-son relationship that Sheriff Andy and his boy Opie had on The Andy Griffith Show back in the 1960s. It’s no doubt my biggest weakness. And it’s through this crack in the foundation that my dad’s denial seeps into and sabotages my life. I decide that maybe everything’s not as bad as it seems and maybe our broken relationship is my fault because I’m too cold towards my old man. So even though every other time I’ve ever done so he’s made me regret it, I go ahead and open up and let him back in. I lay down my sword and my shield before him and what does he do? He steps closer as if he’s about to embrace me but then out of nowhere pulls out a dagger and stabs me in the fucking heart.
Let’s get back to December 2017. Like I said, since I didn’t wanna hafta go digging through another fucking garbage can in the parking lot of Ace Hardware like some dick-sucking drug addict bum who resorts to collecting aluminum cans when there’s no one around to fellate, as a Christmas present I bought my dad fifty bucks worth of soap, bungee cords and sponges about three weeks before the 25th. During this time I was still working with him cleaning gutters and at the end of a relatively smooth day on the job about a week after I’d done my Christmas shopping, as he and I rode to the gas station to fill up our 1.5 gallon can with a 50:1 premium/2-stroke oil mixture to power the leaf blowers the following day (we call this stuff “blower juice”), my aforementioned weakness got the best of me.
“So…I’ve been looking into joining the army.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m not thinking about joining just to join, ya know? There’s this specific job I really want called Cryptologic Language Analyst. And like, if you qualify and get a contract for the job, they send you to school at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where you spend like a year or a year-and-a-half learning Arabic or Chinese or Farsi or something like that then after that you translate and decode intercepted messages and report them to your superiors so they can make tactical decisions based on what you heard. It seems like the perfect job for me. I mean, I love languages. I’ve spent the past two years studying Spanish every day for at least two hours a day. And like, I’ve been intellectually stagnating for so long now. I’ve been dying to learn something new and I’ve considered going back to school but decided against it because I swore to myself I’d never get back into student loan debt ever again. That was a nightmare. But then my buddy Walsh told me about this position and I honestly can’t think of anything better than getting paid and having benefits for going back to school to learn a language.”
“That sounds pretty cool,” he said.
“Yeah, it is. But like…I’m worried about you. You have so many of these jobs to do every year and you’re not getting any faster climbing up these ladders and…I just feel guilty leaving you.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t. You go out and you do what you gotta do.”
This felt like the happy ending I’d always been waiting for. And I went home and told my sister about it. She was as happy for me as she could be considering the same man, two weeks before, not only didn’t get her anything for her birthday but then also – when the rest of the family and her BF had been hanging out in the living room after dinner celebrating her and her existence in the world while he was sitting on a stool at Iron Horse Ale House with other alcoholic losers – came in and interrupted her when she was in the middle of saying something just so he could tell us some nonsensical bullshit pertaining to which firemen he saw at the bar. The look on her face said it all. Classic knife to the heart from dad. She’d been made to feel like a worthless piece of shit. And being made to feel like a worthless piece of shit is a pain each of us knows all too well around here.
But like I said, that night I was feeling pretty good. I was sitting at the kitchen table around 8 o’clock eating my dinner while my sister was in the living room when dad came home from the bar and said, “I’ll be five minutes,” before slamming the basement door. Under normal circumstances, I’d use this five minutes to wolf down everything on my plate and to get the fuck outta there because dad’s drunk and disgusting and only ever wants to listen to himself talk about work or sports or who was the bar while he eats. But that night felt different. That night felt like all was right in the world. I felt validated. So I stuck around.
“Sweeney was at the bar,” he said to me of his old fireman buddy after he’d poured his milk and sat down.
“Yeah. I probably shouldn’t have said anything but I told him you were thinking of joining the army and he asked me, ‘Why the fuck would a 29-year-old wanna join the army?’ And I told him, ‘I got no fuckin’ idea.’ But we both agreed that you would’ve made a good fireman.”
Whoa. I was floored.
“What do you mean you have no fucking idea why I’m thinking of joining the army?”
“I dunno,” he shrugged.
“But like…I told you exactly…I poured out my heart and soul to you in the truck today.”
He shrugs again and I get this throbbing headache. My heartrate accelerates and my body tenses up. Everything seems surreal. The rest of the meal is a blur. Next thing ya know, dad is downstairs, I’m still sitting at the table in a haze and Teresa who’d heard it all comes in from the living room to give me her condolences. The next day I’m super pissed off at work, but I get the job done. The day after that I can’t hold it anymore and I blow up on him making a huge scene yelling, “Why the fuck did you ever even have a family if you never wanted to be part of it!?” He plays it cool, like he’s the tolerant understanding father of a kid with mental problems who he helps by giving work to cuz no one else will hire him and I’m left looking like a raving psycho. Story of my life.
I float through the next few days in a dissociative cloud. Then one morning on the way to our first job of the day, I get a text from my buddy Clough in response to the suggestion of my idea about joining the army. It reads:
“Life is a weird thing, and full of uncertainty. I’m glad to hear you’re working to get out of the house. I feel like that has always been a bit like a prison for you. Once you get out for good, I have no doubt things will start to take shape for you. That army gig sounds amazing. Intense, but super interesting. No matter what, I know you’re a capable, intelligent, creative dude. It just takes a long time to figure out how you want to use your talents. I can certainly relate. I’m here for ya big dog.”
Two minutes later we pull up at the house where we’re supposed to start working and my hands are trembling. I don’t look over at my dad. I keep my eyes locked straight ahead out the windshield. I pick up my phone and fumble through my contacts looking for my sister’s name, knowing she’s off work today. “Yeah, Teresa…Yeah, I’m gonna hurt him really fucking bad. Can you come get me?” Without saying a word to my dad, I get out the truck and walk about half-a-mile over to the intersection of California and Peterson and sit down on a curb in a gas station awaiting my pickup. Teresa comes to get me and in the car I tell her I’ll never work for my dad again. She says that’s a good idea. I ask her if she’s getting dad anything for Christmas. She says not after he ignored her on her birthday. I tell her I wanna do the same. We stop home and I grab the gifts I bought him and she takes me over to the hardware store so I can return ‘em. Unlike the other day when I’d found peace in my father’s acceptance during the brief time before he betrayed me, I this time found peace in my self-righteous hatred for him.
Then, as it always happens, in the days leading up to Christmas dad seemed to be on his best behavior and I felt really ungrateful and selfish and just downright guilty for not getting him any presents. So on the 23rd I ran back out and got him the same present I had a couple weeks beforehand. Even though he didn’t acknowledge or even seem to notice how bad he hurt me, it felt good to let go of my anger and let him back in like this.
Two days later my brother and his girlfriend come over to open presents with me, my mom, my sister and my dad on Christmas morning in the living room. I know Teresa didn’t get him anything and I don’t think my mom did either. At the very least she didn’t get him another cell phone he can use to call all the sleazy women he meets at the bar – that I know for sure. So this year, I’m pretty sure he only has gifts from my brother and me. And he opens up the one from Danny first.
“Sponges?” he says with disgust. “I don’t need any sponges. I already have some in the truck.”
Knowing I’d gotten him the same thing – ten sponges compared to the measly two Danny’d purchased – this comment is felt on my end like a humiliating kick in the crotch. Danny on the other hand is able to brush it off saying…
“Yeah, but you always need new sponges throughout the window season. So I thought I’d get you some.”
My sister is carrying presents over from under the tree and distributing them. I sink down in my seat as my share of gifts to open from Santa (mom) piles up at my feet. I’m overwhelmed by the same world-tilting sensation I’d felt the other night at the kitchen table.
“Your turn, Tim,” says mom.
I begrudgingly peel the wrapping off a present containing a nice pair of Under Armor pants. I’m too far gone in my feelings of desperation and hopelessness to pretend I’m thankful. I feel like my brain’s broken. Other people are tearing packages open around me. I can’t pay attention. Teresa informs me it’s my turn to open another present. I say I don’t want to. She tells me I’m lame. This hurts very badly but I know she wouldn’t have said it if she knew what I was experiencing. Mom looks over and says, “You’re not gonna open up your presents? I think you got some good stuff this year from Santa.” I try to fake a smile for her benefit but it feels like the least authentic thing I’ve ever done. I pretend I’m sleepy, close my eyes and try to escape. It’s not happening. I feel like I’m ruining Christmas. I’m overwhelmed with guilt. I don’t wanna ruin anyone else’s good time because I can’t control my feelings. I need to leave. I need to run away. But where to go? Where can someone run to when there’s nowhere left to run to? I’ve given up drinking. I don’t do drugs. No prostitutes for me. And no more escapist traveling. I don’t know what to do. I get up and walk out the room to go lay on the couch in the TV room in the back of the house where I try to calm down. It also is not happening.
Mom eventually comes in the kitchen. I decide to get up and accost her with the heart I wear on my sleeve. I try to tell her that I don’t want a bunch of presents from Santa anymore, that I don’t want her to baby me, that I just want her to take care of herself for once in her life. I try to tell her that I’m definitely joining the military and that – although I’ve said it every other time I’ve ever left the house – I’m never coming back here. And this time I really mean it. But I also need her to know that I, as someone who cares about her very deeply, don’t feel right moving out this house and having my own life until I know she’s gonna be okay. That I just want her to save her money for something useful like a divorce and for some help with the out-of-control anxiety that she’s never acknowledged she has and a new place to live far away from dad where he’ll never be able to yell at her and to call her nasty names and tell her her cooking sucks ever again instead of wasting it, buying me stupid shit I don’t need or want and am expected to pretend I’m grateful for just so she can feel good about herself for having done what she feels is a nice thing. That’s what I truly wanna say. And that’s what I try to say. But I’m too fucking anxious in this panic attack I’m having and the message comes out all wrong. She takes offense to my ramblings about her unwanted gifts and says, “Just because you hate Christmas, Tim, doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for everybody else!” Oh god, now I’m being kicked when I’m down. I’m writhing in pain. Fuck you mom, you stupid bitch! I like Christmas too! Don’t you see! I’d like to enjoy it too, but I can’t! Believe me, I don’t wanna ruin it for anyone. That’s not who I am. I’m not that guy. That’s why I came in the TV room to sit by myself. Cuz I didn’t wanna drag anyone down to my level. But I’m fuckin’ dyin’ here. I just can’t hide my emotions like the rest of you and pretend that everything’s okay. I can’t live a lie. What to do? Where to go? It’s fifteen degrees out. I’m too tired to go for another walk. I already went for a really long one a couple hours ago before the commencement of our dreadful present-opening tradition. But I gotta get outta here. I grab a jacket and walk out to the garage. I shut the door and feel my way around for a place to lay my body down on the cold cement floor in the pitch black room. I take a few deep breaths and I begin thinking very deeply about all the things I just finally sat down to put on paper.