When my mother met my father in 1992 in Chicago, she was 17 and my father was 20. My mother was a senior in high school, and my father out of school and working, already a supervisor at the Luster Products factory all the way in the city. When I look it up in Google Maps, the factory’s red pin rests inside of New City, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas. New City itself contains smaller neighborhoods with odd little nicknames like Canaryville, or Back of the Yards. Only 0.8 miles from the factory, Whiskey Row sits on South Ashland Avenue.
The name “Whiskey Row” popped up in Chicago in the late 1800s. In 1860 the first crime boss, a 21-year-old Irishman named Michael Cassius McDonald, permanently settled in the city and stoked the flames of danger and illegal activity. McDonald would go on to bribe and work with politicians and police officers to keep his businesses and illegal operations running. Rougher sections of the Chicago “Loop” were given names that openly announced the type of pleasures they offered. Gamblers Row housed gambling dens in which crime gangsters gathered and planned, won, and lost money. Vice District was crammed full of brothels and territorial pimps. Whiskey Row was home to cheap saloons crawling with underground criminals.
On my computer’s screen, I trace the distance between Luster Products and Whiskey Row on the map, a blue line where Google measures the three-minute drive time. I wonder how many nights my father and his coworkers could have slipped down to one of the bars on a night-shift’s break. How many times my father may have stopped at one of the saloons that still existed, how he could have come home to kiss my mother with whiskey-soured breath as the sky greyed with morning. I know this isn’t how the world works, but I imagine my father steeping in Whiskey Row like a teabag during his years at Luster Products. I tell myself that he never really had a chance.
When I was younger and there was only one car to use, my mother and I would go pick my father up at the end of his shift. I would wait for his light brown face to emerge from the grey building. I don’t remember what my father said when he jumped into the heat of the car, or even the colors of the button-downs and ties he wore every day. The only thread I can pull through those memories is the way his body collapsed into itself in defense of the harsh Chicago wind, and the way he smelled when he turned to greet me in the backseat, his cologne mixed with something more medical, something like rubbing alcohol, sweetened.
I play “Spot the Differences” with the photo of my father’s parents at their wedding and the photo of my own parents at prom. My father’s parents are in the middle of a toast with their arms intertwined, their coupe champagne glasses frozen in their paths to their lips. They’re posing for the camera and smiling and the camera’s flash is reflected in the lenses of both of their glasses. My father’s mother wears a long-sleeved white dress, the cut of the top half resembling a silk robe with shoulder pads and ruffles at the wrists. Her veil is a soft cloud of grey-blue behind her head. Although she passed way when my father was only 6, I’ve seen her face in real life, my father’s sister practically an exact copy of their mother. My father’s father wears a short afro and a black tuxedo, and a dark black mustache snakes across his broad smile uninterrupted. I never got the chance to meet him either, as he died the same year that I was born from alcoholism.
My parents’ prom picture is much clearer, my mother and father posing in front of a backdrop of thin white clouds and crisp blue sky. My mother wears a bright white mermaid-style dress, her shoulders uncovered to show off the string of pearls around her neck. My father wears an all white tuxedo with a swallowtail jacket and teal bowtie that matches my mother’s corsage. They hold a single blue rose between them. My father has the same thin black mustache as his father, but his connects to a goatee and short beard. There are no glasses in this picture. My father doesn’t smile.
When my mother looks at her old prom picture, the photo now 27 years old, her eyes linger on the younger, slimmer version of my father. I know she is doing some version of this game in her mind, trying to spot the differences between the man she took to prom and the man she is currently in the process of divorcing. The weight he gained, then shed, then gained again. How the weekends drinking turned into weekdays. How their nights filled with the steady hum of his breathing machine after a sleep apnea diagnosis. How much he changed after his stroke. Sometimes she curses herself for ignoring the red flags early on in the relationship, says, “I wasn’t paying attention. And since we didn’t live together until after we got married, I had no way of knowing how much he drank until it was too late.”
In hunting for the differences between the wedding picture and the prom picture, I miss the fact that you could mistake the two couples for the same two people if you looked at the photos side by side from a distance. There is a striking similarity between my father and his father, so that at a quick glance, it looks like the same man, doubled.
On June 28, 1997 my parents were married in Beth Eden Baptist Church in Chicago. One of their wedding pictures suggest that the air conditioning was only stuttering along, half-cooled, my parents’ faces both covered in equal parts of cake icing and sweat. But they were smiling, my father’s thin arm wrapped around the beaded waist of my mother’s gown.
In another photo, drops of sweat spawn like bug bites on the bald scalp of Pastor Jenkins. I’m sure my father’s white shirt greyed in the pits beneath his tuxedo jacket, sure that beads of salt started to run down my mother’s thighs. Looking through the photo album, I imagine all of the wedding guests waving fans from the previous Sunday’s church service, a crusade to keep themselves at room temperature. I can bet that over my parents’ vows, you could hear someone ask if there will be alcohol at the reception. But even above that, above the surreptitious alcoholic and the flip flap flip of the church fans, I know everyone could hear me calling for my father.
I was only a toddler at the wedding, born in November of 1995. I was done up in a little white dress and baby stockings. My father always tells the story of a family member walking me up to the alter in the middle of the ceremony, sheepish and apologetic, and handing me to him. My father and Pastor Jenkins took turns holding me, and Pastor Jenkins struggled to read God’s word around the bulbous skirt of my dress. But I still called my father’s name during that ceremony. In that little church, “da-da” echoed off the walls, settled into the pews.
The day after the wedding, the three of us moved into a two-bedroom unit on 66th and St. Lawrence in the south side of Chicago. It was a dark brown two-flat, two stories with an apartment unit on each floor. We had the bottom unit, big bay windows facing the line of other two-flat masks running along the other side of the street. The bumpers of cars nearly kissed from proximity on the thin and broken road; to live here, you had to master the art of the parallel park. During the day, my mother was still in classes, finishing up her undergraduate degree at UIC before she started medical school. Because of this, my father started working the night shift at Luster Products, which meant that we had most of the daytimes to ourselves.
Our days were punctuated by tradition. I slept in my parents bed, and as my father just settled into sleep after his night shift, I would wake him by pressing his nose like a button with my small hands. We would then move to the living room, and he would set me in front of the TV and turn on Barney. We sang the theme song together each morning, switching over to the Dragon Tales spell when the show changed. I babbled through the words, with my father’s tired voice guiding me through until I was old enough to form them with my lips. I wish, I wish, with all my heart, to fly with dragons in a land apart, followed by my father cheering and my own high-pitched squeals. On warmer days, we went outside. Our backyard was a shared rectangle of concrete and strangled weeds. There was a sidewalk bordering our plain courtyard, and that sidewalk was the road on which my father first taught me how to drive on my plastic tricycle. Because the sidewalk was cracked and unforgiving, my father usually steadied my bike by bending over me and holding on to my handlebars. His shirt would fall away from his chest and drape my head in the smell of his Joop cologne.
Because my mother was gone often, my father tasked himself with learning how to tame my curly afro. Some days I would sit on the floor between his legs with the “hair bag” in my lap. I remember one day, when I had just turned four, and the sunlight from our front windows warmed my legs like fresh bread. The carpet fibers prickled the underside of my thighs and my bottom, leaving behind hundreds of polka-dots in my skin. The hair bag was full of colorful barrettes and balls, small and large black rubber bands, hair gel and grease, combs, and brushes. A little bit of hair product had spilled in the bottom of the bag, so when I reached inside for the three items he always requested, my hand emerged from the bag greased in pink hair lotion. But my father didn’t notice or care.
“Hand me the grease.” I handed him the slippery pink bottle, listened to the pop of the cap and the bottle’s sputter as he filled his hand with bubblegum-pink product. He haphazardly spread it through my hair, detangling only when his fingers caught in the web.
“Brush.” I waved the brush over my head until he gently slid it from my hold. As he grabbed the first section of hair near the nape of my neck, I tensed my muscles to fight the brush’s tug. But he was as gentle as my hair would allow, working stubborn knots apart with his oily finger.
“Alright, rubber bands.” Finally, I pinched two small black ones from their round container and offered them up to my father between my index finger and thumb. I knew exactly what he needed because he did the same hairstyle every time. He parted my hair down the middle and put both halves into their own neat puffs. He reached over me to grope through the bag until he found a jar of coconut oil, uncapped it, hooked a finger into the goop and ran it down the center part he just made in my scalp. When he finished, he always said I looked like Minnie Mouse. We named the hairstyle after her, and it was my favorite.
My early attachment to my father was so strong that no one dared to question how well he treated my mother and I. He provided for us financially while my mother worked towards her degree. Although he needed to sleep when my mother finally got home from class, he was never upset when I climbed into their bed and woke him. He was the house chef, making sure my mother came home to cooked dinners. I remember my parents’ open affection for one another, how my mother expressed her gratitude by snaking her arms around my father’s neck every time she came home, the way they rocked side-to-side in each other’s arms. By my mother’s own admission, he was the ideal husband back then. We had settled into a routine in our little corner of Chicago, right up until my father’s first scrape with death.
In 2000, when I was barely five, a bullet came through our big front bay windows and went right through my father’s favorite recliner. If he had been in that chair when the bullet struck, it would have drilled right through his upper chest, likely paralyzing or killing him. If death was a raffle drawing, my father’s name was pulled out of the hat, only to be thrown back in to be picked at a later date.
My mother and father and I moved again to a house on South Morgan Street in Calumet Park in December of the same year. It was a white corner house with a large weeping willow in the back. There was a large flower tree in front, and every Fall the purple and white petals would drop and carpet the front lawn like a thick snow. Our house was the sight of the block in the colder months.
We had three stories to ourselves this time, and three bedrooms upstairs with an old, beige rotary phone out in the upstairs hallway that woke us all if it rang at night. In the living room, we had floor to ceiling mirrors covering one wall. There was a dining room with a table that seated six, and we only used one half of it when we sat down to eat, my father sitting at the head of the table and me and my mother flanking him on both sides. Our kitchen was separate from the dining area and had an enclosed back porch attached. Together, we pulled up the old, stiff carpets in the living room to discover the glossy wooden floors underneath. Our basement was both a recreational pool hall and laundry room.
In this new castle our family slowly changed, even as the house and the earth insisted on repeating cycles. The years passed. The flowers on the tree in the front fell off and covered the yard again and again, and each year I went outside and ground them to paste beneath my boots, a tradition I started when I was only 6 years old. The first time the flowers blanketed the walkway to our front steps, my mother perched herself on the top of the stairs and watched me slip and slide through the velvety petals. I twisted my sneakers back and forth until I made a white mud that stuck to my shoes, that my mother would later notice had casted my white shoe-print throughout the house
In April of 2004, my little brother Jared was born. My parents dragged their bedroom mattress downstairs and plopped it down in the middle of the living room to avoid going up and down our noisy stairs in the middle of the night to feed him. The mattress became our family’s communal space; I imagine the couches felt our absence for months.
Another year passed. The flowers on the tree in the front yard fell off and covered the yard again, spreading to the sidewalk near the street. This year I didn’t go out to grind them, choosing instead to stay inside and play with the baby. My father learned to put my brother’s hair into small puffs to match mine. Early in 2005, my mother told me she was pregnant again and I stormed upstairs to my room in response. Minutes later, my mother sat on the edge of my bed and apologized, rubbing gentle circles into my back as I turned away from her and pouted at the white of my bedroom walls.
“One is enough,” I told her.
“I think you’ll love her,” my mother said, and the tension seeped from my shoulders at my mother’s indirect confession. This new baby would be a girl. I turned to face my mother, and nuzzled my face in her lap.
On November 25, 2005, only eight days after my 10th birthday, my sister Alexis was born. My parents bought a bunk bed to put in my room, and my brother became my new roommate while the third bedroom converted to my sister’s nursery. My parents moved their mattress back upstairs for two reasons; they wanted to keep an eye on my brother, and because by now they had gotten a hang of the newborn nighttime schedule. In the hall, my parents put the baby monitor right next to the beige rotary phone. When I think back, it seems like we could all hear each other, a chorus of breathing and snores, a harmony of rustling sheets.
In 2006, the game of “Spot the Differences” was the only way to track my father’s increasing reliance on substances. By now, my mother was out of medical school and working more regular hours at an outpatient clinic. But her work shift continued when she got home, as she now had three children to love.
My father started using our closed-in back porch as a makeshift man cave, adding a tv, gaming system, a table and chairs for extra comfort. I started to notice ashtrays popping up on tables that used to be clear, cigarette ash where there used to be video game controllers. When we renovated our kitchen and bought a new fridge, my father moved the old one out to the back porch and banned me from ever opening it. My old school drawings and holiday cards tacked to the old fridge door hardened with the changing weather. My father started to disappear from the other parts of the house and started to spend more and more time on that back porch. Sometimes I heard other voices from the kitchen and knew he had friends over. Other times I only smelled the cigarette smoke.
I played this same game with the door to the back porch, too. It was an odd door: wood with a large, square glass panel towards the top of it. To see through it, I had to stand on my tippy toes, and even then, I only got a glimpse of the top half of my father’s head on the other side. One day I came home to a small curtain over the window and a new rubber stopper on the bottom of the door to keep the smoke from bleeding into the house. This was my father’s attempt to put more distance between us.
Our house split in half without any of us realizing. There was a world in which my brother and sister cried and laughed and grew, a world in which I got my first period and screamed for my mother when I discovered the red-brown stain blooming in my underwear. And there was another world, behind curtains and glass panels, a world of yellow teeth and smoke, of friends my mother didn’t always like. I toed the line between the two, helping to change diapers before sneaking to the kitchen to peek through the panel, to see the outline of my father’s head blurred in the smoke’s haze.
After a year, the cracks in the family appeared in the form of my parents’ first blow-up argument. From my room upstairs I heard the door to the back porch open and shut, the rubber band at the bottom scrubbing the kitchen tile, and my parents yelling. My sister was asleep downstairs in the bassinette assigned to the living room, my brother in my mother’s arms. By now I had learned the sounds of the house and could track my parents’ movement throughout it. They argued in the kitchen, stomped through the dining room, settled the match on the living room’s groaning floorboards. My mother stormed up the creaking wooden steps and through my door with my brother sniveling on her shoulder.
“Pack a bag, baby,” she said, kneeling down to press me against her grey nightgown. Her hair was still wrapped in her night scarf. “We’re going to stay at grandma’s for a little bit.”
But we never left that night. At some point, in the midst of gathering my clothes from different drawers, my mother went back downstairs in a rage and returned calm as water, like a spell had been put on her. Suddenly, I didn’t have to pack anymore. She rubbed my brother’s back until he went back to sleep. My sister stayed in her bassinette.
I can still hear the loud slam of my drawers as my mother pulled shirts and pants from their depths. Her nightgown smelled exactly like the pink grease my father had always put in my hair, the grease that my mother now used in her own. There is a clear picture of me burned into my mind, my hair in twists with barrettes dangling on their ends, my mouth wide open in a frozen “o”. I can still pause that breath, that gasp, the beginnings of a whine coming out of me. I can feel my family being ripped from my grasp again and again.
When it was time for me to go to high school, my younger brother was 5 years old and my sister not yet 4. My parents wanted to send me to a Catholic high school further south, and since we also needed more space for all five of us it seemed natural to move into a bigger house within our desired school district. The summer of 2009 found us packing up our house yet again. My mother’s salary as a doctor meant we could afford a four-bedroom home with a big basement. I had my own room again, and while my brother’s room was larger, my high vaulted ceilings and large bay windows made up for the loss in square feet. We had an island in the kitchen, an upstairs catwalk that overlooked the living room. Most importantly, there was no back porch for my father to escape to.
However, my father was also laid off from his job at Luster Products. With this newfound free time, my father didn’t need a back porch to continue his descent. He bought a cooler and deep freezer to keep in the garage and stored his drinks beneath the overflow groceries, the meats and frozen vegetables that couldn’t fit in the kitchen’s fridge. He started to smoke on the garage steps before my mother got home from work, even buying a small box fan to blow the smoke out when she called to say she was on her way home. He bought tables, chairs, and DJ equipment to go in our unfinished basement. He spent hours in the basement blasting music, practicing for parties and DJ gigs. In reality, he was getting drunk beneath our feet, going through more than a bottle of wine, sometimes two, a day.
My parents started to argue more and to argue openly as my father changed more rapidly. He was extremely sensitive and irritable, set off by the smallest things. Many nights my brother and sister came scuttling to my room for refuge, and I would distract them with stories and games while the storm of my parents thundered a level below. On the really bad nights, they made palettes on my floor and spent the night in my room.
The arguments were mostly about money, who held the power in the household.
“I made these sacrifices for you,” I heard my father say on many occasions. “I put food on the table so you could go to school!”
“I’m not saying you didn’t! But don’t blame me for being what I am and making my money!” my mother responded. “You knew I was going to school to be a doctor, don’t be surprised now by how much I make!”
“I’m the man of this house,” my father said. But by his own definition (a provider, a breadwinner, the disciplinarian, the one who has the last say) he wasn’t. And we all suffered as a result of this shortcoming.
My father’s bruised ego drove him to drink more. He resented my mother for no longer depending on him, resented me and my siblings for relying on my mother for our financial needs. His responses to us only showed how much he was fighting for some sort of control, no matter what form it came in. He took personal offense if someone didn’t finish their dinner, misread our honest questions as challenges to his authority, and made outlandish threats to scare us into submission. One night, he pressed his stubby finger into my brother’s chest after my brother ate food in the fridge that my father had claimed. My father’s bushy brows bunched up, his face and eyes bright red. He told my brother, loud enough for my sister and I to hear, “I’ll break your hands.”
For a while, my father was able to keep up the façade of a good husband and father outside of the home. For the first half of high school, the entire family frequented my volleyball games, him included. My siblings called my name from the stands and became some version of team mascots. But my father was the loudest in the gym.
“That’s my sparkplug!” he would yell after I dug a ball. “Put some hot sauce on it!” he screamed when I went back to serve. The parents around him would chuckle and laugh, some repeating his catchphrases once they caught on. After the games he was the first to congratulate me, win or lose. He always hooked an arm around my neck and pulled my face to his, kissing my cheek or my temple. “Good game, sweetie,” he always said, whether it was true or not.
By my junior year, my father was attending less of my games. My mother and I woke up at 5 am on Saturdays and Sundays to drive the hour out to tournaments by ourselves. On weeknights, she moved her patients around on her schedule so she could rush to my school games. My father, still unemployed, could no longer be heard from the stands, and my eyes would run over his empty spot in the bleachers the way a tongue runs over the gummy pit of a lost tooth. I suppose the alcohol had replaced me by then, a newer, shinier sparkplug in his life.
I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class, snagging a full scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When the ceremony was over and I found my family, my father was holding out a bouquet of roses and a large stuffed Nala from the Lion King. He was the first one to hug me, to tell me how proud he was.
During the summer, I went to a 4th-of-July bonfire with my boyfriend at the time, as we tried to see each other as much as possible in our last months together. Just as the sun had almost set, and mosquito repellant torches were lit all throughout the backyard, my phone started to buzz in the back pocket of my jeans. Shifting on my boyfriend’s lap, I pulled it out to see who was calling. My aunt’s name filled the screen, the light from the phone turning the inside of our mesh tent an eerie shade of blue. I answered.
“No rush, but whenever you leave, don’t go home. Go to grandma’s house,” she instructed. She gave nothing away. She was a lawyer and was in the business of giving nothing away for a living.
“Is something wrong?” I asked. My boyfriend placed a hand on my hip, a gesture of silent concern.
“Just go to grandma’s house when you leave your party. Love you.” When she hung up I quickly made my rounds throughout the party, hugging and apologizing for having to leave, skipping the practiced “I’ll see you soon.” I promised to call my boyfriend before I went to sleep. I drove the half-hour to my grandmother’s house, my hands on 10 and 2, talking myself through all of the possible scenarios.
“Did something happen to grandma or granddad?” I posed to the car. I chewed on that a moment, before following up with “Oh god, not Jared or Alexis.” When I pulled into my grandmother’s driveway, only her car was there. In my mind, a new set of questions: Where are my parents? Where are my siblings? Why did my aunt call? Why am I the only one here? When my grandmother opened the door for me, her chocolate face was calm, and I realized where my mother must have gotten that gift. Over her shoulder, I saw my brother and sister on a makeshift bed in the middle of her living room, holding on to each other. The house was quiet except for the large living room tv on low volume, the blues and reds and whites reflected in my brother’s glasses.
“Your dad had a stroke. Call your mom when you get a chance,” she said softly. Her matter-of-fact tone told me that she had already prayed about the situation, had already given it over to God. As her voice washed over me my gaze drifted back to my brother and sister sitting indian-style on a pile of covers, crying to themselves. I went upstairs into an old bedroom and called my mother in its silence. She didn’t sound like herself when she answered. She was a doctor and she was afraid and struggling to breathe on the other side, and some part of me registered this level of severity.
“It was a blood clot in his brain,” she explained. “He was out drinking with friends…they said one minute he was laughing and the next the left side of his body just slumped over.” She paused to sniff a few times, and I saw my father’s body collapse into itself in a folding lawn chair, his drink slipping out of his hands and watering the grass as he lost control of his body. “I’m on my way to the hospital now.” I told her I loved her. I slept on the floor of my grandmother’s living room with my brother and sister that night, one on either side of me. My sister fell asleep first. I held my brother well past midnight as he cried into my shirt, mumbling to himself, Please don’t let anything happen to daddy.
ON VISITING MY FATHER THE DAY AFTER HIS STROKE
on half of you, some puppeteer’s
pinch on the wooden “x”
(or a fisherman’s hooks, unseen,
lassoed through a catch
of cheek, lip)
tugging the left side of you down.
I want to say
hospital blue looks good on you
but what would laughter be like
from one small pocket of your mouth,
the left side of your face
welshing on the right side’s agreement?
None of us are prepared
for that difference.
When I speak from the doorway,
you half-neck towards my hey
and look right through me, forget
who I am. My mother opens
her arms, makes room
for me on the visitor’s couch
where she slept like an inmate.
A loose white sheet shawls
the starched leather, and
her solitary pillow is still dimpled
from hair grease. She pulls both
of my hands into her own,
her own skin like the rough
of your plastic gown.
It was a matter of minutes
she says, this story a demon lured out
by the heat of me in her palms.
10 minutes later and he
could have been gone.
You hear this and flinch, perhaps
thinking of luck for the first time, of how
ten more minutes could have melted
you, all the muscles gone to mush.
Your breath putters out then riots
into a deep whistle, harmonizes
with the heart monitor’s beep.
In the following silence,
I hold my mother’s wrists, her
pulse, the drum of it matching
yours. I count the beats
soundlessly to distract myself,
1, 2, 3—
the number of drinks and cigarettes
you will keep sneaking
in the garage, the number of years
you have left to spare.
The doctor’s instructions were clear: get your cholesterol down, stop smoking, cut the drinking, cold-turkey. Physically, my father quickly recovered, the left side of his body remembering itself like a foot after falling asleep. He lost his limp the way one loses an accent, so slow you hardly notice. For the month I was still home before going away to college, paper boxes of Newports stopped littering the big garbage can in the garage. When I hefted the trash bag from the kitchen bin, there was no wine-bottle-kiss, no jangle of glass. My mother and I thought the stroke scared him into sobriety. My father was so proud of his recovery, he joked that you could never tell he’d had a stroke by just looking at him. He announced it with every greeting: Hey man, how you doin? Oh I’m good, I’m good, you know I just had a stroke, right?
But he gave in to the itch about six months after the stroke, returning to his smoking and drinking as I was just settling into my second semester of undergrad in Alabama. When my mother called, our conversations quickly drifted to my father and his return to his vices. How when she pulled into the driveway after work the garage door was cracked inches from the ground, the old box fan blowing on high. How she caught the glint of wine bottle glass at the bottom of our big garbage bin the few times she took out the trash.
The alcohol coupled with the after-effects of the stroke sent my father over the edge. He began to lash out at all of us, calling us names. As my brother transitioned from a young boy to a teenager, his physical stature and maturity threatened my father’s throne. As a result, he became more and more hostile towards Jared, often threatening him with physical violence, eventually putting his hands around his neck. Because my brother and sister were close in age and inseparable, my sister would often talk back to my father to defend Jared. She would earn a share of my father’s wrath, have food taken away from her, miss sports practices and social events because my father refused to take her as retaliation. Although I was in a different state, I was everyone’s therapist and touchstone. I was constantly receiving three versions of the same story: my father’s version of how he was “wronged,” my mother’s retelling of my father’s sob story, and my siblings’ account of the abuse they endured, which was almost always the truest angle. I was trying to mediate a family that only talked around each other, everyone shying away from the truth of the matter:
- My father had become an unrecognizable abuser.
- Some nights my mother came home and chose my siblings’ side, and some nights she chose to be the enemy, cuddling up with my father on the couch in exchange for a moment of peace.
- No one was safe anymore.
My trips home for the holidays were riddled with tension. My father expected me to feed into his delusion that he was innocent. Yet to agree with him was to let down my siblings, to fail to protect them. So I stood between my father and my siblings, emotionally and physically. I gave them permission to retreat to my bedroom when my father started to provoke them and get in their faces. I became a second mother in a lawless space, where everything was possible and nothing off limits. One day, my mother touched my face and said, You’re the glue that holds us all together. I didn’t tell her I had I started to have dreams in which my father tried to kill me.
It wasn’t the resentment towards my father that was the hardest to deal with. It was the moments in which the old version of my father slipped through, when in the middle of raging, he would break down in tears. The few occasions where he tried to say I’m sorry by cooking one of our favorite meals or buying us the new game we wanted for the Xbox. The single admission over the phone in the beginning of 2019, though I’d never hear it again, I need help. Early that year, my mother paid for my father’s in-patient treatment at a rehabilitation center close by. The professionals at the facility were honest up front. The told my father, “Your stay could last a few weeks or it could last a few months. We have no way of knowing for sure.” My father said he was ready, and checked into the facility. He called my mother the first night of his stay and told her he was happy she was giving him the chance to get better. Their marriage was dependent on his ability to complete rehab and stay clean, and he knew this. After she got off the phone with my father, my mother called me to say that she was hopeful. She said he sounded committed, Like he really wanted to be there.
After the second day in the treatment center, my father checked himself out. But instead of coming home, he checked himself into a hotel and got drunk. My mother moved forward with the divorce.
EXCERPT FROM A VALENTINE’S DAY LETTER FROM MY FATHER (2018)
First and foremost, I love you and always will. There is so much I have and want to say I don’t know where to start. Just know that I love you and your brother and sister. Make sure you let them know the things I’ve done for them. I can’t continue to hurt like this.
On rare occasions, I get the urge to drink. I drink socially, and sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine at home. But every once in a while, I get an itch on my tongue and a dryness in my throat that begs for hard alcohol. Up until March of 2019, I’d never been drunk before. I waited until my twenty-first birthday to drink at all, and I never pushed past my limit. By my father’s failure to complete rehab made me desperate to understand his addiction, made me curious about what I was missing.
I made up my mind to get drunk. My boyfriend at the time booked a weekend getaway in Atlanta, only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Birmingham. Our first night there, we found ourselves in the Clermont Lounge, Atlanta’s first strip club since 1965. In the basement of the Clermont Hotel, with a secretive back entrance, it wasn’t what I expected when I thought of a strip club.
There was only a big U-shaped bar with a stage behind it, and on that stage, seven dancers of various ages and body types rotated every two songs. There wasn’t even a pole. Everyone crowded around the bar, and my boyfriend and I waited for a couple to leave in order to grab seats. Once he flagged down a bartender and ordered a Vegas Bomb for both of us, he handed me a small stack of dollar bills. “For the dancers,” he said. “I have a feeling you’re going to want to throw them.”
The Vegas bombs were smooth on their way down. The Vodka went warm as soon as it hit my chest. The walk to the bar bathroom was like balancing on a ship deck during a storm. The more I drank, the more beautiful the strippers became, their skin glittering under the colored lights. My boyfriend kept me supplied with bills to throw. When a stripper came to crouch in front of me, she pulled the money from my two fingers, blew me a kiss that I barely caught. I ran my hands over my shoulders, down my body, grinded in my bar stool to the music. “I want to get up there and dance,” I screamed over the music. “Look at them, they’re so fucking powerful.” My boyfriend only laughed, too drunk himself to respond, and forked over another handful of bills.
When another stripper came over to me, slipped both of her thumbs into her thong’s elastic and lowered herself, I closed my eyes and felt the room pitch itself on its side and spin. The money slipped from my fingers. I opened my eyes to her grinding her pelvis in thanks, and I laughed. Because nothing in this world mattered but how far she could pull her thong away from the skin, and the quick pop it made when she let it snap back to her hips. Because this was the closest I’d felt to my father in years, almost as if he’d pull up a stool next to me at any moment and ask what took me so long. Drunk and hiccupping, I drew a line in the air, more like a zigzag, from my father to myself. Sort of connecting the dots.
Then I ordered another shot, let it burn on a hiss.