Your Addiction Has Affected Me in the Following Ways:
When I am twenty, mom calls me one Tuesday night and tells me to come right over, that something’s happened, that an ambulance has just left—no flashing lights or sirens piercing the night’s stillness needed.
Because you are dead.
I am emotionless on the drive over, and once there I hug mom. She grips me far tighter than I grip back. I pull away and inexplicably make a new batch of iced tea, watching out the kitchen window as a boy I knew in high school helps load your body into the back of the county coroner’s van that I had followed down our narrow gravel drive.
I tell her I want an autopsy. I need scientific proof alcoholism is what killed you. Instead, the report that comes back weeks later tells us your arteries were full of cholesterol, a heart attack waiting to happen, a heart attack that did happen. How boring. I am disappointed and angry it was something so banal. I need someone in authority, someone like a respected and venerable pathologist, to confirm my rants that you needed to stop using booze as a crutch for your unhappy life.
But no, your love of greasy cheeseburgers and whole tubs of vanilla ice cream are what did you in.
When I am five, you are not waiting for me when I walk out of kindergarten one afternoon. It is your job to take me to and from school, since mom’s hours at the factory aren’t nearly as forgiving as your flexible hours as a commercial painter. My teacher tries calling home multiple times while I sit on the steps, picking at my scabs and the soles of my saddle shoes, watching all of my classmates’ parents arrive one by one until I am the only one left.
She stays with me, even though she surely has her own family to get home to, until mom comes to pick me up after who knows how long?—an hour? two?—kids that young don’t have a great sense of time passing, but we sure as hell know when something isn’t right. We can feel it like a faulty wire behind a farmhouse wall, snapping and sparking until the catch, until the structure starts to smolder.
Mom is tense, but she smiles to allay my confusion and foreboding that all is not well. All she says on the ride home is, “Dad’s not coming home tonight.”
When I am in my mid-twenties and the anniversary of your death approaches (Has it been five years now? Six?), I get the details about the day you didn’t pick me up from kindergarten.
Work is slow that week, and you have grown antsy, finding it difficult to avoid the town’s taverns during working hours. You decide to stop off for just a quick one, which turns into several draughts and a couple of shots. You get to shooting the shit with other disappointed men sitting along the bar like haggard birds on a power line, each of you trying to outdo the other with tall tales you all know are nothing but small-town washed-up bravado, each of you trying to flirt with Dorothy the daytime bartender, until you suddenly remember you have a kid you need to pick up from school.
Ed gets in the truck with you. You’re weaving down the streets, speeding just a little but nothing crazy, as you make your way to my school. Kids are walking home. A few are on bikes. One of these kids on a bike cuts across the street. For a driver paying attention and in control of his faculties, this would not be a problem. But your faculties are delayed, and you hit him just as you slam the brakes.
They say God looks out for drunks and kids. The kid’s bike takes the brunt of the impact, but the kid is thrown and lands in the pile of fresh mulch that has just been delivered to a home. That mulch breaks the kid’s fall, leaving him with a broken leg instead of what could have been so much worse.
One of your drinking buddies is a lawyer, and he successfully keeps you from doing jail time. Instead, you are sent to a court-mandated treatment facility four hours away. You stay the full thirty days and come back with an Alcoholics Anonymous book that you immediately put on a shelf in the garage.
While you’re gone, kids in school don’t understand the nuances from what they overhear their parents talking about, but they understand drunk and almost killed the kid. I am teased relentlessly on the playground each day, even when the teachers have to step in to discipline the more brazen ones. One boy even backs me up against the bars of the jungle gym, informing me that his mom said you are an alky and should be in jail. I don’t know what an alky is; I just know I want a different father like the ones I see on TV.
When I am fifteen, I am a year into my rebellion. I maintain my A average with a veneer of happiness planted on my face at all times, but I am secretly grabbing a couple of your beers and chugging them down after school each day. You keep the basement fridge stocked, so a couple of Buds gone each day doesn’t even register to you, nor do the growing pile of cans in the burn pit where I toss my empties to co-mingle with yours.
One of my friends lives with two alcoholic parents, so she’s essentially raising herself. One night when her parents are both passed out, we steal her mother’s Lincoln Continental and drive it across state lines into Iowa, where the drinking age is nineteen.
We are both tall girls, and the bartender doesn’t bat an eye when we sidle up to the bar and order a pitcher. One pitcher turns into several as much older men amble up to us and try to make small talk, each telling the bartender to put our next pitcher on his tab.
Once again, God looks out for drunks and kids (and this night, we are both), because we walk out of the bar unscathed and we drive the half hour back home unscathed. I am, though, weirded out enough by these quietly lecherous older men sniffing around us that I stop sneaking beers after this night. I think of how lucky we were not to toss a kid into the air because we were too drunk to stop in time. I also think I am on the road to becoming just like you, and like hell if I’ll let that happen.
When I am eleven or possibly twelve, I take a hammer to your friend’s truck.
I only hit the passenger door a couple of times, but they are noticeable dents. The week before, you and your friend had taken me along on a ride deep into the woods, where you went into a busted-up trailer while I had to stay in the yard by the truck, feral cats eyeing me from a woodpile.
You both eventually staggered out carrying Mason jars, grimacing and shaking your heads with each chug as you drove back to town, spitting gravel each time the truck would veer over into the ditch. One correction back into the blacktop’s lane was so sudden the rifle behind our heads came off the gun rack and hit me in the head. You both just guffawed that much louder.
My anger and powerlessness of being stuck in that fucked-up situation stays with me, building over the days, until I grab the hammer. I do not feel guilty for what I have done. Instead, I feel a release. I am never called out on it. I don’t know if either of you ever even noticed it.
When I am thirty, I am finally ready to ask mom why she stayed with you. She is forthright in her admission she isn’t sure herself. What she is sure of is she had me to look out for and she couldn’t have done it alone on the factory’s paltry hourly wages.
She tells me you hid your problems well in the beginning. She was fifteen when she met you, moving in with you shortly after because she had her own hell of an insane mother to escape. You were thirty and long back from your time in Japan during World War II, back to farming with your father and painting on the side.
You would never speak of the war. All I knew was that you had been shot, and everyone said you came back a changed man. Mom says she was too young to realize your let’s have a beer and have some fun! ways were a façade, just like the veneer of happiness I, too, would wear one day to hide how deeply disappointed I already was with what life had doled out to me.
Mom says it wasn’t always horrible, that you had your good qualities and moments of genuine laughter, but she won’t go so far as to say she ever saw you experience true joy, not even when I was born. This is when I find out you refused to stay in the maternity ward’s waiting room after you found out you had a new baby girl. You had wanted a son. Real men had sons. Disappointed men had daughters. Mom realizes what she has said when she sees the horrified expression on my face, and she tries to backtrack. “But he quickly grew to love you!” That does not help me in my search to find empathy and compassion for you.
I am thirty-eight before I finally trust a man enough to consider the possibility of settling down. I meet a nice man one night while out with friends. He knows one of my girlfriends and comes over to say hi. He is 6’3” and his biceps are straining against his black t-shirt. I am immediately attracted, but I think of him as nothing more than a possible weekend distraction. Band equipment is set up on the stage. I think nothing of this until he leaves us and straps on a bass guitar.
I am suddenly dismayed. I had my fill of small-town musicians dreaming of living big-stage rock star lives in my twenties. The area ones I know now tend to live in friends’ basements or spare rooms, working part-time at a fast food joint, thinning hair tied in low ponytails, convinced their big break can still come at the age of forty-three. I tick the NO box in my head and leave my friends soon after to go home. These aging rockers’ general inability to lead grown-up lives reminds me too much of you.
My girlfriend gives him my number later that night, and he calls me a few days later. I agree to go out with him, and I purposely choose a bar for two reasons: (1) if all he talks about is how he’s still chasing the dream I don’t have to suffer through an entire dinner with him, and (2), I want to observe how much he drinks.
We end up talking for two hours while each of us has two beers. Turns out we both love The History Channel and parking out on dirt roads at dusk to watch birds of prey float on the wind streams. We both love key lime pie and are fastidious about paying our bills on time. He disagrees with my love of Hemingway and Nietzsche, and I don’t even to pretend to understand a word he says as he relays the brilliance of the time signatures in Meshuggah’s music. He passes this preliminary test.
I continue to test him on subsequent dates over the following months, refusing to allow him to call me his girlfriend, flat out rejecting his first marriage proposal, until bigger chips of armor start to fall off, until I can feel his intentions and quiet sturdiness are real, until I know he is not like you who hid your problems so well in the beginning, until they grew so big behind the curtain there was nowhere for them to go but under and around.