(Content Warning: Child Abuse)
* “I swear, you’re just like your father.”*
For the longest time, I saw him as a goal to strive for, his sheen something to admire, a heroic personage worth my imitation.
On weekday mornings, I woke up, hours before school, to meet Dad in the kitchen for breakfast. The electric coffee pot hissing, our mugs over the counter, two slices of Wonder Bread fed into the toaster. Dad’s face clean without a haze, his hair slicked back, the Christ tattoo peeking through his sleeve, work clothes crisp like a doctor’s, though he worked in construction.
“Well, isn’t someone up early?” my father always teased.
Daybreak was the only time seeing him was guaranteed, where we could spend even a few minutes together before his commute.
“Dad, can I go to work with you, instead? I don’t wanna go to school.”
“Why’s that? Is something up, son?”
“School sucks!” I announced. “No one likes me. The kids call me names.”
“What kind of names?”
There were some words I never dared say in the house; that didn’t exist in our home or in our temple. Certain things, if ever poured out in front of him like a glass of milk, would flood over the rim and cause a mess, have my father burst into a craze, because an outrage would be better than a talk, an explanation, or facing the truth behind those words.
“They’re just being bullies,” he’d respond, gripping his mug tightly. “They say those things because they’re jealous.”
“Jealous of what, Dad?”
“Of the kind of person you are. You’re golden, my boy.”
* “Everything is going to be okay.” *
The men in our family always end up alone. When grandma died, grandpa stuck it out for ten years before giving in to the medicine cabinet.
“He was never the same after grandma,” my father said at his funeral with dry eyes, and Mom wrapped around his arm.
Then years later, the same happened to us.
Mom got home hours before I showed up from school. She cleared out her closet, cabinets, the picture frames in the living room and left only her wedding ring behind.
“Mom, I’m home!” I said upon arriving.
Nothing. No sound or response. I went into the kitchen to grab some Ritz Crackers and found her unconscious, spread out over the tiles. There was a gash on the side of her head, violets around her eyes.
I sprung for the phone and dialed the numbers they taught us kids in school in case of emergencies.
“What happened?” the doctor asked.
“I don’t know, I just found Mom like that.”
“She fell,” my father implied. “Must have slipped and hurt herself.”
When the doctor asked Mom to describe the moment of the accident, all she could say was that it was all her fault. She had marks finger-painted around her wrist and purple puddles over her thighs, yet she insisted on being the klutz.
Maybe that’s why she left. Left me without a mother and my father without a wife.
* “This hurts me too.” *
I never understood the idea of transference, how pain gets inherited through the physical act of hurting another. It almost didn’t make sense; why my father felt pain.
Did it hurt him when he whacked me upside the head? Was his vision blurry like mine when I lost my lens? How about after he crushed them with his steel-toed boots; did a pit get lodged in his stomach then? When my father picked me up, tossed me like a doll across the room, and my back hit the rivets of the metallic radiator, did he sense it crack?
“Are you all right, my boy?” he came running.
He started to cry over me, his tears landing on the floor where mine should have been, his dribble over my face, his body shielding me, a warm dome keeping me in the dark.
* “This is all your fault.” *
Blame; words like needles, glowing cigarette butts, and his fingers around my throat. It was the water bill that was just “too damn high,” as he customarily complained. The lights that the electric company threatened to cut. The windows he shattered, which I forked over the cash for because it was my fault for not doing the dishes.
It was the carpet, grimy and sticky from spilled beer and take-out that I couldn’t clean, my cheek rubbing against the shag like a dog being potty trained, my face beaming red and burning sore.
“You know that it’s your job to keep this place in order. You have to step up,” my father said. “Grow up, boy. Grow the fuck up.”
I wanted to cry. I forced back every sob like hiccups. Choked them under my tongue, caged them behind my Adam’s apple. I fed that core to my demon, the one that sustained my night terrors.
“Grow up,” I tell myself, even to this day. "Be a man, be better, be golden."
* “What a kind young boy. He must take after his father!” *
In a way, I was his trophy, the thing he wiped clean before family reunions, polished my hair with gel, and brightened my teeth by force, scrubbing my pearly whites with such vigor over the bathroom sink. I spat out red and blue foam, my gums blazing, but my teeth glimmering like bone.
The women would admire me, say things I never heard from his mouth. He rounds up the compliments to boost his paternal ego, as if he labored over me, dedicated his time, and let me rise like a sweet buttered loaf.
The family get-togethers were often flooded with divorcees, single women from his childhood, from before Mom. My aunt Shelly, who grew up with my father, whizzed around me, offering anything I set my eyes on.
“More chicken?” she’d ask.
I shook my head, and she still piled more food on my plate.
“Here, let’s get you some more soda.”
“No, I’m good, Auntie. I’m stuffed.”
“Nonsense. Stuffed is a turkey or a hen. You, my child, are a growing boy. Now let’s get you another soda.”
His eyes would stretch to me sitting with my cousins. Eat up, I’d read in them. Keep up the façade. Be polite.
“Here have some more dessert,” My aunt offered. “Don’t be shy; my brother needs to feed you more.”
“It’s true,” a party-goer remarked. “You’re looking quite skinny young man.”
I peered to my father, whose gaze expressed offense, “Stop eating,” he mouthed.
I didn’t go hungry that night, but the week was still young, and the fridge at home whirred, grumbled empty like my stomach for days.
* “God help me! Help my boy!” *
He pleaded over me, my hand blessing his forehead like a priest, the oxygen mask over my face, the regret displayed in his eyes.
It was the dishes, which gave me six stitches behind the ear but easy enough to hide. The sprained wrist from the bus I missed to school, forcing my father to drive me. There was one night where I reached my limit. I turned and snapped back and gave him the finger; something I had learned from watching T.V.
My father’s fists, thudding around me in a swarm, my back against the wall.
“Stop it, Dad.”
“Don’t backtalk to me.”
My face took a blow, and with a strike on the shoulder, he had me take a dive from the second floor to the first. The sound of each tread crying for help, my groans, my broken ribs, the challenge it was to breathe.
I heard steps thundering my way. His body next to mine, kneeling like he was about to pray.
“Get away from me,” I said.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, my boy,” he repeated. “I'm so sorry.”
The doctor walked in and glanced at my charts. Took Dad to the hall, shut the glass door, and sealed me off from the outer world. A woman came in with a nice suit, no tie, curly hair like Moms.
“What happened?” she asked me.
I couldn’t decipher the name on the tag clipped to her side.
“I’m here to help. But I need you to tell me what happened.”
“I…I….” each vowel a stinging grunt.
“What happened to you, my boy?” her warm motherly voice, calling me like my father.
* “Toughen Up!” *
He towered over me like a giant while I lay in bed with the covers up to my throat. It was always the same; the measles, the flu, a stomach virus.
“Get up. Get your ass to school.”
“I’m not feeling too good. I think I’m sick.”
My father pulled the covers off me, inviting the cold to sweep my skin. He grabbed the underside of the mattress, rolled me off the bed in a fury.
“You know the rules, no one in this house gets sick.”
We couldn’t afford another visit to the doctor. We couldn’t pay for anything that wasn’t an Advil or Penicillin. My father relied on herd immunity, on discount coupons, on the school to keep me tame.
“Come on, my boy. Get yourself together.”
I stood up, dizzy, with no feeling in my legs. My gut suspended, the sweat beaded on my forehead, the sheer cold around my neck. I ran to the bathroom to hurl.
“Toughen up, boy. You need to toughen yourself up.”
I needed to be calloused like the dunes on his palms, resistant and dense like gold.
* “This is my house.” *
I stand by the door, thinking how many times I’ve heard those words. How they resonate, causing my hands to tremor, my vision to blotch. My house, my home, my heart is his. I’m valuable; hard to come by, malleable; easy to bend and break.
I heard those words when I complained about the stench, about the pyramid of empty Coors Lights on the center table, about the boot prints on the floor.
“If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
He’s drunk, doesn’t know what he’s saying.
“Get the fuck out of here! I don’t want to see your face!”
I blast off, close the door on my way out. Leave him sinking into the lumpy couch with the stale smell of beer, with his eyes stuck to the static imagery of the television screen in a daze.
* “Do you want to end up like me?” *
I arrive home late. I tip-toe back to my room, trying to cut past the living room, thinking that he’s down for the count on the sofa.
My father’s eyes peel open. I can already feel the stinging in my ear.
“Where have you been?”
“You told me to leave.”
“Don’t ever scare me like that, my boy.”
I never knew I could scare him. I’m not a monster; my stature isn’t frightening, my eyes bear no rage. I’m stone, clay, easy to mold.
“I don’t know what I’d do if something were to happen to you. Don’t ever do that again,” he warns.
I help my father up from the sofa, take him down to his room. He sprawls onto the bed, his linens stiff and crisp, his pillow stained in drool. His body turns to the side. I place the covers over his shoulders. He stinks, his senses numbed.
“Good night,” I say.
“You’re golden, my boy. Never forget it,” he babbles.
* “Wake up!” *
The sun breaks through, light filtering in through the blinds. I’m up, alive. I run to the kitchen; he’s nowhere in sight.
“Thank god,” I sigh.
I wash the dishes from last night, leave them drying on the rack. I spoon the grounds into the coffee maker, pour the water into the reservoir, press the button, and standby to hear the familiar hiss.
Open the fridge, and grab the near-empty gallon of milk. I think about drinking it with Nesquik, but ultimately I place it back, leaving it for him.
I look to the clock, ticking like a bomb, ready to explode. My father’s still asleep. I check on him to make sure the alarm is set to sound in the next hour.
His body is idle, weighed down by the covers, by the booze, and maybe from waiting up on me last night.
I check his chest. The low and high tide from the subtle breathing. My father’s lids slowly rise, “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I’m going,” I return. “The bus will arrive in a few.”
“Then go. What are you waiting for?”
He murmurs something while bringing his face closer to the pillow.
“Lock the door on the way out.” he groggily orders.
I close the bedroom door, leave a tiny slit where I watch him sleep. I back away, head down the hall, go past the kitchen, out the door. I stand on the porch, waiting for reality to hit.
I understand Mom, her urge to stay, and her reasons to go. I encourage myself, tell myself to continue, to remain. I leave every morning, thinking I’ll be back and wondering just how much more I can take.
“Will he ever change?” I ask myself.
I lock the door, hear the click that reminds me of breaking teeth. I leave the keys on top of the mat, hoping that he knows what they mean.
His slurred voice echoes in the back of my head.
* “Your golden, my boy. Never forget it.” *