Things I Can't Tell My Father
My earliest memory of you is your voice, on a tape you made before you shipped out. The navy takes you away; you are gone before I know who you are. The man on the tape reads from a book, thoughtfully.
You gave me the Brothers Grimm.
You and Big Joe, the giant sailor, take me with you to see a movie starring Jack Nicholson. The Last Detail. For a moment I am an adult, one of the guys. Then I am a child suspended between the two of you; I rise off the ground, a bridge between you and Big Joe.
You gave me flight.
After the navy, when the world is less certain, you play board games with me. My brother is too young to comprehend them. You let me win. Often.
You gave me a false sense of security.
You strip my brother and I down to nothing so the three of us can run around the nighttime yard. Streaking. I stop, my tiny, naked body standing at the threshold. I watch the two of your run outside, howling. I hide my nudity in a blanket next to my mother.
You gave me self-consciousness.
One day you move out to live in a small house with a hillbilly roommate. You have a girlfriend, your future ex-wife. You change, and so we don't have to talk about what is different, you take us to an R-rated movie.
You gave me The Goodbye Girl.
Your own father deserts the family. He leaves with a crazy woman named Lee and returns to Texas. You never see him alive again. You move into your childhood house in Trenton with the ghosts of your dead mother and brutal father. You drive us there every weekend; a dead house filled with ghosts -- the ghosts inside your head, ghosts drowned by the glassful.
You gave me my first shot of whiskey.
Another apartment, another change in personality. A tiny place tucked under the stairs. A new life, you claim. We visit your future ex-wife and she treats us with the polite regard of a schoolteacher. At home you take all our clothes and wash them because our mother doesn't do a good enough job. You leave us alone, dressed in your gigantic tee shirts, to do the laundry.
You gave me a dress.
You take me into the bathroom after I hit puberty and teach me to shave. You lather up my face and run the razor over my face, revealing the pimpled skin beneath. You stand behind me, my thin body wrapped in a threadbare-towel, and take pride in my burgeoning manhood. I want to remain a child.
You gave me fear of the future.
In the car, you're singing, "...and all the children are insane." Your voice foretells the suicide you will commit slowly, every day. Like Hemingway. You dream of being the man's man: hunter, traveler, womanizer, drinker, writer. You achieve four out of five.
You gave me the Doors.
Another apartment, tucked up in the hills surrounding a lake. Owned by a nice old couple, Del and Zel. Your adopted parents. Del kisses me while I nap on his daybed. Tells me to keep it our secret as he touches me down there with his thick fingers. I part my legs to make it easier for him. I think you've allowed him to do this, and I am grateful.
You gave me my first sexual experience.
Driving to the beach house you've rented for the summer, the car so crowded with supplies that my brother and I have to sit scrunched down beneath the passenger's seat. You teach us Swahili on the way. You stop at a bar and leave us in the car for an hour. My brother and I sit silently, watching the sun go down. We finish the drive, cramped up in the dark.
You gave me a bloody nose.
We spend hours every weekend in the bar close to our mother's house, we don't go to your apartment anymore. My brother and I play pool as you gab with the bearded, flannel-clad bar-bachelors, watching sports you don't follow. You drink your shots with your pinkie extended, like an Englishman.
You gave me smoke-filled Sundays.
A house with your future ex-wife. You drive us there, as a surprise. You take us on a tour of the house that would bankrupt your soul for the next fifteen years, showing where improvements will be made. The improvements will never end. The house is much nicer than where my brother and I live, even as it is.
You gave me envy.
Languid weekends with your future ex-wife, dinners and breakfasts, board games. Things return to normal. There is laughter and Christmas and rented movies. There is ice cream and parties and visits to relatives.
You gave me a sense of family.
They show old movies after midnight on Channel 5. You keep me awake to watch The Boys in the Band. You know about me before I do. You want me to know the lonely and pathetic life that awaits me, if I make that choice. You want me to change before it's too late. You tell me, Don't grow up to be a faggot or a weirdo.
You gave me rebellion.
When you meet my first, and only, girlfriend, you are surprised and elated. You treat her like a future daughter-in-law. You treat her like a possible bed partner. You remind me that if I want to have sex, or smoke pot, that I should go to your house, so that I'm safe.
You gave me controlled freedom.
When I'm sixteen the world falls apart. I understand too much, too soon. We have nuclear threats, global pollution, corporate crime, industrial waste, starving Ethiopian children. I'm gay. I'm an artist. I am trapped in the middle of nowhere and I have no escape. I try to kill myself, but no one knows. It isn't a cry for help, it is a whimper of defeat.
You gave me nothing.
After high school I need to escape the nowhere town or perish. I have no choice. You are living part-time in Philadelphia on a work assignment. I move in with you, the gay, escaped artist. You don't understand why I'm there. I curtail your self-destruction, then reinforce it. I smoke in secret. You drink every night. I plan your death. You move us into a bigger apartment.
You gave me sanctuary.
My high school friends visit, driving all day to arrive at night. You make me turn them away. They are forced to sleep in the car. I'm disgusted and grateful. I steal money off your dresser and buy records that I will never part with.
You gave me the thrill of thievery.
I watch your friend stumble out of the apartment above ours and die at my feet. I am the last person he sees before the heart attack takes him. You face your own mortality. You drown your sorrows. I move out.
You gave me drunken confessions.
We meet by accident, you, the future ex-wife and I, in the mall where I work. You live five minutes away, but I've never told you I work there. We exchange surprised pleasantries and make plans we don't intend to keep. We part ways. You never come back to the mall.
You gave me a good excuse.
I call you from college on your birthday. You talk about the house you are still renovating. You talk about your future ex-wife's career. You talk about your lousy job and early retirement. You talk about what you ate for dinner. You ask me nothing.
You gave me a wall of words.
You take my brother and I out separately to tell us you got married a month ago. You tell my brother and I separately that we're about to have a new brother a month from now. You tell my brother and I separately that you never wanted this, but that your future ex-wife wanted it, and you gave in to her.
You gave me a reason to pity you.
After college I try moving out of state with a boyfriend I never tell you about. I meet you and my new brother out of a sense of obligation. I may never see you again. You take me on a tour of the house, still under construction. You say you miss me. You ask why I never visit. You wonder why your new son is so much trouble when my brother and I were so good. You say, I never wanted this. I'm 52. I wish I was a faggot so this never would have happened. Your four-year-old son hears you.
You gave me a reason to leave.
You call, early in the morning, to tell me that you're on the wagon, but don't mention the month of rehab you were forced into by your younger brother. You tell me that your future ex-wife doesn't know who you are, now that you're sober. You tell me that you don't remember the last five years. You tell me you want to make a fresh start.
You gave me a false sense of hope.
A family function, off the wagon, freshly divorced. You walk up to me and are surprised that I'm an adult. You meet my boyfriend and think he is my brother. My brother will never forgive you for this. You drink heavily, leave early. Everyone is relieved.
You gave me an easy target.
An envelope arrives from you, inside are three stories that you have written -- two about the navy, one about sleeping with a woman who is not your second ex-wife. I tell you that they're good, but you don't hear this. I encourage you to write, but you don't hear this. It's too late. You say this without words.
You gave me a window of opportunity.
You call me from North Carolina, you have a house now, your own. You bought it for a song. It's a tiny shack, surrounded by other old-salt bachelors. You take care of each other. Your family tries to intercede and save you. They don't want you to end up like your father, who drank himself to death. You break your foot and are forced to retire.
You gave me an estimated time of death.
In the mirror, my face looks more like yours. The eyes especially. It isn't just the drinking I've inherited, there's so much more beneath the surface. I see you in me, inside the brittle weave of my brain. Hardcoded father. Sometimes I want to burn my eyes out so I don't have to face you every day.
You gave me self-destructive tendencies.
A family wedding, we are warned you will be there. You sit at our table and pretend everything is just as it should be. I drop my glasses in the parking lot and you find them and know they are mine.
You gave me my broken glasses.
You are standing on the other side of my life. I have to seek an understanding with you, or I will become you. I do the one thing you couldn't do. I write. I write about you.
You gave me a reason to love you.