When we pull up the driveaway, there’s a face in the window: a middle-aged man is staring out at us with his eyes as wide as a child’s. When we’re close enough for him to identify who’s inside the car, one of his hand shoots up by his face like a puppet that’s been stripped of its costume unbeknownst to the puppeteer. Then the strange man does a kind of baby wave that looks like one hand trying to clap by itself very slowly. One. Two. Three. A second later, he disappears like a Jack sucked back in his box.
“What the fuck was that?” Terry asks as he yanks up the emergency break.
“That’s my dad,” I say with a shrug.
“Holy shit,” he thinks loud enough for me to hear.
“Well, I warned you.” And I had. And I did. I’d discussed my dad at length not just with Terry but with anyone who’d listen at Normal College of Long Island. During my freshman year, he’d emerged as a mythical figure who, even in absentia, earned me free drinks at Paddy McFeebe’s, the single local bar within walking distance of the largely commuter campus. The following year, my ongoing tales of the patriarch might’ve raised doubtful eyebrows in myIntro to the Memoir class but I came out with a solid A thanks to a final first-person narrative which elicited as much concern as admiration from my sympathetic professor.
To be perfectly honest, I was totally cool with all the pity parties, the car-wreck level gawkery, the unchecked voyeurism, the delighted disbelief… Growing up, I hadn’t found my dad nearly so interesting. He was initially a background figure, a morose man who popped up periodically then vanished just as fast into the nook in the attic which he called his study. Sometimes, he had a job that required travel; other times, he was on “a retreat” – my mother’s term for the mental ward where she periodically housed him gratis since she was on the hospital’s board. Then during my adolescence there was a major, life-altering shift as he began trying on a succession of mental illnesses as if they were rock concert T-shirts that tore easily. Seasonally, if not monthly, he’d blast out a new diagnosis to which we would all have to readjust. Over were the days of one well-intentioned depressive systematically destroyed by Corporate America; in their aftermath came a chameleon of personality disorders, an attention-seeking narcissist whose psychological costuming could – and did – change as effortlessly as underwear.
The first rebirth was both the worst and the most benign: My dad became an alcoholic despite his never having consumed three drinks in a single night. His addiction was intentional rather than enacted. Thirst, not drunkenness, was the cornerstone of his disease. Nevertheless, he pursued his newfound sobriety with gusto: Over 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, our living room accumulated throw pillows embroidered with “Easy Does It” and “Stick with the Winners” while the kitchen cabinets grew cluttered with mugs proclaiming “One Day at a Time” and “One Drink Is Too Many.” Even the mailbox got a makeover with a stenciled message fixedly on brand: “More Will Be Revealed.” It never was. I checked the mailbox daily. I knew.
Over time, I learned all the crazy acronyms of Alcoholics Anonymous — from GOD to EGO to PMS: Group Of Drunks, Easing God Out, and Poor Me Syndrome respectively. Some of them amused me; others baffled. How could FEAR mean Failure Expected And Received and Forgetting Everything’s All Right and Frantic Efforts to Appear Real? It was as if a single word could be broken down to mean anything depending on the needs of the speaker. There were no arguments to win with my father, only topics to avoid. I learned to lock my door before bedtime. I also learned to unlock the now antiquated liquor cabinet.
If anything can be blamed for my current love affair with the drink, it’s probably my father’s 12 months as a 12-stepper. His newfound teetotalling persona had all the logic of a full-blown drunk. By the middle of junior high, I’d defiantly vomited vodka on the cross-stitched bathmat (“HOPE: Happy Our Program Exists”) only to discover that he’d taken a deep dive into the DSM and left the rooms and throw pillows behind him. In short, when my father’s AA sponsor died, he hired an uncertified social therapist named Cindy who felt her job was to agree with anything he said. She subscribed to the school of thought which argued that all we really needed in life was validation since we’d all been denied too much in childhood. Because of that, my father took to testing her theory on a regular basis. She seem unphased but for me, it was confusing to live with an agoraphobe who never missed a party, an anorexic who never passed up a snack, and an insomniac who took naps daily.
Not for Cindy though. According to my mom, in each case, Cindy would simply ask my father why he thought he was whatever it was he’d insisted at that given session that he was to which he would invariably reply: “Because I feel like I might do whatever behavior is implied.” If mental illness had to do with brain chemistry, wasn’t sickness just a matter of thinking the wrong thing?
I vividly recall the day before high school graduation: I opened the door to my room and found my father lying prone on my hastily made bed, his face in my pillow. Upon hearing me enter, he turned his head and gazed at me over his shoulder in a coquettish way that made me wonder if he was about to announce that I was the son of a gay man or a trans woman and would now need to call him “Mom.” I was wrong, of course. He was now suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder which he happily claimed was therapist-induced making it harder to treat and impossible to discredit. As luck would have it, I was writing about this very disorder for my senior thesis which explored The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the first fictional representation of the condition. For research I had read some firsthand accounts of people who’d lived with the condition, books that constituted a subgenre all its own known as multiautobiographies, page-turners like The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil, The Minds of Billy Milligan... Inevitably, I had questions.
“Do people ever say they’ve met you but you can’t recall meeting them?’
“Have you ever had someone call you by a different name?”
“Have you ever introduced yourself by another name?”
“Have you ever heard voices in your head?”
“Did you ever find things that you bought but couldn’t remember buying them?”
“Do you ever have blackouts after which you couldn’t recall what had happened?”
“Even when drinking?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Even when you did drink?”
“I never drank. Not really. Although I could have. If I’d let myself go.”
“So what makes you think you have multiple personalities?”
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I eat a whole box of powdered doughnuts.”
“Well, I know I shouldn’t do it but I do it anyway.”
“So I think someone else must be eating those doughnuts.”
“You mean you can’t remember eating them?”
“No. I remember eating them. It’s just that I know that I shouldn’t.”
“I don’t think that’s multiple personality disorder.”
“Cindy says it is if I say it is. You know what? I’m feeling judged here.” Then he got up off the bed and made as if he were going to hit me but he didn’t because he’d never do that, although if he did, I’m sure he probably wouldn’t remember. Blackouts have their conveniences. In the end, he stomped towards the door then shouted into the hallway: “You know wanting a sickness could be a sickness in itself!”
“I agree,” I mumbled in response.
“Then what’s the problem?” he snapped as he walked away. A door slammed before I reply. I didn’t know what to say then. I don’t now either. I don’t know what’s wrong with him or how I’m supposed to be in order to make it better. I have learned not to ask too many questions. My mom and I discovered this together a while ago. It brought us closer together in a sick kind of way. What we determined collectively: Histrionics play out on a smaller scale when the audience keeps its lips sealed and feigns attention. I have mastered the ability to look engaged while thinking about what groceries I need to buy or the homework I need to complete. I’m not proud of it but my version of engaged deadpan has helped me survive. Is that useful today? I’m not so sure.
I’m with him alone in the living room currently. A throw cushion informs me “My Intellect Is My Worst Enemy.” That doesn’t illuminate much. Mom and Terry are in our banana-yellow kitchen. I hear them talking. My friend has chosen well for this visit to my parents’ new home and I’m going to honor that choice as much as I possibly can.
“Do you want to play checkers,” my dad asks.
“How about chess?”
“Chess is for grown-ups,” he counters then pouts like a 10-year-old boy. So we play checkers. He’s red. I’m black. I win every game. He’s not really trying. Or rather he’s pretending he’s a child instead of trying to win and he wants me to play like an adult who would let that child win but I don’t. I’m not that kind of grown-up. I just keep winning. Over and over. It’s so easy. It’s also boring until he fake cries then rushes off to the master bedroom. I hear the door slam shut but that sound has lost its dramatic effect over the years. It’s simply of form of punctuation as common as the period.
“Everything okay in there?” My mom’s voice is bright as a bird.
“Fine.” In truth, it’s better than fine. I won’t see him the rest of this weekend. I’m relieved even as I wish I could’ve beat him at chess so he’d really see I’m truly smarter than him. My father isn’t stupid, mind you. His brain exists outside such words. He defies labels despite his penchant for taking them on. Whatever else you’d call his premature exit, his disappearance is a relief. No one comments on his absence – not even Terry — when we gather around the kitchen table for a dinner of hotdogs and beans, one of my mother’s favorite meals, served as always on paper plates with plastic utensils. No knives. She’s never enjoyed cooking or cleaning. She’s so thin you’d think she’d never liked eating either. Actually, she and Terry are both built like popsicle sticks: flat-chested, flat-assed, no shoulders, and a posture that suggests military training. They even have similar hairdos, pixie cuts that exaggerate the heart shape of their elfin faces. It’s weird to suddenly notice that Terry looks more like my mother than I ever will.
“How can something this easy taste so good,” she asks Terry while scooping up beans on a plastic fork.
“That’s a very good question,” he replies good-naturedly. Terry isn’t joking either. He’s an aspiring competitive eater who wants to win Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest this summer. His passion for hot dogs is real. I’m thankful he likes them. It was either that or TV dinners. He and my mother get in a pretty involved conversation about Birgit Felden, the 17-year-old winner of the Eating Contest in 1984, then segue to sausage nomenclature – hot dogs, frankfurters, weiners – which apparently aren’t synonymous terms. The potato roll emerges as America’s unsung culinary invention. Relish is summarily dismissed. I’m both amused and bored by their discussion so I bow out, feigning exhaustion. “What say you to a piece of beef and mustard,” I hear Terry quip as I leave. It strikes me as lewd. Who knows why.
In the morning, I’m probably depressed. I can’t tell. We shouldn’t have come here. I see that. It’s now Easter Sunday. That feels important. We never went to church as a family when I was growing up. When I asked if there were a God, my father told me not for him but I could have one if I liked. My mother’s answer was even simpler: “Honey does it really matter?” is all she said. I’m guessing it does but I could be wrong there, too. But ultimately, this holiday’s always been loaded for me. How can God come back if he never existed? And should we care if he did?
I wake up feeling further disoriented because I’m now in a bedroom that’s not my real bedroom despite being full of my stuff. My parents moved to another house in the exurbs last year and my mother has decorated this room to create an adolescence that wasn’t mine. Gone is the fold-out poster of Donna Summer posing next to a jukebox. Gone is the oversized calendar displaying Miss Piggy aloft in a swing for May. In their places are pennant flags from high school and junior high representing my disastrous forays into wrestling and cross country running, two sports in which I qualified for states not because I was any good but because the competition in my weight class and age group were so paltry year after year. I got these cheap felt flags instead of varsity letters because I never won a match or a race. All I did was show up for all the meets. This was the consolation prize of the day. Otherwise, the room is bare.
My sheets, ironically, are a floral print. The bed is a queen. All my clothes and mementos are hidden in the dressers, I imagine. When I truly take stock of this room, I wonder if mom is getting extra money renting it out as a bed and breakfast. It has an innocuous feminine appeal plus a mirrored headboard. All it needs is a basket of potpourri and an Old World clock on the desk. Interrupting these reflections is the following overheard conversation from the room across the hall:
“I want to stop taking Prozac. My sex drive is dead.”
“If you stop taking Prozac, I’ll move in the basement.”
“But I can’t get hard. I can’t get an erection.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“You’re being cold.”
“And you’re not hot when you’re depressed. Take another pill if you have dick trouble. Then take another one if that makes you feel inadequate. I’m not here to make you feel like a man. That’s too big a job for me. I tried. I failed.”
“Well, I’m not a woman.”
“The way things are going, sometimes, I don’t know if I am either.”
“I can hear you,” I yell from behind my closed door.
“Sorry sweetie,” my mom chirps back.
And then the argument continues in hushed, indecipherable tones. Strangely, I turn to masturbating as a way to block the whispers out. I want to say fuck you to everything in this house that represses me: the enforced sports, the prissy linens, the preponderance of a pinkish beige in the décor, those damned pillows. But I can’t get it up. Suddenly I feel like my dad and it makes me furious. I close my eyes and try to imagine Lee, the Korean ROTC student from my dorm at Normal. He’s a lithe little whip of a thing who likes to walk around in a towel to let his body ventilate. Sometimes, he’ll hang out in my room and smoke unfiltered cigarettes while explaining how green tea ensures the tobacco won’t cause him cancer. He insists, it’s the only wisdom to glean from the Japanese. I keep stroking. My mind wanders from Lee to Professor Lopez-Gomez, a queeny instructor of Spanish lit who’s turned me on to the generation of 1898, especially Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. There’s something shockingly erotic about Lopez-Gomez. He favors tailored suits in somber colors then wears them in a way that emasculates them – a flipped cuff, a pegged pant leg, an ascot tie. He shreds gender concepts as he indoctrinates us into the genius of writers unfamiliar to us. the Machado brothers, Baroja, Valle-Inclán. As the weather’s grown warmer, Lopez-Gomez’s clothes have grown lighter, tighter. His near-sheer shirts are clingy enough to reveal the sinewy body beneath. It’s as if he’s flaunting the masculine under the laciest of veils. He flexes his wrist in a way that screams “girl” even as it makes his bicep bulge in his form-fitted sleeve. This fantasy is working. I can feel my body responding, coming alive. I imagine unbuttoning Lopez-Gomez’s shirt as a calm breeze nudges me further with a breath of air that seems to tease my nipples like the breath of the gods but then I realize that the window is shut. When I open my eyes, I find my mother standing in the doorway, positioned so her head seems to rest atop my cock like a weird armless doll I happen to be choking. The moment we make eye contact, she closes the door. “I’m making pancakes, Miles. Do you want any?”
“Sure,” I answer. I don’t ever want to come to this house again. This is all very, very wrong. Just then there’s a knock on the door. Terry peeks his head in.
“Jesus Christ,” I snap, yanking the top sheet up so hard my feet stick out at the end.
“Wouldn’t it be better if I told this story?” he says.
“What do you mean?”
“Well as is, it’s kind of creepy. The fantasy ends with your mother staring at you with your manhood in your hand which sets off all sorts of alarms. Even the Prozac dialogue suggests a legacy of sexual dysfunction that might not be your intent.”
“I see your point. But that’s how it happened.”
“Well, yes and no. You didn’t keep the Miss Piggy calendar open to May. You kept it open to October, the month where she’s acting out Fay Wray in King Kong.”
“How would you know?”
“You’ve shown photos. Kermit’s in the background manning a biplane near the Empire State Building.”
“Oh, wow. You’re right.”
“And our Spanish class isn’t focused on the Generation of 1898. It’s about 20thCentury Spanish philosophy. We’re studying Ortega y Gasset, too. Although I do like the fantasy of Lopez-Gomez.”
“That was private!”
“Then you shouldn’t have written it down.”
“Look you can always write your own story Terry but I like these recollections. They’re my history. And while they may trigger certain associations that I’m not intending, I’m including them because they’re true. It seems best to be honest.”
“You know it might be best if you turned down the sex in this.”
“How so? Why?”
“Because nothing happened between us and it never will.”
“I know that. But it was underneath everything we did at the time. Not just between you and me but between me and everything. Everything felt sexual. Maybe it was partly because I was so repressed. I was still a virgin even though we were in our early 20s. How old was I during this visit? 22?”
“That sounds about right. There’s also something you’re clearly omitting here.”
“Well, you spend a lot of time on strange details, like how your mom and I talked about hotdogs. But you omit any physical descriptions of yourself or your dad.”
“You know you look just like him, right?”
I look behind me at my reflection in the mirrored headboard and I see that he’s right. I can see Terry over my shoulder now and it’s like déjà vu from somebody else’s life. He’s my mom; I’m my dad. I’m looking over my shoulder at my best friend just like my dad once did at me but it’s different. I decide then and there: I’m going to grow facial hair. My dad has never had a mustache. He’s never had the courage to look ridiculous or porn-y or butch. It’ll either be a thick chevron mustache like Tom Selleck or a pencil-thin scrawl like John Waters wears. Whatever it is, it will make me feel like I’m wearing a permanent party mask, like I’m going through my own life incognito, a stranger to myself, to my family, and to my friends, a sartorial detail that’s so absurd that its significance will be lost on everybody but me.
As one half of the conceptual art duo Saint Flashlight (with Molly Gross), Drew Pisarra has been finding playful ways to get poetry into public places such as film-themed haiku on a movie marquee and a series of lost-dog style flyers that drive to a phone bank of poems. These unconventional installations have been part of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, Free Verse: Charleston Poetry Festival, and Capturing Fire’s International Poetry Summit and Slam in D.C. His first book of poetry Infinity Standing Up, a collection of sonnets, came out in early 2019. (A poem therein was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.) His short story collection Publick Spanking was published eons ago by Future Tense. Additionally, he once toured a ventriloquist act entitled Singularly Grotesque – commissioned by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art – up and down both coasts but has since retired from the world of dummies.