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Chapter 5 — How I Stopped Trusting My Father
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 05 — The Knife Goes on the Left
Report cards weren’t a big ceremony in our house, but one from eighth grade still stands out. I made a point of intercepting it from the incoming mail, not so much because I was afraid of my parents’ reaction, but because I wanted to see the stats for myself first.
I slit the slim envelope open in my downstairs room, and I have to admit, when I saw what was inside I was pretty impressed with myself. After switching to public school, I got mostly A’s without much effort, but in this case, my marks reflected the fact that by my third year of middle school, I just as often skipped going to school in the morning at all. I’d leave at the same time my parents went to work, wait for an hour or so on the Sanchez Street steps listening to Jethro Tull on my walkman, and then go back home to dig through my porn collection, jack off seven or eight times, light off jars of kerosene in the backyard bar-b-que, and then meet up with my friends after school to drink and get high.
Why was I so driven, already, at this point, to try to get away in so many ways? A certain amount of experimentation is par for the course, even before adolescence, but why was I so determined? Part of it was that I wanted to show off. I knew that partying and cutting out of school got me recognized, and that rebel status already seemed like what I wanted. I want to be different. I loved learning but I hated rules, and I didn’t like this new mass-market school that I was in. It wasn’t really that I was angry with my parents—I would be, but not quite yet. Not from the start. I think it was more that I was a smart and a lonely kid, and also one drawn to the edges, and to experimentation. Many writers have pointed out the fact that those of us who are particularly inclined to seek out risk, adventure, and novelty are also more likely to develop addictive behaviors. I think the same is true for intelligence, not that me saying that is going to help my case at all. For me, drugs and alcohol were already becoming part of the way that I thought of being myself—a way to get closer to the edge, to feel something, and also, another way of demonstrating that I was different. Some of these things—mainly drinking—felt good to me, and some, like LSD, I’d say that on balance, I didn’t really like that much—but I was still willing to struggle through the experience because I wanted to know, and show, that I could go to that edge.
Standing there in my bedroom, the windowsills lined with glass Coke bottles that I’d filled with colored water as a sort of decoration, I knew that once I’d opened the envelope with the report card in it, I couldn’t leave it lying around for long before showing my parents. I went upstairs and found my dad in the dining room. Holding the envelope out like a trophy, I handed it to him without saying anything. He pulled the flimsy little sheet out and held it up to read, and I watched him try to digest what he was looking at.
My grades were lower than usual, but still not all that bad. I’d already landed myself a spot at the best public high school in the city, so the marks were fairly irrelevant at that point anyhow. It was the numbers that made his eyes pop. I knew that I’d been cutting school a lot, but even I hadn’t expected to see 45’s and 50’s in the column to the right of the letter grades, numbers that were there to indicate how many absences had been recorded on my behalf. I hadn’t heard of anyone else at school coming even close.
It took him a minute to see what was up. We were standing in front of the full-height walnut stereo cabinet, and I knew that right inside was a copy of Candy-O, the Cars’ second album, the cover of which featured a Vargas pinup redhead in a transparent mesh leotard sprawled across the hood of a car, her cartoon tits pointing straight up into the air.
This older guy Keith Purdy that I knew on the block and his friend Mike had recently put a new small-block in Mike’s ’63 Mustang, and then taken me and a couple of other kids for joyrides around the neighborhood, doing burnouts and gassing the car off the crests of the hills enough to get air. I was in the backseat laughing my ass off with another younger kid, stoned on half a joint that Keith had passed back to us, feeling like man, “this is it, I’m gonna get a car, I’m gonna get a girl, I’m gonna go…” when my dad finally got around to saying something.
“Forty-five days absent? Fifty? Forty-eight?” Running his right pointer finger down the dot-matrix printout and squinting in disbelief, he looked across at me and snorted, ”How is that possible?” He shook his head and sort of laughed. My joyride had been interrupted, but I was still feeling proud of myself, looking forward to showing off my scores to my stoner friends at school.
I shrugged. He didn’t seem angry.
The fact is, I’m not sure how it was possible either. I imagine that school policy then was more or less the same as it is today, which says that “After the 1st and 2nd unexcused absences, the school will call the student’s home,” and that additional absences would result in meetings with “Student and Family Services,” which everyone knows are some sort of cops. Even if they’d missed a couple of calls from the school, I don’t see how they could have missed forty or fifty. Had the school never even called? Maybe the messages weren’t all that specific—at first—but I have to believe that at some point they would have gotten more urgent. Given the information that report card was carrying, it should have been something more substantial than a thin, cheap half-page of mimeo paper—a scroll perhaps, hand delivered by a truant officer with a trumpet and bell, arriving to ring my wayward ass back to class—and then to have a serious word with my parents. Who was the actual delinquent in this situation, anyhow?
However it happened, the numbers were right here in front of us. That fact was that I did actually skip out on almost half of the school days that semester, while still earning more or less a B average.
I gave it to him pretty straight, without really answering his question. “School is lame,” I said, “I already got into Lowell, and this semester doesn’t even count. Why should I go?”
He looked towards me again, but it seemed he was looking past me, maybe into his own past. My dad was thirty-seven or thirty-eight at the time. He’d told me with pride how he split early from high school to go hitchhiking and motorcycle camping up in Maine, and then enrolled in college just long enough to earn enough credits to graduate.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I didn’t much like school either,” and then turned away, towards the living room.
I stood there for a minute alone, my toes sinking into the green shag as I inhaled its faint chemical tang. I could hear my mom just around the corner in the kitchen, but she didn’t emerge. Something didn’t feel right.
Somehow both of my parents had been totally unaware of what I was doing for months—years, actually—and now that my dad had found out, at least as far as me skipping school, he didn’t have anything to say aside from, basically, that he would have done the same thing. It was true that I didn’t need the grades to pass Go at that point, but that was only the official evidence of what had already been three years of drinking, smoking, fucking around with drugs on a regular basis, and spending more time with my collection of porn magazines than at school. It’s not like I was skipping out to spend time in the woods—and I was far younger than my dad had been when he made his early exit from high school.
In a way, I’d gotten exactly the reaction I’d been hoping for. In my own self at the time, of course I didn’t want to talk to my parents about why I was cutting school so much or how much I was drinking, let alone my already-obsessive attachment to pornography and self-flagellation, but I was also a bit surprised that I’d managed to get away with all of that, and now, quite clearly, also with not just breaking the rules but making up my own, and all without even a conversation. My pride evaporated. Those numbers I’d earned were rare enough to be worth more notice.
I shuffled over to the stairs that led back down to my basement bedroom, letting my feet slide over the carpet on the edge of each step and then slip down to the next one. The fuzzy pile felt good under my soles, but there was a knot in my stomach.
I couldn’t have put my finger on it then, but I must have had the feeling at some level that I’d wanted my parents to dig deeper. That report card was the last chance for that to happen before I went to high school, and it just slid right by. Fair enough, they didn’t know the rest of what I was up to, and perhaps if they had, they would have asked—but, then again, why did they not know?
I guess they figured I was doing fine, but I sure wish they’d asked me some harder questions, even just that once.
* * *
The episode with the report card didn’t fully sink in right away. The subject didn’t come up again with my parents, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it myself. On one hand, it felt good that they trusted me to make my own decisions—in fact, I had devised a plan and put it into action, and it had worked out perfectly. I’d applied and been accepted to the high school that I’d wanted to get into, and I’d also successfully cut more classes than any other student in the history of Everett Middle School, a legacy that I was happy to carry along with having been voted both ”most intellectual” and “most rowdy” in the same seventh-grade year. Still, something about their lack of reaction didn’t sit well with me, although I wasn’t really conscious of why that was.
It was only a short while afterwards that something else happened, something much more subtle, but that carried a powerful message for me about how my relationship with my parents had shifted.
My dad and I were back in the same room of the same house up on the hill, setting the table for dinner—pasta with frozen peas and small scallops in a shallow serving bowl that matched the blue-rimmed grey stoneware plates he’d brought back from a business trip to Germany. He was proud of these artifacts of his travels, as I often am these days of my own souvenirs. I remember the plates feeling unnecessarily heavy, and that they made a harsh rasping sound whenever they were moved.
I loved to do quick work with my hands—folding and wrapping newspapers with rubber bands for my paper route, unloading the silverware from the dishwasher, and bagging groceries—and so I didn’t mind setting the table, which was a huge oval of hard maple that he had harvested and milled from the woods out back of the farm where we’d lived in Maine.
I set down a plate, and then a knife and a fork, and then turned to move to the next setting, when he stopped me.
“The knife goes on the left,” he said, pointing back to the first place setting.
I’m sure he could just about hear me rolling my eyes.
“Why?” I asked, my pre-teen voice suddenly marked with scorn.
Prior to this point, I’d been more of a boy, and I was happy to follow along on all sorts of outdoor adventures that he arranged: sailing in the bay, backpacking in the Sierras, climbing in Yosemite, but by this time I’d started to have my doubts. In the same cabinet where I’d carved out space for some of my own albums, his records were all classical symphonies, even some opera. I called it “medieval marching music,” and it sounded silly to me, affected, bombastic and uptight. It felt to me that he was trying to prove something with that music, and trying way too hard. I don’t know what I would have expected him to be listening to, but I never heard him playing Dylan or the Stones. The only other music that my parents seemed to play aside from these oppressive antiques were children’s records like Go-Go the Blue Gorilla, Free to Be You and Me, and It’s A Small World, although there was one place were our tastes overlapped—the Star Wars soundtrack, really just for the cantina scene where Luke goes to meet Han Solo for the first time. Star Wars had come out in ’77, which by this time was at least five years in the past, but that film remained something that the whole family loved.
I imagine my dad identified with Han—who wouldn’t dream of being an interstellar rambler, a trader and a mercenary, blasting the bad guys and then blasting off to Alderaan with the princess in your arms? There was something still of a young man somewhere in my father’s psyche—the outdoorsman who’d hitchhiked to the west coast and back, and who loved to read about the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, the hidden secrets of the pyramids, and the legendary tsunami that had swamped and sunk Atlantis—but by then, those parts of him were as well-buried as those myths.
I found those books on the shelves of his office and read them myself, but I never heard from him why he found them so compelling. For my part, I felt more like Luke, raised by his grandparents and itching to get away from the backwater sand planet of Tatooine. It occurs to me now that my parent’s marriage was probably something of a dry, dying, desert world of its own, and I bet my father was itching to get away too, probably much more consciously and acutely than I was. Just as we were both good with our hands, we shared a hunger for the outdoors, and for adventure, escape, and freedom.
I glared back at the heavy plate, a small chip super-glued back into place on one edge. I was hoping that he’d say something true, something that would show that we were in this together, that he knew it didn’t really matter—and I also knew that wasn’t likely.
The walls of the dining room seemed to pull away, and I leaned on the heavy, smooth surface of the hardwood table for support. It was then that I realized that this was a test. Not for me—for him.
My father was still standing there, waiting for me to move the knife.
Finally, he gave me his why—“Because I said so.”
I looked back at him, playing his words back in my head—“because I said so.” I laughed, saying “That’s not a good enough reason,” and whenI say it now, it makes me wince at how that must have stung. If I was him, I might have wanted to hit me right then—not that that was ever in the cards, but I imagine his violent frustration at feeling the last of his power over me as a father disappearing.
I did move the knife, but I knew that I was right. It wasn’t a good enough reason, not that that mattered. It wasn’t about the place setting. The knife had to go somewhere. It was the fact that he was so damn serious about it—and it was about his silence.
That little moment with the plate and the knife was the last of my boyhood. I never looked at him the same way again, and it seemed that from then on we inhabited separate worlds. I thought he’d left me, and, still a boy, my power was less than his, but I did my own leaving, that’s for sure. I felt that I’d caught him out, and I outgrew him. After that, even if he had shared with me something of how he saw the world, or tried to, I wouldn’t have been interested—not that he did.
I know it’s ridiculous to come to such a damning and complete conclusion over such a minuscule event, but of course that’s exactly how these things go. It wasn’t just that moment, it was everything that had come before—certainly the report card, but also the years leading up to it. All of my early experiments with drinking, drugs and early-eighties porn magazines were having a cumulative effect on me. My emotional and social development was less than it should or could have been. We didn’t talk about our feelings around the house, and the time I did spend with friends was already just about entirely focused on getting high, as opposed to any sort of real communication. Other activities, aside from skateboarding, were fading into the background, and my overall enthusiasm and curiosity were suffering. I was starting to feel a sense of being rejected and left out, and also of rejecting more and more of what I saw around myself. I felt a growing sense of anger. A downward spiral had begun.
This was the moment when stopped trusting my father—and, by extension, my mother, who had remained mostly silent. I knew that, from here on out, I was in control. I’d already decided where to go to high school—and I was free to decide whether to go at all, just as I was free to decide to get high or do whatever else. Not just trust, but hope was gone. After that, I was on my own—and I hated them for it.
My parents separated not long afterwards, and I went to live with my mother. She made no challenge to my autonomy. I was free to come and go—and I was still afraid of the dark, running up the back stairs from the garage once I switched off the light, two steps at a time, breathless.
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This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
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