Not the beam of the overhead fluorescent lighting, nor the smell of burnt charcoal-flamed burgers, not even the static conversation of others in the booths around us was going to ground me, give me the comfort I needed. Nope, regardless of how I approached it, this wasn’t going to be easy.
I eased into the conversation with all the subtlety of a slammed door. “So, Dad, what the hell’s up with mom?” I wasn’t known for my subtlety.
Lifting his head from the plate of food in front of him enough to notice the urgency of my question, he replied, “What the hell are you talking about?”
My dad had two facial expressions, maybe three. One mirrored the blankness of how he lived his life, with a degree of aloofness, as if he was merely going through the motions each day, dragging his lanky body around like it was dead weight. It was only his mind that was tainted by my mother’s irrational and destructive behavior, throwing her shoes at him for coming home with the wrong brand of toilet paper. Or barking “Ninny!” at him for failing to discipline me the correct way, or “Son-of-a-bitch-good-for-nothing-bum-bastard!” at me for the simple mistake of being a normal, grade A-earning teenager.
I saw this detachment clearly the few times he took me to work with him. Before the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was all the rage, when it was primarily an industrial sector, he headed the finance department of a corrugated box company as a credit manager, shuffling papers from here to there and making phone calls to vendors in desperate plea, cajoling them for payment. It was a distant cry from playing music, his former gig. It seemed like thankless drudgery.
Sometimes, I would see him smile. He had a nice smile.
His prominent expression, though, was one of disgust, disappointment, rage, all rolled into one brow-furrowing, crease-laden glare that informed me of some kind of wrongdoing that wasn’t particularly to his liking. Like this moment.
This would later contradict the first hand accounts of people in the community — the bankers, local shopkeepers, postal workers — all informing me of the witty, beaming, benevolent man that Arthur Chapman was. Maybe he had a doppelganger.
Since I had just taken a hit from a joint prior to our dinner soiree, I was feeling especially emboldened to continue with, “Why is she so angry all the time?”
“Well, she’s in a lot of pain,” he responded.
My mother and father were in a fender bender a few years before. As the story goes, they were making a left hand turn into the parking lot of the exact location we were sharing this meal, when an oncoming vehicle clipped my dad’s car, my mother sustaining injuries from whiplash. Lord only knows what was happening in the car right before the moment of impact; I’ve been in the car with my mom and there’s a good chance it wasn’t a pretty scene. The stress alone, a third presence in that cab, might have been responsible for applying enough pressure to my dad’s right foot to inch the car into oncoming traffic for some relief.
By the way, this is the same diner that I found myself clumsily cleaning tables, dropping the night’s supply of bread pudding and accidentally dunking my foot into the pot of soup du jour, ruining my brand new Thom McCann earth shoes during the summer between elementary and high school. I didn’t bother asking the glaring question of why the soup was on the floor; I was too busy dodging pots, pans and cuss words in Greek hurled at me by Tony, the hot-tempered head cook. Apparently, this place has a curse attached to it.
“But that doesn’t give her the right to treat us like shit, Dad!”
“I know, I know” is all he could offer.
I could feel the wall of safety he typically cowered behind slowly dissolving, like glaciers to water. All the regret he experienced in leaving a successful music career that meant everything to him, revered by his community of musicians for the dynamic singer, sure-footed drummer and capable band leader he was. All the old world values he closely held that kept him in a controlling marriage and from advocating on his own behalf. All the rage he compacted for years that eventually erupted on me in fits of smashed records, shredded posters and trips to the emergency room. All of this from acquiescing to her control.
Years later, after I clocked in some time in therapy, I would be able to understand his redirected rage in some context when I mentioned the word ‘abuse’ to him during a particularly heated conversation, relative to my formative and adolescent years. “Abuse?” he replied, “I didn’t abuse you, I hit you like a father hits his son.” At least he admitted there was physical contact.
I took advantage of this moment of vulnerability.
“You know, you should divorce her.” It was a bold statement, one for which I didn’t have the words before then, one that was building to a precious moment like this. It was born of my own frustration with a divided home, frequent beatings and emotional trauma resulting in a ton of self-loathing and the beginning of my bout with chronic depression. I also knew that there were at least two kids in my class whose parents divorced and they seemed more happy, carefree, confident, at least from the outside. I wanted some of that.
His eyes met mine. “You’re right, I should, but what am I going to do, leave her with the house, all the bills?” And while it’s true that the bulk of my mother’s existence was self-relegated to our home — which included her petite frame propped in front of a technicolor screen most of the day — I didn’t care about her or the house, or her pain, or her burden. Nor did I care about her backstory. All I knew was that she was caustic and I couldn’t understand exactly why she would harbor such bitterness toward her own family. And even though I could recall a time when she was an active part of our lives — the three of us playing baseball at the park, for example — I didn’t even want that mother back. I merely wanted some degree of normalcy.
“Yes, why not? Just think, you could have your own apartment and I could come over, we could play games, make dinner, I could have my own room.” I was grasping for a life raft, anything to salvage my adolescence, my crumbling family, my sanity. It seemed like years since I felt any measure of calm; every conversation was a shouting match; every gift, a bargaining chip; small appliances, weapons.
“That would be nice,” he chuckled. I could see the possibilities amusing him to the point of fleeting consideration, a lightening of heart, an unaccustomed peace. Maybe he could picture the two of us going to a concert. Or better yet, making music together. Maybe without her in the picture, he could drop his guard long enough where I could feel his love for me, maybe just some support and encouragement. At least I’d feel it from one parent; I’d be content with scraps at this point.
A boy needs his father, I thought to myself. I heard this somewhere and it made sense to me. But I also knew better, that his generation didn’t hold those ideals; that no matter what, he wouldn’t leave her; that for better or for worse,‘til death do us part was a literal endeavor.
And so, his final words ever on the matter, “But I just can’t.”
With that, the beam of the overhead fluorescent lighting, the smell of burnt charcoal-flamed burgers, and the static conversation of others in the booths around us grounded me, gave me just a little cold comfort.