A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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My father and I have turned talking without saying anything into the cornerstone of our relationship. I recently graduated from high school and want to be an actor, so I’ve moved in with him to save money for my triumphant move to Hollywood. He and I have barely talked in the eight years since the divorce — just phone calls on birthdays and the comings and goings of Jesus Christ. But now here we are, sitting across from each other at the kitchen table in his house in Oceanside, California. He asks how my part-time job is going, what I’m going to do tomorrow, if I want more butter for my mashed potatoes. I am just as responsible as he is for this noncommunication. Though I hoped that our lives together could resemble a normal parent-child relationship, I do not share with him my uncertainty about what I am doing with my life, or how deeply unhappy I am at eighteen. I only ask him how his day was, what he is going to do tomorrow, and to please pass the butter.
My father was raised Catholic in a Polish household in Chicago, played football as a young man, and worked for a trucking company for decades. This might make him seem like some cliché of white, middle-class masculinity, but that is not all of who he is. I know my father to be a kind man who keeps his opinions to himself and never has a bad word to say about anyone. Still, I don’t know how he would react if I were to tell him I’m gay. I’m afraid of my own sexuality and probably projecting that fear onto him. I don’t want to be 250 pounds and gay. I don’t want to talk about it. I feel ashamed. So we spend our nights at the kitchen table not talking about it.
I work at a mom-and-pop video store that remains in business mainly because of its porno room. One night, as I sit smoking cigarette after cigarette behind the counter, I realize that I want to go to college. I do not want an education so much as I want the college experience, the freedom. And a change of scenery seems easier than actually changing myself. I decided to become an actor only because I want to be someone — anyone — besides who I am. So, after a few months in Oceanside, I move back in with my mother in Sacramento and apply to college. I leave my father’s house as unceremoniously as I arrived. I don’t say goodbye — but, then, I never say goodbye.
S. hands me the phone and says it’s my father. I haven’t talked to him in more than a year. I don’t even know how he got my number. My mother must have given it to him. I haven’t talked to her either in weeks.
I dropped out of college and have been bouncing around Sacramento, sleeping on people’s couches and in my car. I’ve also been doing crystal meth on an almost daily basis. My 250-pound frame has dwindled to 120. Right now I’m lying on S.’s bed, or maybe his floor, crashing after being up for days. Light is pouring in the window, so it’s daytime. I ask S. if it is really my father on my phone, and he replies that’s who the man said he was. S. doesn’t use. I met him at a bar a while back, and he lets me sleep and eat at his place sometimes. I don’t know why he answered my phone, but he did, and now here he is, handing it to me with an outstretched arm while my father waits on the other end.
I take it and say hello. In a voice that’s barely a whisper my father asks if I am OK. He says my mother called him because she is worried about my using. I curse her in my head. I don’t need this right now; my father doesn’t need this. I wonder where he is calling from: His kitchen? Work? I don’t even know what day it is, let alone what time. I imagine him looking down at the floor, searching for words. My father meekly asks again if I am OK. I tell him I’m fine, though I am far from fine. I am high and lying in the apartment of a man I barely know. I do not want to talk to my father. I do not want to remember that I have a father who is worried enough to call me after a year of no communication.
The phone feels hot against my ear. His voice — controlled, distant — vibrates in my head. I assure him that everything is all right, but I can’t convince him any more than I can convince myself. (Years from now I will learn that my father’s brother died from drug use, and I will wonder if, at this moment, he was thinking of him, remembering his family as I was trying to forget my own.) My father says my mother doesn’t know what to do anymore. He says he is there to help. I grunt in response. He closes by telling me that if I ever need anything, I should call. I thank him and jot down his number. I do not say goodbye.
I am at a pay phone at a Safeway in San Francisco. I can’t remember if this is the Safeway that has banned me for stealing food, but it doesn’t matter. I just need to use the phone. I have to leave this city.
Six months ago I came here for a rehab program. Now, having been kicked out of two programs for getting high, I’ve been living on the streets and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to turn tricks. I spend a lot of time walking the sidewalks and looking for half-smoked cigarettes on the pavement.
I pull my father’s number out of my pocket. It surprises me that I’ve kept it this long. I dial, pressing the sticky metal buttons. My father answers, and I ask if I can come stay with him in Oceanside. I make no promise to remain sober, but I think it is implied. Confused and concerned, he asks what has happened to me. I don’t think he really wants to know. I do not tell him about getting kicked out of rehab, or living on the streets, or selling myself to strangers. I do not tell him how hopeless and dejected I am feeling, but I think he can hear it in my voice.
We make arrangements. My father buys me a plane ticket, and I fly out the next day, finishing my stash in the airport bathroom before I board the flight. When I arrive, he is there to pick me up, still in his polo shirt from work. At the baggage claim I see him chewing the side of his mouth in lieu of a cigarette. He’s lost some weight, looks visibly older. As we climb into his car, he hands me a smoke, and we light up in silence.
It’s 7 AM, and I’ve finally come back to my car. I force myself to check my phone and assess the damage: four missed calls — three from Rebecca, my girlfriend, and one from my father. I’m parked at a Pavilions grocery store on Melrose in Hollywood, a few blocks from the gay bathhouse where I’ve been since yesterday evening. Rebecca and I have been together more than a year. When I’m sober, I can pretend to be straight, but I have relapsed. Again. Last night I lied to myself. (Seems I have a history of doing that.) I told myself I was going to the bathhouse for a while just to check it out, maybe get my dick sucked, but that was it. I was curious. After I’d walked around for a few minutes being curious, someone offered me drugs, and I took them. My year of not using meth disappeared in the plume of smoke. I was back in the skin I had missed, feeling the clarity I always craved. I spent the next ten hours in various rooms, getting high and having sex and feeling only slight remorse. Every hour or so I remembered that people were probably worried about me, but those thoughts grew quieter with each hit until they were a distant murmur. Finally, a little after dawn, I walked in shame back to my car.
Now I make myself play their voice mails, holding the phone away from my ear, as if this might distance me from reality. Rebecca’s voice grows more panicked with each message until, fuming, she says she is going to bed. My dad’s only message, at midnight, is six words: “No matter what happened, call me.” He knows I have relapsed. How could he not know? Every night, when I get home, I phone him. In the past few years we have grown closer. We watch Lost together on Wednesdays. I make fun of his Pall Mall cigarettes. I pretend to like football. I pretend to be happy in my relationship with Rebecca. And, sure, I drink whole bottles of NyQuil to fall asleep and take the occasional seven Vicodin to get high. But I have never not come home.
The sun has risen higher and is streaming into the car. I dial Rebecca first. Because I am still high, I tell her the truth: yes, I went to a bathhouse; yes, I used drugs; yes, I am OK; yes, we will talk about this later. Then I return my father’s missed call, and with deeper regret tell him I have relapsed. I leave out the bathhouse part. He tells me that it’s all right, and I should just come to stay with him. So I start the car, pull out of the parking lot, and drive home to Oceanside.
I am in a rehab in Hollywood. I have been here for about a month now. A year ago my father asked me to leave his house. I’d been using there behind his back and would disappear for days at a time. After he kicked me out, I went from smoking meth to injecting it. I stayed in halfway houses, motel rooms, my car, and finally an intensive-care unit, where family members from across the country came to visit me, thinking it might be their last chance. I was discharged from the hospital, and a week later I was using again. I wanted to die, but I don’t anymore — at least, not today, and that is enough.
This morning, in group, my counselor told me that if I want to stay sober, I need to grow up, stop running from myself, and tell the truth. And I can start by telling my father I’m gay.
The pay phone at rehab is in a room the size of a closet, just big enough to hold a desk and a folding metal chair. The receiver is warm from continual use by the residents. I drop seventy-five cents into the slot and dial my father’s number. He picks up on the first ring, and I explain that I am in rehab and have been instructed to — no, I want to — tell him something. Over the past ten years I have grown to love this man I barely knew for the first eighteen years of my life. I have grown to love him for the most selfish of reasons: because he is always there for me. But now I tell him that if I relapse again, he is not to give me a place to live or money or anything else. I can reach out to people at twelve-step meetings if I need help. He is off the hook. He says he is glad to hear that.
I stumble over my next task. In all these years I have never said the word gay to my father — not because of him, but because I didn’t want to be gay. I didn’t want to hear the word. I used drugs because I couldn’t, wouldn’t, deal with the truth. But if I am going to stay sober, I have to be honest. At least, that’s what the counselor told me.
So, after a minute of “How are you?” and “What’s new?” and “How’s work?” I tell my father I have something else to say: I am gay. I let him know that it’s as difficult for me to admit this to myself as it is to admit this to him. I’m twenty-eight, but I can’t help feeling like a teenager. My leg shakes, and my foot taps against the cheap carpet.
My father says all he has ever wanted is for me to stay sober and be happy. It’s an awkward moment. I am awkward as I wrap up the call — other residents are waiting to get honest with their loved ones. This time I say goodbye. Then I go upstairs to my bed and cry.
I call my father twice a day. The first time is in the morning, after I smoke a cigarette and make coffee and take my meds and drink half a cup of coffee and then have my second smoke. Sometimes he calls me first. He always asks about Paul, my boyfriend of three years. I ask my father what he had for breakfast and what he is planning to have for lunch. I ask if he is going to wash a window today; since he retired, he has committed himself to washing a single window in his Florida house every day. He asks about my popcorn intake; since I got sober seven years ago, I have developed an addiction to popcorn. On our second call, at night, we recap our days. He asks what movie I plan to watch or what book I am going to read before bed. I ask what sporting event he will watch, making sure to mix up a football team and a baseball team, or a hockey team and a basketball team, because I know he finds this funny, and I find it funny that he still finds it funny, even after all these years.
Robert Bitsko’s essay “Missed Call” [June 2017] cracked my heart wide open.