Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  

Missed Call

by Robert Bitsko

Robert Bitsko works at a substance-abuse detox facility in Burlington, Vermont. He is the proud guardian of a nine-year-old English bulldog named The Fatz. Like most ex-crystal-meth-addicts, he enjoys coffee and naps.

1998

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.

 

2001

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.

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