I killed a woman in me:
one I did not love.
—Gabriela Mistral, from “The Other” (translated by Randall Couch)
In The Beginning
Some people wonder why brilliant minds like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath committed suicide. I think this is too simple a question. It limits the cultural legacy of these two visionaries to the bindings of one word: crazy. Calling someone crazy is an act of lazy dehumanization, a way to dismiss questions no one bothers to answer. After all, the Greeks insisted that Cassandra was crazy even while the city of Troy blackened to cinders. I have always been poised on the cliff of psychological calamity, toes kissing the edge, arms stretched out in preparation for flight.
There were questions, harsh revelations of the soul, which I couldn’t bear to confront.
For instance: Going insane is a luxury.
You probably assume that I grew up in a troubled household, that my father was never around and my mother became a kind of weeping, sad-eyed servant wife. It’s true that I never knew my father. Or at least all of him. He wasn’t a person so much as he was a revered dictator with an unpredictable temper. He didn’t shirk from his fatherly duties. He could be bothered to physically show up. He just didn’t have the passion or heart to fully commit. He was the type of father who, after tenderly nursing a hangover with a warm can of Coors, gathered enough composure to teach me how to throw a baseball.
His role as a father was just that: a biological obligation. He made sure to ask how I was doing in school but wasn’t too interested in hearing anything beyond a one word answer. To know his daughter as a person beyond the basic foundation of blood, bones, and melanin, to acknowledge the dizzy dreamer with an abundance of hopes and fears would erase the boundaries between ruler and subject. In the letters that he used to woo her, my mother failed to detect that his admissions of spellbound devotion were polished confessions of desperation.
Truthfully, my father was a drunkard of ingrained habit, a black hole of grief that haunted the same townie bars like a gargoyle forever attached to the ruins of an opulent church. He liked to exchange well-worn stories about days of yore, when gas prices were outrageously cheap and no one thought to lock their front doors. A barfly that kept his cards close to his vest, he lived in a self-created and self-sustained vacuum, rolling through town like the last of the Buffalo Soldiers. He could not forgive Death and despite the lingering traces of his Christian upbringing, he did not believe in the mysticism of Resurrection, thought Lazarus was a feel-good fairy tale. Death had stopped its carriage for his parents and he had never learned how to let go. His father died first, and then his mother, within a year of one another. They had both died of lung cancer. My father had been nine and ten, respectively. My father’s guilt and despair triggered the canonization of his parents, turning two imperfect humans into the supreme touchstone for all matters of the proper Black American life. It didn’t matter that his father had occasionally hit his mother. It didn’t matter that once, after seeing her cry too many times, my father was ready to fight his father in order to defend his mother’s honor. These were mistakes to be disregarded, hacked away like the stone noses on Egyptian Pharaohs. Of course, my father violated the very rules he worshiped, thus causing his thirst for alcohol to reach a level of critical debilitation.
At age thirty-five, my father was dying of thirst.
By the time I was twelve, my father was three or four arrests away from earning the unofficial title of Town Lush. It didn’t help that he was one of the town’s regular mailmen. Tucked in his back pocket, he carried a silver flask that had belonged to his father. He would sip from it while driving the mail truck, boozy breath fumbling with the songs on the radio. His musical predilections charted the rise and fall of his buzz or the stronghold of that day’s feelings of worthlessness. Alcohol-infused optimism called for the Top 40 station or the hip-hop/R&B station that came out of Providence. Impenetrable sadness was marked by the oldies station, harmonized ballads that all seemed to be about the loss of an unappreciated lover.
On my fifteenth birthday, my father drank so much whiskey that he slammed front teeth first into the pavement. Earlier in the day, my mother had asked him with forced congeniality that infused each syllable with dread, if he could please run to the grocery store and buy another bottle of orange soda? After gorging on Evan Williams, my father attempted to walk out the door to his pickup truck. He missed the second step and went tumbling, panic stretching his face into a hideous grimace.
Surprisingly, I can count these instances of debasing showmanship on one hand. My father was a firm believer in keeping our problems sealed behind closed doors. We were one of the few black families in our town, the only minority family living on our street. Because of this, people probably assumed that our family was upper-middle class, even discretely wealthy. In actuality, we were working class, born from a long line of civil servants and blue-collar resilience. We did not take vacations every year. I got hand-me-downs more often than new clothes. My parents did not run out and buy me a new car when I earned my license. When I turned sixteen, my father told me I had to go out and get a job. His favorite aphorism was you don’t work, you don’t eat.
My father never wanted to embody the body of the token minority. As the years passed, this seemed like the only radicalized narrative that our white-washed community would allow. He was a man who knew that his proximity to whiteness produced a certain amount of privilege (no matter how minuscule and/or impotent) and naivety.
Most of the time, my father reeled through our colonial-style house with woozy indifference, clutching a half-full can between his puffy paws. He was spindly spider legs attached to a doughy slab of brown belly, eyes squinted as though staring down an invisible devil holding a deal too good to be true. He liked to say that he was just like Rick Blaine in Casablanca: all you needed to know about his nationality was that he was a drunkard.
The few times that my father hit me, he never seemed to take any pleasure from it, enforcing the punishment as though he were a reluctant factory foreman feeling the turning screws of his superiors. He remembered to apologize afterwards. His father had been a lifelong member of the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation; my father’s father parented not with an iron-first but with antiquated norms of detached, masculine authority.
Our family was often steered by what was not said.
For the longest time, I was force fed the narrative that my parents’ courtship had been an organic union, bred from the most Disney-approved of fairy-tales. In reality, my father had simply grown tired of being single and found the best looking bride that American money could buy. My mother, an immigrant from Thailand, became a citizen of America at the age of twenty-one. My father paid for her papers and her new identity as an American housewife.
For a long time, I wondered if their marriage had not been immune to love, whether or not my mother had submitted to Stockholm syndrome. If I wanted to side with my father, she was probably a conniving bitch from the start, despite the shared benefits of their nuptials.
And then I stopped caring. After all, it didn’t matter if they had once been in love. Twenty years together had been a slow, aching process in disintegration, an extreme example of communication breakdown. They were roommates avoiding one another, dipping in and out of rooms as though the floors were littered with landmines. Sometimes my mother locked the bedroom door at night, unable to predict the type of monster that would be unleashed by my father’s choice of cocktails. Before I went off to college, I had asked my mother why she didn’t file divorce papers.
My mother said, “Where would I go? What would I do?” She looked at me as though I was a fortune teller refusing to tell her the outcome of her future.
I said, “Anywhere, Mom. You could go anywhere. Don’t you see?”
I imagined her packing up her clothes and gunning it for the state line, making it all the way to California. She would find a nice apartment in some quaint, time-warped version of a building complex where the superintendent acted like an embarrassing but endearing uncle, married to a wife who still covered her furniture in plastic. Released from the choke hold of her husband, I’d like to think that my mother would accept the role of a matronly spitfire and live the life of an ethnic Golden Girl. She needed some haven that would provide a group of friends who functioned as replacement family members, neighbors that wouldn’t mind coming over for a cup of tea. My mother was always trying to fit in.
She didn’t want acceptance, she wanted assimilation nearly identical to submergence.
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