Writer Gint Aras reflects on how his abusive alcoholic father dominated the party and the confines of his son’s mind
I am driving to pick up my sixteen month-old daughter from the house of an alcoholic.
It’s my father, closing out his fifth decade of alcoholism. Of course, he isn’t babysitting—it must be twenty years since anyone has left him alone with a child. About sixty people have gathered at my parents’ house in the Chicago suburbs to celebrate the baptism of my sister’s twins. I attended the church ceremony earlier this afternoon, then left to perform at a reading. My wife, a violinist, is playing a gig in Kalamazoo. With virtually all our social capital gathered at the Baptism Party, we charged a trusted aunt to care for our daughter. I’d arrive before the party’s late and dangerous hours.
Yet I’m unsettled while driving: tonight I knowingly left my daughter in the house of an alcoholic—one whose habits I know too well—in order to read a bawdy short story (about an idiot with a hangover) to about five dozen people, most of them art students. How would a jury of average Americans respond? Another question: Was I pleased, at least partially, that this reading’s date fell on the same day as the Baptism Party, an acceptable reason for me to avoid the old man’s house?
I know these parties. My family celebrates sacraments and Super Bowls with only minor differences, and all our parties begin the same way. Mother greets guests at our back porch. If appropriate, people leave gifts on a table, then drop their coats on one of the beds. Aunts and fiancées of cousins will help arrange food onto serving trays while thirsty men casually saunter down to my father’s basement bar, a pleasant space of hardwood panels, several black card tables, a faux-fireplace, the bar itself mahogany. Poached since morning, my father will be pulling a pint from the keg he keeps tapped at all times. With his patchy beard, broad nose and yellow-gray skin, he resembles an aging despot curled over a favorite treasure.
Family and friends continue to trickle in. As this occasion celebrates the cleansing and forgiveness of two infants, the invite list is rather long. In time the house and back yard are packed with guests, people almost exclusively Lithuanian-American. Those non-Lithuanians who befriended or married one of us—examples include an actual Dubliner and a sprightly Midwest girl—are relieved to smell carrot and ginger soup, a signal that traditional fare, items like pickled herring and black bread, will appear only on the side. Others, particularly my father’s drinking buddies, are drunk before my aunts can help blend a salad dressing.
The buddies sit with my father at the bar. He barely needs to warm up before he starts one of his rants: I’ll let you now what it is. It’s all because of these Government Niggers. And I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of turning on the TV and seeing one of these Hollywood Jews. Even if a buddy ends up taking rare exception, there won’t be any argument, at least not this early. These men will sit while the booze keeps flowing, and my father will continue pouring if even one person remains seated, always proud when a bottle has been finished—he can now procure another from his expensive stash, a collection strategically prepared to be greater than his visitors’ thirst. Wander past the bar at random, perhaps to grab a napkin or cracker, and he’ll immediately offer you a drink. Refuse and he’ll question your masculinity or, if you are a woman, your spirit: No shot of cranberry? Now, are you sure? What a shame…I used to think you were vivacious. It’s fascinating how many people will be bullied to drink when they’d rather be watching baseball or photographing the infant girls. More fascinating: the buddies nod their heads when my father begins ripping someone who has just left the bar: That guy really needs to go on a diet or My god, is that woman a bore! His buddies seem to believe he only ever rips the others.
Ask these guys in private and they’ll say my father’s a good man. Probe deeper—Why? It’s rare to meet someone who keeps his word, a generous person. My father lets people use his Michigan fishing trailer, total access to the booze closets. “The man’s like a magnet,” says a recently emigrated Lithuanian nationalist, “A great personality and patriot. All three of his children speak Lithuanian.” The outdoorsman in the group appreciates my father’s hunting and fishing skills, the amount of game he gives away each season, his wall of stuffed fish. A soccer fan believes my father is civilized because he knows soccer is the beautiful game. Two members of an amateur opera choir (my father used to belong as well) find him cultured: he loves and supports the opera. Strangely—or perhaps not—they don’t mind his party soundtrack of ABBA, Village People and Baha Men.
My mother is serving dinner buffet-style, and the buddies take their plates to the bar. The men discuss hunting and fishing, the English Premiership, then some of the opera company’s old productions, I Lituani and Otello. The old man pulls pint after pint of Berghof and pours shots of Finlandia from bottles frozen into cylinders of ice. Good and hammered after the meal, the men sit smug and cocksure, certain of some looming victory, not unlike Iago when handed Desdemona’s handkerchief. Even so, their conversation topics soon run aground—for talk to continue, someone would have to leave the bar. The men share an uncertain silence until my father begins a drinking song.
The typical Lithuanian is, by nature, shy and reserved, often aloof and cold. One must invade his nation and threaten him with extinction (or, at minimum, defeat on the basketball court) before he’s inspired to passionate courage. While he dreams of the perfect world he’d create when, finding himself coronated, he could plant a forest of impaled enemies, he tends toward cowardice. This helps me explain his fascination with mediocre, even atrocious singers. Talent is almost beside the point; Lithuanians covet guts, and a ballsy singer seduces just as he ignites a kiln of jealousy in the Lithuanian heart. The drunken men gathered around my father join him in song, but they also watch him, his talent similar to the kind available on Lithuanian television. Yet unlike some
entertainer, my father doesn’t sing to please or unify the group. A booming tenor, his voice overpowers most, crushing the weakest; it reminds the men that while they wish they could sing at the tops of their lungs (to annoy the people who only want conversation), they’d never find the guts without him. Even after three songs, the singers already wishing to sit someplace else—perhaps outside, the midsummer night aglow with fireflies—they will not leave the bar. It would be an admission: the old man’s voice has won, pushed the others aside. Leave for a cigarette and he’ll accost you later: What? You’re back? I thought it was more pleasant outside where you could smoke. He knows you’ve been struggling to quit, yet brings it up each time he sees you. To spare yourself this sack of shit, you exchange it for another: a fifth song, then a sixth. The songs will continue until my father grows tired of this favorite amusement, being the centerpiece in a huddle of cowards—one I know intimately.
As I approach the house I talk out loud to myself: This isn’t hard. You just need to pick up the girl, mingle for a short time, maybe eat a small meal, then go. But as I stare at the large bungalow, bright yellow lights in every room, I can feel the claustrophobia inside.
Children of narcissistic alcoholics will tell you they inhabit the homes of their childhood about as often as their dreams, as so many of their dreams, in daytime as in sleep, are the stubborn memories of childhood. At times when I must return physically to the house, I always enter twice, initially through a sequence of vivid memories and images. As they play out, I construct a fortress of introversion around myself. It does not matter if I am simply dropping off borrowed jars or coming into a full-blown party. Each time I enter, I brace for an assault, though I can never be sure what kind. Will he remind me of my weight problem? Tell his buddies about the high interest rate on my car loan? Will he pick at the mole on my upper arm, always in front of someone, pinch it and order me to have it removed. This is going to turn malignant and kill you. Will he wonder, again in front of someone, why my wife is on the road and away from her family for another weekend. If she’s so musically talented, trained at renowned schools, why doesn’t she just take a job with the Chicago Symphony and stay closer to home? Will he ask me, his chin jutting forward, how many copies of my novel sold this month? Only four? Huh. Only four. Will he hold my daughter in his lap and stare at her, his eyes the blanched gray of sidewalk ice, and keep at it: She’s pretty. Just too bad she won’t be as blond as I thought. Hair’s getting dark. And too bad her eyes aren’t blue. Still, she’s gonna be a true looker. A real looker! Just too bad they’re not blue.
I am always disoriented inside my parents’ home. What might be banal and unnoticed by a visitor—drops of milk on the counter, an old photo my mother has dug out to display on the fridge—can trigger blind-siding memories. My despair and rage are concentrated like the energy of uranium atoms, material best handled carefully. I can never be sure if I fear my volatile mind more than I fear the bungalow. The confusion forces me into a paradoxical state of alertness and mental control: I must detach myself from so many buzzing and pulsing areas of my consciousness—the noise like hysterical neighbors screaming in an adjacent apartment—while I exist in two structures: the bungalow that assaults me and the fortress of introversion that provides armor. The effort requires tremendous energy and becomes a perverse trigger of its own. It reminds me how it felt to be a child.
My wife uses words like constriction and implosion to describe the fortress. There’s an irony to it.
I am naturally rather talkative, probably to a fault. If someone doesn’t tell me that I’m on again, I might dominate a conversation with a daisy chain of stories that wander through visited countries and finished books. People do laugh at my funniest bits. If a friend is introducing me to somebody, he might ask for “The one where you’re smuggling absinthe,” or “The time you moved an upright bass across Queens in a limo,” stories he knows will take thirty minutes. In restaurants I’ll talk so much that friends will be eating dessert before I have cut my steak. Annoying or not, this is how I behave when I am comfortable enough to be myself, in the company of people perfectly willing to shut me up when necessary.
My fortress of introversion is similar to this chatty dinner-goer, yet utterly fabricated. When I meet the party—still about forty people drinking and laughing, a tent put up in the yard—I try to appear extroverted. Hi! Yeah, I made it! Oh, you’re here too! Yes! Good! You’ve got the music going! So happy to make it!
Back in high school and early college, I had no idea I was a fraud. Once I moved to Champaign-Urbana—January of 1994—the distance helped me to begin seeing the lies, and I fought off the confusion with alcohol and drugs. In my 20’s and early 30’s, I’d be the loudest drunk at our fishing trips and Super Bowl parties. Each Christmas I’d get utterly stoned.
The difficulty at this Baptism Party is that I’m sober. I won’t numb the shame I feel as I present my fabricated self to the family clan, a complex family tree of in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins once and twice removed. Some of them loathe me because I am fake. Others are too caught up in their own defense mechanisms (My brother has organized a pull-up contest on the porch) to worry about anyone else’s.
I immediately locate my father, presently seated with men who have huddled near a cooler. His voice booms over shouted conversations: What you need to do…you need to come deer hunting with us. His body language, chair pointed toward the cooler and finger stabbing the air, says he’ll remain in the corner of the yard for the time being.
I ask an aunt where the kids have gone. She says they’re probably in the living room, a distance of about sixty feet from the yard. I begin moving through the music, conversation and people. My mother and two aunts are babbling and laughing out loud on the porch: That’s hysterical! and Always a commotion! Mother’s cheeks and forehead are flushed and she’s supporting herself against a post. I walk by and she greets me warmly, Oi, labas mažutėli. We embrace briefly and she tells me the kids are playing near the aquarium.
Men are counting my brother’s pull ups out loud as the porch rafters creak. An uncle is inexplicably singing the Chicago Bears fight song. Another uncle is staring at his reflection in a sliding door; I realize he’s mumbling lines—Does your dog bite?—from Pink Panther movies. A third uncle sees me in the kitchen, dances up and begins imitating Kenny Rogers: I said I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in. I am in the middle of the dining room when the entrusted aunt notices me. Then I hear my little girl’s voice, “Tya-tya,” her word for dad. Beaming bright, she scampers out from a crowd of kids and I lift her.
This is her first time in the presence of so many people. It is well past her bedtime and she is exhausted, but fascination and curiosity keep her awake. It settles me to see how safe she feels, how my nieces and nephews have enjoyed playing with her. The entrusted aunt asks, “You’re not leaving now, are you?”
“She’s really tired.”
“She’s fine. It’s still early. I’ll stay with her. You should get something to eat.”
I take some spinach salad, a little bit of soup and a few rice crackers. While I stand at the kitchen counter, two women want to speak to me: one the wife of a cousin, the other of an uncle, my father’s late brother. The aunt by marriage is undergoing chemo and wears a scarf, one strangely reminiscent of the kind worn by women in old, black and white or sepia family photographs. This aunt is the best possible person to meet at this moment when all I’m trying to do is pass a satisfying amount of time. Ever since we spent a few hours at her husband’s deathbed—the first time I had ever looked an ill man in the eye to realize he had perhaps a week to live—she has been able to deconstruct my fortress safely. It seems those hours we spent, when I was able to bid a dearly loved man farewell without any bullshit or fear, never really ended.
But this time she asks a question I cannot answer very honestly, especially when the cousin’s wife is listening. “So what’s it like for you now, new father?” I get through it with small talk. She’s finally sleeping through the night. She’s eating well. I taped a Radiohead concert and she asks to watch it every day, ha! But her favorite things are books and swings. The women nod and smile. My cousin’s wife says, “Wait till she’s two. Then you’ll be pulling your hair.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it.”
She sips from her drink, looking me over, her head shaking slightly. I see she’s about to tell me what she does each time we meet: “You look just like my husband.” The woman has never failed to say it, yet this time she shocks me. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Not to change the subject…it’s just. I find it pretty incredible. The way you talk and stand. Your beard. As you get older, you’re becoming so much like your father.”
More small talk now. I laugh, ha ha. Yeah, maybe I’ll end up joining the opera choir. Who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a forty-inch northern pike, shoot a sixteen-point buck. I excuse myself. So happy to see everyone again, but it’s really getting late. Should probably take the girl home now.
It is difficult to leave. A few nieces tackle me and we roughhouse on a pile of cushions for a while. My mother wants to hold the girl one last time, then aunts and cousins and in-laws take their turn. We’re about to go when I’m stopped for a few more photographs, first on a couch, now by a plant. During the shoot I notice my father approaching. I look away and tighten up—my neck, shoulders, legs. He trundles out into the yard and heads back to his dark corner. I manage to leave this party without speaking to him a single time.
The girl passes out in her car seat before I have driven a half mile. Once home, I’m able to carry her to the crib and close the room’s squeaky door without waking her. Even though I can tell I will not be able to sleep, I prepare for bed, yet I’m jittery, indecisive, unable to understand why I feel the urge to hurry. Where’d I leave the toothbrush? Gotta floss. Here’s the mouthwash. Which one of these soaps should I use to wash my face?
I run steaming hot water. In a moment I will look up see my father staring back at me in the mirror…his chin and jaw…the broad nose. Even here, in my own place, I’m helpless against his presence in my body and influence over my mind. Furious, I could claw at my skin and pull my face apart.
What’s it like for you now, new father?
Since her birth, I’ve been seeing him in so many places. The man’s in my handwriting, the cadence of my laughter, the graying pattern of my beard. I hear his voice telling me things he used to utter when I was only a boy and had no choice, I realize now, but to believe him.
You’re too sensitive, he used to say. You need to build some strength. These kids that pick on you, they’re half your size. If I were you, I’d kick their ass. But you’re afraid of them? They’re little shits.
Nobody needs a weakling, he’d repeat while driving us someplace. This world’s not for the weak. The weak are for this world. If you ever end up working for a big corporation, then you’ll understand. There’s no room for little shits. Big boys eat little shits alive.
The English have a saying, he’d remind us again at the dinner table, ten or twelve people gathered for a meal at my grandparents’ home. Little children should be seen and not heard. Did anybody ask your opinion? Has somebody told you to talk?
Take a look around you, he says one more time after my brother and I have argued over a toy. Take a look at everything you see inside this house. This cabinet is mine. The walls are mine. These toys are mine. Everything inside this house is mine. Even you, he points, are mine.
Before my wife gave birth, I had learned to pack all this away, often so deep in my mind’s landfills that I figured all of it had rotted. Of course it all came back following the birth, some memories so vivid that I feel I’m experiencing them again, others so surprising that they might as well be happening for the very first time. The memories have not relented over sixteen months. They keep on happening, now more complex than before. I can see each one from the child’s point of view as I also imagine the father’s. While I am taking my girl in the stroller. Shopping in the neighborhood stores, preparing dinner or sharpening knives. Tying shoes. Meditating after yoga. I can be drinking tea in my chair and forcing my mind to places he doesn’t know, a resort in Greece or the neighborhoods of Havana. Yet beaches and Cuban streets are no match for my abreactions, not when he’s an actual part of me, so many biochemical links that can’t be severed or divorced. I’ll break down and stumble into a frightening state: I start to fear I’m losing control of my hands and will grab some small item. Tonight it’s the teaspoon. I’m rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger until the friction warms my fingertips. Even though I’m in my own place, I feel the intense need to hide. Part of my consciousness steps back to watch the episode, aware that it’s absurd, yet powerless to stop it. All it can do is scold me: What the hell’s your problem? Snap the hell out. Drink a glass of whiskey or smoke a joint if you need. You’ve got some brandy in the kitchen. Pour it in your tea.
I don’t want any.
Of course not. You just want to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. You’re so fucking self-important. Turn on the news if you think your situation’s special, have a look at what’s going on. Nobody’s got time to sit around with tea. You need to pull your shit together and act like a man.
You should have been over this long ago. Everybody managed to have a good time tonight. It’s just you with the problem.
I admit I have a problem. I’m not pretending I don’t have one.
You’re full of shit. Why’d you leave the party so early? You weren’t the only parent in that house. All those kids wanted to play with you, but you ran off. It’s an embarrassment for Mom. She spent huge cash on the party, that tent, all that food. Lots of people think your dad’s an ass, but what if they all left early or didn’t even show? How would that make her feel?
You’re a fucking fool. Hiding in the shitter in your own condo and rubbing a spoon. Does it solve anything? Nothing all that bad ever happened to you, anyway.
I want it to stop. I want him out of my head, out of my face and body. Get my whole memory erased. You don’t know how I would like just once…just once to come to one of those parties, fucking baptism, first communion, god damn holy matrimony. Show them just once who they’re drinking with, who’s leading them in song, passing around venison and salmon. I could pick a moment, raise a toast, tell a story.
What good would it do?
How about one of the first I remember?
I’m five years-old and playing with my brother, eighteen months my junior. We’re building block towers on the carpet of our bedroom—not a stable surface, but we play here all the time. I try to put a cylinder-shaped block at the very top of my tower, a risky move; the cylinder tumbles and the structure comes down. Angry from the failure, I push my brother, accuse him of touching my tower. He protests, so I push him again. Then I hear my father’s voice, Now what are you doing?
Why did you push your brother?
I didn’t push him.
Now you’re lying to me?
He grabs me by the shirt and drags me to the front room. I know I am in trouble and try to roll away, but he catches my ankle and drags me across the rug. He takes off his belt and brings it down. Liar, you’re lying! I try to squirm away, a chaos of arms and hands, and I feel the wool-like hair of his forearms against my cheek and neck. The belt keeps coming down, wheels of blows I absorb mostly on my back. Lying to me! In his fury he loses grip of the belt and the buckle hits my shoulder blade. I don’t remember the pain of the blows as much as the moment when he whips me around to face him. He looks into me and scowls, You’re lying! his werewolf snout only a foot from mine, arrant rage in his eyes and teeth, his hot breath humid with beer. The beating is so intense that I don’t remember exactly how it finishes, only that I go to bed believing I will never lie again.
The next day is Saturday and I am spending the night at my grandparents’ home. I go to the bathroom to change, no idea that my back is black and blue. My grandfather asks me, “Now what’s this? What’s happened to your back?” He actually turns me toward the mirror to show me the bruises: strips pressed across my shoulders and spine. I tell him—Aš diržu gavau—that I got the belt. He wants to know why and I tell him I was lying.
The next time I see my father must be the following evening—he usually spent his Sundays at Chicago Metro League matches, then in a South Side bar. We are standing near the dark wooden door, one whose tight and ungreased lock was too difficult for the kids to turn. I used to associate this door with his power: only he could open it, and the lock’s tight metallic creak always signaled that he was about to come in. I am cornered against it as he looms over me to ask, So now you wanted to go by grandfather to show him your back? I was not expecting this question—somehow I had thought it was all over. It was an accident, I say; I was only changing. My father is silent, yet he leans closer and stares into me with crushing contempt. I know he doesn’t believe me. I feel his breath when he sighs, watch him shake his head in disappointment. He walks away, takes a beer from the fridge and goes to watch TV.
Nothing changed even after my grandfather asked what was happening. If anyone did talk about that beating again, it all happened in secret. In the meantime my father’s anger and drinking escalated before the entire family tree while the physical and emotional abuse continued. The lock on the door would creak and he’d sit down at dinner, his anger seething so intensely that I could feel it in my temples and throat. I would clumsily knock over my milk and he’d pound the table, then backhand me. What’s the matter with you? If report cards arrived, he’d flip over my brother’s grades, call him a Mexican: I’m going to change your name to José! You don’t need to do your homework now. You’re José! My sister would be watching The Cosby Show. He’d stomp by, stare at the screen and blather, Now can you explain to me why you’re watching these blacks?
The last beating came when I was about thirteen. We were up in Michigan, just the family men. This time I did not cower or hide but sat firm to take his blows, refusing to budge even as he hit me in the side of the head for talking back. I told him to do it again and again if he wanted, then I talked back even more, said I had every right to spend the whole afternoon with friends and didn’t need to report a thing; he couldn’t control me. It ended when my grandfather heard the noise. He stepped in, told my father he was drunk and behaving like an animal. You shut up, my father shouted. It’s none of your business. But he would not hit me again. He tore the sheathed filet knife from his belt, threw it in the corner, screamed God damn! and stormed off to spend the rest of the night in a local bar.
I imagine telling these things to everyone gathered at the Baptism Party. They are all quiet and looking at me, the music silenced, the fireflies gone. I could recount other stories, talk all night. Yet I can see I am only exhausting these relatives and friends, some of them rolling their eyes, others sending text messages across the yard. They want their party back. I scold myself, What good is it doing? They haven’t gathered to listen to you talk.
So I fill the kettle with more water and set it to boil. Wash my face with the hottest water, look into the mirror to see him staring back. He knows he has littered the landscape of my mind with immovable memories, petrified logs jammed into riverbeds, heavy iron chains welded to gates. This is his victory, imprint and signature. He never got what he wanted—who knows what it truly was—so he damned his first born to wish for the impossible: I want to forget this endless loop of tortures, distractions to my daily life, the reason I can not remember if I have brushed my daughter’s teeth, that I’ve left the fridge wide open again. It was meant to be a trap. Any revolt, the tiniest whisper, “Please, I need your help. I have a terrible secret. I used to think I could live with it, but now I can’t even sleep,” will ruin a baptism or wedding. The Super Bowl or World Cup. Even a funeral.
—For a list of hotlines dealing with child abuse and/or alcohol abuse, visit crisis hotlines
This essay originally appeared at Antique Children under the title “Baptism Party”.
—Photo by HighTechDad/Flickr