O’Reilly’s Tavern. General Hospital is the soap opera on the TV above the glass shelves holding all the whiskey and gin and vodka bottles with chrome balls with curved shiny spouts on the top. Over there is Caitlin, a cute red-haired Irish barmaid. The sun shines through the windows near the front door.
Caitlin never measures, she just fills the large, squat, square glass all the way to the top. And to make it a genuine Vodka gimlet she dribbles in a few drops of lime juice. I drink it down, trying hard not to show my eagerness. My terrible need. Then casually—always casually—I ask the lass to bring me another.
The warm rush is emphatic. A deep calm, a peaceful glow. Which will in an hour or two enable me to go home to Barbara and act like a civilized human being. A loving husband. A man who actually cares about her. In that glow I'm less likely to complain about the hundreds of little red, white and blue plastic Legos that Stephen has scattered over every single floor of the house. Or about the candy wrappers that Lara has stuffed between the cushions of the couch, and all those empty Cheetos and potato chip bags and soda cans that have piled up behind the couch. Which on one of my regular housecleaning binges I sweep up and put into a big black plastic trash bag. See? Doesn’t this place look great when it’s clean? Why can’t you kids put your trash in the can in the kitchen? Huh?
In that warm glow I can endure their sullen looks when I put a Beethoven quartet on the stereo during dinner. Their eyes roll to the ceiling. An extended martyr’s sigh from Barbara.
Lara says without a trace of a smile, “Do we have to listen to that crap?”
* * *
May 2, 1982. At 10 on a Saturday morning:
“I’ve got a problem,” I tell Barbara. “A really big problem.”
“Oh?” She frowns with concern.
“My drinking is way out of control. I’ve got to get help.”
I really and truly expect that in the next second she’ll get all teary and hug me and say:
“Oh, yes, John. Yes! At last you have found the courage to do what I've yearned for all these years! You are so brave, so wonderful!”
And if this woman actually believes I’m a hero, a good man worthy of everyone’s respect, well, maybe I can find a way to stay in the marriage, rather than walking out. I’ll stay. At least until the children are grown.
But instead she says: “Quit? You don’t have to quit, just cut back a little.”
I stare at her, dumbfounded. This woman has endured my bullshit for twenty years. And yet she now tells me with a straight face that I don't need to stop.
Later, I sat on the steps of the front porch, trying to sort through the awful emotions that were churning around in my head and gut. Cut back a little? Right. I’ve tried to do that a hundred times, but I just can’t. My consumption is steadily increasing and there’s not a goddamned thing I can do about it. Moderation? That’s impossible. I’m a truly sick son of a bitch, going swiftly down the toilet.
Then suddenly it came to me, a genuine epiphany. A clear and vivid understanding: If I keep drinking like this I'll die. And, apparently, that’s precisely what Barbara wants.
Que the Twilight Zone music.
* * *
June, 1986. At a noisy reception following my graduation ceremony at Moravian College Lara whispers that she needs to tell me something privately, it is verrrrry important.
“Mom wants you back,” she says.
I struggle to find the words to explain why that isn't possible. After the first sentence my daughter stops listening. My wordy explanation is just more of dad's hot air, an endless barrage, which bores her. That's what dad does. He explains everything, especially those things that don't need explaining.
Earlier in May, when I told Barbara I had to leave, she said it was my responsibility to tell the kids. She wouldn’t do it. No way. I decided to tell them separately.
Lara sat quietly, until I finished.
“Fine,” she said, then left the room.
Stephen blinked. Tears welled in his eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
* * *
From the Ithaca episode of Joyce’s Ulysses:
“....each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.”
I was betrayed by my mother. My father. My aunt, and uncle. The Holy Roman Catholic Church. And so I felt entitled to betray others. My wife. My daughter. My son. My employers. An entanglement of betrayal.
Finally, after four years of clear-headedness, I tried to apologize for all the bad things I had done to them. I sought forgiveness, understanding and acceptance from Barbara, Lara and Stephen. But they could not give it. I now understand they didn't want me as I hoped to become, they instead wanted me to remain as I had been.
Because in suffering my drunkenness they became accustomed to it. They adapted. Over the years they developed a skill in dealing with me, and along the way formed an identity. And now there I was, all of a sudden trying to rip it away from them.
I had become someone they did not need. Or want.