The Year Of Suicides
When my home room teacher ushers me out of assembly, my apprehension quickly turns to a dark foreboding - the willies, my father always called it - when I see the principal standing close by my mother in the dark hall, head bowed solemnly, looking grave and faintly comical. I shiver inside. He's dead, I think; he's finally done it. "So what's up?" I ask in my coolest voice.
"Aaron," my mother says; she's at her most elegant and solicitous, in a dark suit and high heels. So I'm like in a Nirvana tee shirt and jeans and Doc Martens. Very Boho.
She puts her hand on my shoulder. I stare at her fingernails, focusing on them like they're the center of the universe so I don't have to think about anything else. They're blood red and fake. She has them put on in a putrid stenchy place that specializes in putting on spare body parts.
"Aaron," my mother says again; "your father's in the hospital. You're going to come stay with me until he gets out."
At least he's not dead, I think. My shivering subsides and I take a breath. I guess I'd been holding it, my breath I mean, in panic, but now the panic is suddenly gone and I tell myself to breathe in, breathe out, like when I'm swimming or something. "What happened?" I ask finally.
"He had an incident. In court. His doctor was afraid he was going to commit suicide."
I could've told them this would happen. I've been afraid of the same thing for months. I live with my father. He's a defense attorney in Multnomah County. He defends the scum of the earth - his words, not mine. "Someone's got to do it," he says. That's why I chose to live with my father - someone has to do it. If I have to put it into words, I guess I'd have to say I feel sorry for him. I save him child support. My mother wants him to defend richer people so he can keep paying her the huge sums she's been extorting since their separation after his affair - dad's words, not mine. She's got a wealthy boyfriend now, but my dad says she won't marry him and let him off the hook. He says she likes to play the victim. They both are, I think - victims, I mean - but he seems so pathetic and lost these days. If you ask me, I think he defends those losers because he identifies with them and he's trying to save himself.
Dad drinks too much at night and doesn't go out. He doesn't see the woman he had the affair with - except maybe once at the Saturday Market, which is a kind of street fair in the spring and summer - although she calls him all the time crying. She came up to us where we were listening to a steel drum band and he acted kind of stunned or frightened maybe. She had a little girl with her and I wondered if she was my half-sister. The woman was pretty, not a young girl like mom kept saying. She looked about mom's age. I kept wishing they'd dance or something. Everyone was tapping their feet and moving to the music, even me. But then I didn't really wish that. I just wished that someone would do something normal.
I don't understand any of it. But I know it's a big deal because of the yelling and screaming in the house after he told my mom he wanted a divorce to marry the other woman. She beat the shit out of him and he took it. One night mom launched herself at him; I watched the whole thing. It looked like a space shuttle take-off, you know, something violent and wild happening in slow motion. She scratched his face; he had bleeding lines where her nails left tracks. She beat on his chest with her fists and shrieked at him. The words she used were so awful I couldn't imagine them coming out of my mom's mouth. I didn't say anything, just stood there like I was a tree, you know, rooted. Then I ran out of the room and locked myself in my bedroom. I began to cry; I guess I felt pretty helpless and sad.
Then there was the night she ran out of the house after him, into the street. I guess he was going out with his girlfriend and she knew it. She was crying and pleading with him not to go. "Please don't go," she begged. She threw herself on the hood of his car while he was warming up the engine. He rolled down his window and spoke to her; I couldn't hear what he said, I was standing in the doorway of the house. She wouldn't get off. So dad put his hand out the driver's window and onto the top of her head, put the car in reverse and pushed her backwards; he left her in the middle of the gutter as he drove away. She sat there, still crying, her knees and legs all scraped, oozing blood, looking around like she didn't know exactly where she was. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn't be doing this, that it wasn't right. It was like she had no pride. I felt embarassed for her. But I didn't say anything. I went to her and took her hand and led her back into the house. Those days seemed like they were happening to someone else, not me. Kind of like an out of body experience.
One night he told her they shouldn't be doing this in front of me, that I was too young to understand. That's what everyone tells me - I'm too young to understand. Maybe they're right. Maybe you have to be married. I don't know. If that's true, I don't ever want to get married - or if I do, I'll never act like mom and dad. I would never have an affair with another woman and hurt my wife. I mean, why be married? I guess nothing is as simple as it seems. I asked my friends at school whose parents are divorced if they acted this way. Most of them said that things got pretty weird during the divorce, but nothing quite like my parents. Anyway, she beat him up a few times and he let her. Then she tried to seduce him. That was worse than when she beat him up. She put on this slinky dress or nightgown - something like in the Victoria Secret catalog - and made a fancy dinner, little portions artistically arranged. She looked awful; her eyes were all puffy from crying all the time. She served wine; dad poured out the glasses and gave me half a glass. You could tell he was uncomfortable. He didn't say a word during dinner. She kept the conversation going all by herself. And laughed a lot. I think she wanted me to go to my room, but I was afraid to leave them alone together. I got drunk and fell asleep on the couch. When I woke up, the downstairs was dark and they were both gone. Dad wasn't in the guestroom. I checked. That was the worst night's sleep I ever had.
Whatever she wanted, I guess she didn't get it. After that, she began to scream at him that she was going to kill him and his whore. But I think that when he couldn't figure which she was going to do - seduce or kill him - he finally moved out and I went with him because I couldn't stand the noise anymore. I don't know what happened between them after that but he didn't see the other woman again for a long time. I think my dad was afraid she would do this Betty Broderick thing. Dad says that our society has substituted the idea of trial by jury for trial by combat. You'd never know that living with them.
I put him to bed when he's so bleary eyed he can't hold his head up anymore. Some nights I read to him like he used to read me to sleep when I was a kid. I sit on his bed; for a moment everything is cozy and safe, just like when I was a kid. Anyway, I bought these two books at Powell's Bookstore in Portland - Everyone Poops and The Holes In Your Nose. The pictures are great. I sit on his bed and giggle. Sometimes he laughs with me like we share a secret joke. Those are good nights. Then there are nights I read to him I don't think he hears me, he's asleep or dreaming of some other life or something. One night I read him Green Eggs And Ham. Like I loved this book when I was a kid. He's in a daze; his eyes look up at the ceiling but he tries hard to focus, coming back from somewhere far away and puts his arms around me. He smiles at me. I lie down next to him. He spoons with me on the bed; our bodies fill the ruts worn in the mattress by mom and him. Then he recites with me. One night we watch a rerun of some Bobcat Goldthwaite stand-up routine; he does Green Eggs And Hamlet. We laugh hysterically. Then mysteriously my father is crying. I make coffee in the morning and bring it to him in bed; I sit down beside him and gently nudge him and move the coffee mug back and forth under his nose until he wakes up. I make a great cup of coffee, my father says.
My mother takes me home with her. She's wearing some perfume I vaguely recall loving when I was a kid. We drive to Lake Oswego to our old house in her Mercedes. We drive the whole way in silence, because like I don't know what to say. The house is big, much too big just for her - although I know her boyfriend is staying with her. He is discreetly absent when we get there. I think my mom and dad's marriage went all wobbly when it was set loose in that house.
It's spring, starting last month, but you'd never know it by the weather. In my English class we read novels and the teacher analyzes stuff for us; for instance, in Moby Dick he tells us that the color white does not stand for purity or goodness because the white whale is a symbol of evil. My father says that there are professors that would dispute this with him. My father is paying a lot of money for my education and he gets pissed off sometimes because of what I'm learning. But he's glad I read at all, so I keep going to the private school in Portland. My teacher also says that spring is a symbol of rebirth, the earth reborn after winter. Well, it's lousy outside today - like its the kind of day if I were going to commit suicide I'd do it.
My mom makes me an after-school snack, like I'm still a kid. I don't remind her of how old I am, which is fourteen, and that my voice changed last year and I have hair on my legs and I masturbate and there's this one girl I really like who I want to, well, you know, get close to. But I don't let her know I like her. Mostly I just hang out with a group of kids at school. They're pretty smart, with high IQs like mine. So anyway I don't remind mom I'm in high school. She's got enough problems, I figure. I sit at the table in the kitchen and eat her sandwich. The deck outside the patio door is pounding under the rain; the yard is overgrown with Douglas firs. I guess that's what my teacher means.
It's kind of muggy but I still feel cold inside. Mom must sense this cause she turns on the pilot in the fireplace that separates the kitchen from the living room. The gas logs ignite and I feel better.
"When can I go see him?" I ask her, not right away but a little later. I don't want her to think I can't stand being with her or anything. But I'm antsy about my dad.
"Not just yet, Aaron." She curls her legs under her on the couch. "His doctor doesn't want him to have any visitors. They're giving him some medication and when he calms down we can go see him. He's in a special ward right now. He's on what they call a suicide watch."
"Well, he didn't hurt himself or anything, did he?" A friend of mine was in a locked unit last year after he tried to commit suicide. He wore his hair rasta-style when we were in school together. He tried again, the next time with a gun; his dred locks were shaved off when I went to visit him in the hospital; he was hooked up to a ventilator but he was brain-dead; they unplugged him soon after I went to see him. And I've been obsessed with suicide since after Curt Cobain killed himself. I read all the magazine stories - People, Time, Spin, Rolling Stone - anything at the bookstore or supermarket with his picture on the cover. I couldn't imagine why people killed themselves. Mom and dad felt it was necessary to talk to me at great length on the subject; I didn't know how to reassure them that suicide was not in my future. I wondered why anyone would wish so hard not to be; I can't imagine not existing although I used to worry about it a lot when my cat got sick and had to be put to sleep and when grandpa was in the hospital with his heart attack. I don't believe there's anything after death - I mean not like the Catholics believe. My grandpa is a stern Catholic; grandma is a Jew. I have atheist leanings. We never went to church or synagogue or anything like that. I put my faith in physics - when I look up at the night sky, even in the city, it's hard not to believe in something. The summer constellations are amazing, but it's the winter constellations that make me think anything is possible. When I was younger, I believed in a heaven, you know, like my cat would be there to greet me after I died. Dad said there were no easy answers and made me promise to talk to him or mom if I was feeling very down. I think it's just a matter of waiting it out when things seem so bad that there's no hope. I think if you hang around long enough things just get better on their own. I decide to give my father something to live for - I just don't know what.
So I know if they're sedating my father it must be pretty serious. I'm frightened for him. I think I'm frightened a lot these days. Like nothing is safe.
"He didn't hurt himself," my mother is saying. "He had a breakdown. All of a sudden he started crying in the middle of a trial and couldn't get it under control. Then he was pulling his hair out. The bailiff called 9-l-l. And the judge called me."
The lake is visible from our deck. It has white caps today and sloshes around in its banks like kids in a mosh pit. Dad and me live in a one bedroom apartment in the city. I have a fold -out couch in the living room where I sleep and I do my homework at the kitchen table. I have Nirvana posters hanging on the wall above the couch and we compromise on the music we listen to - like we both like Zappa and Beatles, so dad doesn't bother me much when I crank up my stuff. The apartment's not bad, just small. It overlooks the Park blocks near Portland State University. In the spring, the trees put off such dense foliage that no sunshine reaches the grass. In the autumn, these same trees carpet the sidewalks in dazzling yellows and blazing reds, russets and wines, like an open vein runnning through the city. If I look hard into the distance, I think I can see all the bridges that cross the Willamette River; Mt.Hood is farther away but on a clear day it looks like a big ice cream cone in my backyard. When I was a kid we all lived in an apartment in Portland, before we bought the house. I used to look out my bedroom window at all the same bridges but I imagined that the Steel Bridge and the Hawthorne Bridge were relay stations and I could send messages - to heaven or wherever. A couple of years before that, I used to believe those erector-set bridges were dinosaurs coming to get me and the sun setting in the river was a huge red eye. It gave me nightmares. Now the bridges are just bridges, the river churns along beneath them, and the sun is welcome - not something that gives me bad dreams.
Our furniture is mostly rented - except for dad's bed, which mom had delivered to the apartment - but it's comfortable. Mom says if dad didn't do so much pro - bono work we'd be able to live better. Sometimes I think she confuses me with dad because I'm a guy. I don't think she understands that I love her but I worry about him.
When I finally see him, he's in street clothes, shaved, neat, not what you expect when you go to see someone in a mental ward. He's pale and he looks like he's lost some weight, although I just saw him yesterday morning. I hug him around his waist; he's tall and I'm still growing.
"Hey, Aaron. How're you doing?" He holds onto me tightly in his long thin arms. Mom just stands there, her arms hanging at her sides. It's hard for me to believe these two once loved each other enough to get married.
"Great dad. How about you?"
"Not so great, kiddo." He shakes his head as if he doesn't want me to ask, then starts to cry, like when he's drunk, but a mewling sound wells up from inside him that I've never heard before. Like a weaning kitten. My stomach pitches around inside me. Like I ache and I don't
know why. Empathy, my English teacher calls it. I love him. I couldn't stand it if anything bad happened to him. I've come to understand that love can be a threat or a promise or a salvation. I want mine to be a salvation. "I fucked up, Aaron," dad says. Mom shoots him a look, like I haven't heard much worse between them. "I want you to stay with your mother while I'm getting better."
"No," I scream in the visiting room, but no one turns to look at me. No one even notices me. I guess I think if I go to live with mom, dad might never get out of here.
"Aaron, calm down. We'll talk about it some more later." His voice is none too reassuring.
I just want to change the subject. "Can I see your room?"
"If my roommate isn't sleeping. I don't like to disturb him. I think he has flashbacks or something." That sounds pretty exotic to me. His roommate is watching tv in the activities room so I can look around at how my father is living. It's a nice enough space, clean and orderly. He has a small lamp and a book of short stories at his bedside. My father says the nurses make you keep your living area neat and picked up. I notice the nurses; they look okay, not like the nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
I see my mom and dad talking together; they keep their voices down; then dad comes
over to me and mom stays near the door.
"Look it, Aaron; I know you think you're old enough, but you can't stay by yourself at the apartment. I want you to stay with your mother; it's just temporary, until I get out of here. That'll be soon. I promise."
He's clueless sometimes but I don't see any need to remind him that I'm the one doing all
the shopping and cooking and getting myself to school and doing my homework. I don't remind him that his promises aren't worth anything. He gets up in the morning, showers and shaves, puts on one of his suits and silk ties, walks to work or takes the bus to his office. At night he does it all in reverse; he never wavers. It's like he's disappearing and there's nothing left but his shadow. He acts like he's lobotomized.
"Your mom is worried about both of us. Let's not make it any harder on her." His voice trails off, like he forgets I'm there. I've seen him lose his train of thought. This is different.
I look over at her and notice that her eyes are kind of red and she's sniffing, like maybe she's been crying and I didn't notice.
"Okay, dad. Whatever you say." I'll agree to anything just then. When they were first separated, mom used to stay in bed all day, sleeping and taking a lot of xanax. I couldn't stand for that to happen again.
"Good boy. I don't know that I'll be such great company when I get out of here but you can live with me as long as you like, even when you're an old man." He smiles at this, then hugs me again, squeezing me until I can't breathe, then suddenly lets go. He sits down heavily on his bed and mom and I leave.
"I'm not so bad, Aaron," mom says to me on the ride home. It's still raining and the rhythm of the windshield wipers is lulling me to sleep. I don't want to talk.
"Dad didn't say you were," I answer, my eyes closed.
"I'm not talking about your father."
"Then what are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you. I know we both put you through a lot, but your father hurt me a lot, Aaron. More than the affair with that woman." I know she isn't going to elaborate. She's
crying again. I get a tissue out of her handbag and hand it to her. She takes it and blows her nose. I wonder why she didn't leave him a long time ago, if things were so bad, why she waited. I know if I ask her, she'll tell me it has something to do with loving him. I think about Courtney Love and Curt Cobain, what their marriage must have been like and what love was to them. Love wears a lot of disguises, I guess. I wonder if doing heroin together is a kind of love. So now I feel sorry for mom too. "I think we're better off divorced," she says. "Now I don't have to take care of him anymore."
I have an inkling of what she means but I don't want to think about it just now.
The second time I see him at the hospital grandma and grandpa are there. Grandpa says dad has weak moral fiber. What dad has is a history of depression, mom says. I'm surprised to hear her defending dad to her parents, knowing how she feels about him. But I know that what dad is is guilty all the time, not the funny kind that stand-up comics joke about, but the brain-eating kind. I think dad had a breakdown as a sort of Old Testament atonement.
A week later I'm back living with him. We'd all been in therapy together, arranged by my mother; before we went, my father said he couldn't see the harm in it. After we went he thought it did more harm than good. My mother called it family counselling. I called it crap. They just yelled and screamed at each other some more while I sat there. When dad gets out I'm afraid I'll have to sit through those sessions again and that dad won't be able to deal with them, but that doesn't happen. Instead, he takes medication and I make it my responsibility to see to it that he takes the right pills at the right time every day.
I buy him a kitten. She's six weeks old and her head is as big as her body; she looks like an overgrown Q-tip. Dad sits on the couch after dinner in his boxer shorts - doing his best
Homer Simpson imitation - and the kitten jumps on his stomach, then curls up on his chest and
goes to sleep. We watch The Simpsons together whenever it's on; it's his favorite show. I tell him he reminds me of Homer Simpson. "No way," he says. "Way," I say. "No way." "Way." "No way." I stop first, afraid he's crazy enough to go on all night.
He goes back to work after he's been home a month. He mostly rests at home. He says
he's bored but he doesn't seem to enjoy any of his cases when he goes back to work. I can't be sure, but I don't think he's was getting any better; I call mom and she agrees - she talks to him on the phone a lot. She even sounds concerned. Maybe she's glad he had the breakdown; it makes her look strong - or like she's right about everything.
The end of the term is coming and I'm having trouble studying for my finals. I can't concentrate and Dad's oblivious. I'm afraid he's going to end up back in the hospital. I go through the house; he has a shotgun and a 38 special; I take them both to the pawnshop and get cash. I lie about my age. The pawnbroker doesn't ask any questions. I was sure one night I'd hear the muffled report of a gun coming from behind the bathroom door. I have nightmares about it, about finding him dead in the morning, slumped in the tub, all the walls bloody. I dump the ammunition in a trash can near Pioneer Courthouse while I'm waiting for him one afternoon after school lets out. I don't hang out with my friends after school anymore because I'm afraid of what I'll find when I get home. He needs me to be there. I hide his pills and dole them out; I flush any pills down the toilet if I don't know what they are. One morning while he's getting ready for work, I hear a loud bang come from the bathroom. "No," I scream, ready to break down the door. My father runs out of the bathroom. "What's wrong, Aaron?" Then "Damn." He's nicked himself shaving. And I mistake the clang of old plumbing for a gunshot.
Then I bring home my report card. All Ds. At first I'm afraid to show it to him. But the next evening he asks me. I think mom called the school and knows my grades and she calls him. When I give it to him I start to cry; I break down, sobbing. He holds my head in his lap and combs my hair with his fingers.
"What's the matter, Aaron? It's a report card, not the end of the world."
I'm so frightened, that I've let him down. But I'm inarticulate. "I, I..." I blubber all over him, like he needs more problems. "I'll do better next term," I swear to myself as much as him. My future is flashing in front of my eyes. I'll do miserably on the SATs, I'll never get into college, my father will be ashamed of me...I'll end up like my father. I have no future. I'm a loser. I'm as good as dead.
"Not next term," he says, sounding very serious. "You know what we're doing this summer?"
"No. What?" I guess I half think he's going to have me arrested and sent to jail for bad grades or something equally crazy. There's no accounting for my thought processes that night.
"Homework. You're going to summer school. And every night we're doing homework."
"Oh," I say.
High IQ? Moi?
And every evening that summer we sit together at the kitchen table and do geometry and
history and Spanish and biology. Dad's completely absorbed in my schoolwork. He begins to look and act like the man I remember as being my father. We take a walk after dinner, a stroll, he calls it, down Park to the espresso shop where he gets a cappuccino and I get an ice cream, or we both get ice creams; then we walk back home. It stays light until ten at night and the
twilights are warm; trees line Park with shade; leaves drift down onto the street in August, in
slow spirals, like my grandparents dancing the waltz at their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The evenings become chilly as September gets closer.
Dad's head is bent over my papers at the table; we do problems again and again until I understand the minefield of geometric logic and can repeat fundamental grammar in Spanish. Like every theorem brings him another step past disaster. We survive. I came up with the plan to save his life after all. In October mom remarries. I guess Dad doesn't seem like such a secure meal ticket anymore. Dad sees his girlfriend although he's nervous about it. I get As and Bs in school and ask that girl out and she accepts. So Saturday night we're going to the movies. I ask him a question while I get ready. He stands behind me at the bathroom sink and I watch his reflection in the mirror. We're both shaving, like in some dumb television commercial, but all we have is one bathroom.
"If you could bring John Lennon or Curt Cobain back to life, which one would you chose?"
He thinks about it for a while.
"John Lennon," he says and smiles at me in the mirror. It's the normal thing to say. I figure he's all right.