For my 11th birthday, I hosted a sleepover for eight of my friends at our home in Tacoma, WA.
In case any of you don’t know, sleepovers are different than slumber parties. Like, inherently different. Sleepovers were for boys and, therefore, awesome. Slumber parties were for stupid ol’ girls and, therefore, stupid. Slumber parties, I assumed, had tea and sandwiches, had stuffed animals included on the guest list, incessant talks about ponies and ended at 9:00 when everyone went to sleep and dreamt of stupid girl stuff like princes and weddings and rainbows. Sleepovers revolved around junk food, a slasher movie on Showtime and staying up as late as possible.
Fueled by cheap pizza and gallons of brand name sugar water (the brand name being ‘Soda’), my friends and I laughed, burped and whispered dirty words well into the night. My sister opted to spend that night at a friend’s house, my dad had been out since 7, so the only person in danger of being kept up was my mother. Either a heavy sleeper or the definition of lenient, my mother never complained or asked us to quiet down.
With sleeping bags strewn about the living room, Tim entertained us with a secondhand Cheech and Chong routine he had heard from his brother-in-law. The bit had something to do with bodily functions, which was the height of comedy at 11, so we laughed like hyenas on nitrous oxide. This was around 1:30 or so.
It was then that we heard my dad’s car pull into the driveway. At the first sign of an adult, standard sleepover protocol dictated everyone pretend to be asleep. And so, as what sounded like 200 keys rattled to unlock the front door and the first sounds of cowboy boots clomped on the entryway linoleum, none of us knew that our sleepover was to be front row to what happened next.
Now, in order to reach the master bedroom, my dad had to sidestep a pre-pubescent minefield of nine sleeping bags. Normally, this would not prove a difficult task for an able-bodied forty-something. In this particular case, however, it was more like sending a blind man to run the gauntlet. Let me be clear, though, it was not my dad’s fault. You see, the architect who’d drafted the plans for our house had failed to consider the possibility that a father would arrive home the night of his son’s 11th birthday staggering drunk.
So there was my dad, determined and committed to the challenge ahead of him. It was true he’d been able to drive himself home with zero to few fatalities, so his chances of navigating the living room weren’t completely nill. Close, but not completely. If he stayed focused, if he really put himself in the zone, he knew could get from point A to point B like the champion he knew himself to be.
The rest of us weren’t so sure.
To his credit, he started off strong. With the skill of an Olympian, he maneuvered around Tim, then followed this up by stepping over Harper. What form! What execution! But on his way to a gold medal, my dad ran into trouble when he misjudged his next move and stepped on Wendell. Attempting to recover, he over-corrected and stumbled over Clint. You could almost see his Wheaties sponsorship fading away. Clint, laying closest to my dad and already the victim of his size 12 boot, slowly inched himself away from the 198 pounds of drunken Irish that threatened to topple onto him.
My dad stood (well, more or less) for a moment, getting his bearings and re-evaluating his route. His body tottered a little (or he stood still and the rest of the world tottered, depending on perspective), but a repositioned boot quickly steadied him. If an audience had been there, they would no doubt have gasped.
Grunting some motivational, but indiscernable, call to action, my dad decided that the best route was a simple straight line and, dammit, he was gonna go for it.
Balancing on one foot, he attempted to reach the hallway in one giant step, in the same fashion he might step over a rattlesnake. He moved slowly in order to land it just right… maybe a little too slowly. But, proving that sloth-like mobility and drunken stupors don’t mix, my dad’s balance wavered and he began to fall. Blindly reaching out for any bit of support, he grabbed onto the macramé flower pot holder that hung just above the TV. Surprisingly, it didn’t rip from its hook, but actually allowed my dad to steady himself. That wasn’t macramé, that was spun steel!
Then, with one last oomph (and nine silent sighs of relief), my dad had reached the safety of the hallway. Now home free, it’s safe to assume that he must have felt a certain amount of pride because (at least, in his mind) he had slipped past all those kids without disturbing a single one. Gold medal secured!
But… it is when we let our guard down that the worst can happen.
Without warning and certainly without provocation, the wicker hamper, which had always seemed harmless, bounded for him from the dark recesses of the hall, like a lion from its den!
There was a struggle!
We could hear each ‘goddam’, ‘sonuva…’ and incoherent mumble my father uttered. Partly thanks to his days back with the Co-Braughs (an Irish gang of Cleveland teens), my dad put up one hell of a brawl. Within seconds, the hamper was down, the struggle was over and the victor (my father) emerged. Pushing the slain hamper aside and kicking it once for good measure, my dad slipped into the bedroom where he capped off his adventure serial evening with a well-deserved black out.
The moment the door clicked shut, every one of us broke into quiet, mostly nasal, hysterics, as the smell of beer and cigarettes lingered along with the stench of budget cologne and fake leather. I could laugh about it or feel ashamed and make for an even more awkward evening. I chose to laugh.
“He stepped on my bladder,” Wendell said in a half-whisper, half-giggle.
“I think I got two broken ribs,” joked Clint.
“Drunk-arooni,” Alan giggled.
Wendell asked me, “Does your dad go to bars a lot?”
I didn’t feel the truth of ‘yes and often alone’ was necessary. “Oh, no. His, uh, his friend had a bachelor party.”
Wendell became quiet and reflective, changing the subject the way I had hoped someone would. “Someday, I wanna go to a bachelor party. Naked boobs all over the place… That’s probably what’s cool ‘bout gettin’ divorced, ya know? You get a party every time you get married again.”
Soon, everyone settled into the inevitable sleep aspect of any sleepover. Everyone but me, that is.
I was too angry and too embarrassed to sleep. Angry that my dad had found it necessary to get drunk that particular night, that he’d shown his true self to my friends, that I had to make up an excuse for his conduct, hell, that he was my father at all. At the same time, I was embarrassed for all of the exact same reasons.
Home was one world, friends and life outside of home were another. But, that night, the two worlds I tried so hard to keep separate and isolated from one another had collided like two cars in a drivers ed film.
One of the comedic stand-by’s in film/tv is the lovable drunk, the inebriated source of entertainment that elicits giggles and nods of ‘Boy, can we identify…’ from viewers. But, even as a child, I never thought those characters were funny. If anything, they made me uncomfortable. All I could think of was what happened after the character left the scene. Did he go home and berate his family? Did he force his kids to hug him and bully them into saying how much they loved him? Did he spend a portion of the night ranting about ni**ers and wetb*cks? The drunks in movies weren’t a cause for laughter, they were a cause to ask, “But, now what’s gonna happen?”
With every cab ride home from whatever bar he’d abandoned the station wagon at, with every case of beer that filled the crisper drawer in our refrigerator, with every petty argument he would decide to “discuss” with my mom at eleven at night, the light under which I saw my dad faded dimmer and dimmer.
I couldn’t yet bring myself to say that I truly hated my dad, but I knew for sure that I just didn’t like him.
I knew I had the alcoholic gene staggering about inside my DNA, its face flushed, wearing a cowboy hat, singing Red Sovine songs and yelling accusations and obscenities at all of the other genes. “You think you’re better’n me, low blood pressure gene? Huh? Well, **ck you!” “Whadder you lookin’ at, blue eyes gene? You got a prob’em wi’ me? You’re an ungrateful, spoiled gene, ya know that?” “Where you goin’, arched eyebrow gene? Don’t walk away from me! Fine, walk away!”
While I had asked for Star Wars toys for my birthday, I instead received an unexpected gift in the form of a defining moment. On the night of my 11th birthday, I swore that I would make whatever choices necessary to never become anything like my dad.