Hidden Fathers

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April 27, 2010

I stood in the kitchen, my elbows on the counter, my hands propping my face up. I watched the microwave clock. It was 10 AM. Ruti and her family would be leaving soon. She would climb into the U-Haul. Her dad would start the engine. They’d pull out of the neighborhood, Mrs. Schuster and Ruti’s sister following in the car.

They’d go without ceremony. They were heading home. The Pennsylvania license plate, a sign that they were outsiders here in Florida, would look less foreign as they drove north. By the time they got back to Philadelphia, it would be unremarkable. Just another car. Just another Jewish family.

I stood like that for a while, watching the clock. The house was quiet. I could just make out Mom laughing in the bedroom, her voice muffled by the closed door. Since we’d moved to Bill’s, she’d swapped Saturday morning meditation for Saturdays in bed. Soon they’d come out, flushed, and ready for a run.

Nana came in from the living room. She’d been sleeping on the foldout couch since Mom and Bill’s wedding.

“Why the sad face, Alma?”

“Ruti’s leaving.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. You’ll make other friends.” She opened the cabinet, took out the Nescafe. If Mom had been in the kitchen, she would have made a face. She hated that Nana drank instant coffee. “All those chemicals,” she’d said. “And you never used to drink it.”

Nana spooned the brown powder into a mug and turned on the kettle. “Since you’re free, why don’t you come to a meeting with me? It’ll take your mind off of things.”

Mom had warned me not to go. “Don’t let Nana take you to one of those meetings,” she’d said. “It’s like a cult.” But the morning stood before me. Ruti on the road, Florida flipping past. Mom and Bill coming out of their room, rosy-cheeked.

“OK,” I said. “But don’t tell Mom.”

It was in a cheerless community center. There was a table lined with Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons, Nescafe, dehydrated milk, and pink packets of Sweet and Low. Everyone milled about, sipping instant coffee. They greeted each other by name, giving eager handshakes and tight hugs. Nana had only been coming here for a couple of weeks, but people called and waved to her. She moved from one group to the next. They chatted in that quick way people do when something is about to start.

They talked a lot about their sponsors. I didn’t know what a sponsor was but, listening to everyone talk, I realized it was something like a personal priest or rabbi. Everyone sounded the same: “I had a tough day. I wanted a drink. I called my sponsor. He read to me from the Big Book.”

We took our spots in the rows of metal folding chairs. We stood and joined hands. Nana’s was soft and smooth. The woman next to me, thin and about Mom’s age, had doughy hands that didn’t seem to fit her body.

The group spoke the first words of the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t know it, so I looked around the room, at the bowed heads, the closed eyes, the lips moving. There was a big window. Outside, everything was green and light. It was the beginning of summer, when the leaves and azaleas were still crisp, before they started sagging under the heat. We should all be there, I thought, hiking in the woods, or having a picnic, or playing soccer. I wondered how bad it could be out there that people would spend their Saturday hiding in this stale hall.

A young man took to the podium, which was emblazoned with a triangle, just like the pendant Nana wore. “Hi, my name is Walter and I’m an alcoholic.”

The room answered, “Hi Walter.”

He exhaled. “OK. This is hard. This is my first time speaking.” He paused. A few people clapped to encourage him. Walter rubbed his palms on his jeans.

“I started drinking when I was a teenager,” he said. “My dad was a drunk. Is a drunk. My mom pretends he isn’t. You know—the usual.”

The crowd laughed knowingly.

“But my dad isn’t just an alcoholic. He’s also a surgeon. Scary, huh? It’s a good thing we don’t use last names here or some of you would probably say, ‘Shit, that guy was my doctor—I’m going to sue.’”

A few people chuckled.

“Anyways, my dad, the surgeon with a capital S, had high expectations for my brother and me. And we lived up to it, all of it. But the pressure was enormous. So, I started sneaking a sip here, a sip there. That was in high school.

“The first time I got drunk was when my girlfriend broke up with me. It wasn’t about her, really. It was about what my father would think. I was no longer the perfect son with the perfect girl. So, I downed a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

Some people sucked their breath in through their teeth, others clucked their tongues.

“We lived in one of those gated communities with a golf course. I worked as a caddie part-time, you know, to build character. I took a cart out that night and somehow ended up driving it into my parents’ pool. My dad was more upset about the money he had to spend replacing the golf cart than he was me. My mom just said, ‘Boys will be boys.’”

College was OK, Walter said, “Because everyone was a drunk.” But the problems came later, in medical school. There were hangovers. There were missed classes, missed exams. A missed degree. He was in denial, he said, “Until the moment.”

“I woke up one morning on the floor. There was a woman I didn’t know in my bed. I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My face was fat and bloated, my eyes were red. I was staring at myself, thinking about that woman. Who was she? Did I sleep with her? And out of nowhere I remembered getting ready for this school dance when I was a kid. I saw myself—shorter, really young, you know. I looked at myself and I thought: this isn’t who I wanted to be. I wanted to be a surgeon, not a drunk.”

There were murmurs, head-nodding.

“So I came to AA. That was a year ago. And I’m back in medical school now.”

The group broke into applause and a man walked towards the podium. “This is my sponsor, Gary,” Walter said, holding his hand out towards him.

Gary, beaming like a proud parent, presented Walter with a “one year sobriety chip,” a small bronze medallion. It reminded me a little bit of the communion wafer I’d seen the time I snuck off to church with Gisella. Gary clapped and everyone stood, cheering.

We linked hands again for the Lord’s Prayer. I listened. When they finished, the group pumped their collective fists as they said, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”

Everyone lined up for another cup of instant coffee.

Nana stirred her Nescafe, which had stopped steaming a while ago. The plastic spoon made little scratching sounds as it scraped the bottom of the cup. The community center was clearing out. A few people were folding up the chairs, packing away the coffee and Sweet and Low.

She took a sip. “Your mother’s right, drip is better than instant.”

“Is that why she hates it so much?”

Nana pointed her spoon towards Walter, standing on the other side of the room. “Your mom is like him. She’d rather me drinking drip than face this,” she held the cup up. “He’d rather this than admit he couldn’t fix his father. That’s the part that kid hasn’t dealt with yet. That’s why he’s not going to get his two-year chip.”

“You think he’ll start drinking again?”

“I’m sure of it. His problem isn’t the booze. It’s his father. And until he realizes that, he’s going to fall off that golf cart again and again.”

“What about you? What’s your problem?” If I’d said that to Mom, she would have threatened to give me a Dove Bar. Nana just said, “It’s a long story.”

“Pretend you’re Walter and I’m AA,” I said.

She looked at me. I felt like she was sizing me up, figuring out if I was old enough to hear her and understand her.

“Come on, Nana. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘your mother’?” I knew better than to ask about her father. He’d died when she was young. She kept a black and white photo of him by her bed in Brooklyn. She brought it to Florida with her and put it on the table next to the fold-out couch.

Nana laughed. “My little therapist,” she said. She slurped down the end of her Nescafe and tossed the cup in the trash. We started towards the exit. “I had a boyfriend who went to Korea, during the war,” she said. “We were going to get married when he came back.”

She pushed the door open and held it for me. “My mother took his letters out of the mailbox and hid them from me. I found out years later, after he’d married someone else.”

I thought of Great-Nana, a widow, tucking envelopes away. I imagined her putting them under the couch cushions, in cookie tins, behind the dressers, hiding herself and her daughter in that house, lining their home with secrets.

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