A few years ago, while taking an adult education writing class, I wrote a short piece about my experiences as a young girl living with an alcoholic father. I’ve used a bit of literary license throughout, but the story is mine and it’s true. The name of the young girl is Francesca, which is the name my father originally wanted to call me when I was born.
Francesca sits cross-legged on her sagging bed, the dark shutters attempting to thwart the sweltering sun as it tries to bully its way into her bedroom. Her room is dark but for the tiny shafts of light that stream in through the cracks, illuminating the dust particles spinning like miniature galaxies in the afternoon sunlight.
Francesca sits on her bed and waits.
At five-thirty she hears her father’s Firebird roar into the driveway. Francesca hates his car—the paint job is flaking and the upholstery smells like mildew in the muggy summer heat. She always has to ride in the cramped backseat and hates that her bare legs stick to the green vinyl upholstery.
For some reason, her father always revs the engine twice before turning off the car. She’s never understood why he does this; it makes her think of a dog pawing at the grass to mark his territory after taking a pee. The noise frightens her because she thinks that someday he’s going to forget to put the car in park and plow right into the house.
Francesca’s head tilts toward the door as she strains to listen for her father. She stares at the floral pattern on the bedspread that’s been on her bed since she was six. Her mother wanted to throw it away, but Francesca wouldn’t let her. She is not bothered by the shabbiness of the worn fabric, and slides her hand lovingly across the faded pink daisies; the feel of the soft cotton is cool and reassuring.
Francesca’s father comes into the house, slamming the door. The spare change in his pocket jingles like an old fashioned music box as he walks through the living room. Tendrils of hazy smoke from his lit cigarette creep into her room where it dances a hot, silent waltz with the dust motes.
Francesca is still, her stomach clenching as she waits for the sound of the rubber stripping of the freezer door to crack like the tight seal of a bottle opening. As she listens, the fear she holds inside crisscrosses her back and soaks the waistband of her shorts with sweat.
If she doesn’t hear the freezer door open, she is hopeful. But even so, she always waits for the sound of the ice. The ice is the important part—the ice tells her if it’s going to be a good night or a bad night.
It’s always a good night when she doesn’t hear the ice. Those nights are the best nights—when her father doesn’t fix that first drink. On those nights a heavy weight is lifted off Francesca’s fragile twelve year-old shoulders and she can be a normal girl for a little while.
These good nights are rare—when her father is charming and witty at the dinner table. When the tension disappears from her body and she’s as comfortable as her cat lounging on the tired wicker chair that sits on the front porch. Her brothers may argue and whine, but her father doesn’t get angry. On these nights, Francesca feels such peace that she can almost fool herself into believing that it’s real, and that it will last this time.
These are the nights when she is safe, like being swaddled in a warm towel after a steamy bath—when the divine love she feels for her father almost blisters her heart.
How is it possible that the simple sound of ice clinking in a glass can turn such love into such hate?
A bad night is when Francesca hears the ice. When her father pulls the ice cube tray out of the freezer and she knows what’s coming—she’s seen him perform this ritual hundreds of times like the priest offering up the sacraments at mass.
He holds the tray under the warm tap and then tumbles the ice onto the scratched Formica like an avalanche of cold, clear rocks. One by one he drops the cubes into the glass, the clinking of the ice resonating throughout the house like Grandma’s antique clock on the mantel chiming the hour. With a steady hand he pours two shots of gin and a splash of vermouth into the cool mist that hovers just above the frosty glass.
The smell of his gin reminds Francesca of the grey-blue berries that she used to pick from the overgrown Juniper shrubs that grow along the front parkway. When she was little, she loved to crush the tiny balls between her nails and hold her stained fingers up to her face, their pungent scent clearing her nostrils like the Vicks Vapor Rub her mother used to put under her nose when she had the sniffles.
After pouring the gin, Francesca’s father stirs his drink with a miniature sword that has been speared with two cocktail onions. She used to eat those tiny white onions right out of the jar. She would fish them out with her fingers and pop them into her mouth, the brine so vinegary that her lips would sting. She would pucker up her face at the sourness and her father would laugh and offer her another one.
Now the smell of those pearly onions makes her gag. She hates that little glass jar with its cheerful red lid sitting next to the ketchup and mustard bottles in the refrigerator door like it belongs there.
When he’s through preparing the first of his many drinks for the night, her father places a perfectly folded tissue into the bottom of the glass coaster to soak up the condensation from the melting ice—because God forbid, you wouldn’t want to cause any lasting damage to the delicate grain of the dining room table.
A bad night lasts longer than a good night. Francesca and her brothers hide in their rooms to avoid her father’s drunken rages, but he comes for them. He always blames them for something.
“Goddamn it—you kids get your asses out here right now!” He gnashes his green monster teeth at them, his breath sour; his tongue white with phlegm.
“You brats are making too much goddamn noise!” he screams. “You’d better shut-up or I’ll shut you up myself—do you dig me?”
The three of them are lined up in front of the blaring television. Francesca nods her head in perfect sync with her brothers. They have been quiet for hours but they know not to argue. They back up slowly like chastised dogs, their tails between their shaking haunches and escape to the illusion of safety behind their bedroom doors.
A bad night lasts longer than a good night because Francesca can’t go to sleep until her father passes out on the couch. She tiptoes out into the living room to make sure his cigarette butt doesn’t fall onto the cushions of their gold crushed velvet couch and start a fire.
A really bad night is when Francesca’s father doesn’t pass out at all, but staggers about the house, and ends up in the kitchen—the place where it all begins with the ice. He sits on the kitchen floor with his back to the freezer, slurring his words and muttering on about how he’s going to sit wherever he damn well pleases because this is my goddamn house and I’m the King and you kids will do as I say!
A bad night is when the hate she feels for her father is so intense it sears a giant hole in her soul. She only wants him to disappear so that she can breathe again. Sometimes her rage is so intense she feels as if her insides are on fire and all she can think about is that she wants her father to choke on his ice and die.
Francesca sits frozen on her bed, the afternoon summer sun burning its way into her room. She pays no attention to the rising heat. She only listens as her father heads into the kitchen.
She closes her eyes and prays for a good night.