Tag Archives: Fear

Broken Ice

21 May

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.

Broken Ice

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.

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Nameless Dread

13 Apr

For the past week, something had been troubling me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. I’m sure many of you know the feeling I’m talking about—that sense of foreboding that hovers in your subconscious and makes you feel edgy, like you’re standing at the precipice of some unknown cavern of uneasiness.

When I was a child, my mother referred to this feeling as “nameless dread.” As a young mother, she often struggled with this common maternal malady herself the belief that all was not right in the world; that disaster was looming around the next corner, just waiting to reach out and seize what bit of happiness she’d managed to hold onto. I know that she endured great pain while she waited for misfortune to strike, the smile plastered on her face attempting to hide the dread she felt.

It really wasn’t my mother’s fault. The women of her generation were expected to hide their feelings; to box them up neatly and shove them into the back of the pantry out of sight and mind, never thinking their fear, guilt and resentment would eventually begin to ferment and stink like rotting fruit— and that someday the mess would have to be cleaned up.  As I grew up, I watched my mother hide her feelings and I learned to hide mine, too. I was the ever-dutiful daughter and obediently followed her lead. It was just easier to sweep the hurt and pain under the rug and deny that the muck was seeping out from all sides like a backed-up kitchen sink.

Lying in bed the other night, after about an hour of trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, I finally figured out what was bothering me and causing my latest bout of “nameless dread.” I was angry.

I was angry about an email that my mother had recently forwarded to me. One of her dear friends whom she’s known since high school had been reading my blog posts and wrote that she was enjoying my writing, and my mother thoughtfully wanted to share this with me. Included in this email was a comment mentioning the fact that I had referred to my father as an “alcoholic” in some of my posts. She wrote that she didn’t really think my father was an alcoholic; after all, everyone “drank a lot” back in the day, and that perhaps (I’m paraphrasing here) that I was just an impressionable little girl who was too sensitive about her daddy.

I was irritated when I read that line, but good girl that I am, I immediately shoved the feeling aside, as I’m as skillful as my mother is at tucking away any uncomfortable emotions into the back of the cupboard. But it triggered something in me that started a slow burn. The hidden anger I carry deep inside of me about my father’s alcoholism began to simmer and bubble over like that cast iron pot of soup on the stove with the flame on high.

She didn’t believe me.

Now, in no way is my anger directed at my mother’s friend—after all, she had gleaned her all of her information through my mother, who kept mum about truth of what went on in our home every night. With so much practice, the members of my family were skilled professionals at putting on a good show—my father being the best actor in the entire troupe. When sober, he was an intelligent and amiable man—full of wit and humor and love. But after a few drinks it would be time for his costume change and his character would transform into that of an intimidating ogre acting out in uncontrollable rage.  And the people he supposedly loved most in life were right next to him on the stage, standing still and silent, their intense fear making them forget their lines. But as they say, the show must go on, so we allowed him the center stage to perform his nightly monologue, each of us turning inward and covering our pain with masks of surrender.

A little girl shouldn’t have had to be afraid of what was coming every single night. She shouldn’t have had to carry the dread around in her stomach and tiptoe around the house like a ghost, closing doors with silent precision to avoid hearing her daddy bellow at her about making too much noise. A little girl shouldn’t have had to watch her daddy throw shoes and books and dishes across the room in fits of alcoholic fury. She shouldn’t have had to get out of bed to check and make sure that her daddy hadn’t passed out on the couch with a lit cigarette still clenched between his fingers. She shouldn’t have had to learn to be the caretaker of others instead of herself.

A teenage girl shouldn’t have had to witness her drunken father threaten two high school boys with a fireplace poker, their only crime being that they gave her a ride home from a party late one night. A seventeen year-old girl with talent and intelligence with the world at her feet shouldn’t have spent the next five years of her life in a relationship with a young and handsome boy who was so obviously an alcoholic himself—trying in vain to fix him and failing miserably.

A college senior shouldn’t have had to see her father lying naked and motionless in the ICU, his thin body ravaged by years of smoking and drinking, the only movement that of his chest rising and falling with the hum of a respirator. She shouldn’t have had to lose her daddy when she was only twenty-three years old.

A young mother with small babies shouldn’t have had to watch and worry as her older brother, emotionally scarred from years of his father’s abuse and neglect, turned to alcohol to dull his own unfathomable pain.

A middle aged woman with the blessings of four exceptional children and a loving husband shouldn’t have had to live practically her entire life feeling that she is not beautiful and worthy and good because her father’s drinking was all her fault.

 It was not her fault.

So I’m angry. I’m angry that I’ve lived more than half my life believing that I did something to cause my father’s alcoholism. I know in my heart that my father was a good man, even though his actions contradicted this. I realize that his true self was masked by his depression and resentment and the need to deaden the pain of his own wounds. I know this now and I wish I could tell him that although he hurt me deeply, I forgive him.

It’s difficult and painful to admit that someone you loved so much could let you down so completely. It’s not easy to acknowledge those buried feelings—they’ve become an intrinsic part of who I am. But now it’s time to be honest—for my own emotional health, I have to tell the truth and let the anger go. That magnificent little girl who was born perfect and kind and exceptional is still that person today—she just got lost for a while. In the process of finding her, I can release the pain I’ve carried for so long, and then the dread will no longer be nameless.

By revealing my secrets, I become stronger. I don’t have to play the role of damaged little girl anymore. I know that underneath that tight and painful mask I’ve been wearing for so long is that beautiful little girl, smiling and radiating love. Together, she and I can walk off that dark and dusty stage, push open that heavy door and go out into the light.