I have a two year old son named Alexander. No that’s not the horror story, although any new parents out there might beg to differ. He is the most perfect thing I could ever or will ever create, and I love him with all my heart.
When I look at Alex, I see myself. An entire lifetime of academic achievements, romantic pursuits, dreams and ambitions, and of course the glorious pride of shooting the game winning goal… the infinite potential of his un-lived life is a miraculous blessing that I am privileged to be a part of.
My wife Stacey thinks I’m going to run myself into the ground trying to be the world’s best dad. She thinks I’m overcompensating because my own dad left when I was two. And so what if I am? Dad leaving destroyed my mother. It was because of him that I grew up practically impoverished, withdrawn, and angry at the world. What’s so wrong with wanting something better for my own son?
I’ll admit that I did tend to obsess over the idea though. Everything was a competition – I wanted a better job than my father, to drive a better car; I even started interrogating my mother about all dad’s bad habits so I could avoid them, although she replied with something which shocked me.
“Why don’t you ask him yourself? I know where he lives.”
I couldn’t even remember the man. Learning he lived just on the other side of town made me furious. I had to know what his excuse was for never being there, and even more than that, I wanted to tell him straight to his face that I wouldn’t be the same terrible father he was.
I was expecting some kind of burnt out crack-den or whore-house, not the luxury high rise apartments that matched the address. Sure my mother lived comfortably now, but somehow I didn’t think he deserved the same kind of lifestyle now. My fist landed on his door with a quick burst of powerful thumps.
“Who are -” the man in the loose bathrobe asked, but he didn’t even have to finish the sentence. The resemblance was uncanny. The long nose, the angular cheeks, the wisps at the end of his eyebrows – he looked exactly like an older version of myself.
“Yeah,” I said. All my carefully prepared arguments from the drive over here evaded my mind. All I could think about was how unsettling it felt to look at that face which could have almost been a mirror.
“Well alright, come on in.” He turned around and sat down on his sofa. “Your mother send you?”
“Do you and her still talk?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Sometimes. She told me about your kid. Congratulations on -”
“Why’d you leave?” It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I was supposed to be gloating over a successful life he played no part in. He was supposed to be pleading my forgiveness. So why did my voice crack like I was the one begging?
“The same reason you’ll ditch your kid,” he said. “They’re better off without us.”
I left shortly after that, feeling less satisfied than ever. How dare he presume I would make the same terrible decisions he did? Maybe he was right that I was better off without him, but my son needed me and I needed him.
I gripped my steering wheel so hard my knuckles turned white. How could I possibly be bad for my son? I was so focused that I didn’t even notice the car cutting me off.
“Hey asshole! Get off the road!” I shouted. I never do that sort of thing, but I was so pissed at my dad that everybody better stay out of my way.
Maybe that’s what dad was talking about? If I brought home this kind of anger, then my son would start to internalize it as he grew up. Maybe it was best for me to just stop at the bar before heading home and take some time to cool off…
I couldn’t sleep that night. Stacey was mad at me for coming home late. She smelled the alcohol on me, but I didn’t want to tell her about my dad because I just wanted to forget about him. They’re better off without us. Hah! Better off without you.
But what if there was something more to it? Maybe my father really knew something I didn’t – some inherited health problem, or predisposition to an addiction, or Hell I don’t know. He didn’t seem accusing or angry or anything when he said it. Maybe he was actually trying to warn me. If that was the case, then wasn’t I being selfish in putting my own comfort over the security of my family?
It was 2 in the morning when I knocked on his door again. He opened it wearing the same disgusting bathrobe.
“Why are they better off without us?” I blurted out. I wanted to cut straight to the point and not give small-talk a chance to sap my anger.
“Come on in, have a seat.”
“I don’t want to come in. I want an answer,” I said.
“You smell like booze,” he said. “So did I when I went home. Your mother couldn’t stand it.”
That was it? He was an alcoholic? Well I wasn’t. Sure I drank from time to time, but I wouldn’t let it ruin my relationship with Stacey like it did with him and my mother. I couldn’t stand the sight of him, so I just took off right after he gave me that explanation.
But Stacey had been upset when she smelled it, so maybe I could still learn from him. I decided to spend the rest of the night at a friend’s house so she wouldn’t have to see me like this.
I sent her a text to let her know what I was doing and went over to my buddy Tom. He and I stayed up chatting for awhile, I had a couple more drinks to help me sleep, and then I crashed on his couch. Between the alcohol and knowing I resolved the issue, I slept like a baby through the rest of the night.
I wish I hadn’t though, because she was was absolutely livid. She wouldn’t even let me explain myself. I tried to tell her about my father, but she just thought it was awfully convenient considering I hadn’t mentioned him yesterday.
The alcohol – the night out – she was utterly convinced I was cheating. I even tried getting her to talk to Tom, but she wouldn’t stop yelling long enough for me to get him on the phone.
I shouldn’t have hit her. I know it was wrong. But I couldn’t get her attention, and I was getting so mad at her being mad… shit, I don’t know. It wasn’t even hard – I just pushed her away from me and she fell over. I was so embarrassed that I just rushed straight out the door.
Where was I supposed to go though? I didn’t want to bring my mother in on this. She had to believe I was the perfect son – the perfect husband that my dad never was. The only person who seemed to understand what I was going through, the only one I wanted to talk to, was my dad.
Tap tap tap. My knock lacked all of the certainty and power it had the first time around. And yeah, maybe he was just going to say something that pissed me off worse, but maybe he’d also remind me about how much worse of a father he was. Compared to him and everything he’s done, I’d be able to look at myself and know I wasn’t so bad.
“Tell me everything,” I said.
“Well come on in.”
“I don’t want to come in. I want to know what made you such a shitty father.”
We stood facing each other through the doorway. He looked worn out, but I must have too after last night. For a second I thought he was going to just close the door in my face, but then he sighed and said:
“I hit your mother. Are you happy now?”
“Yeah what else? I want to know everything.” My breath was coming in shallow gasps. There had to be more. There had to be something that made this man worse than me.
“Just leave it alone, will you? It’s ancient history,” he said. “Either come in or leave, because I don’t want to just stand here like a couple of -”
“I want you to tell me what else you did to us!” I shouted.
“Yeah, well know what I want?” He said. “I hope when your son comes knocking on your door in twenty some years, you do something I couldn’t and break the cycle. I hope you don’t answer him.”
He started to close the door. I tried to push my way in, and the door slammed on my foot.
“I’m not you! I’ll never be you!”
He tried to push me back so he could close the door, but I barreled into him and knocked him to the floor. He tried to crawl away, but I straddled him and pinned him to the ground.
“Get the Hell off me -”
“Not until you tell me what else made you leave.”
“It’s none of your business -” He tried to sit up, but I forced his head down. Too hard. It slammed into the tile floor with a sickening crack, and a pool of blood began to spread out from the wound. He wasn’t fighting back anymore. His body felt limp.
“What did you do? What did you do?” I kept shaking him as though that would wake him up, but all I did was smear the blood around. But there! One of his eyes flickered open for a moment.
“I swear to God,” I said, “if you don’t tell me I’ll -”
“I killed a man,” he grunted. “After that, I couldn’t look you or my wife in the eye, so I left.”
“Who?” I asked, but somehow I already knew the answer.
“He had it coming. For leaving my mother. For leaving me.” My grip went slack, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t stand anymore. I let him slip to the ground and stared at my bloody hands.
What son would want a father like this? Maybe he was right. Maybe they are better off without us.