What I remember most about my dad were his shoelaces, slapping against the asphalt as he came out to greet me at the bus stop every day. I guess it was about convenience for him at the time, but to a six-year old it just seemed sloppy. I can still clearly recall him standing at the end of the driveway, ten feet in front of our white clapboard house, hands in his pockets, that grim expression on his face that he always got when he was distracted from something important. And his shoelaces – they seemed impossibly long – trailing along behind us as he took my hand and led me into the house. The ritual was always the same.
“Leave your shoes at the door,” he would always say as he slipped out of his own.
“But don’t forget to untie them first,” I would finish for him while I sat down to get out of my ratty Reeboks.
He would always smile then, as if it were our private joke, this ritual of the quiet shoes. I would never smile, lost as I was in concentrating on untying my twice-tied laces. They were the thick ones too, so incredibly hard for my small hands to successfully maneuver. I probably got them untied by myself one time out of 50, but that one time was so special. Because it meant I wouldn’t have to rely on him, that I wouldn’t have to call him back into the room to help me.
My babysitter during those afternoons waiting for my mother to get home wasn’t him, though. It was Dora the Explorer, that sassy little bilingual girl with a monkey for a best friend. We had this video of Dora, going to the library and meeting her friend Map, that I would play over and over again. It was the only video we owned that wasn’t up on the high shelf that I couldn’t reach. While I fished out the well-worn tape, I could hear the sounds of my dad in the back room, fighting with the lock on the liquor cabinet. Well, I guess “liquor” is too strong a word for it. My dad was breaking in so he could drink Bicardi mixers, all we could afford with his unemployment checks. He knew better than to ask my mother for any money. If I was lucky I wouldn’t see him again until after she came home, which was approximately three hours of Dora later.
Sometimes I would make a snack and ask him if he wanted anything. He would never answer, or every once in a while he would say he wanted pretzels, forgetting that I can’t reach the pretzels, even on the stool. I learned fairly quickly, though, that he didn’t really want pretzels. He just wanted something to stretch out the effect of the alcohol. Eventually he would storm out of the back room, head straight for the kitchen, and bring back half a loaf of bread with him. Pretzels forgotten. Door slammed again in my face. I couldn’t blame him for it. Of course not. He was just doing what he had to do to survive. I would then re-tie the bread bag if there was anything left in it, or throw the empty bag out, whichever was the case, putting “bread” down on our grocery list pinned to the corkboard on the nearly-dead fridge.
I never heard the term “deadbeat” until I got older, but the six-year old me must have known there was something different about my dad even then. I often found myself wondering how my mom could stand it, how much she must have loved him to put up with his crap. Of course I never thought that my mother was also screwed up in other, less obvious, ways. She worked as a data processor for a big company so you would think she made a lot of money, but it was what I realize now was just a glorified secretary position that paid almost nothing. In comparison, I thought she was quite dynamic. I mean, she had more than one emotion, even though the primary one was anger, and she actually spent some time with me.
The worst time of each weekday was when my mother arrived home, because it was the time of the shouting. I knew better than to meet her at the door because just the sight of my dad’s shoes lined up so neatly at the door would get her agitated. He would still be in the back room either passed out or still drinking. I kept my distance from them both, pretending to watch Dora singing in Spanish while the time bomb neared its destination. My mother would keep on her shoes, a silent form of defiance that would always increase in volume as she stomped her way into the back room.
“You no good, son of a…” she would always begin, and that’s when I would cover my ears, knowing what was coming next, powerless to stop it, but wishing it all away.
And for the next half an hour it would be Armageddon in there. She would throw things. They would hit him. He would yell at her. That would just make her louder. Back and forth they would go, forgetting they had a six-year old who was within earshot, a six-year old who was forming way too many associations between them and violence. They would go 12 rounds in the ring, and then it would be done. For that night. Then my mother would walk calmly out of the room, close the door behind her, walk into the living room and embrace me.
That was her version of love. I’m still not sure what his was. All I knew was that every day when I would see those shoelaces flapping against the asphalt, I knew I would have to re-live the chaos all over again. And I wished that I could live anywhere else. Even if I didn’t get to eat government cheese anymore. Some place where I could keep on my shoes, but I would never want to run away.