The primary reason for this, she told me, was my father’s lengthy cocaine habit, one whose time line outstripped my own existence, and which had likely been in the background—if not the foreground—of every interaction he and I had ever shared. None of the remedies my family had attempted to impose upon my father—the private counseling sessions, group therapies, and forced hospitalizations that had all been hidden from me—had worked, and now my mother was leaving him. At a time when every bit of media I consumed was bombarding me with simplistic “Just Say No” messages, I had no capacity to be shocked by these revelations; I sincerely believed that some honest, thoughtful conversation would sort out the problem. “Why does he take drugs?” I asked my mother.
“How should I know?” she snapped back. “If I knew that, maybe I’d be on drugs myself.” It was not an especially reassuring answer.
To this point, I had always thought of my mother as a perpetually put-upon, slightly worn-out woman, who came to life only to clean up other people’s messes and had no particular tolerance for my father’s personality quirks. I began to realize that day how wrong I was and how strong and patient she had been—and that even she had her limits. But it was no small measure of my father’s enduring influence over me that at the end of our conversation, I asked my mother, “Can I still live with Dad?”
In the ensuing years, my parents did not divorce, and my affection for my father diminished, to be gradually replaced by suspicion and then hostility. I still hadn’t learned to properly recognize the symptoms that indicated when my father was using—sometimes I’d be several minutes into a face-to-face conversation before I noticed he was high. But now, whenever I realized I’d been tricked into hearing another of his cocaine-induced confessionals, I would refuse to speak or listen to him. This would enrage him, and though my father never abused me or even threatened me with violence, he had other means of retaliation at his disposal: He would threaten to throw me out and cut me off. The same man who loved fly-fishing and introduced me to the joys of Mad magazine would raise his voice until it rattled the walls, pound the tables, kick the furniture, and point his finger at the door with unambiguous instructions: Get out.
It was the most severe punishment he could imagine, but I never abided by it; I’d just go to my bedroom and wait for him to come down. It was his own fear that he was driven by, his worst childhood anxieties of being set adrift in an incomprehensible world with no emotional support and especially with no money—but in time, his fears became my own.
In his ongoing quest for the kind of security that is best measured in square footage, my father moved the family out of our midtown Manhattan apartment and into a two-story house in Rockland County in 1991. Though this transition unfortunately occurred between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, the uncertainty that nibbled away at my stomach lining in that first summer of exile was tempered with relief: The farther we were from New York, I figured, the more difficult it would be for my father to feed his habit. Indeed, after we moved, he began to enjoy a sobriety as fragile and unfamiliar as the suburban silence that now enveloped us.
This lasted until the following spring. After months of struggling to make friends at my new school, I had finally been invited to the birthday party of a social-studies classmate, a nice Jewish girl with straight auburn hair and a bump in her nose, who was probably just taking pity on me, but whom I thought I had a genuine shot at. All I needed was a ride to that party, and everything would fall into place.
While I spent that afternoon staring at myself in the mirror and brushing my hair until it was just right, my father was behind his bedroom door, sometimes watching TV and sometimes talking on the phone. But when it was time for him to take me to the party, he was snoring loudly. In my excitement, I hurriedly roused him out of bed, into his pants, and into the car. And though his breathing was heavy, and his waking movements were comically sluggish, I never thought to wonder why he had been home, asleep, so early on a weekday.
But there was something unmistakably wrong about the way he was driving—the way he’d let the car coast too far to one side of the lane before jerking it back on course, the entire vehicle shuddering like a horse that just took a spur in its side. Then, as he maneuvered off a quiet access road and onto a two-way highway, he turned so wide that we ended up in the oncoming lane of traffic. We skidded to a stop, parked backward on the shoulder. I could now see that my father’s eyes were barely open, and his hands were trembling on the steering wheel.