Suburban life can be maddening for a man under pressure. On certain days he feels violated by all the comparison. The people and things he sees spread up and down his street are like the people and things of his own life, only different, nuanced in ways he can’t quite explain. Fulfillment is replaced with longing. Time elapses in duty and rote obligation rather than days, weeks, sunsets, breakfasts.
There is something subtle and devious about the way people communicate in the suburbs. Neighbors symbolize their lives through what they possess, the activity of their social lives. In the suburban community, a man’s value is measured by what he keeps and how he keeps it. Everywhere he looks is a form of qualitative comparison, a measuring stick of social value, a mirror under fleeting light.
I sometimes wonder what my father saw when he looked at our neighbors. He was a man married to the pursuit of his own meaning, deeply and spiritually unhappy with his life. He hated everything about his life, most of all the man who was living it.
I used to construct my calendar based on my parents’ work schedules. Thursday nights were a practice in tension. My mother worked late into the evening, my two sisters and I forced to endure the strain of a night alone with my father, his body teeming with living currents of pressure. His endeavors on those Thursday nights were struggles in simplicity, mere withdrawals of anything that might upset his self control. He listened to baseball games on the radio because this soothed him, it comforted him in the aging skin of his failures. He always cooked eggs and toast for his kids because that was what he knew. To try something else or experiment with his delicate routine would teeter the entire experience close to danger. He smoked cigarettes while he ate, one after the other.
We would be at the table, the four of us deliberate in our silence, shoveling mouthfuls of runny eggs to thwart the hush. A baseball game droned in the other room, the innocuous soundtrack of our fragile safety. My father studied me as I ate, not just this night or other Thursday nights but always, judging me with every meal, each small bite, waiting for me to give him a reason. There was always a cosmic inevitability in those situations. I think back and wonder what my sisters thought while we ate, if they averted their gaze out of some mixture of compassion for me and respect for him, or maybe they measured him furtively, puzzled by the enormous weight of his thoughts. I wonder if they looked at me and couldn’t help but share my discomfort, a truth so deep that it became a part of who I was and still am. I don’t think they knew how close I always felt to death and how confusing it was to continually share that distinction with being a child.
He would say something about my eating, I was doing it wrong, slow down, eat faster, chew with your mouth closed, open your mouth, look at me, don’t look at me. The words were meaningless, they could have been any words, any language or dialect. His words were the evasive filler of space and time, metaphysical snapshots of the moment before the moment. I always knew what to expect long before I cowered deep into myself in preparation, before the blow sent me sailing into the other room, his giant electric frame pouncing on me, eyes glittering mad, smoky breath comforting and familiar on my cheeks.
I remember the red ember of cigarette fire in his fingers inching toward my eyes and I closed them, shutting out the animal light in his face, his eyes like mine in the years to come, and I felt the close burn just before he pulled the cigarette away, unable to whimper in entreaty or resist his rage by uttering the only name I knew to call him.