What was most important back then, during those angst-filled mid-teen years, was to be from a family as fucked up as my friends’ families. That was what tied us together, our collective sense of domestic misfortune. It was what I craved, more than love or friendship: sympathy, the route to belonging.
Julie shared a home with her alcoholic mother and prurient stepfather, who more than once crossed the line from letch to pedophile. Maybe once a month or so she stayed with her coke-addled father in whatever hovel he happened to inhabit on Saratoga’s seedy West Side (except for the six months that he lived in a custom-built, three-story vacation house on the lake, when he was at the height of his dealing prowess and promised her all sorts of goodies, which he never delivered).
Amy’s parents were properly sauced within twenty minutes of returning from their 9-5ers at the unemployment office, deflated into matching Edith and Archie chairs before Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which seemed to be on a perpetual loop at their house. All that cable television, wasted on saber tooth tigers.
Rachel lived across the street from Amy, in a matching folk Victorian that had been diced into apartments. Every three months or so, her mother chose to discard all of Rachel’s belongings, tossing them out the window into the industrial dumpster below. Rachel’s father had disappeared years ago.
Katie’s father, on the other hand, had surrendered legal rights to his children. She had actually fired her father, her mother’s bruises and black eyes evidence enough to get him tossed off her family tree.
I don’t know what was wrong at Kristin’s house. Her parents were just weird, suburban and weird. Her father’s facial features were too large, a little Lucien Freud trapped in Saratoga white trash.
All those malfunctioning familial ingredients explained the misbehaviors of our gang: the stealing, cheating, lying, overt sexual activity, mild juvey status that we courted.
What was wrong at my house? Something had me out in the middle of George Street, screaming the word “abusive” and pointing at the brick Italianate house that I so loved. Something had me stealing from relatives, skipping school, too lazy to wash dishes at the corner restaurant where my stepmother had procured for me a summer job. Something had me stoned most afternoons and some mornings, giving blowjobs to strangers at the Holiday Inn, passing afternoons in the closet, a steak knife flirting with my wrist. I looked at my siblings: geniuses, all of them, almost never in trouble. I clung to what I knew could be the cause: my father and his dependency on The Marijuana, to which my mother had on occasion referred, usually in the same breath that she noted the absence of the monthly child support check.
My father was a pothead.
This bode well for me, not only because I was allowed entry into the fucked-up-family club, but because it brought a steady stream of shaggy-haired teenage boys to the tiny room on our first floor where my father would teach them guitar after school and in the evenings. My father—self-trained, and unable to read music still at this point, in his early 40s—hated this job. He did not want to teach scales or theory. Instead he showed the kids the three chords in the one, four, five progression which lent them access to unlimited pop songs: The Dead and Neil Young and Bob Dylan, off key and leaking from behind that carved oak door with the polished porcelain knob. My father was a pothead, true. The problem was that he was cool.
Luckily, he was uninterested in me, lazy, regretful that he had procreated with my mother, markedly more in love with his second round of children than his first and prone not to punishing me but to acquiescing to my stepmother’s disciplinary wishes. So when I referred to him as “my asshole father,” talking to Reid Lyons—one of those shaggy-haired boys I had spied in my house, strumming along with Pops—one Saturday night at Julie’s father’s lake house, I was not lying. I knew Reid knew my father, knew he probably venerated him on some level—why else would a working class kid pay him $15 an hour for a lesson?—and yet the only way I could think of to broach that aisle of space between us, the only way I could think to get him to be interested in me, was to convince him that I needed to be rescued from the perilous situation of my home. I was a mess, tragic, deep—this was after the movie Betty Blue had come out, making mental illness romantic—but I had to have a reason for the struggle. And that reason was my father: the wasteoid, who didn’t want me.
The truth was, I had never seen my father smoke. There had been but one incident, when I was five years old and we were driving to Florida in a hippy caravan, and I opened the glove compartment—what could be more fun than opening and shutting the glove compartment on a 1300-mile drive?—and found brownies wrapped in tin foil. I have always been and am still unable to control myself around sweets. It was one of two times my father laid his hands on me, slapping my wrist so I dropped the whole thing on the grimy console.
But evidence of his habit existed in tiny rosewood boxes around the house. I had scoured his drawers for pot in my pre-teen years, especially after a visit from his best friend Michael Clark, who lived in Hawaii—great dope—and was famous in our household for having smuggled pot back from Malawi, where he and my mother and father lived during their Peace Corp years, by cutting a hole in the pages of a book and stashing it inside. Mostly I stole it from our family friend and across the street neighbor, Ajiah (he had been Phil until converting to some religion based on Baba Ram Dass, which had him wearing pink every day and upping his weekly marijuana quotient).
I have no memory of my father as a stoned person, with a blank smile pasted on his face, drawing out the syllables on the word Dude, or any other behaviors attributed to the stereotype of pothead. But I did chalk up his indifference to the drug. I had to. He was friendly with all three of my siblings. If drugs weren’t the cause, I would have had to blame his indifference on me.
Reid Lyons became my boyfriend. I was sixteen, miraculously still a virgin, obsessed with guitar-playing red-haired Anglo boys, which described him perfectly. Reid had been to Adult Child of Alcoholics camp the summer before, where he had learned two things: that he himself was an alcoholic/drug addict, and how to perform oral sex on a woman.
Naturally, to reap the benefits of his latter lesson, I had to commiserate with the former. It wasn’t hard for Reid to convince me that I had a problem—all we did was smoke pot, snort speed from $10 bills and go to the racetrack, drop acid and wander around downtown among the ladies in broad brimmed hats—and he lured me to the rooms of AA by way of promising the thing I craved almost as much as sympathy: community. I gave up the pot, and got myself a boyfriend.
This didn’t calm the eruptions in my household, though some of my behavior was officially less at-risk—no more blowjobs for strangers, at least. The fights were still vicious, ending in tears on my end, and once my father even cried, lowering his head and declaring, “I just don’t know what to do with you.” I got up and walked away. It didn’t occur to me that his level of frustration was a sign of love.
I walked out on Reid sometimes, too. He lived in a tiny box of a ranch house near Jefferson Terrace, the only ghettoized spot on Saratoga’s East Side where black people lived. Once, I stormed out in my underwear, across the street and into the forbidden territory of the Terrace. Reid went out looking for me, combing the streets on his banana seat bike.
His diary, which I read when he went to work, fixing bikes at Clifton Park Schwinn and Ski down Route 9, said this: “Lisa Davis is crazy, but is so cute and a little sweetie.” I was in love, and I wasn’t on drugs, but my behavior had not been rerouted to normal.
Reid’s father was an alcoholic. He had left the family—Reid’s two siblings and his mom—for a younger woman named Marcia, moved to a new suburban subdivision closer to Albany, a betrayal to everyone, even the real town of Saratoga. We could smoke cigarettes in front of Reid’s mom, and watch Fritz the Cat, and I could sleep over—even my dog, Taj, could sleep over. His family was fucked up, but in a good way, and we commiserated on how we felt gypped and abandoned by our fathers, and by our common struggles with our own tempers and minds and drugs.
But that summer, my father announced that he was 44 in ‘88, and that numerology had led him to give up The Pot. My father and I found ourselves newly sober together, though no closer to peace. Still, I worried: would I still have my community of ACoAs and AA boyfriends and damaged goods girlfriends if my father disposed of his wake-n-bake status? And more importantly, if he wasn’t wasted, whom could I blame for what was wrong with me?
I was 29 before I smoked pot with my father, having long abandoned the rooms of AA. He came to visit me in the suburb of Phoenix, Arizona where I went to graduate school, during what was either the best or most deluded time of my life. I felt happy and confident. Later, doctors told me I was hypomanic. I had a cadre of drunken poet friends with whom I would get wasted around the bonfire every single night while the freight train creaked by and they read aloud from Wallace Stevens or Larry Levis. We sang songs and played guitars and at 3 or 4 in the morning I would go to my weirdly sexy chubby drunken poet’s horrible apartment in the gated community and hump. How could I not be happy?
My father came out to visit before I had descended into the underside of hypomania—the non-technical term for it being despair. I took him to the drunken poets’ house, and he recited the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by rote, accompanying himself on guitar. He smoked the pot—strong, straight-from-Mexico pot, but he said nothing happened. It didn’t affect him. “This shit is weak,” he said, putting the joint down on the coffee table, and picking up a guitar instead.
I was proud of my father. I was showing him off.
Because at some point it had become unfashionable to come from a fucked up family. I wanted to tout my family’s extraordinariness and at the same time its normalcy. We harbor no child abusers, rapists, criminals—save for Grampa stealing a few Fig Newtons from the hospital cafeterias where he would take us for lunch. We are eccentrics. We don’t behave like most of the other people in the room, which led to great vocational, artistic and social success for my grandfather, father and two brothers. For me, it has been a persistent struggle, to try and rein myself in—behaving like the rest of you would prevent me from being one of them.
There was a problem with my altered attitude. If we were now a happy clan, then what accounted for my lingering behavioral aberrations? Without the veil of my father’s pot smoking and my stepmother’s unkindness, I no longer had an excuse for these struggles.
In Arizona, I repeated some of the greatest hits of my fucked up childhood, mostly by way of near-constant intoxication and anonymous and unsafe sex with strangers. It was as if my teenage years were a foreshadowing of the plot that was to unfold, with me standing in the middle of the street—hot, deserted, Arizona street—carrying on in some way that I must have still thought was romantic, or at the very least forgivable.
My behavior turned out to be neither. I guess everybody else outgrew being crazy—it has become unfashionable to be all fucked up in the head, too, and unfashionable to be a starving artist. Every single one of my childhood friends has married, and four of the five have procreated—they have ten children between them. They have houses. They go long stretches without talking to one another or me because the horrors that bound us to one another as a child are nearly irrelevant in our adult lives. I’m the only one left in the fucked up family club, and my family, it turns out, is fine.
I never did get much sympathy, and what cache there was of it ran out long ago. I had survived too much and accomplished too much for people to pity me, and the way I touted my failures and shortcomings only made them turn away. It was a protective mechanism I devised a long time ago: announce my character defects, to let people know that I was well aware of what was wrong with me, to reject myself first, before they could get to it, somehow thinking that would lead to acceptance. Eventually, that became my default position: the think badly of myself, and to hope others would love for me for it.