The first time I saw him drunk, I was seven and stood in the kitchen helping my mom wash dishes. I used my blue and yellow Rubbermaid stool to comfortably submerge my short, brown arms in the suds-filled sink; laughing when the tips of my small fingers shriveled up like prunes. My father interrupted the silence of the room, throwing the front door open, startling me and my mother. I was wearing one of his old Tigers shirts, which never stopped smelling like him, fresh musk, neither one strong enough to overpower the other. The bright orange shirt fell past my knees, but the top half was now decorated with dark spots where water attacked me.
“Not again James.” I heard the disappointment in my mom's brittle voice, but kept my eyes on my father. He yelled a “Thanks man” over his shoulder, presumably to his designated driver for the night, then staggered over to my mom, who stopped helping me with the dishes and stood at the entrance of the kitchen, where she was granted an unwanted, yet clear, view of my father. She stood straight to her full height, five foot four, right hand on hip, her mad stance. Her black robe hung open, revealing her red and black, silk gown, which harbored a medium sized wet spot on her abdomen. Her crinkly brown hair was covered in a black bonnet and a demeaning look settled on her brown face. Though she was a petite woman, I found her appearance intimidating.
I watched my father's inebriated mannerisms in horror and began pinching the skin on my middle finger, a nervous habit. I'd never seen him so off balance, with little to no control over his body. He was no longer the IT Tech, his professional attire replaced by baggy jeans, a white t-shirt with alcohol stains, and dirty black boots. I'd never heard him slur his words, unable to formulate a cohesive sentence. He mumbled something to my mother as he wrapped one arm around her small waist, pulling her close, more to support himself than anything. He secured her wrist with his other hand and initiated a sloppy dance, the whole time my father tripped over his feet and my mom attempted to escape his uncomfortable grasp.
“Stop it James. You're hurting my arm.”
Her reluctance seemed to awaken his urge to dance more; continuing to move in an uncoordinated fashion, my father bumped into the gray, granite counter and knocked pans onto the linoleum floor. The pans’ loud crash startled me from my daze and the sound of my scream caught their attention.
“Stop. Christine is watching.”
I was scared and cold, the wet patches on the nightshirt not drying fast enough. Who was this stranger pretending to be my father? Where was the gentle man who swept me off my feet and placed me above his shoulders when I was having a bad day? The man who held me in his arms when I had nightmares, and carried me to bed when I fell asleep? Who was this violent monster yanking and grabbing at my fragile mother?
“Christine. Sweetie, go to your room. Mommy will come tuck you in soon.”
“L- let me do it,” my father slurred. He released my mom and started towards me. “C'mon Chrissy.”
“No. Not like this.”
He stopped stumbling in my direction, using the counter for support, and looked over his shoulder at my mom. “I... can tuck in my own freaking daughter.”
“It's OK mommy, dad can do it.” I spoke up with hopes that their loud voices would fall silent and he wouldn't have the urge to encompass her again. Though I was scared he would grab my small arms and hurt me the way he hurt my mom, I was more afraid of what he would do to her for trying to stop him. Mom's face still said no, but she nodded reluctantly. My father approached me, towered over me and blocked my view of my mother, the one thing that made me feel safe. He held out his dark, rough hand and I didn't know how to respond. I finally gave him my hand, hoping he'd take me to my room as promised. He took my hand and placed the other on my head. He began dancing with me.
Only after hearing my cry, a result of his worn boots smashing my tiny toes, did we stop dancing. My father tried lifting me, but couldn't keep his own balance and struggled even more to keep it and lift me. My father gave up on his first try, and placed all his concentration on walking from the kitchen to the couch, presumably because it was closer than my parents' bedroom. My mom allowed him to pass before coming to escort me from the kitchen. She lifted me effortlessly and I buried my face in her chest, thinking of my father and how baffled I was at his actions. I clung to her shirt not wanting to be put down in bed. I was still uneasy about my father and fell asleep hoping his drunkenness was a onetime thing.
The last time I saw him drunk, I stood in the bathroom doorway reluctantly watching him and my mom argue. I had the urge to pinch the skin on my middle finger, but my hands were full of soap bars, shampoo, toothpaste, and other toiletries ready to be packed in the suitcase waiting in my room.
“And by busy you mean going out and drinking,” Mom accused.
My father retorted with slurred excuses for why he couldn't accompany her on the three hour drive to the place where I’d be spending the next four years of my life, Herring University.
“No. Janet. Busy means... busy. Busy, busy, busy. Busy... gotta help a friend. Then... my boss need me... to come in.”
It didn't bother me that he lied about why he “couldn't” see me off to school, or that he wasn't coming, I think that part actually made me happy. It bothered me that he was already drunk at twelve in the afternoon. When I was younger, he used to limit his drinking to after work hours, but over the years he'd have whiskey for breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. Now he's a high-functioning alcoholic.
“James. She's only going to college once.”
“Well it ain't jail. I can talk to the girl... when I please.” After speaking he turned and spoke to me. “I'll come visit.. visit when you need me to... OK?”
Instead of responding I walked to my room, hearing my father speak to my mom once again.
“She got that nasty attitude from you Janet.”
Herring University selected a couple hundred incoming freshmen to participate in a summer program that helped bridge the gap between high school and college. Selected students were required to move to campus and spend three months learning the environment, participating in activities around campus, and taking three classes, Math, Writing, and a Comprehensive Studies class. The program began the end of June and would end a week before freshmen year actually began.
The first time I saw him, I was standing in line at one of the four registration tables. Robert Landing's loose tank top and cargo shorts revealed long, muscular arms and lengthy, defined calves. He glanced around the crowded room, probably surveying the hundreds of new, diverse faces as I’d been doing before I laid eyes on him. His eyes looked hazel from across the room and I wondered how pretty they were when he stood in natural light. His eyes made contact with mine and I flashed a quick smile before quickly turning away, then staring at the short, blonde hair belonging to the tall, white girl standing in front of me. I smiled, feeling silly for shying away from his kind stare. Thankfully, I convinced my mom to wait for me in the entrance of the building. Thankfully, she wouldn't see me fawning over this boy. This tall, golden-brown boy. I hoped he didn't examine me from head to toe as I’d done him. I hadn't put a lot of thought into my appearance for the day. Anticipating a lot of movement I'd pulled my shoulder length, brown hair into a ponytail and wore a jogging suit, the pants a bit long for my short legs. I wondered what he thought of me.
Twenty minutes later I was hauling my luggage off the elevator and to my room on the fourth floor. I listened to my mom praise the dorm, its beautiful, patterned carpet and its lovely, cream walls. She admired my spacious room and stopped fawning over the place only when my roommate, Lori, walked in with her family. My mom was visibly shocked by their Spanish, but was pleasant when introducing herself. The Galvans were polite and spoke with us until we were called for a meeting. It was optional for parents, and unlike the Galvans, my mom attended. She didn't leave until after the meeting, the campus tour, and lunch with me. After the tour, we came back to my room because she insisted that I unpack before lunch. She made it hard to say goodbye, she cried and embraced me in the longest hug of my life. I was her baby and now I was on my own. I watched her drive away still teary eyed, and when her tail lights finally disappeared, I shed a few tears myself. Of course I would miss my mom, and knowing how lonely she'd be without me, her only child, her only source of comfort and companionship, made it worse. However, I was happy to finally be out of that house. One of the main reasons I needed to leave was to escape the detrimental environment that I had to call home for years.
The first time we spoke was at the request of Mr. Reyes, teacher of College Writing. He passed out articles of various topics and asked us to read and discuss it with the person sitting beside us. The girl to my left was all too eager to turn to her friend, not even glancing my way. I was left to turn to my right, where I found Robert staring at me. I wondered how long he'd been staring.
“Christine, right?” He spoke confidently, with the right amount of bass.
“Yes.” I answered a bit too eagerly, excited that he committed my name to memory. “R-Robert, right?
He gave an approving head nod. “You can call me Rob.”
I averted my eyes to the article that was recently placed in front of us, looking for a reason to turn away and hide the smile dancing across my lips. We huddled together to read the small print of the single article that discussed affirmative action. During the last minute of class we were given our homework for next class, write an argumentative essay on a topic of our choice. While the class packed their belongings, Rob touched me lightly on the arm. He asked if his topic, the enforcement of three minimum snow days at all universities, seemed interesting enough. I thought it did.
We had two out of three classes together, Math and Writing. Math was held in a large classroom with seats situated in rows. I sat closer to the front, a habit I brought with me from high school, while Rob occupied a seat in the back. Writing was held in a classroom equally as large, but instead of individual desks the room was packed with rectangular tables pushed together in a circular formation, forcing everyone to face the inside of the circle. Courtesy of the room's arrangement, I was able to steal a few quick glances at Rob.
When we received our first paper grades Rob received a C, and noticing my A-, he admitted that he wasn't a “good” writer and asked for my help on future papers. When I agreed we began doing homework together, sometimes with a group of our roommates and other friends, most times by ourselves. We sat next to each other in Writing and occasionally in Math, when he felt like joining me in the front of the room. After receiving grades for our first math test I revealed my C to Rob and admitted that I hated math. Rob loved it and offered to help me study for future exams. I made it through math with a C+ and he made it through Mr. Reyes' Writing with a B.
The program ended a week before the school year began, I stayed on campus and Rob took an hour and a half bus ride home. His grandfather, Rob's favorite person in the world, the one he could talk about for days and days, turned eighty while Rob was attending the program. Rob planned a whole week of activities for the two in belated celebration of his birthday. Not ready to be alone, or at least not ready to leave his presence, I offered to accompany him on his fifteen minute walk to the Greyhound station. He declined my offer, saying it wouldn't be right for me to walk back to my dorm alone. Sitting on the edge of his bare, extra-long twin bed, I stared at Rob's back. His long body was hunched over his overstuffed suitcase, struggling to zip it. His fight with the zipper made the muscles in his arms twitch.
“Finally,” I heard him say to himself, before turning to look at me. “So... I guess I'll see you in a week.”
“Yep.” I looked down at my feet. The red polish on my toes was chipping slightly, but only someone staring intently would notice. When Rob's black and white Nikes stopped in front of me I looked up.
“You sure you don't want to go home Chris? Only for a week?”
“Nope. It's only a week, and it would be pointless to pack up everything for seven days just to bring it back.”
“You could put your stuff in my storage unit.” He sat on the bed next to me.
“Thanks,” I turned to look at him, “but I finally convinced my mom that it was best for me to stay here, and I already received permission from housing to move into my dorm early.”
“OK... sorry I couldn't help you with that... by the way.”
“It's fine... I'll be fine... my mom's coming to help me tomorrow.... so I’ll be fine.”
I was fine, but I'd be great if he hung around to help me. Sometimes I felt that the time spent with him was never enough. He was funny, charming, and easy to talk to. He didn't swear unnecessarily, didn't wear sloppy, baggy clothes, and was proud to talk about his future in pre-med. I pinched the skin on my middle finger. Thinking of him and how I felt around him made me nervous. My stomach constantly a place where butterflies waltz.
I continued pinching my finger, the intensive eye contact making me more and more uncomfortable. The butterflies were now romping, but I didn't want to break the eye contact. His warm eyes weren't only captivating, they were kind and comforting. Maybe he saw something kind in my dark brown eyes too. There had to be a reason he hadn't broken eye contact with me yet, right?
“So... see you in a week.” I said, only speaking because I wasn't sure what else to do.
Both Rob and I understood that the conversation reached its end. He leaned towards me, left arm raising slightly. Reciprocating the action, I leaned towards him, placed my hand on his cheek and kissed his lips. The instant the kiss ended, Rob sprang from the mattress, distancing himself from me as if he were a child and I was the boogie man. His wide eyes told me he hadn't expected the kiss, and allowing myself to quickly relive the memory, I realized Rob anticipated a hug, not my kiss. I stood, wanting to go to him, to ask him not to hate me, but I thought better of it.
“Oh, I'm sorry, I –.”
I was grateful for the interruption, not sure what I wanted to say next, and that he apparently accepted my poor apology, but I wondered if he really had. Was it “fine?” The way he continually averted his eyes left me with no clue as to what he was feeling.
“I better get going. I don't want to miss my bus so...”
“See you in a week,” I said.
Mom visited two weekends in a row, the weekend after the program ended and the weekend after classes began. After moving into my new dorm, we went to Red Lobster and spent the next few hours talking. On her second visit, we ate at the dining hall in my dorm, and once again she asked about the program, the classes I’ve taken and the people I’ve met. I deliberately kept quiet about Rob.
He texted me the second week of class and we met up for lunch, where we discussed our first few weeks as a freshmen, and compared schedules and dorm rooms. We stayed about seven minutes from each other's dorm. Before ending lunch, we talked about the kiss, as I'd predicted.
“Chris, what was that kiss all about?”
Though I anticipated the question, I never conjured a proper response. Noticing my loss of words he posed another question. “Can we still be friends if I don't feel the same way?”
I stayed silent, considering whether or not I wanted to deny my crush. Rob obviously knew my secret, so why try to keep quiet about it? I liked him and owed him the truth. “Yes,” I lied.
November fifth was my eighteenth birthday. After class that Thursday Rob came to my dorm room and rushed me to get ready, claiming we were running late.
“Running late for what,” I questioned while searching my closet for something decent to wear. I knew his antsy behavior stemmed from the surprise he planned for my birthday, but I struggled to pick the proper outfit, not knowing what kind of outfit the event called for. I turned to face him, he was wearing dark jeans, a white shirt, and black jacket. Still unsure, I followed his lead. I grabbed a decorative pair of jeans and royal blue V-neck long sleeve, and changed in my bathroom.
“Finally,” Rob said when I stepped out of the bathroom. I stuck my tongue out at him, grabbed my black leather jacket from the closet and headed for the door. Walking out of my dorm, I was grateful I that took the time put on makeup and curl my hair this morning, not wanting to look like my normal self on my birthday.
“Come on Rob, tell me where we're going.”
He was silent, enjoying my anxiousness. When we arrived on Main Street I assumed we'd be going to a restaurant. I hoped it wasn't one of the fancier ones because I’d feel severely under-dressed. To my surprise we passed all the restaurants decorating Main and entered the movie theater on the corner. Rob paid for tickets to the latest horror movie, my favorite genre, and gave me a charm bracelet while we waited in line for concessions. Part of me hoped he'd ask me to be his girlfriend, though he'd never shown interest in me that way. I’ve never had a boyfriend, never had someone I liked enough to want to be my boyfriend, but felt that Rob would make a good first boyfriend. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I told him I couldn't stand to be his friend that day when we were out for lunch. Would we have stopped talking? Would these feelings have gone away?
For his birthday, January twenty-fifth, I stopped by the store and picked up a small round cake, candles, and a new wallet. I carried the stuff over to Rob's dorm room and knocked on his door twice before placing the items behind my back. His roommate, Lionel, answered.
“He's not back from class yet,” Lionel said, back to me as he walked over to his desk and computer.
When I met Lionel, sometime during the first month of school, I remembered thinking he was Rob's complete opposite. He was shorter than Rob, but taller than me, and was heavy set. His white skin often looked pale and his greasy brown hair always seemed dirty and untamed. If I were asked to describe him that's exactly what I'd say. I never paid much more attention to him, never looking to find anything appealing about him.
“Hello to you too,” I mumbled. Though I knew Lionel for months I never had warm feelings toward him. He seemed to be so shut off, and never seemed interested in being polite to me.
I stood in the middle of the room, looking around. The beds rested on opposite sides of the room, neither made, and the cluttered desks and dressers stood at the foot of the beds. The room's set up resembled my own, but the white walls of this room were bare. Lori and I were roommates again and agreed that it was fine for the other to hang up posters. Mine were of various inspirational quotes, hers were of The Wizard of Oz.
I sat on the only portion of Rob's bed not covered in clothes or books. I placed the cake beside me and placed eighteen individual candles on it. I forgot to buy a lighter but didn't have time to ask Lionel for one before Rob burst through the door. He was talking loudly on the phone but smiled, showing his pearly whites, when he saw me.
“Happy birthday,” I yelled the moment the phone left his ear.
“Thank you.” He walked toward me and I stood to receive his hug.
“Chris, you didn't have –.”
“I wanted to. No biggie. Now close your eyes.”
“To make a wish and blow out my unlit candles,” he joked. I delivered a playful shove to his right shoulder.
“I forgot the lighter, but I still want you to close your eyes.”
“Hold out your hand.”
“Just do it.”
He held out both hands, palms up, and I placed the black leather wallet into his hands. He opened his eyes and thanked me again. “You really didn't have to.”
“Yes I did. Prior to my gift you shoved all your stuff in the front pockets of your pants.” Knowing I was right, but unwilling to admit it, he smiled. We watched movies until his friends called telling him to get dressed because they were taking him to a house party. He invited me to be polite though he knew I would decline.
Parties weren't my thing, and to be honest college parties scared me. I’ve seen enough movies that displayed drunk college kids having fun and living carefree. Growing up with a drunk father, alcohol becomes less and less appealing. What's so fun about losing control of your body and acting like a completely different person? How can you live carefree when your lungs are full of toxins?
The last time we spoke Rob was slouched on the beige carpeted floor of his dorm room, in front of his bed. His roommate's computer played music, the lyrics inaudible compared to Lionel's slurred singing. Lionel sat at his desk, Bud Lite can in hand, and leaned backward on the chair's hind legs. I stood directly in front of Rob, towering over his crumpled body. I found one of the only spots in the room where the floor wasn't covered in beer cans, books, or dirty clothes.
“Robert, get up.”
“Nooo. Come down here... with me.” He tried to move over to make room on the floor for me, but gave up shortly after struggling to push empty cans and dirty clothes aside. He looked back up at me and smiled, then patted his lap. “Come sit down here... right here...”
I didn't know whether to be mad at Rob for continually getting drunk and calling me over, or mad at myself for continuing to come when he called. What was this, the fiftieth time? After calling to tell me his grandfather died, I gave him room to grieve. I didn't say anything when he missed a few classes, or when he had the occasional drink, courtesy of Lionel knowing upperclassmen who were willing to buy alcohol for under-aged students. I even let it slide when the alcohol made him angry and rude, but there's only so many times you can do the same dance. I was tired of his drinking, tired of him giving up on his life, and tired of him turning into a person it was inevitable for me not to hate.
“No Robert. Get. Up.”
“Oooh,” Lionel interjected, “She called you Robert. That means you're in trouble bro.”
“Lionel, could you come over here and be of some actual use?”
He stumbled in my direction and bent down to lift Rob. I was little help, which was fine with me. Sometimes when I allowed him to lean on me for support he would see it as an opportunity to grope me.
“Robert you really shouldn't drink like this.”
“We know, we know. Your daddy is a drunk.”
“Rob told me why you're such a stick in the mud. Your old man drinks too much and now you hate everyone who drinks. My opinion...”
“I didn't ask.” I was livid, and turn my attention back to Rob.
“My opinion,” Lionel continued, clearly unmoved by my attitude, “is get over it. People drink. So what. My daddy was a drunk too. It's just something you get used to. And be glad you didn't have one of the abusive ones.”
I blinked quickly, begging the tears to stop blurring my vision, but they came anyway.
“You don't know anything about me or my life.” The shakiness of my voice was undeniable.
“Ain't trying to. You got daddy issues girl.”
I was upset that Robert told my personal business to some random person and sad that he had so little respect for me and my private life.
“Robert! Why did you tell my personal business? Just because you're having issues that you don't want to face doesn't mean you can tell other people's business.” I couldn't believe I was yelling at him. I'd never been pissed like this before. “I told you if you needed someone to talk to I'd be here, and the university offers counseling.”
“Bro she's trying to call you crazy.”
I kept my focus on Robert, not willing to acknowledge Lionel and his terribly unwanted comments any longer.
“Robert, I care about you and your wellbeing,” I spoke in a calmer voice, “but you can't keep acting this way, neglecting your classes and being rude to your friends. The thing I hate most about you is that you're never apologetic for your actions, never act like you regret the way you treat me. I can't keep forgiving you for that.”
When I looked at him he was sleeping. I didn't try to stop the tears that fell as I left the room.
The last time I saw him Lori and a few other friends convinced me to go out to celebrate surviving freshmen year. It was my first party of the year, and similar to the movies, there were people everywhere. The party was held in a two story house but guests were only allowed on the first floor and the basement. The cramped house was hot and sweat began forming the instant you stepped inside. Multiple guys walked past and asked why no drink was in my hand, then offered to get me one. I lied, claiming that I already had a few. Minutes after we arrived Lori offered me a swig of her drink. I declined and the fact that she had no idea what rested in her cup encouraged my declination. She shrugged and continued dancing and I wanted to thank her for not pressuring me. Sometime during the night our group shifted spots on the dance floor and found ourselves located near the DJ table. My body shook with the vibrations of the deafening music. There was a table next to the DJ where two guys passed out alcohol in red Solo cups, also similar to the movies.
When the music slowed, people slowed their movements accordingly. Women pressed their backsides against men, and men responded by pushing their genitals forward. Some people preferred to engage in this dance face-to-face. I hadn't quite seen this in movies. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an orgy. I leaned into the group to tell them that I wanted to get off the dance floor and get some fresh air, but everyone was too enticed in their inappropriate dancing. I was discouraged from pushing through colliding bodies to reach the house's side door where we entered, so I maneuvered through the crowd until I reached a wall. I continued looking around the crowded space, never ceasing to be amazed.
When I turned to my right I froze when I met eyes with Robert. He stood against the wall, a random girl shaking her behind on his crouch. He stared at me blankly, no longer projecting the kind, lively person I knew him to be the summer we met. Some days I still wished he hadn't gone downhill, wished he were able to pull himself out of the dark hole he'd fallen into. Unexpectedly, he gave the girl a shove, prompting her to un-press her body from his, and when she did he stood directly in front of me. He brought the red cup to his lips, still gazing at me. Pinching the skin on my middle finger was the only movement my stiff body allowed me to make. I blinked and he brought his head down and kissed me. When the kiss was over he said nothing and walked away. I hated myself for allowing the kiss to happen, for there being a part of me that still liked him. The alcohol on his breath, horrible and bitter. I didn't know if I’d ever attend another party, or how I felt about Robert, but I did leave the party sure of one thing, alcohol was gross.