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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Morgan

Because of You

“Come on, Dad, have some wine! Make a toast with us. It’s vacation and we’re all together!”

From the beach below, the sound of steel drums washes over me. Across the table, our teenage daughter raises a glass.

Smiling in Gee’s direction I point towards my own glass. It rests patiently before me. As her eyes follow the invisible thread connecting my finger to a fizzling Coke, I shrug, “I’ll pass on the wine, Gee.”

“Dad, you’re so boring. I mean, so totally boring. You need wine to make a toast!”

I raise my Coke from the table, offering to clink cups with Gee, our son DJ, and my wife, Liz. Our glasses come together; one wine, one Coke and two pineapple drinks. “To vacation,” sings Liz. The drum beat swells, joining my wife’s song of celebration.

We drink from our respective cups.

As DJ wipes pineapple juice from his chin, Gee proposes a second toast, “To us!”

Again, our glasses knock together. As a result of DJ’s desire to bang each glass firmly with his own cup, my wife’s wine spills across white linen. Like the Caribbean sunset behind us, split wine extends its spreading fingers. Save for my fleeting glance, we pay the blooming stain no mind.

Looking past her pineapple concoction, 15 year old Gee probes for a vacation treat, “Hey, Mom, can I try your wine? Please?” She waits an instant before landing a well-timed follow-up, “I mean, what’s it taste like? It’s so red. And it looks so good?”

Liz beams, “It’s really good, Gee. This wine is a Bordeaux from France and, oh my God, it’s utterly wonderful.”

My wife’s shoulders float upward, nearly touching her ears, “I love it.”

Liz leans over the spreading red stain and whispers toward Gee, “You smell it first, then you sip it.” My wife swirls her long-stemmed glass, “This is a Left Bank wine; an older vintage. First, you enjoy the smell. Then you turn your attention to the sensation of the wine on your palette – in your mouth. Then you taste it. Oh, it’s heavenly, Gee. Just heavenly.”

Liz demonstrates the process, finishing with a tiny sip. She smiles across the table at our children.

I have no idea what she’s talking about except I know ‘older vintage’ sounds expensive.

Liz continues, “These wines are super concentrated. They’re stored in a wine cellar for years before serving. The tannins give it a bitter taste. So it’s strong.” She extends her glass toward Gee. “Here you go. Try it. Not too much, though.”

Gee nods.

I watch Liz’s sure fingers unwind from the stem of the glass as Gee’s delicate digits methodically fill the vacancies left by my wife’s retreating grip. A silent symphony of movement unfolds; as if an experienced spider gracefully slips from a position of poise at the center of her silky domain to allow her baby a turn minding the web.

As suggested, Gee smells the wine. Her nose scrunches up. She swirls the glass before taking a sip. She puckers lips into a screwed contortion. Her eyes squeeze shut. “Ugh!”

As DJ monitors his sister’s effort, Liz and I work to contain laughter. Gee offers a dramatic stage shiver, “It’s too… I don’t know what it is... too tart! I mean, it’s OK but … how can you ‘love’ this stuff? How can you drink a whole glass?”

Gee’s extends her arm, seeking to place as much distance as possible between the glass and her lips. A single drop falls from the glass, adding a red star to our tablecloth’s sunset stain. The young dot grows, seemingly trying to join the existing red splash.

Liz nods knowingly as she retrieves her wine, “It’s an acquired taste, Gee.” As my wife speaks, she places her free hand on the table, sliding forward to tug at Gee’s pinky, “This wine; well this one’s considered more of a masculine wine so I guess it kinda makes sense that you’d find it…”

Before Liz can finish, DJ jumps into the conversation, “Let me try it, Mom. It sounds pretty good to me!” Liz withdraws her glass as DJ plows forward, “ Come on! I’ll just take a sip! Just a sip, OK?”

Liz looks to me before holding out the glass for our son. He looks from Liz to me.

I smile, “DJ, you can try it, but remember buddy, you’ve gotta be careful when you drink. I’m tell’n you, you’ve got our family’s addictive personality gene and…”

He grabs for the glass, looking more like a wild dragonfly, ready to smash its way through a web, than an elegant spider sliding into a position of grace, “I know Dad, I know. I have to watch out with alcohol so I don’t become an alcoholic or something. You already told me that - like a million times.”

He reaches for the wine. Sensing the message has yet to sink in, Liz pulls back her glass, keeping an even distance between her drink and our 12 year old’s grasping hand. The lurching dragonfly wobbles as he balances himself on an invisible string connecting childhood with adulthood.

“Listen to your dad, DJ. My dad was an alcoholic. And he died because of it. And your dad’s grandparents were alcoholics too. Both of Grandpa Dick’s parents struggled with alcohol. This is serious stuff. Look at me. Can you handle being grown-up about this?”

Suppressing a frown, our son nods in the affirmative.

Liz inches the glass forward, “And, well, DJ, if you wanna learn to drink responsibly you have to understand it’s up to you to be careful. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

DJ folds his arms. His milk-white skin blends seamlessly with the unstained portion of the tablecloth. While Liz and Gee appear as Caribbean locals, DJ takes after me. His skin glows like the reaching moon. Matching the two red stains on the linen, two swatches of sunburn mark his upper arms; spots apparently missed when applying sunblock.

“Mom, I know all this stuff. I’m not stupid! So, I get it.” His eyes tart around the table.

Gee wags a finger, “DJ, this stuff tastes weird. It smells good but it tastes weird.” She shudders, “Me? I’m sticking to my drink right here!” She takes a long slug of pineapple juice before delivering a satisfied smile.

DJ frowns, “It’s masculine, so I’ll like it. Let me try. Please?”

I jump into the back and forth, “DJ, it’s not about being stupid. Come on, you know what I’m gonna say, right? We’re a family of patterns. My father never had a drink in his whole life and you know why? Because his mom and dad were drunks. He broke the pattern. I mean, when I was a little kid we’d go to their apartment in the Bronx and they would never smile. They’d just sit there in their stiff-backed chairs and drink themselves into an angry stupor. And I remember my dad telling me, when he was a kid, his parents would get so drunk they wouldn’t even remember if they fed him and his brother and sister. They’d miss lunch and dinner after his parents passed out. So, we have to set the pattern. And if we don’t set the pace something else will.”

I point to my Coke, “See this? I drink this stuff to keep my distance because I have the same gene as my grandparents. I’ve seen it up close. I’m setting the pattern here. Me.”

I stretch my freckled forearm across the table and place it next to my son’s folded arms. Our glowing limbs line up like a row of fallen bowling pins. I nod at our milky arms, “And look here. Don’t think you don’t have the same genes as me, buddy. And the same genes as my grandparents. I fall into patterns and I can get addicted to stuff; in a snap.”

I snap my fingers close to DJ’s ear. He swings his hand high, seeking to swat me away.

"And," I say pointing to each of my two children, “that gene is in the two of you.”

I reach back across the table, trying to tussle DJ’s hair. He pulls back, positioning his arm perpendicular to the table in a defensive move, “You know the thing inside you that makes you want to never stop playing video games, or that seems to force you to eat a whole box of crackers in one sitting, or makes you crave bread and salsa or even helps you concentrate on karate so much that you got your black belt before you’re 12, well that’s the gene I’m talking about. It’s mixed in with a gene that makes you more likely to get addicted to alcohol. And, believe me, you do not want that.”

Gee the facilitator steps in to broker a deal, “DJ, Dad’s right.” She turns to me, “But Dad, we can handle it. Really, we can.”

DJ drops his chin and stares through me as I continue, “When I was a teenager and then during my first year of college, I drank every day. Every frigg’n day. And when you’re drunk all the time you miss an awful lot. You miss life. And life is not something you want to miss.”

Looking for a potential card to play sometime in the future, Gee probes my line of reasoning, “Um, so, how old were you when you started drinking, Dad?”

“Nice try kiddo. I’m tell’n you Gee, you know where to probe; how to focus on a point of interest. You’re good; real good. But anyway, to answer your question, let’s just say I was older than you. And I drank pretty much every day for three to four years. And then, even after I got kicked out of college and had to start over and even when I was in grad school studying like a mad man, I’d still get drunk on the weekends with my buddies. And I mean really drunk.”

I look over Gee’s shoulder; toward the slipping sun, “That was a long time ago; a lifetime ago.” The rumble of steel drums washes through me.

I look back and forth between my children, “Neither of you want that.”

“So then why’d you stop, Dad? Why’d you stop drinking and become so boring? And besides, if you drank so much how come we never saw you drunk?”

DJ smirks, “Yeah, Dad, I’ve never even seen you ‘tipsy’ – you know – like Mom gets when we’re on vacation?”

Liz feigns indignation, “Hey now, wait a minute! Two drinks is my limit! And I work hard for my wine! So there!”

We laugh before Gee continues, “So tell us, Dad. How come you don’t drink anymore?”

Liz rests her glass on the table. Long black hair is pulled tight in a ponytail. The style accents sharp Caribbean features. Big eyes rest atop high cheek bones. Her eyes twinkle, watching me, perhaps recalling a similar conversation she may or may not have had with her hard drinking father many years ago.

And as my daughter waits for an answer, I drift away…

***

I drift for years.

And when I return to earth, I find I’m in a place some 15 years ago. Liz is still in medical school. Our daughter Gee is six months old. I’ve recently been promoted to Director within our group at GE; a level far above my abilities. In addition to a nice salary, the promotion delivers two to three years of unrelenting professional pain and pressure requiring periodic release and escape.

My daydream has taken me to a weekend like every weekend back then. Liz has to leave early this Sunday morning to meet her lab partners at the BU Library. She and her lab mates meet Sundays at 8AM to get a head start on next week’s assignments. She’ll return from the library 12 hours later.

DJ has yet to be born. So, it’s me and Gee spending entire weekends together while Liz studies.

Usually, I love Sunday mornings. Me and Gee go to the park near Davis Square, visit art galleries and museums, walk the bike path, grab a snack for Gee and coffee for me at Au Bon Pain and, when we return home, Gee naps. We finish the day with a Disney movie on the VCR or by dancing wildly – with Gee bobbing in my arms – to the B-52s or Art of Noise in our little apartment’s even littler living room. Each weekend is a mini-vacation.

This particular Sunday morning though is gonna be a tough one.

Last evening, Liz had to study for a monster test on Monday. With Gee fast asleep, I took advantage of an open Saturday night and went out with Tony.

Now, at 7:00AM on the morning after a night on the town, Liz tries to shake me out of a near unconscious state. At first, she shakes me gently, tenderly, even. Then harder. Then with both hands pushing down on my chest. She shoves me back and forth.

From far away I hear a voice. It’s jumbled; muffled.

“Glenn, wake up! Come on. I’m heading to the library now. I have to be there by eight. Gee’s already awake. I gave her a bottle. And there’s breast milk in the fridge for later.”

My eyes are crusted shut.

Rubbing my face, the room begins to spin.

I grope at the air above me, trying to push back an invisible weight pressing upon my head. My head throbs. Like a wine press, a weight squeezes any remaining liquids from my grape-like skull. The pressure’s too great and my head caves. I try to speak but all I can muster is an open mouth cough.

I smell smoke.

I pull a long brown hair from my mouth.

Gagging, I drool across the pillow.

Looking up, I see Liz. She’s speaking but I can’t understand what she’s saying.

She bends down toward me. She raises her voice.

“Oh my God, Glenn you reek! You smell like the Cantab. From the looks of things, I’m guessing you had a rough night with Tony, huh?” She stands tall, shaking her head, “How much did you guys drink anyway?”

Probing sunlight stabs at my face.

I cover my eyes. “Ah…. we ah, we did kamikazes. And I ah, I stopped counting after we hit double digits.” I squeeze my head, “Oh, man, my head is crushed. Completely crushed.”

It hurts when I talk.

Rolling to my right, I lean over the side of the bed and let a line of drool slip to the floor.

Liz watches in disgust.

Hoping to stop the room’s continued spinning, I reach for the floor.

Then I remember. It’s Sunday. “Hey, where’s Gee?”

“She’s upstairs. And it’s just after seven, so listen kamikaze man, I’m taking the car to the library. Gee’s still in her crib. Don’t let her stay there for too long, alright.”

My wife pats my shoulder, “Come on, get up. Get moving.”

Before leaving the room, Liz increases the volume on the baby monitor and places it next to my ear, allowing me to better hear little Gee jabber away with her favorite stuffed bear named, for reasons unknown, Pooconkee.

Drifting sounds float above my head like a swarm of bees. Just above my drool-covered pillow, swirling sounds merge into a single sharp stinger; a stinger which proceeds to plunge downward and pierce the top of my head. Molten metal is deposited into my broken skull. A wave of pain convulses through me.

I’m gonna puke.

Like a boxer struggling to rise from the mat, I stagger from the bed towards the bathroom. Liz politely steps aside. I nearly reach the toilet before dry heaves topple me. I fall to the yellowed linoleum floor, heaving bile and spittle into the toilet. My broken brain throbs with each dry heave.

I place my arms across the toilet seat and rest my head there. The toilet seat is cool.

Liz follows me to the bathroom. “Nice one, Glenn. Real nice. Ya know nights like these are not good for you, right?”

I remain still, resting my head on the toilet.

Liz leans forward, “When you’re finished puking out who-knows-how-many kamikazes, take three Motrin and sip down this glass of water. Here, it’s on the sink. Look, I gotta go. You’re on your own with Gee.”

Liz marches toward the door. Her footsteps fall like sandbags upon my head and shoulders. The heaviest sound smashes me in the face as she slams the thick front door behind her. Glass rattles.

“Oh my fucking god,” I wail, “My head. My fucking head.”

I work my way to a standing position.

Gingerly, I sip water, hoping not to vomit.

The phone rings.

The sound rushes from the kitchen to lance through me.

“What the fuck? Oh, just fucking kill me…”

Like Frankenstein raised from the dead, I lurch forward with both arms outstretched. The ringing phone slices into me.

It hurts when I walk.

Groping along the wall I find my way to the receiver. I mumble, cough, and mumble some more, “Hello?”


“Hey, Glenn, it’s me, Tony. Are you hung over? I am so fucked up. I mean, I’m a wreck; a fuck’n wreck. Hey, anyway, I’m sorry to be calling so early, but I can’t find my car. Is it at your house? Please say yes. I don’t wanna tell my wife I lost the car.”

“Your car? Jesus fucking Christ, hold on.” I drop the phone. It falls to the floor loudly, adding to swelling pain. I creep to the front door and pull back the curtain. Oh, my fucking god. Sunlight. Brightness. Pain. I let the curtain fall back to its original position; the painless position.

It hurts when I use my eyes.

From her crib, Gee begins to yell in earnest, “Dad-dee! Dad-dee! DAD-Dee!”

I squint and pull the curtain back just enough to peek outside. Yup, there’s Tony’s red Acura. Seems undamaged.

Returning to the kitchen I find the phone on the floor. Slowly, I bend down before falling to my knees. Placing both palms on the floor I struggle to steady myself. The worn wooden floor is cool to the touch. With effort, I pick up the phone.

“Yeah, dude. Your car’s outside. And it’s fine. I’m pretty certain we took a cab from the Cantab. The guy – I think he was a cabbie – dropped me off first and then took you home. I guess you made it.”

Tony coughs, “Shit. I don’t remember leaving the bar. I do remember someone trying to take my shirt off on the dance floor. But anyway, that doesn’t matter. We didn’t drive, right?”

“No numb nuts, we’re too grown up for that shit. Your car’s fine. Listen, I gotta get going with Gee. I’m all fucked up here. And assuming I don’t die in the next hour, we’ll be at Paulina Playground by nine. Anyway … I thought drinking was supposed to help me escape pain?”

Tony laughs, “Well, you weren’t feel’n any pain last night, I’ll tell you that. We were wild. But anyway, I’m too messed up to go to the park. Right now, I’m going back to bed. Watch my car for me, alright? Thanks, Glenn. I’m gonna go puke.”

Click.

I return to the bathroom, find the glass of water and raise it to my lips. I take a sip.

I shudder.

Looking into the mirror I find blood red eyes staring back at me. My hair looks like that of Don King. I watch as my reflection runs fingers over cracked lips.

It hurts when I use my fingers.

It hurts when I touch my lips.

I take another sip of water, monitoring progress in the mirror. Water slips from the side of my mouth. A single drop makes its way down my neck and falls to my white t-shirt, upon impact spreading in the shape of a darker than expected sunset.

My t-shirt’s torn. ‘How’d that happen?’

The sip of water stays down. ‘Progress.’ My head pounds as I wrestle with the hung over-person-proof Motrin bottle. After popping the tab, I grab three orange pills. I let them roll around in my hand for a moment. My palm is scraped. ‘How’d that happen?’

With great care, I fill the front of my mouth with water and three orange pills; like a pelican holding three precious fish. I tilt my head back and swallow. The room swirls. I grab the sink with both hands and, steadying myself, avoid a second round of dry heaves.

“Dad-dee! Dad-dee!”

The Motrin stays down, though my head pounds in protest. I take a last look in the mirror and sigh. My reflection sticks out his tongue before I turn to make my way to Gee’s room.

She beams as I enter. She’s standing in her crib. As I approach, she jumps up and down. Then, she rocks back and forth, squeezing the crib’s railing tight. She thrusts both arms toward me in a pretty good imitation of my earlier Frankenstein walk.

“Up! Up!” she squeals.

“Well, hello, Ms. Early Bird. And how are you today?”

It hurts when I whisper.

“Up!” she howls.

“I’m a bit groggy this morning, Ms. Gee, so we’ll have to take it slow before heading to the park, OK?”

Before I can cross the room, Gee turns and searches her crib for Pooconkee, the stuffed bear. With Pooconkee in hand, Gee returns to the rail. “Up!”

Gently, I bend over and scoop up my daughter.

I squeeze her against my chest. She smells of Johnson’s baby shampoo.

Her father smells of a bar.

‘Great.’ Her diaper’s full. I can probably survive a pee but if I have to change a poop I’m sure to puke all over the place; right in front of Gee.

Shifting my daughter to my right arm, I grab the changing mat, a couple of diapers and wipes before heading to the living room. I set up on the couch so I can kneel on the cool hardwood floor while changing Gee.

It’s pee; wonderful pee. ‘Thank you, universe.’

My head continues to pound as Gee squirms on the changing mat. Invisible egg beaters slide into ringing ears and make short work of remaining grey matter. Gee twists Pooconkee back and forth above her head as I fit her with a clean diaper. While changing Gee, I notice my left hand is cut across the knuckles. ‘Fight?’ I wonder. Taking a moment, I feel my head in search of lumps.

Nothing.

Still kneeling, I toss the dirty diaper toward the Diaper-Genie, not bothering to stuff it into the plastic temple of soiled diapers. If I get too close to that thing I’m gonna barf.

Diaper mission accomplished, I guide Gee and her bear to the floor. With bear in tow, Gee crawls toward the throw rug. Sitting on the rug, Gee begins a cycle of hugging, then extending Pooconkee to arm’s length, examining the bear closely, then repeating.

My daughter’s happy; very happy.

Six feet away, I am a mess.

I roll backward from my kneeling position, resting my butt on shaking heels before tilting sideways. I teeter. Like a sack of potatoes, I land with a thud, sprawling across the floor.

Gee turns and stares at her prone father before returning attention to Pooconkee.

Hug, extend, examine, repeat. My daughter jabbers away.

My head throbs.

It hurts when I lie down.

I press my face against the cool wooden floor, the chill dulling the drum beat inside my head. I lie there like a beached whale; like a big white whale waiting for Greenpeace to rescue me with the effects of water and Motrin. I may actually survive if I don’t move for an hour or two.

Closing aching eyes, I remain still.

After a minute, the room grows quiet. Opening one eye, I peek at Gee.

She’s staring at a beached whale.

I offer a halfhearted wave. With the side of my face smushed against the cool floor, I watch helplessly as Gee drops her bear and crawls toward me.

She reaches for me, “Up! Up!”

I smile a crooked smile, “Just a few more minutes, Gee. Hey, how ‘bout this? Let’s play rest and just rest on the floor for a while, OK?”

My daughter places both hands on my head and begins to yank my hair. Rhythmically she repeats the pattern; hold, yank, hold yank, hold yank. Her little fingers become tangled in the web of my Don King-like hair. I am helpless to protest.

It hurts when my hair is pulled.

Placing one hand on those tiny yanking hands, I gently pluck her spider-like fingers from my broken head, “That’s enough of that Gee. That’s enough.”

I roll over to see her staring at me with Liz’s Caribbean eyes. We look at each other for an expanding moment. However long the moment lasts, it’s long enough.

I take Gee’s little hand in mine, “Remember this moment, Gee. Remember; because this is the last time you’ll ever see anything like this; the very last time.”

***

Steel drums pound gently in the background. The sound is soothing. Around us, fellow diners clap in time to local music. Across the table, on an island in the Caribbean, Liz clears her throat, “Glenn, Gee asked you a question. Are you gonna answer it or what?”

DJ crows, “Yea Dad, wake up!”

Gee teases, “Earth to Dad. Come in, Dad. Over.”

At the sound of Gee’s teenage voice, I return to our table of four; to our time together; to a time I do not wish to miss.

Gee tilts her head, “So … you didn’t answer my question. Why’d you stop drinking?”

Reaching across the stained tablecloth, I gently take Gee’s hand in mine. I look around the table and smile at each of Liz, DJ, and Gee.

“Because of you.”

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