April 17, 2002
I’d spent a good chunk of my life subsisting on the bare minimum of food, and the constant nagging and cajoling and occasional bullying to eat more did little to stoke my appetite. As a result I was perennially dwarfed by my peers, always a head shorter and fifty pounds lighter. It was the fear of spending the rest of my life that way, combined with the onset of puberty, that finally brought my appetite roaring back. Unfortunately the years of not eating had taken their toll, and as a result I’m presently an inch or two shorter than I otherwise would have been.
It had been two years since I’d started eating again and I was now consuming food like a normal teenager – much to Dad’s consternation. I went through a package of cold cuts in two days, and when I informed him that we were out he nearly hit the ceiling.
“I just went shopping two days ago, what do you mean the cold cuts are gone??” he demanded.
“Well… I was hungry,” I said.
“You know, there’s a thing called ‘gluttony’ which is a mortal sin,” he began exasperatedly. Oh boy, here we go. “And there’s something else called ‘self-control,’ which maybe you need to learn to exercise…” Meanwhile he was sitting in front of the TV with his dinner of liver and onions, chewing with his mouth open and downing a pitcher of beer while he was yelling. He went on to remind me that food costs money. Everything was about money with him.
I couldn’t believe his reaction. This was the same guy who years ago wanted me force fed in the hospital. But instead of doing backflips that I finally was eating, I was told my behavior was sinful. And God forbid he caught me eating a sandwich on a Friday. He’d loom over me at the kitchen table and sneer, “I thought you were a Catholic.” Not to be outdone, he further went on to say that “just eating whenever hunger moves you” instead of waiting until designated meal times was a sin in and of itself. Never mind that I was trying to make up for years’ worth of missed and incomplete meals.
Dad didn’t do any extra food shopping, and after his outbursts I was afraid to exceed my allotment again. At times it almost felt like I was being put on food rations. Many afternoons after school I’d find myself in the kitchen, scrounging through the cupboards for something cheap to eat.
On this day in particular I happened to glance at the counter where Dad stacked all his mail. I was drawn to a torn-open empty envelope with “New York State Higher Education Services” stamped on the top left corner. Intrigued, I searched among the rest of the mail but I couldn’t find the letter. However, I found it later that evening when I went into his office to look for a phone book. There it was on top of his desk, and it was addressed to me.
Apparently I’d made a mistake on my financial aid application and they sent me a letter about it, along with the form I’d sent in. Dad made photocopies of both, but I made them disappear. I then decided it was best to stash all my important papers in my schoolbag until I could find a safe place for them. They ended up filed away in a cabinet at Shannon’s apartment. At this point I was finally old enough at 17 to learn where my siblings lived.
That was a good move, though, because when I came home from school a few days later I saw that my room had been turned upside down. It wasn’t a wreck, but it was clear that things were not where they supposed to be. Books were in the wrong order, stuff was on my desk that belonged in drawers… stealth was not one of Dad’s strong points. Dad had moved his office out of the basement and into Patrick’s vacated room above mine, and I heard him moving around overhead while I stood there surveying my topsy-turvy possessions.
I felt a slow-building rage over this violation of my privacy. He had even found my love letters from my crazy ex. I had them taped up in a box, which I saw had been pulled out and ripped open. What the fuck. It took me a few minutes to put two and two together, and suddenly it hit me. He couldn’t find the mail he’d confiscated from me, so he searched my room for it.
I wasn’t going to confront him directly. Instead I collected myself and calmly went upstairs. As I stood in the doorway, I finally understood what all the noise was about. He was dismantling his office and rummaging through stacks of paper, trying in vain to find that letter. I cleared my throat and he looked up.
“Hey, Dad, I’m home,” I greeted him.
“Oh, hi,” he said distractedly, and immediately went back to sifting through the papers on top of his desk. I watched him with mild satisfaction for a few moments. He was incredibly flustered and his hair was standing on end as if he’d been tugging on it.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked slowly. I wasn’t going to tell him what I knew; I was going to wait for him to fess up.
“Yeah,” he said. “There was a letter that came the other day about you… something about your college loan or whatever…”
“Who was addressed to?” I interjected.
“Oh, um, me, I guess,” Dad mumbled. That was a lie.
“Oh. Well where is it?”
Dad riffled through his papers some more. “I don’t know, I can’t find it.”
“That’s because I have it,” I informed him. He straightened up and fixed me with a stare.
“You have it.”
I let the silence spiral for a moment. “Yeah, I was looking for a phone book and I saw the letter on top of your desk. So I took it.” Pause. “It was addressed to me, actually…”
“Oh, well, I just opened it, I didn’t look at the name,” Dad said shiftily. That was a lie. There had been many family fights about this very issue over the years because his “accidental” mail openings occurred with alarming frequency. And now I was a victim. I couldn’t believe it. “But now that you’re here, I wanted to talk to you about it. So you’re excluding me?”
“Yeah,” Dad said. “It said you’re excluding my income.”
When I submitted my financial aid form, I only used my mother’s income. Dad had stopped paying taxes years before because he’s self-employed and all about “fuck the government!” And whatever information he would provide me would most likely be incomplete or fraudulent, so Mom and I thought it best to not risk having my application denied. However, when I filled things out I’d mistakenly put some of Mom’s information into the “Father’s Income” section since they were so close together. The computer couldn’t make sense of it so it canceled out both sections and sent me a letter to inform me of the error.
“Well, you don’t pay any taxes,” I explained.
“Yes I do!” he said haughtily, drawing himself up. That was a lie.
“You do?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, I do,” he repeated.
“Mom said you don’t.”
“No, that’s not true,” he said angrily, shaking his head like a dog ridding himself of flies. “I have all my forms right here, I can show you if you don’t believe me.” He didn’t show me. That was a lie. “And if I’m going to be excluded from something, I want to know and I want to know why.”
I was confused. “Well, whatever gave you the impression that you were included in the first place?”
“A few weeks ago you were talking about sending money in for a deposit.”
“Yeah, I was. And I sent it in.”
When I said that, Dad threw his hands up in the air.
“What do you mean you sent it in? With what money??”
I laughed, “With my money?”
“Why did you do that?” he demanded.
“Uh… because it was due?”
“See that’s what I’m talking about. If I’m going to be excluded from something, I want to know,” Dad said, jabbing a finger towards me.
“Well I still don’t understand why you thought you were included?”
“Why else were you talking to me about money then?”
“I was just mentioning it was all,” I said. “I wasn’t asking you to pay for anything. Besides, when did you ever pay for anyone’s college around here?”
“Don’t you think I wanted to?” Dad asked, his voice rising. “Don’t you think I wanted to pay for everyone’s college? Don’t you think I wanted to buy you all your first car too?”
“Um, no… I thought we were all supposed to pay our own way? Isn’t that what you always said?”
“Not at all,” Dad spouted. That was a lie.
I finally went downstairs and left him to stew in his discontent. After all his yelling and screaming about money over the years, you’d think he’d be overjoyed not having to put any of his kids through college. But suddenly he was insulted because I didn’t ask him to shell out for my education. And the deadline to resubmit the form was three days away from when I found the letter on his desk. Good thing I went looking for a phone book that night. I still wonder whether he ever planned to inform me about it, or whether he intended to keep it hidden from me and screw me out of thousands in financial aid.
My girlfriend Patti was not understanding at all. She thought I was being stubborn and childish for not accepting his help. “I’m sorry, that’s ridiculous. If he wants to pay, let him pay. I certainly would. Why would you turn that down? Why would you want to shoulder paying for college all by yourself?” I tried to explain that nothing was ever that simple with my father. If I let him pay for school, it would come with strings attached, and then he would throw it back in my face forevermore. He would never miss an opportunity to rub it in about how he broke his back to put me through school, etc… I was not about to give him that power. Patti thought I was being foolish and we had a big argument about it as we walked home from school.
Dad and I always got along great and I never had any problems. But that was when I started to appreciate what everybody else went through with him. I feared that this was only the beginning. And I made a decision that day – when I went away to school, I was taking everything with me and never coming back to live at home again.
I didn’t trust him anymore.