W. Alexander Dunford
I will never forget the television’s blue light that night fifteen years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond played. Outside, beneath black skies, rain pelted our windows and the house’s bones braced against high winds. Thunder shook the walls.
It was Father’s idea to watch the movie. He loved violence, and I loved DiCaprio. Of course, Mom didn’t approve, but Father waved her off. Father’s work normally kept him from home, so that night was special; he was there, and he wanted to spend time together. He had thought of me. I was excited and promised to keep his secret: a bottle of Jim Beam in his inner left coat pocket. He always kept bottles hidden from Mom. They made her uneasy; she always cried after he finished one or sometimes two bottles.
An hour before the storm hit, I put in the movie and Father lit a menthol. He poured his Jim Beam into a Coke can I’d finished earlier and turned off the lights.
“Don’t close your eyes if you get scared,” he said.
I promised him I wouldn’t.
The more Father refilled that Coke can, the more he enjoyed the movie. There came a scene where a boy about my age, his lips-quivering, was blindfolded, and handed a machine gun. He was forced to pull the rusty weapon’s trigger. After his captors removed his blindfold, the boy realized he had killed a man. Both the boy and I shook. At that point, Father smirked and lit another menthol. The scent of burnt dried tobacco hung in the air. I vomited into an old plastic Hulk-head Halloween candy-bowl. Father did not notice. He loved violence.
“That will make a man of that boy.”
I agreed. 2
Thunder cracked, the wind howled, and Father turned up the television. Soon, Mom appeared in her yellow nightgown with her hair rolled into a half-dozen pink-plastic curls, and they started to argue. That’s when the rain started.
“And what is that?” she said pointing to the white labeled Jim Beam-bottle that sat in his lap.
“Don’t start nothing,” he said.
Mom protested, and Father stood up and threatened her. She dared him. He showed her his fist, and I screamed.
Mom found me between the couch and window, my bare back cold against the glass. I hated when they fought, which was whenever Father came home. One of them muted the movie. DiCaprio was now crouched behind a large rock while he spied through binoculars on a slave camp. My Sister spied too from behind Father’s chair. He dominated the living room’s center— his legs widely planted; a cigarette held loose between his lips.
“Fucking hell, stop that screaming, boy!”
“Shut up, William,” she said. “He’s too young for that goddamn movie, and to see you drinking.” Her face was red, and one of her plastic curls had loosened. It hung by a few hairs.
“Is that vomit?” she asked.
Rain now hit the windows sideways. The wind blew open the screen door. Still, the cacophony of the storm’s rage did not overcome their voices. Mom pointed. Father roared. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked, then the Jim Beam bottle crashed. The scent of whiskey emanated throughout the living room. A moment later, Sis emerged from behind the chair—her leg cut by glass and bleeding. Mom shrieked and Father was sorry; he was always sorry after accidents. 3
With blood-smeared fingers, Mom patched up Sis and Father picked up glass. On the television, DiCaprio’s chest—having survived a firefight—bleated. Outside, the storm softened. But now tears poured both inside and outside the house.
In the kitchen, Sis and I were treated to the strawberry short cake reserved for tomorrow’s Sunday dinner. Mom held back tears while she handed us forks.
“Promise you won’t tell Granny or Grandpa?” she asked.
“What if they ask about my leg?” Sis asked.
We heard Father yell from another room, “Wear pants.”
Mom closed her eyes and mumbled something, then looked at us, then smiled, then cut herself a slice of cake. She let me eat her icing. Before we finished, I heard gunshots and orchestra. Father had resumed the movie. Outside, not far away, there was another thunderclap.
Despite Mom’s objection, Father insisted I finish the movie. I no longer wanted to watch it or be near him, but he was adamant; he wanted the night fixed to how he’d imagined it. We always ruined his good intentions. Mom said I could close my eyes whenever I wanted. Father said nothing. Mom and Sis departed to their bedrooms. Father restarted the movie and this time I didn’t throw up when the blindfolded little boy killed that man. I simply watched without seeing.
I fell asleep. When I woke up, I saw Father was gone and DiCaprio was on the run. The storm outside had returned—the thunder was louder, the lightning quicker, and the wind howled harder. The rain had turned into hail. I do not remember muting the television, but it’s possible the storm overwhelmed my senses. I did hear grunts and the sound of feet scraping though.
Next to the television—on the left, hidden in shadow, unreached by blue light—was Mom and Father’s bedroom door. The sounds came from in there. The hair on the back of my 4
neck stood up, my stomach dropped, my knees shook. I paused, and then gripped the doorhandle with a sweaty palm.
Fast forward fifteen years to my own kitchen—it’s 9:00 am. It’s raining outside. My coffee is cold, but my face is hot and my tears have soaked through three Kleenex. On the screen in front of me, my therapist types a note; the tac-tac of her keyboard shakes me from the memory. We have been here before: years of counseling to unwind and probe the brokenness, but we always stopped here.
“And what happened next?” she asked.
I hesitated before I told her how I caught Father raping Mom. As the words poured out, dread seeped in. I could feel Father’s disapproval for telling his secret and I could feel Mom’s shame. I remembered her eyes when she first saw me standing in the corner, frozen, with fists clenched. How sorry she was, how ashamed, how lost, how defeated, how helpless.
“And?” she asked.
I made a futile attempt to tackle him, and we tumbled to the floor. He reeked of whiskey and cigarettes. He sat on my chest, his hard, wet genitals poked my neck, and he punched me. I have no idea how many times, or for how long. The wind shook the house, thunder deafened Mom’s screams, hail drummed the roof, and I was knocked unconscious.
A couple days later, my sister told some friends at school I won a big fight. Everyone thought my black eyes and broken tooth were badges of honor, and that I had done something remarkable. To them I was no longer a weakling. That was when I first wore the mask all boys wear when pretending turns into surviving. 5
My therapist assured me that incidents like these are common in abusive homes, and that the scars left by toxic masculinity have permeated through multiple generations of men. The more a man denies it exists, the better the chance he still wears the mask.
“How was your relationship with him after that night?”
I shared how eight years ago Father was in a coma; he’d suffered a heart attack. It took me fifteen hours to drive to Roanoke, Virginia. When I walked into his hospital room, Sis was beside him, his hand held in hers, his eyes blank and hers wet. The stench of her cigarettes hung in the air. On the television, she was watching—I could not believe it—Blood Diamond; DiCaprio had just been shot in the stomach.
I have always felt guilty about feeling relief when I told the doctor to pull the plug. Father had drained the life out of us for years. When given the opportunity, I drained his. I did not take long to make the decision, but I would not stay in the room. The doctor told me that Father’s body, despite being brain dead, fought eleven minutes for oxygen. I will never forget how easy it was to breathe after I first knew he could not. The sun had never shined brighter.
Outside, the rain stopped and the sun shined; New Hampshire’s, snow-tipped mountains gleamed like jewels. My therapist smiled through red lipstick and yellow teeth. I sipped cold coffee.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
I lied. “Better.”