Roosevelt Island Daily Exclusive

"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 5

In Chapter 4 from Is It Always A Love Story?, a family get-together exposes hidden agendas, unspoken conflicts and denied emotional connections Peter's avoided dealing with while away at war.


Chapter Five


Matt, Mary and I plunged only five or ten minutes into some card game before Tim and Dad arrived, almost simultaneously. The kids, I’d begun to suspect, were conning me on the rules to assure my defeat, comical because I’d already planned to let them win. Maybe their tricks would reverse the tables and force me to triumph. Card games can be tricky like that when the rules are fluid and not universally shared.

“Gotta go, guys,” I told them, standing up, feeling taller than my known six feet. “The grownups are here.”

“Aw,” both groaned.

“Aw, yourself. Maybe we can play some more later, and you can try to cheat me again.”

Giggles exposed their conspiracy.

Tim followed Dad in the back door from the driveway. A smile, so unpracticed it looked awkward and shy, lit my father’s face.

“Hey, Dad.”

He came around the kitchen table and reached his hand toward me. Was his limp more pronounced or had time rounded off the extremes in my memory?

We shook hands, probably for the first time, firmly.

“How does it feel to be home?”

“I’m still walking on air, Dad. It’s not quite real yet.”

“Well, it’s just great. We missed you, especially Christmas.”

Tim’s and Bobby’s ease with others, the confidence that floated them, had always made Dad’s shyness seem stranger when it found its way out of the hardened surfaces protecting his core.

“That’s mutual,” I answered for no particular reason.

Our last Christmas together, Maureen and I shared a morning at Tim and Marge’s, then introduced Dad to her parents during an Irish brunch at their place. Dad was far outside his normal element there, in a happy way, and warmed up with the attention. It felt like a million years ago that we were all going to be in-laws.

“It’s a few months away, but we can have a normal Christmas, right here, this year,” I added.

My heart sunk when I let my habitual loquaciousness lead me to fill the gap with that bubble of optimistic goofiness. The thought of lingering around town until winter flushed in like a bucket of soapy water washing over my soul. My intentions were good, however. Why dampen this evening, the closest I’d ever get to a homecoming? There would be time to measure the separation in hard sections, later on.

“So, who wants a beer?” Tim interrupted. “And who wants to hang out in the kitchen and get dinner ready?”

Marge laughed.

“You men go have your beers. I need about twenty minutes. Kids? Would you mind playing somewhere else until dinner? And don’t forget to wash up. Dinner in twenty minutes…”

Matt and Mary scrambled upstairs, calling, “Hi,” to their father and grandfather through the spindles on their way. Tim and I took the couch, leaving Dad the big chair that was easiest for him to get into and out of without maneuvering around the coffee table — on which the kids playing cards remained, scattered and abandoned.

“So, what did you do with your first day?” Tim asked.

It occurred to me that he was honoring my no war stories request and had probably advised Dad to do the same. I was pleased and a little embarrassed.

“I hope you men can pop the tabs on these cans yourselves,” Marge quipped as she returned and sat three Gennies in front of us.

“We’ll do our best,” Tim promised.

I popped my tab.

“I went over to see Mo and her mother.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“You did…?” Dad asked skeptically.

“I did,” I explained directly to him. “She wrote to me when I was over there. We had some things we had to talk about.”

“She want to get back together?” Tim asked.

“Of course,” I joked. “Who could blame her?”

“Sounds like Bobby,” Tim observed, nodding at Dad.

“Ouch.”

“Could be worse.”

I shifted gears back out of neutral. We might as well do this now.

“I think she was hoping the war had made me somehow want to get married, buy a house, have some kids, all that. Nothing wrong with that, but I had to tell her it’s not for me.”

“Why’s that?” Tim wondered.

Back into neutral, “Because it’s already been done,” I said.

Tim and Dad stared at me as if there had to be more, so I gave them something.

“I might change my mind in the future. I’m only twenty-two. What’s the rush? I went almost straight from high school into the army. It sounds like a cliche, but I really do need to find myself.”

“Don’t know what you want to do when you grow up?”

“When I grow up again, the next time…”

“How did she take it? Did you just tell her, ‘No,’ or what?”

“I tried to tell her, ‘No,’ but she’s still Maureen. You know, I probably should’ve told her, ‘Yes,’ and scared the living shit out of her. That might’ve worked.”

“Doubt it,” Tim concluded.

“Then, I drove out and had a beer at The Little Bohemia, just for the hell of it. It hasn’t changed. Felt like falling backward a few years.”

“I don’t know how that guy stays in business,” Tim mused.

“Providing temporary shelter for alcoholics who hate to go home can be lucrative,” I said.

This was 1970, before the outrage over drunk drivers forced a lot of them off the road. The community of drunks consisted mainly of sloppy people, weak and either unwilling or unable to control their boozing. Nobody, publicly, was disgusted with them yet. Drunks were part of our heritage. The general decline in drunkenness in recent years, I think, can be attributed to television and the movies, which consistently offer more civil and acceptable ways of getting rid of your self.

As the rest of the evening rolled out, the dinner of pot roast, peas and mashed potatoes, Dad and me the odd couple, the inevitable games of pinochle, the coffee before “Good night,” as it all rolled out, I observed, part of me stepping aside to become a fly on the wall, how practiced we were at avoiding each other after years of repetition. 

Nobody was allowed to grasp how punished I was by the war, by my decision to go in and the things it led me to do. It would jam all of us into silence, if it found its way onto the table. We had no reference point for that depth of emotional punch. At the same time, I could only imagine what the basket in which Dad collected his life looked like. I used to tell people that he was taciturn and secretive, but the truth is, I… we never asked. He might have spilled plenty if he felt the stream had much chance of eddying peacefully. And Marge and Tim and the expanding human nebulae around their ankles, was it really as easy to find happiness as they made it seem? I had no way to know, no keyhole to peak through, no way to translate the view.

As different as we were, our family was not so unlike others in some ways. Nuclear bonding always includes compromises, intimacy evaded in favor of safety. For intimacy, we looked outside, often causing ripples of unease. Mostly, our heritage of Christian self-denial, lingering even after nobody remembered where it came from, left us bumbling around on emotional landscapes like blind men and women. Mostly, we looked away. We found useful diversions.

Decades later, it’s easier to see, safely beyond the reach of the traps and in fuller space, but I doubt the conflicts were anywhere near that clear to me then, a young man battered by war and only beginning to pick my way through the spiritual landslide.

It felt uneasy, that’s for sure, and I understood that the unease had been, before the two year separation, so commonplace we existed within it much as we breathed polluted air, the fact of it not noted. Alternatives had not presented themselves. But it was that unease, not the war or anything having to do with the war, that made me want to leave. I did not want to be an American anymore, not that kind of American, the kind that made the sickness of war and social injustice same-old, same-old, accepted and breathed in, day after day.

The war was no more than a gruesome sideshow in the progression of everyday life, once home.

 

A complete chapter list can be found here.

Find Is It Always A Love Story and all of my other books on my Amazon Author Page.

 



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