“After a while I didn’t see it from the inside. It wasn’t me looking at my own son. I saw it from the outside...What could I say to him?”
--Tom Wolfe, “Putting Daddy On”
On Friday nights, I have pizza with my parents. It’s a tradition that stretches back as far as I can remember into my childhood...all the way back to a little two-story house in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin.
Now my parents live in Brea, in a house not all that much bigger than the Wiscsonsin one. Visiting their house is like stepping into another world. A world of photographs and memories and familiar house-smells.
And also a world of order: of clean floors, dusted furniture, clean dishes, full cupboards, nice carpet. I remember, as a child, having to clean the bathrooms, vacuum the floors, and clean my room every week. Why? I wondered. It was just something I did, under my mom’s orders. This is what people do who live in houses. They keep them clean and ordered.
As a child, I was both a perfectionist and a pack-rat. Saturday mornings, I would go with my mom to garage sales. She would buy mostly clothes and home furnishings. I would buy weird trinkets and toys: action figures, buttons, patches, books, obsolete electronics.
My room, being full of my things, was always on the brink of chaos. Were it not for my mom’s rules about cleaning my room, it would probably have erupted into something on “Hoarders.”
But every week, I would spend hours, carefully dusting and arranging my trinkets into a semblance of order. I would rarely get rid of things. I would instead devise clever ways of organizing it all.
After having pizza with my parents, I return to my apartment in downtown Fullerton.
I enter the old wooden door, next to the old Italian restaurant, passing three people smoking cigarettes, glancing at my mailbox, which is dented and crooked and about to fall off. I go through a couple mailboxes a year, because mine is right next to the Back Alley Bar, where drunk people sometimes get the brilliant idea to smash my mailbox, maybe with someone else’s head. There is still a little streak of dried blood on the white bricks next the mailbox, presumably from some drunk person’s head.
Once, I came home and a drunk guy was peeing on my door. I stood there staring and, when he finished, I asked, as politely as I could, “Excuse me, were you just peeing on my fucking door?”
“Nope,” he said, and hurried away. I felt like smashing his head on my mailbox.
I ascend the stairs to my apartment, stepping over old mail, bills, leaves, cigarettes butts, past paintings and posters: C3PO and R2D2, a crazy enormous abstract thing a friend gave us, The Velvet Underground, Mr. Spock, photographs from maybe five years ago. I look younger and thinner. Up to the top of the stairs, where Teddy is waiting eagerly, looking like he’s about to have a seizure he’s so excited.
I pat his doggy head and rub his side, saying, “He’s a good boy! Yes, he’s one of the good guys!” Teddy is a French bulldog and one of his chief hobbies is chewing stuff. He jumps onto the old brown couch and starts going to town on a pillow.
“No, Teddy!” I yell, but I know it’s useless. As soon as I leave the room, he will be back up there, chewing away.
The coffee table is littered with wrappers, half-full glasses, an empty Camel pack, a plate with crumbs. The carpet, a dark green, is littered with tiny white pebbles that people are constantly tracking in from the tar paper on the rooftop patio.
Unlike the order of my parents’ house, my apartment is more like controlled chaos: books, paintings, art supplies, old furniture, records, papers, bottles and cans. The kitchen garbage is spilling over and Teddy is sniffing around the edges of a pizza box. The sink is half-full of drity dishes. The countertop has a full two liter of coke, an empty bottle of Barton vodka, pop tart crumbs, more half-full glasses. The kitchen usually smells a little.
The bathroom: toiletries, paint brushes, paper towels, dust, mildew, a shower that will never be clean.
My room: papers and clothes on the floor, an empty bag of potato chips, more half-full glasses on the night stand, change, paper scraps, straw wrappers, movie stubs, receipts, napkins, more pop tarts.
One Friday night after pizza, my dad helped me carry a table up the stairs to my apartment. I can count only a handful of times I have allowed my parents to enter my apartment. But I led him up and, when we reached the top of the stairs, a group of friends was sitting on the rooftop patio, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes.
“Hey guys,” I said, “This is my pop.”
I stood there, a little self-conscious, intensely aware of the different worlds we call “home”. It has taken me a while to be okay with these differences. I don’t know what was going through my dad’s head as he looked at the world I inhabit. He helped me carry the table, pet Teddy, gave me a hug, and we parted ways. Maybe one day, when I am older and have a son, I will visit his apartment and also be startled by the different worlds we inhabit. I guess that is the way of things with fathers and sons.
Blood on the bricks next to my mailbox.