In middle school, I’d grown accustomed to seeing my father every other weekend from 6 p.m. on Saturday to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Very occasionally, on special holidays, we would spend a day at my dad’s.
One Christmas Eve, my dad worked until early evening. The plan was to head to his place (i.e. her apartment) around 5 p.m., and we’d have dinner and open presents. Then, around 7ish, we would head to his sister’s house (about 30 minutes away) for a family get-together. (My grandparents passed away by this time, so my dad was the oldest. The family gathering usually involved his four siblings and their spouses and kids.)
As with most apartment buildings, there was an interior common space and then the doors to each apartment. They were on the second level of the building with an overlooking railing down to the front door of the apartment building. We arrived promptly at 5 p.m. and hurried into the apartment, arms filled with presents for my dad and my stepmother.
To our surprise, when we arrived, my dad was not there. We unloaded the presents under their small tree as my stepmom informed us that he was probably caught up with a last-minute customer but should be home soon. We sat awkwardly for a short while, but I really did not like my stepmom. (This did not change later in the years when they moved into a new home. Every time I referred to my new bedroom in their home as “my room,” she would make a point to correct me and say it was the “girl’s guest bedroom.” What a way to feel unwanted!)
Anyhow, I was getting antsy that I would have to make awkward conversation with my stepmom. I told her I was going to wait in the atrium for my dad to arrive and surprise him. My little brother followed me—because that’s what little brothers do. As little kids, 10 minutes felt like an hour. We exhausted ourselves running up and down stairs, climbing things we shouldn’t be and goofing off to the point we surely annoyed every one of their neighbors. I remember us perking up every time the front door opened, only for it to be someone else and feel immediately deflated.
By 6:30, my stepmom said she called my dad’s office to check and see if he was there, but they said he left already so he should be home anytime. Did he forget about us? Did he forget he was spending Christmas Eve with us? Even at that age, the idea of that put a pit in my stomach and stung. Finally, close to 7 p.m., the door opened once again—and there he was!
My father's drunk arrival
As we jumped to our feet and yelled, “Dad!” his response was, “Well, shit…” with an irritated expression. It was the first time I was faced, directly, with a seemingly open expression of him not wanting us there.
In the next moment, he tried to clean up his initial response and apologized, saying he forgot we were coming over (ouch!) and went out with some friends to celebrate Christmas before my aunt’s party. As he made his way to the stairs, he stumbled, clung to the railing, slipped on a few stairs and looked like he would tumble forward at any point.
My stepmom’s immediate assessment of his state led to a very thick, unspoken tension in the room. My dad went to the kitchen and made himself a Bloody Mary. My stepmom called him to the back room. We could hear them fighting. My dad is always extra loud when he’s drunk. Not necessarily yelling—just loud when he thinks he’s speaking normally.
I couldn’t hear what my stepmom was saying, but I could hear his responses in between: “I’m fine, I’m not drunk!” “It’s Christmas Eve! I didn’t know they were coming!” (Yes, he did.) “The guys wanted to go out for some drinks after work. It’s no big deal!”
A few minutes later, my stepmom emerged from the room and silently sat in her recliner. She was pissed. My dad stayed in the bedroom. More awkward silence emerged. By this point, I could feel my emotions beginning to creep in. My chest was heavy with tension. My eyes were a little stingy—hinting at how close tears would be if one more thing tipped me over the edge.
As I consciously tried to suck it back in, my dad emerged from the bedroom with a handful of presents that looked like they had been smashed with something. Upon closer view, it was obvious he tried to wrap presents but lacked the coordination to fold the ends, use tape and estimate the amount of paper needed. The presents were haphazardly rolled up in paper, with the ends crumpled down and mashed in with tape crossing the top.
I was mortified and wondered if the presents were even for us. He made a joke about how awkward the shapes of the presents were, and he didn’t have time to do a good job. If you knew my dad, you’d know how out of character this is for him. He is the epitome of a perfectionist and has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He is a degreed artist—visual aesthetics of things matter to him. A lot. Thankfully, the drunkenly wrapped gifts were not for us; they were for family members waiting at the Christmas party 30 minutes away.
Tardy for the Christmas party
Because he arrived home late, we were now messing up his schedule—another pet peeve of his. As kids though, we wanted to open our presents before we left. It wasn’t like we had the benefit of staying the night and opening them in the morning. Begrudgingly, he agreed to let us open our presents. We dug out the gifts with our names on them. Equally as exciting when you’re a kid is giving your parents gifts and seeing their appreciation for the gifts. We put each of their gifts in their laps and opened our presents.
Historically, Christmas had always been done in turns—the youngest going first and then each person in ascending age. I told my brother to go ahead. As he fumbled with his package. my dad began to prod, “Let’s go. Let’s go.” Before he could get his present unwrapped, my dad motioned to me, “What are you waiting for? Let’s get this over with.” I was frozen for a moment, not processing what was happening as he seemed completely detached from the moment and just wanted us to hurry through opening gifts.
The next several minutes were a flurry of hurried unwrapping with no chance to respond (and no interest in hearing the response) before we were peppered with statements like, “We gotta go” and “Come on, come on.” I think there was some hand clapping in there to urge us to go faster. My dad turned to his gifts, which became a custom, of things he told me he always needs—ties for work and a new bi-fold leather wallet each year.
Despite the same presents, I always took my time trying to pick the perfect tie, unlike the others he already owned or to specifically go with a color shirt I saw him wear. As he tore through his paper and revealed the wallet and tie he said, “What a surprise. Another tie and wallet.” I was crushed.
I got up without a word and ran to the bathroom to lock it. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I cried as I replayed the series of events. I wanted to go home—my mom’s house. It would have been so much easier if the same technology existed today as back then—a cell phone in my pocket which I could use to call or text my mom. Instead, as I cried, I heard loud knocking.
Through the door, my dad said, “Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” I was angry that he thought the only thing I was crying over was his comment about the gift. I didn’t respond. He continued, “Honey, we need to get going or we are going to miss the Christmas party.”
Are you kidding me? He wanted to show up to the party like this? I was embarrassed. Hurt. Angry. The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was go to his party.
A few minutes later, another knock at the door came from my stepmom.
“Erica, your dad didn’t mean what he said.”
I yelled back, “THIS ISNT ABOUT WHAT HE SAID!”
Silence for a moment and then with a calm voice she responded, “Can I please come in? Let me talk to you.”
Despite my dislike for her, in that moment, I needed a motherly figure to help me through it. I unlocked the door. She asked me what it was about and I vented, telling her it was the whole thing—being forgotten, him being drunk, the presents he wrapped, rushing us through presents and the comment. I told her it was too much.
She tried to excuse his behavior, “I understand, sometimes adults like to have drinks to celebrate things like holidays. You dad went with some friends after work to have some Christmas drinks, but he shouldn’t have.”
I interrupted her and said, “This isn’t a Christmas thing. He used to do this all the time at home too. He’s an alcoholic.”
She looked stunned by my words. She knew he was an alcoholic. But I don’t think she was expecting me to be aware of it at that age. After she struggled to find her words, she said, “I’m sorry this happened. It shouldn’t have, but it will get better. Why don’t you get yourself cleaned up and come join us in the living room when you’re ready?”
By this point, my crying settled and I nodded. As she headed to the door, she said, “I love you, kiddo.”
That was the first time I ever heard those words from her. Despite feeling contempt for her most days, the words sat with me when I needed to hear them.
On her way back to the living room, I could hear more fussing back and forth between my dad and stepmom.
Little interjections, primarily from my dad were audible, “Oh, bullshit!” and “We are already late! It’s time to go!”
I forced myself through the sadness and switched to being mostly angry. It’s easier for me to harden my emotions. I walked out to the living room and gave my dad a look.
He hopped to his feet and said, “OK, let’s go!”
I thought it was odd that he didn’t come to hug me or apologize, as he sounded remorseful when trying to talk to me through the door.
We gathered up our things, including our gifts, as we wouldn’t be back to his house later that night. The plan was to go to the party. Afterwards, my dad would drop us back off at our mom’s house. With gifts in tow, we headed to the door. I noticed my stepmom still sitting in her recliner, unmoved.
I said, “Aren’t you coming with us?” She flatly said, “No. I have a headache.” Panic. Instant panic. After that talk, she really was going to leave me alone in this situation? I remember feeling like I was doing my best to communicate with my eyes to her like, “Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this.”
She turned her head away and went back to crafting in her chair. The worst part of it is it hadn’t dawned on me yet that he was going to be driving us in this state.