My father rescued me time after time when I was lost in addiction. What kind of father will I be for my new daughter?
Photo by Marni Horwitz/Gallery Stock
Peter Stenson is the author of Fiend, published by Random House and an Amazon Spotlight Debut for July. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his daughter, wife and fat dog.
I was cruised the other night at a park near my house in Denver, Colorado. It’s a normal park with tennis courts and a lake and a playground and Mexican families throwing fun-looking picnics on the grassy hills. I was pushing my four-month-old daughter around the lake when I noticed a man following me. He was probably in his mid-30s with skinny everything, and not really attractive, but not necessarily ugly. I thought it was strange, the way he kept crossing my path, the way he let his eyes linger, the way he smiled like he was feeling everything I was putting down (admittedly, I was wearing five-inch inseam running shorts, so I probably wasn’t completely blameless). He eventually spoke one word to me — Hey — and I said hello back. But then I shook my head and he understood I wasn’t looking to trade pleasures.
I chalked the whole thing up to me still having it, even being 30 and slightly fat and a new father.
I walk my daughter around this park every night. The entire loop takes about 35 minutes. She laughs and coos and sleeps and cries. You can hear dogs barking and a rollercoaster from the nearly condemned amusement park and mariachi spewing from boom boxes. And when you walk by the lockable bathrooms you can hear the soft grunts of the men inside. This is a sound that I once would’ve smirked at, thought Good for you guys, go get it; but the other night, being harmlessly trailed while pushing my daughter, it filled me with some sort of quiet panic.
My daughter was born to beeping monitors indicating a plummeting heart rate and a doctor losing his cool, saying We need to get this baby out now. At one point, everything started to get all nitrous oxide-y inside of my head with Wha-wha echoes and diamonds in my peripheral. A nurse rushed me to a chair. My wife pushed. There was blood everywhere. I thought about everything we’d gone through — nine months of fear and preparation and excitement, and watching American Horror Story in the middle of the night because my wife couldn’t sleep, and the pink and green letters I’d hung in the nursery that spelled out our unborn child’s name — all that for naught, I thought, as I imagined her never taking a breath. Then I looked at my wife and realised I needed to step up and quit being so pathetic. And then I was there by my wife. I saw a head. A back. And I was praying to a god I’d given up years before — I’ll quit masturbating and tobacco, I’ll volunteer and never complain, and I’ll be a better son and husband and employee, and please, just fucking please, let her be OK.
The doctor placed our daughter on my wife’s chest. My daughter screamed like a pterodactyl. Her eyes were open, and though she couldn’t really see me, it felt that way, her all shivering and beautiful, staring at her father.
Back when I was 16, growing up in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, I felt oppressed by my rich parents and my prep school and seven acres alongside a golf course (such a moron, I know), and ran away with my college-aged girlfriend to New Orleans, for the 10-day Jazz Fest. I was addicted to meth. We drove in the Toyota my father had given me for my birthday. After 1,000 miles on the road, I eventually answered my cell phone. My parents yelled and screamed, and then pleaded. My father just kept saying Please. I told him I wasn’t coming home, not until after Jazz Fest — then I’d go to rehab. Please, son, please. I told him it just felt right, to trust me, to let me be my own person.
For some reason, I thought about the time me and my father had gone to our cabin in Northern Minnesota. Just the two of us. I was 13 — that age when all I wanted to be doing was calling girls on the phone — but somehow, I quit caring about my invigorating social calendar and enjoyed myself. My father taught me to whittle, which, up until that point, had been his thing done in the basement after I’d gone to bed. That weekend, I made a retarded-looking gnome. My father kept telling me how well I was doing, how I was a natural. Flakes of basswood covered our socks. He kept telling me he was proud.
Please, son, please.
I hung up the phone.
There is a system at the park, involving a parking lot next to the bathrooms. Cars that come in and park with the hoods facing the hill are waiting for somebody specific. Cars that come in and back into the space are looking for anyone. These men aren’t attractive. Most of them are on the saggy-jowls side of old, and fat. They get out of their respective cars and stretch. Then one will saunter up the embankment to the stone outhouse. Ten or 15 seconds later, a second will follow.
I know these men are lonely and that there’s nothing wrong with bumping uglies, randomly or prearranged. But that recent night I let my mind choke on the irrational fear I’ve consumed from television. I’m picturing sex offenders and rapists and men who cut screens to the row of houses across the street. I’m imagining them stealing my daughter, who has just recently discovered her own feet and can’t get enough of their taste. I hate myself for this fear, this prejudice: this Fox News mindset of equating sex and threat. For getting old. For the traction-gaining idea that we need to move outside of the city to a place with a fence and a lawn and, for sure, a security system. I hate myself for becoming my father.
Which was more than apparent the other weekend. My wife and I were in the mountains for our anniversary. We brought our daughter, which was great, but also a far cry from the vacations we’d enjoyed over the previous 10 years. So eight o’clock rolled around, and we were spent, the curtains drawn, us in bed. We rented Harmony Korine’s teen road movie Spring Breakers (2012). My wife fell asleep in a matter of seconds. I held my daughter. This should’ve been a movie I loved — James Franco and a slutty Selena Gomez, and sex and youth and drugs and mindless violence, all layered over the notion of there being something inherently pointless to our American way of life. Yet I didn’t enjoy it, not in the slightest, not with that feeling of panic rising in my chest. I thought about my daughter being one of these girls. I thought about the boys she’ll fall for and the drugs she’ll ingest and the crazy things she’ll do out of paternal resentment and the times she’ll run away and tell me it just feels right.
My father stood there all small and speckled gray. He grabbed me by the back of the head and pulled me close
Only six months ago, I had envisioned parenthood like this: we’d be hip and we’d live in the city and we’d walk around as a young family drinking coffee and eating out. We wouldn’t dress our daughter in too much pink because we weren’t those kind of people. And there’d be no forced photographs. No books read about how to raise a baby, and no fights between my wife and me about parenting tactics. It’d be our lives as we knew it, only better with the accessory of a child.
It took me all of one night with my daughter to realise that shit was about me, not her.
A year after Jazz Fest, New Orleans, after two stints in rehab and being kicked out of high school and having made the trade from uppers to downers, and you have me at 17, once again run away, this time to San Francisco. I was still with the same girlfriend, only now she was sucking off this dude named Twig. I was a mess. I was seeing my self-proclaimed spirit animal (a clichéd crow) everywhere. I had broken into an Econo Lodge and climbed through the window, stripped down naked and cut a huge slice across my abdomen — attempting to free my soul — before lying down in a pool of blood and watching a documentary about Jesus.
Eventually, my girlfriend called my parents. I didn’t know this at the time. My father flew across the country and showed up in the middle of the night. I remember a banging on the door. I crawled out of bed completely naked. My stomach was stained red, as were the white sheets. My father stood there all small and speckled gray. He grabbed me by the back of the head and pulled me close, his own forehead pressing to mine. He said, Jesus Christ son.
When I think about parenthood now, I realise it has absolutely nothing to do with me. I need to get over my stigmas about self-gentrification. To know that if the schools are unequivocally better and safer in the suburbs surrounding Denver, we should just sack up and move there. I need to realise that part of parenthood is giving up certain notions about myself. To understand that getting older and being a father means making the choices I best believe will benefit my daughter. To allow my father’s protective tendencies to become my own. I don’t have to start wearing polo shirts tucked into my pleated khakis; but putting money aside for my daughter instead of getting a new tattoo is probably wise.
But I also need to remind myself that a park full of dudes hooking up and guys smoking rock — all shit I’ve done — doesn’t equate to slit screens and a kidnapped daughter. To realise that I can do everything in my power to protect her, as my parents did me, but eventually she’ll need to understand the world and its ugly truths, before seeing its flawed beauty. My job is to prepare her for these experiences. To plead over the phone when she tells me This just feels right. To pray to that same abandoned god that she’ll eventually ask for my help.
Even more, when I think about parenthood now, I think about the wishes I have for my daughter. All I want is for her is to know she’s loved. To never feel fat or afraid or less than the nasty kid with perfect teeth in her fourth grade class. I want her to be healthy. I want her to know she can come to me with absolutely anything. I want her to pursue whatever the hell excites her. I want her to have every opportunity I did — loving parents who’d fly across the country to save their child from any horrible situation, as well as a lawn with a dog, a good school, and summers spent riding bikes without seeing dudes hook up or crack rocks being smoked from thin glass tubes that once held a miniature paper rose.
I want to protect her from men like James Franco in Spring Breakers. From men like I used to be. I want her never to drink or smoke, and if she does, at least never to move on to narcotics. I want her to know that I'd do anything in this world to protect her from certain things I’ve experienced. And I want for there to be an unceremonious weekend spent at a cabin where I teach her how to woodcarve, the memory of which eventually becomes ingrained in her mind as synonymous with paternal love. I want her to know she is the most precious thing in my life, and to not have this knowledge weigh too heavily on her chubby shoulders.
4 September 2013