By Steven Watson
They’re fighting again.
Eric can feel his parents’ anger building, his ears literally popping as the pressure in the house expands. His mother clatters dishes and yells, which is mirrored by his father’s stomping to the back porch trying to ignore his wife’s outburst. Eric learns to view his parents’ arguing as more of a sport.
Sometimes things get out of hand, like when Bill ripped up Emily’s favorite plant with a smirk on his face or when Emily threw a bowl and hit Bill in the forehead. However, in most cases, they both know the rules of the game. No one gets hurt, at least not physically. Let the words do all the damage.
Someone wins eventually, but another argument always erupts from the ashes of the previous one.
Bill and Emily seem to enjoy fighting in front of Eric; an audience gives legitimacy to the hiss and spit of their ugly words. Each swivels their attention to Eric to make sure he is listening and taking their side. More times than not, Eric looks down, avoids eye contact at all costs, and tries to disappear into the floor. He lets his mind wander to a baseball game or war scene where he saves the day.
Once, Eric screamed, “stop!” but it only fueled their rage. It seems Eric’s parents feel justified in their anger.
At night, Eric lies in bed and dreams about being an astronaut or an athlete or being popular at school. He imagines living with parents who don’t fight, who seem comfortable in their own skins. What would that be like? As night gives way to the light of dawn, he worries about speaking to teachers and classmates at school, wonders whether he will control his stutter, or whether it will get the better of him as it usually does. “What…what…what does it feel like to have a happy family?” he asked his only friend. His friend shrugged and said, “Why are you asking me?” Maybe there are no happy families, and kids just need to make do.
Eric thinks constantly of starting a new life on his own. When he turns eighteen and graduates from high school, he wastes no time packing up. As he throws clothes into a suitcase, he mutters over and over “this will make all the difference in my life.”Bill stands in the doorway and asks Eric to stay. But with a wry smile, he leaves.
First, Eric finds an apartment, then a job as a delivery person, and looks forward to building meaningful relationships that don’t include shouting and threats. Within one month, the apartment’s kitchen sink and bathtub clog up. When Eric reports the issues, the landlord says he will look into it, but never does. The delivery job excites Eric at first, but long hours and a rude boss burst the bubble.
Dating becomes a priority. “Maybe another time,” women tell him when he pursues a second date.
At the sense of emptiness and futility setting in, Eric panics. He drifts into the temporary relief offered by alcohol. Every night as he enters the tavern, he swears this’ll be the last time. More often than not, he sits with Jack, a newfound friend, at the bar with a chorus of glasses in front of them. “I’ll be right back,” Jack says, putting $20 down on the bar and going to the bathroom. When Jack returns, the money is gone. He grabs Eric by the collar and roars,“Where’s my money?” Eric stumbles off his stool and pushes him away. A fight breaks out.
The bouncers pull them apart and order Eric to show them his wallet. The $20 bill is in there with a mark on the front that Jack said existed. The police are called. Eric doesn’t remember taking the money, but hires a lawyer who negotiates a settlement with the court to require counseling instead of charges.
Therapy lasts for three years. He quits several times but always returns. One day, the therapist shouts during a particularly frustrating session. “Get out of my office if you can’t at least try to help yourself.”
Eric returns to the next session and asks the therapist why she was so upset with him. “How did that make you feel?” she asks.
Eric mulls this over and says, “I’ve heard shouting all of my life. It made me feel sad and lonely.”
Over time, Eric quits the delivery job and gains admission into a mental health counseling program to help other people as a therapist. He often passes the tavern and thinks about going in, but never stops.
One day, he calls his parents and asks, “Can I come over to see you?” He smiles at their excitement. The conversation starts with hugs and multiple “how are you’s” and with Emily asking, “Have you been eating properly? You’re as thin as a rail.”
Eric eventually blurts out: “How are you all getting along?” The response is silence, and then Bill asks: “How is your job going?”
Eric leaves his parents with the promise to return soon. Driving home, he notices his hands clenched around the steering wheel. For the rest of the journey, Eric is mindful to breathe in and out slowly. By the time he slots the key in the lock, he feels that he might even be able to go back some time.
In years to come, Eric will have both of his parents cremated. His father dies alone after sending his wife from his bedside, and his mother slowly succumbs to the torture of dementia. He puts their urns side-by-side on the bookshelf in his front room. Sometimes, he hears their fighting in the night, which gives him peace.