A Slap on the Back

Father had the tendency to show his love violently. That didn’t mean he struck us or anything like that. Not overtly, anyway. No, the violence was instead shown passive aggressively. Specifically, with the kind of “pat” on the back that could be forceful enough to make you vomit. It was a slap. A beatdown parading as “good will.” He didn’t give it to all of his adult children. Only the ones who were a disappointment to him. That happened to be me and my brother, Wren. We were both “unestablished” in life and currently living at home. Whereas Wren had never left, dabbling in classes on and off at the community college, I was forced to come back after being unable to hack it in the “real world.” But the world at my parents’ felt too real in many ways. Starting with a total loss of agency, in addition to being at the mercy of their strange, generationally-based “rules.”

While Wren had the benefit of being a boy, therefore being asked fewer questions when he dared to leave the house, I was constantly grilled. Where was I going? What was I doing? Who with? It took all of my strength not to remind Father that I was thirty years old. An “adult,” by legal definitions and exterior appearances. But apparently nothing about me had “earned the right” to be treated as such. And, when he would perform the rigmarole of saying goodbye or goodnight to us with a hug, he would pound our backs under the guise of giving tender affection, when, in fact, it was blatant contempt. Not just for us. But for himself. Where had he gone wrong?… and all that sort of thing. Then he would internally tell himself that Wren and I couldn’t possibly be his fault—because if that were truly the case, then his other two spawns, Brendan and Eric, wouldn’t be successful. The former being a House of Representatives member and the latter owning his own lucrative HVAC business. No, something was “wired wrong” inside me and Wren to make us this way. That was what Father had to assure himself of every day when he tried not to look at us sitting at the table across from him. Our open mouths eating from the trough created by his lifelong toil.

Though I tried to avoid close encounters of the fatherly kind as much as I could (Mother was too checked out to concern myself with), it was inevitable that we would cross paths. Whether over a shared dining experience or simply in the halls. There was no escaping the radiating disappointment, the hawk-eye that was wondering when either of us would “do something” with our lives. We couldn’t “hide out” here forever, after all. I don’t know if that was what Wren was doing, considering, on some level, he had been shrewd enough to never leave in the first place. Yet I could sense that was probably what I was doing, having been burned one too many times “out there.” Being totally unable to deal with another psychological blow from one of the many freaks (and not in the good way) just waiting to pounce on someone hopelessly vulnerable and naive. Instead, I would take the physical blows hand-delivered by father when he wanted to “show affection” that couldn’t avoid being rooted in this form of “pat”-on-the-back violence. 

As he slapped me on the back tonight, I had a brief vision of being a baby and him doing this. Back when it was socially acceptable to be slapped on the back in order to get a child to burp. Except he was probably much more appropriately gentle with me during this phase. Or maybe not, who knows? Maybe part of the reason I was so incapable of dealing with humanity stemmed from that early childhood trauma of him slapping me on the back so fucking hard. So unnecessarily hard. Was it all part of his own need to show that he was still a “tough” man on the outside, even if deigning to display conventional and accepted forms of affection? I could only guess. Or at least, I could only try to in between trying not to choke on my own saliva from the rough jostling and pounding that would take place in the name of bidding me goodnight. I do feel that Wren was not embraced with such ferocity. Maybe Father thought that was “too gay”—a hug that lasted for more than a second between two men. 

In any event, it didn’t take long for my back to actually get sore as a result of these encounters. But I knew I couldn’t say anything about it. That he would brand me as a “snowflake” and get endlessly offended in such a way as to give me the silent treatment for god knows how long. So I myself remained silent. That’s what women do best, isn’t it? Even when they’re screaming as loud as they can, it’s not like men—least of all fathers—can hear anything a woman is saying. When I brought it up to Wren one night after Father had retired, he shrugged and said, “I don’t even notice Dad’s microaggressions anymore. That’s how desensitized I’ve become.” Thus, it wasn’t as though I got much in the way of commiseration. Which is what made me try to “take it like a man” a.k.a. like Wren by simply doing my best to “ignore” the pain… even though I had now been conditioned to flinch and wince even before he could wrap his arms around me and deliver the nightly coup de grâce.

Father didn’t seem to (or chose not to) notice my grimace every time he approached me to perform this charade of actually giving a damn about me, when, indeed, I knew the only reason he did it was because it would go against his sense of parental obligation to instead just throw me out of the house and forget all about me the way he truly wanted to. In that fashion, I would no longer be a black mark on his record of “Success as a Human.” Part of said “success” being able to raise a child that could function in society. Even though, technically, a parent should actually be prouder when their spawn could not. It sort of meant they still had a soul. 

Alas, there would be no such reasoning with Father on this front. Just as everyone else saw it, a person’s worth came down to what they could reveal in their bank account. Mine was currently at negative three hundred and forty-seven dollars and counting. 

That evening, after about five months of the same old routine that ensued from the second I stepped foot back into that house, Father finally “patted” me on the back too hard for my spine to continue to bear. So hard, truth be told, that a vertebra became dislodged. Spondylolisthesis. Quite severe. So I guess I won’t be leaving the house anytime soon. But on the plus side, Father can’t slap my back anymore to express his “affection.” He’s opted instead to show no signs at all.

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