Written for Drinkers with Writing Problems, Aug 25, 2017
Are there any of you who had to move back in with your parents for whatever reason?
Yes, I am also one of you.
In 2002 I had to move in with my dad. My roommate was getting married and moving to Baltimore and my hateful, putrid job was about to be eliminated and I had no luck in finding a new one. I was at loose ends. My dad graciously agreed to let me move in when I called him weeping. He lived in Glen Ellyn, the suburb where I grew up, in a 3-bedroom townhouse that he bought after my parent’s divorce. I put most of my stuff in storage and moved under the same roof with my father for the first time in 10 years.
My dad and I always had a contentious relationship. He was a difficult man. Autocratic, aloof, and bad tempered; living with him was a little like living with an angry badger in a cardigan who was half drunk on Scotch and water (five fingers Scotch, two fingers water). My father was mostly worried about my academic “career.” When I was in second grade, he marched into the living room and announced to my mom, “We have not raised a scholar.” This was not news to my mother but she had thought they were trying to raise a decent human being, not necessarily a scholar. Once when I got the lead in the 8th grade musical, my dad told me we wasn’t coming. He said, “I’ll be there when you graduate valedictorian.” We are all still waiting on that.
It seemed he had given up on me with my straight B’s and some C’s and moved on to achievable goals like world peace instead of having a daughter who was a scholar.
(I’m kidding. He didn’t care about world peace.) When my teenage rebellion hit hard, I decided that I gave up on him too and I made it my life’s mission to disobey, contradict and undermine him. I was snotty and rude. I lied about where I was and what I was doing for no reason other than to not tell him the truth. If he entered a room, I left it. I made my contempt known through the patented teenage eye roll, heavy sighs and of course, the stony silence that only a 13 year-old girl can deliver.
He responded to all of this by grounding me every chance he got. Five minutes late for curfew? Grounded. Got a B on a science test? Grounded. Said “tin foil” after being told repeatedly to say “aluminum foil”. Grounded for a week! I was always grounded from something: the phone, the car, the TV. I don’t think there was a week from when I was 13 until I left for college that I wasn’t grounded for something. I think he stopped keeping track after a while. He grounded me from the TV for a week three times in one week. It was just knee-jerk to him.
My room and its messiness was a particular source of contention between us. Dad was something between extremely neat and Hercule Poirot. Think of the precision of a military bunk and foot locker but the whole house. Everything was at right angles, perfectly lined up. My room was like a black hole to him. I imagined he could feel it lurking at the other end of the hallway, just waiting to spread its chaos to other parts of the house So, I was constantly being grounded for my laziness in cleaning my room like, just stuffing everything under the bed instead of putting it away or throwing it out, or vacuuming enough to make those lines in the carpet but not actually cleaning anything. It drove him insane. He would go from bright red to a dusty purple and then to a scary pale white. He used this voice that started in the way back of his throat, kind of strangled and choked but still really loud. “YOU’RE GROUNDED!
Because of this history we had, I was grateful he was giving me an out to my housing problem, and lack of income problem, I wasn’t thrilled to be moving in with him. He decided to charge me a nominal rent of $150 a month so I “wouldn’t get too comfortable.” As though moving back to the contemptible suburbs without my friends around or any good music or shows or Thai food at 2am, in with my father was going to make me a mooch off of his largesse for the rest of my life.
But we really rubbed along together pretty well. It is an interesting thing to get to know your parents as adults. You finally see they are whole people with inner lives and not just there to fulfill your needs. And this was the most time we had spent together alone, ever. It was just him and me in the house. We ate dinner together most nights and he usually cooked. He tried to include some meals he knew I liked that weren’t on his usual menu. I introduced him to edamame and made my cheater lasagna recipe a few times, which he loved. We talked about our days. We discussed current events. We both watched a few of the same TV shows and we talked about them. Had Friends run its course? Was the portrayal of mental illness in Monk believable? So, yeah, we tackling the big questions.
There were a lot of rules about what dishes to use, and how to clean the table after a meal and how to load the dishwasher and the washing machine and the dryer and how long my shower should be. I could tell he didn’t love the chaos that I was bringing to his orderly and quiet home with my music, weird taste in TV, and phone calls at all hours, but he did his best to make me feel welcome.
After I had been there for about four months, one Tuesday night I did a few loads of laundry. I folded them, took to the laundry basket to my room and put it on the floor. And there the laundry sat. And sat. For a week. Every night, my dad would duck his head in the room, give the basket of laundry a look, give me a look, and leave. And still I didn’t put my clean laundry away. I was doing that thing where you use the clean laundry basket as a dresser and paw through it and pull out the stuff you want and so by the time you are ready to put it away, there is nothing left really. This is a time-honored tradition of a lazy person.
I was leaving to go out one night and my dad confronted me.
Where are you going? You need to put away the clothes in your room.
You heard me. Put away the clothes in your room. They have been there since Tuesday.
I’ll get to it.
Do it now before you leave.
I’ll do it later.
(He starts to turn red now.)
Do it now.
(He starts to turn purple.)
Just do it.
Do it now, or…?
And now I am just waiting for it. The phrase I heard so many times over the years. And frankly, I’m kind of excited. I want him to try and ground me. I’m finally an adult. I can finally tell him to go fuck himself which is what my teenage self wanted to do but never did because of a mixture of fear and respect. Well, the fear is gone and it is hard to respect another adult who tries to ground you.
Go on Dad, say it. Say it.
Do it now, or…?
He snapped his mouth shut, glared at me, and stomped away. I yelled “That’s what I thought!” And stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind me.
I drove around the neighborhood fuming.
How dare he?! He almost tried to ground me. ME! His daughter who was an adult now, goddamnit. I wasn’t a child! I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t without resources.
As I was driving, I started to calm down and think. Well, shit, now what was I going to do? He was my dad, I couldn’t never talk to him again like I might do to a friend with whom I had had that level of a fight. I had to go back and get my stuff at least. Which would mean talking to him. And he didn’t say you’re grounded. He did ALMOST say it, but he didn’t actually say it. And I had been pushing his buttons. All week. I knew the laundry was bothering him and I left it there, just to see what would happen. And I saw what happened. This whole thing was pretty childish. And I wasn’t a child anymore.
My dad, whatever his faults were, had opened his home to me, his ne’er-do-well daughter who had lost her job and couldn’t afford a decent place to live. He didn’t have to do that. I know lots of people whose parents wouldn’t lift a finger to help them, let alone in their hour of need. He wanted his house just so. And he always had. The way he went about it might have been questionable; bullying his loved ones and also caring way way way too much about how the table gets wiped down. But, again, he had always been this way. The only thing that had changed was me.
I was an adult now. He was still the same guy he was when I was a teenager: a guy who wanted control, who wanted things just so, and had some overbearing ways of getting them. I wouldn’t be living with him forever. So what if he wanted his house a particular way? I really didn’t think he had the right to tell me what to do with my laundry, but I could put it away to make his environment more peaceful. That was an easy thing to do. I didn’t want to live in the warzone I lived in with him when I was younger. I wanted to enjoy my time at his house as much as I could.
So I drove home. I walked in the door and he gave me a very formal apology for yelling at me. I apologized right back, in kind of a general way, for my bad behavior. We hugged. I said I would put my laundry away. He thanked me. He told me he loved me. I told him I loved him. I went to my room and refolded everything and put it in the dresser. Then I went downstairs and sat with my dad and watched an episode of Monk with my dad.