My Father Mateo (Part 1)
It was one of those bleary, snowy, and windy Chicago weather. Night had fallen and on the aisle of the crowded bus, I was squashed in between damp, bulky coats. Knowing the route by heart, I could tell we were approaching the second to the last bus stop before reaching the famous Old Town where I was to meet a friend. My estimate was another half hour before we got there.
A gaunt, rawboned middle-aged man came up the bus. In a gruff, froggy voice, he slurred his expletives about the piling snow, extinct taxicabs and the crowded bus. He reeked with alcohol.
Suddenly it happened again. I couldn't ignore the sensations. My heart thumped beyond speed limit, my hands were clammy despite the below-zero weather, my knees turned to jelly, my stomach churned, and my lungs gasped for air. I was on the verge of collapsing. In seconds, I jumped out of the bus before the doors closed. The only way to survive this all-too-familiar panic attack was to get out of that bus, away from that ghastly man, away from the nauseating smell of stale gin.
I didn't care if I'd be stranded in the middle of a deserted side road or buried in the swiftly piling snow, or suffered from frostbite. Any of these would be a fate better than being within the same breathing area as a ghoulish, croaking drunk.
I was, as far back as I could remember, unreasonably horrified of anyone who had imbibed alcohol.
I knew exactly why.
This problem, ridiculous as it might have sounded, stemmed from the man who, in essence, was closest to me—my father. He was, to my mind, addicted to alcohol. Nobody seemed bothered enough (not my mom, nor my siblings, nor my close kin) to suffer the way I did. Which was why it was only I who wanted to fly the coop, so to speak. With "The American Dream" as a convenient excuse, I flew to the US shortly after college graduation so I could be miles and miles away from home. I thought that if I didn't see him I'd be cured of this irrational fear.
But tonight, after one whole year in a far-flung foreign land, I was just proven wrong.
In the Philippines, I had some kind of a radar. I could spot a person who had drunk a little bit too much a hundred meters away. If he came any closer, I'd fold up, crumple and faint. It was an affliction I managed to conceal quite perfectly. I didn't know in whom to confide. More accurately, I was afraid I wouldn't be understood.
I remember vaguely how it all started.
Once there was this self-conscious, onion-skinned, precocious little girl who tried to excel in almost everything she did. To her, it was extremely important for people and her friends to think highly of her. So she wanted nothing more than a picture-perfect family, with parents she could be proud of and introduce to everyone. A smiling mother, who was a caring pharmacist, and a respectable father, who was a brilliant lawyer.
The mother was all she was meant to be. But the father wasn't one she could put into a frame, not when he partied with friends (for a part of him was footloose and fancy free) and had one too many. When he was his sober self, he was exactly what the little girl pictured in her mind—quiet, self-effacing, dignified and yes, respectable.
He would write beautiful speeches and letters. And he would talk about the poetry of Robert Frost and the ideology of Karl Marx. But during a party, in the girl's eyes, the respectable man turned into a loquacious, garrulous stranger who sang off-color songs, off key.
It wasn't that bad in the early days. The parties were few and far between. But as the little girl bloomed into a young lady, even more self-conscious than ever, especially now that she had new friends with fame, fortune, and picture-perfect families, the respectable father came and went.
In the mornings, at home, as he worked on legal briefs and pleadings, he was his ideal Daddy self, talking in hushed, polite tones. At night, coming home from a neighborhood get-together, he'd be a stranger. He'd smell of beer or rum or brandy or gin, trip over his own shoes, cussing at no one in particular. That was when the symptom of her affliction became more palpable: A little bit of a heart leap, until it progressed into a chilling, asphyxiating, and deafening knell.
Anger? Fear? Frustration? Shame? It was all of those things.
(To be continued tomorrow)