Birthday

By David L. Ulin
December 5th, 2014

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August 21, 2014

The morning of my birthday, a friend tweets a writing prompt: Five things you want for your birthday (in 25 words exactly). I can’t tell whether this means 25 words total or 25 words for each item, but here goes:

1)    A pleasant day with my family.

2)    No one bothering me.

3)    A few drinks, a good dinner.

4)    Maybe smoke some weed.

5)    Keep the fear at bay.

Ask me again, on a different day, and the list changes; briefly, I have a fantasy about doing a little bit of writing, or sex with Rae. Neither, however, is going to happen, and for the same reason: too many people around. Sophie sleeps late in her bedroom; Noah comes over after lunch. He’s been sick, a stomach virus, bacterial, and the features of his face look newly sculpted: curve of his jaw, fine line of his nose, arc of his eyebrows two parentheses laid side by side.

With any other kid, this wouldn’t be a cause for caution, wouldn’t concern me other than the obvious: is he getting better? Is he getting worse? But concern is (has always been) the currency of my relationship with him—concern about his eating, concern about his mental state. For the last 12 weeks, since he got out of rehab in Arizona for anorexia and bulimia, he’s been living in a sober house in Santa Monica, and we haven’t seen him much. It’s not distance that’s the issue—a straight shot, eight and a half miles west on Pico—except it is a kind of distance, the distance of a new world order, of a family unequipped to rewire its expectations, to figure out how to be a family again. Partly, this is because we’re tired, all of us: Rae, who shut down so completely she doesn’t remember the intervention we staged for Noah exactly six months ago tomorrow; Sophie, who never wants to talk to him again. Me, too: exhausted, tired of fighting, frayed by every minor act of resistance, every challenge or request to change the structure, to let him move in with his boyfriend, to downgrade the recovery to something more in line with his own ever-shifting terms. I don’t have a voice in my treatment, he complains at predictable intervals, like the waxing and waning of the moon. He’s right, of course, but he is also wrong, or perhaps it’s most accurate to say that he’s not ready yet to have a voice in his treatment, that he still doesn’t understand the difference between (what let’s call) his wants and his needs.

My last birthday, on Cape Cod, he woke me in the morning with breakfast in bed. Eggs, orange juice, coffee, a rose plucked from a bush in the garden, arrayed on a painted tray from the 1920s, the sort of heirloom passed down across generations, although in this case, those generations are not ours. This is one of the peculiar tensions of the Cape house, which my parents have rented for 44 Augusts now, since the year I turned 10. It’s the house in which my Uncle Van (uncle by marriage, emblem of my Brooklyn Jewish aunt’s WASP aspirations) spent his childhood summers, which complicates the bloodlines even more. Where do we fit into such a construct, my family of assimilationists, remaking ourselves in the image of the Upper East Side and the Ivy League? What does it mean that these plates and portraits, these artifacts and artworks, are not entirely alien or unfamiliar, even though they are? To the right of the front door hangs a board displaying a number of hand-tied sample knots: bowline, sheepshank, square knot, half hitch. I learned the same knots as a kid in sailing school, although these knots, varnished and glued into place, have been on this wall since before I was born. Their creator was the 10-year-old incarnation of my uncle, who went to the same sailing school I did, riding his bike over the same small streets and crumbling pavements, two decades before he met my aunt. Home and not home: the 44 summers we’ve spent in this house are the longest continuous residence any of us have experienced, which makes our time here its own kind of heritage.

And yet, this summer, for only the fifth or sixth time since the start of all those Cape Cod Augusts, I am staying away. Too much work, I tell the kids, book due and that trip to Shreveport, but really, it’s the intercession of outside factors, which (I am trying to accept) I can’t control. First, the calendar: my parents only have the house for two weeks, and the second overlaps the start of Sophie’s school. That leaves a narrow window—too narrow, I keep saying, although if I wanted I could make it work, could squeeze in four or five days to walk the jetty, to drink beer and eat steamers at The Chatham Squire with my friend Paul while we watch the Red Sox lose to the Angels and Seattle, as they’ve been doing all week long. I feel the pull with every post my brother adds to Facebook: beach photos, happy family. The longing is almost physical, if not for the people then for the place. With the people… well, it’s complicated, as it always is with blood. My brother’s family, they look so normal, so relaxed and unconflicted, so unriven by the tumult that affects my own. Whether or not this is true, I couldn’t tell you; I have been so consumed, this past year, by my family (read: my son) that a lot of relationships have fallen away. If you want to understand tunnel vision, just reckon with a kid in trouble. It’s not that everything else becomes irrelevant so much as it is that you are consumed. Yes, consumed, by everything you’ve done and everything you should have done, consumed by fighting for survival, by trying to keep him (and yourself, and everyone) alive. Back in January and February, after Noah left college and was slowly killing himself in his back bedroom, shoving chopsticks down his throat to bring up the vomit, six feet tall and 122 pounds the day we sent him to Arizona, eyes red and bulging from the pressure of the purging, all day, every day, blasting music—soundtrack to March of the Penguins, a favorite from childhood—to cover the sour retching of emesis, I would lie in bed at night and wonder if he would still be living in the morning, whether his exhausted body would give out. This is the other reason we’re not going to the Cape: so he can continue treatment uninterrupted, so I don’t have to stay up all night, or try to, wrestling my consciousness into a vigilance as fierce as any I have ever known. Even tonight, the night of my birthday, the first he has spent with us since he came back to California, I find myself adrift in half-sleep, listening, always listening, for noises from the kitchen, too much time spent in the bathroom, for the surreptitious scurrying of who-knows-what taking place behind his bedroom door.

Have I told him this? No, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know; it’s why he doesn’t come around. His disease balloons a silence in between us containing everything I cannot say. I want to pretend he is well, that we’ve been living through some weird anomaly, that there is an order, a narrative, in which things progress from worse to better and that recovery is not a process but a destination point. It’s an easy fantasy to indulge, especially with his weight up and his eyes clear, his behaviors (this is the euphemism of choice for the starving and the puking, the drifting through the house like a wraith in a loose bathrobe, so transparent we could almost see right through him: Ghost of Child Past) in check. Then, at dinner, he orders a plate of plain vegetables—he’s on a special diet to appease the virus—and his face twists into an electric grin. Approved anorexia, he laughs. I get to be anorexic until Saturday… and he’s not joking, more like longing, as if he were immersed in a sense memory. Like all addictions, eating disorders are diseases of control: they allow us to say fuck you to God, the body, parental expectations, every external pressure or point of view. When you’re starving, or puking, you’re on an edge of clarity so precise and personal the horizon narrows, and the world with all its chaos disappears. But that’s the thing about control—it leads to self-negation, to the empty consolation of the suicide. In that sense, it begins (and ends) with self-loathing, the inability to accept oneself, the need to inflict punishment for the failure to be who or what we desire.

As it turns out, I know a little something about self-loathing also, and addiction, too. I drink too much, have smoked dope for nearly 40 years, eat when I’m not hungry, rant and rave and mope. I cringe at every failure of ambition or compassion, shamed into silence by an untoward reaction or response. None of this is uncommon; it has not kept me from functioning, except in how it manifests as fear. Keep the fear at bay… How could it be different, raised in a family where self-loathing is so entrenched that our fondest hope, our aspiration, is to turn our backs on who we are? Brooklyn Jews, Russian peasants, chased from the old country in steerage at the point of a pogrom. Now we summer on the Cape and frame this as our legacy, and if that sounds like a delusion, self-deception, then what does it mean that I love it so much? Confusion, confusion, confusion, the chasm between my judgment and my desire. And I have passed it onward because when Noah describes his eating disorder, he often does so in terms of his self-hatred, his desire for annihilation, his belief that we’d be happier if he were gone.

How honest do I want to be here? Do I want to say that there have been times when he was right? Over winter break, for instance, when we were in Costa Rica and I hit him, three times, so frustrated at how the disease had claimed him, I would have, in that moment, killed him myself. The next day, he and I returned to Los Angeles, 18 hours of travel, the two of us barely speaking, barely civil, and when we finally arrived home, at 2:30 Christmas morning, his long decline was already underway. I don’t know what to do with such a memory; it’s the reason I, too, keep my distance, terrified by the passion proximity provokes. Rather keep things calm, keep things pleasant, avoid the risks, the rage. But no, it’s more than that: I want to rediscover what we have misdirected, an ease, a normalcy, in which each conversation is no longer fraught. I want to be a father and a son again, even if I have no idea, in this brave new configuration, of how we do that, how we coolly eye our (self-)destruction and brush away the drifting char.

“In numerology,” a friend posts on Facebook for my birthday, “the number 53 means building something to benefit society that facilitates personal freedom and creative expression.” I want that to be true. So maybe we start right here, in this moment: dinner finished, a few drinks like molasses in my bloodstream, lying in bed, Rae asleep beside me, and, for this one night at least, the four of us—Noah and Sophie and Rae and me—occupying this house together: family.