Sorboni Banerjee


Tommy Baxter


Theresa Edo


Erin Jang


Michelle Kearns


Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak


Jay Rubin


Sarah Williams

Introductory Essay


By Tommy Baxter

All names in this piece, including the author’s, have been changed to protect the parties involved.

I started using drugs after my father’s second divorce. I was thirteen.

He told me that he and my step-mom Anne were separating as we sped through San Francisco, rushing to drop me off at school on time. I didn’t even have a chance to respond before we were at the corner and Dad said, “Have a good day. We’ll talk about this tonight.”

We talked about it, on that night and many others, but nothing he said could save him; I had stopped listening. I loved Anne, almost like a second mom, and now my Dad had botched another marriage, and I again found myself in between my father and a woman he hurt.

When the divorce went through and Anne moved out, our neighbor, a bitter 84 year old across the hall, died of a heart attack. My father had never talked to him, but I was sure my father was indirectly responsible; his problems were infectious. I feared that my father’s problems might invade me too, and hoping to insulate myself, I put as much distance as I could between me and him. Distance came mainly in the form of drugs—I figured that if I was too high to understand him, he couldn’t bug me—and I began spending a disproportionate amount of time at my mother’s house, in Oakland.

Weed was my gateway to a host of narcotics and barbiturates, and within two years of first inhaling, I entered a rehab clinic in the basement of a hospital.

During those foggy years, as I tried to evade my parents’ growing suspicions, denying that I smelled like smoke and insisting that my bloodshot eyes were the result of horrible allergies, my father continued his stormy relationship with Sallee, the clinically depressed Swiss woman who had intentionally broken up he and Anne in a ploy to vie for his attention.

When my father tried to leave Sallee, her extremities were revealed. She broke into our house, plundered his bedroom, and left a disturbing note on the kitchen counter, like something out of Fatal Attraction. The next week, I received a package from Sallee with instructions on how I might better my thirteen-year-old-self while also improving my spelling. I shared this with my father, and only then did he grasp Sallee’s lunacy. He changed the locks and swore never to see her again.

The thought of my Dad acting responsibly with this woman seemed laughable at the time, almost as funny as I found myself, the fool on the hill, or more precisely, the fool in rehab. Thunder Road operated out of the basement of an Oakland hospital. The walls were mustard yellow, the linoleum floors were stained, and the antiseptic smells from the rest of the hospital settled down to the basement. Days were filled with workshops in which we were reminded why drugs were bad, and nights, I traded overdose stories from the streets with my fellow inmates. For my first several weeks there, I laughed at my predicament with the conviction of denial. But soon, about the time I began to think seriously of my father’s mistakes, my contentment at Thunder Road expired, and from my boredom flowered an inspired self-improvement campaign that led me out of rehab.

My mom and dad were astonished. Where their parenting, their money, and the rehab failed, my own will triumphed. It took me less than two months to clean myself up. I cut my hair, shed my tie-dyes, abandoned my inebriated friends, and transferred myself to an arts-oriented high school where I excelled at everything at which I had previously failed. I scored a cute girlfriend, volunteered in Africa, and landed mostly A’s in my classes.

Dad started dating one of the board members from his orchestra, a rich bank-woman named Maureen, and my mom took directorship of a children’s museum, which seemed to make her happy. In short—the family’s chronic neurosis seemed to be in a welcome state of regression. But even after things had settled down, Dad was still controlling and prone to fits of anger. Lines at the supermarket made him impatient, and a bad driver could ruin his day.

During my first year of college, just before he wed Maureen in his third marriage and promised never to divorce her, saying “third’s a charm,” I decided it was a waste of my energy to keep feeding the resentment I had kindled for my father. So, in a series of letters and phone-calls, I began deconstructing the emotional wall we had built between ourselves. I apologized for making myself the object of so much worry, and in a roundabout way, Dad said sorry for the divorces, without really accepting responsibility for their failures.

The years to follow witnessed a renewed friendship between father and son. We went to football games, took hikes, walked the dogs, and checkout out Italian girls while sipping cappuccinos in North Beach. Dad and Maureen lived happily in a mansion on a hill, and I traveled to India, trying to learn how to suffer less.

I was back from the East, crashing with my Dad and Maureen for a month or so, when one night at 2 a.m., the telephone rang. I happened to be awake, writing, so I grabbed the receiver, hoping the ringing wouldn’t wake anyone. I said hello, but in the rattle of lifting the receiver, my voice was lost. I heard my father’s tired voice say hello, and then I heard a voice too distinct to ever forget, the squawky voice of past madness: the Swiss-accented voice of Sallee, Dad’s crazy ex-lover.

They had not heard me pick up and began to talk amorously, while unbeknownst to them, I listened, too petrified to put down the receiver and risk being found out, and also perversely compelled to continue eavesdropping on what was clearly another of my father’s affairs. They had phone sex for twenty minutes. Dad said things like, “your string-bean body bouncing all over me,” and Sallee commented affectionately on my Dad’s big stomach. The silent voyeur, I grew nauseous as they got off and planned a rendezvous at an airport hotel. When they finally finished, I was too wound up to go to sleep. I spent the night brooding, in utter disappointment of my father.

When I came down for breakfast the next morning, Dad asked how I’d slept, noting the bags under my eyes. I lied and said I was writing a great novel, then retreated, utilizing an ancient safety-mechanism, feeling us drift a bit further apart once again.

I decided not to bring up the eavesdropping with my father. What’s most important now is my own relationship with him, not his relationship with his wife. As one Buddhist friend offered, “That’s his karma.” And in all fairness, if I were ever to cheat on my wife, I wouldn’t want my dad nosing into my business.

Still, there is a new heaviness when I see my father. It’s the weight of untold secrets, the burden of unclaimed responsibility. Mostly, we do a good job of preserving the charade of a happy, intelligent, father-and-son team, but at times, it feels like we’re in the fog of the drug-years again.

My father’s a smart man—Princeton-educated, used to write for the Times and the Globe—but he can’t handle his women. With one slap to my mother’s cheek he blew his first marriage, and he ruined his second marriage by letting his psychotic mistress expose the affair to Anne. Despite his promise, I won’t be surprised if his marriage with Maureen crumbles, though I pray (mostly for his sake) that it does not.

My father has always given me plenty of reasons to resent him. And still, probably because I see so much of him in myself, I do my best to love and forgive him.

But I’m not beyond having a little fun.

College graduation is coming up for me, and for the first time ever, my mother, Anne, and Maureen, as well as my father and I, will all be together. It will be my one chance, save a potential marriage (or two, or three), to take a picture of my Dad’s three wives. I’m going to line them all up: Mom, Anne, and Maureen, all with their short hair and beautiful eyes. No doubt, my Dad will tense up when I have them pose; he’ll turn red and steam will plume from his ears. But it’s my right. As the kid in the middle of all these messes, I get to snap a picture of my three moms. I’m owed it. It’s my privilege to frame my Dad’s mistakes.