An excerpt from Dad: A Novel
How in the hell did I ever end up here? Oliver wondered for the umpteenth time. Recently, it had become his pathetic mantra.
Jonah’s young face suddenly popped into Oliver’s head like a frightened Jack-in-the Box. Oh shit, Ginny asked me to pick him up from school today. He checked his watch. Three minutes ago. Panic struck his heart. And his school’s ten minutes away. He took off at a sprint for his car, feeling for his cell phone on the way. Racing toward the school, he managed to place a call. No answer. With his heart rate now at a dangerous pace, his breathing turned quick and shallow. A bead of sweat formed across his forehead. This one’s on me, he realized, I screwed up big this time. He considered calling Ginny, who was a few miles closer. Nah. Although it was a brutal decision, in the end he decided that he couldn’t take her relentless ridicule, or glares from her disappointed—even convicting—eyes. He stepped on the pedal, risking himself and everyone else in his path. He’d made an honest mistake that now felt like sheer abandonment. Suddenly, young Jonah’s face became twisted and contorted in his mind—as one horrific scenario after the next played out in vivid and morbid detail: The white van pulling up and snatching his kid. Oliver’s throat began to constrict, threatening to close. He then pictured Jonah wandering off in search of his neglectful father. Oliver stopped breathing for a moment when he screeched up to the back bumper of a car that was stopped. He beeped his horn, pushing down on the center of the steering wheel much longer than needed. The guy’s head snapped up, his snake-like eyes now in his rearview mirror. He gestured toward the red light before he flipped Oliver the bird.
Maybe I should have called Ginny? Oliver questioned, squealing around the angry driver. His heart racing faster than the car, he tried calling the school again. This time, someone picked up.
“I’m sorry, who did you say this is?” the woman asked.
“Oliver, Jonah’s dad. I’m on my way to pick him up. I…” He stopped, suddenly aware that an honest confession might turn into a case of neglect.
“I’m…I’m almost there.”
“Jonah Earle, you say?” There was a lethal pause. “I haven’t seen him. Let me check for you.”
As the line went silent, Oliver stopped breathing again. Oh God, please! he silently begged, as more scenes of abduction and grisly torture flooded his buzzing mind. He pushed back the sensation to dry heave. Come on…come on… Even with every unintentional attempt to hit everything in his path, the brick-faced school was now in sight. He hung up the phone, screeched to a stop and began sprinting toward the building—a final prayer to God on his lips. Please Lord, please let Jonah be okay. I swear I’ll never… His mind froze. Jonah was not outside, waiting.
Oliver threw open the front door, screaming, “Jonah! Jonah!”
An elderly woman stepped into the yellow-tiled hallway. “Can I help you, sir?”
“My son, Jonah, I was supposed to…”
“He’s in here, Mr. Earle,” she said. “Students who miss the bus or their ride…” She paused, as if in condemnation, “are required to wait in the library.”
“Oh, thank God.”
She checked her watch and grinned. “Although you’re not that late, Mr. Earle,” she said. “There are parents who won’t be here for another twenty minutes or so.” She rolled her eyes. “Trust me, it’s a daily routine with some folks.”
Oliver stepped into the desolate library to see Jonah sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book.
The boy looked up. “Oh, hey Dad.”
Rushing to him, Oliver wrapped his arms around the confused boy.
“What’s going on, Dad?” the kid asked, now worried. “Did something happen to Mom, or…?”
“No, son, I’m just really happy to see you, that’s all.”
On the way home, Jonah asked, “Dad, were you all freaked out because you were a few minutes late?”
Oliver looked in the rearview mirror and offered a partial shrug.
The little guy chuckled. “You worry too much.”
“I’m your dad. That’s my job,” Oliver told him, thinking, And you have no idea just how much. He looked back at his son again and grinned. But you will someday.
They drove—slowly—for a mile or two when Jonah added, “And don’t worry about Mom. I won’t tell her you were late coming to get me.”
“I appreciate that, son,” Oliver said, smiling, “but we don’t keep anything from your mother, remember?”
“I know, Dad,” the kid said, smiling back, “but I still won’t tell her.”
The boy’s learning, Oliver thought.
Oliver sprang straight up in bed, panting like a dog. Ripping the CPAP mask off his face, he frantically searched the darkness. Jonah… While his heart raced out of his chest, he did all he could to calm his breathing and collect his thoughts.
“What is it, Oliver?” Ginny asked, half-awake beside him.
“Noth…nothing,” he whispered in a stutter. “Go back to sleep. It was only a bad dream.”
“Again?” With a yawn, she did as instructed—a light snore quickly following her head hitting the pillow.
Although forgetting Jonah at school was only a bad dream, it was one that repeated a couple times a year—every year since the actual incident occurred.
Constant worry is the price of fatherhood, he thought. After taking a few deep breaths, he slowly lay his head back down. I’ll gladly pay it.
Oliver set the alarm on his cell phone. I have my weekly therapy session at eight o’clock, and I don’t want to be late for that. He smiled. And God forbid if I’m late for work. He wore his sarcastic grin right up until he began snoring like an asthmatic bear.
Oliver had hit the snooze button like he was keeping beat to a dreadfully slow song, while the morning arrived as unwelcome as any of them over the past few years. He tried to focus on his therapist sitting across from him.
“So, how’s the job going?” Dr. Borden-Brown asked, her leather notepad and pen at the ready. “Any better?”
Startled from his thoughts, Oliver shook his head. “Same,” he said, adding a half-shrug. “Just working to feed my kids, you know?”
“Is there anything you want to discuss on that this week?”
“Not really. Nothing worth wasting our time over.” He shook his head. “Just the same old grind.” As Oliver spilled his guts each week—regardless of the topic—he felt like his life was circling the bowl.
She nodded. “And how are your children?”
“Same,” he repeated. “They’re fine. Layla’s off saving the world, and Jonah…” He stopped.
She jotted down a note, causing Oliver to lean forward in curiosity.
“And your marriage?” the doctor asked.
He looked up at her. Neither you or I have enough time to figure that one out, he thought, and I don’t have the energy right now to even try to explain it.
Dr. Elizabeth Borden-Brown was a cognitive behavioralist. With kind eyes and a knowing smile, she reminded Oliver a lot of his late mother, so he’d trusted the woman right away—which even he knew was key to making any type of progress in therapy.
When he’d first met her, she said, “My name’s Elizabeth Borden, but I prefer my middle name, Stephanie. My parents clearly had a sick sense of humor.”
“The whole ax thing?” Oliver asked.
She shrugged. “I try to stay away from them,” she joked, “just in case.”
Oliver laughed. She’s a good egg, he thought.
“So, Ginny still doesn’t want to join us?” Dr. Borden-Brown further prodded, dragging him back into the present.
Now there’s an understatement, he thought. “She doesn’t.”
“And you’ve asked her?”
“Weekly,” he said.
“Every week,” Oliver said, sucking in a deep breath. He’d sensed long ago that he would end up in therapy at some point in his life; what he didn’t predict was that he’d feel this lost in so many areas of his life—marriage, work, the future. He was hoping that this compassionate woman would help him rediscover the ground beneath his feet.
Dr. Borden-Brown nodded. “Okay then.” She jotted down a note into her leather-bound notepad. “What do you want to work on then?”
He smiled. “Whatever,” he said. “You know I’m only here to help manage my stereotypical mid-life crisis.”
In some respects, this was true. Oliver was no longer climbing in his life, nor did he feel like he was on the back end just yet. He was supposed to be sitting at the top. Instead, life felt like a treacherous seesaw. I’m not young anymore, and I’m not an old man yet. He had a good number of years ahead of him, with not nearly as many dreams or aspirations to fill them.
It was such a strange time in his life, a rut that he couldn’t seem to get past. The passion, the drive—each of these are a real task now, and both used to come so easy for me. Life had become a frustrating struggle. Occasionally, the battle was a valiant one. Most days, however, sheer exhaustion—of body, mind, and spirit—took the clear win. It’s a good thing I stopped keeping score a long time ago, he thought.
“Well?” Dr. Borden-Brown prodded.
“I need to work on everything,” Oliver half-joked, “but for now, I’d like to talk about my fear of public speaking.”
Although the middle-aged, strawberry-blonde therapist tried to conceal it, her squinted eyes betrayed surprise. “Really?”
Oliver knew there were much bigger fish to fry than his lifelong battle with public speaking. But at least this will keep the conversation going, he decided, and buy me some more time before I have to wade into deeper waters without a life jacket.
“Fear of public speaking is very common,” Dr. Borden-Brown said, kicking off another squandered session, “and believe it or not, it ranks just behind the fear of death.”
Oliver nodded, aware of the statistic. “Although I can do it, and do more public speaking than I care to,” he explained, “I’m absolutely tortured every second that leads up to it. From the time I’m asked to deliver a speech or even a few words in front of an audience, my stomach starts to flop and a rush of anxiety rushes through my body.”
Dr. Borden-Brown opened her notebook again, clicking her pen into action. “Take me through the symptoms you feel,” she said.
Oliver’s mind drifted off to the more pressing issue in his life. I wonder what Ginny’s doing right now? he thought. Not long ago, he considered his wife to be the best thing in his life. But something definitely changed, he realized, and it wasn’t good. Although he and Ginny still slept together, they did not share a marital bed. There’s a big difference, he thought. The lack of affection in their marriage was difficult for him to reconcile.
“Are you still with me, Oliver?” he heard the doctor ask.
“Yeah, yeah…sorry,” he said, taking a moment to reset and return his attention back to the distraction at hand. “It’s…it’s not like this anxiety begins with self-defeating thoughts leading up to the speaking engagement. It always starts with a wave of bad feelings, followed by my need
to analyze them.”
She placed her notebook into her lap. “What are you afraid of, Oliver?” she asked.
Although his eyes remained locked on hers, he was already drifting off again. I wonder if Ginny’s alone right now. She had recently started to work out regularly. “If I don’t take care of my body,” she’d claimed, “then nobody else will.” Oliver remembered choking on a laugh, thinking, That’s one way to put it. As of late, the more he considered her statement the less he felt like laughing. I wonder if she’s…
“It looks like you left our session again,” Dr. Borden-Brown said.
“Maybe we should talk about what’s really going on with—”
“No matter how bad my anxiety gets,” Oliver blurted, quickly cutting her off, “I refuse to back down from this internal fight.” He nodded twice, making sure she knew he was no coward.
“Okay,” she said, working her pen again, “good.”
“But I always suffer terribly,” he said.
“As a cognitive behavioralist, my primary objective is to help you challenge those fears,” she said.
“You see, when you’re afraid of something,” she explained, “it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening to you.”
“Okay,” he repeated, struggling to focus on the conversation.
“So it’s important that we document—or list—your specific worries. From there, we can directly challenge them by identifying probable and alternative outcomes, as well as any evidence that may support your fears or the likelihood that they’ll come true.”
“Whatever we need to do to make public speaking more bearable,” he confirmed.
She nodded. “Very good,” she said, before looking up and locking her eyes onto Oliver’s. “It’s hard to see where you’re heading when you don’t remember where you’ve been.”
“Oh, I know where I’ve been,” he told her, grinning at the thought of it. “Trust me, I remember.”
“Most fears are deep-rooted and originate in childhood,” Dr. Borden-Brown said. “In many cases, the past holds the answer to the root cause of present fears.”
“I think my entire childhood was rooted in fear,” Oliver joked.
“That’s true for most people,” she countered, without cracking so much as a grin. She leaned in toward him. “I think it makes good sense for us to revisit your past. You may be surprised at how those early fears rising to the surface begin to explain what you’re experiencing today.”
“I doubt I’ll be too surprised,” he said, smiling.
She nodded. “I need you to do some homework, Oliver.”
She nodded. “I need you to start putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper.”
“I can do that.”
“Good, and I need you to start as far back as you can remember.”
“How’s that?” Oliver asked, unsure of where this was going.
“I’d like you to start keeping a journal. Go back as far as you can. You’ll be surprised of the things you can remember and how one of those things are more than likely the basis of your distress.”
“Ummm, okay but…” he said, “I’m so busy at work and with the kids—”
“A half hour a day,” she interrupted. “That’s all it takes.” Her smile suddenly appeared. “A half hour a day and you may not need to see me for too much longer.” Her eyes softened. “Not a bad trade off, right?”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Wonderful,” she said. “Again, start as far back as you can recall and work your way forward. Same time next week?”
“And maybe next week, you can start telling me what’s really bothering you?”
“Please ask your wife to join us,” she concluded.
He shot her his best fake smile. “Every week,” he confirmed.
On the way out, Oliver caught his reflection in the doctor’s etched glass door. Although clean shaven, he had his father’s facial structure and brown hair—now peppered with gray—as well as the old man’s height.
He’d always wished he had his father’s piercing blue eyes. Instead, he got brown—which his dad never let him forget. “You’re full of shit, kid,” his old man would say, smiling. “I can see it in your eyes.”
Oliver peered harder at his own face. Age difference aside, Dad and I could easily be mistaken for brothers, he thought, taking a step closer to the glass. Maybe not twins, but close. Adjusting his new eyeglasses, he scanned his once fit physique. Somebody’s been snacking between meals, he chastised himself, studying the start of a second chin. He was chubby now, bordering on obese, the extra weight earning him a CPAP machine to help him sleep and medication to control his high blood pressure. Even with the extra weight, much of him had dissipated over time—at least all the important stuff. As he recalled, he was a skilled hunter in his prime. Over the years, he’d been reduced to becoming more of a gatherer—his prowess best displayed when picking fresh produce at the local supermarket.
He glanced at his cell phone for a time check. I need to get to work, he thought, before the new regime finds some passive-aggressive way to punish me.