I Was Not
I wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be resilient. I wasn't supposed to be. Here.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Buffalo getting tossed out in the snow by a disgruntled paramedic. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the intervention, the one for my lovely girlfriend’s jolly mother who didn’t want to deal with her near-death alcoholism because life wouldn’t be worth living without it.
I wasn’t supposed to yank this wailing woman out of a La-Z-Boy, wasn’t supposed to get clubbed in the head with a bottle of Beefeater by an uncle who thought I didn’t know enough to care. I wasn’t supposed to slip on black ice, sprain my ankle, and break my nose while leaving the hospital, while pondering how this jolly woman was about to face the worst days of her life. I wasn’t supposed to celebrate my 40th birthday in Buffalo General’s room 720.
I wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I wasn’t supposed to be.
I was supposed to be in a better place. Supposed to be settled in life and career, settled in love. Supposed to be living in a romantic villa, driving a red Volkswagen, cherishing my brilliant wife who loved me for who I was and not for the money I earned, because I didn’t care about money, because all I needed was love. This was the dream I had for my life, what I wanted but never thought I deserved.
I was supposed to be with the love of my life. For life.
I was supposed to be the father of three gifted children named Dominic, Angelo, and Rose, honoring my grandfather, father, and mother. That was going to happen after I found my brilliant wife who accepted me with all my faults but could see past them into my heart, into my soul. I was supposed to be admired by peers, envied by enemies, a light to all. That was my goal, the one I never thought I should strive for but now, after years of failure and disappointment, felt it was time for, time to be the me I wanted to be.
I was supposed to be done with the struggle, supposed to spend the little quiet time I had looking back with fondness on the days I worked so hard to get to where I was, and then, while staring out my beach house, I would come to think, it was all worth it.
I was not.
I was supposed to be at a point in my life where I would enjoy every day, except those rare days when I took life for granted and didn’t appreciate the luck I had, the gifts I was blessed with. But I’d soon be brought back to reality when I heard Dominic giggle or when I felt the warmth of Angelo’s hand brushing my cheek or when I saw a smile cross Rose’s chocolate-covered face. I would know this was the good life. And even though there’d be challenges ahead, I would be comforted by the fact that the toughest times were behind me. I would know I survived.
I was supposed to be resilient.
I was not.
I’d been living with Mia for six months, hoping that this time love would stick and stay. For once it would not dissolve into a cauldron of words unsaid and feelings shouted, that my life would finally begin and, though late blooming, I would fully flower.
Springtime for Dario.
I traveled to Buffalo to meet her parents. Mia was 14 years younger; they were 12 years older. Jack was a Vietnam vet still looking for “VC scum” on the streets of Eggertsville, and Liz was a homemakerbreaker, a good mother who kept that fact hidden in her bottle of gin. Jack and Liz spent each night together standing on opposite sides of the kitchen counter, drinking past drunk. Gone every night only to reappear out of their morning cups of coffee as they prepared for a day waiting for a drink.
It was Mia who got me here.
Seven months ago she asked me to take her to Sunset Beach in Malibu. Mia liked older men who’d realized only a fraction of their potential, men who would become much more than they ever could be “if they were with the right woman,” even though wealth and success seemed like a setting sun. She had the power to change. She would save me with her love.
I was an aspiring director, Mia an aspiring writer. Ours was an aspiring love story certain to have a fairy tale ending. Eternity would be ours. Meanwhile, I’d protect her from all hurt that exists in this crazy, beautiful world.
I was the one.
I was not.
’Twas the season of good tidings. Mia was becoming uneasy about us living together and felt it necessary to seek the approval of her trying-to-be-loving parents, whom she referred to as “The Hardy Hars.” Mia pretended that they would eventually become the parents she was supposed to have. The next time she saw them they would be completely different humans, and she would be proved right all along. Mia believed in miracles. I supported her believing and certainly welcomed any miracles that would cross her path or mine. It was, of course, the jingle jangle season.
Though I had concerns that Mia’s father, an avid deer hunter and former Green Beret, would shoot me, gut me, and tie me to the grill of his F-150, I was more concerned that Jack’s 23-year-old son, Jack Jr., who was 6-foot-ginormous, would palm my bald spot with his frying pan hands and smash my face repeatedly with the PlayStation console he couldn’t part from. “Why are you with my sister? Get a life, old man!”
Bam, pow, swoosh.
I wasn’t supposed to be old. Not yet.
I was supposed to remain young and free and joyful and optimistic and successful. Wildly so. The kid chosen most likely to succeed by his high school classmates would succeed beyond even their wildest dreams. His classmates would spend the rest of their lives telling everyone, “We always knew he would be famous.” I was supposed to show up to my 20th high school class reunion with my stunning and sophisticated entourage, take everyone on a weeklong trip to St. Bart’s where we would all revel in my success, though the trip wouldn’t be about me, because I’d be ever so humble.
I would finally be one of them.
I was not.
After her brother greeted me with a hearty, “Leave me alone, asshole, I’m on a raid!” I watched Liz tumble onto a gaggle of mudroom boots. I rushed over to help, but it would have been easier passing her through the eye of a needle than getting her back on her feet.
Mia told me to leave her mother atop the boot clump, “She’ll get up eventually.” She wasn’t worried. She’d been faced with Mom on the boot clump before, and she knew that eventually she would be up and about because the gin bottle wasn’t going to come to her.
Jack arrived home from the welding plant, shook the snow off his shoes, and promptly called a family meeting. I hadn’t been officially introduced to him and had been in the house less time than the scrambled eggs on my dinner plate, so I assumed I was not family and thus should not attend the meeting. In deference to the father and in fear of the son, I drifted into the living room, feeling it was appropriate to remove my outsider cog from the family wheel.
I took my eggs with me.
I did not want to sit in Liz’s La-Z-Boy, the chair she called her Bliss. It took 15 years for her recliner to mold to every inch of her body, so I wasn’t about to place myself in a position to ruin her Bliss. Instead, I sat on the cat hair couch, reflected on whether the temperature in the room was below freezing or not, and wondered when was the last time my armpit hair felt like icicles.
Colder than hell frozen.
We’d just buried my father, or tried to, in an ice-covered cemetery outside Evanston. The burial would have to wait until the thaw, which probably wouldn’t be until May, depending on the lake effect and “whenever this damn strike ends.”
While I was busy perfecting my frostbite and chattering my teeth to a flamenco beat that had insinuated itself into my head after a salmonella dinner at a local tapas restaurant, I indicted my life. I asked myself why I was still working with computers, wasting time on this thing called “the internet,” which surely would be just a fad.
Instead of getting involved in something as amorphous as the World Wide Web, I decided to go to Los Angeles in search of something concrete. I decided to become a director of films, of cinema, which had been my dream since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Once there, my genius would finally be recognized, and I would be offered studio films with A-list starlets. I would be The Pride of Chicago Heights.
I was not.
I knew my father would want me to pursue my passion. He worked his whole life in a job he hated so his beloved children would be able to do what they wanted with their lives, which meant his middle son would be free to flounder through his adult life searching for Lake Me. My father would want me to chase the dream in Los Angeles, the land where dreams go to die. And I was certain he’d want me to spend all the money I’d inherited from his premature and untimely death to make an independent film about teenagers trapped in a log cabin on the shores of Tokawawa. I knew this was my moment, my time for action.
I was finally going to be all I thought I should be.
I was not.
“Hey, this includes you,” Jack barked as he kicked my legs off his wicker coffee table.
My eggs fell on the cat.
I had just received a significant relationship promotion. Welcome to Dysfunction, you’ll make an excellent addition. No longer was I “the VC scum who’s having sex with my darling daughter,” as I assumed he told Mia. I was now … family. My worry about being three presidents older than his daughter vanished in the fog of his Beefeater breath.
There was a more pressing issue.
“We gotta finally take the hill, kids. Run up, kill the enemy, save your mom. We’re gonna have that intervention, once and for all. Get her to the hospital, into rehab. Christmas Eve, tomorrow, we move out. The whole family’s coming down from Watertown, and you will all participate. We’re gonna fight, we’re gonna win. Kill those bastards.”
Jack was drunk.
But gosh, he was lovable.
Excuse me, sir, but may I humbly suggest we consider taking another hill as well?
As a newly befuddled member of the chaos family, it was hard to tell if he was speaking the truth or fantasizing about a day that would never come but would always be talked about as if it were about to come. Every year the Intervention Star would be placed atop the Christmas tree, and every family member’s heart would fill with hope as they’d watch it twinkle and glow, but by New Year it’d be shoved in a shoebox, kept in the closet.
Not this year.
Jack told us the event would be a combination of an intervention and my 40th birthday party. We, the family, would get Liz to admit she had a problem, get her “out of the house and into the ward,” then bust out the Martini & Rossi and celebrate my birth. “She’ll be reborn on the day you were born,” he proclaimed.
That was the plan.
Jack wobbled toward me. “You are a critical part of this mission.”
I was not.
I wished it was my intervention. I wanted my brilliant and successful brothers to fly to Buffalo and intervene, not in the situation at hand but in my life. I wished I could be whisked away and saved from myself so that I could stop doing things I thought I should be doing and instead be forced to do things I ought to be doing, whatever those were. Perhaps my brothers should have intervened before I left Chicago to begin my career as director of teen horror comedies and should have suggested I first learn how to direct my own life, which to me was like winding a melting clock. But to them it was as simple as that flashing neon marquee — That’s Dario.
A horror comedy.
I wished I was a whiner, a complainer, a depressive who dropped not so subtle hints to everyone around me, crying out for help without the crying, someone who could easily express the pain I felt from losses endured — in work, in friendships, and repeatedly in love. And death. I wished I wallowed in my unfulfilled dreams and welcomed all who met me to wallow along. Life had stopped me from being who I thought I was, and by “life” I meant me. Life was an adventure — and I just wanted to get home. I wanted to feel content. Simply content. I had given up on good a long time ago.
Was I really that unhappy?
I was not.
What was I?
Confused? Lost? Wandering in a wasteland of potential?
Blaming myself, pitying myself, then hating myself for blaming and pitying myself. You really are lucky. You just have to look and see.
I was not.
I was just living each day, “preparing for the worst, hoping for the best,” as my father used to say. But the best never came. Or did it? Maybe this was the best? Maybe I should have been envied for all the gifts I’d received in life — health, family, eggs. Maybe I was destined to be in Buffalo at this precise moment. Maybe that was my purpose. Maybe I was the chosen one.
I was not.
Maybe my mind was too busy to think.
Intervention Day. The platoon: Liz’s three nieces, her two sisters, her brother, two wayward uncles, Jack, Mia, Ginormous, a deaf neighbor, four cats, a limping rabbit, and me. The paramedics were pre-called and would arrive at the prearranged time to take Liz to the predetermined sobering site.
Passionate, heart-wrenching, teary-eyed pleas would be made. Liz would listen, resisting at first, but then she would see the desperation in the faces of her loved ones and she’d know, deep down in her heart, that they wanted to save her, that they cared immensely, that they didn’t know how to love her anymore, and that this was last call, closing time.
Liz cried buckets. Liz listened, heard, felt. She received her gift of love — the promise of a better tomorrow. Hope was getting ready to burst eternal.
Liz would not move. “I will not give up my gin. I will do anything you ask, except that.”
Each family member spoke. Every word that needed to be said was said and repeated. Tears flowed. Hugs. Pleas. The tissue box passed back and forth.
Liz dug her nicotine fingers into the ratty arms of Bliss. “I will not go! I will not!”
Perhaps we should move on to the birthday celebration.
All eyeballs were on me, the cog at the center of the spinning dysfunction wheel. It was up to me to lead Liz out of the wilderness into rehab.
What could I possibly say? I certainly didn’t want to be the one to tell her that getting obliterated was wrong. I wanted to disappear too. I just did it by hiding in my bungalow for three years. Maybe I would have been right behind her on the gin train, but alcohol gives me migraines and hives.
“Hey you, Mr. Director, it’s your turn,” Jack barked. “Talk some sense into her.”
And where should I get this sense you speak of?
Oh well, I figured I was a guest for the holidays, might as well partake in the Christmas intervention. I thought about my approach and stood up.
“Liz, we met just yesterday, and I know I can’t fully understand your pain, probably not even a tiny bit. But let me tell you, I do understand. I know how hard this can be. How do I know? … Crickets. Yes, crickets. You see, I had crickets in my bungalow last year. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think. They were driving me absolutely insane. I wanted to kill them, but the Chinese woman I worked for told me that if I killed a cricket I’d have bad luck forever, which really wouldn’t be much of change for me, but who wants to collect even more bad luck? You know what I mean? Well, after three weeks, I was hearing crickets every second of the day, no matter where I was. In a sense, I was becoming a cricket, Liz. And I had to do something about it. So I did. I took action. I started hunting crickets. I used everything: sprays, bombs, honey cups, sticks, swats, bats — anything. But they kept coming. It wasn’t until I got down on my knees and begged for God’s help that I was able to locate the crickets in my sock drawer and smash them to death with a paper towel. You understand, Liz? See, after I did that, after I took action, there were no more crickets. What I’m trying to say is that I made a choice. I killed the crickets, bad luck be damned! And now, look at me. I’m living with your beautiful daughter in a cricketless home. And you can do it too. You can kill the crickets. So kill the crickets, Liz, kill them!”
I sat down.
My new family looked bewildered, except the deaf neighbor who seemed to really get what I was saying on a soul level. Should I have stopped there?
Was I done embarrassing myself?
I was not.
“Look at your beautiful family. They all want you back. They want to give you the gift of life. This is a glorious chance for you to get back to you, the real you, back to your gardening, back to walking without falling, back to singing Arlo Guthrie songs that drive everyone nuts. It’s time to take a swim in Lake Me — and be the Liz we all want you to be. What your entire family wants you to be. What I want you to be. Well, I mean, I don’t want to you to be anything you don’t want to be, but I fully support you being a mom. You know, we men miss the best part of life — giving life. We miss the chance at being a mom, something you can do right now if you just get out of the chair and do it. So, in summation, Liz, please let me and Jack and Jack Jr. and your brother Jack and Mia and half the town of Watertown give you back your life. Help us be moms.”
I kneeled down in front of her. I gently put my hands on top of hers, looked into her confused eyes. “Are you ready to get born?”
Liz smiled. Nodded.
Wow. This could be the best thing I’ve ever done — saving a drowning woman. It felt great. Enough with my self-indulgent ways, my self-indulgent desire to be a self-indulgent director. I need to be a man, a man who helps people, who gives selflessly with every giving molecule in him. I need to give until it hurts.
“It’s my birthday. It can be yours too. Come, follow me.”
I slowly pulled her up. I was humming a hymn I’d never hummed before, “Be Not Afraid.” A teary-eyed Jack understood. Liz didn’t.
“Piss off, Dario!”
Liz kicked me in the groin then fell back into Bliss. She swung her leg rest out to full extension. The excruciating groin pain grew more excruciating with each passing millisecond. And the swelling kept pace. I collapsed onto the cat hair shag rug.
A family melee ensued. Brothers, uncles, neighbors, cats, Jacks — they all intertwined on the floor, with howling screams and barking yells as background music. Only the limping rabbit escaped unscathed.
My body served as a floor mat for the melee participants. After the shoving, pushing, shouts, and accusations, it finally burnt itself out, and I was ordered by Jack to help him lift the La-Z-Boy with Liz in it.
“We’re moving this mountain. We’re moving out now!” It would have been logical to have Ginormous carry the loadness in her Bliss, but he was busy downstairs playing Call of Duty. “I’m on a raid!”
Like a good father-and-not-son team, Jack and I carried a fully reclined Liz into a fully formed Buffalo whiteout. I was careful to keep plenty of air between her kicking leg and my aching groin. Liz screamed, punched, and skillfully grabbed a clump of my chest hair.
Suddenly, Jack disappeared into snow, leaving me to carry the load by myself. One hundred and fifty pounds of woman in 50 pounds of La-Z-Boy, all in my arms. It was a physical impossibility for me to carry her like that, but somehow my adrenaline kicked in. I managed to summon up the strength of a hundred interventionists to carry her in my arms.
I can do this.
I am strong.
I was not.
The choking, the bottle, the fall.
Bliss smashed, Liz tumbled, and I snowballed down to the mailbox. After pulling the snow out of my eyes, I somehow managed to find my way back to help jam her into the ambulance.
Mia blamed me for the intervention gone weird.
Jack blamed me for Liz’s bruised torso, legs, and back.
Ginormous blamed my mother for giving birth to me.
Liz thanked me. “I’m glad I fell on you. That saved me.”
Really? I was the one who saved you?
It was an odd feeling. I finally had a purpose. Maybe I was born just so that I could save Liz from herself and her drinking. Maybe I fell in love with Mia so that I could be in Buffalo at Christmas and speak about crickets and lift nearly twice my weight in drunken woman and La-Z-Boy. I felt good about myself, maybe for the first time in my life.
I did something good.
After having my nose bandaged at the hospital, I took a cab to Mia’s house. I ran in and told her the good news.
“I’m going back to California.”
She accepted it. And expected it.
Mia gave me my birthday cake to take with me. I went into the basement to say goodbye to Jack. I didn’t know he was cleaning his shotgun. He didn’t know it was loaded.
As they tried to stop the bleeding, a smile crossed my face, and a thought crossed my mind. I’m the man I was always supposed to be.
I was not. I was not.