Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
As a small boy I didn’t feel like I was built for this world. I was an overstimulated insomniac: alert, jittery, brimming with a desire to share my thoughts, which I quickly learned not to do. Whenever I let loose and spoke freely, the tedious amount of information that flowed out of my mouth annoyed and even angered people.
At school I had to actively subdue my impulse to speak my mind if I wanted to pass as normal. This meant concealing my obsession with Santa’s day-to-day life at the North Pole; reams of factoids about sports, astronauts, World War II, the Civil War, dinosaurs, and the cosmos; my ability to quote at length from Ghostbusters; my readiness to sing songs from Boyz II Men, TLC, Alanis Morissette, Hootie & the Blowfish, the Lion King soundtrack, Melissa Etheridge, and the Fresh Prince.
This constant suppression came across as shyness.
Occasionally, in private, I’d punch myself in the head or bang my head against a wall. I always regretted doing this, because it made me sore. Still, whenever it dawned on me that no one wanted to hear who I was inside, I’d sink into despair, and hitting my head was a relief. So was fantasizing about death. No one knew about this attraction to self-harm. My impulse to hide it, the way I hid so much about myself, was innate.
One summer evening at dusk I was hyperventilating on my family’s brick patio. I can’t remember what had set me off, but I was engulfed by a sense of not belonging, of being unforgivably different. I was seven years old.
I approached our aboveground pool. The ladder was up for the night, and the pool was taller than I was, so I climbed the filter. Then I lay on the edge and shimmied forward: stomach resting on aluminum, torso hovering over the water, feet on the filter. I stuck my head into the cold water, which quickly filled my ears. Eyes open, I stared at the wavering blue bottom and thought, Come on, die. Just die. Die already. Die. Die. Die. I waited, holding my breath, not understanding how you drown. Just wait, I thought. Soon you’ll be dead. My lungs and throat started to hurt. The pain was bad. Very bad. As if my body were expanding from within, threatening to burst. Then my brain turned off and I became an organism instinctively fighting for air. I inhaled chlorinated water, jerked my head up, fell off the filter, and I lay on the grass, coughing and heaving.
Once I got my oxygen back, I stood up. The sky was pink and purple. The air smelled like pine trees. Crickets chirped. I felt calm. I’d learned that my body wasn’t going to let my mind kill me. I had no choice but to live.
I went on sleeping rarely, acting shy in public, and jabbering at home, most of all to my kid brother, since talking at school only got me laughed at or called stupid. But I had one thing going for me: thanks to Dad, who’d taught me how to swing a bat, shoot a basket, and throw a spiral, I’d been a solid athlete from an early age. Playing sports earned me approval, so I obsessed over the nuances, language, and patterns of baseball, basketball, and football. I filled notebooks with stratagems and stats. I pontificated about my favorite players and coaches. In first and second grade I dived headlong into athletics, playing Little League baseball, Mitey Mite football, and rec-league basketball, hoping to be viewed as a regular kid with regular interests.
Football was my least favorite. I disliked “hitting”: running into other kids as hard as I could. After a game I always had cuts, bruises, and jammed fingers, and I would wake up sore the next morning. The desire to avoid injuries made me a hesitant and therefore mediocre player. At least I could really hit a baseball.
Then, in the summer before third grade, Dad heard that Coach O’Brien wanted me to play quarterback for the Mitey Mite team. I couldn’t believe my luck. QB was the star position. Dad said Coach O. knew I had a good arm, which was odd: I’d never thrown a football in front of him that I could remember. I’d played offensive and defensive line with the rest of the tubby kids. Could he tell just by looking at me?
Dad got me VHS tapes about quarterbacking. He played catch with me daily, drilling me on footwork and form. Some of my happiest memories are of tossing the football with him on our narrow country road. I used the neighbor’s split-rail horse fence to measure how far I could throw. It was four yards between posts, and my goal, at the age of eight, was to throw it forty yards, or ten posts. I couldn’t quite do it. When I threw a bad pass — what we called a “duck” — Dad would say, “You’ve got to let the ball do the work. Don’t push it. Just guide it out of your hand. Trust your technique.” Because he was a schoolteacher, he was a good instructor. He understood his role, and I understood mine. We were happy.
My weight was a problem, however. If I grew too heavy, I’d get bumped from the Mitey Mite division up to Pee Wee, where the kids were larger, and I might not get to play quarterback. I dieted all summer. Once, at dinner, when I wanted a second cheeseburger, Dad said I’d already eaten enough, and I ran to my bedroom, crying and calling myself fat. Dad followed, rested his hand on my shoulder, and said, “I’m sorry, buddy. I really like eating, too.”
Other times he was less understanding. Like when I found two M&M cookies on a napkin in the kitchen, smuggled them to my room, and ate them. Dad confronted my siblings and me, demanding that the cookie eater fess up. No one spoke.
“I already know who did it,” he said. “I left the cookies out as a test. I’m very disappointed.”
Screw you! I thought. But I said nothing. If I questioned Dad or mouthed off to him, he’d scream at me: “Knock it off right now! I don’t want to hear another word out of your mouth!” And he’d point at me and glare, the muscles of his hairy arms flexing. I didn’t want to set those wrecking-ball hands into motion.
He wasn’t particularly physical with me, but he would occasionally kick and smack our dog — a loving, untrained German shepherd named Waffles — when she misbehaved. Dad shouted “Waffles!” like he shouted “John Paul!” the syllables firing out like bullets. He loomed furiously over me, fists clenched, the same way he did the dog. But with Waffles Dad would take his anger one step further. I sensed he might wallop me, too, if I wasn’t careful. So I was careful. I tried to give Dad what he wanted. I stopped sneaking food. I saw snacks as traps. I made Mitey Mite weight.
I played quarterback for one practice. The next day Dad got a call from Coach O’Brien: the league had unexpectedly lowered the upper weight limit from ninety to eighty pounds. There was no way I could get below eighty. I was a big boy: tall, thick-wristed, broad back, wide hips, chunky rump. I was distraught. I’d worked so hard. I could throw the ball thirty-seven yards. I’d eaten healthily in spite of how hungry I’d been.
I wept on our basement couch, squeezing a pillow, hysterical. “I’ll never play QB!” I said. “I’m too fat! I’m sorry I’m so fat!”
Dad stood over me, confused and frightened by my dramatics. “It’s all right, buddy,” he said. “You did a great job on your diet. I’m proud of you.”
I got bumped up to Pee Wee and played with the big kids. But I wasn’t alone. Dad, who hadn’t coached my football teams before, magically became head coach. When I asked why, he said none of the other dads knew what the hell they were doing. Dad had been a high-school football coach before my siblings and I were born. It had to be frustrating for him, I thought, to watch amateurs try to run a team.
I played quarterback in third grade. Poorly. At school the other boys let me know the score: “You should play offensive line because you’re fat.” “Your dad is an idiot.” “There are so many better quarterbacks than you.” I told myself they were wrong. If Dad thought I should play this position, then I was meant to play it. All I had to do was work harder.
Dickie Walls lived on a cul-de-sac a mile away, and he and I sat next to each other on the school bus. We were friendly because he was the only kid who could remember as many sports facts as I could. Our conversations were more like competitions to see who could recite the most statistics. During the summer before fourth grade, Dickie and I met regularly on a patch of vacant farmland between our houses. He never tired of running routes and making diving catches, so I got in thousands of reps. When the next football season began, I threw Dickie a touchdown in every game. Fewer kids gave me grief for playing quarterback that year.
While I played quarterback on offense, on defense Dad put me at linebacker, a position that allowed me to unleash some of the harmful energy I had previously aimed at myself. Dad encouraged us to tackle with our heads up, since tackling with your head down — or “spearing” — could give you or the other player a concussion. I disregarded this advice and turned my body into a missile. Spearing caused a pain in my head that was all-encompassing and therefore pleasurable. This was a revelation: the “hitting” I’d once hated was intoxicating if I really threw myself into it.
One practice I had a fit that, had it occurred in private, would have ended with me sobbing, hyperventilating, or smacking myself in the head. But at football practice I could turn that vibrating energy into a strength. I didn’t even attempt to throw passes that day. I tucked the football and ran, sticking the top of my helmet into kids’ chests, barreling forward for ten yards at a clip, going down only after two or three defenders joined up to tackle me. On defense I body-slammed running backs, sacked our backup quarterback, and speared Steve Shanahan so hard that he cried and sat out for the rest of practice.
I was crying, too, but quietly. Snot fell from my nose. Spit frothed around my mouth guard, which I chewed like a rabid dog. Coach Walls started calling me “Tank.” Coach O’Brien said, “J.P. is out to kill.” Dad said nothing, but every time I looked at him — shin-high socks, gray shorts, V-neck tee with chest hair spilling out, whistle dangling around his neck — he was unable to hide his grin.
In the minivan after practice, Dad punched my arm and said, “You’re a real player, J.P.! Nobody could stop you!” He drove leaning close to the steering wheel, mustache curling up. My whole being swelled: I wanted to do this for him again and again.
If I’m being honest, I still want to light Dad up like I did at that one football practice in 1996.
A repeat performance proved difficult, however. Here and there I’d make vicious tackles during games, but they were the exception. I don’t know what caused my fits, which were as unavoidable as hailstorms. As with the memory of trying to drown myself at seven, I can recall only being in the thick of them: Heart kicking. Brain shaking. Jaw gnawing. Limbs jittering. Eyes wide and fiery.
In fifth grade Kyle Murphy moved to town. Kyle was a military brat, as fast and strong as an adult. Crew cut. Shadow of facial hair. Forearms like grapefruits. He liked spearing, too, and was legit dangerous. He made kids cry on the regular. One practice he broke Patty O’Brien’s leg. Another time he gave Thomas Cavalo a concussion. Mr. Cavalo drove his plumbing company’s utility van onto the practice field to load his boy into it for a trip to the hospital. I can still see Thomas’s helmeted head leaning against the passenger-side window, his eyes drifting in opposite directions.
Kyle didn’t talk smack or brag. Off the field he was kind and exuded confidence. He played running back and averaged three touchdowns per game. Before Kyle, we were a pretty good team. After Kyle, we were the best in two counties.
In the offseason Dad bought me a weight set and sent me to quarterback camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He got me a fifty-pound sprint sled attached to a rope and a harness. I’d wear the harness and sprint, dragging the sled around our backyard. Fat fell off me. Small muscles appeared. I fantasized about being as good as Kyle and terrorizing my opponents.
I didn’t. I was Kyle’s sidekick, the kid who handed him the ball so he could juke defenders and dash to the end zone. We decimated every team in sixth grade — until the championship game, when Kyle pulled a hamstring in the third quarter and I had to pass the ball a lot to make up for his absence. I threw mostly incomplete passes and interceptions. We lost.
After the game I hugged my father in the dark parking lot, his windbreaker cold against my bare cheek. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” I said, tears streaming.
He petted my head and said, “It’s really OK, buddy,” a bewildered tone in his voice. Did he worry about how much pressure I put on myself? He seemed confused and perhaps guilty about it, but I couldn’t be sure. He was inscrutable to me, just like I’m sure I was to him.
What made us such mysteries to each other? Probably the fact that we didn’t talk about much besides sports. Other topics weren’t explicitly off-limits; Dad simply had little to say about them. Plus we both tended to sink into silent, solitary pastimes: me with my trading cards, pop music, and video games, and Dad with his computer.
He was always on that humming Gateway — clutching the mouse, eyebrows lowered, right leg jittering. He participated in online fantasy-baseball leagues. He feverishly typed Word documents. Did he want to be a writer? I could never find what he was writing, though I looked. Whenever he went to the bathroom, I’d check the screen. Often what I saw were offensive strategies for youth football, box scores, articles about the Mets or Jets. Once, he was reading an article titled “100 Alternative Careers for Teachers.” A couple of times, however, I opened minimized browser windows and discovered pictures of naked women. I considered telling Mom but feared she would divorce Dad if she knew he looked at such pictures.
Mom worked the front desk of an optometrist’s office, cooked dinner, did laundry, jogged thirty miles a week, read James Patterson and Danielle Steel, watched TV. She hardly yelled. She scratched my back while we sat on the couch. Her presence — soft blue eyes, strong hands, freckled Irish skin like my own — made me feel safe. When she was home, the chance of anything bad happening was slim.
I do have one difficult memory of Mom, one of my oldest memories: I walked in on her weeping on her bedroom floor, seated against the side of the bed as if hiding. What was she sad about? Living in the sticks, far away from where she grew up? The struggle of raising three small children? Being married to Dad? I had no idea. The moment she saw me, she wiped her tears away and smiled.
I mouthed off to Mom just once that I can remember: She’d bought me a generic basketball jersey, not from any NBA team, and I said, “This is the stupidest shirt I’ve ever seen. Get me a real team next time. God!”
Dad yanked me by the arm to my room, forcibly sat me on my bed, pointed his finger at me, and said, “If you ever talk to your mother that way again, I’ll knock you into next year. Don’t you ever, ever disrespect her, John Paul. Do you understand me?”
Once I realized I wasn’t going to get beat like Waffles, I was happy that Dad had stuck up for Mom. I saw it as a sign of marital stability. Now, recalling that scene as an adult, I hear panic in Dad’s voice. He must have known Mom was often exhausted and overwhelmed, that she never got a break from working, mothering, and being a wife. There was never enough money. She had a loving but controlling husband and three zany kids, the eldest of whom — yours truly — seemed to be a fount of never-ending babble. The message behind Dad’s panic: You better not make your mother more miserable. She’s the most normal person in this family. We need her!
One evening, when Mom wasn’t home, my siblings and I were watching TV while Dad sat at the computer desk in the corner of the living room, clearly using his body to conceal the screen. I tiptoed up behind him. He was looking at those pictures again. I sighed and stomped downstairs, where I tapped my head against the wood-paneled wall, thinking, What, Mom’s not good enough for you?
I heard Dad’s heavy footsteps on the stairs. Scared, I sat down on the corner of the couch and pinched my hands between my knees.
“What’s wrong, J.P.?” Dad said.
I shook my head.
“Is it something I did?” he asked, pressing his hands to his chest.
I shook my head again.
He paced, clutching his forehead and sighing.
He knows I saw.
“You want to come upstairs?” he asked. “Watch some TV with Jessica and Matthew? I’ll watch with you.”
I couldn’t make myself talk. My jaw was clamped shut.
Dad made a sound like a small whimper. “John Paul,” he said, reaching out his hands like he was squeezing an imaginary basketball. “Ah. I just . . .” He hung his head, dropped his arms to his sides. He was ashamed. That much was clear, even to me, and I was terrible at reading people.
“I’m going upstairs,” he said. “Come up when you’re ready.”
I stayed down there until Mom got home.
The next day I went to the website Dad had been on — I’d memorized it. The pictures weren’t just of naked women. They were naked women with gigantic penises. How had I not noticed this the night before? Did some women have penises? Did Dad like them? I had no clue what to make of all this. I was nine.
I pushed the images out of my head as best I could, but sometimes my brain forced me to picture women with fake breasts and big cocks. Then I’d remember Dad asking if it was something he’d done, and I’d grit my teeth and wait for the memories to go away. It created an agonizing discomfort, this awareness that Dad contained things I didn’t want to know about.
I loved him. Our bond was — and is — rock solid. I had memorized all his stories: The one where his father sent him, at the age of seven, down the street to the pub, and Dad walked three blocks home with a heavy pitcher of beer. The one where his aunt beat him with a wooden hanger until it broke. The one where he hit a home run so far out of the Little League ballpark that the ball flew over a four-lane highway. The one where he and his friends drunkenly bumped into Spiro Agnew in Queens after getting ejected from a Mets game for unruly conduct. He and I attended Mets and Jets games together. We talked about our favorite athletes and football strategies. He let me join one of his fantasy-baseball leagues. Lots of my teammates liked him as a coach. He said things at practice that made everyone laugh, like “Christopher Columbus came to America to get away from soccer,” or “Fumbling a football is like dropping a baby down a well.”
Dad’s temper and online activity seemed small compared to his presence, how hard he tried to control himself and be a good father. I decided the hidden and confusing things about him were beyond his control. Perhaps I thought this because I, too, lived partly in hiding, careful to reveal only the aspects of my chaotic mind that were palatable to others.
In middle school my teammates started to question whether I should still play quarterback. A lot of them had experienced growth spurts over the summer. Voices had dropped. Wispy mustaches grew on upper lips. Meanwhile I hadn’t yet sprouted pubic hair and had a childlike face and body. No matter how much I pulled the sled and lifted weights, I couldn’t keep up with the boys who were hitting puberty. Everyone started saying, once again, that I played quarterback only because I was Sal Scotto’s son.
Sean Abato’s dad really wanted Sean to play quarterback. Sean had a strong arm and could run faster than me. One day, while I was in the basement playing Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation, the phone rang. I didn’t pay this any mind; I never received phone calls. Then I heard Dad shout, “Why don’t you come over here and say that to my face, Hugo!” Hugo was Sean Abato’s dad. “J.P. is the best quarterback in this town. Period!” A pause. “IF YOU CALL MY HOUSE AGAIN, YOU’LL REGRET IT!” Dad shouted, then hung up. I stayed in the basement, wishing Mom were home.
The next day in art class Sean Abato and I sketched pictures of trees. On a typical day Sean would put his hand on my thigh and say, “You’re gay if you like this.” (I always liked it.) But that day he didn’t touch me. He just focused on his work.
At the end of class he poked my forearm with his pencil eraser and said, “Hey, man. I don’t care about playing quarterback.”
I responded lightning fast, “Me neither.”
That was a lie. I did care. I wanted to be whatever Dad wanted me to be. On top of that, no matter how socially awkward I was, playing quarterback was undeniably cool. Dad would make sure I got to keep doing it. He was prepared to fight for me.
In my twenties I had a roommate who worked as a server at a restaurant. One night he came home from work and said, “Dude, I was busing a table on the deck, and this guy on the sidewalk kicked his dog in the ribs. It was so fucking upsetting.”
Oh, I thought. Kicking a dog isn’t normal.
About three years ago I got a German shepherd mix. Today the dog and I are pals, but when he was a puppy, he had more energy than I’d ever seen in a living creature, and he often set me off. I’d huff and raise my voice and grab him by the scruff of his neck. Sometimes I had to restrain myself from using violence. This need for restraint was especially pronounced when my dog would lunge at our cats or knock over the neighbor’s toddler. I hated him. When he misbehaved, I thought I understood how hard my dad had to work to control himself.
I mentioned this to Dad recently. We were in my living room, watching a college football game.
“I get how infuriating Waffles must’ve been,” I said. I pointed to my dog, who had his head on my feet. “This dude drives me up the wall sometimes.”
Dad bowed his head and said, “She was trainable. I just didn’t know what I was doing.” Then he changed the subject.
He has been similarly quick to change the subject on the few occasions I’ve tried to talk about my drinking, my anxiety, or my depression. I suspect he can’t bear to linger on these subjects because he believes he played a role in them, and he cannot go back in time and do better. He comes from a generation of Italian American men who were taught not to talk about their emotions. No doubt this has been hard for him, since he’s an emotional guy.
I wish I could release Dad from his guilt, but for that to happen, we’d need to directly acknowledge it, which neither of us has the strength to do. Instead we go through life as friends. I hope this makes up for the conversations we’re unable to have. Maybe it does. I don’t know.
Waffles was born in an abandoned house in Philly. Dad’s cousin mailed us a Polaroid of a half dozen German shepherd pups huddled around their skinny mother in a filthy bathtub. He was hoping we might take one. It was an upsetting image: gorgeous creatures kept in squalor.
As toddlers my sister and I would scream and cry if we saw a dog, and Dad thought having one might ease his children’s fears. Mom suspected Waffles would be too much for our family to manage. They were both right.
Waffles slept on the floor next to my bed. The carpet always had a swirl of sable dog hair in her spot. When my mind raced so fast that I couldn’t sleep, I’d get on the floor and hug her. She’d lick my face and rest her long chin in my lap. I figured she liked to sleep by me because Dad yelled at both of us. Maybe she thought we were the same type of animal.
Waffles had no path to Dad’s love. He hadn’t wanted a dog for himself and hated her unpredictable energy. Once, when she nipped him, he took her outside, grabbed her collar, lifted her onto her hind legs, and punched her in the face. For years he told that story, usually chuckling, as if he thought it made him look like a badass who kept his dog in line. As an adult I told him that his story of hitting Waffles upset me, and he immediately quit telling it.
But when I was a kid and heard that story, I thought: That’s what you get when you don’t act right.
Unlike Waffles, I had a path to Dad’s love: on the football field, where if I could master the position of quarterback, he and I could rest easy, knowing there was nothing wrong with either of us.