The Thing About Floating

Article by Susanna Penfield

Art by Isabel Aurichio


He knew it would sting. It was why he had waited for this moment, trapped in the back of the crowded school bus with just three stops left before the intersection where we both usually got off.

“Your dad’s a drunk. I can smell the alcohol on his breath.”

It was as if he had been saving it, watching as I continued to float through each day on my gap-toothed smile. He was one of the only ones who could see the gap growing between the presentation and the reality, between the girl with the accelerated math packets and lopsided pigtails and the girl who came home each night to one less car in the driveway, one more tally marked in the journal kept next to her bed.

It’s not that I was consciously creating a gap. I was eleven and my mother bought my clothes and my orthodontist was trying to fix my teeth and I didn’t mean to hide the fact that my father hadn’t been home in five days or that my mother had lost her motivation to change before driving me and my siblings to school in the morning. All this information I was still processing—somehow the obvious clues were causing my common sense to short circuit, and so all I could do was float.

The one memory I have grounding me is the night of the middle school dance, my first ever. I wore a purple chiffon skirt with white polka dots and let myself be distracted by the Macarena and Mambo #5 and the boy who asked to hold my hand. A neighbor dropped me off at home that night, leaving me waving in the driveway. I stood watching the tail lights fade, postponing the trip inside the house, the trip up the stairs where I knew my mother would be waiting. Where she would smile fondly at my chiffon skirt and flushed cheeks, still in her pajamas from the night before, and ask me how it went. She wouldn’t mention his absence and I wouldn’t ask, not wanting to breach the unspoken-ness, not wanting her to know that I stayed up every night, hoping to catch his headlights as they descended the final curve in our driveway.

“You don’t know that.” 

I’m still on the bus, somewhere between the McFaddens’ mailbox and the turn onto Brook Road, wishing I could go back to that night in the purple skirt because then it was secret and then I was safe and although my mother was sad and I was confused, we were part of this space that had no room for a boy with a malicious remark, and together we could pretend I was just coming home from another middle school dance.

I sat there and I wished this, but it did nothing and I said nothing and the bus continued rolling right past Brook Road.

* * *

We used to take photos on birthdays. My parents were usually busy, and cameras weren’t usually a priority, but the moments that did get captured seemed to always include us grinning from behind a stack of wrapping paper and bows. Other faces faded into the background, other messes became invisible for that one second we were told to “cheese” so another year could be documented, another polaroid tacked to the overflowing cork board stuck to our fridge.  

It was his birthday, so we went shopping. We bundled ourselves in fleeces to ward off the cold he would’ve warned of, packed the car with snacks to avoid the hunger he would’ve foreseen, and, half an hour after he would’ve left, we pulled out of the garage and began the 25-mile journey toward Lebanon, New Hampshire: a single mile of outlet shops and box stores, all the corporations my mother had spent parenthood adamantly boycotting.

Until he started disappearing, her voice only had to provide half the reason, half the effort. She had been able to spend the rest seeking out local vendors and supporting small businesses. But the “co” in co-parenting had since devolved and her energy had worn thin, so we pulled into the Borders Bookstore parking lot like every other consumerist family desperate for gifts.

We wandered the aisles, my mother dragging the cart while my siblings and I danced between shelves, high off the bright colors and shiny titles. We were oblivious to the chance that our gifts might not find a recipient, that the year might go by without his photo to add to the fridge. But no. We were young, confident, and sure that as tomorrow arrived, so would he, and all would return to normal because we had been able to lure him out of hiding with humorous aging cards and cheesy coffee table toppers. He would come home to streamers and white cake and butter pecan ice cream—because that was his favorite—and remember that maybe this life wasn’t so bad after all.

* * *

On the sixth morning, I woke up. I got myself out of bed. I removed the retainer that was pulling together my gap teeth and pulled on the jeans I had picked out from Gap Kids. I brushed my hair, flossed my teeth, and came downstairs. I don’t know why I thought this time might be different, why six times might be one too many or why the kitchen might simply be incapable of staying vacant that many mornings in a row. Regardless of what I might’ve thought, I came downstairs, pigtails in place, to find this sixth morning exactly like the five that had preceded it. So, standing alone in that kitchen looking for something, someone, that didn’t seem to want to be found, I fell apart.  

The couch enveloped me, pulling me in, caressing me until I released the tears that had been sitting in the back of my throat for days. At some point, I felt another body join mine, a hand brush at the snot and pull at the tangles. 

Years later I would look back and wish I had surrendered to the intimacy of this moment. I would wish I had allowed myself to continue crumbling. Maybe if I had given her the chance to crumble with me, together we could have picked up the pieces. But when she asked what was wrong I felt myself shift, suddenly adamant that now more than ever I must remain intact, and she must remain unaware.

“I’m really behind on my report for English,” I finally managed. “Mr. Wilson is going to get mad at me.” She withdrew, offering to call the school and talk to Mr. Wilson.

Wait. Come back. I don’t care about Mr. Wilson. I need you to hold me. Hold me again.

As we moved apart, the gap was again widening between the me on this couch and the me who needed to tighten my pigtails. Neither my mom nor I mentioned the car that still wasn’t in the driveway.

Then he came home. I can’t remember what time of day it was or what he said first, but I do remember sitting on that couch and taking in the weariness of his slumped button-down and exhausted khakis, a sense of remorse painting the room like the moon on nights when I couldn’t go to sleep.

I don’t remember the words, or the apology—there must have been an apology—but what I do remember is that any confusion or resentment that had been building simply evaporated. It vanished with the prospect of pancakes in the morning and soccer in the backyard, his ears to play victim to my stories and songs and anything but questions of the absence because that was over and he was here. The relief filling the room like the moon on nights when it illuminates his face leaning down to kiss mine.

All I could seem to do was talk, revisiting every detail of the last seven days, from the retainer that got lost in the trash to the grade I’d received on my history paper. Because the grade was good and the retainer had been found and he was here.

The change was noticeable.

Before, he had been so good at hiding it, so good at keeping separate the part of his life that burned out of control. We hadn’t known because what child would think to sniff the Pepsi bottles for anything but soda, or look for the breathalyzer hidden in the middle console of the car he used to drive us to school in? For so long—longer than we knew—he did it well, containing his addiction within the hidden half of his life, never once allowing it to unravel the carefully sewn stitches of our childhoods.   

I give him credit for this. He had been floating long before I was.

Before, he worked in an office. He commuted across state lines each day after dropping us off, and each day he would sit and listen to people complain about their neighbors and their spouses and their employers and employees—who did them wrong and for what reason. Each day he would watch as more children were left to drown in the swells of custody while embezzlers were rescued through the canals of corruption.

This was merely the tipping point, a dissatisfying career and slow disenchantment with our approach to justice, compounding issues which he now insists began in high school.

“I drank too young,” he’ll say, chalking it up to having been raised in a small town with bored friends, going to a high school that let you slip through the cracks, and heading to college with no purpose other than appeasing frustrated parents.

“Of course, being in a fraternity didn’t help,” he’ll also admit. So maybe leaving college to travel and work and finish education across the country was right, but by then the damage was already done and by the time he had taken six years to graduate and decided to join the Navy, the patterns had already been engrained.

 “It was always inside me,” he’ll sigh, the real truth, the one he carried through the next eight years of military service, through marriage, and law school, and the upbringing of three children. It stayed hidden, though. By now he had been floating for so long we didn’t know what it meant for him to be grounded. Until he left. 

Because here’s the thing about floating: When you’re attached to someone, there’s only so far they can drift before you start to feel like you’re drifting too.

* * *

Of course, I didn’t ask about any of this until years later, when life had become simpler. He stopped practicing law and joined AA. His silver Civic broke down, so he switched into the beige, eight-seated Honda Pilot that had a loud “Moms Rock!” sticker plastered to the back. He never could sleep in, but while before he had used this time to sneak off with vodka-filled tonic bottles, he now cooked breakfast every morning and prepared school lunches.  

I asked only once he was sober and happy and the absence was nothing but momentary gray, the addict in him so dissolved that neither of my siblings would even know he had struggled with alcohol until hearing about it second-hand years later.  

I remembered, though. So six years later, on the morning after the last night of my junior year of high school, I finally asked him how it began, why it continued. It felt safe to ask because the absence was distant and he was secure and somewhere between then and now I had become the one reeling, the one who needed grounding. So I asked him, desperately searching for the context to my own mistakes.

I had finished exams the morning before and by the time evening arrived my friends and I were intoxicated with the impending freedom of summer vacation. Taking advantage of Circle K Craig, who didn’t ID, we loaded up on Mango-Ritas and Natty Light before heading back towards town later that night. Usually we found ourselves in Molly Young’s basement, or, if desperate, the parking lot behind the old train tracks, but tonight was special.

There was a certain poetry to our decision, the one that would result in rushed screen-porch mug shots and midnight phone calls to parents. The other word would have been idiotic, but we were seventeen and invincible and it only seemed right that we start off our last summer as high school students with a visit back to the place where it all began. So, at 10 p.m. on that warm mid-June night, we pulled up to the parking lot of Bernice A. Ray Elementary School, blasting Nicki Minaj, trunks full of Mango-Ritas.

We should’ve known they would come; cops have nothing better to do in a town that small. We shouldn’t have been surprised by the arrival of flashing lights, the procession that followed, the harsh tone of the police officers as they threatened permanent records and fines and revoked licenses.

Once they had found us, once we had tried to run and been tracked to the front porch of a nearby friend’s house, it wasn’t long until the parents began showing up. They arrived in pairs, puddling at the edge of the steps to watch adolescent daughters cringe under the fluctuating siren lights, follow a pen with their teary, bloodshot eyes, and wilt under patronizing questions. Finally the officer waved us off, done for the night, his reproachful admonitions and promise of court date notifications successfully etched on our defeated skin.  

“This is a huge fuck up, Susanna.” 

I slid into the backseat and bowed away from my mother’s steely scrutiny. But what hurt more was his silence. I had felt it from the porch. It tugged at me, circling me, suffocating me as I was pulled down the steps. It expanded once we were inside the car, swelling with betrayal—mine? His? I waited with eyes glued to the rearview mirror but he refused to match my gaze, and so the silence echoed, reverberating through this gap—between him and me, between myself and my actions—the one that was re-opening on this drive on the long way home.

We arrived back at the house and I fell into bed, crumbling as I did when I was eleven. But this time I wasn’t a child and I had been in control and something about everything that had just happened made me feel so physically ill that all I could do was bury myself in the unwashed, pale pink sheets of my childhood and sob away the self-disgust.

At some point, another body joined mine. When she moved to hold me, I let her. We stayed this way all night, my remorse seeping into her, pooling between us until it had nowhere else to go but down the hall. It infiltrated the room where he lay awake, the prospect of history repeating itself pushing sleep further and further away.

He approached me the next morning, my eyes swollen with sleeplessness, my mother downstairs toasting anything that might fill the hole in my stomach.

He entered with a knock, in faded work jeans and a cheesy T-shirt my siblings and I bought him when he couldn’t come to Wyoming. He sat down on the end of my queen mattress and I noticed that, despite the tiredness that tends to accompany disappointment, he looked young. Maybe it was his eyes, the lines that surround them. I’ve often been told I look like my mom, but my smile is my dad’s: the way our lips curve, the wrinkles that crease the sides of our face. It makes it easy to tell when we’re happy.

“I don’t usually drink,” I told him. This was sort of a lie, but at this point alcohol had gone unspoken for so long because he had been well and we had been well and all was forgiven. I felt cruel in calling to the surface the dangers of this vice he had struggled so hard against. But I wanted him to know that I remembered. I glanced up, shame momentarily replaced with curiosity.

“Why did you start?”

 And then,

 “Why didn’t you stop?”

And just like that the unspoken-ness was breached. Just like that, we were grounded. Because not only do we share the same smile lines but also the same stubbornness, the same confusion, the same short temper and the same story. Because when I think of strength I think of his headlights descending the driveway on nights they could’ve stayed far from home, and when I feel pity it’s for that boy on the bus whose remark no longer stings.


Part of the Ego issue