Excerpts from “Formative: The Years That Changed Everything”
Part II already? A little confused? Maybe you missed Part I? Catch up here.
As mentioned before, the following is digital excerpts from my largest body of work to date, “Formative: The Years That Changed Everything.” This is highly personal, heavily researched, and illustrated best as a conversation with four people I believe have remarkable stories to share.Special thanks to my writing mentor and thesis advisor, Inara Verzemnieks, (read her new book, she is wonderful) who has guided me through this intimidating work.
The New York Series, Part II, 1960s
Tommy, October 1959
Tommy’s eyes blinked open. He rubbed away the fogginess and felt around for his glasses. The sun exploded through the sliver of window not covered by the curtain, and his head immediately throbbed in repentance of the night before. He tried to rise up from the couch, his neck aching from whatever folded up position he’d passed out in last night. Joey was knocked out on the floor next to him. He searched for his watch on the coffee table, finding a glass of water and aspirin laying beside it. He assumed his friend Ralph was asleep in the bedroom. He must have thrown him on the couch and prepared him for the morning to avoid a mess.
Tommy swallowed down the aspirin and stared blankly at his watch, not fully processing the time, or even the day. 6:47. A water-stained calendar hung on the wall. It was Saturday, October 24th. That meant the SAT started in an hour, and if he didn’t get moving he would most definitely be late. There were a lot of things he could blow off, but the SAT wasn’t one of them. He could already imagine his father combusting in anger if he ever found out. Tommy didn’t remember much from the night before except for the fact that he was absolutely in Manhattan, the test was at his high school in the Bronx, and trains would assuredly be running slow on a Saturday morning. Moving methodically around the apartment, he slapped cold water from the kitchen sink on his face, absently ran his fingers sideways across his mussed hair, and tossed throw pillows and books around the living room in search of his jacket.
Finally on the train, he had a moment to rest. He was tempted to doze back into sleep, but he’d too many times he’d missed his stop doing that to take the chance. He looked through his backpack in the hopes that he might have brought along the SAT prep book. No luck. He pulled out a wad of crumpled paper from the bag’s depths, grazing his eyes across old homework assignments in a lame attempt at studying. While unraveling the papers, he saw a grocery list. He’d forgotten he’d even had it, but the handwriting was unmistakably his mother’s. “Tommy, please pick up: 2 quarts milk, 1 doz eggs, bread, carrots (if they’re good), something for yourself.”
He remembered this list in particular because he’d deliberately ignored her request to stop by the store on the way home from school, and decided to join his friends instead on a joyride around the neighborhood, splitting a case of beer. It was about a month before she’d gotten sick and the world had shifted. She’d yelled at him on Saturday morning when he quietly crept in after a late night party, and he brushed it off as he always did. Nevertheless, he felt an immediate, hot guilt wash over him on the unsteady subway. Her death was instantly as fresh as the last day he visited her in the hospital. Their last moment replayed in his mind until the crackling announcement of his stop came.
The test was a blur. He wasn’t even sure if he’d actually taken it. Between each question a pang of memory, a haze of regret.
A memory: He is twelve years old, sitting next to his father at the table.
Bobby, his older brother, sits to his right with the “I don’t care” attitude that will carry through all of his life — the one child who will hold the strongest echoes of their father’s alcoholism. Gina, his younger sister, is on his left with the delicate and lovely air Tommy had always somewhat despised, still leftover from when she had a serious case of scoliosis just a few years before. The family had shifted their every priority to take care of her, delegating to her the nickname, “Princess” that had annoyingly stuck. He can’t even remember what they are talking about at that table. The only thing that stays with him is his father rocking back and forth in his chair with that familiar ire. He hears the same clink of ice in the whiskey glass.
That night, he said something his father didn’t like. He couldn’t remember what. Tommy leaned away in his chair as his father’s face moved in close. With an intense exhale he spat out, “Son, you’ll never amount to anything!”
His mother always stayed silent in these moments, but later she would come into his room, sitting there in the dark and telling stories to cheer him up. She couldn’t do much in the throes of her husband’s rage, but afterward she would always pull Tommy tightly into a hug.
Tommy blinked back into the same kitchen, where his aunt was feverishly cooking dinner instead of his mother. His mother, who, after his father’s outburst so many years ago, had hugged him softly as they rocked their feet back and forth. His biggest cheerleader, the one who saw how badly it hurt every time his father lashed out, the one who covertly tried to ease the pain, was gone.
Want more? Read Part III here!