LAST-DITCH EFFORT: A FAMILY DRAMA TOLD IN NINE CHAPTERS by Torrey Kurtzner

Flip a Coin

Christmas morning, 1999.

My mother and father were seated on a couch in our living room. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence. Instead, they both stared lifelessly at a nearby wall. Holiday festivities be damned; it was just another day in matrimonial hell for my folks.

My father awkwardly turned to face my mother.

“Merry Christmas,” he said begrudgingly, holding out an envelope. “It’s an Applebee’s gift card.”

My mother glanced at the envelope and sighed.

“I don’t think I love you anymore,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Yes. You’re not surprised, are you?”

“No, not at all,” he assured her. “It’s just that… I never loved you, and I always thought you felt the same way about me.”

Relieved, my mother smiled.

“I do feel the same way!” she said.

“Well, why didn’t you say that?”

“I thought it would be insensitive.”

They both cackled like hyenas. In twelve years of marriage, this was the happiest they’d ever been.

“This is great!” my father exclaimed. “I’m gonna get packing; I can be out of your hair in forty-five minutes!”

Overjoyed, he bounced off the couch like a loose spring.

“Hold up,” my mother called after him. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What, the house?” he said, his voice fading in the distance. “Keep it; it’s yours!”

My mother cleared her throat and motioned her eyes towards our Christmas tree, where I sat in a state of shock. Amid all the excitement, my parents must have forgotten that I, their six-year-old son and only child, was just inches away from them.

Upon looking me in the eyes, my father’s mood shifted from happy idiot to irritated scumbag. He turned back to face my mother, who was also visually bothered by their current predicament.

“Should we flip a coin?” he asked earnestly.

 

Growing Pains

As an adolescent, I would bounce back and forth between my mother and father. Despite not wanting anything to do with me, they randomly felt inclined to be parental in the most stereotypical ways possible.

“Do better in school,” my mother once told me while I was in the fifth grade.

“Why do you care about my grades?”

“I’m your mother,” she replied indifferently. “I’m supposed to care.”

Meanwhile, in a bizarre attempt to develop our non-existing relationship, my father would randomly visit me at school. I’ll never forget the day he dropped by my junior high school and pulled me out of math class.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

My father was holding two baseball mitts.

“I figured we should play catch.”

“Why?”

My father shrugged.

“Because I’m your father, and you’re my son.”

“Look,” I sighed. “I don’t get out of here until three o’clock.”

My father glanced at his wristwatch. His brow furrowed.

“That’s not gonna work for me.”

Ditto, pops. Ditto.

 

A Voice of Reason

Even after they amicably separated, my parents remained cold towards me simply because I existed. At six years old, I felt like a hindrance to their happiness. To get over this guilt, I wholeheartedly embraced the concept of detachment.

In my early twenties, I would meet a girl while attending college. Although I cared about this girl, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to her. Thankfully, she was sympathetic when I explained my unconventional upbringing.

“Christ!” she yelled. “That’s fucked up.”

I nodded my head in agreement.

“Yeah, it’s crazy. I don’t mean to be distant, but that’s just how I deal with things.”

“Have you ever considered therapy?”

I shrugged.

“I think it would help you rediscover your emotions,” she said. “If not for yourself, do it for our relationship.”

Her arm wrapped around my shoulder was all it took for me to agree.

 

Texts from the Big Chair

“Do you ever talk to your parents?” my therapist asked.

“We text.”

“Care to share these exchanges with me?”

I pulled out my phone and complied.

 

Mom

How R you?

Me

Fine. Hbu?

Mom

I’m good. Thanks 4 asking.

 

“Is that it?” my therapist asked.

I nodded.

“I see…” he scribbled some text onto his notepad. “What about your father?”

 

Dad

Ever see Death Race?

Dad

Jason Statham flick.

Me

I don’t think so.

Dad

It was amazing.

 

“…And?” my therapist asked, practically on the edge of his seat.

“Oh, I thought that was an organic stopping point for the conversation,” I said, straight-faced.

“Okay,” my therapist sighed, leaning backward in his chair. “I’m giving you an assignment. I want you to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with your mother and father.

“What should we talk about?”

“That’s entirely up to you. What are some things you’ve always wanted to ask them?”

 

Tough Conversations

Per my therapist’s request, I visited my parents during a three-day weekend. I dropped by my mother’s house first. Seated inside her kitchen, she puffed on a cigarette while we talked.

“Why did you and Dad get married?”

“It was customary at the time. I blame The Game of Life.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being metaphorical or simply referencing the popular board game. I didn’t bother asking; I had a much more consequential question on my mind.

“Mom… was I a mistake?”

My mother scoffed.

“Don’t be dense,” she told me through a thick cloud of secondhand smoke.

I asked my father the same question when visiting him later that evening. We stood outside his garage, basking in the moonlight.

“You weren’t an accident,” he said matter of factly. “You were a last-ditch effort to save our marriage.”

I took a moment to ponder my father’s words. Imagine being brought into this world to salvage a doomed marriage. Then, imagine growing up with the knowledge that you failed miserably. The psychological ramifications of coming to that realization would drive anyone insane.

For the first time since I was six, I felt pain inside my heart. But rather than free this pain, I pushed it down into the pit of my stomach.

“Guess I didn’t pay off, huh?” I uttered under my breath.

My father laughed while gazing into the black abyss of the night sky.

“No, son. You did not.”

 

Hammer Time

“Have I ever told you about the dream where I kill my parents with a hammer?”

My therapist nearly spat coffee across his desk. After a few seconds of coughing, he managed to recollect himself. I continued monotonously.

“I bash their brains in with a hammer, and the whole time, I’m waiting for them to say something, anything. But they just take it and die.”

“How does this dream make you feel?” my therapist asked.

I shrugged.

“Indifferent, I guess. Dreams are weird, right?”

My therapist looked me in the eyes with equal parts bewilderment and frustration. After several minutes of silence, he spoke up.

“Are you familiar with antidepressants?”

 

Uncomfortably Numb

My therapist was confident that antidepressants would help me relax and open up. If anything, they made me more withdrawn, like a comatose vegetable on life support.

“Why can’t you just open up to me?” my girlfriend tearfully asked.

“I’m trying,” I responded, albeit forty seconds later.

Shortly after this conversation, she would dump me. I couldn’t blame her. 

 

Tougher Conversations

Several years passed. I would graduate college and move back home to be closer to my folks, who were both dying from different forms of cancer. Since I was no longer dating my girlfriend from college, I decided to ditch my therapist and his antidepressants. He was surprisingly grateful.

I tried to have one last meaningful conversation with each of my parents before they died.

“Mom, did you ever love me?”

My mother rolled her eyes.

“I’m your mother,” she replied indifferently. “I’m supposed to love you.”

“But what if I wasn’t your son? What if I was a stranger?”

“Well, that’s a weird fucking question,” she answered sarcastically. “I don’t love strangers. I tolerate them.”

In her final moments, my mother inadvertently summarized our relationship perfectly.

Regarding my father, our final conversation was a bit more eventful.

“I once dreamed about killing you and Mom with a hammer,” I confessed.

My father’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. I hadn’t seen him this excited since the day he and my mother announced their mutual disdain for each other.

“I think Jason Statham kills someone with a hammer in Death Race!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got the DVD on my dresser. Could you put it on for me?”

“Sure,” I said, slightly taken aback.

We proceeded to watch the film together. I don’t believe Jason Statham’s character ever used a hammer to kill anyone. Regardless, my father was grinning from ear to ear the entire time. I couldn’t tell if he was happy because I was there with him or because of the movie. I assumed it was the latter.

 

Death and Rebirth

My parents would die just days apart from each other. At the cemetery, my ex-girlfriend consoled me by their gravesites.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“You’re not gonna like it.”

“It’s okay,” she replied softly.

I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly.

“I don’t feel a damn thing.”

I turned to face my ex-girlfriend. I could tell she knew I was lying. After a few moments, she nodded for me to keep searching for the right words. I sighed and continued.

“I feel… disappointed. I used to have fantasies about this day when I was a kid, shortly after they separated. I thought, ‘This will be the day that I’m finally free from their bullshit.’ I’ll be happy and relieved. Free of guilt. A different person.”

Despondent, I glanced down at my parent’s tombstones.

“But I don’t feel any of those things.”

Suddenly, a lump formed in my throat as hot tears began to roll down my cheeks. It was the first time I had expressed anything aside from apathy since the age of six.

“Dammit,” I sobbed. “Those bastards really did a number on me, huh?”

My ex-girlfriend wrapped her arm around my shoulder and held me as I wept.


Torrey Kurtzner is an out-of-work writer and master of self-deprecation. Against the better judgment of his peers, he’s determined to pursue a career within the creative arts, even if it kills him. He’s on Twitter @YabbaDabbZoinks

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