The After Years


Justin Thrift

    It was an act of severe desperation—a last ditch effort—that sent me to the sterile hallways and group sessions of the rehabilitation clinic at Oceanside. My life has taught me to always underreact: to apologize for everything, to find outlets, vices. Eventually it all caught up to me. I punched my Dad in the face.

    Dr. Ferrar often challenges me. That is her job, to challenge me. I often ask her why I am the way I am, why anybody is. Last week she told me to call my Dad. This was harder than it sounds. We often have to call each other back after we hang up, Dad and I, to clarify what we had meant to say. It is difficult to understand each other. But Dr. Ferrar says this is understandable. She says, tell me again.

    Around the year 1980, I drank my first beer alone in my bedroom. I was thirteen years old. Kids at school had started discussing alcohol, and what other kids discussed was cool, and if you did cool things you would receive attention from girls, and I was severely lacking experience with beer and girls, because I was thirteen years old.

    One afternoon before Dad got home from work, I slinked my way to the kitchen fridge. My nerves pulsed. I was far too young for the bottle's contents, and its intricate labeling scared me. Little sis was perched at the kitchen table focusing on the chocolate chip cookies she was dunking into a cereal bowl of milk. Mom's telephone voice echoed from the living room. I took my loot, snatched an opener, circumvented the sound of phone conversation, and fled.

    The beer stung as I drained my first sips from the cold bottle. Rebellious energy simmered in my throat. I had the slightest hint of incoming armpit hair. The combination of imbibing this taboo concoction alone in my bedroom and the horrific taste it had made the whole experience feel similar to a laborious packet of homework sheets, except lonelier. I would later describe the experience to my comrades as awesome. This is what it felt to be Dad, I thought.

    I recounted my conquest the next day at school during lunch. It was my humble hope that dropping the story amongst the circle of boys I congregated with would be received with excitement. My story would then travel casually across the class amongst other circles, inevitably leading to girls hearing about it. This would make me interesting in a mysterious, dark kind of way, and my level of attention from the females would quickly increase thereafter. This was not the reaction I received.
    "It was awesome, guys. I love the taste of beer," I told the huddle, mouthful of Cheez Its.
    Danny, an asshole, rotated his pudgy face around the group, turned back to me, paused, then asked, "That was your first beer?"
    I had anticipated high fives instead of interrogation.
    "No, course not, it was just fun, you know?"

    One kid offered me a nice and padded my back solemnly. Danny quickly followed by telling us about a website he had found the night before on the computer called "The Bang Bus" that offered clips of women getting fucked in a porn studio that drove down the street. Danny had effortlessly trumped my story. I had been defeated by The Bang Bus.

    I felt inadequate and awkward. I felt as if I was running behind schedule, as if I was missing out on something that made other kids cool and me, err, not. I was embarrassed that my plan to implant a reputation had failed so profoundly. Such plight! My prospects as a man seemed rickety.

    After school Mom served us chili for dinner. Dad drank with most meals, and typically into the evening. It was his American pastime. I sat cringing at the table listening to the sound of the fridge open in the kitchen, him clanking through the same six-pack I had infiltrated the day before like a boy ninja. I tell you, sitting at that table, it was a reasonable fear that he would have noticed one beer missing, as if he kept a mental tally of how many he had in stock. But he returned to the table, smiled at his family, and dug into a bowl of steaming chili with a rip of sour dough.
    I blurted out, "How old were you when you drank your first beer, Dad?"
    It was verbal diarrhea. There had been no grace in the delivery, certainly no context. Simultaneously digesting mom's chili and my question, he simply responded, "Why do you ask?" The pressure, on. The stakes, high. My mom and sister turned their attention to me, silently scooping their dinner. Everyone intrigued.
    "No reason really, just wondering."
    "Thinking you'd like to try a taste of my beer, son?"
    "No. Don't be ridiculous."

    And that was that. The conversation quickly moved on to how work and school was going and what was interesting on the TV later. When Mom expressed an opinion on something, Dad would agree, even if it may not have seemed like he entirely, truly agreed. In high school my sister and I figured this out and decided that if Mom suddenly thought it would be a good idea to move the family to Mexico to join a vicious drug cartel, Dad would have at least considered it.


What confused me more than anything was where kids were doing their drinking and getting credit for it. I was being invited to parties where eating pizza, watching movies, playing video games, and dozing off in a sleeping bag on the floor were the primary activities. Girls and Budweisers generally didn't come out at these events. With my back to the wall, I went to Danny.

    "In a couple weeks my parents are going to Florida. My bro is throwing a party for his friends and he said I could invite some people. You can come over, if you want." Danny's brother was in high school.
    "Cool," I told him, and swallowed a lump.

    In the weeks leading up to the party I became increasingly obsessed with thinking about it. During this time I successfully managed to convince my Mom that I was going to be dropped off at my friend Tim's house that night to eat pizza, watch movies, and doze in a sleeping bag. Then I convinced Tim to accompany me to Danny's. This was only possible because Tim's mom and dad were mostly absent, irresponsible parents, who worked all the time. "They don't give a good goddamn where we go," Tim assured me.

    The big night rolled around. It was October, crisp. Under the cover of darkness we set out knowing we were about to step into the sexually charged, beer-drenched world of high schoolers. We shook intermittently between bouts of puffing our chests and walked through Tim's quiet neighborhood, down a main road next to speeding cars and through the woods into a spacious cul-de-sac. Danny's house had ugly stains down the front and a wild array of dense bushes hiding a good portion of the facade. All the lights where on and music thumped. Girls with purses and tight jeans smoked cigarettes on the lawn and cars were packed all around the driveway and along the street curb. I swallowed another lump.

    We walked in and someone placed cold cans of beer in our hands. We explored by squeezing through mobs of tall boys who were wearing sweatshirts and yelling. Wherever we went, we attracted exclamations: "Little dudes!" or just shrieks of laughter. It was a godforsaken place, not at all ideal. With haste, we worked on our beers and then found more.
    After two beers each, Tim was noticeably more social.
    "You don't look 18," he squeaked—in an endearing sort of way—at two blonde girls who were laughing at him.
    "When's bedtime?" one asked.
    "Ahh gimme a break, I'm drinking beer."
    Again, they chuckled. "You're cute."

    It was as if he was one of them. He disappeared into the crowd, following the two blondes towards the living room, looking back at me with trepidation stamped across his face.

    I wandered around by myself, not finding much of anything that particularly interested me, or anyone that was particularly interested in me. Except for the beer. I drank can after can. Before I knew it I had digested four and was drunk for the first time in my life. It felt tingly. I was warm.

    I quickly learned that the other immediate effect of alcohol is on the bladder. This sent me onto the patio and into the backyard in a hurry. I frantically circled on a dark spot against the woods, pulled my jeans down and christened a tiny shrub with warmth for a few minutes. So cool, I thought.

    It was calm outside, more gentle than inside where the older kids where screaming. My mind was racing. I felt on top of the world. I sat down on the grass in sedation, looking deep into the woods through the darkness. The night was refreshing. I had climbed deep into the future and taken control of my stubborn existence. I imagined gently kissing a girl in my class and moving her world, Claire. I fantasized about her body.

    Tim and I walked home that night laughing. We laughed at the danger in the street, and every word we spoke. Everything was a joke. His house was empty except for the kitchen where we plundered closets and stuffed snacks down until it hurt to chew. Him on the couch and me on the floor, strewn about like homicide victims, we eventually slipped away into heavy sleep, sick and overstimulated by the evening.


The front door sent vibrations through the walls when he pulled it shut as hard as he could behind him. Tim and I snapped awake instantly. I turned over on the floor, staring at the open bags of chips and ice cream cartons across the room, beer cans speckled between.
    My name was called, again, then once more. The voice boomed as it approached, weaving its way through the rooms of the house, honing in on us above heavy footsteps. My heart stopped.
    "My dad."
    "What? Why— "

    Suddenly Dad was looming over me, rage dripping down over my frail body, his mouth mute, his eyes cursing me violently with the intensity of an Ecuadorian sun. His hand came down at me, collected the skin around my neck, and lifted me with a jolt up to his own face. His breath carried the potent fumes of heavy drinking, and I knew he was checking for the same aroma on mine.
    "Been calling this house since 7. Knocking for 20 minutes. Just as I thought."     He released me, and glared down on Tim, who was now coiled deep in the insulation of the sofa.
    "Let's go."
    He had never hurt me before. My neck was now tinged with redness as I climbed into his truck.
    "Dad, are you drunk?"
    "Shut, your mouth. Your mother will deal with you."

    He yanked the gear arm into reverse and sent my head flying back with a heavy gassing of the engine. Through the glare of the sun, Tim's face appeared in the front window of the house as we backed down the driveway and into the street. My hands in lap, I shook.

    This was the worst I'd seen him, I thought. The truck veered wildly to the right, then back as we repeatedly traversed the white road lines. I knew that this was no good. I understood that my Dad was putting both our lives at risk, that we could easily not make it back to Mom. I didn't understand why he had come and how she had let him. Bob Seeger bellowed from the morning radio, and he cranked it, palming the wheel with his wrist.

    We were young and strong, we were runnin' against the wind

    He didn't look at me, his head rocking up and down like a tired toddler walking to bed. We hurled past a speed limit sign, 25, chasing our destiny as father and son, him as drunk as I'd ever seen him, my head aching with the pressure of a steel anvil.

    At the intersection of Ferry, I screamed DAD.

    The nose of the truck sailed smoothly into a silver sedan, imploding its side door on impact and sending my head forward into the leather dashboard. Glass showered down on us and the world became wrapped in the lengthy quietness of unknowing terror. Dad stumbled out of his door onto the street and came around to lift me out of the cab, sobbing, bloodied. The sedan had glided a few feet from us, its operator's silhouette still, resting on a red-stained airbag. I was awake for this. I remember the hot stench of rubber. I'll never forget the thrashing noise that twisting metal makes.

    When the sirens rang in the distance I knew Dad would be in trouble. It didn't matter if we both lived. I was about to lose him.


    On Tuesday, at Dr. Ferrar's request, I called Dad. Before that, it had been months, maybe six since we'd talked. It didn't go so well. When I called him back the next day, he apologized, again. I told him I didn't know how to talk to him. I told him that I needed him more than ever, that I wanted to come visit him soon, if he'd see me. I said, "Don't be afraid. I know you're afraid."
    A few heavy moments of silence clogged the line.
    "To see you, it hurts."
    "You don't need to feel that way."
    "I want to."
    "You can't, I can't accept that. I don't blame you anymore."
"I blame myself." That is where we usually leave it.