The first time I saw my mom’s boyfriend smoke crack, he was sitting across the dining room table from me.
My mom was away. I was easily old enough—19—to stay home alone, but Sam* was there with me. A friendly alcoholic in his early 40s, Sam came home that day with a bag of about 10 sizeable rocks, which he plunked down on the table with an air of resignation.
“Don’t ever do this shit,” he told me as he prepped a rock in a pipe, lit it up, and sucked back the whole thing, exhaling into our tidy apartment a thick cloud of grey smoke that reeked of burnt plastic. My mother’s pretty, thoughtful decorations—a moon-and-stars mobile, a delicate wind chime—danced with the smoke. His eyes closed and a tear rolled down his cheek as he sat petrified in his chair.
Sam was just one of many men with whom my mother had relationships in the years following her split with my father when I was seven—men who would shape my life in ways she likely didn’t anticipate. While I know my mom loves me and never meant to expose me to the shit that some of these men brought into our home, these are the incidents that have stayed with me.
First there was Jared, a gentle, loving man who lived in a tiny room in a rooming house, where he would build small castles from empty packs of cigarettes, a habit he couldn’t kick despite having beaten heroin some years before. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when I was staying with my mom, I would wake up and come out to the kitchen to find him and my mother sitting, holding hands, as he cried. Snot would flow, and I would hold Jared’s hand, too, understanding that his sadness came from a place that I couldn’t understand. But I could try.
Jared died in a fire when I was 12. My mom told me he had fallen asleep with a cigarette, and I was convinced she was making up the story to punish me for stealing her cigarettes, but it was the truth.
After Jared there was Eric, a tall, physically powerful coke dealer in his 20s. He was always smiling, and homeless. He told me if anyone ever messed with me—I was a scrawny kid in a rough neighborhood—he had a 9mm buried in a can nearby, and would take care of anyone who dared fuck around with me.
I was seduced by Eric’s willingness to use violence to crush those who might harm me, because I was scared of violence, of fighting, and my friends and I were always getting jumped and beaten up by gangs of teens in the area.
Eric’s toughness filled a void where, I felt at the time, my father couldn’t. My dad lived just a few blocks away, but a world apart from my mom’s existence. I would alternate weeks between his and my mom’s place, but where my mom’s always felt like home, despite the volatility, my dad’s was something different: austere, straightforward, predictable. White bread sandwiches and canned soup. He had a few partners over the years, all sober. He insisted that we do the dishes, together, every night after supper, no matter how much I complained.
After Eric, there was Lyle, an old family friend—basically an uncle—who moved in with my mom and I for a while when I was 15. He’d done time in jail for being a peeping tom, which I knew about, but he was always one of my favorite people in our extended family.
One weekend, he looked after me while my mom was out of town. My girlfriend stayed over. She had troubles of her own; she and her mother had escaped her abusive father some years before. My mom hated her.
One night while she was staying over, after an argument—I can’t remember over what—I decided to go to bed early, leaving her alone with Lyle, a man in his 40s, on the couch, in the darkness, both of their faces caught in the flicker of the TV. I could sense her fear, and his arousal, but I didn’t do anything about it.
In the morning, my girlfriend was gone. She left a long note on the kitchen table about how she hated herself and that I was too good for her. Lyle snored from my mother’s bed.
I remember my dad sitting me down once when I was 11 or so.
He asked if I wanted a cookie, I said sure, and we sat there munching as he worked up the nerve to talk to me.
“Son, you know that it’s not OK to touch a girl without asking her, right?”
I said sure, I understood that.
He was relieved. “OK, good,” he said, and that was my lesson in consent.
A couple years later, when he found a stack of Penthouse magazines hidden in my room, he made me rip them up in front of him. Around the same age, my mom gave me a few paperback novels with graphic descriptions of different kinds of sex, which I was always confused about.
In my late teens, my dad remarried, to a frail and frightened woman who would at one point save my life by alerting my dad to the fact that I had intercepted a package of MDMA that wasn’t intended for me—about $50,000 worth—which was hidden under my bed, and that I was in serious trouble, as the rightful owners of the drugs were looking for me. My dad confronted me and we took the package back to where I had stolen it from, and I avoided any repercussions.
Julia had been through an abusive relationship and had left her two daughters behind with her ex-husband, and she was tormented. She was heavily medicated. One day I came home to my dad’s place to find her staggering, rail-thin, and I called an ambulance. She was admitted to hospital for a while.
When I told my mom about it, she was furious.
“It’s totally inappropriate for you to be alone with that woman at dad’s house,” I recall her saying. “A kid shouldn’t have to be dealing with that kind of fucked-up adult.”
I was stunned by her hypocrisy. What about all the men she had brought home to live with us? Men who drank and smoked crack and ruminated out loud about how they wanted to “fuck [my] mother”?
My mother brought home Eric—who’s relationship with her ended one night while I was away at my dad’s, after he showed up at my mom’s apartment in a coke-fuelled rage and tried to smash the door down. He fought a half-dozen cops before finally getting arrested, and my mom filed a restraining order before moving across the country to escape him.
My mother’s love for me has always been absolute, unconditional, and ever-present; ever since I was a toddler I felt like it was me and her against the world. I had always felt a hundred times closer to her than my dad. But when she passed judgment on my dad’s wife, that day, I felt a shift.
Growing up, my dad took me camping regularly. I was in Boy Scouts, and he joined as a Leader, so we could take longer and more elaborate camping trips together. We camped outside in the winter, with no tents, using snow to make a quincy and laying down hay or pine branches to make a soft floor.
When I was in my teens, my dad would yell at me to get a job. When I finally moved out, he drove me, my best friend, and all our furniture to our first apartment in a new city, two hours away. My mom was glad I chose the city I did because Jared had been from there—had done time for attempting to rob a depanneur with a toy gun there, during his junk years—and she was sure his spirit would look after me.
Every year or two, when I needed to move, my dad would come with his truck, no questions asked, and help me. Anytime I was broke, he would send me a few hundred bucks, even though he was strained financially. When I catastrophically broke my femur doing something stupid, he—reluctantly—let me move in with him, his new wife, and her two daughters for three months, allowing me to recover and learn to walk again.
After years of wild living had worn me down, I traveled across the country to see and temporarily stay with my mom, who had settled down with a kind, non-drinking man. They welcomed me during my tough time. But it was my dad who gave me $200 for the trip and dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station to say goodbye. Years later he told me that he had cried after the bus left; he didn’t know if he’d ever see me again.
In my mid-30s, after my daughter was born, I immediately felt closer to my father than I ever had. It was as if everything he had taught me, shared with me, had been hidden below some unbreachable surface that suddenly melted away with the arrival of my first child. Everything I needed to know, now, I knew instinctively would come from him. I also knew that everything wonderful my mother had given me would now need to be balanced against everything she had given me that wasn’t wonderful, and that her judgment would need to be questioned, forever.
I knew that no matter how many times my mom told me her brother—who had spent years molesting his step-daughter before getting caught—was a “good guy,” that he would never be welcome in my home.
I knew that when my mom said offhandedly that opioid addicts should be left to die, that she certainly wasn’t talking about Jared.
I knew that when I needed advice, about nearly anything, that it would be my father who I turned to, probably for the rest of my life.
Last Christmas Eve, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake as my wife, several months pregnant, dozed peacefully beside me. Something was gnawing at me, and I realized that after so many years, I needed to tell this story. I sat down in our dark living room and wrote for two hours straight, before sending the draft off to an editor at three in the morning along with a request that I be allowed to publish it anonymously.
The truth is that putting our most personal and gut-wrenching experiences into words can help us come to terms with those experiences, and to gain a greater understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from. But although I need to tell my story—as we all do—I’m not willing to sacrifice my relationship with my mother to do it. Being kind to her is more important to me than having my name atop this story, because regardless of how I experienced these events, she never meant to cause me harm. She simply loved me, and made the decisions that she, as a young mother with her own struggles, needed to make at the time. I respect that, and by writing anonymously, ultimately I respect her, while allowing myself the catharsis of finally telling my truth.
I remember one time, when I was going through a trying time shortly after my wife gave birth to our first child, my dad must have sensed that I needed some words of encouragement.
“Patience, son,” he told me as he drove his truck, taking his eyes off the road just long enough to make eye contact with me, before turning his attention back to his mirrors, and the road ahead.
“Patience will get you through anything.”
*All names have been changed.
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