For the past two months, when my thumb tapped its way to a digital copy of American Beauty, it wavered, and then wandered away. I feared it. I feared the warm, twangy intro of “Box of Rain,” the memory of my father singing it guilelessly out of tune, of realizing it is Father’s Day today and how I don’t want to call him but reluctantly will, of knowing that this album is going to hurt. It hurts before I even start listening.
But let’s move back. It is 2003. My father and I are driving over 2000 miles from our Illinois suburb to San Diego. I have been accepted to a private liberal arts university that served Orange County’s academically undistinguished nouveau riche. In our cramped Honda Civic, my father has brought along about 100 painstakingly “burned” CDs in individual jewel cases, each with an ink jet printed label in the same nondescript Times New Roman font. There was Joni Mitchell’s Blue in there, and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. But the one we listened to nonstop, through the blank spaces of the I-80 corridor, was American Beauty by the Grateful Dead.
I was a Midwestern teenager, equal parts naive and hungry, desperate to escape the pragmatic inertia of my family’s working class roots. California burned in my heart. It was exotic and free; a land full of foreign oddities, like fish tacos and Louis Vuitton handbags. California would be the terminus of my own personal manifest destiny. I fell in the love with the sweet jamboree of “Sugar Magnolia” and the preternatural guitar chords of “Ripple” in the way only a young person could. When Jerry Garcia sang “going home, going home, by the waterside I will rest my bones,” he was leading me to a long-sought relief.
My father and I had endured a special kind of hell from my mother’s unraveling mind: jobs lost, after her paranoid, impulsive calls to employers; ear-splitting, plate-throwing flights with bizarre, conspiratorial accusations; a botched junior year of high school that turned asunder when I decided I couldn’t take it and ran away from home. He and I bonded as equals, like soldiers in the trenches, rather than like father and daughter. For all the nights spent crying on the kitchen floor, for all the pleading for him to do something, anything, amidst my mother’s schizophrenic rages, and for all of his impotent stalling when confronted with the impossibility of divorce, he always remained my greatest ally. Indeed, how could I possibly have any others? Who else could understand?
On that drive, American Beauty was the carefree soundtrack of our escape. We listened to it between stops in Wyoming head shops and beachside hemp necklace stalls. The album, having come out when he was only eighteen himself, perhaps filled him with a nostalgic sense of delighted possibility that pulsed through me. The beauty of America, and indeed, of American Beauty, lied in the mythology of the country’s expansive possibilities, symbolized by that long open road. My father yearned to stay close to me in those final moments before I left for school, and the frayed edges of our bond tightened up between the easy going harmonies and homespun country sounds. It was impossible to be unhappy listening to the freewheeling jams of the Dead. After so many years of quiet desperation, we felt finally be free and clear. We were running, friends of the devil, emerging from the labyrinth of miswired synapses that trapped us for decades.
My mother died five years ago, just a few rent checks away from homelessness. As I turn over our family life to this B-side, and as her legacy of pain decomposes with time, I can no longer see my father as a mere innocent victim to a monstrous wife. With her gone, with her illness no longer sucking all of the oxygen out of the family, I am left in the vacuum of my father’s clinical inability to confront the consequences of our abusive home and his superhuman powers of denial surrounding my mother’s mental health (and for that matter, his own). From that vantage point, how can these songs remain breezy and liberating? My father is a brokedown palace of a man, and American Beauty is the sad soundtrack of the brokedown palace of our lives.
Framed from this B-side, other memories surface.I remember the cell phone my father tried to entice me with, an olive branch to get me to move back in with someone who threatened us with kitchen knives. I remember the one bedroom apartment that we left from, which he always said would just be temporary, but where we remained for over two years because of many more layoffs, ones not triggered by my mother’s aggressive delusions. I remember the divorce he ingenuously promised would resolve itself in a few months, only to have it stretch on while lawyers pillaged my college fund. My father’s permanent state of shellshock left us unsafe. When moments called for action, for taking up arms and fighting back, he ducked and covered, avoiding risk at all costs. Now, American Beauty pierces me with bitterness, as it is one of many consolation prizes I was afforded in lieu of a secure, healthy, loving home.
I wish this story had a better ending. I wish that upon my mother’s death my father would have been reborn, liberated from his anxieties, insecurities, and fears. But he wasn’t. He still calls me in a panic after bad performance reviews, after spending six months being absolutely certain he was headed towards a promotion. He still clings to women like they are life rafts, enduring their various infidelities and violences by burying his head in the sand. I continue to resent him for it. I go months without calling him. I go years without visiting him.
Listening to American Beauty hurts. If only being close to him could be as easy as it felt, however briefly, in that car driving along the I-80 corridor.
Katie Sullivan is a sometimes writer for Owl and Bear and Houston Press. She is not from Texas, but she got here as fast as she could. If you want to read more of her stuff, you can follow her on Twitter @_Katieesq_. She would really like that, actually.