LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
"Wanted: Eighteen, Vulnerable and Sensitive"
We had traveled just nineteen miles west — my childhood was left behind. Gone were the backyard Wiffle ball games with my brothers that had defined my summer afternoons, as was the small maple tree in the front yard that I nearly succeeded in chopping down with a rubber ax when I was eight; over were the nights lying in bed talking to my older brother Peter across the room in the dark before sleep came. We had lived atop a small hill, safely in the center of a suburban block, in a three-bedroom colonial with green shutters; now we would live in a long and low house in a swale on a large corner lot a half hour and a world away.
"It looks like a motel," I said when I first saw our new home. Unwittingly, I had spoken to the temporary quality that our lives were about to take on. My eldest brother had just gone off to college, ending the daily battles with my father — no longer would my dad chase Stephen out the window and across the yard in a rage. Peter's star, which had burned so bright, grew suddenly and temporarily tarnished — driving and girlfriends usurped the passion for sports that had occupied his early years, yet he continued to look after me with a fierce protectiveness. My younger brother, Justin, eight years my junior, was slotted into a new school and tumbled in the wake left by the rest of us.
Instead of feeling more confident after our move into the larger home, my parents grew tense. More and more often, when the phone rang, I could hear my father's voice echoing from somewhere in the cavernous house, "I'm not here! I'm not here!" Whoever was looking for him, he did not want to be found. At the same time, my mother grew more remote due to an illness that we children knew of only vaguely — it was never discussed with us. In all this space, my family seemed to be coming apart. I was fourteen.
A quiet child, I'd had a rotation of friends and a cycle of movement in my old neighborhood, the loss of which left me untethered. There were woods across the road from our new home and I began to spend more and more time, alone, picking through the trees and building dams in the stream. Always in the shadow of my brother Peter's athletic ability, my passion for sports waned. I was never a diligent student, and as the work piled up, my interest faded. Noticing my rudderless unease, my mother suggested I try out for the school musical, Oliver. Reluctantly, I went along. When it came to the final audition for the role of the Artful Dodger, I surprised myself with how much I wanted the part. Pitted against another student who, it was made very clear, had a better singing voice and was more desired for the production, I threw myself into my performance in a way that left them no option but to reward me with the role.
In describing first love, the playwright Tennessee Williams once wrote, "It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been in half shadow." I experienced a similarly wondrous sense of discovery with that first role. I felt the power and belonging I had been searching for, without knowing that I had been searching at all. I knew my experience onstage was a profound one because I told no one of its effect on me.
A few years later, when the time came to apply to college, with few options because of my poor grades, I quietly took the train to Hoboken, then the PATH under the Hudson River, and went to a building of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. On the second floor of a windowless room I spoke a few paragraphs of a play I had read only a portion of, in front of a petite man with an effete manner who wore a bow tie and a waxed mustache.
"Sit down," he said when I was finished. He wanted to know why my grades were so bad and why I wanted to come to acting school. He asked if I had another monologue I could perform for him. I could do some of the lines from the Artful Dodger, I said. When I was finished he looked at me for a long while. "Okay," he said at last, "here's what we're going to do. I'm going to get you into this school, if I can. I'm sure they'll place you on academic probation to start. You're going to get good grades and be grateful to me for the rest of your life."
"Sounds good," I said, slipping on an attitude of casual indifference to mask the thrill I felt.
"No son of mine is going to be a fucking thespian," my father snapped when he learned of the audition — but when no other college accepted me, he had no choice.
This was the same man who then drove me into the city and knocked on door after door until we found an apartment for me to live in just of Washington Square Park when the university refused me housing. And it was during the buoyant ride back to New Jersey that we played "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" on his John Denver tape, over and over again. I bowed the air fiddle and he lowered the windows and the wind ripped through the car as we sang at the top of our lungs with our hearts wide open to each other.
As I packed my bags to leave home, my mother offered me a painting that I had always admired — a large canvas with the profile of a hawk, its golden eye staring boldly out at the viewer. When my father saw it leaning against the wall by the door, instead of on the living room wall, he grew enraged.
"That painting is not leaving this house," he barked. "That is my favorite piece of art."
My mother, who rarely engaged with my father when he lost his temper, pushed back. "I'm giving it to him," she declared. "He is leaving for school and I want him to have it."
A vicious fight ensued. I knew, even in the midst of the shouting, that this had nothing to do with a painting and everything to do with a mother losing her son in whom she had been overinvested, and a father who had resented their closeness.
A few months after I had settled in my apartment, my father made one of his many unscheduled visits, carrying the painting. He presented it as if it were a new idea to offer it to me. I tried to refuse but it was no use. When he left, I put the painting in the back of a closet, and when I moved from that apartment, I gave it away.
From The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy. Copyright 2012 by Andrew McCarthy. Excerpted with permission of Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.