Growing up in Naples wasn’t so bad, you’ve got plenty of beaches and beautiful women, along with a handful of other chicks fleeing from the cold up north during vacation. You’ve got the Everglades around the corner; couple miles south on an open road, and you’re bound to see some gators if that’s what you’re looking for.
You want a crazy atmosphere for young adults and college freaks? Take a two-hour drive to the other side of the peninsula and you’re in Miami, man; the hub of nightlife. You can ask me all you want about what the place was like back then, but I have no answers for you. I never went to Miami when I was younger. And I never planned to.
I grew up with my father and my twin brother, Kyle. Don’t ask about my mother, she’s more of a coward than I am, letting a name push her to abandon her children. I don’t want to talk about it. My father came from a long line of Irish scum, but believe it or not, he was the first in a long line of O’Keefe men that didn’t end up abandoning his children for the bottle. Yeah, he chose the bottle over my brother and me on a daily basis, but let me tell you something, man; he never left. He’s a better person than my mother if you ask me. And let me tell you something else, he tried.
He’d have this desperate sparkle of hope in those helpless blue eyes. When he wasn’t boozed up that is, but still, you could see it. There was some sort of savior, or something that was in him that wanted to escape, something deep down was fighting the darkness within, but that darkness is strong in us O’Keefe men. But every night would swallow any bit of hope. And those blue eyes. Those blues eyes would transform into tainted black pits bordered by bloodshot red veins. And my father would fall, and all hope would be lost as a monster emerged from the depths of an old Jameson bottle.
My brother and I would go to school every morning with new scars and bruises reminding us of our painful past, and only faith in ourselves kept us from seeing it in our future. We would hide in our shells and only converse with each other. After a long day of avoiding any sort of interactions, Kyle and I would escape for just a few hours every day. While our father thought we were at track practice, we would make our way to our own little safe haven. It was this little, discrete area of the Naples Pier beach that not many people walked by. We would sit there for hours, man, and we would just talk, you know? And from two o’clock until five or sometimes even six, everything was okay.
We would survey the waves as they crashed and listen to the palm trees in the wind. We would take in the warmth of the sun and we could smell the briny refreshment of a life free. We would talk about whatever came to mind. A lot of times we made up stories, you know? Stories about escaping from that demon back home.
“See that boat out there, Chris? Imagine if we were on it. Imagine if we were just so far away from here that we didn’t even know what pain was?” Kyle would say.
“Yeah! What do you think we’d be doing out there?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’d be fishing. Try to grab a nice catch for dinner, you know?” Kyle really knew how to make me laugh, man; we’ve never been fishing in our life! But if we were out there, let me tell you something; Kyle would have caught something.
“You don’t think they would have some fancy meals served to us?”
“Depends what kind of boat we’re on, I guess. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, Chris, let’s just get on any boat we can before we pay to board the fucking Titanic!” He would laugh and jab playfully at my shoulders. Anyway, we weren’t strong enough emotionally to actually be on our own.
So we would go home every night before the sky turned red and before his bottle popped. And every single night— I mean it, every single night— we would walk through the front door and hear the old man. I don’t know how he managed to get out of work before dinner every night. I mean, he worked for the town, aren’t those shifts usually pretty random? I don’t know, that’ll always be a mystery to me. Every night though, we’d walk in and he’d be like, “Listen. I’m, sorry okay? I would never mean to harm you. We’re cursed, boys. Don’t you ever pick up a bottle. We’re cursed.” Two hours later he’d be throwing bottles at us, calling us spoiled scum bags for trying to watch TV. We’d hide from him in the room we shared.
“Oh go cry in your rooms, you little faggots! My father.” He would slur. “Let me tell you about my father! You know what it’s like to have cigarette burns up and down your spine?” But his father didn’t do that as much as my father said he did. My father only had a burn or two. His father left when he was seven. It was different for me.
I went to bed every single night, not looking to escape to my dreams, man.
Dreams didn’t exist in that life.
I went to sleep every night waiting for the sun to rise. I went to bed every single night of my childhood, hoping that the beating I got after dinner was the last one I’d get until after dinner the next night. I went to bed every night looking Kyle in the eye from across the room, watching hope fade. I saw our demons in Kyle, and he saw them in me. Those demons, they were our fathers eyes; our eyes. We’re O’Keefe’s, just like he is. We’re the next in a long line. But we weren’t about to unleash any more evil into the world. Kyle and I were going to be the ones that got away. We were going to be “Good O’Keefe’s” who worked hard for their families and made it back from Hell. That was the plan, and we believed it could be done, man. We were going to do it.
All we needed was enough money to get on a bus to Saint Petersburg and rent a hotel for a few nights. We knew we’d be able to get part time jobs over there and ultimately work our way up. Eventually we would find some nice beautiful women and take care of them, show them love that no O’keefe man has ever shown anyone. Then we would get married, live in a two family home if we had to, or on the same street, and our children would be more than just cousins. Not a drop of alcohol would ever make it through the doors of our homes. Our family curse would simply cease to exist.
After a year of high school, though, and the summer going into next, Kyle started taking it pretty hard. The abuse was catching up to him, and I did all I could to help.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take this, Chris. I don’t know if I can keep coming home.”
“No, don’t worry, buddy. We’re in this together. Just three more years including this one, then we’re out of here for good. I got you, Kyle. Don’t worry.”
Our father had taken Kyle’s shoes, saying they were too expensive or something, forcing Kyle to go barefoot to school for days. And the only reason he even got those shoes back was because our father started beating him in his sleep with them.
“Chris. There’s nothing good about being here! Don’t you feel safe when we’re at the pier? Don’t you wish we could stay there forever?”
“Well, yeah. But it’s not that simple.”
“It is though, Chris! It is! Why don’t we just go there and never come back?”
“Because, Kyle, we have to stay in school if we want to be different. We have to finish and get jobs so we can be stable. I promise, it’ll be worth it when we look back on these days and realize that we got through it together.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I just wish there was something that could make us feel a little bit better while we’re at home, you know?”
“Absolutely. But hey, at least we’re not alone right?” Kyle smirked as I tried to stay positive and he promised he’d stick it out with me.
A few weeks later I got a text from Kyle after school, got out of class early, meet you at the spot. Naturally, I thought nothing of it. Teachers at public schools in Naples couldn’t care less if you were going to amount to anything or not back then; we got dismissed early all the time. So I walked to the spot alone taking in every breath of free, safe air. I could feel the wind on my face; I could feel it heal my wounds. The humid warmth slowly transformed into the refreshing salty breeze. Yet on that day, the smell was not pure, it was like burnt marshmallows, but not in a good way. As I got closer to our spot, the stench only got worse, man. That was the day Kyle and I lost our therapeutic connection. He was smoking cotton.
“What the fuck, Kyle!”
“Chill, bro, it’s cool. It’s just me, don’t worry.”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m just giving it a try, man. It feels good. I feel relaxed. This is what we need to help us feel better at home. It’ll help us. We’ll be alright.”
“No. You do whatever you want.” I was pissed, man. He wanted me to try it; I just turned around and left.
He continued going to the spot everyday without me, and he stayed later than we ever did as well. He would sneak into the house long after dark with his pockets shaking full of pills. He no longer had the demons in his eyes; he no longer had our father’s eyes. It was just an empty glass, as if Kyle was not actually there, and a shell of him remained in my life. He started talking back to my father, which I admired but also despised. I loved it because someone was finally fighting back.
Soon instead of protecting the family name and me, Kyle just packed up and left. Our father got him pretty good with a hook to the chin. Kyle stood up and returned the favor, knocked my father to the ground. He stood over him, but turned to me instead, and that was the last time I really saw Kyle. I mean, not even as a shell, his eyes weren’t glassy at that moment. I stared back at him and he turned away and walked out, almost as if he was telling me to follow him. He picked up the bottle for himself and found even more pleasure in it. He didn’t go to school anymore, and he lived at our spot by the Naples Pier. I never went to see him because, I don’t know, I was afraid to become him. I was afraid that I would go see him and end up with a bottle of my own. I was afraid to see the only thing that ever made me happy, and for the first time in my entire life, I was completely alone.
The nights became longer; the beatings became more frequent and twice as painful. One night, my father took a wooden baseball bat and started beating my ass with it. “You like that, don’t you? Let me help you out now that you’re butt buddy is gone. Ha!” He always thought he was so clever, which infuriated me. But those beatings, they really hurt, man. Couldn’t walk for a week after that one. And that was the first time I ever thought about what it would be like to be with Kyle. Part of me wanted to run away and join him, because then at least I could be happy. Then at least I could be with my brother. But no, I wasn’t ready to give in, I was more afraid of what the bottle could make me than what my father could do to me.
School became unbearable, because I could feel eyes on me no matter where I went. I could hear the subtle whispers about my scars, and I knew of the rumors that my brother was dead somewhere, but I knew he was okay. He’s my twin; of course I knew he was okay. The endless torment continuously ate away at me.
I couldn’t hide anywhere anymore, and I couldn’t talk to anyone.
Nobody could ever know or understand the pain I was going through, not even Kyle, man. I wanted to push myself to finish the year strong, and then I would figure my life out in the summer. There was no way I would be able to go through two more years of high school like that. Not a chance.
You know what happened, though? I didn’t even make it through that year of high school. I couldn’t even finish my sophomore year of high school. My father threw one too many bottles that night and he got me good. The bottle broke on my shoulder and the shattered glass cut my eye pretty bad. Been wearing this patch ever since. I fell to my knees and my father didn’t even realize what he had done. He goes: “Get up, you coward! Get up! I’m gonna make a man out of you.” Anyway, after that I left the house. And with an eye that felt like the devil himself was trying to crawl through, I couldn’t think of anywhere safe for myself to go… Except to Kyle. So that’s where I went— over to the pier where my brother was living in the sand.
His eyes were back to the glass I saw for the few months before he left the house. His hair was long, almost down to his shoulders, and incredibly messy. His clothes were filthy, but he had more on a tree that were drying off. He kept sniffing and clearing his throat, as if he had a cold that he couldn’t shake, and he had a crushed pill in his palm that he was about to snort. He welcomed me with open arms. “Hey!! Brotherfriend! What took you so long, man? Sit down, you want a drink? Want a smoke? A line? What brings your beautiful face to these parts?” He didn’t even notice my eye; he was on another planet, man. But he was happy, and he was peaceful, and that’s all I wanted. So I sat down and took some Jameson for myself. I took it without thinking, but I’ll tell yah, I thought long and hard before I actually drank it. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to become my father, but I couldn’t keep going on the way I was. Kyle seemed great. So I poured the dark bitter liquor down my throat and as the whiskey went down, the demons came up. They didn’t feel like I thought they would, though. I felt like my mind was free and my eyes could see clearly and the weights on my shoulders were lifted. I was alive.
We stayed up all night. Kyle told me how happy he’s been since leaving and about how “life is freedom, man, we just gotta do with it what we wanna do, man.” He was wrecked, he was gone, but he was right. I stayed with him and finally let go of any goals for chasing social approval. I stopped worrying about what my father would think the next morning when he realized I was gone. I stopped feeling the pain both on the outside and on the inside, and that’s when it hit me. We drink to escape; we drink to find freedom that we never had. And when the fear begins to return, and the shadows start creeping over our shoulders once more, we don’t let them take us. We simply drink a little more.
My father let those shadows in, because that was the only way to keep us from becoming like him. He failed, but he didn’t, because Kyle and I will never have children. We will never be like him. And although the curse is in us, the curse will never be awoken again.