When my oldest daughter turned 12, my father took her out to dinner for her birthday. He had never done that before (they’d never been anywhere without me before) and she was thrilled: her grandfather wanted to take her out for a fancy dinner. Her mother’s father wanted to get to know her better! She was bursting with happy chatter as she got dressed. She even re-read her favorite joke book to brush up on some one-liners.
The next time I saw him I asked, “So how was dinner?”
He pressed his lips together and looked at the wall behind me. This is how he talks, as though he’s on a mountain top, absorbing the full panorama and describing it for those who cannot see. After a long pause, he shook his head and said, “She’s completely neurotic, isn’t she.”
And that’s all he had to say about it. My charming, clever, astonishingly magnificent bright light. My daughter. My baby.
My father contributed to my education. He didn’t pay for it all, but he definitely helped. A check would come in the mail; there was rarely a note but sometimes the check would come wrapped in a trifold article ripped from a magazine with key points underlined.
Unlike many fathers, mine has always been there for me, full of judgment about what I should be doing with my life. If I wanted advice, all I had to do was call. And even when we don’t speak for months he lingers like a shadow in my life, the judge in his robes sitting somewhere in the balcony, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if he’s nodding his head or pressing his lips together.
My father’s pockets contain cash in a money clip, a thin black organizer marked with clips and rubber bands, a handkerchief, a fingernail clipper, and some loose change. I know his lips become a flat line when he disagrees and the trumpeting he makes in his throat to sound the impending dissemination of advice. I know how he folds his hands and his socks and a letter in three equal, razor-edged parts to fit into the legal envelope.
My father moves through life with slow deliberation, inhabiting his body like an alien wearing a flesh suit, as if the real him is holed up in his head, pushing buttons and pulling levers to make the rest of him go through the motions. His heart is a pump to push the blood from here to there, his legs are a useful means of navigation, and his arms fill their sleeves, but the only thing that really matters is what’s going on upstairs.
I can’t figure out how he fits in this puzzle of my memories. He doesn’t really fit in here, between the part where I talk about bodies I have known, men I have slept with, and the man I’d eventually marry, but he also doesn’t not fit here either. The fact that I don’t know how to fit my father into the story is a perfect illustration of how he is in my life.
“What’s a neurotic?” I ask my friend, who happens to be a psychiatrist. I already know what the word means, but I want to check my understanding.
“Oh, it’s an obsolete term, no longer in the DSM. It used to refer to a personality disorder as opposed to a psychotic, someone with a severe mental disorder.”
“So it’s an old-fashioned way of saying someone has problems. Normal problems.”
“Or that they they’re anxious, when anxiety is a common reaction people experience for many reasons. Plus, it was most often used to refer to women, which makes one wonder about what we were really talking about. Women and Jewish people.”
Maybe neurosis is normal. Maybe it’s normal to understand your father more than he understands you. Consider all those years I was still developing like a crude photograph in a dark room while he was busy in the spotlight. If standing under someone contributes to understanding, then I was in just the right spot.
My father has been a victim of women all his life. His mother was overwhelming, his first wife (my mother) was angry, and his second wife was emotionally unstable. To him, women are dependent and delicate and liable to explode, psychological black holes, and if you get too close, they’ll suck and swallow until there’s nothing left. He never wrote it on the wall but I got the message: You can’t be yourself around women because they’ll freak out or use you up or throw you away so you have to pretend.
For one year, I lived with him and his new family, although he was rarely home. One day, my stepmother and I were fighting; I can’t remember why but I do remember how she loved to fight. Was it boredom or a need to connect? Was she angry at me or life in general? For whatever reason, the fury lit her face like a bonfire and she’d scream and rage and keep coming at me until I lost my temper, too. When my father came home and saw us he didn’t stop to ask a question he just threw me down, grabbed me by both shoulders and slammed me into the tile floor, over and over, with this eerie expression on his face, a blank, flat-lined rictus that scared me more than anything else. I never slept at that house again.
After his second divorce, my father called to tell me about an exciting woman he was dating, how she had dark hair and brown eyes and a sexy Southern accent and she’d just bought a beautiful set of sheets and duvet for their love nest. The local newspaper in our small town had just run a story about her and his voice shook as he read it aloud over the phone. The headline referred to her as “The Black Widow” because apparently, when she’d come from Texas, she’d left a mysterious wake of dead husbands behind. My father didn’t know what to do. He was afraid to face her alone, so I went over to his house to help him break up with her. I helped her pack her things and stayed late to make sure she didn’t come back that night.
I have always tried to not be big, angry, or emotional in my father’s presence. I hold my tongue because it’s my responsibility to protect him from myself. The idea is if I act small, happy, and unwaveringly stable, if I don’t criticize, listen, and do what I’m told, my father might keep me around.
In my earliest mental picture of my father, he’s behind a camera. He was a young lawyer elbowing up the ranks to partnership and wanted his desktop family portraits to represent him in a certain light. He’d lose his temper, yelling at me to stop fooling around, sit still and smile, so there are many photographs of me looking sad and surly. I see those pictures and remember his disappointment. That is the range of his emotion: approval to disapproval.
I was 6 when my parents divorced. They tried various therapists first. One suggested they have a physical fight to solve their problems. There was a mat on the floor for the grappling. My father won. Was anyone surprised? My brother and I went to live with my mother.
Money was tight. My father and his new family had plenty but my mother, and us kids by extension, had none. I had few items of clothes and one new pair of shoes a year but one thing he’d always spring for was the est training, aka the Erhard Seminars Training, a cultish thing founded by the self-help guru Werner Erhard. est’s primary goal, or the one I gleaned, was to train participants to take responsibility for their own lives. I was 8 when I started and, before I moved away from home at 17, I had taken the training at least three times and had done an intensive stint at an est boot camp, from which I emerged with an actual buzz cut. I learned to take responsibility for myself. I was trained to say “I” instead of “you.” The trainings were expensive but the fact that my father paid made it invaluable to me– proof that he cared and that I mattered.
He always said that after graduation, I had to get out of the house if I wanted any of his support so at 17, I was sleeping on the dining room floor of a shared apartment in San Diego and working at Dunkin’ Donuts when I wasn’t in class at SDSU. I didn’t have a car so every day, I’d put on my striped uniform and walk a mile up College Avenue. Sometimes, I had to be at work at 6 am and other times, it was almost midnight when I got off . Every time I walked to and from, men would pull their cars over to the curb, lean over, and ask me how much. Old men, skinny men, handsome men, brown men, frat boys, ones in big trucks, sleek sedans, and station wagons, they all turned the same mask of apathetic lust toward me and offered me a ride. At first, I’d tell the guy no thanks, and if he insisted that it was just a little ride, I’d point to my Dunkin’ Donuts name tag and raise my eyebrow, hoping he’d get the hint. If he didn’t, I’d scream at him to fuck off or I’d have him arrested. I’d kick the car and scream, “My father’s a lawyer. He will fry your ass!”
When I was invited to join my dad and his new family at a spa for spring break I was excited, but the Murrietta Hot Springs turned out to be a cult run by a control-freak guru-type. When I was not cooking in the kitchen with the resident women with their long skirts and long hair tied up in cloths and packs of children playing underfoot, I was expected to attend lengthy group therapy sessions where it quickly became clear that my father and stepmother suspected I was no longer a virgin. I hadn’t been a virgin since I was 16, the year I tried to live with them: I had lost my virginity on the hill behind their house although it didn’t feel like I was losing anything at the time and they hadn’t noticed and never asked about it before, but suddenly, in this cult with its strict rules about behavior, their faces had morphed into masks of concern. I was administered some herbal pills and tinctures to cleanse my system and in session after session, group leaders lectured and pressed me to confess.
In the middle of the night, I awoke feeling sick. I ran to the toilet and spent the rest of the night purging my guts. When I didn’t show up to breakfast the next day, my little brother came to find out why and told the others the message that I was sick, but no one came to visit or keep me company. I lay on the bed drifting in and out of sleep and nausea, paranoia and self-pity, wondering if they had poisoned me to break down my defenses or if this was some kind of karmic punishment for my refusal to bow down. The room had a dusty maroon carpet and windows that wouldn’t open. There were no books or television so I lay there thinking about Hugo, my boyfriend in San Diego, and how he seemed to be pulling away, how I had no home to go home to. I wondered if they had brought me to the cult to leave me there and teach me a lesson.
When I regained my strength, I found them by the pool. The therapy sessions continued and although I never gave them the proof they were looking for, it was clear that they all believed I was somehow ruined. When it was over, I took a bus back to San Diego. I went home to my dining room floor and my job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was all bitter, bitter without sweet, all seeing without being seen. When I talk about my father, my words feel black and bloodless, thoughts truncated to fragments, feelings chopped, but inside my body they ring like a gong: gong, gong, throbbing with the long, hollow fullness of significance. My hands grasp the air for a connection. Where is the love? Who will hold my hand? How could these shards ever fit together?
They do. They just do. Pieces come together, they find their way.
Lying in bed, I can’t sleep. John rolls toward me in the darkness. “What’s up?”
“I’m upset,” I reply. “I care and I don’t give a goddamn. I can’t help it.”
“It’s not like this is a legitimate diagnosis,” he chides. “Your dad isn’t exactly an expert in psychology.”
“I know. He’s an ass. But still, part of me can’t help wonder if he’s right. The other part wants to scream ‘fuck you’ and kick him in the stomach.”
“I like the second part better.”
“When I’m around my father, I feel neurotic.” I roll to face the window. “‘Neurotic’ is my new favorite word.” John puts his hand on my hip. “But really, what he meant by that word doesn’t matter. It’s that he said it to me about my baby. It’s the dislike and disapproval buried under the word. Did he forget who he was talking to?”
My tears make me angry. I’m angry because I’m sad. I’m sad because I know he didn’t forget. I see him looking at the wall behind me while he talks. He talks as if he’s on a stage, addressing a faceless crowd. You can’t forget what you never knew. I mull over this for a long time. John holds me while I cry.
I cry because I suspect that somewhere inside my father, locked behind that righteous mask, there’s a tiny creature trembling with fear, eyes screwed tight and fingers shoved inside his ears. Although I will never know for sure and I have no idea why, I suspect that his cell is double-locked and bolted for his protection. Nothing can get in or out and he sits there, both feet pushed against the door, wondering why he feels so alone.
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