They want me to, but I wonít come in.
ďCímon!Ē Jennyís standing in the doorway, holding the screen-door open with her foot. I donít like her tone. ďWhyís she always like this?Ē she asks, turning to my father, but itís obvious itís me she wants to hear. ďCímon in, you!Ē But I wonít. Whoís she to me? Nobody.
Iím in my fatherís car and right now it feels like some kind of space capsule, enclosing me, protecting me from an alien and hostile atmosphere. I turn my face away from Jenny and I hear the screen door slam, her grumble something before she closes the paneled door with a compressed whoosh. Her concern lasts about as long as a commercial. I sit in the backseat for a while, scrunched down, playing the nylon thread thatís come loose on my down jacket. If you stretch it tight, it sounds just like the plucked string of a guitar, tighter for a higher note. I can almost play the intro to ďSmoke on the Water.Ē
On the way here, I promised myself I wouldnít say a single word. Fine, I thought, they might rule the comings and goings of my life, but they couldnít rule me. I donít care what other people think, but silence is freedom and thatís a natural born fact. So my father was left to talk on and on, saying the most asinine things imaginable, trying to be all peppy, trying to keep up some kind of pretense that we were all just one big happy family if only we would just make the effort to get along. Talking about the construction along the highway, about which garage had the best deal on radial tires, what used to be in that storeís place, as if I cared, until I realized he was just talking to himself, trying to disguise what he liked to call my sullenness, and then I began to hum under my breath, which I know he hates. He says it shows a vacant mind, but it was in protest against the ďno radioĒ order. 35 miles and no radio, I mean what did he expect? So there he was trying to drown out my humming with a running monologue about blah-blah, while I hummed louder to tune him out. A regular father-daughter outing.
It was either this, or Christmas shop with my mother: 4 hours of in and out and isnít this cute, and who would voluntarily choose that brand of torture? My father said it wasnít often that he got to be out alone with me. He said he felt we were growing apart. He said if we could just put forth an effort. But the true deciding factor was the $10 my father slipped me to make sure I made the right choice. I agreed to go, but if he thinks that he can buy loyalty that cheap, heís got another think coming.
Some fathers havenít the faintest idea how to do the job. Like, ďooops, howíd this happen to me, Iím a father. Might as well give it the old college try.Ē Actually, if my friends are any indication, Iíd say most fathers are full-on clueless. LeeAnnís father gave her a Malibu Barbie for her 14th birthday and then just stood there waiting for his big hug and kiss. Angieís father is always organizing some corny-ass educational outing that has, I swear to god, orientation packets they have to read before they get there. ďThe Geological Strata of the Grand Canyon: A History Recorded in Stone.Ē Shit like that. When of course all Angie wanted to do was jump on a burro and head the hell down into the gorge.
It makes me almost grateful to have a father who mostly despises and avoids me. Maybe given everything Iím lucky heís a raging alcoholic, workaholic, who looks up from his newspaper like, ďwho are you? Could you get me some more coffee?Ē Like Iím a new waitress at his usual restaurant, and he hasnít caught my name, or something. If I so much as try to tell him something thatís happened at school, or whatever, itís like he canít even bring himself to look at me. Heís always looking all around the room, anywhere but at my eyes. Itís like I make him nervous. Heís always shuffling me off to Mom, as if Iím not ďhis category,Ē ďnot within his expertise.Ē Itís always, ďVery good. Very good. Ask your mother. Do your homework. Canít you see Iím busy? Young lady this or that.Ē Well, Iíve got news for you, Daddy: Iím no young lady.
When I sit up again to take a look, I can see them moving in and out of the frames the windows make in the face of the house. Theyíre like shadows, but not shadows. Youíve got to be something at least halfway solid to make a shadow, right?
Weíre here to visit his other family, his first family. He is, anyway. I could give a shit. Yes, he tells me all the time, he loves me and mom, and yes, he divorced Jenny, but that doesnít mean theyíre not his kids anymore, does it? They need a father too, you know, he says. Yeah, I know. They also need the $1000 he sends them every month.
His first family was before he ďmade it,Ē when he was ďstill struggling.Ē Itís weird, when he mentions those early days, itís almost like he liked them better, or something. All that talk about when Jenny and he were living on Campbellís soup and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, when they had to pack up in the middle of the night to dodge the landlord, ha ha, what fun, or like when theyíd take Jill, who was only a baby, to hear the symphony rehearse at the outdoor band shell because of course they couldnít afford tickets to the performances or a babysitter, and Jill just lay there on her blanket, moving her little hands like a conductor and on and on and on. I swear, nostalgia is the frickiní theme song for the middle-aged man.
Right after they split Ė and yeah, I know my mother was a home-wrecker, but she swears Jenny and he were on the rocks anyway Ė Jenny was pissed Ė rightfully so, if you ask me Ė and denied him joint custody. He could only visit every other weekend, and it was always, ďhey listen, Iím sorry, I have to go on a business trip again,Ē tell me all about it, and so weekend visits were pretty much a joke for years. So of course heís trying to make it up to them. Right.
I think it really is fucked up when kids are the battleground in a divorce, but what can you do? Pete and Jill are 100% USDA grade-A jerks, all high and mighty, aloof and all, like they have some kind of monopoly on teenage angst, but all Iím saying is maybe itís not entirely their fault. They did get handed the shitty end of the stick. Not that my end is any less shitty, just a different kind of shit.
I look again in time to see my dad move into the frame. Heís holding a glass of something. No doubt booze of some sort. There she is, Jenny, dipping her chin to one side, flipping her hair, like sheís all of 21 years old. Pete and Jill must be watching T.V. or something, because I donít see them, but I stop looking after a while.
I hate waiting. Worst thing in the world. As if someoneís going to do you a favor by appearing, something is going to grace your life by just happening, and all you are is this empty box waiting to be filled. I climb up to the front seat, which is leather like the back seat, but something about the bucket shape makes it more animal. The whole car smells like a horse stall, and smoky cause Dad gets to smoke in this car. Itís his, after all, as heís constantly telling us both. I flick the fuzzy dice so they swing, trŤs cool. I jiggle the stickshift, but not hard enough to disengage the gears.
Iím still waiting, but now Iím also a speed demon. Iím also a badass woman howling down the pike. Iím leaving that asshole. Iím leaving.
I guess there are three choices for a woman married to a guy like Dad. You can be The Abandoned Wife. You can be The Homewrecker. Or, if youíre smart, and I promise myself to be smart about everything, Iíll be damned if Iím some sniveling victim, all boohoo why me, how could you do this to me? If youíre smart, you leave his ass flat before he so much as gets the itch to leave. Of course, as LeeAnn says, thereís a pretty good chance youíre going to end up being two of the above. After all, she said, if he left her for you, heíll leave you for someone else. Patterns: shrinks are always going on and on about patterns. Patterns and formative models. Fuck models. Thatís why Iím going to make my motto, ďmy way or the highway.Ē
Outside Dadís Lincoln, the sky has gone a pearly pink. Some weird unnatural scene where everything is absolutely normal except the most important things. The bare branches on the trees look like mascaraed lashes against the changing pink. The houses look like cut-outs. This waiting is getting pretty ridiculous, pretty fucking ridiculous, I say to the empty car. I click the door open and instead of heading for the house, I start climbing the rise out beyond. The air is so cold and dry it sucks my breath out before I even get to use it. Which makes me feel almost excited, as if I were gasping, clouds bursting around my lips, as if everything is building up to some huge unveiling. My legs feel all iron shavings along some magnetic line, tingling, my blood acting like itís both a liquid and a lot of little particles just beginning to stir.
Iím walking, but Iím not sure where. A frickiní rapist or murderer could be waiting for me. You never know what the hell is lurking in a place like this. Everything feels so heavy, so suburban, as if everyone has to clean their plates before anything good will ever happen again, bare clotheslines out behind the houses, cars clicking and popping as their engines cool in the driveways, the wilds out beyond the neighborhood holding the last of the earthís birds, breeding shadows.
It suddenly hits me that this isnít just whatís happening to me now. The thought appears, and itís almost like dťjŗ vu, but in reverse, if you can imagine that: Right now, this very second, is already becoming my past. Suddenly I know thereís going to be a day when I am far from what right now seems absolutely interminable. Iím going to be miles and years from now; maybe I wonít even recognize myself from that far away. The thought gives me such a weird feeling, Iím getting all shivery, and I look all around me as if Iím being followed, or like someone is watching me through binoculars.
When I get to the top of the hill, right before the lawns give way to woods, I stop, and look back towards the house, the car, the rest of the street winding its way beside planted trees and sidewalks chalked with hopscotch and tic-tac-toe grids, with the cursive effects of girls trying out their boyfriendís last names as their married names. A black and white soccer ball sits in the gutter at the bottom of someoneís driveway.
Itís like everyone else in the world is inside except me. Like maybe there was some kind of air raid siren that went off and everyone just scattered, running indoors to shelter and I wasnít there to hear it, or something. But everyoneís inside now, safe and sound. Everyoneís got clean socks in their drawers, everyone has homework to do, a brother who bugs them. Everyone is going to sit down to dinner, spread around the table, and talk about their days. Valentineís is going to come, then Easter. I look back, past Dadís Lincoln, to the yard. From the rise, Jennyís house looks like a shoebox lit with slides someone sentimental took of their old life, and their embrace, my father losing himself in her arms, the two of them seeming to merge, seen from here, even that looks small.