An apartment complex, Weymouth, MA
My dad lived here by himself. It was the first and last time in his adult life that he ever lived alone. He and my mom were young when they met, and then there was me, and by then he was an adult. At this point in my dad’s life he had three kids, although he only knew about two of us, and he lived alone.
It was pretty strange coming to visit my dad. I’d lived with him since birth, and suddenly he was the one on the other side of the visitation wall. My dad and I had always been pretty close, but here we were separate, the chasms of divorce and state lines between us.
The place felt way too new to be part of a real life. My brother Nick’s little bedroom was much the way I remember my room’s at my mom’s places to have been when I was a kid. A well-stocked toy box, but everything still in its original box. Clothes hanging neatly in the closet, but without the wear that comes from daily use. The bed was soft, but the sheets were too crisp, infrequently slept in.
Our family had been torn apart. Nick and his mom back at the old house, my dad in his too-new place, and me at my mom’s. I know it was hard for Nick and his mom. Life was different without having the other two people around to help. Nick was four. My son is a little more than three right now, and I can see how hard it would be to manage a toddler alone. Especially if you feel broken down and used up inside, have an uncontrollable desire to drink excessively, are broke, angry, and without career skills. The last thing on the list is what always knocks me out of the park with empathy for Nick’s mom. She’d been married at 21. Prior to that she’d been a model, and a receptionist. Her highest level of education was high school. She suddenly reentered the job market in her 30’s, having been a homemaker for however many years. Her best thing was child care, and that from personal experience alone, not professionally. It was like anger had poisoned her blood. She was angry at everyone: my dad, my mom, me for being ripped away from her. We’d been together since I was five years old and she always said she was my real mom. Anger that deep can really fry a person.
I tried to arrange it so that my visits to see my dad were during times when he had Nick. But it was pretty unpredictable, since Nick’s mom would change the rules at the last minute, and sometimes there’d be a whole weekend where I’d come back planning to see Nick and didn’t get to see him at all.
But there were a few times, or maybe just one, when I stayed with Nick and his mom for a few days back at the old house. It was so hard to be there. I was afraid of Janet’s anger, of how much loyalty she expected from me. I spent the whole time with Nick. We’d play in the yard, or I’d read to him, or we’d watch Sesame Street Christmas on vhs. Once he was in bed I started writing a story for him, about us. I called it The Adventures of IbIc, because it was the adventures of Lib and Nick. In the story, we had a secret headquarters just north of the Arctic Circle. I wrote him four of these stories over the years, the artwork getting more elaborate, the stories more apocalyptic. I don’t know how appropriate they were for a little kid, but he understood everything that was really important. He understood that no matter what fucked up things would happen to us it was me and him against the world, and that at all costs, we would joke about it.
When Nick wasn’t there it was just me and my dad. I had blue hair. I wore West German military surplus and combat boots and beautiful things bestowed on me from my mom’s closet. When it was just me and my dad we’d stay up late and watch tv. We’d get a pint of Haagen Dazs. My dad would take a butcher knife and hack the pint down the center, putting each half into a bowl. We would each eat the whole thing, and we would laugh at Saturday Night Live. We would try to get some of our lives back.
When we spent time together in this apartment it was like two entirely alone people being in the same space together, and we both knew it. It was like I was looking at my dad through glass. I could hear him, and see him, but I couldn’t really touch him, could barely feel the warmth of his hand if he pressed his palm against the clear surface.
My dad found Jesus when I was seventeen years old. I lived with my dad until right before he found Christ hiding there in his heart. I felt discarded when my dad was born again. I felt like part of some repented past life that was too full of regrets to be cherished. I’d basically had a pretty strong faith until the divorce, and then when prayers for my family to stay together went unanswered, I gave it up. It was painful to give it up, and I grieved for it. My dad had a new church, and I would go with him if I was there on a Sunday, but I felt so left out. I felt like somehow my dad had taken up this whole new perspective and was judging me through that lens. And I was like, that’s a brand new fucking lens! I see your old fucking lenses right there on the table! You held me to completely different standards yesterday, and now you’re changing all the rules, and judging me according to those rules, without a) telling me the fucking rules, or b) asking me what I think of the rules, or c) saying honey, I love you so much, these are the new rules, can we try and live up to them together?
Maybe he did try c. Maybe I was too angry to be able to hear it. I remember how his smile was sad and far away when he looked at me. But I was a teenage girl, and I needed my dad. I needed his guidance, and I didn’t know how to get it.
So I turned away from him. And I turned away from God. I tossed the last handful of dirt onto the coffin of my faith. Things were easier for me once I did that. It would be a few more years before the nightmares stopped, and they got worse before they got better, but I was determined to banish god (it was lower case, from then on) from my own personal artistic and philosophical eden.
Looking back I can see that turning to God was a very painful experience for my dad. Opening your heart is much harder than closing it, and his atrophied muscles were fighting back. Mine were fighting too, but in the opposite direction. He was actively pursuing that which I was trying to destroy.
During this time dad took me skiing in Vail. The great thing about going skiing with someone you’re angry with is that you don’t have to talk much while skiing, and by the time dinner rolls around you’re just real tired. When you’re up on the lift you just talk about how beautiful it is, and how you can’t feel your toes, and you watch the skiers cut their turns as they come down the mountain. We drove from Denver out to Vail. There are some windy mountain passes with only a sliver of a guard rail. My dad was driving as we neared a blind curve with a steep mountain drop.
Do you ever feel like you want to drive right off the edge of a cliff?
No I absolutely do not.
Which was a lie. I felt like careening off the edge of a cliff all the time. But instinctively knew the rule I would only hear verbally in college. “If there’s two of you, you can fly, if there’s one of you, then you cannot fly.” I did not want to fly.
On my trips back to Massachusetts, I took the train from Philly to South Station, Boston, and headed over to my dad’s office. One trip, I arrived at my dad’s office while he was still in a meeting. I plunked in his office to wait. There were photos on the shelf behind his desk, mostly of me and my brother. But there was another photo, of a young girl I didn’t recognize. My first thought was that my dad was dating someone and this girl was that someone’s daughter, and I thought what the fuck is she doing in a frame in my dad’s office. I asked dad’s secretary who the girl was, and she said “you better ask your dad.”
I waited until we were in the car, driving back to the too-new apartment in Weymouth, before I asked.
Who was that picture of that girl on your desk?
Do you remember Debbie?
Do I have a sister?
Dad laughed. I’d guessed right, and he was surprised.
Yes you do.
I remembered Debbie. I remembered her in little snippets because the memories were early ones. She’d lived with us when my dad worked in DC, then moved with us to Lawrence. She’d been pretty, and she was nice to me. I was seventeen, so I did some math. She’d had a daughter who was now twelve years old. I was five years older than her, which means she was born a year before my dad had married Janet, my brother Nick’s mom. I didn’t remember my dad and Debbie splitting up, but I had remembered getting Janet and Debbie confused, mostly because Janet told me I had called her Debbie by mistake.
One thing was clear: I was angry. But I knew that already. The new thing was that I had a sister. She was twelve. I had alot of questions. Dad answered “God told me to go find her.”
We went upstate to visit my sister and to meet her family, although Debbie had died several years past. We stayed in a motel near Abbey’s home. I remember we all felt a little strange. And I didn’t know what was going to happen. Abbey jumped on the bed. I didn’t know how to make a relationship with this new person who looked like she belonged in my family. I did know that I wanted to try. I also knew that a twelve years is a long time to grow up without a person who suddenly shows up and says she’s your big sister. At the same time as I gained a sister, I felt like I’d lost one. There were all those years we could have been together, and it felt painful to think of how things could have been between us. I wanted to make up for it. But with a task like that, I was destined for failure.
The following summer my mom invited Abbey to stay for a few weeks at our home in Philly, and so she did. That must have been the summer after senior year. In retrospect, it seems incredibly gracious and kind to invite your ex-husband’s long lost daughter to spend time at your home with your husband and children, but it seemed almost normal at the time. This is probably because my mom goes out of her way to appear effortlessly gracious and generous, and she succeeds on both counts. She makes it look easy.
My dad had given me a credit card for emergencies. So I took Abbey on a shopping spree. And the next time I had the chance, I did it again. And again.