Last year, I sent my father a text: I think, I just might, end my life. I sent another: I’m sad. All the time. I can’t go outside because the sun hurts my eyes. The winter sun was an assault, I longed for New York and its palette of stormy greys, because the act of moving, crawling, from one room to another had become something of a victory. The days repeated themselves with minor variations. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think. I watched torture films and considered them comedies. I wondered why everyone made such a fuss over Pasolini’s Salò because I’d seen worse play out online. My body was a house and it was in the throes of a four-alarm fire, yet I slept through the sirens and the flames. I played normal when a friend from New York visited, and when she left I spiraled downward. I wrote a story about ending my life, published it here and immediately deleted it, but I woke the next morning to a text message from my friend that if I didn’t call her right this second she would call the police. Another friend called me from work whispering through tears that she was scared. I was scaring her. Could I please…get help? I could hear the hurt in her throat and I said I was fine, just fine, because weren’t we built this way? Wear the happy mask until it smothers us, yet still we smile all the way to the grave? Our practice of fake glee is our own private torment. This was a time when I ordered razor blades off Amazon because I was nothing if not efficient.
My father never responded to my texts. That was February 2016. But this isn’t a story of getting better, it’s about the heartbreak that comes as a result of it.
My father is not my biological father. I learned last year, via a Facebook message from a relative, that my real father was black and kind and excised from my mother’s life. But this isn’t a story about biology, rather it’s one about the people for whom you were once grateful that they didn’t share your chemistry. The people you loved who did the unthinkable — break your fucking heart.
I met the man whom I’ve come to call my father when I was twelve and my first memories were of him hunched over a stove, making me braciole steaks and boxed macaroni and cheese. He worked at Belmont with the horses and met my mother, who waitressed in the diner across the street. Theirs was an affair of love letters, his giant script falling out of the lines as he professed his love to her. He called her “Brooke” after Brooke Shields, and sometimes I laugh because I will always be known to him as Lisa, a nickname given to me by my mother because her first husband found Felicia too difficult to pronounce. But this story isn’t about names given and taken back, erased, crossed out or written over. This is the story about a man who stuck around for longer than he should, and everyone thought he did it for me.
War binds you. Once more into the breach, and like that. Tim O’Brien wrote: They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.
There was no platoon or armaments of battle. The war we endured was a private one, on a quiet block in Valley Stream, New York, and my father and I clung to one another, desperately, because the woman we loved had morphed into a terrifying, violent stranger. She was no longer Brooke or mom, she had become something…else. But this isn’t a story about my mother — I wrote about that, and was stalked and called a liar by my mother’s second child, as a result of it — for she is a dark country to which I never want to return. No, this is about me and my father, barnacles, unhealthy attachments, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us is the barnacle and the host. Is it possible for two clingers to affix themselves to one another? Is it conceivable to be tethered to that which you soon seek to escape? I think about that now. Often.
Our memories were built on minor escapes. I’d close my eyes while he drove a Jeep, a Cadillac, another Jeep. We left our home when things got too dark. We were children making a break for it! We were running away! We stayed late at Wendy’s and picked over the salad bar. I ordered two double cheeseburgers, plain, and a biggie fry at McDonald’s. We shared packs of chicken nuggets from Roy Rogers on Sunrise Highway. Isn’t it strange when one’s fondest memories are of fleeing? I think about that too. Sometimes. Not as much.
He grew older and I grew into a role I assumed for much of my adult life — a difficult woman who never fully recovered from her first and only true hurt. I drank hard in my 20s. Always with the wine lips, he said, shaking his head, worried I’d be a repeat of the woman who had come before because hadn’t I learned? No, not really. You repeat that which you love, even if that love makes you believe that love and loss are the flipside of the same coin.
There was a time we didn’t speak for five years. My father and I had cultivated a way of conflict avoidance. We knew bad things happened, we just didn’t talk about them. We never really talked about my mother, we talked around her, obsessed over her as if she was at a remove, like a painting you would occasionally visit in a museum but weren’t permitted to touch. We would abide by our way of coping for the greater part of three decades.
When I told my father I was moving to Los Angeles, he was displeased. I joked: I’ll probably see you more than I do now. But still, he was unnerved. He didn’t believe I would move until I did. Until we spent a winter morning in Cold Spring Harbor where we passed the hours watching men bait and catch fish. Did he think proximity protected us?
Five years ago, my best friend of nearly a decade excised me from her life. No emails, no phone calls — it was as if I had ceased to exist to her. We spent nearly every waking hour in each other’s company, so much so that our mutual friends talked about how unhealthy our relationship had become. Two broken women cleaving to one another in hopes of finding a whole. It occurred to me, years later, that she likely ended our friendship because we had run our course. Our friendship was based on what we didn’t have rather than a becoming. How do you tell someone that the foundation of your decade-long friendship was built on co-dependence, a fear of being alone with ourselves and our most disquieting thoughts? That we sustained on nostalgia because we were getting better and realized we didn’t have much in common and little to say? Ending a friendship because you realized you lacked one is infinitely more painful than breaking a love that was real and persistent.
I think about this because what if my relationship with my father — three decades in the making — was based on dressing our mutual wounds? What happens when the wounds finally heal? What then?
With my mother, I expected everything. There were no surprises. When she resurfaced in my life after a fourteen year absence, I was hopeful and cautious but not surprised to discover that she was a dressed-up version of the woman I used to know. But this silence from my father was shocking, deafening. I told my therapist: I didn’t see that coming. Acquaintances, strangers on the fucking internet, showed more compassion, I said. How do I forgive him this? Would I consider calling him, my therapist asked. Replaying our history even the question exhausted me. I can’t always be the adult in the relationship, I said. I did all this work and he’s never met me halfway, and I don’t want to talk around, above or below this. I need to say I wanted to die and you weren’t there for me when I needed you most without him changing the subject. Because that’s what we always did — changed the subject, drove around in cars, ate fast food — we had grown masterful in escaping, except this time I wanted us to stay put because I had endured the hurt and lived through it. He read that I wanted to die but he never read how I desperately want to live. Every moment of every day until my heart gives out.
What happens when the fortress we so assiduously built to protect us comes crashing down? What happens when the fortress is gone and there’s no pain to bind us, no lines to draw in the sand, no us against them? What happens if we learn that our relationship was built on fear, fear of being alone, fear of being vulnerable, fear of getting hurt, fear of being lesser than, instead of love? What becomes of us then?