It’s raining pretty bad outside. Has been now for most of the time I’ve been in the Lone Star state. I’m sitting on the floor in the loft checking my email. My stepdad is pacing. Asking me questions I don’t know the answers to, in the low, controlled, almost whisper I’ve come to know to mean he’s hurt. And I hate to see my dad hurt.
There’s something important you should know about my stepdad. He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known. Probably the greatest man you’ve ever known too, if you knew him. And I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. I’m saying it because it’s true. Everyone of my friends that’s ever met him has thought so.
My stepdad is generally very happy. And VERY, very silly. He tells stupid jokes that make no sense, he trails on in long, barely logical sentences meant to explain some otherwise simple phenomenon. He makes up words. He knows every jazz and blues song ever recorded. He’s unofficially adopted hundreds of kids like me, the ones he’s taught math to that never thought they’d get it. To this day, I can barely add and subtract, but I can solve the hell outta an algebraic equation. My dad took us all on, took on the responsibility for being in charge of our education, yes, but he also chose to play a big part in our development as humans. The education of the future in and of itself is a daunting task that few take on and even less realize the heavy responsibility in. He not only took it on, but he played the part of role model to some, and to others, like me, the part of father when our own were absent. He adopted us all really, every child that stepped into his classroom, but I was the only one he made official.
My dad hardly ever worries about himself. He doesn’t have to because he’s got hundreds of kids to do it for him. He’s hardly ever selfish, and when he is it is because he has repeatedly passed on the opportunity to indulge in himself and deposits he’s made into himself have long since lapsed. He does things like putting roses in my room before I moved to Texas, not red ones, because I don’t like red ones, but white and pink ones, which are my favorites. He remembers all my friends. He makes an effort to learn my likes and dislikes, that even people who have spent every day of the last four years with me probably don’t know. He gives good advice. Not biased advice, or subtle manipulations based on his own agenda. He’s kind. He’s protective without being overbearing. He knows exactly the right words to use where everyone else’s eloquence has failed. He has integrity. And conscience. And he likes cool drinks that he can’t drink too much of because he has absolutely no tolerance for liquor. He’s, quite literally, a genius, without being condescending or aloof. A little strange, yes, but in the very best of ways. He asks me how I feel, and he means it. He never kicks me when I’m down. Never once said I told you so. Doesn’t have an evil or spiteful bone in his body. Stubborn? Yes. Evil or hurtful? Never.
He’s not perfect of course. Even I don’t love him enough to believe that. He has his faults that aren’t necessarily few and far between, but the truth of the matter is, you couldn’t build a man better than my dad. If you took all of things that women said they wanted in a man, subtracted half of it (because most of it is bullshit) and added most of the things every woman actually needs, you’d get my dad. Or something so dangerously, freakishly close to it that you’d take my dad for fear of some science experiment turning to goo in your hands.
Being a stepparent is a thankless job. A lot of cleaning up other people’s messes, ones you didn’t create but still have to help manage. He stepped in and did it for me, officially, and for countless others unofficially, without one single complaint. Gracious. Add that to the list.
That’s why I hate to see him this way.
He’s pacing, and I’m trying not to look at the clock. Each minute that passes hangs over our heads, weighing down the oxygen in the room.
“Have you heard from her?” he asks me. I reply with a simple no and I hope I have managed to not seem like I’m being short with him. I’m hoping that the force of my desire will melt me into the beige carpet so I’m invisible. I’m about the same color. It should work.
I hear the clock slide into place, another minute lost to this agony.
“I’m going for a walk,” he says, his face cloudy.
I’m just glad the storm has stopped.
As soon as I hear the beep beep the alarm makes, meaning he’s left the house, I press and hold 4 on my phone. Straight to voicemail.
“Goddammit!!!” I curse aloud to myself. If she wants a divorce I wish she’d just file the goddamn papers. This is just stupid.
Not too long after, I hear the beep beep of the door. My mother appears at the top of the stairs a few moments later. I look at her, biting back the scathing words I have for her until my tongue ruptures and bleeds in my mouth.
“Where’s your dad?” she asked.
“He went for a walk.” She sighs. She sits on the couch above me, a carefully constructed mask of pain I’ve seen her put on too many times to care anymore.
“Well, what do you wanna do? Because I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
“What?” I ask her, uninterested, still pretending to check my email.
“I’m leaving him. You need to decide what you wanna do. Because I can’t do this anymore.”
“Can’t do WHAT anymore, exactly?” I press her for specifics, because this all sounds like a very bad scene from a very bad made for TV movie. I turn and look at her, my eyes probably cold and distant because that’s how I feel right now. Under my glare she falters. Becomes unsure of herself. Talks in big elaborate circles that never really explain anything at all. I shake my head and turn away. I’m used to this foolishness. ARE YOU JUST DOING THIS FOR ATTENTION?!?!?! I wanna scream at her, but I know it’ll do me little good. So, I point and click.
“Where are you going?” I ask her, not because I really care but because I want her to THINK. The beep beep sounds again. In a moment, my dad appears at the same spot she stood not even 5 minutes ago.
“Can we talk?” he asks her, his voice barely audible above the static in the room. My heart draws up in my throat. He’s given up. I hear it in his voice. He was my last hope.
She gets up and follows him to the room wordlessly, and because I know my mother, I know she’s silently building up ammunition in her head. The door clicks closed.
The minute hand of the clock clicks in place.
My heart is beating wildly in my chest. I wanna run so bad the skin on my legs itch. I go to my room, silently, not wanting to disturb whatever lies on the other side of the door. I grab car keys, my purse, and my phone. I’m downstairs, in the car and out the garage before light completely turns off in my room.
I start to drive. I don’t know where I’m going just yet. I text message my dad and tell him that I’m okay. That I’ll be back. He sends me a message back:
Okay. I love you.
My heart constricts. In the middle of his own personal crisis, he tells me he loves me. No matter what. That kinda unconditional love I’ve heard about but never really knew too much of. I smile at my dad. Yeah, he’s that kinda guy.
I text message my someone. Tell him what’s going on. Tell him I’m driving and that I’ll hit him back. Baby you’ll get through this he types to me. I really wanna believe him.
I drive. I try to listen to music but I’m too raw, too much an exposed nerve to listen to anything. I drive in silence. Pushing the speedometer well past 90 I start to babble, under my breath. I’m praying that this doesn’t do too much damage. I’m praying for my mother, that she find whatever it is she’s missing, for my dad that he not be too scarred behind this all, for forgiveness for myself because I should have warned him. I know my mother better than anyone. I’ve seen the way she can manipulate, the way she can turn a good thing bad. I’ve seen what she’s done to others, to me. I should have warned him. I am the guilty one standing in the shore, watching someone else drown. I did nothing to save him. I’m crying and cursing and praying and hoping that I don’t slam into a wall. The roads are wet from the storm. I push the accelerator to the floor. I’m almost to Galveston before I realize, eventually, I’ll have to turn around. There’s no such thing as running in my life.
When I get back to the house, everything is quiet. I walk to my bed and crawl in. I send a message to The Great Houdini again telling him I’m home. Because I don’t want him to worry. I turn my phone on silent before he can answer. I don’t wanna hear anyone else’s thoughts tonight. I really don’t wanna hear my own. He’s going to reassure me, to remind me that I’ve gotten through worse. And he’s right of course. But I don’t know if I wanna be reassured right now.
The next day, I’m in bed and my dad comes in the room. He looks so tired. And hurt. It’s my fault. He asks me how I’m doing. And he really waits for the answer, rather than pushing forward with some rehearsed speech he prepared. He tells me then, in that low quiet voice, some of the hurtful things she’s said. They sound very much like the mother I know.
“Am I missing something?” he asks me, and he really wants to know, is really at a loss. Right then I wanna tell him that it’s my fault, that I should have warned him, that there are very few people in the world equipped with the patience it requires to deal with my mom’s issues. I wanna throw myself at his feet and beg him to forgive me for allowing him to spend the last four years of his life this way when I knew how it would turn out.
“No,” I say to him instead. He nods at me.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
And that’s it.
I hear him go downstairs to his car and start it up. A few seconds later I hear the garage go up, then go down. I hear him accelerate down the street. And then its quiet. I wonder if he’ll come back. I can’t blame him if he doesn’t.
I wonder if I’m destined to turn out like my mother. Yes the sins of the father shall be visited on the son. But what about the sins of the mother? The ways of the mother? The issues, the pitfalls, the manipulations of the mother? I’ve always been scared of becoming my mother, of stepping head first into the blood legacy of the women in my family, when I meant to step away. I thought I’d rid myself of most if while I was away, but do I not have the same mean streak? The same charm? The same capacity for manipulation? I thought I could be different but I’m not sure anymore. I don’t wanna think about it.
Instead I bury my head under the covers and try not to anticipate tomorrow. Or even tonight. I curl up in my guilt, try to swallow its familiar metallic taste in the back of my throat.
The sins of the mother shall be visited on the daughter.
I’m sure of it now. I might have thought I wasn’t turning into my mother, but watching my dad suffer this way and saying nothing seems to indicate I’ve stepped dangerously close.