I often joke that, at 25, I have already been married three times. This isn’t literally true, of course; I have never gone down to the courthouse and filed any papers agreeing to take someone’s name and file my taxes with them. But despite that fact, I have already been through three marriages.
My mom has been married three times; my daddy, He Who Shall Not be Named, and my dad, stepdad #2.
My complicated relationship with my daddy, though I love him and act just like him, is well documented. Being stepdaughter to HWSNbN was far, far worse. Those are still times I do not care to ever recollect.
Before I hit my teens, I had been divorced twice. My daddy, though well meaning, had a new family to contend with and was a distant workaholic, destined to be the same capable, but emotionally unavailable provider his daddy was before he died too soon. HWSNbN was abusive in just about every way one can imagine and when that wasn’t enough, he slept with another woman, for whom he eventually left my mother to raise the twins he had fathered outside his marital bed.
That is to say, I learned very early that people, specifically men, leave.
It was around this time, age 12, that my entire life was uprooted. In the wake of HWSNbN’s desertion, my mother destroyed, my own life stripped of any of the trappings I had come to identify as familiar, we moved, not only from our house but across town, the literal distance starting to mirror the emotional distance from our extended family that had always existed and would only deepen. I switched schools; not just the physical building, but, having been moved from a private Catholic school in an affluent suburb to a public school on the south side of town, my entire environment changed along with it. I suddenly grew out of my awkward, tomboy adolescent years and became interested in all the girly things that just a year before I’d promptly turn my nose up at before going outside to play basketball.
That is to say, I was growing up fast, in the middle of chaos, and without many solid male role models. I’ve never heard such a delicious recipe for disaster.
My first day at my new school, striding in on my new confident walk I’d been practicing in front of a mirror, my nose high in the sky because if I held it at a normal level, I would be more apt to drop it to my chest, I wore a green plaid skirt reminiscent of the one I had just gotten rid of from Catholic school. When I arrived, I saw tons of girls far more fabulous and scandalous than I, seemingly so adult and exotic and I instantly wanted to be like them.
That is not to say half naked in a hallway talking to a boy that smelled of puberty and too much Polo Sport. I just wanted the control that seemed inherently a part of their landscape; I wanted to be able to move through a room like I was untouchable.
Because then, if I could master that farce, maybe I would be.
Before I could make it to my second period, I heard a voice from behind me speaking a comment clearly directed at me;
“I am pretty sure that green skirt wasn’t that short when you got here this mornin’.”
I turned around, all neck swivel and eye roll, ready to lay some student out in the floor that thought he was going to roll all over the new girl…
And instead I found a teacher, with easily a foot and a half on me, smirking down at my feigned indignation and laughing at me with his eyes.
“My skirt is the same length it always was.” He lifted his eyebrows in my direction.
And I quickly reached under my sweater to release the two rolls of fabric I’d created with the waistband, another trick I learned at Catholic school, another remnant of my old life. I smiled up sheepishly at him, as he gestured me into his classroom.
And that is how I met my dad.
For about two years, dad was the only man I would see on a daily basis. He taught my math class, a subject I struggled with, but somehow under his tutelage, I flourished. (I couldn’t even begin to explain half the advanced math I went on to do in high school, but I can still solve some algebraic equations and trigonometric triangles like I do it every day.) Dad was the kind of teacher you couldn’t help but love; he was principled, but he didn’t have to keep his kids in line with intimidation. He was incredibly intelligent but not in any kind of lofty, intangible way that made him seem a distant oddity and not a person. He was relatable in a childlike way that was still grounded in adulthood but somehow didn’t make any of his students take him less seriously. I remember, sitting back and watching how he interacted with us all, especially the boys, thinking that, considering the familial circumstances of many of the students, he must have seemed like a father figure to them as well.
I tell you all of this not to romanticize him in any way, but to make two very important points; I’ve known him more than half my life, and somehow, even after I was no longer a student, he had managed to do what no other father figure had done for me up until that point:
He had stayed.
So when, after a dinner date with me and my mom and he and his daughter my senior year in high school, my mom announced that maybe she was starting to feel more for this man that I had years ago told her she should marry, I was nothing less than ecstatic. Here was a man I knew and trusted explicitly; who, while not perfect, had certainly taken a vital interest in my success that hadn’t been required of him and was probably a very large part of the reason I grew into the woman I was becoming. It wasn’t like HWSNbN whom I immediately trusted and hated, whom I crawled on my hands and knees and begged my mother on their wedding day to not marry. I loved to hear how happy my mom seemed after years of seeming detached and desolate. And when, that winter, they started planning a wedding after I left for Howard, I burst into tears at the reception of the news.
It didn’t last, of course. I caught the tail end of the marriage’s demise once I relocated. As an adult, far wiser than I wish I was, and well versed in the slaughter of heartbreak, I understood things in a way that no child ever wishes to about their parents.
But before that, for a time, it almost felt like I’d somehow lucked up as an adult and gotten the family I never had as a kid.
My mother moved out almost, it seemed, as soon as I’d unpacked my last box. It was that bad. When the time came to choose, as I have had to do far more times that I ever wish to sit and try to recall, I chose to stay in the house my mother had abandoned with my dad. My reasoning at the time was that it was closer to the tiny semblance of a life that I’d built there; work, my friends, all the places I knew, were closer to him and that house.
But really, I knew what he didn’t know, as he had not been divorced three times like I; that once I left that house, that was it. Despite more than a decade of history, I would easily slip into being “the daughter of my ex-wife”. Because really, at the end of the day, that’s all I was.
And I would lose yet another father.
When I finally moved out, after a lingering hug in the garage of the house that was no longer ours, just his, I struggled not to cry as I watched the garage door lower. I focused on driving my things across town. I told myself it would be different this time.
I haven’t spoken to my dad since.
One day, while having lunch with mom and her new boyfriend (the one my dad is convinced she left him for), my mother announces to the table, “I told Dad that I would meet him to get our mail that has been sent to the house for some reason.”
My heart immediately constricts in my chest. Because the few encounters Dad and New Boyfriend have had since the Mom Move Out have been wrought with tension. Because, as a child who has been divorced three times, I know all about how it feels to be in the middle.
And because I have not seen him since.
After we throw the remnants of our lunch away, we drive to the designated meeting place in silence. We pull up to the curb and I see him coming out of the glass plating building, dressed in a sport coat and smiling, and for a second, I am 12 again, and he is telling me to pull my skirt down. He passes the mail to my mother through the cracked window without a word, waving at everyone at the car despite his tight, uncomfortable smile because that’s what you do. He steps back, looking at me sitting in the backseat like the pre-teen I feel like, and waves.
And my heart breaks.
I never even got to say a word.
We pull away from the curb slowly, my face pressed so close I feel the coolness of the glass against the tip of my nose. I stare, transfixed at his retreating back, the sun creating a glare off the glass building that makes his figure disappear a split second before I am ready for him too. I clamp my teeth down hard on the edge of my tongue, the pain distracting the tears that threaten to leap out of my eyes.
Somehow, through evolution or natural selection, I am the one leaving this time. Really though, I can’t be sure who left first. But I am cast out into the world from this latest tragedy, traversing it as best I know how, 25 years old and three divorces deep.
And still, just a little girl with daddy issues.