He says it on an exhale the way he always has; as though he’s been holding on to it, trapping it in his mouth, until it flings itself free into the space beyond his teeth.
This is a game of chicken. One we always play. Him feeling me out, me refusing to be felt.
“How are you?”
I’m fake cheery the way I am when I’m keeping someone at arms length. He knows this, of course, because we’ve done this pas de deux dozens of times before. Which is how I know he’s going to try to disarm me.
“I was just thinking about you…” he trails off, letting the suggestion hang in the air, tempting fruit heavy on the vine, begging to be plucked by a clever, simmering retort; Oh, really? What were you thinking? it all but begs me to ask.
“Mm,” I say instead.
He lays out his case. It would sound like catching up to the layman, but I’m not new here. The traveling, the promotion, all delivered in the most expertly faux-casual way; non-committal but an invitation nonetheless, a cat bringing a bird to my doorstep in its teeth.
See? I did this for you.
This is my part. I’m supposed to be all stories of ambition and airports, funny anecdotes that are just a bit dirty in that suggestive way that gives him an opening. I’m supposed to reel him in, to scoop up the carcass of this thing he’s killed in my name and coo about how much he must love me to bring me such a primal gift.
I don’t wanna play anymore.
That’s all I say. That’s all I have. And it’s all he needs of my life, long shuttered from his gaze and his dissection.
Because he does this. He knows how to find me when I’m weak, when I’m vulnerable. When I’m lonely and questioning my choices. When I’m tired and feeling overexposed and yearning for shelter.
He just never quite understood that he was more wilderness for me.
“Do you remember San Antonio?” I ask him, seemingly out of the blue. I can hear him perk up, thinking we’ll take a sentimental trek down memory lane and it will eventually wind us back to Us.
We’d spent the day enraptured with each other the way we were when things were good. We’d followed a lazy morning in bed with shopping and sightseeing, stealing kisses and reaching for the other when they ventured too far away. We existed in our own two foot universe, revolving around each other, drawn to each other, sucked into each other’s orbit in that heady, all-consuming way you are when you don’t know any fucking better.
We’d watched the sun set over the riverwalk and walked hand in hand down its length, trading whispers and laughs and kisses. I don’t remember what happened, but I remember when he dropped my hand. The way he instantly turned cold. He broke our orbit, walking a few feet ahead of me, leaving me trailing behind him in the crowd.
I shuffled behind him, my head bowed, unsure of what I did wrong, too bewildered to ask questions.
It struck me then, right there in the middle of the crowd like I’d touched live wire; I was dating my father.
The measured aloofness. The swift moodiness. The tactical quiet. The feeling that no matter how much I gave, how many intricate plots I’d craft to create safe space that I could never quite touch him. Never quite know him. That I’d always be scraping together pieces of him to puzzle together a composite of a whole. That even in our own orbit, he was always just a bit out of my reach.
There’d been so many. There would be a couple more.
I wondered how long I’d been trying to heal my relationship with my father with the men I loved.
“If you call me again, I’m not going to pick up.” I try to say it gently- always more gentle than I feel- because I know I chose him in my brokenness and neither of us deserve to go forward from here more broken than we already are.
“I will not keep doing this with you.”
He says some things that teeter on the edge of unkind and I can feel heat rising up my throat, threatening to slide from my tongue. But this too is a cycle- the passion, the fighting, the making up- where shallow water does not exist. If we even wade in, we’ll drown. We’ll lose years.
“Be well,” I say, before hanging up the phone, cutting off whatever desperate thing he was about to hurl in my direction.
I sigh, older, wiser, but more lonely for it.
How many people did I love who couldn’t even see me, just because my father couldn’t?
There’s a line from Their Eyes Were Watching God that I love.
“The lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another.”
And what a sad fire we were, thinking we were warmth but only leaving burns.