I am a scraggly-haired four-year-old. I like to stay up late, so I tell my mother I am Cinderella, and I have to be awake at midnight. She nods her head, saying I can stay up in my bedroom. “Go tell your dad good night,” she says. I run into the living room and crawl up into the worn brown recliner. I give my daddy a kiss on the lips. His beard tickles, and I giggle on his lap as I tell him good night. I slide back onto the carpet and teeter toward my bedroom, sleep already catching up with me.
My family is canoeing down a river in Indiana, and I feel small within the long boat. My mom has my two older brothers in her canoe, downstream. I am in my dad’s canoe with my sister, the oldest, and my little brother, who is still toddling. As my sister and dad paddle, my brother and I eat pretzels and try to see past our big orange vests. When we get bored, we start throwing our snacks into the water for the fish.
Up ahead, my brothers tip their canoe. We see three sopping heads and orange life vests above the water as they try to grab the overturned canoe. We see them swim toward the shore, boat in tow. When the water gets shallow, my father tells my sister to help him stop the canoe. My father steps into the water, and I hear the boat thud against him. We are in a gently bubbling section filled with round rocks, the water less than a foot deep. I wonder why we have stopped, but I don’t worry. My dad picks me up and moves me toward the water. Confused and terrified, I squeal, “No, Daddy! No! I’ll drown!” He ignores my screams; he doesn’t pause. He drops me into the water with a chortle, and I sit on the river bottom, feeling the cool water seep into my pants. I wait for his arms to swoop me back up, and when they don’t, I wait for the water to take me. I will be washed down the river as my father watches; I will never see my family again. My face is wet with tears when my father pulls me from the stream.
It is summer, and my parents have bought us a new pool. It is the kind that rolls out of a box, with vinyl sides covered in colorful fish. It’s not full-sized, like the one my friend down the street has, but I’m grateful as the pool fills with foot-deep water. I pull out our inflatable yellow float and hop on top. It’s an odd shaped float—like a robotic hand or an escape pod for a space ship. My little brother splashes beside me. Within moments, I grow bored and jump out of the pool. I search the yard for a paddle, something to turn my float into a rowboat. I find a pile of abandoned wooden slats. I grab a board about two feet long and run back. I slide back onto the float and push myself around, scraping the blue vinyl bottom with the piece of wood. I am a sea captain, and I row around the obstacle that is my brother. Soon, I notice the water isn’t as deep, and I run inside to tell my dad. The pool is nearly empty when he comes outside, and his feet leave prints in the mud.
My father finds two small holes in the middle of the soft vinyl floor. I show him my boat, my paddle, and his eyes grow large. I look at the board, finally noticing the bent nail sticking out at one end. I have ruined my perfect new pool with my foolishness. I cannot bear to look anywhere but the ground, and I say I am sorry, but my daddy doesn’t care. “You ruined the pool!” he says. “You could have hurt your brother!” I keep saying I’m sorry, that I didn’t know. He picks me up and heads downstairs. This is where my brothers get spanked when they are bad. But I am good, and this was a mistake. I have never felt the fury of his palm. But he doesn’t care, and I cry and cry. I feel like his hand has dealt a hundred blows when he stops. “You need to be more careful,” he says. “You need to pay attention.” I am sorry for being stupid. I will always be sorry for being stupid.
I am sixteen, and my father wants to talk. I roll my eyes and continue reading my magazine. “Now,” he says. I lay the magazine down. He takes me downstairs, to my older brother’s dim room. The walls are covered with blurred photographs of my brother’s pale-skinned girlfriend with her black corsets and bright bleached-blonde hair. What could we have to talk about in this place? Why not the kitchen or my parents’ bedroom, where there are at least chairs? We both sit on the bed, low to the ground, in the room farthest from sunlight. As my eyes adjust to the dark, he starts talking about sex.
“I’m actually kind of grateful you’re a bigger girl,” he says, “because I haven’t had to worry as much about you with boys.” I hope he cannot see me flush, that my shame doesn’t glow in the dark. I groan and remind him he drew me diagrams of sexual organs at grandma’s kitchen table when I was ten. I know about sex.
“I want to make sure you know how to use a condom,” he says, opening my brother’s dresser. “I’m sure he’s got some in here; he’s always down here boinking his girlfriend.” He pulls out a foil square and looks for an object to demonstrate with.
“Wait a minute,” he says, and heads upstairs. I cannot move. All I can see is my scrawny, dark-haired brother having sex. I wonder if my dad will follow me if I run upstairs and out the door and just keep running. Instead, I sit until he returns with an aerosol bottle of perfume, and I hear the crinkle of foil.
It’s the summer before my junior year at college, and my father is driving me the five hours home from my summer job in Ohio. My dad drives an old Ford Taurus with a broken radio, and for the first hour or so, the silence keeps us company. A couple of hours in, he starts talking. I try to stare out the window, concentrating on my reflection in the glass, chewing on the inside of my cheek. He says my mother has taken away everything he enjoys; he cannot sit and read his newspapers or watch the nightly news. She nags him as soon as his butt reaches the recliner. It’s as though she doesn’t want him to be happy.
“Your mother only wants me for sex,” he says, and my eyes widen, my desperation reaching eleven. “Well, you’re a woman,” he says, turning to me. “What do you think?”
I struggle for words, but I am not equipped for this conversation.
“I don’t think she’s trying to make you unhappy,” I say, hoping it’s enough to halt the conversation. When he starts talking again, I sink lower into the upholstery, pretending I am somewhere else until he sees a sign for Bob Evans and swerves the car onto an exit.
It is spring, and I am nearing college graduation. I am in my bedroom back home, culling through fossils of my childhood. I dig through boxes of old notes written on wide-ruled paper and wrinkling certificates of recognition, the points on the gold foil crests bent in all directions. My father walks in and pauses. I look up, waiting.
“Your mother told me you’ve been paying for school yourself,” he says, and I nod. He explains how he thought they were paying the bills, how my mother doesn’t keep him abreast of their finances. I keep nodding, the only language I know how to speak with my father.
“I know when you were in high school, we said we’d help you pay for school,” he says. He pauses, and the silence acknowledges what we both know, what I’ve known for a while: my parents don’t have the money to pay for my school; it evaporated in an attempt to get my brother sober. He stares at me again. “I just wanted you to know,” he says, “that I’m proud of you.” The words are foreign to my ears. I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing, and as he leaves the room, I feel a lump in my throat.
I fumble for the lock on my parents’ front door, trying to see the keyhole in the 2 AM blackness. When I finally jiggle it open, my boyfriend and I shuffle into the house, trying not to make noise. We are not as quiet as we hope, and a figure steps from my parents’ bedroom as we stumble into my brother’s old room. My dad has slipped on his steel-toed work boots with no pants, his pale legs jutting out from an old pair of tighty-no-longer-whities. His arms are crossed in his old red Rose-Hulman sweatshirt. He asks about our night, and I tell him about our visit with one of my high school friends. He stands in the doorway, talking for ten minutes before he retreats back into the bedroom and we hear the slosh of his waterbed.
“What was that?” asks my boyfriend.
“What?” I ask, confused.
“Your dad, in his underwear!”
“Oh, he does that all the time.”
I have just gotten married. My husband and I sway to the last chords of our song, and I feel the cake in my stomach. I brace myself for the next dance. As my husband leaves, my father approaches in his suit and the black Velcro tennis shoes he’s been wearing since he hurt his foot a few weeks ago. “Bridge over Troubled Water” starts up, and he grabs my hand and we sway slowly, the space large between our bodies. I look down at my orange Chucks and try to smile when I look back into his face. He used to sing this song when I was a kid, strumming along on his guitar, but I didn’t remember it being so long. Our steps are stilted, and I mouth the lyrics so I don’t have to say anything else. I wonder if everyone can sense how awkward I feel. We plod along like dancers in a music box, turning because we have to, until, well into minute three, I feel a shift in my father’s movement. Before I know what’s happening, I am spinning away from his body and then back toward him. I feel a real smile spreading across my face. He twirled me! My dad just twirled me! And all I can do is laugh.
My father has accepted a job in Indianapolis, where I am living. He is staying in a hotel with a weekly rate; he scrambles a carton of eggs at the start of each week and re-heats some each morning for breakfast. One night, he stops by and stays for dinner. He tells me about his hotel. He’s staying in a part of town I like to call the cusp, between fancy suburbs to the north and barred windows and low-income housing to the south.
“I was walking to my room when this kid came and asked me for money for the pop machine,” he says. “So I turned and looked him in the eye and said, ‘Why should I give you money?’” My father’s inflection is confrontational.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” I ask.
“I’m not scared of him,” my dad says. “He should be scared of me. I punch to kill.”
The words sit in the air, and I wait for him to be joking, but instead he details how a precise blow to the windpipe could kill an attacker.
“What if he had a gun?” I ask.
“Then I would slit his wrist so he couldn’t use his trigger finger,” he says. “The last thing the robber expects is for his victim to be ready.”
I am twenty-seven, and my husband is telling me about a conversation he and my father had in the children’s museum while I watched my nephew climb through a maze of nets in the playground. “Your dad was talking about ‘gun to his head’ moments,” he says, and I nod tentatively. He tells me how my dad said the time I ran for homecoming queen was one, that my mother dragged him to the game against his will. I try to think back. I wore a shiny yellow dress with black lace on the bodice that made me feel beautiful, and I stood on the football field and waved at the crowd with the other nominees. I don’t remember my dad being there.
“So why didn’t he want to go?” I ask.
“He said, ‘Laura’s not exactly beauty queen material.’”
I am at my parents’ place for the weekend. My father sits me down in his office. When I was younger, he says, he tried not to say much because there’s a correlation between a father discussing weight and his daughter’s eventual weight gain. But now, I am still overweight and old enough to be talked to. He mentions my aunt who had a heart attack in her fifties, my uncle who died from heart failure. The implications are obvious. I want to remind him that I ran a half-marathon a few months ago, that I am the only member of my immediate family with a gym membership, that my body will not bend into the proportions he hopes it will. That I wish he could say he loves me in a way that wouldn’t hurt.
Instead: “I know. I’m trying.”
I am home from college for the weekend. I am sitting in the living room when my father tells me he has Asperger’s. He thinks most of his brothers have it, and some of his sisters, as well. Maybe my siblings, too. My father doesn’t have hobbies, but obsessions. He owns the Harry Potter books in half a dozen languages. He recounts his trip to Tajikistan to everyone he meets. He finds every conservative conspiracy theory on the Internet. And his newest obsession is this word that now defines him. I nod, pretending to understand. He tells me I should take a screening online, and I keep nodding. When he leaves the room, all the moments when I’ve wished for a different dad connect together—each a point in the constellation of his disorder. Does this give him an excuse for the times he chuckled when my brothers called me a beached whale and the times he made me feel like an idiot because I didn’t know some obscure scientific fact? Should he be excused for the times he asked me a question but didn’t wait for an answer? Should I be angry at him or at his diagnosis? I want to know that when I throw a punch, it will be in the right place. I tell myself I am nothing like my father, but I take the screening anyway.
I haven’t yet reached school age, and I miss my dad. He comes home late from work. He goes on trips for days at a time. I stay at home with my mom and little brother, watching The Land Before Time and The Little Mermaid again and again. I want to find a tree star. I want to go searching for dinosaurs. I want to be grown and pretty and red-haired. I want a fish to be my friend, because my little brother doesn’t say much. I haven’t seen my dad for days, and then he walks in the front door at night, grinning. He hugs me and my little brother. He says hello to my older brothers. He returns to the door, grabbing a package he had set down. “Laura, I’ve got you something,” he says. It is not my birthday, not a holiday. It is just a special day because my dad is home. He reaches into the bag and pulls out a small pink cardboard box with plastic on one side and hands it to me. I turn it over and see Ariel staring at me behind the plastic. She is thin, like a Barbie, her legs made of soft plastic. She comes with a removable green mermaid tail and a pink plastic hair comb. I hand the box back to him, saying, “Open it, Daddy!”
I am a frizzy-haired twenty-seven-year-old, and I dream of my father. We are in a hazy neighborhood, where nothing except him is familiar. There is a gas leak in the house we are standing in; he is trying to turn it off. Because this is a dream, it makes sense when he pauses to take the change out of his pocket and hand it to me before calmly sending me out the door. I wait in a garage nearby, playing with the coins in my pocket. I hear the sound of the explosion, and I run back to the house. My father is still inside. I see flames on the other side of the patio door, and my fingers burn as I place my hands on the glass.