You’ve never left me, have you? It’s always been you there beyond the smokey haze and lipsticked mirrors that opens doors and holds them shut. I thought I lost you long ago. I thought you left when he came and then she came. That the late night cries scared you off, or the smell of milk soured you. I think I saw you tonight walking past my mother’s stoop. I think it was you. It had to be you. That dress,,, that dress was so familiar. Like I’d seen it strewn across a floor a time or two, or hung over a fence poolside, dripping of wine not water. You can come home. He’s gone now. And taken his ways with him.
You should have asked me that night in the cold auditorium when he played for us and I prayed for us and we went home with bare fingers. My hands would have stabilized your decent, my lips your ascent and I’d be happy right now. You should have asked me. You should have asked me that night in the car surrounded by snow and uncertainty when I begged you give me reason to stay, but you just let me leave. You’d be so happy right now.
I should drag you to town square for the atrocities of your ignorance, I should throw you before the court for your thievery grand in it’s petty. At your knees should you beg a jury for mercy and on their feet they should deny you. A bow is not just a bow when it’s application steals you pleasure and robs her innocence. Are you so hungry, your bellow so hollow that you would willingly eat the soul of a little girl? I pray you beg her forgiveness as they drag you to the guillotine, and I pray she forgive you as they take your life as you are slowly taking hers.
Someday soon I’ll tie you to my bed with sparkling scarves and strips of the sweater imprinted with the promise of an escapade I still await. I’ll tie knots around your wrists and ankles with the wrinkled sheets you leave me with this morning, the last bits of evidence of your existence. With the smell of taro on my tongue I’ll taste you and you’ll beg for more. I’ll deny your request the way you deny mine. The validity of your reasoning, moot tonight. Having my way with you will mean lying in deafening silence. In pure darkness I’ll loosen your chains and beg you come find me. The sound my breathe and beating heart my only Polo. But you’ll remain. Feet and hands laying still atop untied pools of cotton. You’ll lay still. Eyes closed. Your breathy cadence matching mine. Palms open. You know I’ll return, my body matching yours. Foot to foot. Hand to hand. Mouth to mouth. Silence to silence. Your inhale my exhale as I tie myself to you with sparkling scarves and strips of the sweater imprinted with the promise of an escapade I still await.
I remember the day I met him. I was nine years old and the party was well underway. Random family members I barely knew and rarely spoke to crowded the house with their low whispers and shifting eyes, each with a glass in their hands. Their laughter struggled with the music that played that Sunday morning house-cleaning rhythm. Children played games and stuck sticky hands in bowls of chips and cheetos between pinning tails on plastic pictures of cartoon donkeys and playing ‘salon ladies’ with my cabbage patch and my mother’s trimming sheers.
I laid on the floor of my bedroom beside my bed so no one could find me if they came looking. Just me and my Barbies in my pink lacy room. Just over the bass of the songs I knew by heart but couldn’t understand were indistinguishable voices scolding children for running or screaming or touching things they shouldn’t be. “Slow down,” “give it back,” “who started it?,” “Caaaaayate.”
From upstairs the sounds were of a different world, a universe far far away from the wonderland of my room that dripped girlhood. A three floor Barbie dream house where Barbie and Barbie and Gem all lived happily together even though poor Gem didn’t really fit in the elevator or the bathtub. A small pink suitcase that opened into a record player my mother gave me for christmas that year with a single recording of Papa Don’t Preach, yet another song I knew all the words to, but didn’t understand. I plugged in the player and turned the volume all the way down so just me and my Barbies could hear in what amounted to the VIP section of my 9th birthday bash.
My Barbies, and Gem, of course danced to the song ten times, singing the words with the force of a preteen afraid of embarking on the last year of my life as a single-digit. Next year I’d be ten and all grown up. They danced between the lacy layers of the birthday frock that itched like all hell and made that sawing sound when I walked or sat or stood or breathed. They danced and they drank from little pink plastic cups with their hot pink plastic heels and tube tops. They made out after too many drinks, their entire bodies writhing against each other because their heads only moved from left to right and everyone knows thats not how you kiss a proper kiss. Short-haired Barbie always made the first move because in this scenario she wasn’t Barbie, but Ken, but since my mother wouldn’t buy me a Ken doll, the old Barbie had to lose her hair so she could stand in when the moment needed
I heard the thunderous sounds of my cousins monstrous boy-feet stampeding up the stairs and just before they could knock down my door and bust up the Barbie make-out party I rolled under my bed. “Becky,” one started as the other jumped on my bed, kicking my pillows across the room “your grandpa’s dead.” My aunt called out “Who wants ice cream” and the boys descended to the party more quickly than they came barreling up my stairs to so gently give me the news that my grandfather had passed.
My eyes welled. What did they mean “your” grandpa. We had the same grandpa. Why not just say “grandpa?”
My mother’s voice broke the music as she called out to me three times before she realized I had no intention of coming down. I tucked short-haired Barbie under my dress as I rolled from under the bed so I could see my mother as she opened my door. Her eyebrows raised with her smile when she entered. It was a face I was unfamiliar with, one that knotted my stomach. “Hey kiddo.”
“Why did Ricky say grandpa’s dead?” I asked as I wiped my cheeks. My mother reached down and unstuck short-haired Barbie from under my back and stroked back her short scraggly hair
“Not grandpa, grandpa. Your father’s father.”
“Do I know him?” I asked, confused that there could be more than one grandpa. I only knew one guy named grandpa and I saw him yesterday.
“I guess not. You met him once, but you were just a little little baby.” My mother reached down and dragged the rest of my body from under the bed and stood me up on my feet, fixing my dress. “Someone is here to meet you.”
In that very moment, in the second she said “someone,” my heart stopped and face flushed. “I’m busy right now,” I told her, looking away.
“Becky” she insisted, “your father is here.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel. Is this more Christmas or Halloween? The seven seconds of silence that followed those words “your father is here” seemed like years. I felt myself grow old in those short seconds. My mind raced for mental images, for some clues, some cue as to what to expect, as to how to react, what to feel. I saw in my mind every picture I’d ever seen of him, of this tall dark haired dark skinned stranger. The picture of him in that snug yellow shirt and white sailors cap with blue trim kissing my mother like lovers kiss, his right shoulder and arm covering the details of his face. The photo of me taking my first steps outdoors at the pond in the park, the tall dark-haired man with the long legs walking close behind me. I longed for him. I wrote him letters as soon as I learned to write. I made him gifts for father’s day that I gave to my mother but really made for him.
Why here? Why now?
There were too many people. I dreamed of this moment, when he’d come back for me, when he’d show me the scars on his back from the war he fought to get back to me. He’d open boxes of presents he bought me everyday we were apart, because he just couldn’t stop thinking about his one little girl back in Hackensack he’d spent nine years trying to get back to.
My eyes searched my room for reconnection with myself. What would I say to him, how would I impress him? I had nothing. My cousins could sing songs like birds, other’s write poetry and the boys, they knew endless jokes and made everyone laugh with their brutish humor. What will I say? What had I done with the last nine years of my life?
“Becky? Did you hear me? ”
I had heard her. Every crushing, liberating word. “Yes.”
She stood and grabbed my hand. Her smile was whole-hearted in half-truth. I knew that smile. It was the smile she flashed to comfort me when I had my tonsils pulled. The same smile she wore when she told me Blackie had gone on to a better place. It was a lie smile, a smile I always knew I had to accept as a gift of my mother’s truest love. I always knew she was trying hard in that smile, but I also always knew better.
From the top of the stairs the first floor looked like a crocodile pit teaming with leathery faces and wet lips and plastered smiles. They looked up at me with hungry eyes. The crowd parted and my grandmother stood at the very bottom step, her arm extended, her own smile tight lipped. I searched her eyes for reassurance, moving toward her only after I saw that short nod that promised safety and always kept it’s word. My mother’s sister shooed everyone into the kitchen, luring them with more food and drink.
The last four steps I took quickly, throwing myself into my grandma’s chest and she stroked my hair as if on cue. Her long nails dug into my skin and I knew she felt every contradictory emotion running through my small body. Two taps on the back and I knew it was time to raise my head. To look.
And there he was. Tall and strong like the photos. Dark skin like me. Thick hair like the hair on my head my mother complained was unruly. His face so much like mine. That nose round and pronounced like mine. Full lips that tapered in the exact way mine did. My eyes. My skin. My hair. My father.
His voice so deep and gravely. I can’t remember now what he said to me. Only the sound of my name as it exited his mouth. “Becky,” with his thick accent and soft “e.”
I didn’t know what to say really. I wanted to cry out to him, this man I’d grown so familiar with in my imagination. He looked exactly as I’d imagined him, smiled precisely as I’d hoped he would. But it wasn’t him. This man before me was a stranger. He didn’t know of the trials of my first day of school or the how David, my first real school-girl crush, finally smiled at me. He didn’t know of the nights I’d heard mommy crying herself to sleep as he would have known if he were the father I’d built a relationship with through letters I’d written him; the letters I kept upstairs under my bed in the box my grandma gave me.
A small push in the back and I lunged toward him, wrapping my little girl arms around his broad shoulders. The scent of his heavy cologne filled my chest and he released. I couldn’t quite let go so easy. I liked him best when I could smell him and feel him rather than stare into such vague and distant eyes.
I want so badly to end this story here. My father came home, the end. But it wouldn’t tell the whole story. When I stepped back, I saw at the end of his left hand was a beautiful toddler with blonde pigtails and blue overalls. I remember every contour of her face, eery detail on the stiff velcro shoes she wore: white with blue stitching. This was my sister. Andrea. She hid behind his thigh shyly. I watched her little hand in his manly paw, grasping in tenderness. It was an intimacy I longed for with this stranger, and intimacy I’d never know.
That’s where my memory ends. I have no recollection of anything more. I think that’s where my father died for me, in the gentle hands of the pigtailed toddler gripping her daddy’s hand for comfort.
It would be 21 years before I’d see his face again. He wasn’t the big thick haired dark skinned good-looking man I’d met all those years before. He was small and fragile. Unemployed. Desperate to be released from owing my mother years of back child-support. He came begging. He tried to fill my head with excuses for his absence, placing the blame on his fears of my mother, but they fell upon the empty grave I’d buried him in all those years ago.
The story of our reunion is much more interesting than this one, but even I don’t have the heart to share the tale. I prefer to leave my father in the empty grave the way I’d met him all those years ago, with shiny eyes and strong hands, filled with hope, even it was my own.
And there it is before me, again, as it was the time before and the time before that. The great abyss of solitude, empty of cues, filled with the chaotic silence of my thoughts. I teeter on the edge, prepared to fall this time but still too afraid to let my head lead the way of my feet. Clenched fists relax, legs loosen, a breathe released leans me forward in the same moment I feel the warmth of skin on my skin. The tip of my right pinky embraced by the curve I know too well. The same curved pinky that promised me a happiness yet unknown, that sealed the deal of her return the day she went away, that same curve unfurled and at attention over every glass of salt water wine I poured myself into.
I saw the hem of her dress in all its shifting layers catching every twist in the breeze even before I turned my eyes to her. I knew the color of her dress: black this time, not red. The smell of her perfume more faint than I remember, but just as bitter. Why does she always wait until I’m here to return home? She is my weakness. As my weakness she is my strength. As my strength I am at her will.
Only silence can be spoken at a time like this. Your image presented without warning tipped the Pacific and it’s waves crashed over me. I choked a salted death and felt my body’s suspense. I’d forgotten how to swim, unsure if I wanted to. Only the silence of the seas inhabiting my chest, pouring effortlessly into both ears, past my lips into my belly brought me solace. Salty seas taste of red wine and chocolate, of sandwiches and chips on blankets in the grass overlooking mid-city through grey clouds we exhaled that first sunset in the park when I put my feet on the dash and you opened my door. The sounds of the sea tapped my eardrums with the rhythm of your sleeping breathe, with the cadence of your lyrical poetics spoken through the microphone beside bowls of chili above empty heads. I saw your face again last night and all of the Pacific came crash into me, yeah.