- A man in relation to his natural child or children. Synonyms: dad, daddy, pop, pa, dada…
Still coated with clear antibiotic cream, Dad’s tattoo wraps around his left bicep-a westernized, bastardized version of Maori tribal. Its lines are crooked, their thicknesses and shadings uneven, some bleeding together, others fading nearly grey. In the center of it all is the pouty, childlike face of some pagan god. It’s laughable; Pen could’ve done it better.
“This is supposed to be an excellent movie,” Dad says. He lays our movie tickets on the food court table and runs a long, angled finger from the start time, 12:30, to the theater number, 13, then to his watch, a new Fossil with glow in the dark hands and a hunter orange wristband. He can’t stand to miss the previews, and we’re sure to be seated ten minutes before anyone else arrives. “It has Jason Statham in it. He’s good. Lots of action.”
“I’ve been wanting to see Transporter 4,” I say, taking a bit of my hamburger, wondering what exactly I’m going to spend the next two hours watching. A thriller? Comedy? Dramady? By the looks of the movie poster hanging near the theater entrance-a collage of explosions, muscle cars, and beautiful women-it’ll be grade-A crap. “It’ll be great.”
Dad smiles and pokes around his salad, sinking his fork into half a hard-boiled egg.
I smile back, not at Dad but at the blatant lie. Transporter 4? For crying out loud! The girls would’ve cackled, and without batting an eye, called “BS.” Even Mom would’ve wondered what bad influence I’d fallen under. Perhaps a boy? That would’ve given her some peace of mind. I’m sure she suspects I’m a lesbian.
“Oliver better hurry up,” I say, nibbling on a fry. We’ve beaten most of the church crowd-potbellied Baptist and Methodist who are probably still in line at Golden Corral-and will most likely have the theater to ourselves, but still, Oliver’s “quick” run to F.Y.E. has dragged on for a quarter-hour. “He said he wouldn’t be very long.”
“If he’s not here in five minutes we’ll go in without him,” Dad begins fishing croutons out of his bowl and leaving them on the bare tabletop. He smiles. Each small cube of dried bread is a point in his war against carbs, something that started badly-I’d catch him in the middle of the night sneaking ice-cream cones or cookie dough from the fridge- but the tide has recently tuned, and it shows. He looks great. The only bad part is that he knows it. His shirt, an Under Armor V-neck, is too tight, leaving his nipples poking through, and his gelled hair (neatly trimmed at Sports Cuts) screams of douchebaggery. “He’ll have to find us in the dark.”
I remind him that he has Oliver’s ticket.
Dad exhales and checks his watch; it’s 12:05. His looks like he swallowed a wasp.
“How’s Ray?” I ask, using the same tone I’d apply if inquiring about the Steelers, the truck, or the paper mill. It’s not a question but a statement. I’m interested in your life. Let me in. These are urges as much born from genuine curiosity as guilt. I’ve never seen a midlife crisis up close and figured it’d be cosmic, like either watching a star die or one being born. “What’s his major?”
“Occupational Therapy, I think.”
“What’s he like?” It’s a funny question. Ray’s a tad younger than Morgan and a little older than me, so we may have met in passing somewhere.
“We don’t talk.” Dad cranes his neck, eyeing the theater entrance. An enormous Ant-Man cutout guards the lobby as a fat teenager plays on his phone behind the ticket booth. Earlier, he was so rude-he hardly looked up from his Candy Crunch game as he sold us our tickets-I could’ve punched him through the safety glass. “When he’s not at school he works at Applebee’s. I never really see him.”
I finish my fries and ball up my burger wrapper. Through the food court’s glass doors a large crowd of Choctaws enters and heads for the ticket booth. Fat Boy, wearing irritation like a black eye, begins selling fistfuls of tickets. The Choctaws smile, one bleating a high, unforgettable laugh. As limited as Greenville’s one theater is, it beats anything offered on the reservation, which is perhaps just two or three Red Boxes strategically placed outside liquor stores and payday loan establishments. A new release may be worth the forty-five-minute drive in an under-air-conditioned fifteen-seat van.
- (often as a title or form of address) a priest: “pray for me, Father” synonyms: priest, pastor, parson, clergyman…
“Your Mom’s painting the house, huh?” Dad asks, taking a bit of iceberg lettuce, “Bright colors?”
I smile, wishing somehow that I could convey the scene, the picture that lingers in my mind like the afterimage of a camera flash. But there are some things you can’t explain in words; the beauty of Greenville seen from the top of Lookout Trail, the lightheadedness that comes after eating a small box of Crayons, the peculiar smell of a dead mouse in the wall. Those things, like Mom’s current psychopathy, can only be experienced. “It’s beautiful. You should see it.”
“Really.” Dad grunts, nodding as he pretends to check his watch, 12:08. “Helen always talked about painting the house.”
I scowl. Her name is Mom! I want to correct but don’t. What’s the use? Instead, meaningless words come out. “Yeah, she’s getting into it.” I should’ve tried-bright baby colours, curtains with patterns seemingly pulled from Picasso’s and Pollock’s. Truth could’ve shown through.
Mom and I’ve been talking a little more, mostly about paint schemes, primer, and the complete acceptability of beaming, eye-dazzling colors. HGTV has even (in her own opinion) turned her into a home decorating guru, and she’s begun perusing garage sales for old furniture and knick-knacks. Last night she came home with two busted typewriters (their keys smashed as if with a hammer) and a mold covered end table. When cleaned, the tabletop showed a beautiful, hand-painted nativity scene, the initials JAB penned in the corner.
Another crowd comes in-white church kids with polo shirts and lace fringed dresses. They swarm the ticket booth. A middle-aged manager appears and begins corralling them into neat lines as the ticket seller swipe debit cards and breaks twenties. His face glistens with sweat.
“I’m sorry things have to be this way.” Dad starts, not making eye contact but staring at his salad, his fork searching for more croutons, “It’s, just…”
I wait for a minute, then two. From the theater, a girl laughs at what must be the funniest joke in human history. I wonder what the punchline was-an Indian walks into a bar…
“Just what?” I ask, giving Dad more time, my heart skipping two or three beats.
I hoped that today we’d have some revelation, some special moment, which for us have been few. The last time, I think, was just before Paw Paw died.
That was two years ago, the beginning of 9th grade, months before I met June-a blurry, feverish time. I was suffering from intense germaphobia (one evening I wash my hands a record ninety-seven times) and moderate anorexia. I can’t explain it, maybe I had a nervous breakdown or something, but I was consumed by an unbearable urge to be thin. From the beginning of August to the start of October I lost over forty pounds.
It was a dark miracle looking into the mirror. For the first time, my body curved instead of bulged, and my chubby cheeks receded, revealing a delicate jawline and a pretty, nearly symmetrical face.
Boys started noticing me. Senior Jeremy Brodie sat beside me in Art I, attempting awkward small talk, something about his love for classic horror movies and a part-time job as a busboy at The Queen City Truck Stop. I humored him, smiling my way through his gory scene by scene summaries of The Blob and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Once, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he took out his iPhone and snapped a picture of my breasts. They’d, by some miracle, maintained their back-breaking fullness. He ignored my raw, inflamed hands.
You want to go see The Fly? he asked one afternoon, his smile pathetic, It’s showing at the Temple Theater Friday night. I’ll pay for everything if you don’t have any money.
I shook my head as politely as a Canadian and stared at a painting in my art book-a Goya entitled Saturn Devouring His Son. If I ever have a first date, I thought, it wouldn’t be with a pervert who smells like dishwater.
I began wearing hoodies, jogging pants and whatever else would hide my vanishing body, which by then, was just about everything I owned. And all this got me was the ridicule of my lunch table-Tammy Williams, Joanne Delven, Alexa Jenkins, Other Alexa, and Lisa Dean.
You’re dressed like a crack whore. Tams didn’t look up as she spoke, she hardly took her eyes off her fingernails which she worked over with a small wet brush. That week’s color (she changed her nail polish as regularly as she did her shoes) was Sunflower Yellow. It was a beautiful, slightly depraved color. Why don’t you wear some normal clothes?
I studied the table top in front of me, not realizing who Tams was talking too.
Mable, I’m talking too you. She fanned her fingers out, inspecting each yellow nail as if it were a rare gem. After smirking, as always her small white teeth were perfect, she waved them for a vigorous air dry. They might as well have been a swarm of hornets. You’re one of us now; you can’t go around looking like a hobo.
Oh… I said. I looked at her, then at everyone else. Joanne was slowly chewing a bit of rice cake. Alexa Jenkins and Lisa Dean sipped diet Mountain Dews. Other Alexa merely sat there, stone-faced. They seemed tense, ready for some signal to eat me; all their eyes were different (blue, brown, grey with gunk in the corner) yet the same. You’d thought they were related. Oh…
I’d been tolerated at the ‘almost popular’ table since the second semester of 7th grade, but I’d long figured my presence there was a practical one. It was as if my weight was needed to keep the table from floating away. I wasn’t spoken too, and I never spoke. Despite being 200 pounds, I was invisible. You’d thought my obesity was a disease that could be spread verbally, like hate, and they wanted to limit their risk.
It was only after I dropped to a Size 3 that they began to acknowledge my presence. They looked over for consensus whenever a cute boy was pointed out, soccer player Thomas Walk or handsome but totally gay Henry Günter, or when someone bitched about Mrs. Ziller’s English I class. I learned to smile, nod, and occasionally giggle, all the while wondering how anyone could find Thomas’ broad forehead and bushy eyebrows appealing or be failing an English class comprised mostly of five-paragraph essays on The Canterbury Tales and group posters about Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway.
I’m sorry. I said, averting my eyes, looking down at the empty faux wood table top where, in years past, a full lunch tray would’ve been. I’ll do better.
My apology was sincere. This was a time when irrational guilt bit into me daily. Everything hurt. Given a chance, I would’ve apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust, the blacks for slavery, and the entire third world for not having the things I take for granted-meaning, everything from easy access to high-calorie foods to satellite TV.
You better. Tams said. Her eyes were the color of lead.
That afternoon I went home and washed my hands for five straight hours. By the end of the night, my red skinless mitts burned so badly I cried myself to sleep.
If you want to know, the trick to losing weight is simple, almost monastic; view eating as a sin, like smoking, and take exercise (which for me was merely walking the 1.19-mile track around Bower Park two or three hours a day) as divine, like prayer. I developed a massive calorie deficit. My plump, porcine body, which in the past hoarded spare calories like a squirrel saves acorns for winter, melted away. At night, after peeing, I’d weigh myself on a Sunbeam digital scale. My piety was almost always rewarded.
Nearing Thanksgiving, the beautiful stranger I saw in the mirror was a lean one-hundred and thirteen pounds. I looked like a marathon runner. My boobs had shrunk to the size and shape of mangos, and my belly was flat as the proverbial ironing board. I realized for the first time that my thighs no longer rubbed together. They probably hadn’t for a while.
By then even Mom and Dad had noticed. It seemed strange how quickly (almost eagerly) they were to buy my story of a sensible diet and loads of cardio. Mom just nodded and, in spite of my atrocious grades-the straight A’s I’d pumped out as steadily as a heartbeat since first grade had flatlined into C’s-smiled her approval. Dad made encouraging comments.
It’s so good to see you working at something. He said. It was Sunday and the late afternoon sunlight poured in through the kitchen sliding doors, turning everything (even the dirty dishes I was washing) golden. I know it can be hard for girls to lose weight…
He went on like an anatomy teacher, something about muscle mass and female metabolism. I watched as he poured an ocean of creamer into his coffee cup, turning his Folgers decaf into a sand-colored soup. Nothing ever smelled so delicious.
So, I want you to know that you’ve made me proud. You look beautiful. At this, he kissed my forehead and went back to the football game showing on the living room TV. His beloved Steelers were down 7 to 21.
I watched him as he went, all broad shoulders and pride. I don’t think he saw me beaming. God, I never felt more loved! I floated, dizzy, above the sink. What would’ve he thought then if he’d known that the only things I’d eaten for three days were half an orange, a piece of toast, and (with shame so painful it should’ve left scar tissue) six M&M’s: three brown, two green, and one red.
Dad continues poking around his salad, his fork now seeking out bits of bacon and egg like a Bluetick Hound. “It’s just that you and Oliver…” he thinks for a moment, judging his words, gauging them as if they were keys on an overfilled keychain. “You’re both very odd.”
“Odd?” I say, not sure how the word tastes in my mouth, the single syllable both sweet and sour on my tongue. Is it palatable, nourishing, life-giving? Or should I be puking?
“Yes,” Dad nods to himself, satisfied with his choice of adjective, “‘odd.'”
An old couple-a blue-haired woman, hunched and with a hot pink fanny pack around her fat middle, and a tall, balding man donning a western style shirt-get in line behind the teenagers. The woman is one wide smile, her dimples nubile. The man looks exhausted. You’d thought he’d been chasing his wife around for the past forty years and is finally spent, ready to fall like an empty bullet casing to the theater floor.
“I mean, I can understand Morgan not coming today.” Dad starts, eyes closed, fork poised, perhaps envisioning my sister simmering quietly in a church pew, holding Mom’s hand. After a moment, he opens them again. “Anger is normal with divorce. But you and your brother aren’t mad, you aren’t sad, you aren’t anything.”
Why should I be sad about your divorce? Who are you? I didn’t even know your middle name ’til I was twelve! But the words that come out are as much a whisper as they are untrue. “We’re sad about it.”
Dad sees through me, his eyes piercing. Can he see the cancer of loneliness, the tumors of self-doubt too? After a brief, painful moment he looks away.
I bit my tongue, not wanting to cry, realizing now that the similarities I thought we shared (quiet, reserved natures, lives driven by a strange, nameless and painful need) aren’t really there. There are only the base things-we’re Americans, we’re white, we’re conservative. Beyond that, it’s all just physical: our red hair and pale, nearly luminescent skin. And even these things aren’t real gifts past from father to child, but a mutual inheritance from some long dead progenitor. On the drive over, crammed in the truck’s cab, Oliver, Dad, and I could’ve been confused for matches in a matchbox.
- to be the father of: “He fathered three children.”
“Where is that boy?” Dad asks. The crowds are making him nervous.
“He’ll be here.” I force a smile, “He’s been talking about today for a while. He’s excited.”
It’s another lie, of course, but that hardly makes a difference. Dad ignores me, and my words fall like small birds to the table top, their final death spasms on a bed of used napkins and unopened salt packets.
I turn and find the old couple bickering over which movie to see. They could be a vaudeville comedy duo, while Dad and I, the leads in a tragic silent film.
Resentment cooks my insides, threatening to burn a hole in my chest. I turn to the door, to the crowds, to a black janitor clearing a table left cluttered with trash; anywhere but Dad.
And to think I’d planned to tell him things, painful, personal things! I was going to mention my blog even, how it’s both ugly and beautiful, like a newborn snake. I was going to half-joke that my great fears in life have become run-on sentences, misplaced commas, and (above all else) the near certainty of being misunderstood. Now, I’d rather eat my shoes than tell him anything at all.
“Here he is. Thank God!” Dad gathers the tickets from the table and crams them into his pocket. “What took you so long?”
Oliver sits next to me, an FYE bag in one hand and a bag or quarter-sized snickerdoodles from The Cookie Shop in the other. “It took me forever, but I found it.” He opens the FYE bag, and I peer in. Under a sticker marked ‘Used $3.99’, is the title Short Circuit 2. “I saw the first one last night. This one is supposed to be better.”
“Looks good,” I say, sinking into what’s sure to be a decade’s long depression. The word, the one syllable ‘odd,’ is indeed sour. More than that, it’s bitter, stomach churning, gag-inducing.
“I saw that when I was a kid.” Dad grunts, “It’s terrible.”
Looking Oliver over, the nearly imperceptible frown and embarrassed flicker of his eyes, I’m punched me low by something maternal. I want to hug him. “We can watch it together,” I say, kicking him lightly under the table. His smile is like a wilted flower.
Maybe Dad’s right, we are odd, strange, different. I guess I’d always suspected as much. Perhaps I’d forget for a while, but the truth would be revealed during life’s lulls, like wrecked dinghies and lost and forgotten nets only visible during low tides. Quite, friendless summers, Vacation Bible School, 7th grade, even brief afternoons or long evenings, could bring this realization home.
Once, a few years ago, we dressed up as street urchins for Halloween. We wore old t-shirts, pants with enormous holes in the knees, and worn shoes whose loose soles flopped around like the tongues of thirsty dogs. We must’ve fit the part to a tee. We got handfuls of candy, with one woman (a middle-aged nurse still in her light green scrubs) asking where we lived. We told her, and her eyes began to water. She didn’t believe that we were her neighbors, that we were living just ten houses down from her, had our entire lives. We were too embarrassed to stop her from putting cans of tomato soup and creamed corn into our plastic pumpkins.
Yes, we’re ‘odd,’ but I could punch Dad for being a d*** about it.
Dad stands, but Oliver asks for time to finish his cookies.
“Make it quick.” Dad sits back down and begins rapping the table top with his fingertips, making a show of his impatience as if it were something to be proud of.
“We’ll still make the previews,” I say, my optimism as lifeless as a cadaver. Honestly, I’m not even sure if sound came out or if I merely mouthed the words.
“Do you like it?” Dad asks. He’s caught Oliver staring at his tattoo and rolls up his sleeve to give him a better look. “Got it at TNT Ink. It hurt like hell.”
Oliver adjusted his glasses and leans in closer. “It looks infected.”
“It’s not infected.” Dad glowers, lowering his sleeve, attempting to hide a wince of pain. He stands, pulls two wrinkled tickets out of his pocket and tosses them to the table. “I’ll see you inside.” He heads for the ticket counter. He doesn’t look back.
Oliver crams another cookie into his mouth, nearly choking himself.
“Slow down,” I tell him, relaxing into my seat, eyeing the wrinkled tickets on the table top. I take a cookie for myself. “He can wait for us. Besides, I don’t think we’ll be missing anything good.”