Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When I walk into my backyard, I hear my neighbor in her garden and smell the smoke from her cigarette. I stay close to my house, where I’m hidden from view by the overgrown laurel hedge. I was intending to weed my own garden, near the low wire fence where our dogs poke their noses at each other and over which my neighbor and I used to talk about flowers. But I don’t want to risk exposing myself. I listen quietly to the sounds my neighbor makes, crawling along on her hands and knees, pulling weeds. Her black-and-white dog’s high-pitched yelp startles me. I have been found out. I hurry back into the house, leaving my gardening for another time.
This is how it has been all spring. The weeds in my garden are very tall.
My neighbor’s husband left her shortly after Christmas. A snow-and-ice storm had covered the town in white and toppled trees at both ends of our street, knocking out the power and stranding my neighbor and me. My house was quickly transformed into a ski cabin full of guests, kids, and laughter, with scarves and snow pants hanging off the banister. My neighbor and her son came over for hot water and some warmth from our wood stove. I served them tea and hot chocolate. Then, while her son played cards with my kids, my neighbor quietly pulled me aside.
On the cold front porch, sucking hard on her cigarette, she told me her husband had left her, just walked away from two decades of marriage. She was wildly anxious, and I wanted to help. “If you ever need to talk. . . ,” I offered, thinking I could take it.
During the snow and ice, it seemed I saw a lot of my neighbor. Taking out the garbage, I spotted her smoking on her front stoop, and our eyes met. I asked how she was holding up.
“He’s with his slut,” she said.
I nodded, not so much in agreement but out of familiarity. Everything my neighbor said I had heard before. My father had left my mother and four children after twenty-seven years of marriage. My two older brothers were already grown at the time. My younger brother, Jonah, was twelve. I was fifteen.
Having lived through my parents’ divorce, I thought I could help my neighbor. I wanted to help her, because I enjoy rescuing people. I suppose part of me was still trying to rescue my mother.
Later that winter, my neighbor said her son wasn’t talking to her about the impending divorce. She was concerned.
“I can tell you what it’s like,” I said. “He feels abandoned.”
I had never said those words before. I had never even thought them. Yet there they were, coming out of my mouth. More surprising to me than the words themselves were the passion and bitterness with which they erupted. Those emotions did not belong to me; they belonged to the teenage girl I had once been. For twenty-three years I had been carrying that fifteen-year-old around with me. That was a surprise, that I was still fifteen inside. Maybe I couldn’t help my neighbor after all.
I remember the day my father told me about his affair. Affair is my word. My father would never have used such a judgmental term. For him it was just coincidence, or happenstance, that he had a girlfriend and a wife at the same time. It was also irrelevant to him that his girlfriend and his daughter were only a few years apart in age.
My father took me to lunch that day, or perhaps he picked me up from track practice. Whatever he did, it was something out of the ordinary for him, and it made me feel special, the way I had felt when I’d been little, the only girl in the family. But I wasn’t a little girl wearing ruffled dresses and patent-leather shoes anymore. I was a teenager. I suppose it’s common for girls to want to hang on to that prepubescent relationship with their father, to a time when there is just love and no awareness of sex.
The transition from child to adult is always difficult, but coming to terms with my own sexuality and confronting my father’s all at once was too much. And more was happening to me than just the end of my childhood. The world where I’d spent my life till then was also deteriorating. The lawn I had played on, a thick thatch of bluegrass, was dying from neglect. The two-month-long family camping trips each summer were a thing of the past. My mother was going to college, and my father worked summers, thousands of miles away, in Alaska. My older brothers, whom I idolized, had moved out, leaving Jonah and me to grow up nearly on our own.
After our talk about his affair, my father drove me home on the back of his BMW motorcycle. I felt the heat from the engine manifold on my leg. I had to be careful not to burn my calf on the metal. As I hung on to my father, arms wrapped around his waist, I tried to get a mental grip on the news he’d just dumped on me — because that’s how it felt: like a load of gravel dropped on my head. But then, I have no suggestion for how else he should have done it. What is the appropriate way to tell your daughter that you’re dating her peer?
I have always thought it was news of the affair that upset me most, but in hindsight I see that I felt tricked. Our outing and the attention my father had paid to me were just a ruse. He didn’t want to understand me better; I was supposed to understand him.
“Her name is Laura,” he’d told me. She had been his student at the high school where he taught, and he was in love.
I was a difficult teen, not neat and tidy in my habits or my emotions. On the back of my father’s motorcycle that day, my anger swelled until I could no longer contain it. I climbed off the bike in my front yard, next to the dead grass and the broken-down cars, and I erupted.
“You might as well go ahead and fuck me too,” I said, “because it’s the same thing!”
His expression changed. There was a break in his facade, and I was sure I had reached him, hurt him. I felt powerful.
“It’s not the same,” he said in protest.
I still look back on that moment with a sense of accomplishment, for it was one of the few instances in my life when I caused my father to lose composure. I screamed at him then with a rage that filled my cells, heady, thick, and all-consuming. And that was my mistake: I’d become irrational. Faced with this crazed girl who obviously had no real power, my father responded as he always did: he laughed.
I continued to see my neighbor now and then for the rest of the winter. During each encounter she divulged more information about her divorce. She never asked me for advice. She seemed to need only to tell me things. And she swore. A lot. I had never heard her swear before. She had certainly never cussed about her flowers.
I don’t swear much myself. I just didn’t grow up around it. I never heard my mother curse until after my father had left. Then she swore with a vengeance. These weren’t casual cuss words dropped into conversation. This was the swearing of a jilted woman. The words, bitter and heavy, flew at me like thick wads of spit: bastard, slut, whore. These were new words around our house, and I picked them up quickly.
Before we started swearing together, my mother had once washed my mouth out with soap for saying, “That sucks.” She’d held my head down in the utility sink and shoved the cracked bar of Lava soap into my mouth. But after my father left, I was free to swear — especially at him.
Mostly, though, my mother cried: deep, hard sobs that shook her body. Her cries reverberated throughout the house. I don’t remember ever holding my mother when she cried. I only watched her sobbing her pain into the orange velour couch. I felt powerless.
I knew too much about my dad’s girlfriend. I had looked through yearbooks from the school where he taught and found her picture. I’d evaluated her looks, her frizzy hair. I’d learned what sports she played, what her hobbies were, and what sort of clothes she wore. I judged her not pretty, and definitely not part of the “in crowd.” While I researched the girlfriend, my mother kept me informed about where my father was and what he was doing. I was her confidante. I also appointed myself her avenger. I tried to rally my brothers’ support in this effort, but they never seemed to feel the outrage the situation called for. I wanted my brothers to find Dad and pull him from the bed where he and his lover slept. I begged them, and my mother, to drive me around looking for my father. They never did. Perhaps they were afraid of what I would do.
Eventually I resorted to feminine guile. One day, when I was visiting my father’s new place — which happened to be the same house in which he and my mother had begun their married life twenty-seven years earlier — he received a call from his girlfriend. I asked if I could talk with her; I said I wanted to be friends. Once he’d given me the phone, I let loose all the swear words I knew. My father had to wrestle the receiver from my hands.
Remembering the scene now — two teenage girls fighting over an older man — I laugh. Laughter is my knee-jerk reaction to the unpleasant and the discomforting. I learned that from my father.
As winter turned to spring, I began avoiding the backyard whenever my neighbor was outside. I didn’t want to feel that old pain anymore. And without her to revive them, the hurts began to fade. Then, one evening in June, when the neighborhood was quiet, I ventured out back to plant some seed trays. My neighbor had pruned the laurel hedge between our yards, hacking it back into a proper rectangle, doing all the work herself except for a few tall branches that my husband, Don, helped her cut. She was proud of her handiwork, but she’d left gaps, and through them I saw a figure moving: her husband had returned to pick cherries from their tree. Instantly the anger came back. How dare he pick those cherries, I thought. He has no right. The next angry thought that came forth, while I stood watching, was How could she let him?
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t angry on behalf of the wronged wife. Something else was bothering me.
My father came back to our home many times. My mother would call on him to solve maintenance problems around the house, or to deal with me. Sometimes he came over to get something he needed, like a tool. My mother was always suspicious of his taking things, and she guarded the house and its contents, never allowing him to be there unsupervised.
In spite of her suspicions, my mother changed when my father was around. Her anger and sadness subsided, and she was even friendly toward him. She would cook for him and smile. I hated this side of my mother. Because no matter how sweet she was, my father always left — sometimes not until the next day, but he left. And after he left, I watched her change back into the woman who sobbed uncontrollably and vehemently denounced her ex-husband.
Like my mother, I tried to bring my father back too. I compiled a repertoire of misbehaviors that my mother couldn’t handle on her own: temper tantrums, drunkenness, sex. This didn’t endear me to my father, but it did accomplish what I wanted: he showed up. My father, who has a terrible memory, still remembers the time he had to get out of bed (not my mother’s bed) at one in the morning and drag me from a party where I had spent most of the night vomiting and picking fist fights with boys. These times when I got my father’s attention were victories for me, instances when my feelings of powerlessness vanished.
Several times I’ve come close to speaking to my neighbor’s husband. When he came in the snow to remove a downed tree, I almost asked, Would you like to know what it’s like to have your dad walk out? Other times I have just wanted to call him a bastard. But I’ve never said a word. Being an adult means maintaining composure. Still, the fifteen-year-old in me is always disappointed. Her anger lives inside me, just beneath the surface, and it doesn’t feel good.
Until now I always assumed that I was angry at my father because he’d betrayed my mother. I lived with my mother’s anger so long that I mistakenly thought hers and mine were the same: anger over a lover’s betrayal. But how can I be angry at my father for cheating when, as an adult, I’ve cheated and lied to lovers? I have looked men straight in the eye and told them they were “overly suspicious.” I have justified my actions by blaming someone else. A boyfriend once pointed out the obvious: “You’re just like your father.” At times I have been. Cheating on a lover used to come easily to me. This similarity between my father and me has made me more lenient with him over the years. After all, who am I to condemn him when I have transgressions in my own past?
What I am coming to understand is that my rage isn’t about the problems between men and women. It doesn’t really anger me that my neighbor lost her husband. I know little about their former marriage. And although my mother had a hell of a time getting over my dad, I believe she’s better off today because of the divorce. As a woman I know that it’s just as easy to live without a man. No, my rage belongs to that fifteen-year-old girl. That girl is angry because her father chose to spend his days with someone else. It’s not about sex or Electra complexes; it’s about giving one’s time and developing relationships. Fathers need to be there. They can’t skip track meets to have sex. They can’t parent only during late-night crises. I don’t care if she was a pain in the ass: that girl needed a full-time, committed father. Parenting is an unbreakable promise.
© Duncan Green
My inner fifteen-year-old should find some comfort in the sort of man I chose to marry. Don listens for the kids in the middle of the night and writes them letters at camp. He plans family vacations, worries over college funds, and vows to drag our children home if he ever catches them loitering at the minimart. He talks about their future in a way that assures me he will always be in it.
The past that resurfaced in those conversations with my neighbor has been valuable to revisit, but it doesn’t resemble my life in the present. I love my father in spite of his flaws, and I see him often. Yes, the angry girl still yearns for him to tell me he’s sorry, to admit he was wrong. But we don’t talk about the past.
My father is showing his age. He no longer just has a lousy memory; he’s been diagnosed with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. One day soon he will return to the time when I was the little girl in patent-leather shoes, but he’ll go there without me. Perhaps he will look past me, not recognizing the woman, and see his daughter in the face of my own daughter — a strange merger of past and present. There will be no place for a teenager’s anger. All of me knows this.
It is up to the woman in me to explain to the girl that not everything in life has a resolution — or, at least, not the resolution we want or expect. The final outcome may not be about my father’s apology, but about who I can be without it.
I finally weeded the backyard today, making piles and pitchforking them into the utility trailer. My neighbor was working in her backyard, too, trying to get her roses to grow between the weeds and tree litter that had built up since Christmas. I offered to help her get rid of the yard waste, because this was something I actually could do for her. Her teenage son came out of his room and helped, and Don and I hauled everything away to be recycled. Afterward I went back to my garden to talk to my neighbor over the fence.
Jane Braswell’s essay “Over the Garden Fence” [December 2005] has helped me realize that not every event in life has the resolution we want or believe we deserve. For many years I pitied myself for having an absent father. I felt abandoned. I was angry. I looked for a father everywhere, making many wrong turns and causing myself much grief.
Braswell made me see that “the final outcome may not be about my father’s apology, but about who I can be without it.” Finally, at fifty-nine, I have my answer. And that angry, abandoned girl who has lived inside of me all these years can stop searching.