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When I was fifteen I left my mother’s all brown-and-white apartment in New Hampshire against her wishes for my father’s California digs. He called his place “the chicken coop”; it was two rooms and the roof was falling in. My stepmother had left him and he’d sounded a bit suicidal on the phone. I got off the plane and he was loping through the crowds like Moses through the parted sea, a head-and-a-half above everyone else, chicken-like hairdo and erratic beard, mismatched pants and shirt. He walked towards me like he owned me, like I was a parcel he’d set down for a minute instead of eleven years. I wore a new corduroy blue dress over a white turtleneck, and except for being unusually gangly even for my age, there was really nothing to notice about me. I had just lost my virginity (didn’t like it at all), was the third best drawer in my class and hoped to be a writer someday. My father stuffed me in his battered car and we each put an arm out the window, pretending to fly over the highway.

My father acted younger than I did. His unorthodox lifestyle appeared unbelievably cool. Friday night was poker night. Sunday he’d cook a huge meal and invite street people over (he preferred voluntary charity to the government-mandated version; he was a tax evader). His friends had names like “Black Vic” and “Reverend Bruce.” Things were regularly stolen from the house. One visitor casually mentioned he’d just thrown a brick through his TV because Stevie Nicks told him to. Another advised putting a beer in your baby’s bottle at night to make him go to sleep. My father would do anything. He applied for welfare “as an experiment.” Once we got on it, he’d do things like write them a letter saying he was planning a lobster dinner for six and needed fifty extra dollars in food stamps. And it came. My father was glamorous.

On a trip to the beach with the neighbor’s toddlers, he let me drive the van down an extremely steep, winding cliff. I’d never driven before outside of a parking lot, and nearly killed us all about thirty times.

While the kids screamed and cried, my father sat calmly in the passenger seat, not asking me to slow down. I don’t think he cared if he died. There was somethingso free and enticing in that — you felt that if you just stood close enough to him, some of his daring would transfer to you like static electricity. His bright eyes and lithe body seemed to say: “I’m a daredevil. I’m outside the laws of acceptable behavior. Are you, or are you one of them?”

My father never touched me and he never said I love you. He didn’t shake hands or pat backs. Having been abused as a child and then spent years in prison, it was as if there were signs all over his body: DANGER! DO NOT TOUCH! He’d sit with his back to the wall to have a clear view of all doors. His invisible enemies crept into my world too, and turned it all very, very exciting. He never asked what he wanted to know outright. He set traps, he did experiments. It kept me on my toes. I never knew when something he said was a simple comment, or a test, which I was loathe to fail. I wrote in my diary to him all the sentiments bubbling up my throat and stopped by a cork-tongue: All the candles in Rome could not outshine the burning in my heart for you!!! My admiration is a monument enormous, my devotion knows no end!!! I feel for you not only as your daughter, but as your fellow thinker. But outwardly, I was quiet. Not surprisingly, he was disappointed in my development thus far: a dreamy, bookish personality wrapped in corduroy. I was a mouse. It was hard for him to believe his blood ran through my veins.

When he pronounced me “wishy washy,” I thought I’d die. I thought I’d do anything to change that about myself.

I never knew when or how he’d be near me. He didn’t observe normal patterns of behavior. When I hurt myself and cried, he’d just  sit there and laugh. He liked to walk in the bathroom when I was taking a shower. I became perpetually aware of the nakedness just under my clothes and the mental helplessness just under my preternaturally large vocabulary. My senses sharpened. I looked for clues in everything. I was unsure all day long, and all night.

There were only two rooms in the apartment and almost no furniture, so we slept together on a fold-out couch. Lying there with our long blond bodies side by side, stiff and straight, never slipping into the three-inch gully between us, we’d talk about sex. Mostly he talked, since I only had about seven minutes of experience to contribute to the conversation. He taught me lessons. There are three things you have to say to women to get them into bed, he said. They light up the room; they’re different from other women; and you’ve never felt like this before. It felt like my father and I were in a conspiracy against the world, there in the dark in our creaky bed — against my mother and stepmothers and my silly school friends. We had our secret language, and we knew what was
what in this back-stabbing world. I think I would’ve done it with him if he’d made a move. The only way anyone ever seemed to impress him was by spitting in the face of convention. How better to prove I was rebellious than to break the greatest taboo? Besides, he was hot stuff. He knew all about geography and Napoleon and bull markets and systems of government and smuggling and why my mother back home was so pathetic and ridiculous. He could make about fifty different animal calls and introduced me to punk rock. Sure I would’ve fucked him. Everyone else did.

My father’s women were all around. He favored wizened little degenerates with pouches of fat in unexpected areas, whom I couldn’t picture surviving under the weight of someone as big and strong as my father.

They didn’t complain when he made fun of their logic, and they didn’t think it strange that he had a whole stable of drunk floozies. He enjoyed the dirty, clingy, untamed, manipulative broods of children that went with them. Chaos felt right to him—he sought it out and then he encouraged it to grow. He never referred to all the broken bones and silent treatments he’d received as a kid (I had to learn about it from the rest of the family) — he had no use for self-pity, or any other kind of pity. He reacted to one woman’s depression, which rendered her unable to leave her bed, by having sex with her twenty-five times in five days. He then complained about the cost of rubbers, suggesting the woman was taking advantage of him. “We each of us have our own highway to hell,” the desperate woman intoned. “Not me,” rejoined my dad, “I’m a hitchhiker on someone else’s highway to hell. Too much work paving my own.” Everything was a joke, and if it wasn’t, then it was something to be laughed at. That’s how I knew when he was serious: he laughed. Because he never laughed at jokes.

That man would part the thighs of anyone who somehow fit into a category he’d never explored before: a different race, weight, height or age bracket; anyone willing to be in an orgy, do it on LSD, and so on. I think that’s how he got mixed up with my mother — he’d wanted to try out the prude. My mother, a private school teacher, only gave my father one blowjob. Her only blowjob ever, after which she had to go rinse her mouth out or throw up — the story varied, according to whether it was my father or my mother telling it.

I didn’t want to be like my mother, careful with her experiences. I wanted to try things out carelessly, ruthlessly. I would transform myself into the one who takes, and the one who leaves. I became an experimenter and a feminist of the loosest variety—very independent and fucked-up and free. I wanted to out-screw the men. And I did! By the time I turned sixteen, I was like Clint Eastwood—I roamed alone. In my mind’s eye, I wore a hat. One that eternally cast a shadow over my eyes. I sat with my back against the wall. I set traps. I even seduced women, using the tricks my father had taught me: telling them they lit up the room, they were different from other women, and I’d never felt like this before. It worked every time. All around me piled the rubble of my experiences: a variety of broken hearts, suicide threats, hangovers, fights, poor eating habits. I never cleaned up, just moved on.

Unknowingly, I was trying to get my father out of my system by becoming him. When that didn’t work, I had an affair with an older man who looked like him. I was seventeen and high most of the time. I imagined it was my father every time. It was dizzying! I’d look up into his eyes, blue and myopic like Dad’s, and say, “Dare I? Dare I?”—it was like standing at the edge of a ravine, wanting to throw myself down just because it’s so deep — and then I’d allow myself to let my vision blur, let my mind smear this man’s features into my father’s. “Who’ll ever know?” I’d say to myself, and did it again and again. But this guy was too easy. He fell in love with me almost immediately, and he whined.

Then along came the man who would become my son’s father. A magister in The Church of Satan, he was cruel, over-sexed, and he demanded extreme loyalty. I found this combination of qualities knee-wobbling. I didn’t leave the bed for five months. By then I was pregnant, and it was too late to
wonder what I’d done.

Everything changed once I had my son. Not immediately. At first I was the same: predatory, virile, chaos-seeking. I had to consciously think through why I should not molest him. Why it was not okay to talk sexually with him. I don’t mean explaining the birds and the bees—I mean bringing something sensual and dark into every conversation. Part of me wanted to be like a girlfriend to him—no, a fantasy half-realized. I resisted out of respect. I had to let him discover the world of sex and temptation on his own. That power over him belongs to some other lady out there, probably unborn. My father never gave up that power over me.

At the age of twenty-nine, something happened that made distancing myself from my father a possibility. I fell in love for real for the first time. Now, instead of looking glamorous in his abandon, my father looked sad to me. First with my son, and now with my new love, I was learning that conspiracy and dominance are not the only ways to be close to someone. I was coming to believe people really can cast light; you really can feel like you’ve never felt before. That was the ultimate betrayal to my father. He’d thought I was the one person who would never leave him, never discount his carefully constructed reality—I was his creation, after all. And now I was ruining everything.

I decided to stop responding when he talked about sex. He pushed harder, exaggerated his role, desperate for my old response.

He said the eighteen-year-old Russian bride he ordered in the mail was having second thoughts about coming, because she worried he would
beat her. Just from a couple phone conversations.

He said, “I’ll have the five-by-five clean your house while you’re out of town making that CD.” The five-by-five was a fat woman he’d met through a newspaper
ad. He said he wanted my place clean so he could bring Darla over—the woman who liked to draw blood during the act—”and screw her face-down in your bathtub.”

“Um  . . . uh uh,” I mumbled. I was almost half a lifetime old, successful, in love, a mother, but in his presence, once again, a mouse.

As an experiment, I decided not to talk about sex for that entire summer. I found I had to stop myself at least every other sentence. I learned that I talked about it constantly, no matter who I was talking to. It also became apparent that it made people uncomfortable, and that I was not comfortable unless no one else was. Just like my father, I needed to keep everyone around me off-kilter, so I could control and direct the situation. I had become a monster.

But realizing what you’ve become doesn’t necessarily undo it. This New Year’s Day, wanting to show off to him, I brought the two people I’d spent the last thirty-six hours fucking to my father’s house. After the visit was over, and my boyfriend was driving us away from there, the girl said, “I don’t mean to freak you out, but that was the weirdest, most extreme yet subtle sadistic power play I’ve seen between anyone and anyone! Around everyone else you’re this cool empress, but he makes you all shook-up and desperate.”

I felt horrible. If anyone should have influence over me, it’s my boyfriend whom I respect and love and trust and adore. Not that man whose house I left thirteen years ago. But here I am, importing sweet gals from Illinois just to have sex with on New Year’s Eve.

Maybe my father was right, maybe everything we do is about protecting our genetic code, and the only faith that is real is bad faith. Maybe the only way to be safe is to always be one step ahead of everyone else. Maybe God and love and friendship really are only tools. And maybe my father is funny and smart and I’m just a big drip, fearful and disapproving. Maybe it would be better to have some fun and quit trying to make myself over. Maybe this article should have been a knee-slapper, a full-bodied, full-of-life laugh at the expense of nice people like the one I’m trying to become. I’ve written those before. They were enjoyable. I miss them. But here I am, and even if I haven’t broken into the place of the good people, I know for certain I’ve ripped myself away from the place where I know the rules and they are his. I’m all alone and I don’t know where. I’m blinking and turning around, wondering, What do I do next?