hen 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 streetpeople 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
I never knew when or how he’d be near me.
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 something
so 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
Sure I would’ve fucked my father. Everyone else did.
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
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
around me piled the rubble of my experiences: broken hearts,
suicide threats, hangovers.
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,
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
I didn’t leave the bed for five months, and by then I was pregnant.
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
I was his creation, and now I was ruining everything.
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
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
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
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