Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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The first time I read my dad’s diary, I was home for a weeklong midsummer visit. I had been wandering around my parents’ house, typically directionless, looking for something to do. My mom was at work, and my dad — who wasn’t at work, since he didn’t work — was out back sipping a Milwaukee’s Best and reading a book.
“I’m bored,” I said when I found him there.
He kept reading.
“Dad?” I said.
He looked up, squinting as if he didn’t recognize me. “There’s a lot of boredom in life,” he said. “Might as well get used to it.”
“We could talk,” I suggested.
“This is a good book,” he said, flipping a page.
I went back to wandering. It was just like old times: me alone in the house, slinking from room to room, flipping on the TV, turning it off, banging out a few notes on the dusty baby grand in front of the bay window, picking up a book in the living room, putting it down in the study. That’s where I found the diary, on my dad’s desk. It wasn’t exactly a diary — more of a calendar on which he’d scribbled notes to himself. I opened it to January, where I read this line, written, no doubt, on one of those countless gray days at the beginning of the year: “Sometimes I get so tired of getting up and making myself presentable.”
I closed it and swore I’d never snoop again.
I’d come home from Pittsburgh partly because I hadn’t visited in ages and my mom was bugging me, and partly because it was my dad’s fifty-eighth birthday that Sunday, but mostly because I needed to escape the city and the poisoned air of the apartment that I’d shared with my now ex-boyfriend. And I was looking for a chance to open up my new silver convertible on a lonely stretch of road. There is nothing like a new car to put some distance between you and your life, to give you some fresh perspective on the world. That car was exactly what I needed: lots of horsepower, something shiny and sleek. Its engine sang through the thick summer air as I crossed the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, entering the Appalachian hills and valleys of my childhood. In Cadiz I stopped at one of those ice-cream stands staffed by high-school girls and got myself a vanilla cone. It tasted better than anything had in quite some time.
I rolled up to my parents’ house just before dinner, patting the convertible’s dashboard as it purred to a stop. My mom greeted me at the door.
“Fancy car,” she said, and I gave her a hug.
Inside, my dad was reading on the couch. “Happy week before your birthday,” I told him.
“Maddie,” he said, getting up and hooking one arm around my neck.
“Could you get me some tomatoes from the garden?” my mom asked him.
He glanced at her, then said to me, “All I want for my birthday is a pack of Marlboros, a nice bottle of Glenfiddich, and a jar of cashews. Don’t go getting me stuff I can’t use.” Then he clomped out the front door to his garden. I washed lettuce leaves for the salad as my mom tended the ears of corn boiling on the stove. “It’s nice to be here,” I said, aware that I sounded a bit like a talk-show guest.
“Ha,” she replied.
“Seriously,” I said, to which only the hiss of boiling water responded.
Dad came back in, with my just-arrived sister Melanie behind him. “Nice wheels,” she said to me, then lifted me up off the floor with a hug.
“Here’s your precious tomatoes,” my dad said to Mom, rolling them onto the counter like dice.
“Your toil tastes so sweet,” my mother said, nudging his shoulder.
“Huh,” my dad exhaled, which I took as a sign of his perpetual ill humor and discontent. Gardening had once been a pleasure to him, but, like everything else, it seemed to have lost its ability to make him happy.
At dinner Melanie, spearing a tomato wedge, asked me, “So, you’re moving?”
“What?” my mom said in her appalled way.
“Don’t be so surprised, Mother,” I said. “We broke up. I’m out.”
My mom cleared her throat and pushed her green beans around on her plate. Dad worked on his corn. My sister gave me an “I’m sorry” smile.
“I’ve been looking at apartments for two weeks,” I said, “but none of them are right. I have to get my stuff out by the end of the month. So it’s stressful, you know?” I rested my head in my hand and rubbed my eyes. “I really should be back there looking.”
“You’re too concerned with aesthetics,” my dad announced, waving his steaming ear of corn. “Just pick a place.” He started in again on the ear with a diligence that made me sick, his lips curled back from his teeth. He stopped and added, “And you don’t need a new car either. I don’t know what you’re doing messing with that car.”
I looked to Melanie, who would not meet my eyes, preferring to examine her lettuce leaves for bugs. I inhaled and, as calmly as I could, said, “Why in the fuck are we talking about the car? I need a place to live.”
“Watch your mouth,” my dad said.
Cue the silence, save for an occasional “Please pass the so-and-so.” We carried on like that for the better part of the meal, until my dad pointed his finger at me and said, “You don’t need that fucking car.” Then to Melanie, “How’s the divorce?”
I wish that we were closer, my dad and I. I used to make a point of telling him how I felt about him. At the end of every phone conversation, there was that awkward moment when I forced myself to say, “I love you.”
Silence. A rustle of paper.
“Thank you,” he always said before hanging up.
When I told Melanie this, she threw her head back and laughed so loud she had to muffle it with both her hands.
“Are you serious?” she asked, winded from her episode. “That’s perfect.”
“I’m just trying to get closer to him,” I said.
“No, that’s good. I’ve never said that to him. I’d have to think if it’s true first.”
“Come on,” I said.
“Yeah, not really,” she said.
At least my father acknowledged that I’d said I loved him. Often he seemed not to hear what I said at all. What both Melanie and I had discovered long before by way of our adolescence is that, with our dad, it was all about volume: the more I wanted to make my point, the louder I had to get.
Maybe that’s why I liked my friend Sarah’s father, Ben, so much. I could whisper from across the room, and he would hear. Sometimes I didn’t even need to talk to make him turn his head.
Ben was like a second father to me. He and Sarah and her brothers were the people with whom I spent my childhood summers. There were afternoons, whole weeks and months of them, with their family at the pond down the hill from our houses. Sometimes we walked there; sometimes we drove. Sarah and I were friends and neighbors, which we were convinced was the luckiest combination ever. And Ben was the handsomest, funniest, nicest dad around.
One summer Ben made us a raft from old pieces of wood, inner tubes, and some rope, and he anchored it to the pond’s bottom. Sarah and I would lie on it and pretend to be beached mermaids. We’d spread our wet hair in fans around our heads and bask in the sun until one of the boys roared out of the water and dripped on us. Sometimes Ben’s wife, Gloria, was there, too. She had long blond hair down to her perfect ass, and she was always tossing her hips around as if anyone cared.
Ben wore thin swimming trunks and trolled the pond with his nose above the water, sunglasses propped on his head, curly hair haloing his face, delicate crow’s-feet beside his eyes when he smiled. His biceps were big and brown, and, back then, my one dream in life was to stroke the shimmering hair that grew all over his legs. Occasionally he would walk into the woods, and the breeze would carry an odd-smelling smoke, like no cigarette I’d ever smelled, back to the pond. Other times he walked along the shore examining flowers or sat on a stump with a book. While he was wrapped up in his reading, I would sneak looks at him, his shorts, the puckered handful of skin that sometimes nudged out of his gaping trunks near his thigh. I got a funny feeling seeing that. It made me dive underwater and scream.
At the end of every afternoon at the pond, Ben wrapped Sarah in a towel and lifted her in his arms while I sat shivering on a rock. Her sparkling blond hair draped over his shoulder as he carried her to the car. I tromped through the woods in my flip-flops with the boys. Weeds scratched my legs, and prickly things found their way in between my toes.
On the way home, Sarah and I would sing, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” along with the radio while Ben steered with one hand, his elbow propped on the open window and fingers tapping along to the beat. After they’d dropped me off at home, I would stand in the shadows on my front lawn, watching their old station wagon ramble down the dirt road until it finally turned the corner and disappeared.
My father didn’t know me the way Ben did. If you’d asked my father what my strongest swimming stroke was, he wouldn’t have known it was the backstroke. In fact, my father would have said that I wasn’t a strong swimmer at all. “We don’t have strong swimming genes in our family, Maddie,” he used to say to me. “One of your cousins drowned. Remember that. You’re not a strong swimmer.” But I was a strong swimmer, and if he had ever bothered to take me swimming, he would have known this. I was a regular tadpole, Ben said. A regular tadpole.
Despite my resolution to stop snooping, I got into the habit of reading my dad’s calendar in the mornings while sipping my coffee. He would be outside somewhere, and I would adjourn to the study and flip the calendar open. Day by day, another side of my father started to take shape.
“The sardines at lunch today were perfectly salty,” he wrote in June.
“I dyed all the socks pink in the wash,” he jotted on Valentine’s Day.
On a Tuesday in March he wrote, “Hope?”
“Reality is excruciating,” he scrawled across his thirty-eighth wedding anniversary.
I loved this man on the calendar pages. He appreciated small details. He was honest — beautifully, painfully so. He wasn’t so damn sure about everything. I limited myself to a handful of entries a day; I didn’t want to use them all up in one sitting, and I had to keep the sessions brief, since I was jumpy about being caught. Usually I could hear my dad’s heavy footsteps coming, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I always looked out the window to check where he was: in the garden or down by the woods, with a Scotch or a beer and a cigarette. Some days he was just a spot in the field. Other times I couldn’t see him at all.
When Melanie and I were growing up, soap operas were off-limits in our house. Our father called them “trashy,” and our mom said those women on TV weren’t anyone we would want to grow up to be. Naturally Melanie and I watched the soaps whenever we could. I didn’t understand why the glamorous woman on the chaise lounge would say to the dashing doctor, “I hate you,” and throw her two o’clock cocktail in his face, then tell him, “Kiss me.”
“Why does she want to kiss him when she hates him?” I asked Melanie.
“See, there’s love, and there’s hate,” she said, “and you think that they’re opposites, but really they are almost the exact same thing.” Melanie knew about cigarettes and maxi pads, wore purple mascara, slammed doors, and screamed obscenities at our dad. She is eight years older than I am, and, while growing up, I was convinced she was the wisest person alive.
Now my sister is thirty-five, twice divorced, and working on extricating herself from her third marriage. “The Triple Crown!” she shouts when she’s feeling lively. Outbursts like this make my father sigh, but I think they’re hilarious. She has been the scandal of our family, for which I am eternally grateful since, for the most part, this takes the focus off me. She is very smart, but only about math and computers and not so much about other things. Men things. Love things. She can never seem to get these right. For that matter, neither can I.
The third day I was home, I visited Ben in his studio to discuss, among other things, my failed romance. I walked down the road, up his driveway, and through his overgrown garden teeming with dill and tomato vines and gladiolas. I knew he was painting because of the opera drifting from his studio.
“Hello?” I yelled. Ben stood at his easel, spotlit by the sun. His eyes crinkled when he saw me, and he waved me in through the screen door.
I caught him up on my ruined relationship, and at some point I mentioned that it was my dad’s birthday that weekend.
“I’ll paint your portrait for him!” Ben announced.
“I doubt he’d like it,” I said. “He’s not into aesthetics.”
“Sure he is,” Ben said. “What man isn’t into aesthetics when it comes to women?” he asked with a wink, which seemed a bit odd to me, but I told myself to forget it. It was nothing.
“Go ahead. Sit down,” he said, motioning to a threadbare, cozy-looking chair. I sat, the indirect sunlight on my face. “Yep. It’s time,” he said, taking down the nude he was finishing and replacing it with a smaller canvas. “Your face has changed,” he said.
It sounds odd, but it was true; earlier in the summer my face had changed. It was as if the angles had sharpened. One morning when I was brushing my teeth, I glanced in the mirror and did a double take. I wasn’t little Maddie anymore. The layers of fat and tissue that had shielded my delicate bones from the world were gone. Somehow my face seemed more honest this way, less protected. Ben explained that many people’s faces change in their twenties. The bones seem to shift. Sometimes the results are unattractive; in other cases — like mine, he said — it’s just what the face needs, and he winked again, a new habit that I didn’t like. As he painted, he stared at my face and squinted, and I looked out the window, over the garden and into the sun-kissed woods.
After an hour Ben said, “That’s it for today.” I got up and stretched my arms above my head. While I was stretching, he walked over and wrapped his hands around my waist. He just wrapped his cruddy-nailed, paint-speckled hands around my middle and said, “What a little waist! Look at this waist.” And then his hands were gone, and we examined the half-finished nude propped up against the wall, because we could no longer look at each other. He is the father of my friend, I thought.
“I’d better go,” I said, and I started for the door.
“See you tomorrow,” Ben said to my back. Without responding I trotted through the garden and out to the road. I decided to pretend that I hadn’t felt uncomfortable in there with Ben. If I pretended, then I could just blithely continue on with the day, which I did.
When I got home, my dad was out back, sipping a beer and hitting golf balls into a wooded valley behind our house: Sip. Focus. Wiggle of the hips. Then the swing and that crisp, solid noise of the three wood connecting with the ball, sending it high over the treetops.
While he was occupied, I indulged myself in the study again with the desk calendar. An entry from the week before said, “If I stopped drinking, I’d have no excuse.” I looked out the window as my dad connected with another golf ball and sliced so bad that it ricocheted off the woodshed and bounced into some weeds. He turned and looked back at the house, seeming to stare right at me, and even though it was ridiculous to think that he could see me from out there, I ducked.
Ben finished my portrait on Saturday, after which we shared a celebratory joint on top of the chicken coop behind his studio, out of sight of the house, in case Gloria came home.
“Shhh,” Ben said to me as he handed me the crooked, damp little thing. He held his pointer finger to his lips, then touched it to my forehead. I leaned back and closed my eyes, taking a deep drag and trying to forget the weirdness of the situation: smoking pot with a childhood friend’s dad on top of a chicken coop.
We passed the joint back and forth in the dappled afternoon light, listening to the chickens coo and scratch beneath us. I started flicking the tin roof with my finger because I liked the noise. I felt good, better even than when I was licking that ice-cream cone in Cadiz.
“You have any ice cream?” I asked.
“No, but I’ve got some beer,” he said. “Let’s go swimming.” Ben rolled off the side and offered me his hand, which I didn’t take. He got the beer, and we strolled through the woods down to the pond, the cans swinging from Ben’s fingers in their plastic nooses. In my stoned state, every sound cut through me like a life-changing revelation: the full-chested birds; the unbridled wind; the rustle of leaves beneath our feet. They all seemed to be saying something to me.
“Shit. I’m doing that philosophical ‘What does it all mean?’ thing,” I said. “And I can’t feel my head.”
“Sorry about that,” Ben said, laughing.
“No,” I said. “It’s great. I wish I couldn’t feel my head more often.”
At the pond Ben stripped down to his boxers. I peeled off my shorts but left my tank top on, and we jumped in. The water had just enough chill to wring the heat out of me. I dunked my head and held my breath for a long time, watching the swirling specks of whatever it is that floats in ponds. Not wanting my perfect moment to end, I kept my eyes open in blissed-out wonder until my lungs burned and I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Then I burst back into the wind and sun, back into the heat of reality.
Ben and I lay side by side on the raft, staring at the blue sky and billowing clouds. The planks scratched my back and legs.
“That one looks like Chewbacca,” I said.
Ben laughed a hysterical, stoned laugh, which started me laughing. “It totally does,” he agreed, and we both laughed some more. He reached over and grabbed my thigh and said, “Hey, look,” pointing up with his other hand. “It’s the motherfucking Mona Lisa.” He kept laughing, but all I could say was “Mmm,” suddenly unable to talk with his hand there on my leg. I knew I was supposed to recoil in horror, to be outraged, to say something like “How dare you?” But I didn’t say anything at all.
I turned my head and looked at the crow’s-feet around Ben’s eyes, now deep crevices with shadows in their depths. The only sounds were the chatter of the birds, the occasional burp of a frog, and the hollow plop of a fish plucking bugs from the surface of the pond. Ben had his eyes closed, and he licked his lips and rubbed his chest with the hand that wasn’t resting on my thigh. His chest hair was half brown, half white. Starting to feel my head again, I rolled toward him onto my side to dislodge his hand. His arm slid down and thumped on the raft, and he opened his eyes, blinking as if just waking up, and propped himself up on one elbow. I hoped he was about to offer some philosophical observation or crack a dumb joke. Instead he put his other hand on my hip and moved his face in close to mine. I placed my palm against his sagging chest and pushed.
I’d meant to shove him back, but I ended up pushing myself off the raft. I flopped like a dying fish into the pond, hung there in the murky green glow, and screamed.
That afternoon I broke from my normal routine and had a marathon session with my dad’s calendar-diary, reading weeks’ and weeks’ worth of entries. It was the day before his birthday, and I needed his thoughts in my head after what had happened with Ben. Many one-word questions dotted the days. Some seemed profound; others made little sense: “Guts?” “Sun?” “Reverie?” Back in May he’d written, “Cleared brush from fence line. Spring is my favorite season.” It had never occurred to me that my dad even noticed the seasons. There were so many sides of him there, so many personas: poet, drunk, philosopher. “Couldn’t sleep last night,” he’d written earlier in the week. “Midnight sky was navy, mahogany.”
And back in January: “Microwaved Scotch is nice.”
In April: “We don’t deserve anything.”
On the day of my arrival he’d written, “Sweet tomatoes for my sweet girls. One thing I can still do for them.”
I didn’t notice my dad standing there in the doorway until I heard him cough. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see him. “Shit,” I said under my breath.
He came in, sat down in the chair across from me, and lit a cigarette.
“You’re mad,” I said.
“Not today,” he said, sticking the pack in his pocket. “Do you have a favorite?” he asked, his hands tucked, prayerlike, between his thighs.
“Read it aloud,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I said, eyeing him to see if he was going to pop a gasket.
“Sure,” he said. He was nowhere near gasket-popping territory. Instead he hung his head, weaving it back and forth like a bull with a sword stuck in its side. I paged through, pretending I didn’t already know the exact day of the one I was looking for. I found it and read, “June 6.” I cleared my throat and looked at him again. He took a pull of Scotch. “ ‘I want to forgive everyone, Trousers.’ You wrote, ‘comma, Trousers,’ ” I said, then started laughing despite myself.
“You like that?” he asked. “I remember that day, a good day. I had to pick up some pants from the cleaners. That comma’s probably a period. Let me see.” He held out his hand, and I reached the calendar across the desk. He took it, stood up, and lightly slapped the side of my head with it. “I want to forgive everyone, period,” he said, and he started to walk out of the room with the calendar tucked under his arm.
He stopped and turned.
“I really do love you.” The words felt right in my mouth, juicy and full, like a ripe summer plum.
“Well, thanks,” he said. And he walked out. I leaned back in his big leather chair, my elbows propped on the armrests.
“Trousers,” I said.
My dad’s birthday was the next day, Sunday, and, without my knowledge, my mom had invited Ben and Gloria over for a barbecue.
“I know how much you like Ben,” she said, tapping my cheek. I tried not to cringe.
“I thought Dad didn’t like him,” I said.
“Oh, no. They cook out together now,” my mom said. “They drink beers.”
This made me feel even queasier.
After an awkward dinner, during which I sweated and struggled to eat across from Ben and his wife, we sat around the picnic table and sipped Milwaukee’s Best.
“Dad, I’ve got something here for you,” Melanie said, pulling two packages from her purse.
“Well,” my dad said, taking them and almost dropping them in his drunkenness. “What could this be?” he asked, holding the bottle-shaped gift by the neck. Melanie grinned as he ripped off the top, removed the cap, sniffed it, and poured himself a tall drink in a paper cup. “Ah, Glen, my old friend,” he said. Then he opened the smaller package, removed a Marlboro, and lit it. “Anyone?” he offered.
“Actually, I quit,” I said, and then I took one anyway. “I’ve got something for you, too,” I said. “Well, it’s from Ben and me, I guess.”
I set the wrapped gift in front of him on the picnic table. Dad somehow worked the package open without putting down his drink or his cigarette. And there it was: my aesthetically pleasing face.
“Don’t like it,” my dad said.
My mom let out a little noise.
“It’s OK,” Ben said, smiling crookedly and sucking on his beer.
“What?” my dad said to my mother. “A little constructive criticism, that’s all.” He was slurring now, good and blotto. “She looks sad. Maddie looks sad. It’s no good. Look.”
He held it up for us all to see, and he was right. I did look sad. Unbearably so. I didn’t like it either.
“I see what you mean . . . but the colors are lovely,” my mom said, trying to get in at least one good word.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” my dad continued. “Sell this to one of those city types. Sell it to someone who wants a sad woman staring at them in their living room. I’ve got enough,” he said, putting his arm around Mel. She looked at me and mouthed, Whoa, raising her eyebrows. I blew out a long trail of smoke and watched it float away over the lawn. My dad stood up, cigarette hanging from his lip, Scotch in one hand, painting in the other. Then he flicked his wrist, and the painting glided like a frisbee through the twilight and slid onto the grass, face down.
“Come on now,” Ben said, standing up.
“No harm done,” my dad said, pointing to where the canvas had sighed to a stop. He turned to us at the picnic table then, arms swooping through the smoke-scented air. “What I want for my birthday,” he said, “is for us to line up the lawn chairs — one line facing that hill — and watch the sunset.” So we arranged the old lawn chairs in a row, and there we all sat: Ben and Gloria, my mom and dad, Melanie and I, staring out at the distant hills in silence. It was a gorgeous raspberry sky, the best sort of dessert, the best sort of present none of us could have planned. We sat there for a long time, watching the sun go down and the fireflies come up, swigging cold beer and warm Scotch, working on our pieces of birthday cake.
After a while Ben stood and asked, “Who wants a beer? Anyone?”
No one responded. My dad passed the Scotch, still in its wrapping paper, to Melanie and me. We poured some into our paper cups, and I rested the bottle between my legs.
A minute later I felt a hand on my shoulder and tensed. For a split second I considered twisting around and clobbering the face behind me, but as he dipped down to whisper in my ear, I smelled the cigarettes and Scotch of my father.
“How about that bottle?” he asked.
I handed it to him, relieved. “Oh,” I said, “I almost forgot.” I handed him the glass jar that I’d stashed beneath my chair.
He looked at it, then at me with that droopy-lidded smile. “Cashews?” he said, and he popped the lid and knocked a few into his hand. “That’s what I wanted.”