The last time I saw you, you lied. You told me to get on a plane. That everything was going to be okay; that you just needed to see me. You made me wait six hours at the airport and when you finally showed up, I knew. You looked like a lunatic, crazed. I wanted to punch your face in and watch the flesh fold back and collapse into your skull. Fuck you forever for that moment.
We fought right there in the baggage claim area. I was yelling in between sobs. My bottom lip was drowning in saliva. I didn’t care that I was causing a scene. In fact, I wanted everyone there to hear it all. You were scared. Scared of what they would hear, scared that the cops would show up, scared that I’d get back on a plane and go away. You kept putting your finger to your lips… “Ssssh, sssh…calm down…you’re freaking out.” I think you were more worried that the cops might bust your ass than of me leaving you.
You were so skinny. Only in the photos from when you were still young had I ever seen you that thin. Before I was born, even before you met mom. Your clothes hung from you desperately, your humiliated bones and sagging skin clinging to the seams. You were wearing fine linen, damp with your summer sweat and strain, and pock-marked with cigarette burns. You liked expensive things just to ruin them or leave them behind. You spent money like a child, on trinkets, on sweet things that dissolved like sugar, on all the pretty things in store windows that your eyes would get watery and round for. As if every day were brand new. As if you didn’t have to worry about yesterday or tomorrow.
You kept tugging at your sleeves. Long sleeves in the summer, how dumb did you think I was? You had undone the buttons so that the cuffs blossomed about your hands, drooping wide and soft like upside-down flowers. But I saw the twin round scabs that lay in that triangle of skin between each thumb and index finger, and I saw the bruises and holes that crawled up from your wrists. You’re the one who taught me to take notice.
Somehow you convinced me to get in the car. You were carrying my bag; you were walking ahead of me. You made me follow you. There were candy bar wrappers strewn about and half-eaten Twinkies on the dashboard. I couldn’t stop crying, I could barely catch my breath, I didn’t want to sit in that seat next to you. I wanted to scream and kick and break open your body and beat out its misery. I knew we would never go back to being okay, but still I needed to give us a chance, I needed us to be a family. It had always been just the two of us after mom died. Only us, nobody else. You were all mine, and I was all yours. I didn’t know any better. I watched you fumble with the keys, I watched your fingers shake, and I could feel my heart drop.
I had already moved away from you by then. I had to fight hard for that, had to spit guilt in your face to make it happen. You didn’t want to let me go. You couldn’t stand the idea that your only daughter, your little girl, might find out the world was bigger than you. I was only seventeen, but I knew what was happening to you, I knew that if I stayed I wouldn’t survive, so I made sure to move as far away as I could, across the continent, across the ocean. I used to come home to see you more frequently, but then you got so bad and I wasn’t sure how to manage seeing you again. You were so strung out. I stopped believing in you. I stopped believing I could find you.
But you’d still call me on the telephone and act as if you were doing great, and that “things were coming along,” as you liked to say. We had stopped talking about the good times by then: our summer backgammon games, the puppy you bought me, tossing watermelons in the lake upstate, biking around the city, sitting on the fire escape together while you smoked your Dunhills and told me stories about all the times you’d shaken the cops from your tail. Instead you’d ask about school ‘cause you thought that’s what good fathers were supposed to do; you gave store-bought advice and said you were proud of me. But you never told me you were terrified, or that you were aching and broken, and that you needed me to come home, not just for the holidays, but for always.
And then we sat together in that car. We drove towards the city. You never wore a seatbelt and so I didn’t either. You drove fast and sloppy. You said, “Please stop crying so we can talk. Please.” I said, “I’m getting on a plane tomorrow. I can’t even look at you.”
You started weeping, your tears came down like a rainstorm, massive slow-motion globules of sorrow. I’d never seen you so defeated with sadness. I’d never seen you defeated. I’d only seen you in explosions of anger, exuberance, pleasure, brutality and brilliance. I didn’t recognize you. I didn’t recognize the panting sound of despair that spilled out from your diaphragm. Your clenched torment, suddenly unfurling, came rushing out at me.
You hugged the steering wheel, to stop the tears, to steady your grip. “I can do it if you are here”, you said. “I just really need you to be with me. I need you to stay.” I didn’t know how to look away. I didn’t know how to turn my head from you. I wanted to look out the window and watch the trees blur into a blanket of green, I wanted to be a kid again; I wanted to not love you so much. I wanted someone to save us both. I said, “Okay, I’ll stay. If you promise.”
You stretched your lips in a pulled effort. I suppose you were trying to smile, maybe it was to acknowledge the agreement we had just come to. But it meant you’d really have to kick the dope now, and you weren’t so sure you could do that. You were so occupied wrangling with me to stay that I think you forgot what you were actually promising. And then it hit you. And you sat with that stupid, dog-tired, drawn-out, smile of sorts, weighing your sudden promise in one hand and that loaded need in the other. You must have thought that either way you were fucked. Did you hate me, for putting you there? ‘Cause I hated you.