It was only a matter of time before I called him.
I’d gone around and around with my therapist on this, how unhealthy it was keeping any sort of connection, knowing that he’d never change. “We call people like your father ‘unmovable,’” Celia would tell me. “But you, well, you’ve moved.”
And “moved” I had during the last ten years of sitting on Celia’s blue and green plaid sofa for one hour each week, for one glorious and sometimes painful hour of ripping the scabs off my emotional pain. Yet sometimes I wondered if I’d really moved all that much.
“Most people can’t make the changes that you have—it just gets too painful,” she would say on days I felt weak. “So they eventually give up and go back to their dysfunctional ways, out of nothing more than to relieve their own guilt. They step back into the cycle of allowing the same people to hurt them, to control them, and then they lose themselves all over again. This time harder, and more severe.”
Maybe that’s what I was doing that morning as I picked up the phone and dialed my dad’s number, the father whom I hadn’t spoken to in more than a year. I knew I was breaking the rules. Celia had made me promise that I’d call her whenever I felt the overwhelming urge to cool the hot pain of my guilt, to make it stop jumping at my heels.
That day I ignored all of it, all the therapy work I’d done to reconstruct what guilt and shame had destroyed. I ignored the child Lauren pleading inside me. I ignored the adult Lauren, the forty-year-old Lauren, the mature woman who finally understood what was best for her. I ignored it all, except for the guilt. Oh no, the guilt that day was unforgiving.
“Hello.” He answered. This time he actually answered, but there was no life in his voice. He spoke from a hollow shell.
“How are you?”
“Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?” He sounded disappointed. After all these years, God still hadn’t answered his prayer for death.
“And that’s a good thing, right?”
“If that’s how you want to look at it.”
I could hear the TV on in the background. Crowds cheering. A whistle blowing. “Whatcha watching?”
“Um, North Carolina and Duke.”
“Do you think North Carolina has a chance of knocking them out this year?”
“Sure. I mean, if they want it. They’ve got to want it.”
How quickly our conversation had found its way over to basketball. Always basketball. But I knew better than to take the trap.
“I’m seeing someone.”
“He’s a really nice person.”
“Is that right.”
“It’s going well, Dad.” I was determined to stay positive.
“Let me guess, fifteen to twenty years older?”
“That’s not fair!” I said. “He’s the same age as me.”
“Really. Still, why bother?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it won’t make a difference anyway … at least it didn’t to your mother.”
“Nowadays when things get rough, people just leave. There’s no sanctity in marriage anymore.”
“You gave Mom no choice. You didn’t want to change.”
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
“Dad, you know that’s not what happened.”
“She’s married to someone else, isn’t she? Were we not married in the Catholic Church? Is our marriage not still considered sacred and bound?”
“And is she not committing adultery right at this moment?”
“This is your warning, Dad.” I didn’t recognize my own voice. “I’ve told you before I’m not gonna discuss this.”
“What the hell do you know about marriage? Except how to destroy them!”
The guilt that had been right on my heels leaped up and latched onto my back. I’d always been easy prey. “You can’t talk to me like that anymore.”
“Is that what your shrink tells you to say? But does your shrink know how much I’ve done for you? How much I’ve sacrificed? Does the fifth commandment mean anything to you?”
My flight side kicked in and I ended the call, then tossed the phone to the other end of the sofa as if it had burned me. Though my skin felt no pain, my head and my chest were searing with it. My father was that poisonous to me, even after twenty-five years.
Perhaps he was right. How much of it really was my fault? His marriage, Daniel’s marriage and my own life in between. Looking back, it’s all kind of a muddle. It’s foggy and shady and mixed up, even on my better days. I know it was wrong, and even though I’ve said a million times in therapy that it wasn’t my fault, that I was just a kid, it’s not so clear to me when I wake up in a cold sweat with that scene playing over and over again in my head.
Always the same scene. I see a basketball court, and a younger me, and Daniel, my coach. I’m running suicide drills. He’s blowing his whistle or clapping his hands, yelling, “Faster,” and I pick up speed. He smiles and I get so lost in it that I slam into the wall. Hard. But the wall isn’t a wall; it’s a row of lockers, and I see my locker from back in high school. There’s something written on it in black marker, a Sharpie. But I can’t make it out, so I squint until the letters come into focus.
It’s written in big capital letters. I fall back a couple steps and then feel Daniel come up behind me. He runs his hand down my back, right to the small of it, then stops and moves it further down. I am pulsing and warm. And then I wake up and I can smell him. I can hear him. I can almost feel him.
My eyes open and I look over at the man in my bed, but my mind always replays the reel of another. I move through the scenes of how it all happened, every detail of that so-called happier time, when he was all I knew, all I hoped for and all I dreamed of. If only I could escape there again, just for a while, twenty-five years into the past.
©2013 by Stephanie Saye, Little 15