I don’t remember who taught me how to ride a bike, but I’m pretty sure it was Roger, the nice guy whose wife served on the condo association board with my mom. I don’t remember if my dad was there for my dance recitals, or to send me off to prom. He might have been. I do remember how he came to visit me in college, how he put up with my hangovers and my talking too loudly in restaurants where they served me wine without an ID, because I’m sure they thought I was his mistress or much younger girlfriend. I went along then because I know he’s old, and I told myself he regrets some of the things he did and some of the things he wasn’t there for. And because he was paying the tuition, fulfilling some legal agreement written before I had teeth.
I’ve spent years play-acting, willing myself a few hours at a time to be the type of person who wouldn’t even think the things I desperately want the courage to say. It’s not that I don’t want to see him. But it’s long been something I could take or leave.
When I was younger, I was naive enough to tell him once, to say that his visits just meant stopping the regular programming of my life, and what did I get out of it besides a fancy dinner where I had to be on my best behavior for this strange man who criticized my consumption of carbohydrates. “The bread, that’s your problem,” he told me at the fancy restaurant, ten years old and a curvy early bloomer. Why exactly should I care if that man came back the next month?
The one time we really fought, I broke down because he pushed his paternity on me. He asked me to change my last name from my mother’s to his the weekend I graduated from college. It felt like a betrayal of the ground rules, my assumptions that we were both coming at this relationship like two grown-ups, equals, friends. These days, I tell myself I see him because I like doing nice things for people, making other people happy. Being in my life makes him happy. It’s the same reason I hold doors for moms with strollers and smile at old ladies in fancy hats as we pass on the sidewalk on Sunday. I want people to be happy. Everything is just easier when everyone is happy. I thought for a long time I was continuing these visits because it’s healthy to “have a relationship with your father.” But we don’t have a relationship. I am still, always, on my best behavior in the fancy restaurant with a stranger.
I tell myself I forgive him for all that. People are weak. Men who are used to getting everything they want are especially weak, and that’s why they sleep with their secretaries, and try to hide and forget about the child that comes from that affair, and then try to claim her later, after she’s proven her worth with cute smiles and good grades. But he wanted me in his life. And I tell myself that’s worth something.
Now, I’m engaged. He’s been amazing with my boyfriend these last five years. We go on trips with him and his new wife. My boyfriend and I plan them, including buffer times for naps and no long walks. He’s agreed to help us pay for the wedding. I asked because we want to have a big party with bonfires and lots of time for the friends and family coming from across the country, and because my mom said to see what he would give us.
We’d be planning a different wedding without his money, and I tell myself if we had to, we would do it and be happy. But we’re still discovering what strings are attached to it. I agreed to invite his family, and his fraternity brother, people I’ve met twice and likely will never see again. But in trying to make sure he felt included, I asked what he was most worried about, and what he was most excited for. He said he was most excited to walk “his baby girl” down the aisle. So now I have to tell him that I don’t want to be walked down the aisle by him—by anyone—because I am a modern woman who doesn’t need to be given away.
The truth is, I would love to have a father walk with me, with my mother on my other arm, presenting a united front as we go, together as a family, toward my future. I would love to have them give me a kiss on my cheek as they let me go to build my baby family. But that’s not the life I have. Besides knowing that it would break my mother’s heart to see it happen, it feels wrong to imagine my father by my side as I walk into the next stage of my life. It feels weird. That’s not his place. It’s a place for no one.
I came to terms with that at the father-daughter fifth-grade square dance. My uncle couldn’t fill that space that night, and I learned to accept that “daddy” was a role in my life that will always be empty. I’ve walked to this point in my life without a father, and I tell myself I want to walk into the next stage of my life without one.
If only we were more honest with each from the start, maybe I wouldn’t be so scared to tell him so.
Photo: Emily Takes Photos