By Christy Shick
There weren’t any cars in the driveway, and I feared then hoped no one was home. I could come back later – maybe later was better. And if our car hadn’t become a furnace within seconds of turning off the ignition and A/C, who knows how long I would have sat there stewing and staring out at the heavy green trees before mustering the courage.
Jonah sat in the passenger seat next to me, looking out his window at the house. He was seven then. “It looks nice,” he said.
The wood house was divided from its neighbors by a lush landscape of shrubs, the fat green leaves outstretched like open palms under a broken canopy of pine trees and cottonwood that hung motionless in the damp heat. Not a whisper of breeze.
Our dog followed us onto the porch, flopping down on the doormat while I rang the bell and waited. A large picture window to the left of the door revealed a corridor running along the front of the house, its white wall blocking my view of whatever lay beyond. I was about to lean in closer, see what I could spy from an angle when the soft thump of footsteps announced someone coming toward the door. It was Val, of course. And I braced myself. I hadn’t called ahead.
I couldn’t risk being turned away.
My dad had made it clear he’d wanted nothing to do with me. I’d only ever met him twice, and only because I’d forced myself on him when I was ten, when my mom had taken me back to Pittsburgh for my grandma’s eightieth birthday party, and I’d looked him up in the white pages. We spent a strained afternoon walking and talking, and I’d met Val, the woman he’d married not long after I was born. A couple years later when I was twelve, his job had brought him to San Francisco, and he’d spent a few hours hitting impatient tennis balls at me on the Palo Alto courts. But that was it. Until my mom petitioned for extended child support the year I went to college. And he wrote me a letter saying he wanted to help. He wants to be a part of my life, I thought. Now that I’m grown! But after my mom won the support money, he was no longer interested.
“I can never be a real father to you,” he wrote.
It broke my heart.
And I gave up knowing him – for what? Until my mom died.
She had never talked about my dad, unless I pushed. I knew he was tall and blonde, like I was. Athletic and handsome, like Robert Redford in The Way We Were. And my mom was Barbra Streisand, his ill-fated love. For as long as I could remember, I’d painted that film onto my parents’ story. My dad had been too conservative, too WASPy to commit to an outspoken, Jewish liberal like my mom, and despite the fierce passion between them, he’d had to walk away. At the end of the movie, Streisand raises Redford’s daughter alone. And the ruptured couple share an understanding about this – a deeply romantic understanding. Years later, when Streisand and Redford run into each other on the street, after she’s seen his arm around a prim and polished blonde, Streisand caresses Redford’s cheek with the back of her gloved hand and says, “She’s lovely, Hubble,” as if his abandonment of their daughter is an understood consequence of their mutual but unworkable love.
Even though both my parents had already been married – they’d both already had children when they met in 1971, I’d always thought they were deeply in love.
But after my mom died, when I opened her safety deposit box, the contents of which she’d left to me, I found a pile of photos she’d never shown me from my dad’s fortieth birthday party. In them, my mom wore a bright yellow dress with a big matching yellow bow in her hair, all ruffles and dolled up – too dolled up, kneeling by my dad as he opened his gifts, gazing up at him like a star struck child. In every photo her worshipping eyes were on him, while he stood stiff and aloof, never gazing back to her. And I felt embarrassed for her. He’d never been in love with her, like Robert Redford was with Barbra Streisand. She’d just been in love with him.
And my whole life story seemed to change.
I was already unhinged. Those months I’d planned to care for my mom had become years. Dreadful years that had broken me. Broken my family. By the time she died, I never wanted to see my older brother or sister again – my mom’s first kids. “Half” brother and sister, I’d started calling them. I was the unwanted sister from another mister, anyway. They’d be thrilled if I crawled back to the woods from whence I came. So, when my son finished the school year, I put everything I still owned in storage and packed us up in the Jetta with our new dog for a cross-country road trip, and in search of a new home.
If I was ever going to see my dad again, now was the time.
I’d looked him up occasionally over the years, tracked his retirement from Pittsburgh to Isle of Palms, South Carolina– a golf and tennis community on the coast; then later to Pinehurst, North Carolina – a similar community east of Charlotte. But every time I thought of reaching out, I’d stop myself, ask Why? What do I want from him? What’s the point? And If he rejects me again, will it hurt? Not being able to answer those questions had stopped me. But now. Now was different. I’d decided it was natural for a daughter to want to know her father, ingrained with our most primitive instincts. I didn’t need an agenda.
Now there Val stood in her golf skirt and socks, holding the door open before me.
And I recognized her. I wouldn’t have recognized her on the street, but her posture, her pursed lips and rigid shoulders, her white golf skirt was the same as in my memory of her from 1983.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Carole Hoffman’s daughter.” I realized I’d misspoken. My mom had taken her middle name, Carole, when we’d moved to California in 1978. Val would know her as Ruth. Still, her wide eyes showed immediately she knew who I was.
“Yes?” She stepped onto the porch, pushing Jonah and I to step back as she closed the front door behind her. She frowned at the dog.
“My mom died last year, and we’re driving cross country,” I said. “I just thought we should try to see him while we had the chance.” I was careful not to say “dad” or “daughter”. I knew I was a secret.
Val clasped her fingers together in front of her. “Oh.” She stopped. “Well. You see.” She forced a smile to Jonah then frowned at the dog again. “Bob has Alzheimer’s. About a year now. It’s quite bad.” She waited for us to digest the information, perhaps hoping we’d leave. “You see. I don’t know how he’ll react.” Her face looked like a squirrel’s, I thought, cheeks pillowing as if holding something in them. Maybe the words she held back.
“I understand,” I said, rooted like a tree on the porch in front of her while the moments hung between us. Then, I saw him through the window. He walked into the corridor at the front of the house, tall with white hair like I remembered, his white tennis shirt tucked into his warm-up pants. He pointed at the dog, looked confused and concerned, then he shuffled on, and my eyes followed the small white Band-Aid taped to the back of his elbow as he disappeared past the edge of the doorway.
“I guess you should come in,” Val finally said.
“We’ve come a long way.”
She turned to open the door, then stopped. “The dog can’t come in!” It was her last hope.
“He’ll wait for us,” I assured her, then followed Val into the foyer with my arm around Jonah’s small shoulder.
“Wait here a minute,” she said.
I could only see a corner of the kitchen where she went to find my dad, but I could hear her talking to him, while my eyes wandered across their living room and out the wall of windows to their green back yard.
“Carole Hoffman is here to see you. ”
“Who?” I heard my dad say. “I don’t want to see anyone.”
She’d confused my name.
“Ruth is dead,” she said. “Her daughter is here to see you.”
As if by impulse I drifted into their living room, drawn to the framed photos on the bookshelf and end tables – face after familiar face. Who were these people who looked like me?
“She seems like a lovely young woman and has her son with her,” I heard Val say. “Come see her.”
In one picture, I guessed it was my dad’s son and his family – I knew my dad had had one son and two daughters before I was born, there was a girl who looked exactly like me at ten or eleven years old. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of the photograph, just as Val escorted my dad into the foyer and caught me snooping.
My dad was still distracted by the dog who pressed his face against the glass now to keep eyes on me.
“Who’s dog is this?” My dad asked without looking up.
“It’s ours,” I said, stepping toward him, and when my dad looked at me for the first time in twenty-seven years, the confusion vanished from his face, and his gray gaze grew bright.
“Christy Leigh!” A smile lifted under his glistening eyes as they soaked into mine. And the feeling of recognition overwhelmed me – there was love and joy and familiarity in his gaze. It was the last thing I expected. And I broke into uncontrollable sobs, folding like a child into his long-armed embrace.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to pull away and choke back tears. “I didn’t expect to get so emotional.”
Val grabbed my dad’s elbow, as if to support him, forcing him to step back and release me. “You know who she looks like, Bob? She looks like Lori!” She spoke with a too-chipper, pre-school teacher tone. “Just like Lori, right Bob?”
“Lori,” my dad repeated. The resemblance seemed to upset him.
“She’s Bob’s youngest,” Val said, then she smiled at me. “Youngest before you, of course.”
“Lori. She’s up in Colorado.” My dad stirred, staring into a distance that seemed to gape before him. “She’s got her dog. Up in Steamboat Springs.” He looked unsure.
“Come let’s sit.” Val gestured toward the living room.
Jonah was excited and wanted to explore their house. It was his grandfather after all. He fluttered around the room, pointing at photos and asking questions. “Who are these military people? Whose baseball team is this?” He reached toward a black and white photo.
“You mustn’t touch,” Val said.
“Just sit with us,” I told him. “You can’t wander around other people’s homes uninvited.” I hoped that would cue an invitation, but we all stayed together in the living room where Val pulled up a chair to sit across from my dad and me like a chaperone, or a moderator.
“It’s a beautiful house,” I started. Wood floors and bookshelves and beams, with windows as high as the wedged ceiling. “Idyllic really.”
“Well.” My dad strained his neck to look around the room. “We didn’t design it ourselves.” Then, he looked down at his knees, instead of at me, and he seemed so fragile I filled with unexpected tenderness toward him. “I remember you were in Santa Barbara,” he said.
“Yes. That was a long time ago.”
“You were on the diving team.” He glanced up at me, then back to his knees again.
“Yes.” The truth was I’d quit the team while I was still a freshman, right around the last time I’d heard from him.
“You graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara?” Again my dad looked up just long enough to make eye contact.
“I did,” I said. “It took a while. I had some problems back then. Emotional problems.” I looked at Val who perched at the front of her chair, eyes wide and hands folded firmly on her lap, as if to hold herself down.
My dad tugged on the gold wristband of his watch. “You went to work after you graduated?” He was trying to make normal conversation, I knew, but college seemed like lifetimes ago, and every question he asked dug into a well of questions he’d never ask. Or answer.
“It’s a long story,” I told him. “I had a lot of jobs. I travelled a lot.” I stared at the People magazine Royal Wedding Special Edition centered on their otherwise empty coffee table. “Like I said, I had some problems for while. Had some misadventures!” I tried to be pithy – keep it light, but the implication that my dad had fueled those problems and misadventures somehow weighed in my words, as if he’d always been in the story, a shadowy subtext, a broken promise, pulling me down. “I went to grad school when I moved to New York.” I tried to sum up. “I was teaching at City College of New York before I left to take care of my mom. It’s a university,” I added.
“So, you’re on your way back to New York?” Val seemed to scoot further and further toward the edge of her chair.
“We’re sort of adrift, really. I’m not sure where we’ll end up. That’s sort of what this trip’s about, right Jonah?” I looked at my son who remained unusually quiet, his blonde hair curling out from his Yankees cap. “We half consider every place we visit,” I went on. “Like Charlotte. I was surprised how beautiful it is!” I looked at Val.
She looked alarmed. “Oh? You like Charlotte?” She shook her head. “It’s far for us. We never go.” She darted a look to my dad who still tugged and fiddled with his watchband.
“I say that everywhere we go,” I reassured her.
When Jonah asked for something to drink, Val told him to follow her into the kitchen, and my dad and I had our only few moments alone.
“It’s good to see you,” I told him. I put my hand on his knee and he finally looked up at me with his gray-green eyes that looked like mine.
“I feel guilty,” he said then looked down at his knees again.
“I’m sure my mom didn’t make it easy for you.” I so regretted saying that afterward. But I was bitter toward my mom at the time. She’d swallowed me whole those last two years, as cancer had swallowed her. And even though she’d been my moon and stars until I was at least twenty-five, my view of her had shifted painfully since then. She was self-centered, I thought, and controlling. And had clearly driven away every man who’d come near her.
And my dad looked so fragile, so weak. Despite the lifetime of neglect, my instinct was to comfort him. To make him feel good around me.
To make him love me.
But I wished I’d said “I forgive you” instead of bringing my poor mom into it like postmortem revenge.
“I feel guilty,” he’d said.
Had he thought about me?
“I told your son to finish in the kitchen.” Val reclaimed her moderator’s chair and brightened toward me. “You know it’s lucky you came today,” she said. “Michael’s coming tomorrow.” She nodded to my dad.
“Michael’s coming,” he repeated and looked toward the front door half-expectantly.
“Bob’s son,” Val said. “It would have been very awkward. Can you imagine?” Her smile was too bright, and I looked away. Over my dad’s shoulder the girl in the photo, the one who looked like me, again caught my eye, and suddenly everyone in the photo seemed to look like me – the cheekbones and eyes, the hair and height.
“Do your other kids know about me?” I looked at my dad who stared at his lap and let Val answer.
“No,” she said.
Jonah came back into the room, quietly taking his seat again on the sofa. His green Crocs dangled from his feet.
“I introduced myself as my mother’s daughter,” I said, still looking at Val. “I wouldn’t have blown your secret – ”
“But Michael would see the resemblance right away!” Val unfolded her hands, then refolded them. Another pause before she added, “It was very hard on us too, you know.”
“Which part?” I wanted to ask. I couldn’t think of anything polite to say, so I just stared at her. And the room swelled with tension. And family photographs suddenly cluttered the place. Face after framed face that resembled me more than any pictures in my own home ever had. My mom, my brother and sister, my grandparents and cousins, were all Jewish, short, dark-haired, and fair-skinned. My blonde lanky looks stood out like a lost bird among them. I felt dizzy.
“Is that Michael?” I pointed over my dad’s shoulder to the photograph. “One of the girl’s in that picture looks just like me at that age.”
“The twins?” Val started to name Michael’s four daughters, and I started to feel unwell. Claustrophobic. Like I wouldn’t be able to breath if I stayed among those pictures much longer. All those people who called themselves family, who looked like my family – a family I dreamed I wanted but had never wanted me. I had to leave.
“It’s weird,” I said. “To see all these strangers who look like me. It’s a little overwhelming.” I reached for Jonah’s hand, which he immediately put into mine, squeezing with his little fingers. “You ready to go?” I said.
It was hard to leave my dad, hard to let go the growing weight of lost time held between us. I wished he was well, could meet for lunch tomorrow, or something – make a follow up plan. I wished he was independent from Val. “I wish we could meet again,” I thought aloud. “Go out to lunch or something.”
“Oh, he can’t go out!” Val said. She escorted us to the foyer.
“Why not? He seems okay getting around.”
Val rolled her eyes. “I can barely take care of him here. I have practically no help.” She shook her head at me as if I couldn’t understand. “Bob hasn’t been out in months.”
“Months?” I didn’t hide my alarm. “He could at least enjoy a walk or something -”
“No. No.” She shook her head. “You don’t know what it’s like. I hardly get out myself. I only have help a few hours a day. I’m down to three golf games a week!”
Only a few hours a day? With my mom I’d been lucky to get that much help in a week, changing her diapers, lifting her small body from the sweat stained sheets and propping her up for walks around the block, until her last days. And my dad – he didn’t need propping up. He didn’t need diapers and looked far from his last days. He seemed disoriented – lucidity going and coming. But physically, he was getting around fine.
“You have such a lovely neighborhood and yard,” I pressed. “Surely it wouldn’t take much. It seems awful to keep him locked up.” I had nothing to lose. I’d never see Val again. And I felt sorry for my dad to be stuck there his final days, meandering from room to room looking out windows, with a wife who seemed waiting for him to die, to be rid of the burden he was on her.
“No. No,” she said again. “It’s too hard.”
As far as I knew Val had never worked. She played golf. She gossiped. And all the photos in their house looked like my dad’s family. She’d never had children of her own, I guessed, because she needed to be the child, cared for, instead of having to care for anyone else. She needed to be the center of attention. And all at once I understood. She had wanted my dad to keep me a secret. She had wanted him to push me out of his life. I’d always thought he was cold-hearted, but she was the heartless one. He was just weak, and I was baffled I’d never considered that dynamic before – such a common archetype, the evil stepmother. What did he see in her? I wondered.
And why hadn’t he cared about me enough to stand up to her?
I couldn’t blame Val for that. I knew it wasn’t her fault my dad had rejected me, any more than it was the blonde’s fault Robert Redford abandons his daughter in The Way We Were.
Still. What a bitch.
“Thanks for letting us visit.” I smiled and asked Val to take a few pictures of us with my phone before we left – my arm around my dad, his arm around Jonah.
“We never talked about baseball,” Jonah said when they hugged goodbye.
I knew we’d never see my dad again. But I’d try to connect with my half-siblings someday, when I was ready. I wanted to know them – my dad’s other kids. And I wasn’t afraid to spoil their family secret anymore.
It wasn’t my secret to keep.
“Goodbye,” we said.
Val closed the front door quickly behind us with a loud metal click of the lock, and I saw the scratch marks our dog had made while waiting for us there – abandoned, afraid, alone, he’d clawed deep grooves into the wood.
And I was glad he’d left his mark.
CHRISTY LEIGH SHICK is a lecturer at SF State University, with an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Her fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and sometimes songs have been featured in various places, including The Red Wheelbarrow, The Antagonist, One Page Stories, and most recently Six Hens literary magazine. “Pinehurst” is an excerpt from her unfinished memoir and first book, Big Bird, which she hopes to complete this year.