When my parents separated, I would often come home to find my dad,
sitting in his green pleather recliner, even though he wasn’t supposed
to be there. My mom wasn’t home yet, and his presence, his assumption of
belonging, unsettled me in a way I didn’t understand. This pattern began
when I was twelve and he moved out for a month and continued when he
moved out for good a year and a half later. He would continue this
pattern of not living with us but showing up whenever he pleased, of
lingering, until I was sixteen.
Before he separated from my mom, I’d begun to grow used to life without
him. He skipped my band concerts and soccer games simply because he
didn’t feel like going. He worked long hours and he “worked” long hours,
likely spending time with his new girlfriend. I didn’t notice that he
was around less. I felt relieved when he was away. My father blew up at
small things—toys left on the floor, shoes jumbled at the bottom of
the stairs. Even though I got the easy treatment—I was the youngest,
the daughter who got good grades and was mostly obedient—there was
still a tension that kept us from ever getting close. When I was a few
years younger, my mom tucked me in every night. Before getting into bed,
she’d suggest that I go give my dad a hug, so I’d wander out to the
living room where he sat, watching TV in his recliner. These hugs were
always awkward, embarrassing, forced.
When my dad was not around, tension evaporated. When I first found out
he was going to be moving out, a month after he confessed his infidelity
to my mother, I felt relieved. I felt guilty for feeling relieved. When
he began turning up again, unannounced, my anxiety spiked.
I always had privacy. My parents trusted me and let me do whatever I
wanted within reason. I could shut my door, even lock it. They never
tried to read my diary. But I couldn’t relax. What I had begun to
cherish—privacy, independence, solitude—didn’t feel real to me when
I knew he was in the house. He could come bursting through my door at
any moment. He could ask me to bring him a glass of Pepsi with ice. He
could make me do anything he wanted, because he was my father.
In August, before I started high school, my dad moved out for the final
time. He would settle back into his pattern of lingering a few weeks
later. But first, my mother took my brother, Brett, and me to the beach
for a long weekend.
We lived near the Delaware beaches, less than an hour away on a good
traffic day. We had never gotten a hotel room at the beach before—not
since I was little, when we lived in Ohio and visited my cousins at
We got a small room at a hotel in Dewey—two beds, a bathroom, a
closet, and a mini fridge. My mom just wanted to “get away.” She told my
brother and I that it would be good for us to decompress before the
school year started—me a freshman, Brett a senior. My mom assured us
these were important times in our lives, and we should be able to enjoy
While we were at the beach, my mom also treated us to some new school
clothes from the outlet malls, stores we didn’t have where we lived. I
got new sneakers at the Converse outlet, and I got not one, but two new
shirts from Abercrombie and Fitch. One periwinkle tank top, and one navy
v-neck with a yellow A&F logo plastered along the side.
Our hotel had a tiny pool on the roof. I don’t remember Brett going up
there—perhaps he laid in the shade, or stayed in the room, reading. I
tried swimming laps in the little pool and my mom made conversation with
a young mother who appeared to be alone, just her and her young son. She
asked where we were travelling from, mentioned that she had come from
somewhere far away. We just wanted to get away for a few days, my mom
The next morning, we woke up early and headed out to the beach to watch
the sun rise over the ocean. At night, we took a trolley to Rehoboth and
walked along the boardwalk. I was going to be 14 in a few weeks, finally
old enough to walk around on my own.
Later that night, the three of us went for a walk on the beach by our
hotel. I broke away from my mom and brother, walking faster, drawn by
the lights of hotels and restaurants stretching into the distance, all
down the shore. I wondered how long I could keep walking down the beach,
where I might end up if I walked all night. After walking a while and
standing at the edge of the water, letting the cold slap my feet, I
turned to walk back. A few minutes later I ran into my brother and mom,
flanked by a couple of strangers, waving flashlights in the dark. Brett,
who was nearly crying, grabbed me.
“You can’t just run off like that,” he yelled. “You could’ve been
snatched or something.” He had that familiar frenzied look on his
face. I didn’t think I had gone that far away from them. I wasn’t trying
to run away, I told them. I just wanted to walk on my own for a bit. To
this day, my brother still refers to this as the time I “ran away.”
The next morning, my dad showed up at the beach unannounced. He called
my mom on her cell—their phone numbers twinned each other, just one
number apart—and told her that he wanted to meet us to go jet skiing.
We met up with him at a jet ski rental dock on the bay side of Rehoboth.
I remember very little, except that I rode on the back of the jet ski
with my dad in front, forced to wrap my arms around him for safety. I
had to depend on him not to fall off—I had no choice.
I remember that I had fun. I have always loved water, always loved going
fast. My dad and I shared a love of roller coasters, swimming in rough
waves, tubing—savoring the moment where we could not hold on any
longer, had to let go of the raft and succumb to the churning waves. My
mom and brother were timid in that way, standing off in the sidelines.
My mom didn’t even like to get her hair wet when she swam. Brett waded
into pools slowly, reluctant. I still remember a time when I was seven,
and a lightning storm began above my aunt’s pool while we swam. Mom and
Brett got out, retreated to the safety of their towels and the pool
deck. My dad insisted it was probably fine, and we swam, lightning
etching shapes in the dark above us. It was exhilarating.
I liked the jet ski ride. I savored the water licking my ankles, mist
spraying my eyes. I savored the view across the bay, which is not very
big but seemed to stretch endlessly.
And it’s hard to say whether I felt this at the time, or if this is my
present self interjecting—but I felt a reluctance, a holding back. I
felt awkward sitting there, on the back of the machine, holding my arms
around my father’s waist. But I had no choice. He didn’t ask us if we
wanted to meet up, to go jet skiing. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to
ride with him. He told us. Even though I couldn’t quite sniff out what
he was trying to do—to sweep us off our feet, be the fun parent, prove
to us that he was worth loving—some part of me saw through it. Once we
were back on land, my bare feet connecting with the splintered dock, I
knew something was wrong, but I could not say what.
S.J. Buckley is originally from Slower Lower Delaware. She is the 2020-2021 nonfiction thesis fellow at George Mason University, and is working on her first essay collection. Her work has been previously featured in Grub Street, and she is the nonfiction editor of So to Speak journal.