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 Dewey Beach.
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 them.
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 said.
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.
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