It’s never been wholly clear to me how a person is supposed to remain functional when things in their life get unpredictably horrible. This has been the ongoing challenge of my life: trying to remain sane and competent while my dad slowly obliterates himself in the background. I guess I must be doing something right because whenever I tell people about growing up with Gerald they always applaud me for how “normal” I turned out. But I don’t really understand what this means either. I always wonder if they’d be more comfortable if I was living in a cardboard box, shooting up heroin in an alley somewhere. Or maybe if I’d be more comfortable that way.
When I was in middle school Gerald went to jail for a year. My parents had been divorced since the summer before third grade and he had more or less been bumming around Seattle looking for food, work and shelter ever since. He spent a lot of his afternoons at our house still because Mom had promised he would still get to see me and also because he had nowhere else to go. And since I was never the kind of kid who got into a lot of extracurricular activities, I didn’t have a good reason to turn him away.
By 7th grade it seemed like maybe things were finally turning a good corner. Gerald had found steady work in a small community bank in the neighborhood, and was actually climbing the ranks, having recently been promoted to manager. That was the thing about him, he was unpredictably bad but also unpredictably great. I started to imagine a life where I could be like the other children of divorce in my class: two houses, two Christmases, two birthdays, the whole shebang. Then on Tuesday April 13th, Gerald got a bright idea. He was a manager, and the imbeciles in charge above him had entrusted him with keys to the building. Oblivious to the improbability that he could outsmart the bank’s security technology, especially not on a stomach full of Fireball whiskey, he staged a “heist.” He likes to use the word heist, but in my opinion it is far too elegant a term for what actually happened.
The security footage is beyond humiliating.
A man living in a neighboring apartment complex was calling the police before Gerald was even in the front door. During the trial, Mom told to me later, they showed the video and the prosecution stood by while the jury watched my father spend two and half full minutes fumbling for the right key. First he tried to use our old house key, which I’m pretty sure he still holds onto though my mother has long ago changed the locks. Then he attempted to force the key to his Volvo stationwagon into the lock, the whole time alternately giggling and audibly cursing at himself.
He was passed out next to the open safe when the police arrived, and had to be taken to the hospital to have his stomach pumped before they could even get him down to the station.
I still don’t know why he insisted he should have a fair trial. And I find it even more amazing that anyone let him. He didn’t have a case, that was obvious. He begged me to testify as a character witness. To tell the good people of the jury that my father was a good man, a good father who wouldn’t ever hurt anyone. To explain to them that we’ve all been down on our luck at one time or another, and sometimes that drives us to do things we’d never do otherwise, and couldn’t they show him some forgiveness in this moment of weakness?
“But you did attempt robbery,” I said. “So, even if you aren’t the kind of guy who does things like this, you did do it.”
“That wasn’t me, Mac. You have to know that.”
I told him I couldn’t get out of homeroom anyway. So it didn’t matter. And when they convicted him, I was taking a 50 states quiz. I scored 98/100 because I forgot what Arkansas was called and also the capitol of South Dakota. Typical.
My middle school was really into guidance counselors. Every student was assigned what they called a “natural helper” and they were the only adults in the building that we were allowed to call by their first names because we were meant to see them as confidants and friends. Basically none of my friends ever went to their “natural helpers” for anything. This one girl, Judy, started going right after everyone found out that she’d given a blow job in the boy’s locker room and I think it kind of made it weird for everyone else. Poor Judy.
Maybe a week after they sentenced Gerald, my 3rd period teacher Mr. Gregson said it’d be good for me to spend some time talking to Valery. We were starting a unit on family ancestry in Social Studies and World Cultures, he explained, and he was worried that it’d be hard on me.
“Why? Because family is from Germany?” Mr. Gregson did not think this was a funny joke.
I should have known that this was happening because my mom had called the school and spilled her guts to them about the trial and the divorce and the sentencing, and probably everything right down to the stationwagon keys.
The next day I got a Request To Report slip during homeroom. There was a little heart over the “i” in my name, and I wanted to throw up.
Valery was the first and last time I went to therapy. She didn’t like that I called it therapy. “Remember, everyone needs to talk to a friend sometimes, Mackenzie,” she cooed at the end of every meeting. I would never have been friends with someone like Valery. She wore gauchos to work with a braided belt and peasant blouses. It was like she lived her life at an ugly beach resort, except that she worked in a middle school counseling office.
Her office was decorated not unlike the school nurse’s office, with those cheesy posters about emotional health. There was one with a bunch of smiley faces depicting different emotions: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, scared. At the top of the poster it said: FEELINGS. And at the bottom, underneath a graphic of children’s silhouettes holding hands it said: WE ALL HAVE THEM. SHARE YOURS.
It was that kind of place.
The poster that hung behind Valery’s chair was just a picture of a fork in some bumblefuck country road that said, “WE CAN ALL CHOOSE OUR OWN PATHS” in a squiggly white font at the bottom. I got frustrated sitting in her office looking at the poster, because it was so blatantly obvious to me that neither of the paths was going anywhere at all.
Through all of our sessions we sat across from each other in these very low to the ground orange leather armchairs with metal frame arms. Valery would cross her legs and lean forward at me, squinting a little bit like she was trying very hard to see me. Most of the time I stared over her head at that fork in the road poster. As much as it bothered me, looking at her was worse. I didn’t like making eye contact with her squinty eyes. The weird smile she put on in an attempt to get me to share gave me the icks.
“What do you feel about your father’s incarceration?”
“I don’t know. It’s fine, I guess.”
“Say more about that. How is it ‘fine’?”
“Why? I don’t have more to say. It’s fine.”
“So you’ve said. But sometimes, Mackenzie, we use the word ‘fine’ to cover up our not-so-happy feelings. Do you think it’s possible that that’s what you’re doing?”
She leaned back in her armchair and the polyester in her peasant blouse squeaked against the leather. She took a deep, cleansing breath before she leaned in again.
“Are you sad that he’s in jail?”
“Do you feel any sadness about this situation?”
“They’re feeding him. He has a bed. He has people who check on him every day. I’m not sad about that. I’m not sad about any of those things.”
Valery didn’t understand. She told me that it was okay to be sad, and I told her I knew that, but I wasn’t sad. She said sometimes when things are hard we come up with defense mechanisms to help us through them, and I told her I knew that too. But the truth was still that more than anything I felt relieved, not sad. The whole year that Gerald spent in jail I didn’t feel sad. Jail meant that he didn’t come to our house anymore. That he and mom didn’t fight about me anymore. It meant I didn’t have to worry about him freezing on the street in the winter. Or drinking himself to death in the summer. It meant that I could choose when I wanted to see him, and that even then I never had to be alone with him. That if he started to get mean I could leave. It meant that I could breathe and be a kid and not be Gerald’s daughter. But Valery didn’t know anything about that. She just looked at me like I was a little girl who was devoid of proper feelings, and she wrote reports to that effect for my mother.
It was because of my sessions with Valery that I was excused from the family heritage unit. Instead, Mr. Gregson assigned me a geography workbook, and told me I could give a presentation on a country of my choosing. And I ended up working on a tri-fold poster board about Uzbekistan with a little boy from the other class whose mom was in rehab.
I have some of that same feeling now, that unbelievable relieved feeling and it’s wonderful. For years I have wished for that feeling to come back, so that I might have a shot at being a normal girl. And here it is. But, as much as I don’t want to admit it, this time there is sadness too.
When Mel comes home I am upside down on the couch, with my head hanging over the seat and my legs draped against the back.
“I’m worried about dehydration from over-crying,” I explain to her before she has the chance to ask. “At least for now this seems to have stopped the flow to my tear ducts.” She doesn’t say anything, puts down her bag, takes off her coat and joins me on the couch. We hang upside down for a while. “You smell like tree sap.”
“Ha, come on. You don’t know what tree sap smells like.”
“Well. If I had to guess.” This makes her laugh and it surprises me how glad I am to hear her laughing. Like she’d been gone for ages, and I’d thought maybe I would never see her again. This makes me want to cry too, and I’m glad I’m upside down and don’t.
“All the blood is rushing to our heads. This really isn’t good for you, Kenz.”
“I don’t care.”
“Shut up. Of course you do. C’mon. Sit up, I’ll make you some tea.” Mel swings her legs around and stands up. “Oof. Head rush. Take your time getting up. Go vertebra by vertebra, so you don’t pass out.” It’s all the yoga in her that makes her talk like that.
“I’ll pass out if I want to,” I say.
She scoffs and goes into the kitchen. “Is ginger jasmine okay? I snagged some loose leaf at the general store out by the cabin, which is so much better because you don’t end up ingesting all the crud from the teabag itself. Not to mention the staple in the teabag.” Mel is always learning about the unexplored toxins in everything. She hates manufactured anything. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced she would have been the perfect hunter-gatherer: getting food directly from the source, and roasting venison and rabbit over a spit in nothing but a loin cloth. Aside from the fact that no one had a Vitamix, the Mesolithic period would have been her dream. “Have you eaten today?”
“Um... I had some cheese.”
“Cheese is food too, Melanie.”
“Uh-huh.” I hear her start puttering in the kitchen, clanking pots and humming Joni Mitchell. Mel is the only one of us who cooks real meals. She’s always coming up with new recipes and trying them out. Last year I got her stackable glass tupperware for all her leftovers in the fridge and I thought she was actually going to cry when she opened it. “I was gonna make myself an orzo salad for my pre-dinner. You want me to make enough for you too?” Mel is a firm believer in five meals a day. Three square meals and two healthy snacks. She has a pre-lunch and a pre-dinner every day, and more often than not they involve a “light and delicious vinaigrette.” I swear to God, if I didn’t live with her I would believe she was a space robot.
“Orzo? Is that the weird rice thing?”
“It’s the Greek long-grain pasta thing.”
“Right, sure. Okay.” I start feeling light headed, and decide it’s time to move. I transition to lying down on the couch, with my eyes closed while my blood redistributes itself. If there was a drug that could make me feel like this, I would take it everyday.
“So, what the fuck? Kevin is in town? When did Seattle lift their ban on scuzzy assholes with more STD’s than the CDC has time to classify?” Mel has never actually met Kevin, which is why she manages to hate him so violently. Having only ever heard about him from me, she doesn’t do her usual thing of seeing the glass half full. I love her most when she’s vicious about people like this, so I’ve promised myself never to introduce them.
“Must’ve been right before the New Year, because he said he was in town for some New Year’s Eve party.”
“I can’t believe you ran into him today. The universe is trying to tell you something.” I don’t know what the deal is with everyone in my life and “the universe.”
“That’s not even all of it. He’s coming to dinner at my mom’s tonight.” Mel drops something in the kitchen, and stomps back into the living room. She stares at me for a long time, blinking very intentionally in my direction. She has these very probing bright blue eyes, like a Siberian Husky, and so after a few seconds of this I turn my head back toward the ceiling and close my eyes again.
“Mackenzie Elizabeth Adams. Tell me that you’re lying right now!”
“You’re yelling, Mel.”
“OF COURSE I’M YELLING!”
“Well, yelling isn’t going to change anything. The facts are the facts.” I sound like Alice. “He invited himself to dinner, and I didn’t want to explain to him about everything because it seemed like a whole messy thing. And when I tried to push it off on my mom to say no, she got all excited and insisted this was a blessing. So now he’s coming to pick me up at 5:45.” I hear her sigh and sit down across from me in the rocking chair, and start rocking. She always sits in the rocking chair when she’s trying to think of something important to say.
“I can’t even imagine what this is like for you,” is what she settles on. “Losing a parent right now must be-- I can’t even imagine. I don’t want to pretend I know how you feel.” She takes a deep breath. I look over at her and she’s leaning in, very concerned. For a moment she reminds me so much of Valery that I want to punch her in the face.
“But?” She leans back, and furrows her brow. “C’mon, Mel. You want to say something else, so go ahead.”
“I just don’t want you to have a relapse. With Kevin, I mean. I don’t want him to become your crutch for dealing with everything you’re feeling about your dad. Because I know that must be tempting. Seeing him again, it must stir up a lot of feelings. Especially right now.”
“He doesn’t even know about Gerald.”
“But he’s bound to find out. Your mom is going to tell him if you don’t.” She’s right about this, but it feels irrelevant. How right she might be about everything feels irrelevant. So what if I want to relapse with Kevin? Would that even be the worst thing? Yes. But it would be my worst thing, not hers.
“I’m not going to relapse. Don’t be so dramatic. It’s just dinner.”
The tea kettle whistles from the kitchen and Melanie disappears. I sit up and run my hands over my face. I’ve lied to Mel. I can’t stop replaying this morning again and again. The duration of each hug. The way he looked at me. The way he smelled.
I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what it was about Kevin that made me so googly-eyed over him. He has been exactly the same amount of disgusting as long as I’ve known him. I think that part of it was how special it felt to be his friend. By the end of our freshman year he had made such a filthy reputation for himself that none of the girls in our year except me would even consider being his friend. All of them had either slept with him or had a best friend who had and hadn’t been the same since. I always thought that really this was to Kevin’s credit. If he was so good in bed that he’d devastated the life of more than one woman when he wouldn’t screw her again? It seemed only right to keep him close at hand.
It wasn’t long before we were doing everything together. We ate our meals together when our schedules allowed it, studied together, joined the same clubs, and quit the same clubs. Being around him was easy because all he did was tell me I was beautiful and so much smarter than the other girls at our school. “Why aren’t they all like you, Mack,” he asked me once over lunch.
“Because. I’m a beautiful and unique snowflake,” I’d flirted back.
“Damn straight you are,” he said, winking as he got up to get more fries.
We never so much as kissed. I should have taken that as a sign, since Kevin had even kissed his roommate Malcolm once. But all of it played out like a very coy and subdued Austen love affair in my mind. Of course we hadn’t kissed, I told myself. Because with us it won’t be cheap and meaningless. It has to be the right moment, when we know that we’re ready for each other.
It didn’t play out that way. Because it never does when you decide to be in love with someone terrible. We were standing outside the library, a few nights before winter break and he was teasing me for getting excited that they were finally putting the lights up around campus.
“You can’t honestly tell me you don’t think things are just a little more magical at Christmas time,” I was saying. There were a few leafless trees in the plaza that were all wrapped in white lights. Their glow was shining off the little frosty patches on the concrete. The sky was clear, and there was just a little sliver of a moon hanging above the roof of the admissions building across the street. It was so late that campus was basically dead, and we were the only people crazy enough to stand outside in the freezing cold.
“Why?” He laughed. “Just because there are sparkly lights everywhere?”
“Because, because. Look around!” I turned, gesturing grandly at the few spindly trees in front of us.
He put his arm around my shoulder and kissed the side of my head. “You, Mack, are too adorable.” My whole body went tingly. I looked at him and he shook his head, laughing.
I felt like I was outside my body, floating somewhere above and watching us stand there together breathing out little puffs of air into the dark. This was, I was certain, my moment. The one I had been waiting for forever.
“Kevin,” I started, “do you ever, like-- do you ever wonder about, how it would be if you and I...? You know--” I wanted him to get the picture without me having to be too blatant. This, I thought, would cue him to wax poetic about he’d so often thought about us. Of course he’d thought about us, but he’d always been worried that he was unworthy of my love. And then I, in a sweeping moment, would take his face in my hands and tell him that of course he was worthy. That I loved him for everything that he was, not in spite of it. And then, naturally, we would kiss, have sex, get married, and regale all our marvelous friends with our heartrending love story.
Instead he dropped his arm from around my shoulder and took a step back. I should’ve known right then, but because denial is the best, I told myself, he’s just going to kiss me now.
“Oh, Mack. Jesus. I mean, you know I love you. I do love you,” he said in this weirdly condescending way.
“Yeah. Well that’s kind of what I mean.” I was such an idiot.
“Right, but... God. I mean, I’m flattered. Of course, I’m flattered.” And that was it. That word was like having someone slowly loosening my skin from my muscles with a butter knife. I wanted to stay present, be mature and in the moment, but I couldn’t focus on anything except that this was all entirely the wrong thing. This wasn’t what I wanted. I tried to tell myself that I needed to hear him say all of what he was saying but at the same time I couldn’t stand to hear him say any of it. I got so in my head that now I can’t remember most of what happened. Pieces, sure. How he hoped we could still be friends. How he’d worried that maybe I would develop feelings for him, but then he’d been so sure we were on the same page. How sometimes that spark just isn’t there, but it didn’t mean I was any less beautiful or amazing. How someday I would make someone so happy, but it couldn’t be him. “God, Mack. I just really want to hug you. Is that okay?”
I don’t remember if I said anything, or if I just nodded. He hugged me for a long time, but I didn’t hug him back. The twinkly lights all blurred together as I squinted hard to keep from falling apart. “Let me walk you home, yeah?”
I wondered if this is what it was like to be one of his one-night stands. He kept his hand on my lower back the whole time we walked, and I wanted to tell him he had no rights to me anymore. But I didn’t. Instead I tried to make things normal by talking about The Wire, but it felt awful. We got to my door and I said something stupid like, “All right, loser. Good talk,” went inside and cried for the next five days straight.
“Four minutes,” Mel says, putting the tea down on the coffee table in front of me. “You have to let it steep for four minutes so that you really get everything the blend has to offer.” She examines my face. “The jasmine will be good for that,” she says finally.
“That thing you’re feeling,” she diagnoses before going back into the kitchen, presumably to stir her long-grain Greek business.
“I hate you,” I call to her from the couch.
There’s a pause, and I’m not sure if she heard. Then just barely over the clanging of the pots she goes, “Ha. Yeah, well. The jasmine will help.”