My father and I are walking through Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the dark. The old creaky houses are quiet and sleepy all around us, the streetlights glowing orange-gold through the branches of trees heavy with new leaves. He, a mechanic by profession and by heart, is describing the experience of taking a transmission completely apart, removing every nut, bolt, and cylinder, one by one, laying them on the ground like a neatly ordered explosion.
“It’s easy to take it apart. But then you have to put it back together. And that’s where things get hairy.” He laughs, a dry sound that comes from the back of his chest, and I wonder how something so familiar can still surprise me.
This is the weekend of my college graduation, a harried, hectic mess of dinners and drinks and dressing up, of siblings and parents and grandparents and godparents. Until a few days ago, when he arrived on a plane from Colorado, I have not seen my father in two years. During that time we spoke only twice, once on my birthday, the other time when he called to say, “I want to come see you get that diploma.”
“But can’t you just put it back together the same way you took it apart?” I ask about the transmission.
He laughs again. “Now that’s a good point. You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Ree? Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works.”
At this moment in time, I’m dating a boy, a boy my father has met, a boy my father likes (as far as I can tell). I’m dating a boy but I’ve also dated and fallen for women, some of whom remain stripped screws stuck in the wood of my heart. My father knows nothing of this, knows me and my romantic life only from a distance. There are already so many things he doesn’t know, where am I even to start? The prospect of telling him about my sexuality feels like trying to tear down a wall and build it at the same time.
I’m sixteen and dating a girl for the first time, or whatever counts as dating in high school, mostly making out in my Volkswagen Jetta while listening to Brand New in the precious few minutes before curfew. The first time I see her naked, in the bare bright light of early afternoon, during a free period from school which we use to sneak back to my empty house, I am breathless and exposed and undone.
I come out to my mother during a fight we’re having about how my girl friends never say hello upon immediately entering our house. My mouth, before my argument-rattled brain can stop it, blurts out that I am, in fact, dating one of those friends — so she’d better be nice, regardless of greetings. My mom stops, mid-sentence, and stands there, looking pensive, holding the dish towel she’s been brandishing at me.
“You know, I’ve had a lot of very close friendships with women,” she says finally. “But I just never felt that way about them.” Later, when that first girlfriend’s dad calls our house in an attempt to get the two of us in trouble by outing us to my mom, she tells him gently but sternly: “Your daughter is always welcome here, and I support the two of them one hundred percent. I hope you will do the same.”
At this point, my father had been absent and unreachable for so long that my mother has issued a court order that will allow his social security number to be traced. That way, any reported income that is tied to it will be immediately garnished for outstanding child support payments. It returns nothing for years, but he will resurface to see me graduate high school. By this point, my girlfriend and I have broken up. Even though he will come to the ceremony and related celebrations, there will be no reason to introduce her to him as anything more than a friend. So I don’t.
Then he will disappear again, a fish back into a stream.
I am old enough to have missed my ten year high school reunion, drinking a beer and sitting in old movie chairs out in front of a bar on a chilly April night. I’m talking to a friend who is about to marry a woman after a lifetime of dating men. We are talking about family, about how damn hard it was for her to tell her dad about the love of her life and future spouse, even as much as she wanted to share that part of her life with him, with everyone in the whole world.
“We spent every morning together for two weeks, drinking coffee, talking, and the whole time I didn’t tell him. I waited until the very last day, until he was dropping me off, and he said, ‘What was it you wanted to talk to me about?’ and I said, ‘Dad I’m gay.’ And then I had to get out of the car and he had to go to work. And I missed getting to have that conversation with him about it.”
It had been easy to tell her mother, her sisters, her grandparents. “I don’t know why,” she said. “I don’t know why it was so hard to tell him.”
I tell her about my very same reticence, and she exclaims, “Damn internalized biphobia!” so loud that passersby glance at us.
“But is it more than that,” I wonder out loud. “Is it the cultural expectations around dads being the strong silent type, and that you’re not supposed to talk about things?”
“There was definitely some of that,” she says. “My father and I don’t talk, we go fishing. I was always the one doing the things with him that a son would have.”
I reflect on this for a long time after the conversation ends. Is it internal or external? Is it us or is it them? Is it the emotional boundaries of proscribed gender and parent roles, all wrapped in a big tangled up, rusted-out engine?
And the question that begs to be asked, the one we perhaps don’t want to consider the answer to, even as it glowers at us from the shadows of our minds: would she have spoken up, would she have been honest about her sexuality, if she didn’t have a reason? If she didn’t have a woman in her life, who she loved endlessly, to do it for? Would I?
Or does the reason why matter less than the fact that we do it anyway.
“I HATE you,” I shout at my mother, all fourteen years of me rife with angst and isolation and devastation about getting rejected from the school play. “I want to go live with Dad because he isn’t CRAZY.”
And for some reason, instead of countering with her usual, “Oh yeah? Do you think he’s going to drive you to school in the morning and pay for your cell phone and make sure you have the right clothes? You’re dreamin’ girl,” she goes to the phone, picks it up, dials, and before I know it I’m sitting in the back seat of our giant ruby Astro Van, my hastily packed backpack on the seat next to me and my Discman on my lap. A soft but persistent snow is tumbling out of the sky, collecting dangerously quick over the ground and roads and trees and houses.
My father is waiting in the parking lot of a Village Inn off the side of the interstate, his cigarette smoke turquoise in the glow of the sign. The snow has accumulated quickly: it will reach blizzard level before we get back to his house, so we drive his 70s Ford pickup colored Super Banana Yellow down the center lane of the highway at a crawl, inch by inch, the heat blasting and the hunched shadows of Rocky Mountain foothills looming up around us like sentinels. We pass only one other pair of headlights in two hours. It’s as if we’re moving through the deep ocean, suspended in space, the last people on earth.
“Your mom can be a pain in the ass,” he says finally. “But she’s trying her best.”
The metal plate embedded in my father’s forearm is from a nasty tumble he took out of the back of a truck when he was a teenager. When I was a child I pressed my fingertips into his skin over and over, searching for the tiny heads of the screws that hold it in place. The other wounds, irregularities embedded in his body are not visible, and for a long time I do not realize that they exist.
The first time he talks openly to me about taking medication to treat his depression, I put an answer to all the questions that had piled up in my mind over the years, the questions I thought simply did not have answers that I would be able to name. This feels nothing like relief.
“It made me foggy,” he says about the pills the VA clinic had prescribed to him. “Like my mind couldn’t catch up.”
Because he always seems to appear during rites of passage, we are at my younger brother’s high school graduation party. We’re standing at the end of the driveway in front of the house I grew up in, the very same driveway I, as a child, hoped and hoped and hoped his banged-up Toyota Corrolla would be sitting in at night when my mother drove us home.
“I couldn’t work on cars,” he continues, and describes how he felt he like couldn’t listen to them right anymore, in a tone both shocked and resigned. “It’s like I was scared of them.”
“You know Ree, more people fall off than stay on,” he adds, making a shrugging motion underneath the worn leather bomber jacket I have rarely seen him without. It’s as if he’s trying to comfort one of us, but whether it’s himself or me I can’t tell.
It paralyzes me, this idea that the parent who has always felt like mine, struggles so deeply with something in himself. I cross my arms and watch the warm-gold sun plunge itself down below the neat lines of the houses across the street. I want to curl up, away from everything he is revealing about who he is, who I am, what I come from, the capacities I hold buried in my blood.
I am post-college and living in New York and I am going to spend Christmas with D, the woman I have been dating for over two years, the first woman I have ever imagined, wanted, a wide and full future with. We are going to the small New England town she grew up in to be with her family, the majority of whom I have already met: her grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins, all warm and lovely, none of whom know about our relationship (or have at least not been expressly told). She justifies her refusal to be open about us with her intensely private nature, her coveted government job, her family’s traditional leanings.
I agonize the most over what to get for her father.
She has already said to me, by this point, that she is not sure she will ever tell her father about her sexuality. “I don’t even know where to begin,” she explains once, in a rare moment when the subject does not reduce us to tears and harshly flung arguments. When I met him, I both understood and didn’t. His was a quiet, unassuming presence. He had her same restless intelligence coiled inside of him. He spoke seldom, loved cooking and motown, stayed up late listening to records. My answers to his questions always felt superfluous, and he seemed to regard me with both amusement and suspicion.
I hunt down an obscure Southern cookbook; he grew up in a coal mining town in Kentucky, and his family owned a barbeque shack. (That’s how my girlfriend describes it, as a shack. She also says that they put crushed up Coco Pebbles in the sauce.) I feel almost more nervous when he picks it from under the tree and opens it, turning it over slowly, than I did when I kissed her for the first time. He sits in the corner with it for a long time, reading. I want to believe he knows the place I occupy in his daughter’s life, what she means to me, but I can not convince myself that he understands.
I feel as if I am filled to the brim, fit to spill, with how much I love her and how much I resent being a secret. It makes me feel invisible and alone but I stand by her. I stand by her until I can’t anymore.
When we break up, I am more determined than ever to come out to my father.
I am sitting at a table in a trendy craft brewery in my hometown, across from my father who I haven’t seen in four years. When I walked in, he got up to hug me and his eyes filled with tears and I felt strange standing before him, tall in new shoes and a post-breakup dress, as if I had been swapped out, replaced with someone completely new, or completely un-new, someone more darkly sketched.
He’s brought a woman along that he’s seeing, and when she smiles I can see all of her gums. My head buzzes with the effort of talking casually, listening, when all I want to do is find a way to fix the fact that I am sitting here a hypocrite. I sip a hefeweizen.
“It used to be that when you put your foot on the brake pedal, it was connected to a break line that engaged the brakes, you know. But now it’s all digital signals. It’s all programming. They’re not actually connected,” he is explaining about cars these days, about how the work he has done all his life seems to be shifting out from under him. “And only the car dealerships have the codes. So they control everything, and can charge up the ass for you to come and get something fixed, even though they just have to press a bunch of button.”
I decide that every time I can, I will say the words My Ex-Girlfriend and I do, all the blood rushing to my face as I try to make the mentions seem off-hand or casual, searching my father’s face for any sign of surprise, or recognition or understanding. At one point, I think he nods. But he does not address it outright, and I cannot bring myself to do so when we say goodbye. After he gets in his car, drives away, I stand outside with my brother as he smokes a cigarette, mentally kicking myself. I feel, incongruously, like I have let D down.
It feels similar to the conundrum presented by a disassembled piece of impossible machinery. By the signals that guide hulking tires over the perils of icy roads. That sometimes the connections need to be reset, and none of us have access to the codes. Do I have to just roll up my sleeves and try, and keep trying, to fit all the smallest parts back into their places? To remember, recreate again, the shape of it whole?