I remember yesterday like it was a time before anything really happened. A moment caught in a veil. I see him fondly, ugliness and regret erased like rain under a desert sun. Someone, usually my mother, jolts me awake and nothing seems real again; that part of my life has vanished. I’m left only with reality. Memory is funny like that. It toys with you. I wish I knew better, but I always spiral back to memory.
Losing him wasn’t sudden. It was a gradual maneuver that just ended abruptly. One day, I had a father and then he faded and then no one knew where he was and then I only saw him on holidays and then he was gone.
I haven’t talked to him in a while. All I have are memories.
“Joan! Get ready! Hurry! Hurry!” my mom exclaims as she rushes past.
Her hands are full of boxes — some addressed to Goodwill, some to distant cousins, some to the basement.
“I am, I just have to go through my room.”
“Your room? You haven’t started that yet?”
I shake my head. I am the known procrastinator. So well known that my mom rolls her eyes.
“Ugh, okay. Please go do that. College is in two days Joan. Two. Days.”
Her words linger, as if I don’t understand them. College has been stuck in my mind since I started the Common App. It’s been festering since I found out I had to move across the country.
“Yes, I know. I’ll do it.”
She glances at me with a concerned look but I close the door before she can say the inevitable.
I know it’s hard, but…
That’s the worst phrase in the English language. I know it’s hard, but be strong for your sisters. I know it’s hard, but he’s a fuck up. Can’t it just be hard, no strings attached?
Maybe that’s why I’ve dreaded this trek to my room. There’s a finality to it. A goodbye to a childhood with lots of good and some bad memories that will culminate into who knows what. Also, it means going through old stuff and remembering dad. So that sucks.
I stare at the expanse before me. Stuffed animals in a corner of my bed, collecting dust. I was too embarrassed to put them on full display, but too guilty to hide them. Dad used to say that the love you give your toys gives them life. I push aside the carcasses and move them into a box.
Staring for a moment, I quickly scribble “Basement,” just in case. As I go through the box, I notice a pig with dull black eyes. I pick her up from the rubble and sit back on my bed.
I got her on a trip to the toy store years ago.
I was probably a little too old to be shopping for toys, but dad insisted that Leah and I pick something out.
“Get anything girls, my treat!”
Leah happily sauntered off to the Barbie section, a slight bounce in her step. I wandered through the aisles, mindlessly peering at my options — hoping something would jump out at me. In the corner of my eye, I spotted the pig. Just a simple toy, nothing that could label me as childish. I walked up to Dad, handing him the pig.
I hug her close one last time as a desperate attempt to bring the memory back. The glimmer is gone and I place her carefully at the top of the box. I don’t know how long I’ve been laying here or why my eye is slightly damp. He doesn’t deserve my tears or sympathy. He doesn’t deserve anything. Abandonment has a certain irony when it’s the parent that leaves. Running away should be my job. I’m the teenager. I’m the troubled youth. Except, I’m not. I get straight A’s. I’ve only been to one party and my mom dropped me off. I’ve never even had a boyfriend. I am my father’s foil. I resent him for that.
Leah pops her head into the room. Her curly hair cascades to her shoulder.
“Mommy said I could take some of your toys,” she glances at the box.
“Go ahead; they’re headed to the basement anyway. Make sure to save some for Frida.”
She greedily rummages through the box. The pig falls to the ground.
“Frida’s too young to appreciate them,” Leah asserts, her arms full of elephants, bears, and a cat.
“Frida’s only two years younger than you.”
“Yeah, and I’m young so what does that tell you?”
She leaves in a huff, the smaller stuffed animals trailing behind her. The pig remains next to the box. Small mercies, I guess.
I move away from my bed, pulling the sheets off as I go.They should fit on my new bed. The bare mattress gleams before me, the most unnatural sight I’ve ever seen.
I move on. I go through my bookshelf. I toss one book after the other into boxes, setting aside only my favorites for college. Dad always encouraged me to read; he took pride in seeing his daughter evolve his interests into her own. But he always read in a violent fashion. We were forbidden to engage as he audibly flipped the pages. Only grunts and sighs accompanied his silence. Sometimes he’d scribble in the margins.
I often looked at the “grown up” bookshelf that stood proudly in the living room. The books were intimidating, boring, and various. I longed to enjoy them, but couldn’t manage it. He actually left them all behind and I read a few throughout the summer. Tales I once thought would be too dense danced across my mind. This is why he locked himself out.
I shake my head to stop the guilt. The guilt that I was a bad daughter; I didn’t side with him enough. I’m grateful that he gave me his love of books. I miss when I read about princesses and adventures. I used to go to the basement and explain the plots to him — incoherently, I assume. It didn’t matter though. He usually played along, offering his own insights and ideas. Sometimes, he even asked if he could read it after. That always made me the happiest. I got to teach him.
Leah’s hot breath is in my ear.
She whispers, loudly, “Wake up. Joan, wake up. Joan. Jo-Jo.”
I am tempted to let her continue. The hot breath persists.
“I’m up, I’m up. I didn’t realize I even fell asleep.”
We both look at the books strewn across the floor around me. Two are in my hands.
“Wow,” Leah says and holds the “owwwww” sound for much too long. “Anyway, Mom’s taking us to the mall for some back-to-school shopping and dinner. Do you want to come?”
“Can she afford it?”
“I mean, she offered.”
“Yeah, I’ll go. Just give me a sec.”
I brush the dust from my hands onto my pants, and start looking for something to wear. I rummage through my dresser, creating a mountain of shirts that I know both my parents would despise. Nothing feels right. I just grab a jean jacket from a hook on my door and head to the living room.
“Took you long enough,” Leah sneers. I stick my tongue out in defiance.
Frida stands next to my mom by the front door. She sucks her thumb. She’s almost nine years old. My mom has tried to get her to stop — visits lots of specialists, but nothing sticks.
“You look cute today,” my mom offers.
“I hate what I’m wearing,” I reply, but, feeling bad, I add, “But thanks.”
She brushes off the comment quickly.
“Alright slow pokes, let’s go.”
I sulk in the front seat of the car. My mom glances at me, but doesn’t say a word. I don’t totally blame her. We walk through the mall methodically, stopping at stores I used to shop in. Leah and Frida have a new penchant for sparkles. As the oldest, I feel the need to direct them to other, less embarrassing choices, but my mom holds me back.
“Don’t start a conflict.”
I sulk more.
“Also, Joan, try to brighten up. Frida’s therapist thinks she’s acting antisocial because of the situation.”
“You mean the one where our father fucking abandoned us? That one?”
“Language, Joan!” she squeals, then more calmly, “Yes, that one.”
“Why do you only care about Frida?”
My mom gives me a hurt look.
“You know that’s not true; please don’t do this.”
“No, it’s a legitimate question. Why do you only care about Frida? I have to deal with the situation. I’ve dealt with it the longest! Where’s my therapist?”
She stares at me, shocked by this outburst.
Holding a moment, she replies, “We can send you to therapy if you want.”
“Ugh, that is not the point!”
I storm off, walking through the indoor mall back toward the car. I pass a McDonald’s in the food court. Frustrated and a little self-pitying, I stop by it.
“One Oreo Mcflurry, please.”
I shove my cash across the counter to the employee.
Dad used to get these for us when McDonald’s released them. At first, he’d surprise us with different flavors — M&M’s , caramel. But he ultimately decided that Oreos were the best. Sometimes he’d refuse to get us the ones we wanted. “Why waste your time or money?,” he’d say.
I consider going back for the M&M one, but I have to admit, Oreo is the best.
I wander around the mall, distracted from my original destination. Stores crammed with families have a fluorescent glow — the unnatural light emphasizes beads and patterns and toys.
I know my mom is looking for me, but I don’t care. She’s probably not frantic — yet. I let the straight pathways and staircases lead me up and down.
My ice cream has almost run out. The Oreos look sad at the bottom of the cup. I try to scrape them with my spoon but the action is futile. I dump it into the nearest trash can.
I notice the Sanrio store, its funny bright pink characters beckoning to me. Dad used to love it here. I can almost see him guiding me through all the trinkets, finding one that was just right. Super high quality. Something we would both appreciate. The toy cats glare at me. I can hear him. I can hear him telling me the ones that are worth it. The ones he’d like to improve. There is a maze in my head of cute Japanese toys and my father’s voice:
“This one is special.”
“This one needs tweaking.”
“Get this one.”
“Are you okay?” a Sanrio saleslady momentarily breaks the spell. Tears spill off my cheeks. I can feel them — wet and sticky.
I run outside, begging fate or something for an exit. My wish is granted. I run quickly, almost knocking over some poor kid. I dry heave on a bench. My childhood tumbles back at me, fighting for supremacy in my mangled mind. I hold onto that image of my father with the Hello Kitty toys and ice cream and presents. I never want to let him go. But it’s not real. It is not wholly true. How do you love someone who left you? How do you hate someone who raised you? Why is the mall the sudden scene of my breakdown? These are all questions that will remain unanswered, even though they shouldn’t be.
I sit for a moment, allowing my stillness to contrast with the busy people around me.
I watch a mother pick up her son as he cries about a truck he wanted at Target. I see a chihuahua sniff at a pole while his owner tugs him along. The trees rustle behind me. I welcome the calming, common sound that cannot be tied to any one memory. It’s a blissful trance to place yourself into other people’s lives.
Soaking in the moment, I’m unaware of the time that’s passed. I check my phone and notice the frantic messages from my mom.
“Where r u?”
“I kno ur upset, but pls text me back.”
“Joan!!!! We r leaving soon. Call me.”
Three missed calls.
I want to go back inside and toss my phone into the mall fountain. It’s hypothetical teenage angst and maybe a bit of self pity, but it isn’t worth it. I need the phone. I need her, too.
I text back, “I’m by the parking lot. I can meet you by the elevators. I’m sorry.”
She only replies, “k,” and I wander off to the elevators — aware of how mad she is at me. I notice her with my sisters in tow. She looks as if she’s about to speak, but pauses when she sees my dried tears.
“Let’s go to the car.”
Her composure is admirable. I’ve only seen her cry a few times in my life — mostly when Leah, Frida, or I were mean to her. A few times for her dead mother. Never for Dad.
As we drive away, Leah and Frida fall asleep. Frida nuzzles Leah’s shoulder. They’re pretty cute when they aren’t talking. My mom looks straight ahead, unnecessarily focusing on lights and street signs that she definitely knows by heart.
“Do you miss him,” I ask, looking solemnly out the window. The darkness from outside invades the car.
“Your dad? Sometimes, but then I remember what he did and I don’t feel sad, just angry.”
Her eyes still focus ahead. Another car whooshes past.
“Do you ever just want to feel sad? Just for a minute?”
She considers this, “Yes, but I can’t.”
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe you’re right. But, Joan, tell me, how often do you feel sad?”
I choke on my words, “It goes in and out. Today was just. . .triggering.”
“That’s okay. No matter what, he’s still your father. That will always be there.”
Unfortunately, I know this to be true. She seems to think it simplifies the matter, but it just makes it more complicated.
“I don’t know how to be okay with that.”
“I don’t think you have to be, sweetie. Life isn’t always about being okay. It’s just managing from day to day and, one day, you’ll feel better. Not okay, not perfect, but it’ll improve. Don’t erase all the good stuff. Let it stay with you.”
I think about the books and the toys and the leaving and the controlling. I look straight ahead for a moment while noticing another street name pass us by.
I clutch to another memory. I am seven years old. My dad and I in the car late at night, picking at the end of a McDonald’s fries packet and singing along to the Eagles.
“This one’s my favorite,” he announces.
“Me too,” I announce back.
“WELCOME TO THE HOTEL CALIFORNIA,” we shout into the night.
I look ahead.