Daddy Dearest

It alarmed her how well he could blend in.

He was like anyone else, it seemed . . . he was a sheep among any average flock, one of them, a seamless work of acting. But she knew. She knew there was a wolf beneath the facade, she knew there was malice to that glint.

She wondered how many others knew him as well as she did . . . not many, a few former love interests maybe. She wondered if he even knew how well she knew him. He certainly didn’t know how much she despised him, and what he stood for.

He smiled at her from across the table. Their table at Willis’s, to be precise, the local breakfast spot by the beach, where they’d been coming for years—always with the same order, often a variation on the same conversation. He started with, “You look nice today.”

Nice. Yes, of course he’d think that. With her dewy pale skin and blond hair, she looked Aryan and idyllic, the conventional standard of beauty. Fucking creep. “Thank you.”

There was that smile again, wolfish and charming. He looked so normal, so average . . . yet that smiled belied something darker, something stormy beneath the surface. “Have you met Chad yet?”

Chad, the son of one of his associates. Chad was bright and cheerful. Chad had golden hair and a dimple. Chad played golf and went to church occasionally. Chad was rich. Chad attended Yale. Chad was white and male and hetero and, like her, acceptable.

“We’ve met.”

“I think he’d be good for you. You two would be a fantastic couple.”

“I get the feeling he’s . . .” Misogynistic. Disgusting. A man. “. . . involved with someone else.”

He shook his head from side to side in a quick jerk, an immediate, hasty bid no. “His father tells me he hasn’t dated anyone since his high school sweetheart. Although there have been flings, of course,” he added with a smirk. “Boys will be boys.”

How funny, Dad, she thought. If that were me having flings, if I were the one sleeping around, you’d be calling me a slut—not smiling appreciatively. “That’s nice.”

“Is something wrong? You seem a bit off today.”

I fucking hate you. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Oh? You should try for eight hours,” he advised, ever the patronizing father, the know-it-all. “I get ten hours every night. No exceptions.”

Well, with your cushy job and total lack of responsibilities, I’m not surprised you find the time. “College is keeping me up.”

“It’s a very formative time,” he said, “so it should be keeping you up. My advice? Savor it. Enjoy it. You’ll be surprised how fast it’s gone.”

I didn’t ask. “You’re right.”

“Smell the roses, I always say.” He winked at her. That wink. It reminded her of the sweaty, creepy, middle-aged pigs that winked at her in bars, that “accidentally” brushed against her as they headed for the restroom, the drunken men who leaned over and asked her if she liked to suck.

“I don’t think Chad and I are compatible,” she blurted. “Even if he is single.”

He furrowed his brow. “Why not?”

Hmm, let’s see, Dad . . . for starters, he’s got a dick. And I already have someone. I have Winifred, who happens to be neither a WASP nor white, and, yes, a woman. “College is keeping me busy. Don’t think I could take on a relationship right now.”

“You want to get married,” he said. It was flat, a statement, not a question.

Maybe, but probably not. And if I do, if I have the wedding, it’ll be with a woman standing across from me, and you probably won’t be in attendance. “I think so.”

“You think so? But you’ve always wanted kids.”

More than one way to skin a cat. “Yeah . . . I’ll probably get married. It’s just so far in the future . . .”

“Right, right. There’s no pressure.” He paused. “Not that far, though. I could see you and Chad having a real future together. Maybe get engaged in a few years, move to the suburbs, have that family you’ve always wanted . . .”

“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t even know him that well.”

“He’d be good for you.”

Because he’s white? Because he’s a he? Because he’s cis, because he’s a WASP, because he’s like you? Is that it, Dad? “Yeah, maybe he would be. I don’t know.”

“Consider it,” he told her with a shrug, trying to act less invested than he, in fact, was. “What’s one date?”

“Maybe, maybe . . .”

The waitress came over. They ordered. She watched him through a veil of hair, trying to hide herself, her emotions. She watched him as he appraised the waitress, that wolfish grin back again, those icy blue eyes combing over her as she stood, at the mercy of his gaze, giving a nervous laugh at every flirtatious comment he made. I’m so sorry, his daughter thought. I know he’s twenty years older than you. I know you know that. I know he’s disrespecting you. I’m so sorry.

But she did nothing, said nothing. Why didn’t she ever say anything?

The waitress left. Her father smirked at her. “What’s your favorite part of college so far?”

The girl I’m fucking. “Um, I really like the social aspect. The people are friendly, smart… like-minded.”

“Excellent,” he said. “I made lifelong friends in college. Well, you know that already, I suppose.”

Yes, your friends. Like Michael and his wife—or, as he refers to her, the “Asian import.” I don’t even know her name because he never calls her by it. He calls her, jokingly, disgustingly, “the trophy girl.” He calls her, in jest, “the Oriental.” He calls her “China doll.” And you laugh every time, Dad. And she just sits there and takes it—like me—because what can she possibly say?

“The professors can be very militant, however, very overt with their biases. They may try to persuade you.” He wagged a finger. “Don’t listen. You’re a smart girl. You don’t have to believe what they tell you, what their opinions are. That’s indoctrination.”

Yes, that’s indoctrination. Not the years you spent force-feeding me your thoughts and beliefs on every little subject, the comments you made about people like me—women, queer women—that sting to this day, that stick to the back of my brain like a disease. I can’t get rid of those words, Dad, your words. I’ll carry them around with me forever.

“Okay,” she said, quiet now, solemn. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I can tell you’re tired,” he said, chuckling. “Don’t worry, you’ll sleep well tonight. Let yourself rest up. Good for the brain. And we want you at your best.”

You want me at my thinnest, too. All women. You want all women looking good for you, and for men like you. For Chad. You want my hair perfectly combed, and everything else waxed; skin white; stomachs flat, breasts forever unnaturally perky, at attention. You want me, us, chaste and yet wholly at your beck and call, quietly opinionated, so long as that opinion lines up squarely with yours. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s me at my best?

The food arrived. She picked at hers aimlessly. He went on about college, and Chad, and men in general—”maybe let your hair down once in a while, literally and figuratively,” he advised. “Have a date or two. Nothing bad, nothing serious, just go out to coffee or something.”

You want me with a man. You think I need one. You think I’d be better, “at my best” that way.

She wondered what he’d think of Winifred, with her mess of thick, dark, kinky hair, overgrown brows, long nose (he hated big noses on women, always had; especially, he said, “Jewish noses”). Her free-spiritedness, her bookshelf full of lesbian literature, her long talks about feminism and the hazards of the patriarchy. Her breasts, which sloped downwards quite adorably, soft and floppy, her dark nipples pointing toward her legs and purple-painted toenails. What would he think of her? What would he think of her family’s Hanukkah party, which his daughter had attended, where she’d been welcomed with open arms the way Winifred would never be received by him?

You’d hate them, she thought. You’d hate Winifred for not meeting your impossible standards of beauty, for being brown, for being Jewish, for being herself, and you’d think we were gross, you’d think I was rebelling against you, and you wouldn’t even entertain the thought that maybe this is just who I am and who I want to be. Maybe I don’t like Chad, maybe I have preferences and opinions that differ from your own. Maybe I’m not your idea of “right” or “normal.” And maybe I’m okay with that—better than okay, even.

She wanted to say it. But she was silent.

He talked the rest of the meal. She listened, quietly raging, angry with herself for not saying anything—it wouldn’t make a difference if I did, she told herself, and that was true, of course. She couldn’t change him. She couldn’t fix him. She couldn’t make him right, make him understand why what he said to her and the beliefs he held were harmful, intolerant. He’d never understand. And that, perhaps, was the worst part of all, the fact that this was who he was, the fact that a day would never come when he’d wake up and just be decent.

Is this how you want to be, Dad? Do you wake up in the morning with a self-satisfied smirk, thrilled to feel superior, pleased to hold the opinion that you are, by virtue of your skin color, your orientation, your gender, somehow above everyone else? Smarter, more normal, stronger, better? Does that thrill you, Dad?

She stared at him, willing him to respond, silently pleading for him to just know her thoughts, to say something that would explain it, explain him . . . but on and on he blathered—absent, mindless talk. He was smug, and he was clueless. How can you not know? How you not sense it, sense my bitterness, sense that I’m not like you? How, Dad, how?

She wished he could read her mind. Because she knew she’d never say it. She knew she couldn’t ask. Could she? I want to, oh God, I want to . . .

“That was good,” he said, wiping his hands. She looked down and realized his plate was empty, that they’d reached the end of the meal, more or less. That’s it? She was relieved on one hand, eager to return to Winifred, a circle of friends who didn’t share her father’s opinions, people like her, good people . . . but on the other, well, it all felt so sudden. She hadn’t said a word yet again, she’d listened and listened and their conversation had been nothing of consequence.

She hadn’t eaten much of her food either. Looking down at her plate, she moved around her fork and thought ruefully, You wouldn’t want me to eat it all anyway. You’d worry I’d get fat. And of course, once us women lose our figures, lose our looks, we’re worthless to you. That’s what you think. That’s all I am to you as a girl, someone who needs to get married, someone who needs to stay attractive. And what the fuck, Dad? How can you believe that? How can you hold that opinion when it hasn’t been socially accepted since, what, the 50s? How can you be so ignorant?

“You seem upset.”

She dropped her fork, the words catching her off guard. Her eyes found his, and she looked frightened almost, the irrational part of her worried he knew, that he’d seen and heard her and knew what she was thinking—and as much as she wanted him to know, she also didn’t. She also dreaded the day he found out, when she finally said it. If that ever happened, if that day ever arrived. Perhaps it wouldn’t. Perhaps she’d never say, perhaps he’d never find out, and perhaps he’d go through life with the glib belief that his daughter was straight and normal and “right,” his definition of a proper woman. Ignorance is bliss.

“I’m fine, I’m . . .” She trailed off.

“Tired,” he offered, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. “You’re tired. I know. You’ve mentioned.” And here he chuckled, and though she was confident he meant it harmlessly—to punctuate the silliness of her exhaustion, her absentmindedness and habit of repeating herself, or almost repeating herself—she still jumped at the sound, the unwelcome, coarse laugh, harsh and humorless.

She wanted out of the restaurant. She wanted away from him, she wanted Winifred. “Can we go? I don’t want to eat anymore. I’m . . . I don’t have an appetite.”

“You’re sure nothing’s wrong?” He squinted. She nodded, shifted in her seat. After a moment, he said, “Well, I suppose it’s a good thing you eat like a bird. You’ll stay healthy and trim that way.”

There it is. You had to say that. Of course you had to say that. Never mind the body issues I have, which I know you know I have; the complete lack of self-esteem you’ve played a hand in developing. Never mind that those comments about my body, my looks—even complimentary comments—hurt. Never mind that my “trimness,” or bigness, doesn’t concern you. Because you just had to say it, didn’t you, Dad? That’s the only compliment you could ever give me. “You look trim. You look pretty. You look nice.” That’s the best you’ve come up with. And it’s not about health to you. When I was ninety pounds and constantly dizzy, when I was skin and bones practically, you weren’t concerned then. Was that healthy to you, Dad? Was that beauty to you?

He paid the check and she let him. She didn’t offer, didn’t make a move to grab it. You owe me, she thought, looking him straight in the eye, a flash of fiery indignation crossing hers. You owe me this meal and so much more.

After he paid (and he liked to pay, he thought he should pay always, because the little ladies weren’t capable and anyway, it made him look good, like he had money to burn, which he did), they got up and left the restaurant. They walked down to the nearby parking lot and he extolled more of Chad’s virtues. Stop it, stop it, stop it, she thought, biting on her lip until she drew blood; she felt on the verge of tears.

When they arrived at his car, the urge to slash his tires was strong, and she thought that, if ever she were to encounter it somewhere around town, with him out of sight and clueless, she just might. It’d feel nice, certainly. Cathartic. Knowing him, though, he’d blame it on some “low-rent, stupid thugs.” She knew what that meant. And maybe he wouldn’t say thugs, maybe instead he’d say the word which “thug” really meant, the worse word, the word he’d had no problem saying in the past. He threw it around with a careless indifference, casual, cruel.

She headed to the passenger seat. He opened the door for her and she slid past him, mumbling an empty “thank you” that was, at least in her head, full of resentment. He didn’t seem to notice.

He got behind the wheel and they drove off, the restaurant growing tiny behind them, the nearby beach and its salty air a distant, strange dream. The sky was gray and dreary and, looking out her window, she watched seagulls flutter past, heading in the opposite direction. She focused all her attention on the outside as it swirled by, and hoped he’d take the hint, hoped he’d let the silence between them remain and not make another attempt at conversation. But her father had never been very good at reading cues.

“So you’ve made friends? At your college?”

“Yeah, several.” You wouldn’t like them. Some of them are earthy, bohemian artist types, and all of them are very liberal. Many of them are gay, or bi, or some other orientation that isn’t yours and isn’t what you’d consider “normal.” No, you’d hate them, Dad. You’d frown at them disapprovingly and think less of me for knowing them. Perverts and weirdos and trash, you’d call them. What would you call me?

“That’s good to hear. Very good,” he said, smiling. “I’m happy you’re fitting in and meeting like-minded people.”

“Mmm-hmm.” If only you knew.

Up ahead, she saw a group of kids—black kids—standing on the sidewalk in front of a row of houses, joking around. They were tweens mostly, a few teenagers thrown in. Smiling. Laughing. Having far more than fun that she was having. She watched them closely, knowing her father probably was, too. Wondering what he was thinking.

A young boy—eleven or twelve, maybe—made a comment to an older, beautiful girl with long dreads and hoop earrings. Something flirtatious, his body language suggested. She responded by rolling her eyes and giving him a playful shove . . . but he was small, smaller than she’d accounted for apparently, and he stumbled back into the street. The car was mere feet from hitting him.

The girl quickly pulled him back up and onto the sidewalk just as their car rolled by, her expression apologetic, stunned. The boy shook it off with a shrug.

In the car, Daddy Dearest was less forgiving. As he passed them, he shot them a look that could melt ice, and his daughter sunk lower in the passenger seat, feeling hot with embarrassment. For their part, the group of kids seemed to hardly notice.

He mumbled something disdainfully. Then he shook his head and added, “If I’d hit him, it would’ve been one less problem for society.”

His words chilled her. She looked at him sideways, horrified, stunned but not really—she would’ve expected nothing less. Still . . .

She opened her mouth to respond, but no words came. How badly she wanted to call him on it, to say something, but she couldn’t. She was quiet. She was passive. And soon he switched subjects, as casual as that, speaking enthusiastically about his college days. Like it didn’t matter. Like he hadn’t just said something awful, despicable.

And she was left wondering, How can you be my father?