Beautiful Daughter, Handsome Father
Marlene, her father’s lover, is down on the beach, sitting on the sand cross-legged, nursing the baby. If Leah looks out the living room window she can see her there, sitting and facing the ocean. Marlene’s thin cloak is rippling in the breeze, her head held high and tilted back, as though she is worshipping something — her own new status as a mother, perhaps?
Leah’s father met Marlene at the Venice Health Foods Supermarket, where she worked behind the purification supplements counter. He had wandered to browse, got spellbound in front of the blue-green algae, and left carrying her phone number and a gallon of aloe pulp. Marlene quit the supermarket a few months later, soon after they moved in together.
Her father has just shown her the videotape of that moment two weeks ago when the baby finally slid out of Marlene’s body. It took eighteen hours to produce the head and that first shoulder, but then the rest of it — the dangling arms, the loosely curled fists, the puckered knees and feet that seemed sculpted from marzipan — swished free with one last interminable push, followed by a dribbling of translucent fluid tinted pale amber.
He cut the cord himself, took the sterile scissors in his trembling hand and, in between where they tied it off in two places with thick black surgical thread, he snipped. On the video, he looks like he was ready for it to be difficult — preparing to hack away at it until he passed out — but it surprised him and parted smoothly, like a thick rope of licorice.
After shutting off the tape and pointing out the still figure of Marlene down on the strand, he shows Leah around his new apartment. The entire layout is visible from the foyer, but it’s something to do to break the ice. This is the first time she’s visited since high school, when he sold his house. Before that, from the ages of two until twelve, she didn’t see him at all.
“This is the bedroom,” he says, gesturing to an open doorway off the square front hall. There is a mattress lying on the floor, sheets and pillows and thick, Mexican-looking blankets tossed in an unmade rumple. “The bathroom is through there.” He points within, to a half-open door at the far corner of the bedroom. “The kitchen,” he says, waving at another doorway with the other arm, his first arm still aloft at an oblique angle toward the bathroom. For a moment he looks like a ballet dancer, muscles strung on wires.
In the kitchen are two wooden barstools and a commercial-sized juicer. “This is where you’ll be sleeping,” he says, walking two steps in from the foyer. “The living room.” There is no furniture, nothing at all, merely the carpet, grubby beige shag.
Leah says nothing for a moment. The apartment is cold and damp from the ocean. It smells clean, though; a trace of peppermint soap drifts from the bathroom. When she speaks, she tries to sound casual. “Have you got something for me to sleep on?” she asks. “A cot or something?” He looks at her, arms folded. She stands silently. At his old house she had her own room and bath.
“Well,” he says, rubbing his chin. “I thought we’d get a roll of three-inch foam-rubber for you. A mattress.”
“Oh.” She is embarrassed, and sorry she brought it up. She moves to the window, touches the gauze curtains, faded Indian print with fluid girls twirling on their toes.
“I planned to get it today. There’s an upholstery shop down the street.”
“Oh?” she says. He has not prepared for her visit, is she that unimportant?
“I didn’t think you’d really come. Not after the last time.”
“When is Marlene coming back up here?” Leah says.
“She’ll be down at the beach until we go to get her. I wanted us to have some time alone first.”
“How much did the baby weigh?”
“Nine pounds,” he says. He stands at the window, gazing at the beach. Leah fidgets and stuffs her hands in her pockets.
“Were you going to name me Jedidiah, if I’d been a boy?”
“Who told you that?”
“Well, she didn’t like the name in the first place. I doubt she’d have let me give it to you.” He sighs. Leah looks down at the rug. “Why do you ask?” he asks.
Her father takes a step toward Leah. He touches her cheek and shakes his head. Then he strokes his beard with both hands, smoothing his hair back. “Well. I’m going to make some juice. Do you want some?”
“I’m not sure. Let’s go see.” He opens the refrigerator and bends down, rooting through the shelves, opening bins. The juice machine on the table is an old appliance, dull and scratched white with rounded corners and a big shiny metal “GE” logo on the center of the motor. It goes with the rest of the place — his usual ceremonial shabbiness.
He crouches and Leah’s view of him is blocked by the open door. “Hello, beautiful daughter,” he says, leaning his head around to smile at her.
“Hello, handsome father,” she says, and sticks out her tongue.
He laughs. “There are beets, carrots, celery, some apples. I think I’ll have beet-celery.” He leans back against the counter, and scratches his head. “Have you ever had fresh-squeezed juice before?”
“Not this kind,” she says. “What is it like?” Her idea of health food is banana yogurt.
“It’s a lot stronger-tasting than the bottled stuff. We’d better start you off with some fruit, but I don’t think you’d like plain apple. How about apple-carrot?”
“I guess so,” she says, rubbing her damp palms against her pants.
He stands at the sink, scrubbing the beets and the carrots with a brush. Rinsing the apples and the celery, he does not peel, core, or seed anything, just cuts it into chunks and lays it on the counter next to the enormous juicing machine. His off-white fisherman’s sweater is thick and luxurious, a jarring contrast to his dingy ripped jeans and his skinny, emaciated wrists. She turns away from him and looks out the window at the pale blue, slow-rolling waves.
“I’ve been doing a lot of juice fasts,” he says. He is much thinner than last time; she is skittish about touching him, feeling the sharp edges of his bones everywhere. He seems in good enough shape, though: who else his age can jog twelve miles in wet sand?
Because of his shoulder-length, strawberry blond hair — just a touch of silver running through it — and the leanness of his jawbone, her acquaintances from college flirted with him, sometimes just to measure her reaction, but sometimes not. They all thought she was lucky.
“Surely you’re not trying to lose weight?” Leah says.
“No, I drink a hell of a lot of juice. But it’s just that and water for twenty-four hours. It really cleanses the system.”
“Don’t you get hungry?”
“No, not at all. See, you have all the sugar in the juice to keep you going. So you are eating, in a sense.”
“But you’re already so thin.”
“Juice fasting isn’t to lose weight,” he says. “I don’t lose a pound. It’s to give your system a rest. To eliminate toxins.” He starts feeding the chunks into the juicer. The beet juice is blood-red, frothy, and then the celery goes through, diluting it to a muddy pink. “Want a taste?”
“No, thanks,” she says. “It looks gross.”
He takes a sip of the juice, the froth clinging to his mustache. Then he feeds some carrots and apples through the grinding machine. After tasting it, he hands her the glass. Leah drinks. The juice is pungent, the earthy sharpness of the carrots drowning out the sweetness of the apples. As she tilts the glass, a heavy layer of sediment from the skins and peels falls out and settles to the bottom.
“I can’t drink this,” she says, her tongue coated with a cloying thickness, the taste in her mouth like liquid chalk.
He watches her as he drinks from his own glass, sucking the foam from his upper lip. “Well, it’s something you’ve got to get used to. An acquired taste.”
Leah puts her juice down on the counter. Unsnapping her barrette, she tosses her head once to loosen her hair, and then puts the barrette into her jacket pocket.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
“We could go over to the Meatless Mess Hall.”
“Great,” Leah says. She picks up the glass of juice again, and then puts it down without drinking. “I’m sure it’s good for you,” she says. All she can think about is getting out of his apartment. Her mind races and she can’t even label what she’s feeling. “Why don’t we go to the beach?” she says. Her voice is high, her face hot.
They walk downstairs. The old hallways are dim, smelling of cooking grease, clove cigarettes, and Lysol. The stuccoed walls are painted a glossy institutional green. Following him down the creaking steps, she stares at his spindly buttocks — barely brushing the inside of the narrow seat of his jeans — as his legs propel him before her. When she saw him again, after ten years, he couldn’t get enough of her sitting in his lap. His thighs were lean, his hipbones sharp, and she herself felt too large, too awkward to be his daughter.
On the beach, Marlene’s face is stark and beautiful, the bones jutting and declining, transforming the clean ocean light of December into a solemn sculpture.
The baby is wrapped in several layers of flannel receiving blankets, striped pink and blue on white, the blanket corners fluttering in the chill breeze. Leah peers over the edge of the blanket, seeing the baby’s cafe-au-lait forehead, his black, damp-looking corkscrew curls and his eyes, shut tight against the light and wind.
Leah and Marlene look at each other. The wind slams into Leah’s body like a giant animal. A few plump gulls glide over the waves. Her father clears his throat. “Marlene. This is Leah. Leah, Marlene.” She nods to Leah, one slow, dignified sweep of her head. Several heavy bracelets, open bangles with knobs like acorns molded at the ends, glow against her skin, the gold dulled by a dense network of minuscule scratches. “And this is,” he says, holding his arms out and taking the wrapped bundle from Marlene’s arms, “Jedidiah.” He snuggles the baby against his thick sweater, bending and brushing his lips against the silky fine fuzz on its head.
Leah bends and leans forward, her hair falling into her eyes so that she must twist it to one side, making a thick rope over her shoulder. She squints up at Marlene, who nods at her like a queen again. Marlene takes the baby back. “I’ve got to get him inside,” she says. “It’s getting cold.” She turns away, her robe billowing up, punctuating the sweep of her long legs.
“Wait a minute,” her father calls, hurrying after her, leaving Leah alone. “We were just on our way over to the Meatless.”
Marlene stares at the ground. Leah’s father looks down, too. “All right,” Marlene says, looking up and nodding, her face set harder around the mouth.
At the Meatless Mess Hall, they sit at a table in the back corner. The vinyl tablecloth is stiff and slippery when Leah tries to lean on it with her elbows. Her arms keep sliding, so she gives up, sits back on the wooden bench and hangs her arms down at her sides like a child in church. Marlene folds her robe to one side over her shoulder and nurses the baby. Though Leah doesn’t want to look, she manages to catch one sideways glimpse of the purplish-brown, swollen nipple. Once the baby latches on, Marlene drapes the robe back into place, covering herself.
“I’ll have the millet casserole and a pot of herb tea,” Marlene says, when the waiter comes. “And honey with the tea, please.”
“I want grilled tofu and a side order of steamed vegetables,” her father says.
“I’m not hungry,” Leah says. The waiter has two tiny diamond studs in his nose, and from her seat, Leah can see up his nostrils to the backs of the earrings.
Taking her barrette out of her jacket, she puts it in her mouth and pulls her hair back with both hands. She reaches behind her head with the barrette and hears the tiny snap of the clasp. “Is this my half-brother?” she says, glancing over at Marlene with her arms still bent over her head.
Marlene’s forehead crinkles, and then relaxes. “No,” she says, looking not back at Leah, but across at Leah’s father, her eyes twin chocolate stones. “I was already pregnant when we met.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Leah says, turning to face her father. Her elbow slips off the table, accidentally jabbing the waiter.
“Excuse me,” the waiter says. He sops up spilt tea with a dingy rag.
Marlene’s face doesn’t move at all. It is smooth and dark, the kind of face where expressions leave no permanent mark, unlike her father’s thin Slavic skin, where a shadow of everything he’s ever done or said or thought still lurks. He glances at Leah, then turns to look out the restaurant’s long row of windows.
“Why are you doing this, if it’s not your child?” Leah asks.
“Why not?” he says, smiling a small, thin-lipped smile.
She blinks at him. “I see,” she says. “Better late than never?”
Leah’s father reaches over and touches Leah’s hair, stroking the side of her head, something she is barely able to tolerate. His hands, long and slender, feel tentative like a cat’s paws. When he hugs her, his arms press in, then release, press in, and release — the movement comes like waves, it makes her seasick, but she can’t seem to draw away from him until he’s ready to let her go.
Her father and Marlene sit and eat. When Marlene is finished, she stands up, drawing the baby out from under her cloak where it fell asleep after nursing. She cradles it, murmurs to it, and readjusts its blankets. There is something — a grain or two of millet — stuck to the corner of her mouth. It looks like a beauty spot against her skin. “I’m so tired,” she says. “See you at home.” As Marlene turns to leave, she puts her hand on Leah’s shoulder, patting her like a dog.
Her father pays the bill and he and Leah walk back to the strand. She remembers years ago, the first time he brought her here, to see the roller-skaters and the old black man who played scratchy blues guitar. Leah had picked up a piece of driftwood and scratched words in the sand. “I love you, Daddy,” she had written. The wind had been icy cold and what she mourns most of all from that time is the way he felt so big and warm and solid when he hugged her, shielding her from the wind, lifting her up off her feet. They stood together like that for a long time. He had smelled so clean, so pure, like the ocean, a sweet yet salty moistness that she’d found nowhere else but on the Pacific.
They turn to go back to his apartment. “Dad,” she says. “Would you mind if I stayed with Grandma tonight? It’ll be easier. You won’t have to bother with the mattress.”
He takes her wrist, his fingers encircling it like a heavy bracelet. “You can’t stand being here?”
“No, I can’t” she says. “I feel awkward. A fifth wheel.”
“Well, I hope I haven’t done anything to make you feel that way,” he says.
“You haven’t,” she says. She stares at him. His palm against her wrist is cool and dry. She bites the inside of her cheek. “Didn’t you wonder how I was doing, all that time?”
“I thought about you every day,” he says, holding her wrist tighter.
They walk back to his apartment building. Leah turns and tilts her head. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he stands in front of her, leaning on her with most of his weight, pressing down a bit, causing her to bend at the knees, their old game.
When her father gets to the top of the steps, before entering the dark vestibule, he pauses and looks at her. “Goodbye, beautiful daughter,” he calls.
“Goodbye, handsome father,” she answers.