Her Inner Life
At age seven, Ella began to wonder about her father in earnest. A picture was not readily available. She wondered mostly what he looked like — she hoped he was tall and handsome the way her mother said. By the time she was ten, she didn’t want to take her mother’s word for it any more. After a year of whining, she wore her mother down — the cracked college yearbook was finally located, at the bottom of a Smirnoff’s box buried under a stack of her stepfather’s mildewed Playboy magazines. She had not been told of her father’s dead-end acting career. There he was, dressed as a cowboy; a secret agent; the ghost from “Carousel.” She did not feel she resembled him in the least, and though she never asked, doubted her paternity.
Another year or two went by before his address and phone number were procured — she paid for the detective herself out of her birthday and Christmas checks, sent by ancient relatives she’d never met. The detective’s office was over a piano store, next to an Oriental rug dealer, across from the husband-and-wife team of CPAs she occasionally baby-sat for. The CPAs’ house was filthy, but their children glowed with vitality. Her own house was spotless but everyone living in it wore a glum face, right down to the dog and cat.
As soon as she heard her father’s voice, she was sorry she’d called. He sounded so superior, teasing her for wanting to be both a veterinarian and a lawyer when she grew up. She hoped to prove him wrong. How could she say no when he asked to see her? No would have been cowardly.
She didn’t know what to wear — she didn’t want to seem too eager – but though she hadn’t seen him since age 4, she didn’t want him to be disappointed in her. She decided, therefore, to take no special pains whatsoever. She met him in her gym suit, straight from school. He had taken no pains either, and she was shocked to find little current resemblance to his old Hollywood photographs. Since then, he’d gone to law school and joined the counterculture. His jeans were torn through at the knees, his feet were bare and his beard bright red, patchy at the sides of his face like an animal with mange.
He hugged her and felt thin, bony, and unimpressive. He wanted to take her out for a meal; she lied and said her mother would not allow it. They walked around the yard — he eyed her like a snake eyeing a mouse. She could not decide if she liked him. He was scary and gave her the creeps, but his hand on her shoulder felt exactly right, weight and warmth she’d dreamed of for years. She insisted on calling him “Father” when what he wanted of her was “Daddy.” It was too late for “Daddy.” She could not tell him about her anger, nor did she know why it flowed from her, spoiling every glance, every word, every touch. Her relationship with him felt doomed from the start. What had he ever done for her except ejaculate into her mother?
After she sent him away that first time, all hippies became associated with her guilt. They looked so pure, so much like him. He sent her his campaign flyers for Santa Monica city council, on the Communist Party ticket, but he was not elected. She felt his failure as keenly as her own when she was not chosen for the cheerleading squad despite smearing Vaseline on her front teeth to remind herself to keep her lips up in a smile. She did not know that years later she would view her failure, and his, as a blessing.
When he visited her again the following year, she could not bring herself to wonder why he asked her to sit on his lap. She discussed with him her virginity, and he advised her to retain it as long as humanly possible. He had been a virgin until he entered her mother on the night she herself was conceived. This endeared him to her in a way, but she was afraid to say so.
She decided the reason he’d let a decade go by without contacting her was that she had been a particularly dull and unimpressive child. He pointed out her bourgeois, middle-class tendencies with uncanny insight; his pale blue eyes held neither love nor pity but only relentless curiosity. She knew that her mother was the only woman of European descent in his life — he found African and Asian women exotic, and they seemed more suited to his cause. She herself was as far from “exotic” as it was possible to be. The bones in her face were not only unspectacular, but nearly invisible. Yet for some reason, he decided she resembled him — perhaps it was the asymmetry of her features, neither of them was the same person from both the right and left.
In court, he was a master. He performed a ballet of cross-examination, each movement of his limbs expressing sullen yet respectful disbelief. He got all his clients off, even the guilty ones, and she realized this made him feel powerful over her as well. Yet he flinched when his own clients admired her blossoming body. He hustled them away from her, radiating his distress. He took her out for Vietnamese lemongrass soup and steamed dumplings and labeled himself a hypocrite. “I didn’t want that man to shake your hand,” he said, staring into his fragrant bowl.
Later, when he took her to see the Pacific Ocean, blocks from his house — just the two of them — she flung herself at him like a wave, wrapping her arms around his torso like involuntary tentacles. She was not a girl any longer — she had become something more complicated, less pronounceable. She hated to remember how “I love you” had emerged from her throat that day like a poisonous gas. If she had been capable of forgetting him, she would have. Gladly.
Her sleep became restless — back home in Florida, his spirit stood silently by her bed at night like an abandoned puppy. She started not answering his long letters, written in blue ink on yellow legal pads — she stopped trying so hard to decipher his dramatic, lovely yet unreadable handwriting. The letters only got longer and more frequent.
She didn’t know why he kept after her — why he had suddenly decided she was the most wonderful creature on earth. She hoped he’d give up. She kept trying to hurt him. He moved to her state, then her county, finally her town. She never called him. He took a janitorial position at a strip club, for research, he said, and he started interviewing the strippers for a book. She felt his attraction to her — he took her to Dairy Queen, told her he’d always been drawn to her. At 19, she could finally believe him, not that these truths brought either of them the slightest comfort. He planned the rest of their lives; she resented this but kept quiet — it was the closest she’d ever felt to him. She prayed he’d go back to the west coast and recover his senses. He listed the bar exams he’d be taking in the years to come. They’d be roomies, he hoped.
She knew she’d have to get away. She didn’t know how. He took to smoking sensimilla and wolfing banana splits; he claimed his health to be pristine. He’d re-create the past for everyone. Meanwhile, her mother threatened to call the police if he came to her house. She suddenly doubted ever residing in that woman’s uterus. She doubted being content there; no silken, fetal dreams had been hers.
Occasionally she wished all three of them dead. Their physical cravings appeared to have no other solution. Every night, her mother ate only spinach and cottage cheese, washed down with cheap jug wine, and then vodka. She slowly became insensible on the floor in front of the TV. Her mother also popped pills like Tic-Tacs. Mom journaled her drug use on small spiral notebooks in her stingy, back slanting Gregg method shorthand. Her mother yearned most for a man between her legs just as Ella herself had to beat them off with a stick. She advised her mother to find a man in church, but her mother stuck to bars named Banana Boat and Trader Jack’s. Mom wept each time she drove past a church spire. Her mother missed God more than sex.
Ella envied her father his height, his curly hair, his blue eyes, even his penis. She remembered him showing her the hospital she’d been born in — she imagined his disappointment when no appendage dangled between her plump red thighs at birth. She remembered doors slamming, voices raised to sharpness, and his long cool fingers driving a pin “accidentally” into her pot belly. It was the last time she’d loved him with that selfish baby heart.
She composed a letter to him explaining why she didn’t ever want to be spanked again, then never mailed it. She felt guilty for sleeping with the one woman among her friends she knew he was attracted to. But she never let guilt talk her out of anything novel. Only the familiar could be burned away by guilt.
Even fifteen years after he died, she knew why she’d never been attracted to older men, wiser men, men who could have gone to school with her father. She remembered seeing the top of his autopsy incision over the neck of his plain blue chambray shirt as he lay in his coffin; she remembered wanting, but being too afraid to touch him, settling for touching the starched collar of the shirt instead; settling for less than she dreamed, as she always had and presumably always would. To profess love was a lie; hate was also a lie. She didn’t know which lie looked better; she didn’t know and she didn’t care; best of all, she didn’t care.