By Kathryn B. Jackson
Your intuition might fail you. Your sniffing-dog sense for the perils of men — your extrasensory radar for the false love of fathers in particular, having known your own father’s false love — you could, at any instant, go noseblind, and get it wrong. There is always room for your human error.
You may detect danger where there is no danger. Conversely, you may, for many years, remain oblivious to a danger beneath your snout. This is to say, the men who touch their children may arrive in the guise of the father you have always wanted. The men who touch their children, in fact, may appear as the father-ideal.
The men who touch their children may listen to David Bowie. They may even revere Leonard Cohen, though less relentlessly than your own father. Unlike your father, perhaps they do not dwell unceasingly in the same Juno Award-winning Leonard Cohen record from 1992. Perhaps they know, after the tenth or eleventh consecutive listen, to cut the power from the dual cassette/compact-disc player, to stop the spinning of the vinyl record on the player they have had since they were nineteen, twenty, twenty-five. Perhaps the men who touch their children are — ironically — more immediately conscious of the fragile sensibilities of their daughters, more enlightened to the fact that such endless rotation of such grim lyricism might provoke a soft anxiety in the daughter. That years later, having listened so to the deft, elegiac, driving title track of that same 1992 record, the very word repent will send Catholic shivers through the daughter’s stiffened spine. A tremble in the hands. Low tension in the gut.
The men who touch their children, with their filthy hands, will share their noontime food with you. They will open their pantries, their ancient ovens, microwaves stained by years. They will drive you to the Jewish delicatessen on the far-west side of town; from the neighborhood iteration of the regional chain-supermarket, they will provide fresh lox for your scallion-schmear bagel.
In winter, you will sleep in the room left unoccupied by the daughter who no longer speaks to them. In summer, they will share their six-pack of low-calorie beer, and you will sit drinking with them on the concrete porch in hot afternoon. Summer bugs will bother at your ears, your sweating neck.
This is to say, that what you read about the stranger in the children’s park, the dirty granduncle, criminal babysitter, will not protect you from your own fearsome idealism. Your fearsome idealism, seeking out the father-ideal, will interpret cold guilt as the sheer warmth of love. You will admire the paternal fervor of the men who touch their children, mistaking it for a passion which eluded your ancestry. You of the mother who sought to shuffle off her motherhood, like a binding around the ribs. Mother who found the mothers of your classmates to be loathsome and dreary — those dreadful-dull mothers who speak of nothing but their children, your mother would say, to you. You, of the father of few words and fewer demonstrations of love. Father who spilled dinner wine on your fourth-grade homework, circled the stain with a pencil, and wrote, red wine spill: accident, an arrow directed towards that violet splatter.
You of shameful, shirking parentage. Mothers who dress younger than their years; fathers who fail to answer the ringing telephone. The emotion may even make you cry, when it happens: the convergence of your childhood’s reality with its seeming opposite. Fathers who speak in sing-song and dear petnames, tender abbreviations of the names they gave their daughters. Men who do not swear; men of specialty recipes. Men who cannot cook, but try earnestly, with heart. You will absorb the gently paternalistic abbreviations, taste the spaghetti with ground-venison sauce, and you will be enchanted. So enchanted, you will neglect the taste of stale dread in the air.
You will neglect the unspeaking daughter. You might even think her mad.
Pitifully curled on a cold-leather living room couch, far from the aridity and seductive ornamentation of your home state, you might even leak tears, cursing that daughter’s name. Snotnosed and livid, you will mourn those blessings she had squandered, the privilege of a father who did not dwell in song, who did not spill, who always answered the ringing telephone.
Years later, she will tell you. You will be in a kitchen of Lazy Susan cabinets and ceramic figurines of tropical fauna. She will be slicing angel food cake, or squeezing half-limes into sugar and heavy cream. Later, you will sleep uneasily beside her under dry-smelling quilts, the fabric weighty and stiff.
She will tell it indirectly, so that the horror seeps into you slow, like a gas into an enclosed room. She will regret the telling, audibly, almost instantaneously. She will apologize for the burden she has placed upon you, in the telling, and you will answer, honestly, that you are wholly unburdened. You hope to be a neutral party in this house of raising voices, antique figurines, the peculiar yet familiar forces of a family which is not yours. You tell her that you hope she feels she can share anything with you, safely. You are not invested; you will never tell.
And sure, you are unburdened, but in an hour or even three you will lie unsleeping beneath the quilts of grandparents who are not your own, beside a sister who is not yours. And you will think about her long, pale hands, stinging of lime juice, and you will think about her as a young child, being woken in the dark. You will think about her sister, too, a dear friend to you, and wonder if she was ever forcibly woken. You will wonder. Think about the beer on your lips in summer and your own dumb snout and the cruel and stifled shame of being very, very wrong.
Kathryn B Jackson was born in Los Angeles, CA, and, nowadays, lives and works in Iowa City, IA. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 215.