*A Best American Essays notable essay of 2015*
My father was waiting for me at the Fairmont Hotel, where a glass of red wine had already stained his lips. He jumped up and half-hugged me, as is the style on his side of the family, and said I looked great.
With a comfortable chair and an ocean view, I could feel myself relaxing in anticipation of the dinners, the swimming, the dog-walking on the beach, and the tennis we would play over the next three days. I had cleared my schedule to accommodate his visit.
Five minutes of small talk into the visit, my dad said, “There’s something that is coming out.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, expecting him to tell me one of the Republicans running for the nomination had dropped out of the race. He mentioned some people I didn’t know who got divorced and somebody who moved to Australia. I found myself tuning out.
I was thinking about dinner and a glass of wine when he said, “So anyway, I have another daughter.” He paused for a breath. “She’s thirty-four years old.”
My heart dropped down to my diaphragm and stuck there.
The mother, her name was Blair, had been my ice-skating teacher from when I was a little girl. Blair was my idol with her straight blond hair and thin legs. I went every Wednesday until one day Blair said she couldn’t be my teacher anymore. Then she dyed her hair brown.
My dad said this happened before he married his second wife. Blair was divorced too but then married somebody else who thinks this child is his. He’d recently been to see his other daughter in Berkeley, where his other daughter lives with her lawyer husband.
The couple—apparently it was the husband who insisted that my father was, in fact, his wife’s dad, although I couldn’t imagine why he would even know my dad—had visited my father in Milwaukee, where he (MY father) made it sound like he (MY father) and the other daughter had a blast.
I finally opened my mouth. “This kind of thing happens to people all the time in the interim periods of their lives.” What a load of crap. This kind of thing happens all the time on TV, but not to me. “People do something and they are never expecting such a lifelong consequence of something like a child.” He looked relieved. I felt my chest tightening. Clearly I had subconsciously joined the favorite daughter competition—although the lawyer husband gave her the edge.
I had never wanted a sister. My father, who taught me how to ride a bike, whom I ran to whenever I couldn’t tolerate living with my mother, who paid for my college, my father whom my grandmother deemed a saint, was not who he said he was.
My father liked to say he was a Woody Allen look-alike. He thought he was interesting because he had a place in New York, went to plays, and wore yellow, plastic shoes with holes in them from an expensive store. My father now had something in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards.
“The more the merrier.” I meant it with extreme irony, but it was lost on my father, who gave me another one of his half-hugs.
“Thank you!” he said. Keep it moving.
“Ready to go to dinner?” I fake smiled, gave my dad the ticket for the valet, and called my friend Liz, who was still at work.
“You said you were suspicious,” Liz said.
“I am shocked but not that surprised,” I said. My father was involved with a lot of women. He’d acted like a father to some of them. “Now what am I supposed to do? He’s here for days.”
“Tell him to leave,” she said.
I turned on the car radio, even though the drive to Rustic Canyon was short. There was a seating issue when we got there, so I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I dialed my therapist’s number. A short message with the news ended with, “See you Friday,” my regular appointment. It was two days away.
I wasn’t sure what I would be like by Friday or any day for the rest of my life. My father was the most important person on the planet to me. Growing up, I bought groceries for him and picked out furniture and even a new window that needed replacing in the bathroom. The way to gain my father’s adoration was to take care of him.
My skin felt hot. I didn’t know where to put my arms. I felt so obvious as his daughter. This explained my jealousy, why I’d always white-knuckled the paternal relationship. There was no way I was going to eat dinner sitting across from him with that look at his face and my grandfather’s jowls.
“Let’s eat at the bar,” I said.
“Are you the best person in here?” my dad asked the bartender. He always had to have the best of everything, especially if the person was waiting on him. She looked at him like, What the fuck? I liked her instantly.
“Do you have any of those big wine glasses?” He required a Burgundy wine glass for his Malbec, but not because he cared about wine. He knew nothing about wine and was only after the aesthetic. The burger was not as good as I remembered.
I was eager to drop him back at his hotel.
Wednesday night was usually my tennis night, but I was planning to skip it for my dad. After the announcement I changed my mind.
From the courts at Douglas Park, I called my mother. It’s later in Florida and the machine picked up. I called right back and she answered. She didn’t remember Blair.
“You sound agitated,” she said, as if I was overreacting.
That night tennis was my salvation. I relied on the normalcy of other people−my tennis friends. It felt good to run around under the lights and yell.
I felt a strange calm when I got home. It was like early post-natural disaster: I was still alive, but the damage assessment and body count was pending. Best to prepare. I turned on the Australian Open. Because of the time change, they were on late into the night. Chopped was waiting on the DVR. Some things were normal. I picked up my landline and called my dad.
“Hello?” he said with great enthusiasm, like he couldn’t wait to hear from anybody.
It took all of my patience to say, “Hi, Dad.”
“Are you watching these matches?”
“Not really, I went to my own tennis.”
“Oh, you did?” He could never stand to be left out of anything.
“It was such a nice night,” I said, the opposite of what was true. “It was good to get some air.” I was exploring my range.
“So we’re on for the morning?” he asked. “You’re going to pick me up?”
“Dad.” I took a breath. “You are inappropriate and you’ve caused me stress.” I went with neutral word choices. “I would like you to leave.”
Silence. It sunk in. “When?”
“Tomorrow. After lunch.”
The thing about emotional shock is it fits around you like a life preserver.
* * *
The next morning my first thought was that Blair was a whore. I wanted to call her up and say something terrible. I wanted to tell her husband his daughter was not his kid. I tried to do the math and figure out if my parents were even divorced yet when this child was conceived. My dad made it sound like they were, but the other daughter was so close in age to my brother that it seemed doubtful, since he was two-and-a-half when my parents split. I drove to Peet’s coffee with a deep understanding of why somebody would buy a convertible.
I handed my dad one of the coffees under the banyan tree that marks the entrance to the hotel and drove us to the pool. After the swim I gave him the keys to my car. He could get his own breakfast. Usually I tended to his every need, but I was waiting for a ride to my regularly scheduled tennis clinic in the Palisades. I’d heard that when in crisis, it is good to stick to your routines. I clung to mine.
At the court the sun came through the trees, and part of me was floating and part of me was cement. After we played my friend drove me back to my dad’s hotel. I told him what had happened. If I told people maybe I could get more used to it.
“So, are you going to meet this new sibling?” It was the first time I realized I actually had a sister. Half, but a sister. Had he told me her name? I couldn’t remember.
* * *
“Dad told me about his little secret,” I said later when I called my brother.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. He’d known for about a month. “If Dad was a white-collar criminal, I would still stand by him.”
“Dad drove my car and he broke something on it,” I said. “Something on the center console.” It was the latch to the storage compartment.
“Well, I’m sure he didn’t mean to.” My brother is adopted and I have heard that adopted kids are more accepting of their parents.
“What an asshole,” I said. He said nothing. At least he let me have that one.
* * *
It would be a long time before I spoke to my father again. He called, but I ignored it and erased the message without listening to it. How dare he. Don’t call me. I never met the other daughter. There was grief even though my father was still living; it felt to me as if he’d died. The pragmatic, fun-loving, reliable father was gone.
I became sentimental about stuff he had given me: The watch he gave me for my fortieth birthday was dug from my junk drawer and worn. A lady I met in the locker room at the pool told me, “Honey, wear that watch or you’ll be old like me and that watch won’t have a scratch on it.” I preferred the shiny version of things, but it seemed time I get used to some scratches.