No one talked in the waiting room. A man with his back bent swept the clean floors, slowly. I wondered if he was a prisoner too.
We were late because I had tried on one outfit and then another, reverted back to the first, put on some makeup and then took it off. I was 13 years old, visiting my father in prison for the first time, and it was easier to worry about what to wear than what I might feel when I saw him.
Dad had sent my sister, Caitlin, and me instructions before we flew over to California from England where we lived with our mother. “Watches, open-toed shoes, see-through clothing, tight pants, revealing shirts or blouses, halter or sleeveless shirts, hoodies, athletic pants or jogging shorts are not allowed.” There were other rules too, like we could only hug when saying hello and goodbye.
Caitlin was two years older than me, covered in clusters of freckles just like our dad. She was the strong one; at times it was hard to tell she was even affected. Our big brother Evan was doing an internship in London so he was unable to join us. Dad had the wife of his cellmate act as our guardian instead, and she escorted us through the system: the metal detectors, pat downs, and paperwork, all impersonal, and then a web of barbed wire and barriers, and somehow through all of this I remember the blue, blue California sky.
I spotted Dad before we reached the visiting room, through layers of wire fencing, the sniper in a watchtower circling above. Dad’s hand was raised to his face to block out the sun while looking for us. It was a face so particular to him in its mixture of anticipation and worry, the same face from back in the days he picked us up from school. I waved at him, but he turned his back on me. I was bereft for a moment, and then the guard told me not to make hand gestures at the prisoners. I understood that this would be awful in ways I was entirely unprepared for. They had won. After everything that had happened in our lives, after the decade we had spent on the run from the FBI, I still wasn’t prepared to see my dad in prison.
It was five years earlier, on a sunny Wednesday morning before school, that Mom first told us our father was a fugitive.
We were living in Bradford on Avon at the time, and every other weekend we visited Dad at his townhouse in London. I looked forward to this time together: late-night movie watching, takeaway pizza, and chocolate milk before bed. I still harbored secret hopes my parents might one day get back together.
Mom was waiting for us in her king-size bed. It was the same bed in which I was born, and the same bed that had travelled with us all the way round the world, from California where this all started through the five countries and 13 houses that followed, with more yet to come.
Climbing in next to Caitlin, I shoved and wriggled, attempting to claim more pillow territory, wanting us to be silly, but Mom wasn’t playing. She was still, waiting, tense. She began once we were settled.
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“There is something important we have to talk about,” she said. “Something’s happened, and things might be a bit difficult for a while.”
She went on to tell us in simple and clear sentences that our father was wanted by the police for crimes he had committed back in California when we were both small. She said it was for him to tell us what he had done when he was ready. She explained that was why we had left America when I was two and why we had moved around so often. Seven years had passed, and Mom and Dad believed it was behind us until the authorities showed up on our doorstep the week before, and Dad had disappeared, on the run once more. She didn’t know where he had gone or when he might get in touch.
“He loves you both very much,” she added, “and he would never want to be separated from you like this.”
She told us other things on that morning, equally incomprehensible. Our family name, Kane, was not our own but an alias, like criminals use, and my real name was Tyler Wetherall. I tried it out for size on my tongue and felt like a stranger. Our phone, our house, and our car were likely bugged by Scotland Yard – they were working in conjunction with the FBI to find our dad – and we had to assume anytime we talked they were listening. If anyone approached us at school or in the street asking about Dad we were not to speak to them. Most importantly, we must tell no one what was happening in our lives.
The next day we went back to school as if nothing had happened. I answered “yes” to my fake name when the teacher called it and felt like a liar. I wasn’t that girl anymore. She didn’t really exist. We’d made her up along with the rest of our family, but now we had to carry on pretending to be them, as if we were still the same people, telling the same stories we had always told. I felt displaced and uncertain.
Before we learned that Dad was a fugitive, I had lied without knowing it. When perceptive parents pointed out some aspect of our childhood that didn’t make sense – the frequent house moves, the elusive nature of my father’s work, our name changes – I made something up; I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. I said we travelled the world because my parents were hippies and thought it would be good for us; I said we moved to Europe from America because my mom wanted to be closer to her English family; I said my father was a stockbroker and his work had taken him abroad. All these things were true in their own way, but shades of truth that hid the actual truth completely.
Now I knew I was lying and I knew what was at stake. More than anything I was scared it would be something I said or did that would lead them to him.
When I was younger, I was wholly unaware of what was happening; it wasn’t strange to me because it was all I knew. For the most part, we lived a normal childhood: my siblings and I still squabbled in the back seat of the car as we moved around Europe, and we ate home-cooked family meals almost every evening. My mom was a former model who ran away from home at 16 and then paid her way through New York University, graduating summa cum laude. She had agreed to go on the run with Dad mainly because it seemed like a better adventure than being a jail wife raising three kids alone. And for a moment it was.
I don’t remember when they told us our names were changing, but it must have happened. I only remember that some time after I decided I would change my name every day. I announced over breakfast that I was now Rainbow Raindrop Sunshine Moonlight, and I only answered to that one name, but the next day I became Princess Moon Star, and so on. Names had lost their permanence.
In those most itinerant years Dad always traveled separately from us, and now I know that was so if he were arrested we wouldn’t see him taken away. This was also because we travelled on our real passports – Mom insisted she never broke the law so we wouldn’t wind up with two parents in prison – and Dad worried our names would be flagged on the computer system. There was this push and pull between love and selfishness, between wanting to protect us from harm while being the cause of us being in harm’s way.
When Mom and Dad divorced, I was only four, not old enough to see how unhappy Mom had been; all I could see was that she made Dad leave, and now Dad was heartbroken and alone, and I took his side. I chose him. So when he disappeared again, and didn’t take me with him, I felt like my world had fallen apart. I remember asking Mom why I felt so sad all the time, and she told me I was heartbroken. I said if this was what it felt like, I never wanted to fall in love.
At the same time as worrying about my flat chest and first kiss, I also worried about the two shadowy men who started following us home from school and the click on the phone that meant they were listening. We lived in a state of quiet anxiety.
The last time I had seen Dad before his arrest was on my 12th birthday through the back window of a taxi in St. Lucia where we were visiting him in hiding. He was standing on the side of the road with a sports bag thrown over his shoulder, waving goodbye in the dusty pink morning. They found him not long after. Almost exactly two years later, I was waiting to see him in prison, and from the child I was then, I had grown up, cropped my hair short and dyed it black. I couldn’t imagine what he might make of me now. I felt like a completely different girl.
In the run-up to that first visit I had projected myself into cinematic showdowns with Dad. I would tell him that he had lost the right to act like my father, because if he really loved us then he would never have let this happen. He would never have let us be separated like this. In my 13-year-old logic it was as simple as that.
Going through the final set of gates into the visiting room, I felt the nerves stirring that had been sitting within me since the breakfast I hadn’t eaten. Dad was there waiting and he smiled when he saw us. He looked so much smaller than the dad I remembered and so much older. His hair was grayer than before and thinner at the top. I saw all at once that prison shrinks you so you’re more like a child – easier to package and control. He had been in prison for less than two years and already he was shrinking. I was scared the dad I knew might disappear completely.
He pulled Caitlin and me in for a hug – he made the same happy growling noise he had always made – and any resolve I had to be angry fell away.
We found a picnic table outside, and as we spoke, I tried to see no further than the space between his eyes and mine, beyond which the reality of prison guards with guns and barbed wire and the slow passing of time was impossible to avoid.
Lunch rolled around and we ate microwaved honey-roasted turkey burgers from the vending machine. With the sun high in the sky, Dad put his coat over my shoulders, worried my arms were going to get burned, and gave me a little squeeze. A guard came over and told him to remove his jacket from the visitor. Dad winced. He removed his jacket. Visitors aren’t allowed to wear a prisoner’s uniform. He hung his head, visibly deflated. I saw then how much he was struggling to narrow the space between the father he had been to me and the man he was now, reduced by his incarceration, and I wanted so much to make that struggle easier for him.
Eventually, the conversation slowed to silence, and all that passed between us was the gentle traffic of the shuffling cards as we played gin rummy. At the end of the next game, Dad put the cards to one side. He looked at each of us in turn and then, speaking carefully, he began: “Girls, we’re going to have a lot of time to talk over the course of these visits, and as you can see, there’s not much else to do apart from really work on our game.” He smiled, staring out beyond the barbed wire to the flat horizon. He turned back to us. “I want to use this time to try to explain how I ended up in so much trouble. I know we’ve been dealt a rough hand, but as a family we can pull through this and one day we’re going to come out the other side stronger. Okay?”
And so he began to tell us his story, over the course of our two weekend visits every summer holiday, seven hours each and then a year to wait until the next visit, year after year until the end of his sentence, by which time I was an adult. A story about the choices he made and why, about the ’60s and Samsonite suitcases, about Toni the Thai General, about trucks and planes and tankers, and pot growing villages deep in the jungle, about taking things too far, about taking things for granted, and ultimately about loss.
During these years, I was also growing up, learning to accept my parents as mistake-making people no different than myself, and to see the choices he had made in terms more shaded than black and white. It would take longer still before I forgave him, but those stories over microwaved honey-roasted turkey burgers inside a prison visiting pen were the start.
There was the dad I knew from before Scotland Yard turned up in our life, the dad of late-night movies and chocolate milk before bed; and there was the faraway father of those fugitive years; and then there was this new dad, who I was yet to know, going by his real name for the first time in my life, finally taking the steps he needed to put his past behind us.
* * *
Adapted from “No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run”, by Tyler Wetherall, copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
Hear Tyler Wetherall read in person at Narratively’s first-ever Memoir Monday live event, April 16 in Brooklyn.