I am lying on my back on an industrial khaki carpet with a semi-automatic screwdriver in my hand, assembling a six-paneled IKEA desk frame for my father, who has just landed in a new retirement community.
At eighty-seven, my father still marvels at my ability to wield a wrench. “Wow, I had no idea you were so good with tools,” he says, donning the gracious air reserved for those who grew up overseas before the 1950s. “Just terrific,” he says shaking his head, while my brother hands me tiny plastic and silver prefab bits from the floor. The four-hour Swedish construction meditation tests our spirit, as well as my fifty-one-year-old bone density.
After nineteen years in the Golden Gateway apartments in downtown San Francisco, my father moved into Grand Lake Gardens, a nice retirement community in Oakland. Everyone here asks him, “Why did you move from San Francisco?” As if making the fifteen-minute drive across the bridge was too bold a course for an octogenarian.
He responds, “It just fits.” And we are happy for him.
Now he can relax, we are hoping. Three meals a day, Qui Gong classes and seventy retired people sharing chicken cacciatore dining privileges. And what? Even a good Kosher bakery across the street, just down the block from the historic Grand Lake Theater, a farmer’s market and Trader Joe’s.
After we finish the desk, amid my father’s exclamations of joy and wonder, my brother departs for the road home to Los Angeles and I plop down on the couch next to my father in front of a flat-screen Rachel Maddow, his “favorite liberal female.”
I take a short swallow and clear my throat.
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“I understand that Jim told you about his situation this morning,” I say. I have waited until my brother is gone before bringing up the subject of his likely separation from the mother of his two young daughters. I glance up at my father. “Terrible,” my dad says, shaking his head and looking down at his brown spotted hands. “Just terrible.”
“They were together seventeen years,” I say, “just like you and mom.” After the words leave my lips, I’m unsure where this highlighted similarity will take us.
My dad mutes the TV and stares into his lap.
“You know, your mother had her first climax with me, just before she decided to end the marriage,” he says. His revelation is circa 1970, but from his somber expression as he scratches at a thread popping out of the seam of the couch cushion, it could have been yesterday.
“Then we drove all the way back home, and she was so happy in the car,” he continues, “She said that was all she had wanted and needed. And now she could stay with me forever.”
They had been at a Masters and Johnson sex therapy clinic in the hopes of mending their intimate relationship, but my mother, donning loose knit ponchos with the entrails of a pot roach in her pouch pocket, already had one foot out the door.
My father continues: “and the next day in front of our therapist she said it was over. She never even told me. She just said it to the counselor — ‘The marriage is over.’”
“Was it really the very next day?” I ask, trying to focus on something concrete, rather than the image my father has conjured. “Right after you came back from the clinic? Was it maybe the same week?” I offer. “You were away for a weekend?”
“Well maybe,” he says. “She had been so happy during the drive. We were excited and making plans for the future.”
He looks up at me. Although forty-four years have transpired, he still doesn’t understand quite what happened.
I let out a breath and stare out the window. How can I hope to explain it to him, when I scarcely understand it myself?
When my kids were two and four I shocked myself and left my husband for a woman, coming out in mid-life. And since that time I have remained a gay woman, living alone with my kids, my ex a mile away. We raise our two daughters together, yet under the messy disjointed umbrella of divorce.
I look at my father now on the couch — still hoping for me to reveal the mystery of women, wives like my mother and I who, as he once said to me, “leave their marriages because of sex.”
Who are we? I wonder.
Fragmented at best, we hold our fingers up to block the sun and squint like everyone else. We have given up our mortgages and cozy family-of-four cookouts in order to chase something that is elusive and never quite won. When the notion that my daughters will soon leave for college, and the lightness of their beings — sweet-dream kisses goodnight and promises of hot chocolate — will be subdivided evermore, sends me to my knees, I sometimes forget what I ever did it for.
But then I stare out the window and remember the reason. While my mother left my father because he was an unbudgeable “square” in 1969, for me it was sexual orientation. Yet my sexual identity is something so personal it exists outside language, and there is no way to adequately explain it to my father. Instead I sit and say nothing, merely absorbing the weight of his pain and long-worn confusion.
After some moments I offer, “Shall I come back next Sunday? Maybe we could watch a ball game together?”
“Sounds good, Jenny,” he responds, startling into the present at the sound of my voice. “I would like it if you brought the girls, won’t you?”
I nod my head.
On the drive home as I merge with the traffic on the freeway, the lights blur and the colors fray. Since my mother died from ALS in 2006, I alone carry the torch of defiance for the women in our family who went astray.
I may not have an intact nuclear family, but today I got to witness the depths of my father’s pain. And despite the bleak emotional landscape of the experience for both of us, I revel in moments like this, where our memories rise up and remind us who we no longer are.