I visit my parents for the last time and the entire trip I bat away a suspicion that my dad feels left out. I have a new boyfriend, Mark—he’s the purpose of the trip—and I’m so in love with him I sweat with it. My legs and only my legs get sunburned at a Giants game and Mark calls me “watermelon thighs.” My mom insists he sleep in my brother’s room and makes him sing along with her to Elvis Costello. But my dad, even while sitting beside me, always seems to be in the next room.
Two weeks later, he packs a duffle bag with the binder labeled “Stout Family $” and some clean shirts, and leaves. There will be no negotiating the choice. My mom calls me at 5 on a Tuesday, crying, and I take the call in the alley outside my office.
Everything I do in the days that follow, I do by phone. On the first night, I beg my dad to reconsider. He sits in his car at the top of his old driveway, a pizza on the passenger’s seat. I bargain. I demand he hand over evidence against himself for crimes of husband and fatherhood I am certain he’s committed. I insist he tell the truth, as if it’s some static thing I can own and refer to in the coming years. I might as well be storing fog in a jar for later study.
I realize he hadn’t felt left out, because he’d already left. My thighs are still darker than the rest of my legs.
My roommate has a friend in town who stays up all night making beans so we can eat them “a la carte” throughout the week she’s here. In the morning, she sees an empty wine bottle and a roll of toilet paper forming a tableau of feminine sadness on the coffee table, and asks me what’s up with that. I tell her about my parents. She nods and puts her hands together as if she’s about to pray. “Mmm” she says, and tells me that there’s a reason for all this: Mars has just entered Taurus. She offers me beans to take to work.
I have an ulcer that begins to burn at 5 every afternoon, but I work until 6:30 answering phones, and there’s no negotiating that. August will be over in three days, and my mom has asked for help paying her September rent. I make $35,000 a year and I haven’t eaten dinner in going on four nights. I call my dad on the walk home from the subway and sweat into the speaker. I tell him I’m so scared that I’ve been trolling egg-donation websites. I say this to scare him, suspecting the prospect of a bunch of people with his DNA out there, potentially being raised by Republicans or people who don’t like dogs might entice him to give my mom rent money.
I throw up into a garbage can on DeKalb and watch my puke cascade down a mountain of trash. I buzz with anger and kick the trash can. “You need to relax,” a woman spits at me.
I don’t leave my bedroom except for work. Every night my phone heats up the right side of my face until all hours as my mom pours her fears into the receiver. I go to bed panting and wake up the same way.
A friend’s old roommate moves to town. I don’t know him, but I don’t know anyone, and he has no friends, so I take him for falafel to be nice. He tells me he could never date a woman with divorced parents. He says it the way I hear some women write off short men. I tell him I could never date anyone who works in corporate operations engineering. I never see him again.
Mark comes to California for the first Christmas without my dad. The youngest of our three family dogs gets sick and Mark has to carry him from the apartment to the car on a blanket. I have a cold, but I’ve never needed Mark to love me more, so I dress like a real family kind of girl and take him and one of the healthy dogs for a hike. We eat oranges on the top of a mountain while the healthy dog runs through grass as tall as she is. The sick dog dies on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Day, my mom, brother, and I drive around the city delivering food to people who have no one. A Vietnam vet tells me he keeps the tree up all year long. I hand him a tray of microwaveable ham and consider throwing myself through his window.
We get home and it’s still light out. As a gift to me, my mom has wrapped up her old wedding band.
Some divorces involve a lot of time in court. Judges admonish my mom for her decisions. She can no longer afford a lawyer. No one seems to remember that it was my dad who did the leaving. Contrary to expectations, my ulcer gets better.
Mark and I move in together. We return the U-Haul and he leaves for a month, for work. I sit on the bed and drink three Modelos. I pick at my face. I cut my split ends. I google “children of divorce” and discover the acronym ACOD, which stands for “Adult Children Of Divorce.” I discover that there are listicles designed just for me. What a delight! I am told it’s alright to still be hurt and that moving on takes time, but I have to understand that my parents are adults who deserve happiness. I am angry and sleepy by the end of every sentence on these blogs. I really lean into my new diagnosis. I get drunk alone and put on a lot of mascara, just to make a scene.
I ride my bike to a Unitarian Universalist church. A white couple with tattooed arms waves at me from a few pews back. The crowd reminds me of the people who comment on certain websites. It’s full of bent souls whose rise above it all came with nose piercings. I suspect some people in the room might describe their religion as “kindness.” Just the thought of this moves me to tears.
After the service, there’s lemonade. The couple introduces itself. They take me for beers at a place of their choosing and we slurp them down with an evangelical thirst. I do not find religion that day.
Money has been spent. On people or things is unclear, and the house is sold at a loss.
I text my mom. Will she meet me after work for a drink? I got promoted! She brings her friend Kevin. He shows up drunk and tells me “what a rush” it is to play in the orchestra at The Lion King, which is his job.
My brother is very sick. My mom goes to Chicago to collect him and bring him to New York for care, and the ordeal threatens a court date. We sit in a diner across the street from my mom’s apartment to mull over how to fix this latest problem. She can’t leave, but she can’t stay. A kid on the news has threatened to bomb an airport and is arrested at the gate. Neither of us has slept in two days. She misses the court date.
The main project has become convincing others that the pain I’m feeling deserves sympathy. To hedge against that plan’s failure, I pretend that I’m fine. These feelings are paradoxical and I achieve nothing. I live my life as if I’ve waded halfway into a river and neither side looks appealing. I haven’t drowned yet, and from the banks, I appear to be waving.
I encounter people—many people—who are joyful about divorce. I am instructed again and again to be glad my dad has found happiness. I am chastised for my selfishness by people whose parents sleep in the same bed.
My mom moves into a new apartment and we toast to the fact that her new life is an honest one, where nothing is fake. Neither of us believes we are better off, but what choice do we have? The healthy dog looks on approvingly.
I’m back at the falafel place. The face sitting across from me belongs to a friend from college and it’s telling me that her parents almost divorced a few years ago, so she gets it. This is my least favorite line. She says it’s so much better to have two happy divorced parents than two unhappy parents who are married. I ask her how on earth she’d know.
The help I get from the world outside my head is all about happiness and who’s entitled to it when. On a day when the trees in my neighborhood have shivered off all their leaves, I call my dad, demanding to know why he put his happiness before mine. The heater is on too high. I’ve been drinking and I’m not wearing pants. He tells me he was a good father to me for 22 years.
I trace every misfortune of mine back to the divorce. I begin to claim that my failures don’t belong to me, and I consider the fact that no one can see that to be my biggest oppressor. I hate the story people tell each other about adult girls with divorced dads. I hate the shape my life takes in their minds, the condescending attitude that since my greatest pain is a commonplace one, it must also be plain and manageable. I list the ways this divorce is different from all others. I begin to lose track of the reasons why as the list grows. In dreams, I yell at people then slink away from them, mortified. In my waking hours, my blood throws a tantrum inside my own body every minute of every day.
My mom keeps referring to her friend Kevin as “my friend Kevin.”
There had once been money in a retirement fund that’s now empty. My dad has no memory of spending its contents and lashes out when I ask him to account for their absence. I suspect he’s lying to me. I add his bank account and my mom’s to a growing list of responsibilities and resentments, though both deny I’ll ever have to worry about them. I’ve stopped trying to map where my dad spent his time and money in 2011. What he can conceal he does, and what he can’t he claims not to remember.
Lies are both problem and solution. My most persistent wish is for either full truth or a family life smothered in lies. Over and over I’m told that to have broken-up parents is better than a fake marriage, but I’d seen one operate and I preferred it.
Dad’s alimony checks stop coming and the savings account is making trouble again. My wedding to Mark is a few weeks away. I call to bargain, to threaten. He picks up from the car. I turn off the air conditioner to better hear him because he sounds far away. His story about the checks doesn’t match my mom’s, so I conference her in. It’s the first time I’ve had them both on the phone in years. Their voices sound like two songs playing at the same time. I take a screenshot of my phone’s display and send to a friend with the caption “just like old times.”
I’m on the phone with my dad on the sidewalk beneath the apartment where a friend has been staying. In June, she and another of my friends were hit by a truck on their way to my bachelorette party. That this is where they were going makes me want to cut off my own head, but it’s the truth. The friend has titanium in her pelvis and her leg, and requires both a wheelchair and an apartment that can accommodate one. Her uncle’s got that second thing, and he’s let her and her mother stay there for this purpose.
By now, my mom lives in a walk-up apartment, and my dad lives at his mom’s house, also behind a waterfall of stairs. On the phone with my dad, I demand to know where I might have gone if I’d been hit, too. I shout into the receiver, “I have nowhere to go because of you!” I hang up and barf into the gutter.
I go up to the apartment, where my friend is sitting on a deck that overlooks Houston Street. Her face is flatter than I’ve ever seen it, and so is her mother’s. A map of her pain is drawn across her body in metal. We are not mangled in any comparable way. We order sushi.
I keep doing this thing where I go to a dinner party and after a few minutes of hearing about everyone’s jobs, I place my beating heart on the coffee table right next to the hummus and expect everyone to answer for it. They look at me like I’ve lost my mind.
It’s been nearly five years. Signs come from every direction that there’s no more room for “the divorce.” It’s taken up so much space in my life that, by now, every move I make is designed for its topography. I have done no writing about it and have nothing to say about it other than that it hurts. I begin to fear that Mark is disappearing behind the heavy curtain of this divorce. I feel his limit approaching and I’m no closer to resolution.
For my grandma’s eightieth birthday, we meet her at the beach. She tells me “it’s time” for me to spend Thanksgiving with her and my dad. Divorces require two bodies but I only have one.
My dad and his girlfriend send a Christmas card in the mail. We aren’t on it, but her kids are. I take dampened pleasure at the thoughtlessness of the gesture. It’s the perfect token to tote around and throw up against the light to illustrate where it hurts without getting too serious about anything.
Mark and I spend Christmas Eve on the couch in my mom’s apartment. I tell him about a recurring nightmare I had as a kid: a Christmas tree is on the bank of a river that boils like a jacuzzi, and the tree has lights on it that aren’t lit. He isn’t sure that counts as a nightmare. I tell him I just haven’t explained it well, but come to think of it, I’m not sure either, and the twenty-year-old weight of it rushes out of me.
My dad’s getting married. I tell him I’m happy for him. I spend two days coming up with how to tell my mom. When I finally do, she says she doesn’t care. My life has become the kind of thing that, frankly, I’d rather not participate in, if no one minds.
My dad tells me my mom is lying about some things, but he won’t say what. There’s a boiling river that runs under his voice and I hear its current splash sometimes.
The forums on the internet tell me how “blessed” I am no longer to be “living a lie.” That any of us is no longer “living a lie” becomes more laughable every minute. The knowledge that I’m surrounded by half-truths does nothing to illuminate them. I navigate slowly through my life. There’s fog everywhere and I can’t see the sides of the highway. Everyone I know is further down the road.
My dad emails me some ideas he’s batting around for his blog. I tell him “Loose Leashes: Who’s Walking Whom?” sounds promising.
Mark and I trudge across the country for my dad’s wedding. Before the ceremony, Mark, my brother, his new girlfriend, and I go to a bar that has peanut shells on the floor and drink a beer each, so fast they give us gas.
Eczema blooms under my chin in the dry air and I rejoice to learn that my seat-mate for the return trip is a pediatrician. I ask him if adults can get eczema, since I thought it was a childhood disease like ringworm or rickets. He says ringworm isn’t a childhood disease, and advises me to see a dermatologist. I ask him if he thinks I should ring the service bell to find out if there’s a dermatologist on the plane. He says he thinks that’s usually for emergencies. I tell him he’s no fun and vow not to drink on airplanes ever again.
All of us, the whole group of humans, have decided to finally talk about men. My “feed” is full of women proud not to call themselves victims. In their pictures, they cross their arms and look down at me with a smirk. I study their faces and conclude that some of us would kill for that label and some would do almost anything to lose it. I fall into the first category and I don’t admire myself for it.
I give my mom advice about how to get her friend Kevin to stop texting her.
Next year, the start of this story will be seven years old. It hasn’t revealed its moral to me in all this time; it’s just getting longer. I detach my hands from my body to make sure what they’ve been typing is fair to all parties. But I haven’t spoken a word of this in almost a decade, so I let them do what they will. I’m no closer to wishing anything other than for my parents to have faked it, just a little longer, just a little harder. I can find no adage to address or legitimize this wish and can’t force a story out of it beyond the march of the facts to to their only conclusion: the shape of your life is the shape of your life. I wish for fakes, and tell the truth instead.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.