Throughout my teen years, my father and I merely co-existed. Our mail came to the same address, and we occasionally shared family dinners of spongy meat and overcooked broccoli. My mother would titter anxiously about something one of her girlfriends said about some starlet that neither I nor my father was aware of. Her girlfriends: as if they weren’t on the older-end of middle-aged.
My girlish chub became the heft of breasts; he could no longer rip my shirt off to spank me with a belt. Spank: my mother’s word. Spank: a mild corrective; nothing that would leave scars. But the scars rutting my skin were not mild—lunar-white from the everlasting loss of blood. He’d beaten parts of me until they’d died.
We regarded each other like enemy combatants who, after the war, found themselves refugees in a neutral territory. Every Saturday night, he sat at the kitchen table with his true crime novel and a cup of coffee, waiting for me to return. I would enter, stoically attempting to hide my drunkenness. Wordlessly, he slid his coffee toward me, and, with a nod, I accepted. We both drank our coffee black.
Still, his offer to teach me to drive was a vise-tight pressure in my chest. His attempt to help me study fifth-grade American history ended with him backhanding me; open-palmed, but still hard enough for my face to sting every time I heard “electoral college.” Yet I felt great tenderness when I thought of those flashcards written in his cramped, tilting scrawl.
So we took his green Taurus to practice left turns on side streets, to practice merging on 83 North. His long arm slung out the window, hand waving along with the breeze. He made me pull between cars that hadn’t parked within the lines: “Two-thirds of the time, it’s not how you drive, it’s those other assholes.” I winced as the left side-view mirror chipped the VW Beetle beside me. “You’re doing fine,” he said. “What matters is getting out without scratching your car.”
My father guided me in and out of parallel parks with an affable calm that startled me; my body knew his moods like a chameleon knew its colors; randomly, I’d feel a hot shiver of annoyance, or I’d bristle with an inchoate listlessness—and, looking up, find that he’d entered my room.
But he didn’t even push me when I waited a little too long to make my left turns. Just fiddled with the radio, chatting about concerts he’d gone to. “When I wasn’t that much older than you are, I saw Bob Dylan in the Village, twice. Me with a bunch of trust-fund bohemians. Bet you don’t believe that.”
I wanted to. My father riding the subway into the city, his body stiff from laying brick. He’d feel out of place among the city kids; they wore his clothes—work flannels and dusted-up jeans—with irony.
Suddenly, a car horn trilled behind us. In the rearview, I watched a green Saab zip within an inch of my bumper. The driver’s face was puckered with disgust. The Saab passed me inside the turn lane, swinging into the strip mall parking lot.
“Follow him,” my father growled. Then, under his breath: “Your name is no, asshole.”
I couldn’t breathe. I could only obey him.
“I don’t know where he went.”
I hardly heard my own voice, so I was surprised that he replied.
“With that car, he isn’t at the dollar store.”
The Saab was parked in front of the Starbucks, which was separate from the strip. My father directed me to block in the Saab. A lean man in a salmon-colored shirt approached, distractedly sipping from a large cup. A venti. When he saw the Taurus, his eyes flashed at me. My father spoke first:
“You in a big rush, faggot? You’ve got to get your mocha-frappa-extra-soy latte in such a goddamn hurry that you’re going bully a young girl who’s just learning to drive.”
“Are you serious?”
The man wanted to sound insouciantly amused, but his face drained as he glanced sidelong at my father’s hand. My father slung his arm out the car window, his thick ring thudding against metal. With his blunt, powerfully muscled chest and shoulders, he recalled one of those burrowing mammals I’d studied in science, a wolverine forcing his way through frozen soil.
“As a heart attack. It says ‘rookie driver’ on the bumper. You didn’t have to be a dick about it, and now you’re going to apologize.”
The man stammered something about calling the police, but I knew intuitively that he wouldn’t.
My father unbuckled his seatbelt, and the man mumbled “sorry.” He pushed his door open, and the man said “sorry” louder.
I could’ve driven off once my father closed his door. But I kept staring at the man until his eyes offered another apology, this one even more defeated than the one my father forced out of him. With a satisfied sigh, my father eased in his seat.
“You held your own,” he said, reaching for a Marlboro.
He tilted his head toward me like he might offer me a cigarette, but then turned to face the window. Still, his voice invited me into the secret space his power lived, coiled and ticking.