The best advice you’ll get about turning thirty will come from that friend of a friend who drinks until he gets far too loud and a little too touchy (in both senses of the word). But when he sidles beside you at your friend’s birthday party, you will be just tipsy enough to smile when he calls you “youngin’.” His voice is as bright as a struck bell, yet his face is prematurely leathered. This will endear him to you, and when he says he reckons you’re the next stop on this birthday train, you’ll confide that you’re nervous about hitting what the magazines call “the big 3-0,” that you’ve been tallying up all you’ve done and haven’t done, measuring yourself against all you thought you’d have accomplished by now.
He’ll say that this is bullshit and backwards and all kinds of wrong. He’ll call you honey-pie and tell you that what you have or don’t have doesn’t matter; what matters is making sure that you spend every day becoming the you you’ve always wanted to be; that you appreciate where you’ve been (even if it pains you).
Though you’ve rolled your eyes at this sentiment when it’s appeared in print or pixels (always beside an ad for anti-cellulite cream or the best hotels in Europe), the soused brio of his words will make you realize that they’re true.
One morning when you’re eight years old, you’ll spill your cereal, and your father—the same father who sleeps on your bedroom floor when the monsters in the Muppet movies give you nightmares, who brings you reams of computer paper to draw on and frames all your pictures for his office walls—will slap you in the face. It will shock you into tears, but what will hurt long after the stinging fades is that, in the time it takes for a plastic bowl to fall, you can go from his little girl to a stupid bitch.
He’ll tell you he was tired, that he’d had a bad day. He’ll tell you that liquid, even if it’s as mild as milk, can stain wooden tables and tile floors. He’ll ask you to be careful; he’ll say he doesn’t like having to discipline you.
Even when he starts taking off his belt, he’s still the father who carries you to bed every night and, as you whoop and shoot your fists into the air, cries out: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Supergirl!”
He will never stop being your father. Not even when you stare him down and say, in a voice that betrays how carefully you’ve considered it, that if he raises his hand to you, your mother or your little brother again, you’ll kill him.
This is the knot you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to pull apart.
Throughout the better part of your twenties, you’ll stare at the watercolors of haystacks and cottages in the offices of your various therapists, lamenting that you never had a real girlhood—but that isn’t true. You didn’t have the luxury of retreating into a quiet room to journal for hours or talk on the phone, and it never occurred to you to wonder how bold you could be with boys. But girlhood isn’t a kewpie-eyed innocence; it isn’t the languorous blossoming into a body. It is that Valentine’s Day when you put on your mother’s black dress and go to the movies with that tender boy who paints portraits of Miss Piggy as Marie Antoniette, the boy who makes you a heart-shaped pin out of clay.
You’ll wear that pin under the army jacket you’ve so artfully ratted; you’ll finger it the way you used to press into your bruises, just to feel something, anything, that isn’t the tedium of Geometry, the slow dread of dodging your mother’s eyes at the dinner table, or the quicksilver flash of panic that grabs you as you blink up from the floor of whichever friend has taken you in that night.
You will know that no matter how much hate your body has borne—and how much hate churns within you—there is sweetness in this world. That knowledge will carry you further than innocence ever could.
When you are fourteen, and you mother calls to tell you that your father has been rushed to the ER, that the tests show he’ll need stents in his heart, you will snarl that you want nothing to do with him, he’s her problem now. You won’t go to see him in the hospital; you’ll get fucked up with your friends. As you get sloppier and sloppier and the words become mush in your mouth, you’ll boast that you hope he dies. Though you’re armored in the bravado of youth and anger, you’ll still know that this isn’t true. What you’re not old enough to realize is that you fear your pity more than you fear your rage.
Years later, when he falls in the shower, you’ll sit at his bedside and watch the IV empty into his arm. He’ll ask you to tell him about what your dog did that day, and when you hear the fear in his voice, you’ll remember that he was a child once, too. He is the boy in those photos your aunt kept on her mantle: He looks slightly above the camera lens; his eyes are expressionless and he can only smile with the corner of his mouth. Before she dies, your aunt will tell you that your grandfather used to heat his belt buckle on the stovetop. She will call your father by a little boy’s name and say that he did the best he could for her and your grandmother.
No matter what he has done to you, and didn’t do for you, his blood thrums in the best and worst parts of you.
You’ll spend too much time being afraid of being alone. Sometimes, you simply won’t like the men who argue with you over Gchat about what constitutes a “turn of phrase;” the men who carry laminated lists of foods they don’t like in their wallets; the men who narrate their life stories at you until your neck aches from nodding, who leave the restaurant without knowing so much as your favorite color. You’ll go on too many second dates trying to prove that you aren’t emotionally unavailable, that you haven’t been damaged.
You have been damaged. And that’s okay. You’ll spend much of your twenties regarding men like enemy combatants who’ve wandered into the same hotel in the neutral country you’ve fled to after the war. But this has nothing to do with the nitpickers and the neurotics and the narcissists. Give yourself permission to not let everything be about your father.
Still, when you’re nineteen, and that man with the silver temples and the goatish little paunch tells you that, despite all his awards and the title on his card, he hasn’t had his shit together since before you were born, believe him.
You won’t become your mother; don’t worry. That ex-Army Ranger may have been a surgeon in bed, but when he slams his fist into the drywall behind your head, you’ll leave so fast that, once you’ve parked in front of your apartment, you’ll look down and realize that you’re only wearing one shoe.
You’ll stop wondering if these experiences have deadened you when that guy you’ve been friends with leans back in his chair and slings his socked feet onto your kitchen table. In repose, his slim limbs (which had seemed to you boyish and jangly) attain a balletic elegance and his hands, which drum absently against his belly, are invested with an uncanny intelligence. When he smiles at you, something in your chest opens like a starflower in the heat.
Your parents will meet him when he helps you move into the first apartment you’ll live in alone, the apartment where he’ll coax you to cook lasagna for the annual MFA desert party; where you’ll each pick random passages from books on your shelf and read them as Boris and Natasha; where he will give you your first Fat Tire beer and your abiding love for Tom Waits.
Your mother will pull you aside that afternoon and tell you that he’s beautiful.
Your father will call you that night and tell you that he’s trouble.
They are both right.
Maybe you’ll marry; maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children; maybe you won’t. Neither one is your happy ending.
On a hot Sunday in June, you’ll stand in front of a pen in an animal shelter, look into eyes that are soft and damp with a desire to love, and be loved by, you. The attendant will tell you that you’re lucky to find a full-breed German shepherd, that she is a smart dog, sweet but a little rough around the edges. You’ll sit in a tiny plexiglass room and offer her kibble on your flattened palm, all the while wondering whether you could ever be responsible for another life. She’ll nudge her head into your lap, as if to say she’s sure that you can.
As the days tick into years, she’ll go from lunging at other animals to trotting calmly at your side; she’ll be the belle of the dog park. She won’t slam herself into the door when you leave; she’ll greet you with a full-body wiggle. As she goes from sweet but rough, to sweet but needy, to just plain sweet, you will learn that loving someone is not all you feared it would be.
You’ll remember sitting on the floor with your mother and drawing the Berenstain Bears; you’ll remember the way she’d hold your family dog, a pudgy cocker spaniel, in her lap and wave his paws at you as she sang “Day-O;” you’ll remember the taste of her lipstick. You will remember that late-night drive to the CVS after you’ve woken her up to tell her that you’re late; how, on the way back, you get stuck behind a car with a “Pope John Paul says abortion is murder” bumper sticker and she cries out, “Pope John Paul is an asshole!” You’ll both laugh at how she elongates that s, as if she’ll never get to say asshole again. When you bleed two days later, she won’t say, “be more careful” or “I told you so.”
Still, you will hate her for failing you; at times, you will hate her more than you ever hated him.
But she was once a girl, too, sitting knock-kneed on a stoop waiting for her father to come home, waiting for her father to pick her up for the weekend, waiting for a father who would never come, would never call.
You do not forgive the woman who stood by and watched; you forgive that little girl.
Just after your twenty-ninth birthday, you’ll settle into a job where you get to write for a living and have an office with your name on the door; you’ll move into an apartment that can happily hold the dozens of friends who come to your “just because” parties; you’ll enter that phase of your writing career where you can no longer count your publications on two hands.
Your father will call to tell you that he’s proud of how successful you’ve become, and you’ll confide that when good things happen, you start waiting for the sky to fall. There will be a silence on the line that you’re tempted to fill with prattle about some project or what the dog did that day, but then he clears his throat.
“It won’t,” he says. “And even if it did, you’ll be okay.”
I want to tell him that I wish he’d said this to me before now—that if he had, I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder all the time.
Instead, I say “thank you.”