At 8 years old my parents hadn’t taught me how to ride a bike, nurture a friendship, or the importance of following through when you commit to something. But they had taught me how to cheat at cards, how to wear a fake smile, and how to keep secrets from the ones who trusted me most.
When my mom was busy, my dad would secretly take me out for lunch with his girlfriend, and then when my father was away on business my mom would bring me over to her boyfriend’s house for the day, each coaching me on what to say if the other asked. I had a very busy after-school schedule, keeping their secrets. As the years passed, the secrets became more complicated; our family was in financial shambles, our phones were tapped, my father’s business associates were ‘disappearing’, I was getting kicked out of school, my mother was cheating on her boyfriend with my father, my father was having an affair with my mother’s relative, and I was fielding calls from the creditors.
By the time I was 12, my father moved away. I flew to Florida to visit him. It was the first and only trip I ever took to see him. That’s the year things really went south.
As I rode the escalator down to the exit area at the Tampa airport I could see him through the automatic sliding glass doors. He was standing on the curb in the busy pick-up area between a white stretch limousine and his black convertible.
“Which one do you want to take?” he shouted over the noise of the traffic buzzing around us.
I jumped into his arms for a big hug and inhaled that sweet salty Florida air.
“I’ll take this one!” I smiled as he took my bag and loaded it into the trunk of his car.
He exchanged smiles with the limo driver. He was known for having us ride around in stretch limos so it was probable that he really had organized this, but this time it was just a joke. My dad didn’t make jokes very often but when he did they usually revolved around money or sex.
“Wait, I have something for you” I reached into the trunk before he closed it and unzipped my suitcase and pulled out a present wrapped in Christmas paper. We stood there holding up traffic.
“Keep moving! You can’t stop here!” The airport security guards shouted.
“What’s this?” he said as he started to unwrap it.
Time slowed around us for a moment, a quiet bubble, everything seemed to pause. The bustling noise halted like we were the only people at the airport for a moment.
“I wrote you a poem”.
He pulled out the brass 8×10 frame and saw the title ‘The Best Dad’. I watched his face closely as he took his time reading the entire poem, undisturbed by the honking, shouting and cars buzzing by.
I saw the pool in his eyes.
The truth was, he wasn’t the best dad, but I thought if he read all of the things I wrote, maybe they would inspire him to DO them and BE them. I thought, maybe I can teach him to be the best dad, maybe he just doesn’t know how.
We did everything there was to do at the Magic Kingdom that week. And we spent our evenings at the Disney Boardwalk. I was only 12 but my father took me shopping and bought me red lipstick and a tight black bodysuit that had a belt of gold squares sewed into it. He said I looked like I was 25. I was excited to dress up and sneak into the bars. He said no one would bother us. And he was right.
It only got uncomfortable once we were inside. The places were always dark and everyone was kind of sweaty.
“Go dance, have fun!” my dad said as he nursed his Johnny Walker Red on the rocks.
I don’t remember us talking much that week but I do remember how happy my father looked when I was smiling. He loved making me happy, but he just didn’t quite know how.
A few nights before I was set to fly home, in their drunken state, him and his mistress decided that my trip wasn’t complete unless they brought me to Captiva Island, a place they had apparently vacationed often. We stopped by her house before we got on the road so she and her daughter could pack a few things. As I sat on the bed in her daughters room, I noticed a photograph on the mirror above her dresser. It was a family photo except the man in the picture wasn’t her dad, it was my dad. I felt a stabbing pain in my heart.
We left around midnight for the 3-hour drive down the coast. Me and her daughter sat in the back of the Mercedes on the bench seat. It wasn’t meant to be a backseat, I don’t even remember there being any seat belts. The top was down and Madonna was blaring from the car speakers. We all sung along. I was freezing in the back, shivering under a blanket, but we had our stuffed animals to cuddle with. There was an open bottle of red wine at the foot of the passenger seat and they would each take swigs every now and then. My father looked back at us and smiled, his teeth stained red and his bloodshot eyes, barely open. I closed my eyes pretending not to see…