dad

I grew up knowing more about the lottery than the average kid. One of my earliest memories is my dad picking my sister and me up from Catholic school– I was in Pre-K– and stopping for gas on the way home. There was a homeless man that stayed around there and my dad would bring him socks and underwear and other things he might need. Dad kept honey buns in his car to hand out to people who begged on the side of the road. He went into the gas station after my sister filled the car up and came out with two scratch-off lottery tickets, one for each of his girls. He dug change out of the grimy cupholders in his old Cadillac, and I remember swinging my legs over the backseat with the door open, tiny Mary Janes dangling as scratch-off shavings littered the ground beneath them.

I didn’t win anything that day. My sister and I saw our dad on Wednesdays, and every other weekend. Technically, Mom had full custody, but she gave Dad visitation rights. After their divorce in 2004, I don’t think we saw him for a bit. I think he had to get his shit together. He managed to find a cheap two-bedroom apartment and threw together a room for my sister and me. I don’t remember much about that place but I remember there was a bunk bed, I remember that apartment was where Dad first told me that you shouldn’t wash whites and colors together because you’d end up with pink underwear.

There was one night I felt so sick, I crawled down the rungs of the bunk bed ladder and threw up somewhere. I laid down in Dad’s bed next to him, and threw up on the pillow I was sleeping on. He told me that was okay, gave me the pillow he was using and flipped over the vomit-covered one and slept on the clean side. I remember thinking that was so selfless. Now I just think he was too lazy to get up and throw the sheets in the wash.

My sister is seven years older than me, and she was often busy with extracurriculars, so there were a lot of Wednesday evenings of just Dad and me, and after she went to college it was always just the two of us. Our time together would usually involve going to a restaurant and maybe a store we frequented. He would introduce me to the waitress, or the shopkeeper, and I would be delighted to know one of my dad’s friends. We’d usually get a lottery ticket at some point in the night, especially if the Powerball was big. But Dad also played Mega Millions– he said fewer people played it because the prize was smaller, so he had a better chance of winning.

The discussion of what he would do if he won the lottery– if we won the lottery, he would say– became a regular thing. I remember going to a lot of open houses with Dad when I was little. He told me he was friends with this one nice realtor lady, so we would go to all of her open houses, and think about which house we’d want to live in if we won the jackpot someday.

We also agreed on getting a German Shepherd– I told him I would name it ‘Fluffy.’ Dad said we’d have so much money that we’d need a scary dog to protect us. We spent years worth of Wednesday evenings researching K9 training, watching videos of police dogs, and I would point out how cute they were, and Dad would point out how vicious they were.

It’s not like Dad was a violent person. He never hit me, nor my sister, nor any woman I saw him with. He practiced Tibetan Buddhism, and I learned about His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama– we would watch videos of him speaking, or Dad would read me passages from books he was reading about Buddhism. He would wear shirts that said ‘Free Tibet.’ At some point he was even thinking about getting a license plate that read FREETIBT. I learned about the burning monk on the cover of Rage Against the Machine album. That image was Dad’s laptop wallpaper for years.

Dad was so obsessed with being rich one day, which directly conflicted with what he would tell me about attachment to material goods in Buddhism, but at a young age I wasn’t perceptive enough to see that. My dad was so cool, I wasn’t looking to poke holes in his behavior. It didn’t matter to me that he spent money on CDs and stuffed animals for me, but missed child support every other month.

He ended up marrying a woman named Melissa when I was five or so. I loved Melissa– cautious at first, of course, though nowhere near as cautious as my protective older sister, who never warmed up to her. Melissa was older than Dad by about ten years, she lived in a condo with two little poodles, and she was a great friend to me. She taught me all about The Beatles, we watched every Johnny Depp movie that a five-year-old could handle, she read me The Hobbit aloud and taught me about the Hero’s Journey. Melissa was an English teacher, when she was able to work. I didn’t know this until I was much older, but Melissa was bipolar– the same diagnosis I would come to receive in my freshman year of college. I heard my sister call her ‘crazy’ all the time. I liked Melissa because I always felt like we were the same kind of crazy, and I guess we were.

Dad was more stable when he was with Melissa. It was certainly because he had a financial source to leech off of, and someone to control. Near the end he’d call her crazy all the time. One time she claimed he tried to poison one of his poodles by leaving out a bowl of chocolate-covered raisins, and he rolled his eyes at that, and said she needed to learn to keep the dogs in the bedroom.

When my sister was in high school, Dad would take us to roller derby games at a dinky little stadium in Charlotte. I think we might have seen a poster for a big game on the wall at one of our favorite restaurants, and decided to go to check it out. My sister didn’t ever seem to enjoy watching roller derby, but Dad loved it, so I loved it. I would flip through the little pamphlets they give you when you get your ticket, with pictures of all of the roller girls and their cool names underneath. We watched Whip It with Elliot Page, and I fell in love. I learned all the rules, I got a purple T-shirt with the team’s logo on it, and I’d get the roller girls to sign the back of it after each game. We even came up with a derby name for me– Ring’er Bella. I’d never heard the phrase ‘ring her bell’ before, but the roller girls loved it. Dad got iron-on letters from Michaels and my signed T-shirt became my jersey. He got me skates at one point, though I think we quickly returned them after realizing that I didn’t really have the coordination required for skating.

There was one roller girl that Dad really liked– Margaret Snatcher. I guess I showed some fascination with her before he did because she was often the Jammer on the team– arguably the ‘quarterback’ of roller derby. We would talk to her after games; I remember she had a lip piercing that Dad always talked about on the drive home. I don’t really remember how, but through Dad I learned where she worked, I learned her favorite restaurant, I learned she was Jewish, I learned that she had a boyfriend, and eventually I learned where she lived. We’d stop by the library she worked at a lot, and I would find a book to check out, and Dad would stand at the counter and talk to her. I guess she and Dad were Facebook friends, and one day she must have posted about wanting a vintage set of yellow luggage. Dad ordered it off eBay, and somehow got her address, and we dropped it off at her apartment and I remember seeing a menorah in her window.

I remember Dad being upset that he had left the invoice in the box. He said something about it having his name on it– that he wanted it to be a surprise, or a secret, for her. I thought Dad was so sweet for buying her a gift like that. When I told Mom about it, she was upset. I didn’t understand. At the next derby game we showed up to, Margaret gave me a little necklace– the pendant was a metal piece with my derby name stamped into it, and a little purple roller skate charm on the chain, too. I guess that was her way of thanking us, and her way of shaking the strange feeling of a random man she barely knew the name of dropping a very specific gift off at her doorstep.

I remember looking up to my dad so much as a little girl. He had the coolest taste in music– I knew every word to the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, ‘Brass Monkey’ was my favorite track. Back when he lived in the apartment, Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B and The Black Eyed Peas’ Elephunk soundtracked our trips around Charlotte, to bars he took us to so he could teach us pool, to the various independent shops we’d visit over and over again, even though their inventory never really changed from week to week.

There was one store that we went to quite a bit, and Dad got to know the owner, Teresa. Before my sister went to college, the three of us would go into her shop full of ‘worldly art,’ among other things, and Dad would occasionally buy us something if we wanted it, and when we went to check out we’d always have a long conversation with Teresa. She’d ask us about school, how my sister’s choir was going, and avoided asking Dad much about his life.

The shop moved to a different artsy neighborhood in Charlotte a few years after it first opened, and though it was a bit farther out of the way, we’d still make it there once every few weeks. Dad found out Teresa had a boyfriend, and that she biked to work every day instead of driving a car. She didn’t own a car, in fact– she said it was bad for the environment and she’d like to do her part. I remember Dad asking her about how far the bike ride was, and where she lived, and never thinking much of it. Her boyfriend was an artist, and Teresa sold his work in her shop, so Dad and I would pick out which painting of his we’d like to have in our mansion when we won the lottery.

As I grew up I felt more and more uncomfortable going to see Teresa. I could never really pinpoint why– I felt like we were bothering her. Maybe she even thought we were a bit weird for coming to her shop so much. At the new location, Teresa dedicated a wall of one part of the store to honoring the dead. People could come and put up artifacts, notes, pictures of lost loved ones, maybe even leave a piece of their favorite candy, or the memorial pamphlet that was given out at their funeral.

When Adam Yauch, member of the Beastie Boys, died in 2012, Dad talked at length about the effect that Yauch had on the world. Yauch, of course, was a Buddhist who practiced Tibetan teachings. Dad printed off a few images of Yauch and his daughter, and a quote of Yauch’s, and we taped them to the wall of the dead.

I haven’t spoken to my father in half a year. After I went to college, we saw each other a lot less. He had divorced Melissa when I was thirteen or so and married the woman that he cheated on her with– the one he would call in front of me, the one he introduced me to at that diner downtown as a friend from work, the one he texted ‘I love you’ to under the name of his workplace. He didn’t tell me he got married, and it took me two years to figure it out. Apparently, they had only gotten married for insurance purposes. He told me the ring on his finger was a ‘promise ring.’ I was too young to know better, until he slipped up and used the word ‘wife’ one day. When I confronted him about it, he was defensive, arrogant, and didn’t really care to apologize. I remember him saying, when are you going to get over this?

He’d come up to see me at school every so often– maybe every few months. I didn’t have a car, and Dad was chronically bad with money and perpetually short on rent and bills and such, so he often had to borrow a car from someone to make the hour-long trip. The first year I was in college was the year Trump was elected. Dad had professed his progressive thinking for such a long time, attempting to teach his daughters about racial diversity as we grew up– he was committed to ‘colorblindness’– but his then-wife, Laura, was a staunch conservative. We often had thought-provoking discussion about politics when I was in early adolescence, and he would regularly complain about our conservative Christian relatives, but when we continued in my adulthood, Dad’s way of thinking became more and more bigoted.

I tried to argue with him at first– gently, because Dad always had this way of being right, and he had this wicked ability to guilt-trip people and truly make them feel bad for opening their mouths. He was especially good at doing this to women, and particularly women he had charmed enough to where they felt comfortable with him, and who admired him. After the 2020 election, I would usually end up in tears by the time Dad left. I would always try to argue a more progressive, open-minded viewpoint than he held, and he would find a way to convince me I was a bad person for it, or that I was closed-minded for being unaccepting of his beliefs that were part of the rhetoric responsible for the suffering of so many people.

He told me he voted for Biden and told my mom he had voted for Trump. I tried to believe his words to me for a while, always giving him the benefit of the doubt, but after the complaints about required racial sensitivity training at work, the derogatory comments about women wearing revealing clothing, and especially after the use and defense of the use of racial slurs, I lost hope. I attempted to work with him– “Let’s not talk about politics together. We can agree to disagree,” I would say, compromising my values and morals to try to salvage a relationship with my father, whom I loved so much.

Of course, he tried to push that. “Discussions about race aren’t political– they’re just a fact of life. You’re being ignorant for trying to avoid that conversation.” He weaponized my own beliefs against me, over and over again, and every time I would see him, he would find some topic to push my buttons about. It felt like he was doing it on purpose sometimes. It grew to feel like he enjoyed seeing me angry, like it gave him some sort of power over me– any signs of sensitivity were an opportunity to exploit whatever emotion I was showing.

I stopped talking to him in June of this year, 2022. I was in the deepest depression of my life and struggled to respond to texts from anyone. He’d text me once every two weeks, and at some point I just never replied, and decided to keep it that way. After having been in therapy for seven years, and spending most of that time trying to convince therapists that my father’s behavior did not affect me, I had begun to accept the idea that Dad was emotionally abusive.

Mom tried very hard to protect my sister and me from this realization. She thought that if she could keep him at a distance– a once-a-week distance– he would do less harm, and maybe even do some good. She was married to him for eleven years, and though she has revealed a few details of his abusive nature as I’ve pried, there are things she won’t talk about from that marriage. It is funny how he has made sure that we protect him even after he has hurt us so many times.

The other day I was in Charlotte again for the first time in a while– Mom and I moved to another town in the state after I graduated high school. I decided to visit Teresa’s shop again while in Charlotte. I was glad to see that she had hired other employees and wasn’t working that day, mostly so that I would not have to talk to her, and hopefully not remind her of my father. I toured the shop, smiling at the inventory that had stayed mostly the same after all these years, feeling the soft alpaca-fur teddy bear that my dad had bought me many moons earlier, and the evil eye necklace that my sister wore throughout high school.

I walked past the wall of the dead, and Adam Yauch’s pictures were still in that same place, an entire decade later, untouched. In that moment I remembered being a little girl standing on her tippy-toes to tape up the photos. I remember thinking then that my Dad was such a thoughtful person. I remember feeling like I learned so much when I was with him. It made me sick to my stomach to think about how he was right– I was naive.

Dad always made naivety seem like a bad thing. I think it is appropriate for an eight-year-old girl. I think it should be encouraged. I am glad I stayed naive as long as I did, though I wish I’d seen my father’s true nature earlier, so that maybe I could have saved myself some trouble.

I had never really understood that Dad was stalking women throughout my entire childhood. I certainly did not understand that he had used his daughters as a device to make women trust him– as a way to make himself look better, more respectable, less creepy, less predatory. I never realized how weird it was that he took me out to dinner with the lady from our favorite bookstore. I never realized how obsessed he got with random women– the fairy at the Renaissance Faire, the woman at the counter at the video store, my favorite roller girl, Teresa. I had tried for years not to think about the time I found out he was stealing our neighbor’s panties and keeping them in the drawer of his nightstand.

It makes me sad to think that the man I respected and believed in for so long turned out to be someone so lost. Even that narrative– classifying him as lost– is protecting him. There were times when Dad was good, but the times when he was bad were unbearable. I look back on the betrayal I experienced, and how much I trusted him, and how much he abused that trust. I think about how many times I tried to explain the eating disorder that almost killed me to him, and how he refused to attempt to understand it. I think about the times he made me feel too emotional for being reactive in a way he didn’t like. I think about how nuanced his quiet violence was, and how hard it was to explain to any of my friends, and how I wish that I didn’t have to parent my father the way that I did.

It was always about him, and I tried to justify that as Dad loves me selfishly, but he loves me. Every Wednesday of my childhood was a chance for him to blow off steam– vent to me, talk about the women he’d formed parasocial relationships with, tell me about the plot of the stupid book he was reading, detail his recent eBay purchases of things he never needed, or recite quotes from The Big Lebowski for the hundredth time. I never truly had a father– his financial contribution to my life was paying for dinner, except for the times where my sister had to pay because Dad blew through his paycheck, or little trinkets we’d hold onto our whole lives, or buying junk food that Mom didn’t let us have. I’ll admit that I don’t really know what a father is supposed to do. I saw my friends’ fathers, and somehow never envied that idea of the married household, probably because marriage had only proven to lead to change and divorce as my parents married and divorced and remarried other people and divorced again. Although my friends’ fathers were more supportive and encouraging, they had to do the job of disciplining my friends, and my dad didn’t do that. I liked Dad because he never really parented me, and I got all the fun parts of him, and he never really had to do the hard work of holding my hair back when I was sick, visiting me in the psych ward, picking me up after school every day, paying for doctors’ appointments, or of watching me waste away from mental illness and begging me to please get better like my mom did.

After my recent hospitalization I started to think about Dad a lot more. I tried to think about the things he’d told me about his childhood– his alcoholism in adolescence, since there was nothing to do in Buffalo but drink. I tried to make sense of how Dad turned out to be the abusive narcissist he is, but in every thought there was some sentimental piece of a story he’d told me, of how the Bills lost the Superbowl four years in a row and so he gave up on the NFL, how Tom Cruise wasn’t fit to play Jack Reacher because Cruise was only 5’7” and Reacher was much taller in the books, how his first concert was to see Kiss and how he lost his tickets to see Prince even though he had jeans he’d dyed purple for the Purple Rain tour.

During my stay in residential treatment this year I finally wrote something that approached truth about my father. I had let myself be mad at him for certain things, but never let myself be mad for the way he’d made me feel, or the way he gave up on me after I didn’t text him back.

“Have a great week. And a great month. And a great year.” This is what his text to me read after I was too depressed to reply for a few weeks. He never bothered calling, nor checking in with my mother– I think he either assumed I was just like my sister, who had halted contact with him a few years prior, or he was too afraid that if he confronted me, I might actually call him out on his behavior.

“I am mad that I have spent so much time trying to empathize with him with the little information I have,” I wrote, “I am furious he has never attempted to return the courtesy. I am mad that understanding was a courtesy in the first place. I am trying still to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe that he just made mistakes, but I have never heard him say ‘I’m sorry.’”

The Powerball got up to 1.9 billion the other day. Every time I pass a billboard on the highway that displays the current value of winnings, I wonder what he is doing now, if he is still stalking the gas station attendant, if he is still wasting money on tickets he’ll never win, and if he’d still get me that German Shepherd he always promised.

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Isabella (she/her) writes literary nonfiction and creative memoir. She is currently an undergraduate English & Creative Writing student in Raleigh, NC.

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belm0ney

Isabella (she/her) writes literary nonfiction and creative memoir. She is currently an undergraduate English & Creative Writing student in Raleigh, NC.