father, non-father

I stepped into the bathroom light, with the dress already on. The bathroom has two doors, the bathroom shared by two rooms. Like some kind of in-between state, a bardo. I looked into the mirror and thought to myself, this is the dress you’re wearing to your father’s funeral.

Father? What makes a father? He was a complete stranger to me. I don’t know who he was, or what he was. I don’t even have his genes. But every night he walked down the hall and closed the blinds in my bedroom window. He wanted to keep me safe.

It’s been over a year since I’ve written anything. I haven’t figured out why (but knowing me, I will). I try to find a pattern – maybe I only write when I’m happy, or maybe I only write when I’m sad. Which one is it? Have I been happy or sad? Maybe I only write when I’m feeling in-between, happy-sad. Or maybe I have nothing to say. All day long I write in my head, sentences spill onto the sidewalk on my way to work, but they never make it to the page. Maybe I’m worried that someday someone will read this and say, she was no good. When I read about my thoughts from ten years ago, I feel so strange. How was that me? I’m scared that the words I put down on the page won’t impress my future self, and I don’t want to let her down.

But the one thing that does usually bring me to the page is looming especially heavy now. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in the final countdown to the 10-year-mark. The apocalypse. I started preparing for this years ago, and now it’s nearly here. I don’t know what it will mean or how I will feel, but I do know there will be a lot of self-questioning, maybe with a dash of self-hatred:

What have I really accomplished in the past ten years? Who have I become? Have I made the right choices? Have I been useful? Have I contributed anything? When I think that it’s been ten years (which, for some unknown reason, is far more significant than nine), I wonder if anything has changed at all.

A few days after the funeral, a family friend sat me down in my room and shook my shoulders: You will not get this disease. I want you to remember that. You will not get this disease. Maybe I don’t have his genes, but I do have his history – how else can I explain the way I feel his birthplace pulling me in, Brooklyn Brooklyn. A photo from 1944, a little boy and a dog in Central Park. I feel it more than I do my own childhood home, but I will not get this disease. Genes or no genes, I got the disease. I was like him, stuck in the bardo, in-between, happy-sad, nowhere to go.

I got out. Antidepressants got me unstuck, and two years later I have come out on the other side, much happier, less sad. But I still reside in the in-between place. New Zealand or America, city or nature, travel or settle. No grey area allowed. I’ve locked myself into a room with two doors, like the bathroom in my Florida home, like the space between two sets of sliding doors at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Departing or arriving?

We’ve been in Wellington for almost a year, and I don’t feel at home. I’ve never really had home-certainty. I have never felt that feeling of recognition or familiarity or welcome or belonging or who even knows how to describe that magic sensation. I’ve felt it in little ways – in the way I can walk through every room of my apartment in the dark without stubbing a toe, in the pride I feel when I can give a foreigner clear directions to their destination, in the way that I have many homes, sitting down at my mom’s kitchen table, greeting Patrick at the door after work.

My hometown never quite did it for me. Can’t imagine why – surely a place whose name translates to rat’s mouth would make anyone feel at home? It’s the flattest place in the world, it’s hard to find a community that isn’t gated, shopping is a form of exercise, and chances are very high that your grandma will retire here. This place was my home for eighteen years, but when people ask where I’m from, I don’t tell them about Boca.

I didn’t choose St. Louis, but I did feel a faint sense of belonging in that university heaven. Living in a dorm with a hundred other students who are in your same shoes, all desperate for acceptance and reassurance and comfort and familiarity, is likely to do that. Plus I had a crush on the boy next door, and home is where the crush is, right? But after my dad died, after, I was on my own. (My life is divided into before and after. Before, belonging. After, alone.) The place that was once my shelter became a place I did not recognise. The people who once wore my shoes no longer understood anything about me, nor I them. I no longer belonged in a place of excitement, learning, hope and looking forward to the future. Everything that meant everything meant nothing. I belonged nowhere. I wanted to be anonymous, where no one knew me, and no one knew me as “you must be going through a lot right now.” My childhood ended, but I became more vulnerable than a helpless, speechless infant. Unpredictable, unfinished, imperfect.

(I’m nearly 30 years old and sometimes I still lie on the ground and hug my knees to my chest and weep like a little girl, praying to a god I don’t believe in, saying I’ll do anything to have my dad back, to say goodbye, it’s ok, I forgive you, I love you. I’m sorry. My dad, my father. My non-dad, my non-father.)

It’s funny. I think I’ve just realised for the first time, while writing this, that I will never feel at home. That I like the freeing feeling of being on the move, drifting, fluttering, departing, arriving, and not belonging anywhere. That I will always have some kind of friction or tension that follows me wherever I go, whether I’m in New Zealand or Oregon or New York or Europe. And that is my home: the bardo, that space between leaving and staying, that unclear definition of father, where home is not a place but something I feel in my body, in my ever-anxious heart, in my blistered toes.

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