I stretched out on my stomach, burying a pillow beneath my ribcage so my small breasts wouldn’t grind into the mattress. At thirteen, what I lacked in mammary tissue, I made up for in soreness: chafing under my sports bra, wincing beneath the blast of the showerhead, yelping when I bungled catching a basketball in gym class. I’d worked out an arrangement with Dad, though, so we could continue these nighttime back massages despite my budding body. With darkness and a few strategically placed pillows, we allotted ourselves some grace.
I never confessed to anyone how my father eased me to sleep each night: the back rubs, the kneading between my shoulder blades where knots burrowed deep into my skin’s landscape; the quiet questions about my day; the supplication time to say your prayers; the speeches to Jesus I’d draw out just to prolong the massage.
“You keep my hands strong, kiddo,” he’d say as he kissed my temple and moved through the darkness to the rocking-horse music box on the shelf. He’d crank the gear on its base, winding its bolt so the song would plink for minutes after. As the rhythm spilled through my bedroom I would envision it twining in the curls of my antique dolls’ hair and tonguing the streamers on my bulletin board. I’d feel its tinny cadence engulf me like the lullaby Dad used to sing every night until, finally, we had to grow up a little.
Dad retired over Christmas break of my senior year of high school. He wanted to savor my last few months at home, he said; to enjoy those seasons. Snowstorms pummeled Pennsylvania that winter, so we established a new tradition. Every morning that we woke to a delayed school start, we brewed coffee, stashed our pockets with Kleenex, and set out for the nearby woods. In Timberland boots we lumbered
across miles of forest: five if the snow wasn’t too heavy, if our matching Reynaud’s fingers didn’t throb purple; if Mom wouldn’t be too frustrated by our absence.
When Dad decided to marry a woman with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, he didn’t know what to expect. He knew it’d be difficult, that some days she wouldn’t be able to navigate the hairdryer around her head, that envelopes would remain tight-lipped tulips in her hands, that she’d sob out of anger, or sadness, when dishes shattered to the floor. But he didn’t know that when the geneticists said there’s a one-in-four chance your offspring will have CMT, they were wrong—that because he wasn’t a carrier, his genes shielded me from her neuropathy. He didn’t know how my mom would feel when she, the one child out of five to inherit her mother’s disability, bore a daughter capable of running away from her. Of running headlong to him.
“I know she feels left out, when we go on these walks,” he’d say, guilt and condensation ghosting his mouth. He’d hang his head. “But I can’t stay away—it’s just so beautiful. So quiet, like the world forgot about this place. And we don’t have many more months together.”
The lines drilled deeper into Mom’s face every time we closed the door on her—fresh fractures in our relationship. The year she caught Dad ducking out of work in the summers to take me to matinees, Seabiscuit and Pirates of the Caribbean and A Cinderella Story, our fingers glossed with butter; the year she found the luxury karaoke machine he bought me and stored in the basement, where her frail legs couldn’t carry her; the first year he attended Back-to-School Night as a single parent so we could traverse the building quickly. Every time the door closed for her, it widened for me.
I found Dad one January afternoon contemplating his reflection in a glass of merlot. Once he retired, I came to love those after-school hours most: we could enjoy one another’s company freely because Mom was safely at work, not sulking in the next room. Dad normally reserved the red wine for dinnertime, though, when we diced vegetables and seasoned steaks together in the mellow kitchen light.
His eyes didn’t greet me as I entered the room.
“I’ve been reading First Corinthians,” he told the merlot, settling his elbows on his knees and sighing a not-first-glass sigh. “‘If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.’ Seven-twelve.”
In eighteen years I never heard him utter the word divorce.
He smirked. “‘For the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean; but as it is, they are holy.’ Seven-fourteen.”
The light tickled his hair as he drooped his head, igniting reds and golds throughout the thinning russet. The top of him looked like Christmas again, like last month’s gifts and roast ham and poinsettias. But a new winter settled in his features that afternoon, a darker one that threatened to wreak more than three months’ havoc.
“Divorce,” I tried out the word, looking down at my wrists: two white willows branching from rumpled sweater sleeves—my mother’s wrists, strung with veins that bloated blue during exercise, with tendons that quivered like grand-piano strings. I wondered how Dad could look at them without seeing her—how either of us could.
“She screwed me over on the life insurance policy,” he said, choking out something like a laugh. “I looked into the accounts today, and she—” The muscle in his jaw jumped.
He shook his head. “I’ll be okay; sure I will. Sure I will. I’ve got my investments; she can’t touch those anyway. Couldn’t understand them even if she wanted to.”
“She’s not that smart, you know,” he said, slurring his s sounds. “Hell, I don’t know what to think. The Bible says not to divorce, but sometimes I just don’t know.”
I coaxed the wineglass out of his hands, something I’d done more and more since my seventeenth birthday. Mom didn’t know how much wine he drank; he ferreted the boxes away in the basement, boxes we bought when we claimed to be running errands, boxes we paid for in cash. I promised him we would discuss divorce later, not letting my mind idle on the prospect.
In my bedroom that night, in the resonant silence after the rocking horse quieted, I would remember standing before the mirror, four years old, while Dad twisted my hair into a ponytail adorned with a bow. I would remember snuggling into his chest on the pilled couch, one ear tuned to the made-for-TV movie, the other to his stomach gargling like an undersea monster. I would remember tucking the word divorce under my tongue like the last sliver of a caramel, its sugar melding into the crevices between my baby teeth.
We never continued the conversation, though. Another storm pounded the town that night—an ice storm. Dad needed to escort Mom to work so she wouldn’t slip on the sidewalk outside her office. For once, I was the one left alone when the front door clicked shut.
And burst open again, forty minutes later.
Mom’s face puckered into a jellyfish wound: cheeks striated in agony, mouth a sting of garish lipstick. Dad clenched her to his side, supporting her so no weight burdened her left leg. They debated in raw, clipped voices whether to straighten it, whether to get ice, whether or not to go to the hospital.
When the X-ray results came back (patella completely fractured) and Dad stopped muttering (I only looked back for a second, don’t know why I looked back, don’t know how she fell so fast) and Mom’s wheelchair arrived (purchased, not rented), she announced her retirement. The after-school conversations in the living room and leisurely hikes in the woods stopped abruptly. It was a darker winter indeed.
She called the Florida realtor before February.
***Dad and I developed a new system once I started college and he settled into the two-bedroom lakehouse in the retirement village. I emailed him before every phone call; he arranged to slip away from Mom, to “run to the store,” to take her to quilting club or the rec center. Sometimes, if she was sunning on the lanai or distracted with her computer, he could slink into the garage and talk inside the broiling car. Mom didn’t approve of how often we conversed, of how he chose me over her and Florida and everything she imagined for their retirement. I’m just keeping the peace, he’d rationalize in a hushed voice as I heard the door to the garage latch shut.
He filled his days delving deeper into Bible study, holing up with histories of the early church, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, sermons about the supernatural. He gushed about the special revelation he received from the Lord, how it helped him accept his Florida life. I tried to lift my tone to match his, but stumbled over the details he shared: the rampant weight gain, the abundance of reds he bought from the local winery, the insomnia that returned after so many years.
One night I paced the streets, phone nestled in my gloves as words poured out of him, heady, wine-hot.
He’d learned about demonology, he said. A mega-church pastor from Seattle illuminated everything for him—showed him the error of his thinking—freed him from bondage.
“And what I never realized,” he explained, “is that these—these temptations I’ve been feeling, these desires—is it wrong for me to tell you this? But it’s so important, it really is—these sexual desires, they’re from a demon. So I did an exorcism, just like the pastor said. A self-exorcism. I laid in bed and I prayed and I prayed until I felt the demon leave me, and I felt it leave, I really did, and then everything was okay. It was okay, for the first time! And now when I see women I just see them, and I’m looking at them through my eyes, and there’s no temptation, and…”
Advice jammed in my throat, impossible to untangle. I wanted to plead with him to stop talking; to tell me more; to seek professional help; to leave my mother. I wanted hair ribbons and ponytails in front of the mirror again; I wanted a voice that sounded mature and unfazed. Each of us was bound by our own demon: the demonic in-between.
“I don’t think I’d be able to handle this marriage without the Lord,” he continued. “She won’t—your mother won’t—can I say this?—your mother refuses to have sex. She screams ‘don’t touch me’ every time; so I don’t, of course I don’t. And God gets me through it. You know how?”
I widened my eyes at the darkness. “How?”
Suddenly the sky seemed too close, immediate and unrelenting. “Daddy, no.”
“I mean it,” he said, breathless. “You’re my purpose in life. When I think back on it, and I ask God why it all worked out like this—why I married your mother, why I found the Lord so late, why all the demons and the struggle and everything—I realize, it’s you. The only reason I’m here is to support you.”
“Daddy, stop it.”
“I wouldn’t have married your mother, had I been a believer in college,” he continued. “And that would’ve been the biggest tragedy of my life.”
Dad and Mom met in the lobby of Electrical Engineering East, where she flirted with him at her secretary’s desk before his classes. She never rose from behind the desk, so when he fetched her for their first date he couldn’t help but gape at the braces clamping her calves. Her twiggy arms and fingers, features he thought lovely on such a tall woman, suddenly made sense. When he opened the car door for her, he thought to himself, she’s nice, but this is a one-time thing.
When Dad visits from Florida, he still prefers to lounge in front of sitcoms and rub my shoulders: hard, in concentric circles that numb my muscles. He doesn’t understand when I shy away from his hands, when I want to sit upright, when I tell him I can pray without the massage. He doesn’t understand when I stop praying altogether, when I tell him I’ve found my own college miracle—the one who would be my tragedy not to know.
I meet Lennox on the third day of my third year of college. If room 320 faced the opposite direction, we would see Electrical Engineering East through the window’s warped glass. I never mention that to her, though; we sit inches from one another for a month before we exchange any words at all.
Maybe my whole life would have unfolded differently if she hadn’t breached that first conversation. Like those paper fortune-tellers I played with in elementary school, maybe that pocket of myself would have remained covered if I’d never swooned over her eyes. But when I peer at her hazel irises—how strange, to look down on someone who looms larger than life before me, who makes me feel four years old again—I feel my lungs shudder in their cage.
Lennox loves other girls—she stipulates that from the beginning.
I love her—I tell her that by November.
Neither of these declarations matters.
Through fall and winter, I stockpile packs of Orbit bubblegum in my backpack because it’s her favorite; I buy Bic lighters and pretend they’re hers, left in my car, so she never suffers for lack of nicotine. I lean left during proofreading exams, let her copy my perfect papers, grin when she calls me her grammar hammer. I program my phone so hers is the only number unaffected by the “do not disturb” function; her messages interrupt my classes and my sleep. We share my textbooks—I shuttle them to her several times a week, braving frigid nights for a few minutes’ conversation.
I consider myself the luckiest girl on campus.
We are the last two awake at her twenty-second birthday party; the other guests sprawl across the floor and the couch, their vodka-laced snores cutting the quiet, their cheeks dappled with mascara trails and the glitter we shower over ourselves. By four-thirty in the morning, we have reprised the old song-and-dance: Lennox shut herself in her room with the girl she loves most, the unavailable one, who refused her. Unwanted again, I wept on the balcony and contemplated jumping, my feet naked on the January concrete.
Later, Lennox finds me curled on the living room floor, bobbing on the horizon of sleep. “Come to my room,” she whispers.
Someone already splays across her bed, so we curl over a beanbag chair, our spines arching like commas. She casts a duvet over us before meeting my eyes, her pupils blooming like ebony moons.
“Rub my back?” She turns over before I can answer, before a smile billows out to kiss every pore on my face. “Then I’ll do yours,” she mumbles into the beanbag.
“You don’t have to.”
I know she won’t, which pleases me. As I sweep my hands over the contours of her neck, her shoulders, her vertebrae, I yearn to burrow under her skin—to let her feel how I adore her. Don’t worry about me, I say with every caress; let me get rid of your pain.
My fingers explore the threads of her shirt until, bold, I slip my hand beneath the fabric. I rake my fingernails over her flesh, delighting in its tautness, its heat. I imagine myself an art connoisseur ravishing a master’s sculpture, hungry to gather more of it in my palms.
After many minutes, when the sky begins to lighten and cast the room in aquamarine, I slide my knees behind hers, my chest against her shoulders. I let my hand linger under her shirt, cupped over her ribs, thirsty for her heartbeat. It pounds beneath my touch—she is awake, she is not protesting—so I hide my face in her neck.
The next day I will learn that she remembers none of it: not the poems I scribe over her skin; not the moment when she rolls over and laces our hands together, tucks her ankle under mine. But in the moment I inhale the night, hold its incense in my lungs. This, I whisper in the darkness; you. You are where I want to be.
It’s the truest nighttime prayer I’ve ever prayed. For one night, I believe it can cast out all my demons.
Dad and Mom’s visits to our Pennsylvania house peter from every other month to holidays and summers; the two of them become background music in my life, instrumentals behind Lennox, who remains the star. On the last night of Dad’s winter-break visit, I discover a neon-green note taped to my bedpost. We need to talk, it reads. Come find me.
He and Mom laze on loungers together, eyeballing the television in silence. Mom won’t tolerate talking during her shows, nor will she tolerate
watching them alone. Dad’s presence, even when he sits numb with alcohol, mute, must feel a little like love to her.
I hesitate in the doorway of the TV room, clasping my elbow and wondering how to summon Dad without alerting her. Eventually he notices my shadow bob against the opposite wall and clambers out of the chair.
Mom furrows her eyebrows at him; he grunts something about his stomach and makes a vague pained gesture. In my old bedroom, under the shelf where the rocking horse serenaded me, he folds me into his arms, suctions my ear to his chest.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” he breathes, pulling me in and pushing me away with each exhale.
“I know, Daddy.”
But I have her now: the thought digs spiked shoes into my heart. She is the air in my lungs, the air that blossoms to push him back.
“It’s Lennox, isn’t it,” he whispers to my scalp. “She’s the girl you like.”
Her name triggers an avalanche of memories: hazel eyes slick with vodka; aquamarine light; snores resounding like tinny rocking-horse music. I see the clay armadillo beside her bed, the postcards from her grandmother tacked above the desk, the chapbooks strung like Christmas lights around the walls. Her cologne tickles my nostrils; it is almost caustic. I feel her in my palms and in the damp that wheedles out of my eyes.
“We’re just friends,” I groan into the fabric of his shirt. “She likes someone—she likes other people.”
“Come here,” he spools me closer, trying to stitch me back together. I unravel into him in this place of childhood and prayer and, now, her.
“First loves are hard,” his hands measure out the opening stanzas of a back massage. “And I can tell you really love her.”
I nod—a chorus—a yes that beats the air like an errant Amen in church.
“I think there’s a part of us that never gets over that first love, unfortunately. We carry pieces of them with us, you know? And hopefully we bring the best of them, and forget all the rest.”
He gives me a bracing squeeze. “Have I ever told you about Joanne?”
I wiggle out of his grasp, inhale, seek his eyes. We both know he never mentioned a Joanne; her name smells red, more forbidden than divorce.
“We were high school sweethearts—crazy about each other. We never seemed to get the timing right, though; she always liked me when I was after somebody else; I was always chasing her at the wrong time. But when we managed to be on the same page, it was like nothing I had before. Or since.”
His hands knead my shoulders again, insistent as grief.
“And I never told anyone,” he says, “but a few years ago, she found me.”
He reads the shock in my eyes. “Not in person; on Facebook. The day I made my profile—the day—she sent me a message. Within three hours.”
Tears speckle his hazel eyes.
“And I replied.”
Now my hands find his back and feel the devils there, the ones that make their homes under his skin.
By spring I learn to smother my feelings somewhat, to stand on balconies beside Lennox at midnight without yearning to be the nicotine flooding her veins. Other friends trickle out of my life, runoff through a sieve, as I dole my time to only her. Hours and hours together, best friends we call it. Her door is always open for me—except at night. Around 3 a.m. she becomes the slat of light below the bedroom door.
Alone as another party winds down, I muse at my reflection in my beer and wonder about the girls we love, and the ones we don’t. I wonder which is the bigger tragedy as I pursue stranger after stranger at these parties, in black rooms that feel aquamarine.
Lennox summarizes it best, plucking the last of many drinks from my hand and draping a blanket over me. I am the last one awake with her and the girl she will take to bed. Regret frosts her voice cold as winter; I feel its icepick in my knees.
“She watches everything I do,” Lennox tells the girl—not one she loves, but the one she will love tonight. “It’s so hard.”
And in the morning I will wake, a pretzel on the pleather chair, sore in ways a massage can’t soothe. I will think of my father in Florida, rising to the sun and to the woman who never cast Joanne from his heart. I will think of Lennox, asleep in the hands of a girl whom she will abandon. And I will fumble for a phone to call Dad, will hope his love can exorcise demons that I cannot.