I’m fourteen years old and I have been gone for the entire summer, shuttling around the country on a luxury bus with forty other teenagers. I walked the starkness of Alcatraz and gazed at the height of Mount Rushmore. I camped in tents in Nebraska. I rode a horse named Caramel in Bryce Canyon and went waterskiing in the glow of Lake Tahoe.
Everywhere I went, I had with me a bulky camera and a notepad that turned into a journal. I wrote down what I saw and how each thing made me feel. I bought postcards and scrawled happy messages on them and mailed them home to my mother and my father. The postcards were sent to different places since my parents hadn’t lived in the same house for almost a decade.
We landed in New York City after taking off from New Orleans, the final place we visited, and my father and my stepmother met me at the airport. They brought my dog with them because they knew I’d missed her so much during the weeks when I’d been away from home learning about the terrain of places that weren’t on the east coast and growing out of my gawky stage. The ugliness that had taken over a year or so prior didn’t completely end that summer – I still had the braces and the shoulders that hunched in awkwardness and the hair that rarely wanted to fully cooperate – but it all would end less than a week later as I stood before the bathroom mirror on the most horrible day of my entire life and saw with a brief start that I’d suddenly turned pretty.
One of the biggest regrets I still walk with is that I was so tired the day I returned from my cross-country jaunt. When we got back to our apartment in Manhattan, my father asked if I wanted to take a walk with him to the video store. I said no. I was so tired that I felt like my legs wouldn’t move. I told him that I just wanted to close my eyes for a few moments.
I woke up and it was the next day.
My father, stepmother, dog, and I headed out to our house in East Hampton. This was only the second year we had the place, but it already kind of felt like home. For what felt like forever, we had a house in Southampton, but they’d sold that a while ago and we rented the new place instead. The house was tucked into the trees and there was a deck we used to eat dinner on and you could walk to a lake and drive a few minutes to the ocean and I remember a lot of fresh vegetables and how we would always stop at this big farm stand to buy them and how there was always the smell of something being grilled in the heavy air.
I suppose that there must have been some thoughts – probably anxious ones – in my head about how school would be starting again soon and how I was about to enter the tenth grade and how I knew deep down that I didn’t enjoy going to high school in the city. I wanted to walk around on tree-lined streets and crunch leaves under my feet and go to football games wearing bulky sweaters and get into a car at the end of the night instead of into a taxi or onto a subway, but it’s not like I felt I really had any choice in the matter. I’d moved in with my father a year ago and maybe it just took longer than one year to acclimate to what was really a brand new city life when I was really a suburban girl at heart.
I’d sat in the backseat of the car on the way out east and told my father that my mother and I had spoken a lot that summer. I’d called her collect from places like Chicago and Montana and our talks felt easy again – real – and I wanted him to know that the divide might not be a thing that was anymore. I guess I was nervous to tell him such a thing. I guess I knew deep down how he and my mother felt about one another – how they’d felt about one another for a long time – but I didn’t want to hide anything from him or from her and I was fourteen years old and tired of not having a good relationship with both of them because the truth was, I really wanted that.
“I’m glad you and your mother are getting close again,” he said simply, and he looked at me in the rearview mirror and there was nothing but understanding in his eyes and probably relief in mine. “That’s how it should be.”
I’d been home for less than forty-eight hours and only conscious for about twenty of those hours. I sat with my father on the deck as he had some coffee and I drank some orange juice and he told me that I looked good, that I was tan and I’d lost some of that puffy weight I’d put on before the summer. Probably some of it was that my hair had grown out of the very unfortunate asymmetrical style I’d tried out, one that was very much a mistake, but maybe it was that I was finally growing into myself and all of those confusing puzzle pieces were starting to slide into place and not just the edges that can be assembled fast, but the inner ones too. I had watched myself over the last few days too and I saw some kind of gracefulness in the swoop of my shoulders and in the way that I had started to toss my hair. I certainly wasn’t confident yet – not by a long shot – but there was something about how my lips would curl when I would smile knowingly that told me that maybe confidence would show up soon along with boobs. Those were just starting to grow and I had started wearing bras because I actually needed them instead of why I used to wear one, which was because guys had taken to snapping them through the back of our shirts and I was scared that someone would reach out to snap mine and I wouldn’t be wearing one. Those were the kinds of fears a fourteen-year-old girl sometimes deals with and it’s one of the reasons I would never choose to be that age ever again.
At some point, we all got in the car and headed to the beach. For a while, I sat beside my father as he read a book and I read one too and he closed his at one point to tell me that he’d just read an account of how Marilyn Monroe had turned to Joe DiMaggio after performing for the troops and told him that he had no idea what it felt like to have thousands and thousands of people chanting his name, to which the star Yankee replied, “Yes, I do.” I remember laughing at the story and I remember not minding so much when my stepmother asked me to come with her into town to pick up sandwiches at the deli. I guess I’d just been away for a long time and errands hadn’t started to irritate me again yet.
I do remember getting back into the car and my stepmother opening up my father’s turkey sandwich and saying that they’d forgotten tomatoes so she left me there and went back inside the deli. I remember thinking it was a little strange that she was being so solicitous of his tomato needs. I remember sitting back down on the blanket on the beach and him eating his sandwich and I guess I ate mine too and then I wanted to go into the water and dive under the waves.
I don’t remember what bathing suit I was wearing. I don’t remember if the waves scared me that day like they would every day that followed. I don’t remember what book I was reading on the blanket or what time it was or if the day was ruled by the kind of scalding heat that sometimes invades a beach in the middle of a New York August.
I remember my father calling me to the shore. He was holding his fishing rod and he was going to go down the beach a bit to cast for bluefish. He wanted me to know where he would be if I got out of the water.
“Be careful,” he called to me, “because I won’t be here.”
Those are the last words my father ever said to me. He died on the beach that day from a massive heart attack and I remember running towards a growing crowd that I knew somehow involved him. I remember seeing his blue swim trunks but I do not remember seeing his face. I remember falling down like a crumpled heap in the sand and people looking down at me with expressions of concern. I remember looking up at one of them and seeing that it was Paul McCartney. I remember an ambulance arriving and how I screamed at my stepmother to let them take him, that I didn’t care if she couldn’t drive behind it to the hospital, that I would drive that fucking car and let’s just get him some help.
She eventually drove and I don’t remember arriving, but I clearly remember being in a room and a nurse coming in and telling us, “It doesn’t look good.” That sentence was actually harder to hear than the confirmation we got a little later on that he was gone. I can’t recall who said it or if they added that they had done all that they could like I usually heard doctors say in movies and on television, but I remember my stepmother putting her arms around me and wailing and that I was kind of just in a silent form of shock and I let her hug me and say things like, “Thank goodness you were home,” and I knew then what it felt like to have your life change in an instant.
I don’t know how long I was in the hospital after that, but it had to have been a long time. I know that I didn’t want to see my father’s body and I was terrified I’d walk into a room and there he would be. A doctor told me such a thing wouldn’t happen, but I pretty much stayed in one place and there was a phone there and my stepmother told me to call my sister and let her know that our father was dead now. I think back today on such a thing and about an adult telling a kid to make such a call and how I’m rather sure I would have done anything in my power had I been the adult in the scenario to try to warp the child as little as possible. Still, I picked up the phone and my sister answered and I asked to talk to my mother and I somehow told her what had happened and she screamed, “What?” like anyone would and then my sister got on the phone and I could hear my mother say, “Michael died,” to her husband and I told my sister that daddy was dead and she kind of didn’t seem to believe me and it irritated me in the moment because I knew definitively that what I was saying was nothing but true.
My mother and my sister drove straight to the hospital and I think my stepmother made some phone calls, though I have no idea to whom. I sat at a desk a nurse stuck me at and I called the girl who had once been my best friend, a girl I’d grown apart from in the last year. I called her because her number was the only one I knew by heart and I guess I needed to say something to somebody and she answered and I choked out the words, “My father just died,” and she told the friend she had over to go get her mother, that Nell’s father died, and then Randi picked up the phone and I spoke to her for a while and she thanked me for letting her know, but I wasn’t calling to let her know. I didn’t really know why I was calling but I was afraid to move from that desk and to end up back in the room with my stepmother and I was afraid that I’d run into the lifeless body of my father and I was afraid then of so much and so I just sat there in stillness and waited for my mother to arrive.
My mother and my stepmother hugged when she walked in the room and I could see in her face how devastated she was and that, bitterness aside, this was a man she had known since she was a teenager. They had gotten married and bought a home and had children together. They had almost destroyed one another too, but one thing I’ve learned over time is that the worst of it rarely comes up after death. She and my sister went to see my father’s body. I don’t know if doing such a thing brought them comfort, but to this day I’m glad that I never asked to do the same thing. For many years, I could only see that image of his swim trunks on the beach at the moment when I knew he was gone before anybody told me so. I didn’t want to make that image even worse.
I went home to my mother’s house that night. I don’t remember the ride back from Southampton or anything my sister might have said, but I do remember my mother telling me that we would fix up my room. My days in Manhattan were over. My life with my father was over. And me? I was still around and was expected to do things like wake up in the morning.
I did wake up – about a lot of things. I saw that during a very difficult time, some people choose to behave rather terribly and I also saw that holding it together was the kind of thing that actually made me feel able to deal with what I had been tasked with handling. Friends came over and we went into the city to see my father’s sister and my grandmother flew in from Florida. There was nothing but sadness in the days following August seventeenth, but the truth is that I can’t remember a lot of it. I know I had to go shopping with my mother for a black dress to wear to my father’s funeral and that most of my stuff was in the city and I had to get it at some point and that my stepmother asked me if she could keep my dog because she was – and probably remains – the kind of piece of shit who asks a kid who just lost her father if she can part with her pet too.
The dress I wore to my father’s funeral was black and it was short and I threw it out the second I returned home. I remember waking up that morning and knowing instantly what the day would bring and that I tried to stay in the shower for as long as I could but the water coming down almost felt like it was bruising my skin because I was so raw that every part of me was like a wound that shouldn’t be exposed to anything and here I was, about to be exposed to a crowd and mourners and a casket. The whole thing made me want to stay in that bathroom and I remember drying my hair and putting on lipstick and all of a sudden stopping to look at myself. I’m guessing that my eyes looked blank and flat and that my skin, in spite of my tan, was pale, but what I noticed then is what I remember clearly today and it was that my hair looked perfect and my face had thinned out and my bone structure looked almost like it had been rearranged while I slept an hour the night before and that all of a sudden, I had turned pretty.
I think my father would have really liked that. He was rather vain, too.
The funeral? I recall only fractured seconds of it, like there were flashes taken with a Polaroid camera and if you lined up all the images, maybe a coherent memory could be formulated. I know Thunder Road was played. I know the woman who clicked “play” was a friend of my stepmother’s who my father didn’t like. I know there were people there I knew and people I didn’t know. I know that I kept hearing murmurings of, “he was only forty-six,” which seems crazier to me now than it did then. I know that my stepmother wore red because she said my father loved her in red and I know that my friend’s father leaned over to me afterwards and he smiled and told me, “I liked him a lot,” and that was as effusive as I’d ever seen him and that simple statement touched me more than other people who sobbed on my shoulder about how badly they would miss him and that I should know how much he had loved me.
So many years have gone by since those days that changed me forever, but not everything actually changes. I still think of my father many times a day and I tell stories about him because the stories are all I have left. I still have the letters he sent me when I was away that summer and the postcards I sent to him because he kept them. I still remember how he was in one of my dreams during the toughest of those early days and how we had a similar conversation to the one we’d had in the car and that he told me in the dream that he was glad my mother and I were together, as though a part of my psyche and a part of his spirit teamed up in a dreamscape to offer a kid some comfort.
And still it becomes August seventeenth again every year and I light a candle in my kitchen and I let it burn for the next twenty-four hours and some years I cry a little bit and some years I smile because of who he was to me and I listen to Thunder Road and I think about what it is that I have lost and how I think he would get a real kick out of the woman I turned into – and about the way he’d be relieved that my gawky stage is fucking history.