Discover more from Heavy Crown Press
Imperfectly perfect timing
These words, I send up to you from my heart. It’s cheesy, but I have no other way to speak to you, and in a cosmic way, you will understand them as you never could in life. Not because of anything you were or did. These are feelings, memories, flights of fancy, of nonsense mostly, but as I contemplate this horrible occurrence, these are all I have. What you were to me, so much and yet so vague and nondescript. Some might describe you as a father figure. You were more than that. We had a bumpy start. I’m pretty sure I hurt your feelings the first time we met, though we never talked about it, and eventually it became a nothing. Well, I was eleven, maybe ten, and I was afraid to meet you, my mother’s “date,” my mother’s boyfriend. I remember her and one of my friends tugging at me, pulling me, laughing. They wanted me to go meet you. I didn’t. I was afraid for some reason. It took me a long time to get over my fear of strangers, and here was a person who was not going to be a stranger—never a stranger, nothing like a stranger—and even though Mama assured me that you were not and had no wish to replace my father, there must have been some lingering fear in my heart of whatever it was that you would be. Anyway, you came to me, to us, and I laughed out loud from the shock, only the shock, but I imagined that you thought I was laughing at you. I never told anyone. You and I never talked about it. I do remember that it just sort of… faded. The next memory of you: you, Mama, and me in the minivan on the way to Houston to visit Aunt R— and Cousin B—. I just hung out in the furthest backseat, pretty upset and annoyed because you still wouldn’t talk to me. After that, the memories come pretty fast, non-sequential, frivolous. Stomping around the beach at Galveston with you and Cousin B. Watching TV in their apartment. AstroWorld. WaterWorld. One night, lying on the bottom bunk of B’s bunk bed, I cried. Mama came in at some point and tried to comfort me. I tried to explain to her that I thought you were mad at me, but she didn’t believe me. That was impossible, she said. How and why would you be mad at me? I hadn’t done anything. Well, that much was true. I hadn’t done anything to warrant you being mad at me, but I still felt that you were. Maybe the whole thing was in my head, but the feelings were so real. The thoughts popped in there, real as anything else, and they came from somewhere. Maybe they came from that part inside me that always felt misunderstood. I had this paralyzing fear inside me that went back as far as my memory goes, a fear of not being understood properly, and it manifested itself in an inability to speak, a struggle to even form words. A friend’s mother later told me about the first time they had me at their house. I was maybe five or six years old, and sitting at their kitchen table, on one of their bizarre three-legged chairs, I wanted to run and hide. They were so kind about it. My friend, her parents, her older brother—they gently prodded me to bring me out of my shell, but it wasn’t happening. The mom laughed about it with me years later, when I was 15, but now I’m looking at that and wondering what it could have been like for anyone who had to meet me. I don’t know what ended up breaking the ice between us, but when or how it happened, it just happened and we never thought twice about it or talked about it or ever looked back. We were just off to the races, as whatever we were…. I don’t remember much of anything between us going through a transition. You were a stranger for a second, the blink of an eye, and then you were an awkward acquaintance for five seconds, and then you were You, indefinable You—friend, father-like but not father. What is a father anyway? Mine died when I was very young, hardly old enough to recall anything about him beyond the vaguest of impressions. I had a daddy who was married to Mama from the time I was four until their divorce when I was ten. He was still Daddy and really the closest thing I ever had to a father, and we always had a curious relationship. He helped me with my homework and told me stories about the crazy things he and my “real” father did when they were kids; they were cousins, almost like brothers, Daddy and my biological father. Daddy stayed in the big house next door to the three-legged chair family; Mama and You lived at my other home. Lots of memories there, but nothing very congruous. Swimming, tennis, walking Toby. You came to life the following year, seventh grade, when we lived in Florida. It was just you and me a lot that year. Daddy was in Louisiana; Mama was very busy as an apprentice at the Burt Reynolds school. You did some acting too. You took me to the rehearsals after school. I watched the rehearsals. I helped out some. I worked on my homework. I remember helping out with the programs once the performances started. I just don’t remember the name of the show or the names of anyone I interacted with. I wish I did. I don’t remember enough that is specific, but I remember being in your truck so vividly. The cassette tapes: Van Halen, the Smiths, the Doors. That was your music, and I dug it, especially the Smiths. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” I loved that one. I just remember you and that truck, and us riding around Jupiter, and West Palm Beach, over all that water, with bridges that opened up for boats to pass through. 12 years old is really not very far along, if you stop to think about it. While reading Prince Harry’s memoir, I did stop to think about that very thing—what I can remember from that age—and it turns out, like Harry, not much. Just impressions, mostly. Actual conversations, substantial dialogues? Not really. I remember running around the apartment complex with my two friends, and one or two others who were not so much “friends” but went to school with us. So much grass where we lived. Little grassy hills to run up and down. It was there you coached me at soccer, getting me ready for the soccer tryouts at school. I hated you for it. You pushed me so hard, I thought I would die from all that running. Mama wasn’t home to see how hard you pushed me, and sometimes I thought, if she did, boy, you’d be in trouble, but that was just ridiculous. Even then, in my resentment at being pushed so hard, I knew it was absurd, although there is a vague memory of once trying to subtly expose you. I did not make the team and, like other things, I don’t think we ever talked about it. Maybe we did. Maybe we shrugged it off. I think I was mostly relieved. That school and its teams didn’t feel like home to me; they weren’t my soccer team in Louisiana, where even though life was far from perfect, there was that feeling of belonging. So, yeah, I guess I was relieved not to work my butt off for a team for which I had no feeling of comradeship. Jupiter was an interesting pitstop with some pretty horrid pitfalls, like the time I was attacked by the school bully. There was a full inquiry at my school, since it happened in transit from the bus stop. I had to give verbal and written testimony of what happened, how the girl and her bicycle gang followed and entrapped me and my friends. I remember it all happened because she was picking on one of my friends and I said something snotty to her, in defense of my friend. You said something very similar had happened to your brother when you were kids, and that I should steer clear of aggressive kids in the future and not stick myself in the middle of other people’s fights. Pick your battles very carefully. We had a lot of fun too, like charades at Dom Del Luise’s condo with Mama and her fellow apprentices. And that night at the dinner theater, when Mama graduated and Burt Reynolds asked about her kid, because she was the only apprentice who had a child, and he asked me to stand up and the lights to come up a little so he could look at me. That was embarrassing. Everyone, including you, was grinning at me. Burt Reynolds stared at me in amazement. “I think she had Ashley when she was seven,” he told the audience, and they all laughed. Hilarious.
We were back in Baton Rouge in no time. So much drama that year. Eighth grade. New school. Again. Reunion with pre-Florida friends. Reunion with Daddy. He had a girlfriend. They were not as much fun to be around as you and Mama. That’s probably why I was nicer to them. I wasn’t as comfortable around them. Everything was very uncertain, insecure. She was from a wealthy background, New Orleans, very sophisticated. Daddy felt the pressure of not measuring up, and I definitely didn’t measure up. It was just easier to be at the house where you were, where Mama was, where Toby was; where we were laid back and never really worried about anything serious. For Halloween, Mama made a little haunted studio in the covered carport. I think she used my oversize Cabbage Patch doll to make a covered “bloody” dummy, using a sheet with ketchup stains and a kitchen knife. She used my stereo to play scary music. A friend and I dressed up as ‘80s pop idols. Toby the Tiny Toy Poodle was small enough to fit in a hot dog bun. Mama held him between two bun slices. You pretended to be on the verge of attacking them with my Darth Vader lightsaber. I took the picture. (Funnily enough, my memory was wrong. I checked the picture and it turns out, you were the one holding the Toby bun; Mama had the lightsaber. My perusal of the photo albums also showed me that I had the timeline all screwed up. This was actually pre-Florida. Oh well.) It’s just a classic example of how silly we were, and exactly the kind of humor that was totally lost on my “other” family. We were creative and outlandish. Mama was in her final year for the MFA at LSU, which I remember you had quit, and that was another thing we never talked about. You were still a great actor in my eyes. I bragged about how good you were. I felt you were at least as good as your idol, Paul Newman. You had the same piercing presence, the same intensity lurking beneath Midwestern wholesomeness. I loved watching old movies with you, bonding over Brando and James Dean. I feel like we watched Marlon Brando’s interview with Larry King together, but a Google search tells me that happened in 1994, and I’m not sure you were in our lives at that point. Funny interview….definitely something we would have enjoyed watching together.
In the summer of 1992, we moved to California. Your truck, piled high with tarp-covered furniture. We probably made many jokes about the Beverly Hillbillies. We were the Burbank Hillbillies, though. We got a two-bedroom a few blocks away from the school you and Mama picked out for me. The two of you were very excited about what a good fit that school was for me, in theory, and though I was skeptical at first, and though I didn’t make friends as easily as I had hoped, I do recall liking many things about it. All of my teachers were great. One thing I disliked about it was the Thursday uniform (formal attire, i.e. skirt and pumps) for Thursday Mass. I was a fairly good student that year, even in math, but at home and in your relationship with Mama, there were cracks beginning to show. You fought a lot, and I don’t recall any fights before California. I tried to pretend that I didn’t notice. It was hard, though, when I could hear you screaming at each other. Your fights were not physical, but the screaming was bad enough and I do remember one time you knocked over one of your enormous stereo speakers. It broke and you had to get rid of it and I’m sure that was embarrassing. I was embarrassed for you. My sense of time in these memories is very imprecise, but I feel sure that it wasn’t long before you decided to leave. Or, rather, it must have been a mutual decision between you and Mama. Mama today feels a lot of guilt about the way things went, but I think it was for the best that you separated. It can’t have been easy for her to be alone in California, a working single mom, trying to “make it” in the notoriously competitive entertainment industry, while also working as a nurse; and it can’t have been easy for you to leave us and try to restart your own education and career. Last I heard, you started anew with the MFA way across the country. For whatever reason, you were not able to figure things out together. You had to find your own paths.
Three years later, you wrote me a letter, stuck inside a funny card to mark my graduation from high school. It was one of the nicest letters I ever received. I probably still have it somewhere. But that was it until many, many years later, when we found each other on Facebook, and you told me that you still thought of me as your first kid. Even though you had two nearly-grown boys of your own bloodline. Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. What are these definitions we assign to these relationships? Yours and mine was a custom fit. One of a kind. When we finally connected on Facebook, I sensed that there were many things not said. Touchy waters. I know my mom felt it, that reluctance to overstep, that fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. What is that fear and how does it take over us, restrain us? It was there that night I met you. It was there when we reconnected. I imagine that fear falls away when we transcend the mortal coil. Now I can tell you everything, anything, and I know you will understand.