One night my father turns to me and says, Son, you should strike out on your own and become a man of the world. Yeehaw!
He says this from his ergonomic chair in the den, in front of his Westerns, among his closest companions, his council of mounted deer heads. I don’t believe in ergonomics. But someday you will, he says to me and goes back to his shows, which he does not remember he has been watching for hours.
He says these things and I half-believe him half the time and the other half I don’t believe him at all, because I was born a girl. My parents even had a lady-stripper pop out of a pink cake. (They used to be fun, before the world and age and the recession and I, their precious one, sent them downhill.) That morning when I asked my mother, finally, that she call me by my real name, she cried and yelled and took a walk around a whole neighborhood block. Dad would’ve yelled, too. He is of that old guard who still believes in intangible things. Freedom. Marriage. Capital gains. Though he is not himself anymore—not enough to believe in much at all.
These days, he does Sudoku. Mom stopped giving him the crossword when its references started to confuse him. He used to do them in red pen with the confidence of a man with a house, a family, a career, and everything to lose.
What my father might’ve meant when he said man of the world, was more like the world was my oyster, or Café du Monde, or Mr. Worldwide. Or perhaps he meant that I should set the world on fire, stop sitting around with him, and go chase a career in something that will make me wildly rich and famous. Carve a road of slim and uncertain success. Acting. Writing. Hip hop. Fireball.
It’s also possible what he meant was, Son, though he’d never say that in his right mind, in this dog-eat-dog world, you should be a man. You should be a mensch of a man, a man who eats not on the ground with the dogs, but at the table with the board of directors. I was on the board, he might say, of a prestigious university. And what have you done?
You know, I have struck out, Dad. If I could, I’d tell you it’s my last night in the house. In a time out of time, you would know that by morning I will be asleep on a friend’s couch on the other end of this cramped, rotten suburb.
But I could say anything. I could say: Hi Dad, you don’t know me, but I was your daughter once. There’s proof, and it’s on tape. A three-year-old that puts on your robe and slippers and glasses and clip-clops down the hallway, then clambers into a chair and pretends to read your newspaper, pretends to drink your coffee. Mom calls them “little dad.” They scribble red lines all over your crossword. You laugh. You ask them for clues, and they tell you all the words they know so far. You call them a baby genius, but all their answers are wrong.
Sometimes I put this on for you, though your eyes glaze over and you don’t laugh like you used to. I try not to unsettle you.
Sometimes you turn to me and say, You should meet my daughter. She’s away at school, but she’ll be back at Christmas. That’s when you unsettle me.
You sit with your father for the night, the first night you’ve come home in years, a prodigal, and your mother might slaughter the fatted calf, prime rib you will not eat, and ask you questions about your mopped hair, your half-sleeve, your girlfriend. Your mother might rise silently from the dinner table, a storm cloud, a spotted napkin falling from her lap, her body and lips tight before she tells you to go. Then there will be your father, who you’ve sat with in the den all day, and you will both hunger and fear for his spark of recognition. He might say anything, he might babble like a baby. He might call you Son, and you might even smile. And whatever sounds he makes will have no rational meaning or origin you can discern. But he is your father, one of your first models of how to be in the world, and there are only so many hours left to tell him where you are going and where you have been.
I never did make it back home that December.
Megan Robinson is a writer, designer, and an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA. You can find them on Twitter at @mrobwrites.