“I mean if she was a perfectionist I think I would be able to understand that. I think I would be able to understand if she was an anorexic or bulimic.” I can hear my wife’s voice in the distance.
We’re driving through the drizzle to reach you. Thoughts on my mind. Passing endless fields.
You’re my daughter. You will always be my little girl. You’ve gone through something, is all that I can read in your eyes, that and the fact that you don’t want to talk about what is on your mind. All I can read, see, analyse is the veil that covers what you want to hide from your mother and me. I’m wooden in your presence. You’re wooden in my presence. We’re mortals but we’re tender ghosts as well. I don’t want you to waste your life. You’ve always had such presence in the company of your peers. Of course, I’ve always wanted to protect you. Your mother had other plans. It was she who wanted a daughter. She wanted you to make your mark on the world. Ballet, tennis, diving, Toastmasters, editing the school magazine, the drama of the house play every year in high school. Nothing could stop from putting a mark on everything that you put your mind to. I remember the first dance you went to. The year you dressed up as Madonna. Your first pair of high heels. The first boy you kissed. Now when we’re in each other’s company we find that we have absolutely nothing to say. I think that you are selfish. You think that I am an arrogant buffoon. Buffoon! Idiot! Imbecile! Words that belong to another generation. Another time and place! The solitude of the place that we have taken you to seems to have swallowed you up. They want to give me more pills to cope, is what you said in a therapy session. How can I cope, tell me that dad? I was at a loss for words. Broke down in the car. Louise, your mother was not there. She didn’t want to come. Didn’t like the ‘element of that crowd’. I saw how your face fell when you saw your mother wasn’t me. I didn’t know what to do so I clumsily embraced you. You did not hug me back. Your arms hung limply at your side. I kissed your cheek. Your eyes were red. I could see that you had been crying. You looked thin. You want something to eat, I asked you. I can bring something with me next time I come but all you replied was this. That it was not allowed. Just don’t forget to eat. I said hoping my voice sounded encouraging. My eyes resting on the tattoos of a young man. You shook your head. Mumbled something that sounded like, “I want mum. I don’t want you. I didn’t want you to come today.” I smiled and stroked your hand. “I belong to a different generation. A generation of fathers that protect and that are there for their daughters.” ‘Imbecile’ was the word that you used. I didn’t think that people spoke that way anymore. You think that I don’t understand. You said that you weren’t an alcoholic. It just dulled the pain. Numbed your broken heart. This was what people did these days, you said. You weren’t a drunk. You could watch yourself. You just wanted to make the hours disappear. You wanted to make endless sky disappear without a trace. After group therapy, you asked me to bring you a carton of menthol cigarettes. Something I had never seen you do before. Smoke, I mean. You saw the confusion in my eyes. I saw the small smile at the corners of your mouth. “You’ll bring it, then?” You sounded almost hopeful. I was still your father. I still wanted to make you happy.
I drove to the nearest mall and went inside. I did not know where I was going to find what was going to make you happy. A carton of menthol cigarettes. I walked and walked and walked around. Bought ice cream. Sat down and ate it. Looked at the people. Noisy kids. Couples madly in love walking arm-in-arm or hand-in-hand. I think you were once like that. I’m wiser now, dad, you said the last time when I came up to visit. You took the carton out of my hands and smiled wanly. We hugged and I could feel you were just skin and bone. Flesh and bone, but you were wearing a little makeup. Peacock blue eyeshadow. Mauve lipstick. You told me one of the other in-patients had helped you ‘makeover’ yourself for your visitor. This time you didn’t ask me where your mother was. I think of that day’s endless sky as I was on the road, the twenty-minute ride out of town to see you. We’re church people who wait to be cradled against all evil, the root of money, sin and glory. Yes, I had many thoughts on my mind. My daughter is dead. Dead to me. Dead to us. I mean we, the respectable and loving couple of Louise and Julian Smith never meant for this to happen. Never thought it would happen to us. I meant for our daughter to be an intellectual type. To be married by now. To have settled down and had children. We want to be young forever, don’t we? It is something I will never understand. I wanted Louise to understand this as I held her hand. Her tears were my tears. We’ll come and visit, I promised we would but in the end, we could only make it for group therapy. I see her face in everything that Sharice did at that rehab centre. Her mood pensive. As she eats an apple, biting into the sweetness. I remembered the day when she was accepted to a prestigious art college after high school. I remember the day she picked up her first camera.
Instead our thirty-two-year-old daughter found herself after a broken relationship in a rehab centre for vodka and pills. “Will she make friends here, Julian? What kind of people end up in a rehab centre?” my wife asked me over dinner in a fancy restaurant. Red wine and pasta.
“Well, she never made friends easily, did she Lulu?” Lulu was my nickname for my wife Louise. “Do you think we made the right decision? She looks so lost. All I feel is emptiness when I look at her now. I never raised my daughter that way. I never raised her not to love herself. Just to give up like that. Give up on life.” Lulu scraped her fork across her untouched plate. “Aren’t you hungry? This place is so expensive. If you weren’t that hungry we could have just gone to a sandwich shop or café. The wine is good though. Can’t remember when last we had such good wine, can you remember Lulu.” I licked my lips. “You’re thinking of wine.” My wife put her fork down. Her face expressionless. She reached across the table, picked up a breadstick, broke it in half, and chewed thoughtfully. Louise rested the other half of the breadstick on her now half-eaten plate of gnocchi. “You never eat bread Lulu.” I stared at her open-mouthed, feeling overwhelmed by emotions rising up in me that I hadn’t had for years. Thinking just how beautiful my Louise looked now, in her mid-forties, nearing middle age.
“Well, I have other things on my mind now. My daughter, our daughter.” She corrected herself. I felt hurt. Indignant even, that she had gone as far as that. All this time saying-saying, ‘my’ daughter.
“Yes, ‘our’ daughter. I’ve been trained for this eventuality, remember. I’m the doctor in the family.” I ran my finger around the glass of wine. It was still full. I hadn’t taken a sip yet. The glass of wine reminded me why we had put our daughter in a rehabilitation clinic in the first place.
“You’re not that kind of doctor. It’s your ego talking. You’re a physician. You are not a psychiatrist and you certainly don’t know what is going on inside my head or our daughter’s at this point in time.” Louise was careful not to raise her voice to alert the other patrons of the restaurant.
Manners and Louise were on my mind. So were pills and vodka.
“Pills and vodka.” Louise was always good at reading me when I was at my lowest.
“Must be from your side of the family. I mean isn’t it really her fault? Isn’t it our daughter’s fault that she has no sense of self-control. That she can’t get a grip on herself. That she can’t deal with life, with love, with men, with her relationships. I mean I wasn’t like that when I was her age. Thirty something I mean. I mean everyone in their twenties wants to experiment. I was like that when I was her age.” Louise didn’t meet my gaze. She sat in her seat and pushed her plate away from her reaching for her glass. I could feel her mocking me. “I’m full. I wonder if we can take this home with us. I feel like a red cappuccino. Let’s have a look see at the dessert menu while we’re here anyway.” I didn’t say anything. What could I do? What could I think? I could not escape my Lulu. She could not escape me. This is no one’s fault. I wanted to tell my wife. We don’t have to blame each other. I could see it in her eyes though. Louise wanted someone to blame. She wanted to blame me. I had given Sharice everything. Between Sharice and Louise I couldn’t keep up. I am driving through the drizzle to reach you. Everything seems impossible at this point like patterns of stardust. The fabric of time. The universal, sacred landscape of family. I felt a oneness painted onto my soul. Every birthday. Every family holiday. The beach house. Overseas trips. We had a good time, didn’t we? I don’t know what to do now. I am the one who feels lost. Who wants to escape. I am the one that wants to kill time and numb the pain. There is no turning back now.
“No, I’m fine. Really, dad, don’t worry so. I am fine. Let’s sit outside today. I have a lot of things on my mind.” Sharice was cheerful. She ran up to me when she saw me walk through the gate and hugged me warmly.
“Oh, okay then. Are you warm enough?” I worried for her.
“Dad, I’m fine. Okay I won’t smoke if you don’t want me to.” I looked away. To be honest I hated seeing her like this. Down and out in rehab city. “I can’t get used to you, smoking that’s all.”
“I don’t want to talk about the relationship that I came out of. It got me thinking. I’ve always had other issues too. Mum and me. Mum and you.” To this I said nothing. We were both silent for a long time. I had never felt so loss for words. So, so empty.
“Dad, you know what, I really feel like ice cream. Remember my favourite flavour when I was young?” We were still sitting outside on the steps of the stoop. The seat of my pants was damp. It had stopped raining but I was warm in my duffel coat.
“How could I forget Sharice? Fudge, right?” Her hair was tangled. I felt frozen.
“Fudge.” There was a pause. “Why doesn’t mummy come? Why doesn’t she want to come and see me in this place? She knows that it is her fault that I am here.” Sharice lit a cigarette, and then put it out again. “Sorry, dad. I’m not used to this smoking gig either.”
“Why do you say that? Why do you say that it is her fault? I don’t understand Sharice. You have to explain it to me.” I wasn’t expecting that blow.
“The counsellor says I don’t have to explain anything. Once I get out of here I’m done with you both. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’m fine with it. If you want to talk about addiction, I’m here. I’ll be ready, waiting. People can have an addiction to sex, alcohol, to drugs, to pills. Ask me why I’m here in this godforsaken place? I’m here because of her. I want you to say it. That she never loved me the way that you loved me. All my life she has tried to live vicariously through me. And you’re saying nothing. Like always. I give up.” I had tears in my eyes as I watched her walk away from me.
On the point of a meltdown, I am driving towards the rehab centre taking the same road I have taken before in the pouring rain.
This time, for the first time, Louise is sitting next to me. I am trying not to cry. Men can become emotional too. It is futile trying to fight against something that is instinct. So, basic.