Portrait of My Father
Exactly how long the prostitute, unbeknownst to my father, stayed at our house and slept in my bed is hard to gauge. Nowadays time lacks the expansive quality it had when I was eleven years old. But more than three weeks and less than five months elapsed between the day she moved in and the terrible afternoon he noticed her crouching behind the frosted glass shower door in the front bathroom, and kicked her out.
Every weekday morning during the time she lived with us, I set my alarm to go off early so that I could rouse her and help her into the closet before Dad came in to wake me for school. Even my mother acknowledged that the logistics were tricky: the prostitute was large, my father was the suspicious sort — forever lurking behind the curtains and monitoring the neighbours — and I was not a morning person. But Mom, a sometime storefront preacher, had invited this new lost lamb to take shelter with us, and I always cast my lot with my mother.
Dad was a fearsome and disapproving figure who grounded me for Bs and spanked me for everything from being constipated to referring to my sister and her friend Eleanor as ‘you guys’ (they were both girls; the proper term was ‘y’all’). A conservative lawyer who’d grown up in the Mississippi Delta and was now raising his family in 1980s Miami, he seemed unaware that there was no reason or opportunity for his daughters to learn how to act like proper Southern ladies. I did not relate to him. I did not trust him. Most of all, I did not want to have anything in common with him.
‘You’re just like your goddamned daddy,’ was the most hurtful thing my mother could say to me as a child, but, as you can see from this photo of a three-year-old me on his lap, I am quite clearly his daughter. He is the source of my freakishly pale skin, my bad teeth, my noise intolerance, and my propensity to say things like, ‘I don’t think I want to get mixed up in all that.’
As I grew older, and I discovered his penchant for subterfuge, and an elaborate tangle of lies far too complex to explain here, I realized that he was one of the things I didn’t want to get mixed up with. I cut ties with him a little more than eight years ago, determined to extricate myself permanently from his toxic web. But as I ponder this photograph of the two of us laughing and slouching and fidgeting in tandem on a seemingly happy holiday I have no recollection of, I wonder if it was his influence, after all, that led me to hide the prostitute so skillfully and with such premeditation even as a preteen.
Photograph courtesy of the author