The young woman, having delayed the task for weeks, was about to call her father to tell him “No.”
And yet the very thought of having to do this, knowing that she would attempt to mitigate his disappointment with a disingenuous (yet all too convincing) “I’m sorry,” compelled the young woman to ball up her hand into a rigid, red fist.
She thought of what she might say.
No, unfortunately, she would not be able to join him and his wife for Christmas. And yes, this year she would be spending the holiday with her mother. And yes, she would say, of course she was sure, she had spent Christmas with him last year. Didn’t he remember? Was it not just several weeks ago that he had seen her for Thanksgiving? And wasn’t that their pattern? Thanksgiving with Dad meant Christmas with Mom, and vice versa.
And wasn’t it strange that although this trend had been established years ago—before, during, and after college—her father still managed to point out, whenever he had the chance, that no matter which holiday it was, he only saw her once a year? Why not Thanksgiving and Christmas? He was always quick to mention that the young woman had yet to form, after all these years, a real connection with her stepmother—and doesn’t that effort go both ways? Wouldn’t they be more of a family if each holiday was spent amongst those they love? And yes, of course he understood that the young woman’s mother wanted to see her too, but he was quick to defend himself, to say it was not his fault that his ex-wife had moved all the way upstate. And could he really be blamed for her decisions? Was it really his fault that the young woman’s mother had been—throughout the young woman’s entire childhood—financially dependent on him? And when it came time to sell the young woman’s childhood home—a house, by the way, whose mortgage payments were made by the young woman’s father well after he had moved out, well after he had met the young woman’s stepmother—did the young woman’s father really have any control over what his ex-wife did with her share (“Half, by the way!”) of the proceeds? How could he possibly know—notwithstanding their years of marriage—that his ex-wife wasn’t equipped with the financial know-how to find a place of her own here in the city? And even if the young woman’s mother was equipped with this knowledge, how could the young woman’s father control the fact that his ex-wife hadn’t worked in years, that her degree in fine arts—earned more than thirty years ago—meant nothing in today’s workforce?
The young woman knew not to press this topic; she had learned early on that it was a subject not to be broached without forethought, that her father would immediately take it as an affront, that he would first defend himself reluctantly and then enthusiastically, feigning his disinterest in the matter before his voice and aggravation gave way to their usual fervor. Only once, in a drunken fit, had she mustered the courage (“insolence!” he had said) to call him (in the middle of the night) to point out how very self-conscious he always sounded, how very deep she suspected those wells of insecurity and guilt must have run through his conscience. That was years ago, and although she called him the very next morning to apologize (and though he insisted that he had already forgiven her), it was from then on that they began to see each other less and less.
The young woman looked at her phone, wondering now if she should reconsider. Perhaps she actually could drive down to the city after visiting her mother. She was more than a little aware of her tendency to do this—to progressively shift her perspective until it was aligned with that of her father—to quietly defend her own reasoning before inevitably relenting to some deeper logic, some judgment that did not feel like her own, but by which she eventually abided.
But the young woman was reluctant to admit this, to recognize that when she was a girl she had almost always agreed with him, that she too had seen her mother not as someone who was unable, but unwilling to contribute, as someone who was always prepared to play the victim. Even in the throes of their divorce, after the young woman’s mother had discovered that the young woman’s father was having an affair—an affair with someone who would, in time, become the young woman’s step-mother—the young woman had wondered what her mother had done to drive her father away. While it was true that the young woman’s mother had been depressed ever since her own parents passed away (within a few months of each other), wasn’t it also true that this had happened years ago? Shouldn’t her mother put things into perspective? Shouldn’t she understand that people get old, and then they die, and it’s up to us, the living, to carry on? And, moreover, hadn’t the young woman’s father also lost his parents? Wasn’t he still in the business of living, of not staying in bed all day, of contributing to their family, to the success and growth of their young daughter?
It was easy, therefore, for the young woman’s father, after he had moved out, to blame the young woman’s mother when their daughter’s grades began to drop, when the girl began to drink and smoke. Was it not the presence of a stern and persistent parent that had kept the girl’s performance in check? Was he not, therefore, able to tacitly implicate himself as the superior parent? Had the young woman’s father not acted compassionately when he decided that the girl ought to remain in her childhood home? Was he not, in a way, financially supporting his ex-wife (to the chagrin of his new wife) so that she could, in turn, be equipped to support their daughter? Even more, hadn’t he and his ex-wife agreed years in advance that they would sell the house once their daughter graduated from college? Couldn’t the young woman’s mother see this inevitability on the horizon just as certainly as the passing of her elderly parents? The young woman knew—as her father knew—that her mother had simply not prepared.
And yet, the young woman now felt, as she so often did as a child, a conflicting impulse to defend her mother, to build her back up into the resilient woman she had once been. It was only much later that the young woman discovered that she had, as a young girl, attempted to do this with one simple objective: to save a marriage already well beyond repair. Surely, she had thought, if she could get her mother out of bed, if she could get her to eat something, to stop crying, to open up her arms and embrace her small daughter, the young woman’s father would fall back in love with her. And so, when the young woman’s mother slipped deeper and deeper into her depression, it was the young woman—then a young girl—who harbored the limitless guilt of having failed. And despite this discovery—despite simply knowing that she had wanted, unconsciously, to cure her mother of those mysterious and frightful afflictions—the young woman had taken still many more years to consider, as she now often did, whether her mother had ever actually been the strong and enthusiastic parent that the young woman had so hoped to rehabilitate. Was it not more likely that children—all children, having neither the ability nor the words to remove themselves from domestic turbulence—take on the hopeless and sorry task of trying to keep afloat those whom they so completely depend upon?
The young woman, staring at her phone, considered this. She considered those strange and enduring forces that compelled her, year after year, to call her father and tell him—with no trace of insincerity—that she loved him, that she missed him. And she knew—swiftly and simply—that it would be a lifetime before she denied him the privileges of her affection. His access to her love—despite her harshest resentments, despite even her knowledge that he had always taken advantage of a devotion he did not deserve—was free.
And when the young woman finally called him, when his voice broke through, she imagined for a moment how that same voice must have sounded to her young mother all those years ago—to a woman who was once husbandless, daughterless, who could have neither predicted nor fathomed the bigness of sorrow, of all that would come to possess her. And then the young woman could hardly register whatever it was her father was saying, could hardly stop herself from unclenching her tight fist, from letting her fingers unfurl like the young fronds of a growing fern. Staring at her open hand, she heard her father’s words ring through, heard him say “Won’t you try, sweetheart?”
And all the young woman could say was, “Yes, I’ll try. Really, I will.”
Andrew Matthiessen, whose work has also appeared in Tuesday Magazine, is a writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts. He works at Harvard Law School and is currently finishing his first novel.
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