He wouldn’t have danced with me, my father. The day he gave me away, I told him we were only having dinner, not a full reception. Ours wasn’t a traditional wedding anyway, so skipping the father-daughter dance wasn’t a big deal to me.
Dancing wasn’t the only thing he wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t have read my screenplays, but he’d happily watch the movies once some Hollywood director ripped apart my words until the idea behind them was all that remained. He would laugh though. No matter what we were doing so long as it wasn’t dancing, he’d laugh with me. A quiet all-knowing laugh that would leave me wondering if my laugh didn’t quite hit the rhythm of the joke. And he’d talk with me.
He’d ask questions, wonder where my life was, where it’s going, and what I needed from him to reach my dreams. He’d listen to my complaints. Funny, I don’t complain about the same things today as I did then. I wish he knew. I wish he knew me today. I could tell him I am closer to the young woman he used to know. Not the teenager who fought him every step of the way. Not the teenager who’d been raped and feared not the consequences but rather telling her father her secrets. All of them. The small girl who picked clovers while singing the song wondering if they were red clovers or merely the color red and clovers separately and the young woman who wanted acceptance, not just tolerance, needed to find that place of warmth in her father’s arms again. I was that girl again, not the in-between girl, while dancing.
But the dance, the journey, began long before. Not in a field of clovers but in the sound of the blooms coming out to live free.
Honeysuckle sweetened the sour air outside my father’s house. Closing my eyes, I inhaled the scent of nectar while twisting the ring I wore on my right hand. Unless he’d seen the headlights from my car rising up through the dust, Dad wasn’t aware I was there watching him. His silhouette in the light of dusk only lit up when he inhaled the carcinogens from the cigarette in his left hand. As had been threaded through my childhood and adolescence, music filled the air. Dad had built a wall unit to hold his stereo several years back. The massive stereo, as esteemed as a family heirloom, was the centerpiece of the room. When we weren’t watching the latest Thursday night sitcom, music was on. It was how I’d spent my childhood. From sitting on his lap as a young girl to adulthood struggles, the soundtrack to my life was Dad’s music. Irony closed in on me as song lyrics spoke thoughts of loving her. Pursing my lips together, I smirked at the song. Tommy James and the Shondells was a band I’d been singing along to since I could make sounds. This was an album my father listened to again and again. When times were tough, when stress was overwhelming, when sadness took over his emotions, the lights went out, a match struck, and Tommy James sang of love and clovers.
This time was no different. I had run. Life doesn’t allow us to run long or far, but it didn’t stop me from trying. I had to get away to find my support. To find myself. The only thing I’d realized from my choice to run was my life wasn’t a choice, and I needed to be true.
After spending five days in the hospital with her, I’d said my final goodbye. Her death was an awakening to me. Every beat in the song of clovers reminded me of the rhythm of her heart. The one I used to hear with my head on her chest. But only while it still beat. Beneath the tiny feet of squirrels sounded a crunchy autumn of the past, and hanging in the air, the crisp spring scent of honeysuckle mingled with sounds of musical waves leading to me stand in a doorway wondering if I had the strength to tell my father the truth.
“Dad?” The door squeaked as I opened it. A light went on as if his fingers were on the switch waiting for me.
“Hey.” It was all he could say to me.
I did call him collect from nine hundred miles away to tell him I was safe. My dependence on him ran deeper than tolerance.
“You’re home,” he said.
“I am.” Neither of us dove into the conversation we needed to have.
“I’m sorry I left,” I said with a cracking voice. “Maybe we can talk?” The question in my tone asked to be Daddy’s girl again.
“Are you okay?”
“I am okay. It’s been a rough few weeks. She…”
Tears fell from my jawline to the floor. I’d hidden too long. I was exhausted from hiding. Afraid of showing my weakness, I sat. The couch fabric scratched my skin as I pushed my body back. With elbows on my knees, I stared at the carpet below. It was a cesspool of dark hues and stains. Yellow light from overhead dulled the browning cigarette smoke laden carpet below my feet and reflected on the cobwebs draping the walls behind my father’s chair. Our conversation was about as pleasant as smoke stains seeping from the walls.
“I lost a good friend in a car accident, too. When I was your age, I mean.” He was trying. At least he was talking.
“Dad?” My voice cracked each time I said the word. “I’ve lost everything.”
“You have your health. And your job.”
“I’m nineteen. Of course, I have my health. And I wouldn’t have a job if I were back in school.”
“I’m not going to feel guilty for this. You want to go to school, sign up. But study something that will get you a better job than you have now. You need to be in business. Or computers.”
“Dad, I love theatre.”
“Fine. Study business. Join a theatre. If you can get a job in theatre, great. But you need a backup plan. You need a future.”
“I don’t want to argue, Dad. I want to tell you about my trip. About me. About what I experienced. About her.” A tear slipped from my eye, running as fast as I’d run before, soaking into the carpet leaving another dark spot.
“How about you tell me about that tattoo?”
“It’s Pop-Pop’s guitar.”
“You’re never going to get a good job with a visible tattoo.” His words bit. Word after word, sentence after sentence, the space between us grew larger. There was no way we’d ever find commonality.
The music had changed. The silence built between us as lyrics changed from loving her to new days coming. Change. People changing. I had to keep trying. We had to find that place again. That place where I climbed up onto his lap and wrapped myself into security and everlasting love.
“She…” I sobbed. “She wasn’t just a friend. She was my girlfriend.” The words came out faster than my mind could think them.
“What? What do you mean?”
“The tattoo? You got it for her?” He looked closely at my leg. Names surrounded the shiny guitar still covered in healing ointment.
“No. I got the tattoo for me. I play guitar. Music, thanks to you, Dad, lives in my soul.”
“She was your girlfriend? You’re gay?”
“Yes, Daddy.” In my mind, I’d already crawled up onto the lap I remembered as the warmest and most loving place in the world.
“Well,” Dad said. His eyes didn’t leave his father’s Gibson Sunburst on my ankle. “We finally have something in common.”
“You have a tattoo?”
“No.” The silence sang louder than Tommy James. Dad stood, took two steps, and wrapped his arms around me. “I like girls, too.”
Crimson and Clover played from the wall speakers.
Over and Over.
Now he’s gone, my father. But I got to dance. And we laughed. The music blared, disco, then The Temptations, and Sister Sledge. I danced with a man who was not my father. A man who took time to show me steps even my father didn’t know.
“I don’t know how to two-step,” I said bending my neck to view the white hair towering over me.
“It’s three steps,” he said. “Two to the right, one back.”
“Then why is it called two-step?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll show you how.”
I hadn’t danced with a man in many years. But we connected. Sure, it was the Manhattans for me and the abundance of beer for him. He led me to believe the forty years between us kept him young on that floor.
“Forty years! We don’t have forty years between us!” Light above my head dulled as I closed my eyes imagining my twenties as if they were yesterday. I hadn’t moved like this since that time.
“Well, I know you’re a lot younger than I am, whatever the difference is. You’re keeping me young,” he said. My body spun into his. I was getting the hang of letting him lead, which wasn’t an easy feat.
My wife came over with another drink for me and looked at him with a crooked smile. “Your wife wants to know if you want another one,” she said.
“I’m exhausted. Yes, I need another one.”
We sat and laughed. His wife was beautiful. And funny. She and my wife connected. But on a different level. In their world, they could be neighbors. Friends.
Another song came on, and we danced. Sometimes all four of us, sometimes just me and him, and for some songs, I stood back with bourbon in my hand watching my wife’s body do something it does so well. Her movements were like ocean waves. Closer to me, then pulling away leaving me wanting another ride. Between the lights and the music, the bourbon, and the elation, I allowed myself peace watching her dance.
“This is our song!” he grabbed my hand, so I could dance another one. We didn’t have a song. He barely had a name, at least not in my world. But we had a connection. One that I missed because I hadn’t had one like that in the years since the clovers.
For one evening, I connected with someone’s father. And I remembered mine.
I lost my father about six years ago. Our relationship struggled for many years before I came out to him. It struggled after for a bit as I tried to find my place in the world. But with three children and an amazing partner, I’d like to think he’d be proud of me today. I settled many times until he died. Then I remembered Kris, my first girlfriend, who never thought we’d ever see gay marriage and who never did because a car took her away before she left her twenties. And with Dad’s death, I decided to live again. In 2012, I promised him I’d publish my novels. And I have. Irony never ceased between Dad and me. The last book he read was Jaws when I was a baby. But, today, I still write for him.