Authors: Kat McCarthy
In My Father’s Eyes
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At what point in your life do you run out of choices? When does taking the next step become too difficult to contemplate? How can you have faith in a world that stopped making sense long ago? Can you ever get past the poor decisions; the seemingly simple turnings of life that drag you down a path as if you were nothing but a mote floating on the wind unable to affect the direction your life has taken? What does it matter, anyway? Why should you bother when everything you touch turns to trash?
At eighteen, the siren song of death is as seductive as chocolate; a temptation offering escape from a life that doesn’t seem to fit, an existence remarkable only for its lack of meaning, purpose. Life. Death. Two sides of the same conundrum. An uncertainty little better than a coin toss.
Tails. I die.
Heads. I live.
If she tried to pinpoint the moment when she stopped believing that life meant anything more than an endless series of disappointments, she couldn’t. Somewhere along the line the years of heartache and loss tipped over and became an unbearable weight crushing her into ashes.
What’s the point?
From her vantage on the suburban mall roof, Emily Walls watched the cars and trucks carrying anonymous travelers east and west toward destinations unknown. The cigarette between her fingers burned forgotten, tendrils of acrid smoke sinuous and lazy in the still July morning.
Where are they going?
Are they leaving too? Or are they simply carrying on with the inertia of their habits? To work? To school? Unable to resist the Newtonian forces of life acting on them, pushing them down pathways in a maze beyond their understanding toward a mythical cheesy reward?
Emily frowned at the thought.
At least they have a destination. Somewhere to go; someone who awaits them, loves them or needs them.
Flicking the cigarette butt away, Emily slid her last cigarette from the pack, crushed the wrapper and tossed it onto the graveled roof. Inhaling deeply, she took the first bitter draught into her lungs, warming the silvered metal stud piercing her tongue as it clicked against her palate.
Hopping down from the heating unit where she’d sat, Emily’s thick-soled black boots crunched across the roof to the edge. A desultory wind stirred to life lifting her dyed black hair with its purple fringe. Brushing the hair from her eyes, she stepped onto the wide brick wall towering high above the parking lot.
Below her, cars from early arrivals spotted the parking lot like atolls in the macadam sea; islands of emptiness promising nothing to sustain life. Owners, managers, janitors and attendants come to prepare the vast warehouse of consumerism below her feet for another day of capitalist frenzy. A fried chicken restaurant sat empty at this early hour next to an express oil change shop doing a halfhearted business. People flocked to the mall, filling their cars with bags of cheap, disposable products as they tried to fill the emptiness inside them with cheap, disposable philosophies.
Morning light flashed off the plate glass windows below, twinkling. Emily’s breath caught as the memory struck her; light rippling on the lake’s gentle waves. The echoes of laughter washed over her; sunlight, warmth, joy. The vision played on even as she sought to banish it.
Two girls ran across the lawn leading to the dock. Emma, two years older, in the lead as always. Emily, brash and fearless, elbows and skinny knees flying coming after.
The lake. Her family’s favorite time of the year. Picnics and late night fires. Canoe rides, fishing and long hikes in the woods. Emily caught Emma just as she reached the dock. Their mother and father napping on the screened-in porch as the girls played in the summer afternoon.
Passing Emma, Emily’s bare feet pounded on the boards. Proud in her newfound swimming skill she didn’t pause as the dock ended and she launched her seven-year old body outward in an awkward plunge toward the inflatable raft floating just beyond the dock.
She knew she would get in trouble. Dad had warned them not to go swimming without them. She knew, too, that he wouldn’t be too mad; would quickly forgive her.
Emily hit the water hard. Her plump belly making a loud clap on the water. The float, carried on the surge, scooted away from her. Gasping for air, Emily panicked. Her belly hurt. She couldn’t reach the float.
Swallowing water, she screamed and choked, panicking.
Emma vaulted off the dock. At nine she was a much better swimmer. Thrashing and twisting Emily forgot all her lessons as more watered filled her mouth and nose.
Emma’s hands grabbed her waist, trying to lift her toward the ladder. Emily’s head dipped under. Kicking as hard as she could, she felt herself pushed upward, her hands inches from the ladder, just as her heel smashed into Emma’s face.
High above the parking lot, Emily shuddered at the visceral memory.
She could do it, she knew. She could close her eyes and take the next step and end the uncertainty; the emptiness.
Head back, arms lifted, Emily yearned outward. She remembered being able to laugh once upon a time. The time before everything changed, before her home and her life turned into a sea of loss and longing. Tottering, Emily fell back, breathing hard, catching her hand on the wall for support. Her lungs drew another breath of silky nicotine.
Pinpointing when things changed was easy. Figuring out how that change, how that one act, that one unforgiveable mistake rippled through her life and left her teetering on the edge? It should have been her that day, she knew. Not Emma. Not the big sister that always looked after her, protected her. Better to have died that day, before everything changed.
Hugging her leather jacket to her stomach, Emily reclaimed her seat on the silent heating duct. Her sketchbook filled with fanciful portraits and graphic images drawn in black and white peeked from her voluminous purse. Tucking it back in, she kicked her boots against the tin duct work causing a hollow booming that rattled away.
Six weeks, she thought. Only six weeks? It seemed longer. The life of a dancer eroded time bringing with it a storm of troubles. Six weeks ago she’d answered the ad promising easy money dancing at the gentlemen’s club. It wasn’t exactly the career her mother dreamt of for her when she graduated high school last spring. But she desperately needed the money if she were ever to leave this place. And even more desperately she needed to leave. There was nothing here for her. Never had been, truth be told. Not even before the divorce and her dad left.
There were no arguments, no drunken rages, no infidelity or late night assignations. Only the quiet death of a marriage.
That’s what Emily remembered of her parent’s marriage. The nights her father disappeared into the garage after dinner having spoken barely two words, the mornings he was gone long before she woke for school. She tried. Needed desperately the comfort of his arms, his calming voice soothing her fears and sorrow. But with each effort, the pain of his rejection grew until she knew better than to look for what wasn’t there; what would never be there.
It hadn’t always been that way, she knew. But those memories of the before were fading more and more until all she really had left were the shadows of memories.
As if in rebellion to the quietude that spelled the end of her marriage, her mother, Carol, had rebounded from her divorce into a paroxysm of loquaciousness. Constantly singing show tunes and putting on a Betty Crocker façade whose sheer mendacity sickened Emily.
Her mother. Emily’s lips lifted in a half-hearted sneer, unable to bring herself to completely disdain the woman whose life revolved around a pretense of normality. Normality. She couldn’t imagine what that word even meant. There’s nothing normal about living with a ghost; being haunted by the specter of her own guilt and shame.
The money was easy. And what she did, she would hardly call that dancing. More like gyrating in a thong and pasties while drunken men salivated in anticipation.
Most of the men who frequented the club only cared about how little she wore. She’d expected that. She’d expected the alcohol-fueled lust and wandering hands. The propositions and not so subtle hints of more money if only she would come home with them. No. That wasn’t surprising at all.
What surprised her were the men who came to talk. The ones who sat in the corners as if trying to hide their desperation for any human contact.
Emily felt sorry for those men in a sad, pathetic sort of way. They were the ones cut off, unable to bridge the distance between their need and the rest of humanity. Relegated to visiting strip clubs where a few dollars would buy them access to a woman’s companionship if not her validation. Those were the men Emily approached.
The other girls ignored them, going for the easy money of the loud drunks showing off for their friends. Something about those quietly needy men drew her. She hardly ever had to dance for them. Mostly they just wanted to talk, to connect. Even if it was a phony connection. In some ways she took more from them than they took from her. What they got out of it was clear. What she got out of was harder to understand and left her feeling queasy and dirty.
Yeah. The money was easy. She frowned.
All I had to do,
was sell my soul
Not that I was using it
. Emily snorted at the thought. The nascent faith her father had fostered in her never came back after that day at the lake. When he’d left, any belief she had that life had meaning and purpose went with him.
How could God be real when her own father rejected her? What good were words like forgiveness and atonement when the person you relied on most turned his back on you? Where was his faith then? Where was the forgiveness?
The fire door slammed shut behind her as she abandoned the roof and the solution it offered. Her thick-soled boots echoed loudly in the stairwell.
She only lasted six weeks at the club. After last night, she knew she would never go back to the again. How could she? Not after she’d seen him there last night; the one man she wanted more than any to hold her, to soothe her fears, to tell her it was going to be all right.