He smelled like vanilla pipe smoke and sometimes she’d gaze up from his lap and watch the white tufts curl up over his head and run her finger over his rough beard and sigh as she drifted off, safe and warm and content, just for a little while.
Sometimes he’d come in from feeding the turkeys and the smell would make her eyes water as he’d ruffle the hair on the top of her head, and sing silly songs with her name in them, and she’d giggle over the stink and wrap her arms around his leg and squeeze as hard as she could and he’d laugh and squeeze back. Then he’d go inside and hug his kids.
He would call her when she was a little older, and talk in a silly voice that was always the same voice, pretending to be a boy he knew she liked; knowing she’d know it was him but knowing she’d still be horrified at even the thought of that boy finding out how she felt. But it was okay, because she knew he could always be trusted, even though he didn’t belong to her.
She remembers grown-ups talking about how she was drawn to men. How she’d crawl right up into their laps when she was just a teeny, tiny thing and she remembers that, too.
She remembers that the men were always nice, but that they couldn’t stay, and after an hour or two, they’d head to their own homes, with their own families.
Loaners, of a sort.
She remembers the way her friend would sit in her own dad’s lap even as a teenager and this was confusing until one day she saw her friend’s father comforting a broken heart and she understood. She remembers the girls at school with broken hearts on Valentine’s Day and how their fathers would send flowers to cheer them up. She remembers how it felt to realize dads did that stuff.
She remembers her mom. She remembers her mom being there for celebrations and for broken hearts. She remembers wrapping her arms around her knees when she was little, and smelling Jergen’s lotion and she remembers mom reading her to sleep at night and singing her awake in the morning and she remembers that sometimes, her mom would sleep in the little bed with her. She would hear the hushed sobs but somehow she knew to feign deafness. She remembers her mom angry and she remembers her broken and strong and belittled and empowered and beaten to a bloody pulp and she remembers her mom saving her over and over again.
She didn’t need to cling to other people’s mothers because she knew who her mother was.
He smelled like Marlboro Reds and marijuana and Coors Lite and Crown Royal and the only thing his lap was for was holding her still so his belt wouldn’t miss. He never cried, though. Even though he always told her it was going to hurt him more than it hurt her. And he didn’t sing silly songs with her name in them or prank call her laughing or play with her at all- except sometimes he’d hold her down on the floor where she couldn’t move and he’d tickle her and her body would betray her and her voice would laugh even as it sobbed because she was squirming and couldn’t breathe or get free and being trapped was scary. And then he’d get angry and call her a baby and tell her mom she was no fun and —
she’d feel so guilty.
Because he’d tried to be a good daddy and she’d failed him again. And he’d say he couldn’t understand how someone so smart could be so dumb and she’d say she didn’t know but she knew one thing for sure — she was not a good enough little girl to make her daddy love her.
She would try and try to stop crying the next time he tickled her. She’d beg God to let her be a big girl and not lose her breath when he held her down and soon she would be up above their bodies watching the little girl writhing and screaming, and she’d let her go limp. He didn’t like it when she cried so she disappeared instead. But he didn’t like that either; now she was just a quitter and it made him even angrier and he gave her his meanest eyes and dug his fingernails into her wrists and told her she ruined his life and he wished she was never born.
She said she wished that, too.
Everybody else had a good daughter, he said. Daughters who didn’t cry and panic when their daddies played with them. Daughters whose moms didn’t come running to the rescue for no reason at all.
She made him sick. Why did she have to be such a crybaby? He wished she was everything she wasn’t, and he couldn’t stand anything that she was. And the harder she tried to get close, the angrier he got about things she didn’t understand. Until one day, she didn’t try anymore.
Forty-two years it took, for her to finally stop hoping to be his girl. He asked her mother a few months later why his daughter hated him. Her mother almost said what she always said.
“She doesn’t hate you!”
This time, though, her mother stopped herself.
And that was the most ironic part of it all. For the first time in years, she felt no hatred towards him.
She didn’t feel anything towards him.
He was a stranger.
She’d fed her own soul and nursed her own wounds and tended to that fatherless little girl until she was whole.
She’d forgiven the young soldier he had been. After all, he’d been barely more than a teenager and he’d witnessed horrors she couldn’t imagine and he wasn’t ready and she could feel compassion for that scared boy.
But she’d outgrown that boy long ago, and he never had. And if she wanted to keep growing, she had to let him go.
So, she let him go.
Alexainie is 42, a single mother of two and making it work. She’s lived in Alaska for 33 years, where, in a village of 75, she shoveled shit for dogs whose front paws were insured for more than she was worth. She experienced a 7.1 earthquake from the 18th floor, and was held hostage in an outhouse by a brown bear (luckily, she was in just the right place to shit herself). And, she notes: “And although I doubt I’ve gone more than a week without seeing a moose, whether walking down the highway, nibbling on the birch trees in my yard, or blocking my front door, I’ve never been chased by one. My grandma TOTALLY was, though. And the loss of that 8mm cassette is one of the single greatest regrets of my life.”
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