The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.
The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.
I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.
He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.
The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.
I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.
I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.
We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.
When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.
We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.
He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.
Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.
But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.
He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.
I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.
Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.
My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.
It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.
If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.
Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.
I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.
After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.
I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.
And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.