She’s sixteen now – eight years since the adoption – and so that’s half her life, she’s been my daughter. She has silky brown hair and a springtime smile, and her eyes are piercing, older than she is. Her body is lithe and fit – she’s an athlete and eats right – and her mind crackles with ancient intensity.
But she’s still a little girl, too. She needs special things from the grocery store that are hers alone, breakfast bars, potato chips, a certain kind of ham. She watches freaky horror movies that chase me out of the room, and also the same Japanese anime and old Star Trek tapes she brought with her to my house, when she was eight.
Adult stuff, little girl stuff, adult stuff – like she’s flipping a coin.
And she carries a sadness that I recognize from my own youth, when the awkward phase slows to a secret, blooming beauty, and the high school cliques pretend to ignore what they can’t see at all. Their judgment – the meaning of life, at one time – is rendered, and hard to reverse.
Bethany’s curiosity is both shy and piercing; so often it reveals within her fellow souls a shallow, flipper-whacking avarice which depresses and confuses her. The sadness is subtle. Like a whisper of perfume, it evaporates in the slightest breeze. But it always returns.
Lying beside my wife in our basement bedroom, I listen to the creaking footsteps across the spackled ceiling, wondering what it’s like for her at school, trying to match her with someone from my own class. I could invent a sixteen year old and make her whoever I want her to be, but who’s that one, the tall girl, walking around up there in my house?
Does she want them to accept her, bite her on the neck like vampires? Or does she want to rise to the treetops and dismiss them, like an angel gliding over frogs?
The mattress squeaks as I climb to my feet, stacking the aging back muscles carefully, so as not to pop anything out of place. I climb the stairs in the early dawn, wearing sleepy pants with street signs on them, and a yellow sweatshirt that doesn’t match.
Bethany’s walking away from me down the hallway, a full-grown woman with confident posture, and a thumping teenager’s stomp, and her hair flips as she vanishes behind her bedroom door.
My body creaks and hisses all the way into the kitchen. The coffee is already made, and there’s a clean blue mug next to the muttering pot, so I help myself, and I carry it into the living room, trying to figure out how cold it is without going outside.
Driving her to school used to seem like such a pain in the ass, but I did it to spare her the school bus. Teenagers are just as annoyed by each other, as we ever are of them. When I was her age, my mouth would get me into trouble, but she’s the type of girl keeps her mouth shut most of the time.
I learned the same thing eventually, so maybe she got it from me; it’s a nice thought.
Yes, and now I’m looking at three cars in the driveway as I try to kill a cup of coffee before she emerges from her room. Pretty soon, she won’t need a ride to school. Just the first of thousands of pains in the ass that I’m going to miss as they disappear, like snow melting in the spring.
Girls don’t fight like guys do. Not as often. When they do, they tend to go straight for cold-blooded murder, but it still seems rare. I don’t think she’s ever had to worry about it. But she comes out of her room, and I can see it – she’s got plenty to worry about.
The television makes it no secret – it’s a sea of sex out there. They don’t giggle in health class anymore, they offer critiques.
So has she or hasn’t she? There’s no way to tell, not if you remember your own childhood. How easy the lies came, how the secrets were submerged like the bulks of icebergs. I kept a bit of myself on the surface, for the adults to see, and what was beneath the icy water…
She wears a dress today, a nice one, and she starts to tell me why she’s wearing it without being asked. It’s a pretty dress, but I’ve been a dad long enough to know, an unsolicited explanation is almost certainly a smokescreen. She’s wearing it to impress a boy, and it’s going to work.
Sixteen, I’m thinking, while she lies a little more, and I go and refill my coffee, and I put my hand on her shoulder as I come back through the room. Look into her eyes, look at the freckles on her cheeks, while she talks. She’s wearing a little makeup, but not too much.
I let her finish and then tell her, “You look awesome today, sweetheart.”
And she says, “Thanks!”
We listen to NPR on the very short ride. “My favorite,” she says. “The Adults Who Talk And Talk.”
So I turn it, and we roll down the windows, and Rage Against The Machine changes the tone though I have to explain to her who they are.
“You’d go to their concerts,” I tell her, “and they’d have the whole crowd flipping off the cops.”
She nods at me, not impressed.
“And everybody would kind of, beat each other up.”
She scrunches her eyebrows, throws my own what-the-hell facial expression at me – doesn’t sound like fun to her.
Good news, I guess.
We crawl through a little traffic, and then there we are, parked among a mass of teenaged children, and it seems like I remember them, the wise guys, the journalism chicks, the studs, the cheerleaders. They are completely helpless if you throw the slightest problem at them, and yet they swagger across the parking lot like cops at the mall. Invincible, until you raise your voice.
And that’s where I leave her, another womanchild joining with the swarm, scowling a little. Molly Ringwald scowled like that in my day, now it’s my daughter Bethany, who’s never heard of her.
I tell her that I love her as she’s about to close the door, and she’s been waiting for it, like a password. Her password is a smile, and not many people can put that on her face, but I can – it’s my superpower.
She tells me that she loves me, too, and she shoulders her backpack, and goes inside.
Sixteen. It was so easy to make her feel safe and strong, when she was half this old. A bowl of popcorn and a shoulder to lean on, a little Stargate SG-1 on the television. Fluffy koala bear slippers and a couple of dogs.
I sit in my office, trying to get some work done, and all I can think about is, how do you protect your daughter from herself, when she’s at the same age you were, when no one could? That’s about when I decided, the hell with everybody, I’m going to do what I want.
I had a stepdad, a bitter ex-Marine, who saw my father in me and hated me for it. Of course I did my own thing – it was either that or do his thing, and hate myself.
She has a car to drive, and her own license, and she got a big sushi dinner, just like she wanted. A couple of books wrapped up, some flowers. A bunch of tiny bottles of bath oils and shit, for me to kick around in the shower. The birthday is a wrap, and there are no complaints.
Yes but her sadness lingers, and I know I can’t stop it. I know that sadness is a part of life, a part of joy, the other side of a coin that rises in the air and flips and turns, and you can’t have one side without the other.
She blasts in the front door around three thirty, like a giant pitcher of Kool Aid. Not for any reason in particular, that’s just the way teenagers move, the opposite of ninjas. I save the file I’m working on, and realize, damn it, I’m still wearing sleepy pants and a sweatshirt that doesn’t match. It’s nice to work from home, but there’s no need to be ridiculous.
So I get some jeans on and a tee shirt, and by the time I trot upstairs, Bethany is theatrically relaxing in the living room, her feet and arms all kicked up on various things so that she looks like a spider lurking in a furniture web. She’s eating a bowl of cereal in the middle of the day, despite my recent threat to ration it.
“Let’s go for a ride,” I tell her.
She’s on her feet in a second, remote down, television off – a damn good kid. “Where are we going?”
“Back in time,” I reply. “And you’re driving.”
(Note: this is the first of three parts – continue by clicking below)