Tiny droplets of water scatter across the window, accelerating with the car. They race together, then swirl in the bottom corner under the fog of my breath. Curls of hot air spread and shrink. I draw a smiley face. Then I wipe it off the window, drawing my hand back, wet and cold.
My Dad asks if I’m warm enough. I nod and turn my gaze back outside. Pastures slowly morph into city lights, still hazy in the early hour. The car’s twists and turns harmonize with the music he’s playing, so that we stop at the last light as the final song begins. The light turns green as the brass accompaniment belts its first notes. I drum my fingers on my knee; my dad turns the volume up.
Paul Simon’s voice floods the car, and I soak it in, energy building in my veins. We reach school just before the final chorus begins. A kiss goodbye and the door opens with melodious whistles and trumpets announcing a new day, my every day.
I never asked why he played the same playlist every morning. I didn’t ask my Dad much of anything. I didn’t see him often beyond that 20-minute car ride together every morning, since I would be asleep before he returned home late. I knew his peculiar routines but couldn’t tell you much about his life before I was born. He arranged his books alphabetically, owned over 30 ties, and often only ate an apple before dinner. I knew from a young age that he liked his martinis dirty and that he believed civilization had been in decline since Rome fell. There was no animosity between us, no dislike—just indifference and a bit of fear. We were intimate strangers.
On Sundays, classical melodies would echo through our home, signifying a meditative silence until we left for evening mass, where I would sit with my head under a lace veil, alone in the glossy pew. Only men could participate in the Catholic service, and my Mom wasn’t welcome—she’s Protestant. During that time, I witnessed my Dad’s relationship with God as proof of his capacity for love. It just never seemed to be directed at me.
I tried to fill these gaps in understanding by making occasional visits to the house where my Dad grew up, and where his parents still lived, in southern Kentucky. Soft pink lace and embroidered angels dominated the decor and a massive harp filled the small living room. My Nanna was a renowned harpist, although I never heard her play. My Papaw was a carpenter and mechanic; he made me a jewelry box when I was nine and lined it with red felt.
To this day, I have never met two more pious and gentle people than my Dad’s parents. Yet Dad rarely came on these visits, and when he did, there was always a palpable awkwardness. He was the puzzle piece with the stiff corner that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Once when Dad was at dinner, I saw Papaw fumble through the blessing, his big reflective eyes filling with tears, anxious for our salvation. Perhaps he was concerned because my Dad’s presence reminded him that they were Baptist and we were Catholic—but I never had the opportunity, nor desire, to ask. My pride kept me silent. His inability to understand kept him distant.
When I was in eighth grade, Mom told me she had filed for a divorce as she backed out of the driveway one morning after Dad had already moved out. This was no surprise to me; if anything, I was glad they had given up on delaying the inevitable.
I said okay and sat wondering if I should say something else. It seemed unnatural for me to try to comfort someone who had so often comforted me. Then a loud pop filled the space for me. “Fuck,” my Mom said, with a quiet bitterness. She jammed the car into park, wrenched open the door, and jumped out.
She had run over a basketball that we had discarded after a recent game. Once the lifeless leather was thrown into the yard, she got back into the car. She mumbled an apology and we sat there for a minute, her ragged breath going in and out. Hands gripping the steering wheel, squeezing the cream-colored leather. I concentrated on the grimy rubber mat under my feet, staring at the dirt and crusted grass wedged in the cracks. Anywhere but at her.
I only saw Dad occasionally after that. There was his house, first on Sycamore, then on Della, and finally on Lime. He never bought enough furniture—I think because he knew he wouldn’t need it. What little common ground we had was being pulled out from under us, and neither of us did anything to cushion the fall. He had an obnoxious girlfriend whose name sounded German but wasn’t. I made no attempt to be welcoming. I wasn’t unwelcoming, necessarily. And he and I never fought. But maybe that’s just because we deal with emotions the same way—by letting them boil under the surface, too scared and too stubborn to push them through the cracks.
He didn’t invite anyone to mass on Sundays because he no longer went. I wasn’t around to witness this sudden rejection of his lifelong faith, I only knew that he now rolled his eyes at churchgoers and didn’t care whether I said my prayers before bed. He changed more than just his address in those few years, but I was too concerned with my turbulent adolescence to give it much thought.
The day before I left for boarding school, Dad gave me a CD. Shiny, silver, and unmarked. It seemed like a lazy, noncommittal form of communication that I didn’t want to accept. I considered not listening to it at all.
But a few days later, my defiance gave way to curiosity. I dropped onto my bed and slipped the disc in. It was only one song. I listened to the unfamiliar lyrics:
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Love his daughter more than I love you
My cheeks were damp before the final chorus ended. This was the Paul Simon I had known from our daily morning car rides, yet in a new vulnerable light. It was an obvious declaration of love, of promise. Yet it felt intangible—a virtual affection. Even now, hearing that song evokes a residual sadness. It’s an emblem of my Dad’s love and of his inability to say it.
My boarding school in Virginia had a long driveway that ended at a building held up by looming, white pillars. I had to get permission slips to leave the campus and complete a mandatory Shakespeare exam to graduate. Confederate flag-embroidered belts on salmon-colored pants were not uncommon, and to rebel against the pretension, my friends and I would skip chapel and eat extra desserts in the music rooms. (What a rush.) I listened to a lot of The National and was agnostic about everything.
Dad visited a lot. He loved the old library, the sense of tradition, the fact that I rowed crew. He constantly told me how proud he was of me, which I took to mean that he loved saying he was visiting his daughter outside D.C. this weekend, who was in boarding school and doing great. He never saw my friends or what I painted; his pride was selective. We discussed my grades, and I began to grow resentful. I resented that he felt at home in a place he couldn’t see I hated. I resented how changed I felt and how unnoticed it went. In those years, my disappointment thumped beneath the floorboards, its consistency almost comforting.
Mom and I drove back with all my things from Virginia to Kentucky in a straight stretch. I lounged with my feet squished against the windshield, the heat from my skin leaving little toe prints on the glass. We were heading towards the end of West Virginia, twisting through the evergreens and dusty mud cliffs, and she was ranting—at first about Dad’s lack of communication and then about his “overall flawed character.” I was used to this and gave an occasional, discreet sound to indicate my indifferent affirmation. I tried not to engage in this kind of behavior; to still be upset seemed childish to me. A waste of energy. Perhaps this reveals my naiveté—I had yet to love another, to understand how the wound of that betrayal lingers.
There was no immediate change in perspective—it had snuck up gradually. It might have started when, upon starting college that fall, I decided to go by “Tucker” instead of my given name, “Ann Tucker.” I was choosing who I wanted to become. I did not want to depend on anyone else for change.
“I’ve forgiven him,” I said to Mom.
“Okay. Why?” she responded.
“I’m tired of it,” I said honestly, but unsure exactly what I was being honest about. I think I was tired of waiting for him to change and being let down when it didn’t happen. It seemed like the time to try to be different.
During my sophomore year of college, my Dad and I sat before a stage, watching people mill about. They wandered through a maze of green plastic chairs, spilling beer and searching for friends. The sky was violet, and the audience buzzed with anticipatory energy. But the minutes were turning slowly before the music began, and I was impatient. To fill the silence, I turned to Dad and asked what he did right after he graduated from college.
He told me that he had spent a year back in his hometown, working at the steel mill and finishing his thesis paper that he had yet to turn in. For someone who I had known to be a rigid professional, this aimlessness came as a pleasant surprise. He didn’t expand, but what he said was enough. “This has been a good break for us,” he told me the next day. It was relieving: he finally seemed to be recognizing what was lacking between us.
I don’t know if we’ll ever understand each other. We are bent on our respective paths with divergences that outnumber the intersections. My dad is now an atheist, owns 40 ties, bakes the best bread pudding and doesn’t eat any of it. He remains a collection of pieces, but ones I no longer force to fit a mold of what I want to see.
We are both in constant states of redefinition where we may be learning to understand ourselves better, but not necessarily the other. Sometimes the space between us seems like a chasm with no visible bridges; other times, it feels as if it’s drawing to a close. We may never settle that distance, but we recognize it’s there.