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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

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Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

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Felicity's disguise

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« In Which Fire And Flames Took All We Trust »

To This Day It Is True


Battling a belief that started in 1988. It is Thanksgiving morning. I am helping my Mom make the pumpkin pies when an open can of pumpkin (my mother has always been a big fan of the semi-homemade concept) slips out of my tiny hands and onto the kitchen floor. Orange puree painting the beige linoleum, an image so vivid I can still see its snapshot in my mind at times when I shut my eyes.

My father, who up until that point paid no attention to what was going on outside of the book he was reading, spins around and says, calmly as if asking for the time, “Sometimes you are so fucking worthless, Teresa.” I am four years old.

By 1993, he’s already gone. Mom is working her way up the corporate ladder and I am helping to take care of my little sister and brother. I cook, I help my sister with her homework in between doing my own. My little brother has a lot of health issues and is in and out of the hospital. I feed him children’s Tylenol and read to him in bed.

1993 is the year Mom got an old, used stick shift car that would get stuck each time she steps on the brake. She isn’t very good at driving stick but it was apparently cheaper than the automatic she was also eyeing. A distinct memory of the clutch getting stuck at a red light. We are on our way to school. The guy behind us is screaming at the top of his lungs for “this bitch to move.” Mom is frantically trying to get the car unstuck, but it won’t budge. I keep turning around to see if the crazy man behind us has gotten out of his car. I kept thinking “We need dad, we need dad, we need dad…” I don’t remember how this incident ended but that was the first time I saw my Mom cry. In retrospect, that was also, probably, the beginning of my anxiety.

That same year Mom gets her first boyfriend after dad. Then another. And then the following year, another. These guys always love me and always try so disgustingly hard to get my approval. To this day this is true. It’s like when a dog knows you hate it or are lowkey afraid of it, so they hump your leg whenever they see you. It’s exactly like that. We won’t see dad again until the year I graduate high school.

That year I am dating the man I am convinced I will marry. How adorable at the age of 17 to think I know anything about anything, but especially anything about love; especially anything about men. Dad shows up at the graduation party Mom has spent weeks and lots of dollars planning. He just shows up without a phone call or invitation, so this sets my mother off. They fight audibly for a bit, then he agrees to leave. He hands me a lavender envelope that has a card inside. He’s written “Happy graduation. I love you, Dad” on the inside. “Love” isn’t spelled out, it’s just a drawn heart and I remember thinking ah yeah of course, you can’t even write out the word, you bastard. That night I get drunk for the first time with my older cousins. I am sick for two days after.

My brother, sister and I don’t see or hear from dad again for six years. We tell ourselves he is dead, because well even if he was alive and only, we discovered later, living in the next town over all those years, he may as well be. We could have run into him at the grocery store or something but we never did. So life went on. We all grew up and I forced myself to deal.

At 22, I had just moved back home to the Bay Area after a short stint living in Los Angeles. The dreams I brought along with me in my suitcase, stunned to death by the cold harsh truth of my reality, which was that I did not yet have what it took to create a life for myself. So I read. And I wrote. And I found myself paying attention to everything, but most especially to the seamy undercurrent of my own thoughts. What I found terrified me. I felt like a toddler watching a horror film; I covered my eyes at all the scary parts because I didn’t realize it was just a movie. 

I knew that I had tried unsuccessfully to fill a void, and the more I stuffed myself with unimportant things (I became exceedingly familiar with men who were no good for me, red wine, and 3 a.m.), the less fulfilled I felt. The things you will do to yourself when you harbor a fundamental belief that everyone will eventually disappoint you and leave you. I am a lot of fun to be around, ask anyone. 

Dealing with the fallout is essentially an upkeep. Last year I invited a man I thought might be fond of me over to help drink my whiskey and eat homemade mac and cheese. This eventually became a six hour confessional and sort of weird tell-all on his part. He cried while telling me about his father, who was also absent. I just scooted closer to him and held his hand, it was all I could do. His boozy confessions floated out of his mouth and hung in the air and clung to me like cigarette smoke. Up until that point he had been very fleeting in his ways, always saying the things I wanted to hear at night, and come morning it was as if these conversations never happened, as if we never happened. It was as if the previous night was merely a nightmare. 

The next morning after we slept in separate rooms of my Harlem apartment, he left without waking me up and without folding the blankets I gave him to sleep with (be wary of people who do this). The previous night only a figment of my imagination, again. Our leftovers were strewn all around my living room. The tissue he used to wipe his tears on the coffee table. The empty whiskey on the kitchen counter. A bowl full of uneaten tortilla chips stared at me. As I was emptying the chips into the garbage, I thought to myself “I am literally cleaning up the mess my father made.” Had I known better, had I cared enough or perhaps just a little less, the sting of this rejection would not have meant as much as it did. 

Maybe if my father had been capable, I wouldn’t have searched for him in every other man I would meet later in life. Dealing with it has come with its own price tag. That has been my experience though; it’s always one thing or another, sometimes all at once. And I have never found my father, not in other men and not in all the places he was supposed to be. 

The truth is, I forget what I have taught myself constantly, all the time. On my darker days, this belief that I’ve dismantled again and again feels like old sneakers with holes in the heel. I only wear them because I always have and I forgot about that new pair in the closet with the tag still on. It is a cycle, a circle of forgetting and remembering; forgetting and remembering and each time the remembering is a homecoming. Worthless? Not in this lifetime or a million ones after.

Teresa Finney is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Harlem. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her twitter here.

Photographs by the author.

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