Against elementary powers of judgment, I accepted an invitation from my father to visit. I simply could not put this off forever. It is from no sense of forgiveness or pity, I assure you, that I did this. It was simply that I would not have this matter left unresolved, in defiance of my peace of mind.
God. What a sad, sick man. It's one thing to have one's way with one's subjects while they are fully cognizant of the fact, quite another to take advantage of one's unconscious patients (sneer) and so sordid and common... one hears practically every week about a dentist fondling his gassed-up patients. (shakes head) If Father was going to violate his patients' confidence, he might have done something with some style. He favors substance over style... yet has neither.
I find his experience has made him understandably paranoid, and his lack of a practice opportunes much time to dwell upon his mistakes. I am of two minds. Naturally, I am possessed of normal human sympathy, and do not enjoy watching another person suffer. That he is a fellow physician only sharpens this affinity. However, be aware that I lived in the shadow of this man for all my developmental years, this man who was never wrong, even in the face of unassailable logic, and on some atavistic, reptilian level it is deeply satisfying to see him brought low.
He insists I am due some misfortune. He cannot possibly know of my own rather questionable secret life, but his suspicions, if not groundless, are based upon my trajectory since leaving his 'care'. That is to say, my success is in fact failure, by virtue of it not being his intent. I am entirely too conspicuous, he believes. Remember that this is the man, my father, who would have me closeted even when I was a quite ordinary and reserved child. You would suppose, then, I find this observation suspect.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Arrangements were made to meet at a local restaurant; from there, I made clear, I would decide whether to remain for the holiday. A nondescript cafe or eatery, remembered from my childhood. We may even have been before, as a family. The locale changed considerably in my absence, but this restaurant, with new paint and signage, remained a recognizable landmark. This was where, after years, I was reintroduced to my father.
Thankfully, he did not greet me in his dentist's smock; he has dropped that affectation. And a good thing, too. A shirt and jacket made Father entirely too ordinary. I expected him to look much older, worn by guilt, by defeat; I hoped to find him ruined, broken, and perhaps for a time he was; but aside from the facts of chronological age, he seems as vital as ever, his gaze lambent yet blank when it emerges from the glare of his spectacles. I was certain his object in enticing me here was to pass judgment upon my life.
He evinces no smugness in this, but he never did. His pronouncements are made in unwavering certainty. If this is meant to impress, it ceased to long ago. But I must submit that there was a time I strove to earn his favor, and heeded his words. At such an age, it did not occur to me that such was an impossible goal, that he was predisposed never to credit my accomplishments, or to be unsatisfied by their nature. I'm uncertain if Father hated me, precisely... but I was surely unwelcome. Could he foresee I would greatly exceed his mediocre talent? All true prophecies are self-fulfilling.
At the same time, his lack of emotional outlet has him reduced to irritable forbearance like an old and toothless lion. As I say, he has no one else in which to confide, and is aware this meeting is at my sufferance. Even without his recent scandal, he hasn't the knack of cultivating close friendship.
I found him at a booth for two. A man without a country, he'd have appeared lost, seated anywhere else. Father is acutely aware of his presentation. But he was a bit nonplussed when I appeared. As you imagine, my body is difficult to subdue even in the most conservative of dress; and while the last face-to-face encounter found me well into my self-transformation, it had been long ago and under the stressful occasion of my mother's funeral. He looked at me, studied my face, his brow wrinkling... my father expressed less familiarity as his gaze descended, hesitated for seconds.
I'd begun to imagine he suffered from incestuous thoughts, when he raised his head and said, "You've gone overboard, Holiday." He frowned. "I no longer know you."
I raised my eyebrows. "It's nice to see you, too, Father." Not exactly true.
"Even your face has changed. Did you detest your own so much?"
"You should try it yourself," I suggested. "You'd be amazed, the problems it can solve." I slid into the booth opposite him.
As unkind as words were, the meeting was agreeable to me. I must confess an earlier apprehension, for I'd lived in virtual fear of the man when I was young; but to my satisfaction, I felt little of that now, and welcomed the sparring as my natural element... I was very confident in this arena. Accompanying this was the feeling of displacement found in the presence of one's distant past.
He smiled bitterly. I suppose he'd prepared for my lack of respect. "The least I expect would be some good manners, since I've consented to this meeting."
"I'm certain I need not remind you I am here at your behest," I said, my tone calm, even cordial. "In fact, it's quite remarkable, Father, that your correspondence is almost conciliatory, yet in person I find you quite unchanged."
"You should not have expected change, Holiday. I'm far too old to give myself over to uncertainty."
Telling... so telling. "In any case, I'll not hold it against you," I said.
Father frowned over his coffee. It was not a move he could have successfully accomplished over a plate of scrambled eggs, and given such, I doubted he would even order a meal. "I'm also too old to allow this disagreement between us to go unresolved."
You will see that my restraint was admirable. The 'disagreement', you will remember, regards my certainty that his neglect and indifference led to my mother's death, this merely the foremost consequence of his personality problems. "Well. I am here now," I said, at a loss for meaningful worlds. "Let us resolve it, if we can."
Father grunted assent. The waitress came, and orders were made; my father and I re-examined what tattered relationship remained to us.
I found the circumstances of this visit to be quite surreal. I suppose they could be worse; this meeting could have taken place in the house where I was raised. In fact, it couldn't have; that was sold shortly after Mother died. I took time to drive past... the siding is no longer pink. It is now remodeled in more likely fashion, as though the décor were an obnoxious spirit, vacated with the dissipation of my family.
By no means prepared to be Father's house guest, I took a room in a motel. Like the diner, we must have passed this place hundreds of times when I was young. It is very strange to find one's self in an irrelevant landmark from one's youth, visiting a place no longer home. Father himself lives in a condominium which shows its age... it is disconcertingly like some early 80s bachelor pad. Father was planning to trade up, when his little 'difficulty' transpired; now he's fortunate to hold on to his glorified apartment. I visited with him during the day and early evening, despite a seeming lack of anything to discuss; indeed, I wondered what was the point of this visit. I really am unsure why I came, even now.
Do notice this holiday does not involve such extended family as I possess; indeed, an attentive reader of my diary should note their almost complete lack of mention, and insightful readers would suppose, correctly, the family finds my father as insufferable as I. Father's own relatives want little to do with his bluster and insouciance, never mind Mother's side of the family, and he poisoned them against us long ago. We basked in the pleasure of each other's solitary company. On the second day of my visit, Thanksgiving Day, I invaded his space with groceries in tow.
My lasagna, while capable, is far from standard for the season; and as I do have the wherewithal, I prepared turkey, albeit a small one. Despite the impression I have given of my father, this was a matter of no small contention, for his concept of 'women's work' does not extend to the preparation of meals. Indeed, he fancies himself (incorrectly) quite the chef, and I practically had to threaten bodily harm before he would leave the matter in my hands. Cookery is an art, and one exceedingly difficult to master, if one has no native talent for it. (He has not.) My background in organic chemistry is helpful. I allowed him minor kitchen tasks, chopping vegetables and so forth. Needless to say, it pleased me to emasculate him in this ironic fashion, while simultaneously appearing indulgent, but I could not help but reflect upon what might have been, had we a more agreeable relationship. I'm told holidays with family may be something other than torment.
Seating ourselves at table, our conversation took the form of a unidirectional, irrelevant datebook-reading. He had little to contribute, his present life painfully uneventful. I had no major award this year to brag about, but I could and did list a number of accomplishments, or noteworthy points of my research. Each piece of information was met with a grunt, or a thoughtful sound. We almost sounded civil.
When this was done, there was prolonged silence of the uncomfortable sort, typical to our relationship. The ring of flatware on china, the occasional moist sound of repast.
"You should have been a man," Father suddenly muttered.
I paused, nonplussed. "Well. I guess that's a compliment."
"No. Just a statement of truth."
Intrigued, I asked, "Is this a philosophical discussion, Father, or do you have something to say about genetic expression?"
Placing down his silverware, Father said, "I've never doubted your intelligence or your capability... you're my descendant, after all. But I'm sure you've discovered that the sciences are a boys' club, and that your... gender is a hindrance to being taken seriously."
My eyebrows arched. "And yet I've met few researchers who feel obliged to undergo a sex change."
By now, my father ignored his meal. His hands folded, he said, "You had the choice, Holiday. You could have gone either way. It would have been so much easier for you, not just in your work, but generally."
What did he mean to imply? That women were second-best, a poor option? I did not pursue this. I understood Father was, in his own way, sympathetic to my situation, and I saw nothing gained by berating him, other than momentary satisfaction. I said, "You exaggerate the amount of choice which was available to me."
"Is that what you tell yourself, that you had no choice?"
"I can't understand what it is you have against my gender. If we lived in a superstitious Asian country, daughters would be regarded as a liability, but this is the United States. Or is this about my sex? I hope so, because then no further discussion is necessary." I ground my teeth. "I hardly believe you can hold me responsible for my childhood inclination. And even so, you found some way to pervert it. Forcing me, without preliminaries, to reverse my presentation. You could have waited until I attended high school, or even after the summer vacation. You wanted me to hate being a woman."
My father regarded me unwaveringly. "As I've said, you could have-- should have --been male. Even grown, you were barely feminine." I frowned, but his mien did not falter. This all felt very familiar to me... his measured and relentless assertions which lent equal weight to the evident and the nonsensical. I've spent more time than it was worth, pondering how he could swallow his own conceptions, and found his workings inscrutable now. He hunched his narrow shoulders, hands folded; with another man, this might be taken as uncertainty or submission, but to know my father you would realize he attacked with confidence from within repose, as though passing judgment from a throne.
"And I tell you, it was not that simple. I can show you some fascinating papers which demonstrate what happens when one tries to force a child into a contrary gender expression..."
"You were perfectly happy as a boy. It was your mother--"
"Is that why I put up with 'boy in a dress' for five years, because I was just as happy being a boy?" I stared at Father; for a while he said nothing.
"You wanted to please your mother," he said at last. "She coddled you. Never forced you to do anything you didn't want. Of course you wanted to please her." He spat this last sentence with a contempt he would have buttoned down in younger days.
I chuckled, and said, "So now I have an Oedipal complex?"
"Not at all. Unless you have something to confess." He smiled in a way I didn't like. "But she went easier on you, therefore she was more deserving of your regard."
I had an uncomfortable moment during which I entertained his point of view. Picking my way back without giving this away, I said, "I did not tolerate the abuse of my peers all that time just to make Mother happy. Why, she never even stated a preference... she felt it was what I wanted."
"You wished to maintain her approval, because you thought of her as protection from me. And if you found the consequences at school hateful, you habituated yourself to them, as children do."
I was silent for a time. "How long did it take you to devise that explanation?" I asked. "I certainly thought of her as respite from you... that much is accurate. But there is no way I suffered what I did unless I felt it necessary... if Mother was so much putty in my hands, I would have begged her to let me stop."
"You were never willful. Not until you left for school."
"Oh, this is impossible," I said. Inwardly, I admitted it possible I'd tolerated the ordeal to please my father too, at a time when I believed this could be done. No matter. I was feeling pretty good about this conversation.
I sipped some wine. "But to address your thesis directly," I continued, "what I should have been is what I am now."
Father laughed dryly. "A lovely slogan, Holiday." A fingertip swung in my direction. "What is this, if not a costume? Your grossly exaggerated idea of the female form shows how unnatural it is for you."
"I never knew you to be a feminist, Father," I said with a smirk. "In all seriousness, regardless of my gender inclination, the physical reality is that I was, as you say, barely feminine... it is only natural I should want to compensate. I'm hardly alone. There are plenty of genetic females who desire the most absurd prosthetics. I work with one, in fact." (I've rather more than worked with her, but that was not germane to the subject, dear Diary.) "I am in a position in my life to be exactly what I wish to be, and this is what I choose."
My father had established his position, and did not entertain this conversational discursion. He watched me.
I said, "I've often reflected upon how you never put a stop to my advanced courses, when you easily could have. I'd assumed Mother intervened. But you shall have me believe it was with your consent."
"You may think what you like, Holiday. Why would I wish to see you fail? Look at it from my point of view, for once. What advantage would this be to me? Your mother and I did not intend to have you... why would I compound this error by undermining your usefulness?" He was tiring of the subject. His sarcasm was sublime, nebulous... an outsider might take it earnestly.
"Such convivial discourse we hold at the Thanksgiving table," I replied. "Your logic assumes rational motives." I think Father had grown accustomed to my caustic aura, for this was not met with a pinching of his lips.
"I know that the circumstances of your birth are a difficult subject for you, Holiday. You really must come to terms with it. I have."
Assuming a blank expression, I replied, "So have I." My father only dignified this lie with the slightest moue.
We adjourned to the sitting area. He sat; I stood. My father ate like the proverbial bird. I'd fed with greater relish, feeling the discussion had gone to my liking. I poured us each a glass of sherry. Father accepted his with indifference. Then another period of quiet, with us in each other's presence, yet apart.
Father coughed. "Where were we?" he said.
"We were talking about how you wanted to help me get lost."
Father smiled slightly. "Quite. You see that I could not have wanted you to fail, because I wished you the means to leave home at your earliest convenience."
"The gambit of disputing my paternity having failed," I said. I smiled.
My father evinced surprise, and then disappointment. "Ah, that."
I allowed the smile to become a smirk. "Yes, Father. That."
He actually shrugged. "You can hardly blame my first impression." He nodded imperceptibly toward my chest. "I was not aware of any atypical gender in my family."
"And yet blame you I do."
"Already certain, as I was, that your mother used you to cement our marriage, it wasn't difficult to entertain the idea that she slept around. But that notion was demonstrated to be false, and in retrospect the idea is illogical." The nearest my father came to admit he was wrong. "The truth is that I did not want you around, and I grasped at reasons I should not be held accountable. I could not believe you were mine, because I did not want you to be."
I clasped my hands over my bosom in a parody of delight. "I'm so pleased," I effused acidly. "We've had such a breakthrough, Father."
He frowned. "Do not patronize me, Holiday."
I strolled a half-circuit of the coffee table. "You've finally said aloud that you resent my having been born... and after only thirty-five years." My father set down his sherry.
"Do you consider it wise," he said, "to tell a child something like that? I've said I'm not the monster you take me to be. And when you were old enough that you might be expected to understand, I no longer harbored my... feelings so intensely, that I would need to give vent to them."
"Resentment, Father. It's called resentment."
"You can play semantics if you like, but it won't make me any more what you imagine me to be. If you like, I resented your arrival, yes. I had plans which did not involve being a parent. It was the most natural thing in the world to resent being suddenly restrained by obligation. I could easily have left you and your mother-- times were such that absentee fathers were not spotlighted in the media to score cheap points --but I remained, because it was not, in the end, easy for me to waive my responsibilities." I was silent. He continued. "I can see you longing to blame me for sticking around, for inflicting your uneasy childhood upon you. You know I did the right thing."
He was correct on this point. I did know. "You were a terrible parent," I said.
My father smiled, knowing I played from weakness, and badly. "That remains a matter of opinion," he said. "Would you now change what you've become, by removing me retroactively from your life?"
"You know that's a loaded question...to answer affirmatively involves self-negation, which does not come easily--"
"You wouldn't, is your answer."
I gritted my teeth. "No," I said. "I wouldn't."
"Then I was a good enough parent for purposes of argument."
I laughed. "An argument from ignorance... I can only speculate on what I would be now if you had left us."
"Then it is equally absurd to suppose what sort of parent I might have been. I was the parent you had, and this is your life. You really must let go of your resentment, not simply so I go up in your esteem, but because it is of absolutely no use to you to continue carrying a grudge. I think you understand this, Holiday. I believe it's why you consented to visiting home at last."
I tapped my fingertips together. "Possibly," was all I would admit.
"I think I know something of this, having harbored such emotions myself. Toward you... toward Ashley." He was silent for long seconds. Then he said, "There was a time when I believed she became pregnant on purpose, to force me into marriage."
I gasped; I lost all control of my expression; I stammered. "Mother would never do that!"
Father leaned forward in his seat, as though preparing to strike. "Do you really know that, Holiday? Can you, as her child, really understand her in the way that I did? Could you distance yourself enough to see her honestly and completely? You couldn't do it with me."
I understood his point, and agreed with it as a generality. But this was not hypothetical.
"That's a terrible thing to accuse her of."
"It is a terrible accusation. I can give her every benefit of the doubt; I can imagine it sprang from her youth... I can suppose she was moved by her feelings for me. But I still believe she used you as a means to hold on to me." He paused. "And that it could have been your purpose from the start."
I could find nothing to say. I felt the glass slipping from my fingers, and turned to set it down.
To my back, my father said, "It doesn't mean she loved you any less, Holiday." I could not remember despising him more than in that moment, he trying to protect my feelings.
I turned upon him. I said, "Is that why you let her die?"
When I pictured this moment in my head, and I had done so often, the moment when I brought out the big guns, I imagined his head rocking backwards as from a punch to the jaw. But Father remained steady on, perhaps blinking more than is his usual, nothing more.
"Holiday," he said softly. "You accuse me of nothing I've not already accused of myself." I stared at him dumbly, wondering why he would not break down. "When we learned how advanced the cancer was, I could not imagine how I'd missed its indications. I wondered if it could not have been deliberate ignorance... your mother and I had had our troubles, and I thought, for a time... perhaps I was not the man I thought I was."
I didn't want to listen. "You killed her," I insisted, but even as I said it aloud, it became an insubstantial claim.
"Is that the name you've given to our intransigence? Nonsense," said Father, not unkindly. "You do not seriously believe I am responsible for your mother's death."
I was regathering myself, forcing my voice to be even. "That's where you're mistaken, Father. You're a doctor. You should have been alert to the symptoms. Perhaps it was beyond your capability, but still I hold you to it. You should have known."
Light shot off of his glasses, rendering him unassailable. "I'm to be held to this standard alone? Perhaps if you'd not been controlled by your grudge against me, you might have seen the signs yourself, mm? Or, in failing to see them yourself, acquit me of my negligence. But certainly your mother would have benefited from two physicians at her side, capable of speaking to each other like adults, instead of abandoning her like a petulant child."
I moved half a step toward him. My immediate impulse was to give him the back of my hand. In my head I already heard the smack; my ears strained for the sound. I trembled for it. But I would not be goaded into striking him. I would not lower myself so-- there must always be control --no matter how he seemed to leverage this against me, conspiring to grow old in order to avoid my wrath. And if I started down that path, I did not know I would stop. I frowned.
That I often tormented myself with the idea did not help... suppose I'd not gone to school, or at least attended university nearer home? Or returned more than infrequently? I insulated myself with my excuses... some quite legitimate, but still, excuses.
Father continued. "Do you think I've not held your absence against you? Your mother and I were surely no burning romance by that time, but I... we had each other." I watched my father swallow, and bite down, in an effort not to betray his emotions; in that instant I saw myself in him, and hated myself for my vituperation, but the fortress which surrounds me does not lend itself to peacemaking.
"As you say, it's pointless to consider what might have been. I left because of what I endured in your care." I might as well have added 'take that' to the end. My father waved me away, as though bored.
"I'm quite aware of that. I've accepted my part in this, because I can. And I understand why you cannot."
"I don't need your understanding," I said weakly.
"I'm sure you don't. But I hope I've made you well aware how I needed my own."
Whatever energy crackled between us exhausted itself. I did not utter anything so melodramatic as "This conversation is over," though I might as well have. What I said was it was rather late, and I should be getting back. I made gestures toward helping clear the table; my father impatiently said he could manage. I drove back to my hotel.
Letting myself into the room, I felt sick with sudden, irrational fear, paranoid, surrounded by invisible enemies. I darted for the bathroom and slid to my knees, embracing the toilet bowl. After the passing of a pregnant pause, my stomach hitched and I vomited up the remains of Thanksgiving dinner. What a picture-perfect coda to holidays with the Wednesday family, I thought, within the black blot of visceral convulsion.
After rinsing my mouth, I stared into the mirror for several minutes, unsure what was within. Then I threw my things into my suitcase, threw the suitcase into the trunk, and drove home.
My hands gripped the wheel hard enough to make my arms tremble with tension. Twice I thought of jerking the wheel and driving into the side of an overpass, but my limbs kept the wheel grimly even. I only began to relax when I'd put several tens of miles between myself and my father; again, irrational, as though physical distance would ever separate me from what I fled.
If Father's behavior was unforgivable, perhaps I should have tolerated it anyway, for my mother's sake. I hadn't suspected the outcome to which his indifference would carry her. I should not have had to... I should have possessed enough concern for my mother to see her regularly. I've scourged myself with this knowledge ever since the diagnosis. But I cannot abide his use of it against me... in this is the full measure of our relationship.
I hate him for being reasonable, for making my feelings about him seem petty and foolish. There is little he said which I can reasonably dispute or disagree with. But I have yet to let go my resentment of the man. I fear I define myself by it too completely to renounce it. I know I'm being irrational, and I hate it... I hate the lack of control. I should be better than this.
It was still dark when I reached my apartment, and I left the lights off in making my way to the bedroom, to keep from disturbing Nicole's rest. I supposed her asleep, but when I drew closer, she spoke. "Welcome home, doctor," Nicole said, no tiredness in her voice. I slipped into bed beside her, taking her in my arms and squeezing tightly enough to elicit a squeak of hurt.
"Oh, Nicole," I said, half-sobbing my admission. "I'm so filled with hate, Nicole. I don't know how to let it go."