On Christmas Day, my father called me "elusive." I don't think he meant it as a compliment.
Dad was talking to my brother on the phone, while the latter was at the Christmas dinner table with all of us, the whole family, minus Dad. I didn't take the phone. I didn't call my father, either. Haven't, in fact, talked to him in months.
Christmas Eve, my mother said to me, "I hate that X is spending Christmas alone. You should invite her over for dinner."
Me: "No way."
"She's not a member of this family any more."
"She's the mother of my grandchild."
"True. But that's it. She voluntarily gave up her privilege to be here. She got a new family instead."
My parents are vastly different people. I wonder how they ever came together. For Mom, family is paramount, the only thing that really matters. Dad grew up largely on his own and while he was mostly present in my childhood, physically, I mean, he wasn't really "there." More of an uninterested observer. Mom compensated for that, hovering, smothering.
My Dad bailed on me once, on all of us, in the same way he bailed on his first family. He married my Mom and his first wife, and the three sons from that union, became an afterthought, a check mailed the first of every month. They never spoke of my three half-brothers, never even informed me of their existence. I came about that knowledge another way.
I've never spoken or had any contact with any of them. I'm elusive.
Mom got Christmas presents for X. For my brother's ex-wife, too. And invited her in, with her new boyfriend, when they dropped off my niece and nephew on Christmas Eve. "I'll always love her," Mom said. "X, too."
Mom took Dad back after he had an affair when I was 12. He was gone for 8 months, mid-life crisis, driving around in a jet black Caddy and disappointing me. One Saturday afternoon during that period, he didn't show for my soccer game. For full time, I kept glancing at the sloping road, looking in vain for that black car descending toward the field. I don't remember who we played or what the score was. It didn't matter.
He came to pick up my sister one day. I was kicking a ball around the front yard with Craig Huft and Shane Fournier and I completey ignored him. Didn't say a word, a greeting, nothing. I felt ashamed. In front of my friends, there he is, my wayward father.
But Mom took him back when his girlfriend kicked him out. For us. Certainly not for her. I now know how she must have felt. Know that ache of betrayal and how you can't fix it, can only hope it disappears. Family. Mom wanted a family, as broken and irretrievable as it might be.
"Would you take her back?" my Mom asked me. We sat in the garage smoking cigarettes.
"Never," I said. Positive.
"What about AJ?"
"What good would it do AJ if his Dad is miserable?" I asked, a preface to a rapid-fire accounting of all the reasons why I find the idea preposterous. Impossible. The cheating is the least of it, as far as I'm concerned. "I couldn't live my life waiting to be walked out on again, Mom."
My parents finally did get divorced. Spent 16 more checkered years together. I know my Dad had at least one more affair. Found a postcard in his office desk when I worked for him one summer in high school. "I love you," it said. Some woman.
I never really got over him leaving. Even now. Respect was lost. It takes no courage to run. Stand and fucking fight. That ideal ingrained in me from then. Why I still don't understand what X did. A foreign concept.
I treated my father with barely disguised contempt. Night after night, he'd sit in his easy chair, mutely reclined, watching the TV as life whirred around him, a life in which he didn't participate except on a surface level. Even when my sister, at age 14, called my mother a "fucking bitch," he remained silent and rooted. When I walked behind his chair, I'd slap him on his expanding forehead, a schoolyard taunt, a challenge.
When my parents divorced, I felt relieved. Long time coming. The tension around them had become palpable. Best for both of them. Except Dad floundered. Called me crying on a couple occasions. Which I didn't understand. Nor welcome.
He moved away, first to Vegas, then up north, where he got married again in short order. Then I got it. He can't be alone.
I'm always angry when I get off the phone with my Dad. His self-absorbtion. Why I haven't called. Well...that and others. He forgot AJ's birthday this year. Came to L.A. last summer for his wife's granddaughter's college graduation, but didn't swing by to see his own grandkids.
My siblings tolerate this behavior. I don't. "Kenny doesn't take their shit," my Mom said on Christmas Eve. It was definitely a compliment.
I know why that is. I recognize too much of my father in me. Understand his motivation because I've felt it myself. Flight. Chuck everything and start over. We all have that urge from time to time, right? Clean slate, somewhere else. Embrace something new and reduce the past to a check on the first of the month. It's my identification with that impulse which arouses such distaste. If I were unaware of how hurtful such an event can be, I might be sorely tempted.
I've wanted to leave behind everything that happened with X. Would be happy if I never had to see her face or hear her voice again.
But I'm also my mother's son. As such, I could never abandon AJ. As quickly as those thoughts of escape enter my head, they are gone, because my life gained all meaning when he was born. Family is paramount. Nothing will ever be more important than being AJ's father.
My mother still lists my father as beneficiary on one of her life insurance policies. She welcomes her one-time daughters-in-law into her home. She has a capacity for forgiveness that I can barely comprehend.
"It's not what she did to me," I told her in the garage. "It's what she's done to AJ."
She nodded and we went inside to join the rest of the family.