By Joseph Freitas
Every family has an agitator, a provocateur who is always ready to call attention to the embarrassing moment, the underlying motive, or the simple fact that things are not as wonderful as everyone would like to believe.
Addy was that dissident voice in our family. Peering through her teenage insolence, she seemed to understand that things were not okay. Despite the fact that I moved as carefully as possible between the big house and the pool house where I had been sleeping separately from my wife for several months, tiptoeing across the yard after all the lights were out, and despite the fact that Jamie and I had been working on the words we would use to describe our situation to the kids, Addy found a way to preempt any and all our timelines. Like that August three years before – when she stole the car and brought Jamie and me to our life-changing conversation – she was now a constant reminder that we could no longer wait to take action.
During our last few months of life together as a family, Addy took advantage of our preoccupation. And why wouldn’t she? Jamie and I were so engrossed in our impending separation that we barely monitored her schoolwork; we asked her very few questions; and we accepted implausible explanations for her whereabouts. When we actually stopped to focus, she was always well armed.
One night in early October she asked if I would drive her new boyfriend Nick home. He was 17, two years older than Addy, and had dropped out of high school the year before.
Nick sat in the backseat looking dully out the side window while Addy sat in the front punching music out of the radio, barely letting a single note register before shifting again to the next station. I didn’t even try to make conversation.
“That’s it,” Addy said. She pointed to a small bungalow up on the left.
I pulled over and Nick got out with a quick, “Thanks.”
Addy opened her door and approached him. I could see their hips through the passenger window as she walked up close. I turned and looked straight ahead like a dignified chauffeur. A few moments later she climbed back into the car.
We were quiet for a while and then I asked: “Is Nick going back to school?”
She began fiddling with the radio again. “I don’t know,” she said.
“What does he do all day?”
Her sigh was audible even over the music. She settled on a song and sat back.
“What’s going on with you and Mom?” she asked.
The counterattack was perfectly planned. It was a square hit. With a single question she managed to switch our roles. I moved from protective father figure to guilt-ridden teenager. What did she know about Jamie and me? Had she caught me sneaking in and out of the pool house? Was she aware of my life on the Internet? For an instant I felt afraid – afraid that I would have to reveal everything at that very moment. I looked over; she was staring straight ahead. Both of her hands were held up close to her mouth, and she was biting the nail of her left index finger. I regrouped and spoke.
“I ask you what Nick does during the day and that’s your answer?”
She ran her fingers through her hair with dramatic exasperation. “He’s looking for work. I’ve told you that a million times. What do you do all day?”
Good question. Even I had to admit that. What did I do all day?
There was a time when I could answer that question without even thinking. I took the train to work. I went to meetings. I reviewed big budgets. I got things done. And now, well, I wrote. I floated in the pool. I talked to men online. I worried about the future. I worried that Addy might actually know what I did all day.
One of my contract goals was to tell the kids about our separation, but I didn’t have the language down yet. And even though I had nearly completed my so-called screenplay, it was clear that I had been working on the wrong script.
I ignored her last question and focused instead on the first: What was going on with Jamie and me? Should I give Addy some information, warn her of what was to come? And more important: Was this the time to have the talk?
I looked over; she had turned her head away from me. As I made the final turn on to our street, the lamplight trapped both of our reflections on her window. Our eyes inadvertently met. And suddenly a memory – the one of the Caribbean – came rushing back again.
This time I remembered that the kids were in the back seat when Jamie said, “We’re lost.”
“How can we be lost on five square miles?” I asked.
Evan, who must have been eight years old, began to jump up and down with excitement.
“We’re lost!” he shouted into Addy’s face. “I love being lost!”
Addy pushed him away from her. “No we’re not! Daddy, are we lost?” Peering into the rear view mirror I could see her beginning to panic. The painted beads at the end of each of her braids rattled around her head.
I gave Jamie a look. “No, Addy, we are not lost.”
“But where’s the hotel?”
Our eyes locked in the rear view mirror again, but this time I tried to hold her attention as if my reflection could cup her small, tanned face. “It’s very close, honey,” I said.
She kept an eye on me in the mirror. And then I smiled. “Yup,” I said. “Here we are. There’s the little market.”
“Shoot!” Evan sat back and looked out the window, dejected, like the air had been unplugged from the source of his excitement.
“See?” Addy said to her brother. “I told you we weren’t lost!”
I pulled into our driveway and stopped the car. I wanted to be that father again. The one who reassured her, the one who set her mind and heart at ease. But I no longer had that power. Besides, I had no idea where that little girl in the braids had gone – the one afraid to be lost. Where was she?
I pulled the keys out and turned my whole body toward her. Out of reflex more than anything, she looked at me. She twisted a strand of hair in her hand; I could see the chipped blue nail polish on her fingertips. And though her jaw was set and her eyes were filled with an angry determination, she seemed more lost than she had ever been before. I wanted so much to make it better.
“Your mom and I are having some problems,” I said. It was a lousy open- ing and I regretted it as soon as I uttered the words.
“No shit,” she said. “It’s so obvious that you don’t want to be together.”
She looked at me in the darkness. It had become rare for us to share any pro- longed eye contact. The outside light dropped an uneven shadow on her face but her eyes stayed fixed, ready for my response. I could feel her breathing, waiting, her underlying unhappiness and dissatisfaction almost palpable. Would these new revelations make her situation worse? Would the eventual knowledge of my homosexuality make her even more rebellious, more difficult to deal with, more disappointed with the sorry lot she called her parents?
I sat there trying to imagine the impact our separation would have on her – and Evan. But she and her brother were both so different that it seemed as if the discussions – though filled with the same content – were a diametrically opposed set of problems that I had yet to overcome.
I looked at her and felt so deeply sad that our relationship had become more like an unpleasant truce. And though there had been a time when she stood at the doorway waving goodbye as I headed to work, left her drawings on the pillow for me, and wept when I left on yet another business trip, I knew that our bond had been damaged.
Still, despite the armor she had constructed around herself, I knew I had to continue trying to reach her, to bring her along as best I could.
“Addy,” I said finally. “Your mom and I aren’t sure what we’re going to do.”
“Just get a divorce.”
She said it as if she were tired of the whole thing. She started to open the door but then turned back, waiting for my response.
I looked into her eyes, trying to transmit all of my feelings to her – as if there were some sort of telepathy that could intervene and help me communicate.
“Whatever we do,” I said, “we love each other and we love you.”
“Whatever,” she said and got out of the car.
I watched as she rushed up the porch steps and into the house, and I wondered whether our problems were as clear to everyone else as they seemed to be to Addy.
Author’s Note: “Addy” is a chapter from my forthcoming memoir, An American Dad, which tells the story of coming out: to my wife of 20 years, our children, family, and closest friends. Despite its challenges and heartbreak, being a father continues to be my greatest joy.
Joseph Freitas is the father of two children. He taught memoir writing at the Westport Writers’ Workshop in Westport, Connecticut. He and his partner own and run 141 Bedford Natural Market in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they have lived for the past two years. Joe is currently completing work on his memoir, An American Dad.