*Image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero
By Wendy Wisner
Sometimes California goes drifting through my mind as I’m falling asleep. It looks like it’s detaching itself from the rest of the continent, as I’d always heard it would, the sea levels rising, the land sinking.
Or I see it suspended in air, tilting back and forth, the way it did during the ’89 earthquake, my mother and sister in the living room, me standing in the doorway, the chandelier slowly swaying.
I think I want it to erode, break up and get washed away.
Or I want it never to have existed.
Mostly, I want it to come back to me. I want it to fill the odd-shaped hole in my gut that started opening all those years ago when my father left us—when he left us for California.
The 80s really started then: in California, when we moved there, following my father.
I see myself, standing in the mall with my mother and sister, looking down at my purple jelly shoes, toes wet with sweat.
Jelly shoes, jelly bracelets, gumballs, frozen yogurt, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, Cabbage Patch Kids. All of these things on display at the mall, twinkling in the corners of our eyes.
My mother loved the malls in California. “Outside malls,” she would call them. She was amazed that they could be open year-round—that it was always warm enough. She had lived on the east coast her whole life.
I don’t know how we could even afford to go to the mall. She wasn’t back to work yet. My father wasn’t providing any child support. She was living off the money from the condo she’d sold in Boston. That, and food stamps. It amazes me that we would spend all those hours at the malls, eating McDonalds, and buying whatever 80s fad toy I wanted.
But I see now that she needed to consume. I see that money—although it seemed to be on the forefront of her mind—was buried in the back. Her needs were deeper than that. She was a woman alone, for the first time in her life. Alone in a foreign land, with her two starry-eyed daughters.
My father lived in a little gray apartment in Redwood City. I visited him once. I remember watching him cook dinner, flipping burgers. I noticed that he talked to himself sometimes. Was that new?
But he would visit us, in the apartment complex in Menlo Park. Sometimes I would wake up and he’d be there, sleeping on a mattress in the living room. Other times I wouldn’t see him for weeks.
California was all light. The avenues were bathed in it. We drove everywhere—my mom, my sister and me—in the mustard-colored Toyota with the 8-track player that didn’t work, the broken cigarette lighter open, exposed, ready to spark.
At night, everything was black—no shading, no mystery. We lay in bed in our second-floor apartment waiting, waiting. What were we waiting for? My father to come home, to come back to us? To return to the east coast?
In the dark I remembered. I lay on the tiny bed, pressed my body against the wall that divided the rooms. My mother and my baby sister slept on the other side. In the dark, I remembered what I had lost. But I had no one to talk to. So I dreamt about the red monster, who looked like my father. And I dreamt about the big fish that ate the little fish, and ran into my mother’s room crying. She consoled me about the fish, but she didn’t know my secrets, the way I longed to go back home.
The east coast wasn’t all light and darkness like California was. It had shading. Autumn mornings with crimson leaves and dim, scattered light. Winter afternoons where you watched your shadow follow you to the bus stop. Snow that caught the light and blinded you. The east coast had nuance, feelings that I understood. Light that felt familiar, inviting, cozy. Summers which ended with fireflies lighting up the night. And springs that felt so lovely after winter, like something was bursting out of your chest as you left your house and inhaled the flowers.
I miss the seasons, my mother would say. I scoffed at the time. I thought the seasons were a superficial thing for her to miss: the surface of the earth and how it changed. But what she meant was the same thing I did. She missed our home, the way the light shifted so effortlessly against our skin.
Even before California, there was New York, Martha’s Vineyard, Boston. And once we were in California, we moved almost yearly. I lived in a different house every year of my life by the time I was 12.
Some kids are good with transitions. They can just go with the flow. I could not.
“You didn’t even want to be born!” my mother would say. I was transverse in her womb. I wouldn’t budge, she said. They had to use forceps to get me out (“like salad tongs,” is how she described them). Then, I had colic. My dad, in this thick Israeli accent, would look at the clock at 3pm, and say, “Her concert is starting.” Nothing they did would stop my crying.
Womb to earth. Breast to breast. Arms to arms. I didn’t adapt well. It was January when I was born, some of the worst snowstorms on record. Maybe it is always winter as I move from one thing to another. Maybe when I fall, I always fall into frigid air, ice.
But change is good for you, my mom would say. You need to learn.
She was right, of course. I did need to learn. I still do. But I wish I had been helped along a little more, during all those years when changes kept happening in quick succession. I wish someone had told me my sorrow and fear were OK. That’s all I really needed. I needed a listener. Or two.
Instead, my childhood felt like one long slog through change after change I had no control over. Each thing I held dear seemed to shatter in my hands. Every home we lived in was made of glass. Each person I loved, a snowflake that melted as soon as it fell in my hand.
I panicked as soon as we made the plane ticket reservations. It had only been five years since I’d visited my father in California, but it was the longest I had ever been away. And as the panic spread through my body, my first thought was, “But I thought you were over all that? All these years away was good.” But I was triggered, just by buying the tickets. California like a knife through my mind. I saw myself standing there, on my father’s giant hill of a street, the earth quaking. I watched the street split beneath my feet. But mostly, I felt myself split, all those feelings deeper than thoughts, just raw emotions flowing—zapping—through my body. They lived in me all summer, as I prepared to travel to the place I loved to fear.
My sixth birthday was at a McDonald’s in Boston. It was one of the last things we did before we made the pilgrimage to California, following my father.
I remember the giant Ronald McDonald staring down at us, the gold birthday crowns, the milkshakes, the burgers in their shiny, yellow paper, and my baby sister sleeping on my mother’s pink floral sweater. I remember the merry-go-around—I was dizzy, thrilled, and nauseous.
My dad wasn’t there. I don’t think it even registered that he was gone. He had been back and forth to California for months, scoping it out.
Each time he left, we weren’t sure he’d return, the baby inside my mother blossoming, pushing against the edges of her skin. Was he visiting California? Was it permanent? What was his plan?
The fact that he missed my party hit me like a pile of bricks just a few years ago, soon after the birth of my first son, when I was starting to piece together my childhood again—but through the lens of a parent now.
I got really pissed off about that birthday party. Why the fuck wasn’t he there? I said out loud to my husband. Neither of us could imagine missing our son’s birthday.
My father is a wounded soul. His parents were Holocaust survivors. His mother, at 45 years old, was unaware she was even pregnant with him. Would she have ended it if she knew? Could she have? My father always said his parents didn’t want him.
But someone taught him love—because no matter how unreliable he was, no matter how unable he was to hold down a job, keep a promise, or a family intact—he knew love. When he was with us, he was with deeply present. He talked to us about everything under the sun. He taught us to love music, nature, photography, chess, backgammon. He loved us tenderly, kindly. So someone must have loved him too. I’m sure of it.
But he wouldn’t stay. He wouldn’t be there for my birthday party, and a few others. He didn’t come to visit when my first son was born, or my second. He came when he was ready, not when I asked him to.
I remember driving. And driving some more. I loved a long, slow drive in the country. I’d look out the window and dream. Each stop sign a sign of something. The trees repeating themselves, overlapping. Even as a very young girl, I would think about the universe, eternity. I would wonder what being alive really meant, if the whole thing was real—and if so, in what way. This was before I got older and these thoughts scared the shit out of me. This was when I thought those thoughts were mystical and lovely.
My mother was quieter then, as I remember her. She had someone else to bounce her thoughts off of, so she wasn’t the talkative, unfiltered mess I think of her sometimes now. My father was a force to be reckoned with. Quiet, but powerful. Strong-willed, but sweet. I picture them in their 70s corduroys, button-down shirts, sweater vests.
And that photograph my father took of me at the top of the hill in Vermont. I must have been 4 or 5, my hair thin and straggly, waving in the breeze. I’m wearing a green t-shirt, with a drawing of the outline of the state of Vermont on it. And somewhere behind me—cows: just standing there, doing nothing, waiting like I was.
What was I waiting for? My father to take the photograph? My father to leave for California? That’s what I think of now, of course. How soon after that vacation my father must have gotten the urge, the itch to leave. How soon after that my mother took the pregnancy test. How soon after that my father freaked out about another child. How soon he moved out of our apartment to the studio across town. And then my mother’s belly growing, and my father getting on the plane. And me running through the snow back to my mother, hoping he had come back home.
No, none of that is here. Not in the photo of me in Vermont with the deep green grass and the cows. None of that is here.
Why did he leave? What lurked there in the land of gold?
He left in winter. Did he crave the heat? He, who was raised on Mediterranean soil—could his hot-blooded body simply not tolerate it anymore?
He said it was political. Boston was too bourgeois, classist, old-school. He needed more leftists, free-thinking people—people he could relate to, who would go on political demonstrations with him, stage protests, form leftist cohorts and attend meetings. People who would do all the things that sounded foreign and dangerous to me, but which formed the make-up of his life during my childhood.
So perhaps he was lured to California for the reason most people are: sunshine and freedom.
But why couldn’t my love provide that warmth? And was it not freedom from me he craved? I was a child: how could I see it any other way than as my own fault?
And my mother? She gestated the baby and birthed it, alone. Afterwards, she took herself and her children (his children), and flew across the continent, hoping against hope that she could bring him back home. You could criticize her for that choice. You could say there was simply no hope, and that she should have taken his departure as a signal that he was disentangling himself from our lives. But how could she know for sure? Who could blame her? What other choice did she have?
Forget California. Forget those years you felt like you were in a foreign land, shell-shocked, searching for a father who would never come back to you. Forget the earthquake, the mudslides, and the way you missed the other coast with a longing that you were too young to speak of, too trapped in your life to notice. Forget the way you trembled as your mother drove up the big hills and screeched the breaks in the middle of the road. Forget the purple popsicles in the backseat, which dripped onto your hands and made everything sticky, everything artificial and sugared. Forget the way you craved something else, but the words were caught in your throat like bait for fish. Forget the letters you traced in the roof of your mouth. Forget how utterly alone you felt walking the hallways of your elementary school, searching, searching, your life a dream you were trapped in.
And so you did. You forgot. You sunk into your grown-up life. You got married. You found a man who made you feel free and safe. You found a man who looked like autumn and smelled like the ocean. A man whose love made you feel grounded, not lost. And children—children who kept you home, where you always wanted to be. Anchored. In bed with your babies, their arms draped across your belly as you slept. The night turning like pages in a book, you and your family tight inside the covers.
But the thing is: no matter how deeply you can sink into your life, no matter how much you will yourself to forget, the wounds don’t go away. How can they? Childhood tattoos itself onto your body. Childhood bends your DNA. Childhood houses itself in your heart.
How could I think otherwise? How could I have felt so safe?
I hadn’t visited him in five years. I was 37 years old. And I thought by then I was over my father, my childhood.
I loved it there, in that apartment complex in Menlo Park. All the apartment buildings formed a circle at the end of a road, a dead-end where you could ride bikes, and play without much adult supervision. That was the one year in my life that I had a bike. I rode and rode and rode, the wind sweeping through my hair, my bare feet on the petals. It didn’t matter where my mother was, my sister, my father. Usually, all the ones I loved had to be accounted for. But in those moments, riding my bike, I could be free from them all.
My father came by one day to take the training wheels off my bike. My mother said we needed a man for that. I see him crouched there at the wheel, his little toolkit by his side. I beamed to have him there, doing this for me, giving me freedom.
I biked away from him, toward him, looking, seeking. Consuming California and its eternal sunshine. Consuming the moment when I could bike away from him, knowing he was still sitting there, watching me go.
My dad and I sit across from each other at a café in Oakland. I don’t remember Oakland this trendy. The tables are polished wood and glisten. Our iced tea seems to sparkle. I am recovering from a migraine so even the ceiling lights are brighter than I can bear.
I know it’s one of those moments. One of those talks with my dad, where we’re supposed to be real with each other, connect and be our true selves. There is always that pressure, since I was a child, to have those moments with him. And I so desperately want them too. I want to be seen by him, truly. I want him to love me, know me. I want him back, even now, more than 30 years after he left. I feel that tug.
And here we are, in California, the place he left us for. The place we followed him to. But we never got him back. Never, not once.
This is the place I haven’t visited in five years. This place I took two cranky kids on a 7-hour journey to, even though my heart was pounding out of my chest from take-off to touchdown.
Here I am, in California, finally, sitting with my dad, his arms red and tanned. It’s summer. He’s always been hot-blooded, like a bear.
The café is playing some kind of funky folk music. People are coming and going like nothing momentous is happening. This is their life. This is their cup of coffee, green smoothie, Panini, fruit salad to go.
We talk about my writing career, the kids. He talks about his fibromyalgia, the latest pills and doctor’s appointments. He tells me he might have to move to a warmer climate to manage the pain. San Diego, maybe. But his wife doesn’t want to move. When she was 20, her dad was diagnosed with leukemia during a big family move, so moving is always an anxiety trigger for her.
“Oh, well, me too. I get that,” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“Moving. Moving is definitely a trigger for me too.”
“Why?” my dad asks.
The threads are the secrets. And the threads are the questions.
I have always kept secrets. Not someone else’s secrets, but my own. The time I played tic-tac-toe on the wall at school, and wondered if I’d be punished. Graffiti was a crime—had I committed one? I would obsess over it each night before bed. Each time we’d drive past a spray-painted building, I’d get a flood of anxiety. That was my crime. No one knew.
That is the first secret I remember. But there were many. In fact, I think there always is one. One nagging fact about myself, one fear, that I am afraid to tell a soul. Or I tell bits and pieces. Not the facts, not the depths of how it rages inside me.
And then the questions, which are also secrets.
One I have wondered about forever: Was it really abandonment when my father left? Was the loss that deep? Or have I exaggerated it? Does it stand in place of another loss? He did leave, but he was still involved with my life. So do I have the right to grieve? To feel so terribly sad that he untangled himself from our family, even though he stayed my father?
It’s the same way I worry about my marriage. How do I deserve someone as kind and committed as my husband? And of course, when will it be taken away? Always imagining his death. Or mine. Or the one of our children. Always a part of me obsessed with these questions, the way they spin around in my mind like secrets.
How childish. I am not a child. I am much better at silencing voices, the chatter. And yet, they don’t shut up, do they? I can ignore them. I can build my skin, my muscles, my own counter-voices. But there they are again, nagging, setting little fires that I am perpetually putting out.
I saw him clearly in that little café in Oakland.
His blank stare when I told him that his move to California hurt me—that all the moving over the years was hard.
He had no idea, none whatsoever. He never understood the pain we felt when he left. He didn’t know how much we yearned to get him back.
These facts may as well have been secrets to him.
I looked at him. I mean really looked at him. His trademark almond eyes—mine are almost exact replicas. There is a magic to our eyes, a mystery, a twinkle that you are always trying to capture.
In that moment, I should have stamped my feet, shook my fists, and screamed. I expected panic. Anger.
Instead, I was relieved.
Not relief from the hurt he could never see. That was there, inside of me. I still held it, and always would.
But I didn’t need to prove anything to him anymore. I didn’t need to hold out hope that he would understand. I didn’t need to pine for him to love me. He loved me as he could. His love was flawed, but real. It had gaping holes, but it was what he had to offer.
He was scarred. He was broken. He was my father.
And I could go home with my husband and kids. I could own my pain, my California, my father, and get the hell out of there.
Sometimes we are magnetized to a place. I have always felt pulled to the east coast. I’m sure it’s because of those years I longed to return. I would dream about snow; I wanted the world to be obliterated by it. I wanted to hibernate, lose myself in winter.
I got the news the other day that my father is planning a move to Hawaii. He thinks a tropical climate is what he needs for his fibromyalgia. In the past, I would have voiced my doubts, my discomfort with his tendency to believe in absolutes about life, that changing the external can fix the pain inside. But maybe he’s right; maybe he will be cured. Maybe he needs to finally return to the tropical climate from which he was born.
I didn’t care anymore. These are the last years of his life. Let him do as he chooses. Let me not become involved. Leave me out of it.
But I know this might mean the end of California. If he isn’t there anymore, there will be little reason for me to visit.
Maybe I knew this was coming. At the end of our visit this summer, as I stood on his driveway packing suitcases into the car, I whispered goodbye to California:
Goodbye to the steep, rolling streets, the cracks in the pavement.
Goodbye to the wide avenues, the highways that seemed to stretch to the end of the earth.
Goodbye Menlo Park, Redwood City, Mountain View, San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland.
Goodbye to bridges drenched in fog, streets slick with rain, nights bent with longing.
Goodbye to the stucco houses, the chipped flower pots, the azaleas, the hummingbirds.
Goodbye to the red poppies sprouting on the hillsides, red as blood, my father’s favorite.
Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer, lactation consultant, and mom of two. She has published two books of poems (CW Books) and her essays and poems have appeared in The Washington Post, Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Brain, Child Magazine, Literary Mama, Full Grown People, and elsewhere. She can be found online at www.wendywisner.com.