by Jessy Easton
The Things We Leave Out
Goodbyes have never come easy for me. It doesn’t help that I only see Dad once, maybe twice a year if I’m lucky, and each time he feels more distant than the last. On the night before he left my home to make the seven-hundred-mile drive back to his own, we were well into a pandemic with no end in sight, and I worried about losing the whole of him, the whole of us. He’s always had masochistic tendencies, punishing himself for what he sees as a failed parenthood—a life wasted.
As we sat across from each other at my wobbly kitchen table, I tried to bring up the past but talked circles around all the things I needed to say. How he spent my childhood leaving things out to protect me. And how I spent—and am still spending—my adulthood leaving things out of the past to protect him.
Throughout my childhood, Dad had been my constant. The one who never left. Mom was always disappearing on us. When she wasn’t drowning in an oversized orange jumpsuit, she was robbing houses, running from the cops, or dissolving into the lost hours of the night with vacant-eyed strangers. She was spinning so high on drugs that sometimes she forgot she even had a family.
A last look over her shoulder when the cops took her away in handcuffs, a defeated wave she shot across the prison’s visiting ward: these were her last goodbyes, as I stood there with nothing left but my strangled sobs. And Dad spent the better part of his life trying to make up for her absence. He couldn’t shield us—my brother and me, or himself—from her leaving, but he worked hard to nurture us the best way he knew how. By cooking and selling the Mojave Desert’s most sought-after methamphetamines to keep a roof over our heads. By being there. By loving us.
But I’ve never been able to get Dad to see himself like I do. He flails and thrashes in an ocean of guilt. I can see it in the way he denies himself good things because he doesn’t feel like he deserves them. The way he always wears a pained, haunted look on his face. The way he deflects compliments because he can’t bear to feel good about himself, or for others to think well of him. The way he resists conversations that go too far back into the past.
And now, we lived separate lives states away from each other and we didn’t know when we’d be able to see each other again. The thought of Dad hauling that guilt around for the unforeseeable future lodged a boulder into my throat. Part of me felt responsible for that guilt, as if I should’ve taken on more of the load when I grew strong enough to carry it. As if I’d failed to love him enough to heal him.
Sitting at the table, I watched Dad warm his big hands on a mug that said Papa Bear. He sipped his black coffee and wiped at his beard, now streaked with gray. Even though he was no longer using, the dark circles under his eyes still looked like starless black holes. I wanted him to see the world he built for me, and to know that those years weren’t lost. They were ours. That who we became and the bond we shared was because of, not in spite of, all that we lacked.
I reminded him of the time he took my brother and me to Toys “R” Us to shop for our own Christmas presents. I was eight and Brandon was seven, and Dad was trying to distract us from Mom missing Christmas. Again. He gave us each a shopping cart and we piled in Nerf guns, monster trucks, and Barbies until we couldn’t see over the top. When we got home, we stacked the gifts so high the top of the tree peeked out over the poorly wrapped boxes.
The time we went to visit Mom in Chowchilla, where she was serving felony charges in California’s largest women’s prison. We drove all day through the burned and burning hills of California and stayed up all night in the motel playing with rubber band guns he bought us at a roadside market in Tehachapi. Dad placed a stack of rubber bands around each of our wrists and loaded all three guns. Us against him, we shrieked and hollered until our faces hurt from laughing and the sun was a gold line on the horizon.
The time we kids were hopping from the broken limbs of Joshua trees, missing school for the hundredth time. We came across a naked and bald mannequin and brought it home to show Dad. He said we’d use it for target practice. Loading up his shotgun and a couple of handguns, he drove us deep into the sun-beaten wasteland next to our house, crushing the tumbleweeds and purple asters under our tires along the way. Dad shot holes in the mannequin and we stuffed our fingers into our ears, cheering with every shot he fired.
Story after story, Dad laughed his big explosive laugh. It spread through the floorboards and into my bones like the rumble of an old truck engine roaring to life. Then I watched his gaze fall to the table.
“I don’t want you to think I was this wonderful dad that did everything right. I loved you kids, but I was a mess. I should’ve been there for you,” he said.
“What do you mean? You were always there.”
“Yeah, but I wish I hadn’t been so strung out on drugs. I should’ve been a better father to you, little girl.” Honest shame laced his voice.
With every story I’d recounted from our past, I had left things out to protect him from his ever-mounting guilt.
I left out how our house always smelled like wet paint and bleach from the meth lab he’d built in our garage. Dad wouldn’t let us go back there, so I didn’t know he’d been cooking up batches of crystal for everyone in our Dust Bowl town off old Route 66. I didn’t know the meth fumes seeping through the walls and under the door were why my eyes always watered and why my brother was always getting headaches.
The time I saw him make extra holes in his belt with a screwdriver to keep his pants from falling off his wilting frame. Or the way the sharp hitch of his shoulders poked through his baggy t-shirt like a wire coat hanger. With no rules to follow, we lived off chocolate bars and sunshine and slept in superhero costumes. Dad was surviving on a diet of meth and sugar, but back then, I thought we lived like kings.
The countless times I locked myself in the bathroom to write Mom letters in prison because I didn’t want him to see me cry. “Dear Mommy, We miss you. Daddy still has the kiss mark you left him on the bathroom mirror. When are you coming home?” Mom first went to prison when I was three years old, and she was in and out of some sort of correctional facility most of my childhood. Dad was always left behind to take care of us when he could hardly take care of himself.
Now, as I sat across from him in the tangerine glow of my dining room, I thought of all the things Dad must have left out of my childhood to protect me. How much more sorrow he must’ve spared me from, taking it all onto his already tired shoulders so I didn’t crumble under the weight.
I reached my hand across the table and placed my palm up like he used to do for me when I was a little girl. An invitation. He slid his giant hand into mine and I felt the guilt-spurred thumping radiating from the tips of his fingers.
“But you were a good dad.” I wrapped my fingers around his.
He shrugged as if he were shaking off our past.
“You are a good dad,” I added.
“Well, I’m trying now. I just wish I didn’t miss so much of your childhood.”
He went quiet and the creaking sounds of my old farmhouse swallowed up the silence. The dark spilled in blue through the windows and I watched him bring his hand back to his side of the table. The autumn air smelled like wood smoke and the coffee he had let go cold. He twisted the mug in his hands and a desperate look fell over his face as if he were trying to convince himself that what I’d said was true.
“Listen, you didn’t miss anything, okay?” I slid my chair forward and tapped the table with my palm to get him to look up at me. “You were there every day. The kids I knew, they barely knew their own fathers because they were gone working their nine to five jobs. We played every day and we stayed up late and ate junk food and it was everything. You were there for all of it, Dad. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
He cleared his throat in the way he always does when he’s trying not to cry, and his faded gray eyes filled with water.
Then he said, “We sure did have fun, didn’t we?”
The next morning, Dad loaded his bags into the car. The sun hadn’t come up yet and the dawn air smelled like rain. I stood on the porch and watched him in the blue dark. He shot me a tired smile before ducking behind the steering wheel. He looked lighter, like a weight had been lifted.
I felt it, too. I inhaled and the breath came easy.
I wanted to say see you soon, but I didn’t know when I’d get to see him again. He started the car and the heat from the exhaust sent up a cloud of white fog. I waited for one last look from him before he drove away, but all I could see was the red glow of the taillights.
Jessy Easton was raised in the Mojave Desert of California, and now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She holds a BA in Communications from Vanguard University of Southern California. Jessy’s writing has been published in Beacon Quarterly and Entropy Magazine. She has self-published a book of creative nonfiction and publishes regularly to her Substack AFTER/WORDS. Jessy is currently querying agents with her memoir.