What Is Between Us
Already, the April sun was high in the desert sky, filling the quiet neighborhood with bruised shadows. Jess slammed the car door, tugging at the diaper bag as it slipped from her shoulder. She cast a dark glance in John’s direction. He opened the Malibu’s passenger door with a cheerful whistle. The sound of the baby’s scream made her head throb. Too many years had passed since she had stood on that same dilapidated curb, disgruntled, wishing she were somewhere else.
John pulled Viv from the car; she cooed happily in his dark arms. The smile on his face was both infuriating and charming.
Jess’s mouth twisted into an unwanted grin. “Your glee is relentless,” she complained.
“He’s your father,” John said. “You said yourself that he is trying.”
She stared at the deceptively calm house surrounded by a moat of sharp grey rocks, yucca, and cacti, and thought only of storms.
“I haven’t seen him for years,” she reminded her boyfriend. “We really don’t get along.” When he seemed unmoved, she pushed, “He hasn’t even met anyone I’ve been with for over ten years…not since my first marriage—” but it was too late; they were at the door.
“He’ll like me,” John assured her. “Parents always like me.”
The baby cried. John shifted her in his arms, waiting. Jess’s heart thundered as she pressed the doorbell, the glass door reflecting a darker version of her pale face as if from a very deep well.
The door opened. Her father was much shorter than John, dark hair, glasses glinting; he looked older than she remembered. It was almost comical to think of the fear he could inspire in her. She walked in, flustered, put the diaper bag on the couch, not knowing what else to do.
Her father said, “Hi, daughter,” in an exaggerated way, holding his arms out to show that she had failed to greet him properly.
She mumbled, “Hi,” and returned the embrace automatically, more uncomfortable than awed by this new father so far from the distant one she remembered — who never hugged or bothered with such petty, demeaning things as I love you.
John held out his hand and introduced himself. Jess’s father welcomed him without any of the contempt she had imagined. Still, she reasoned with herself, plenty of time to catch that look and tone that says, ‘another loser, Jessica, just like you.’
“Here is your granddaughter,” John offered, holding the baby out to her father.
Jess didn’t think he would be very interested. Her mother had told her he had never taken much active participation in child-rearing—had preferred the bottle. She recalled his volatile temper, aggressive discipline, and tyrannical law — authoritarian parenting as they called it in her college Family Psychology class — and realized she never believed her father had loved her. How could he possibly love her child?
Growing up, she had been terribly unhappy. By the time she was a young teen, she had been in the juvenile psych ward at the state hospital for what they called bipolar disorder, though it was more a result of her childhood-onset autoimmune disorder; she had attempted various forms of suicide and developed a full-blown alcohol problem, not to mention the fact that she had run away numerous times and seen a juvenile detention center firsthand. Even then, he had thought her weak and ridiculous. He had told her himself.
Her life had continued to be a series of failures that he never failed to point out: two divorces, the inability to hold a job, going on her sixth year of undergraduate study. True, she made an attempt to get her life together when she discovered she was pregnant — found an amazing man, gave up drinking, decided to finish school to pursue technical writing — but somehow it never felt adequate.
Of course, it did not help that her father had pulled himself out of an even rougher childhood and worked his butt off to gain the middle class success he now enjoyed, despite dyslexia, unhappiness, and an alcohol problem. He even kicked the alcohol problem when Jess was a child. Her parents had divorced in her teen years and her father had since remarried. Jess was convinced he preferred this new family to his old.
Her father took the six-week old infant in his arms, and she was surprised that she could not sense any reluctance. He sat down on his leather recliner, the flat screen TV blaring, and held his first grandchild as he might have held gold.
If she had never learned to love her father, she had at least always respected him. He had kept a roof over their heads and food in their mouths, which is more than his father had done for him. Even now, he provided for his family well.
Still, she blamed him for most of her failures. He had stomped on all her dreams of becoming a great writer, told her she needed a real job when she wanted to go to a Fine Arts school, laughed at her when she wanted to become a mechanic, ignored her when she tried to convince him she would make a great, if poorly paid, archaeologist. All her life she had only wanted his approval, his love; now, when this new father told her he loved her on the phone once or twice a year, she could not believe him. It sounded fake, mechanical, something contrived by his new wife or perhaps some therapist, a phrase he was trying out but couldn’t really feel.
They were practically strangers.
Viv looked very small but comfortable as her grandfather leaned his dark head over her and teased her with the pacifier.
“You don’t even know who I am, do you?” he crooned over her, bouncing her lightly, lost in some world with just the two of them.
Jess felt a sudden pang of guilt. Her father had not seen Viv at birth; Jess had not even told him she was born until they were out of the hospital and then only with a passing text to one of her younger step sisters. She had not even suspected he desired to see the baby or that he might actually feel some semblance of love for her. But now, watching him, she wondered if she herself had lain there in his lap even once just like that, if he had shown such affection to her, given his full attention — if there had been a moment between them when they both had been happy.
And now there was Viv, her greatest accomplishment, forever between them.
How many sleepless nights had he spent dwelling on his own failures and weaknesses? All these years, it had been that they were too much alike!
For a moment, she understood; he had done the best he could with what he knew — and that was enough.
A swell of some overwhelming emotion came into her throat.
From across the room, John raised his brows and mouthed, “He’s doing so good with her!”
And she smiled, amazed by the sudden rush of tears.
“That’s grandpa,” she told Viv, laughing that to show emotion in front of him should still embarrass her. “You’ll get used to him.”