It’s Thanksgiving. Or Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whichever holiday we last gathered around my mom’s dining room table for dinner. I’m twelve, and I am sitting at the bottom of the stairs with my Aunt Melin. Her hands shake, which I find typical of her, because I haven’t yet learned about the horrors of Parkinson’s disease, or any of the diseases that get in the way of life long before it’s over. She’s telling me about my dad. “He had a million freckles, too.” Her words are calculated, and the longer she speaks, the slower they come. “He and Marci were little troublemakers. Always up to something.” She sustains a pause to look at me. Quivering fingers stroke my cheek. “You look just like him,” she says. “You have his eyes.”
I am ten years old when my dad moves out, and eleven when he dies. During these months, we exist in the limbo of separation. Part of me feels like I saw my dad more in this time than in the ten years we spent under the same roof. But I think about his one room apartment by the park, and how it smelled like microwaved soup, and how I would always end up asking my mom to take me home instead of spending the night. Part of me feels like I never saw my dad at all.
The funeral is cold sweats and condolences. In the weeks following, I listen to his voicemails. They always end the same way. “I miss you,: he says. “I hope we talk soon.” People send frozen lasagnas and fruit baskets. My mom gives us hugs so as not to ask for them herself. Everyone shares stories. His hot sauce was never hot enough, he was unreasonably selfless, he loved his kids beyond compare. There’s an occasional vignette, as we eulogize him night after night, where someone points out how much I take after him. I am, unanimously, a Nadler.
He dies in August, and I start middle school in September. I learn that I have more than just his eyes. His temper, his people-pleasing tendencies and the resentment that follows, and, perhaps the worst trait a young girl could inherit, his masculinity. It’s 2012 and girls are starting to wear leggings and training bras. I’m trying to understand my body as something that exists to be judged by others rather than something that gets me from point A to point B, and, on the days that we stop to get milkshakes on the way home from school, point C. My brother makes comments, because that’s what brothers do. In retrospect, I don’t give him enough credit in this mourning period. He also lost his father, with whom he was arguably closer, and from whom he certainly sought his approval. But I’m eleven. I’m learning how to layer clothes and hide inside of trends. He calls me fat and I let it define me.
I start to learn more about my dad in posthumous dinner conversations. He had just started going to AA. He was losing weight alarmingly fast. He was an addict, an abuser, a master manipulator. Suddenly his image becomes distorted in my brain. I lose the sound of his voice. I wonder if I am any of these, all of these. I look in the mirror and see my eyes, his eyes, our eyes. My friends and I are getting our periods, texting boys. My mom is in and out of the hospital. She’s grieving, and I wonder if she’s the only one. I am eleven and I have yet to learn stability.
In high school, a family friend of ours transitions from male to female. My friend’s mom, a social worker, points out that the depression and anxiety she experienced growing up could have stemmed from this struggle with gender identity.
In high school, some of my friends come out as non-binary. My concepts of gender begin to unravel. Or rather, they expand, as I unlearn pink and blue as the two binaries. I start understanding my body as something that exists in spite of me. We become two separate entities. We fight now. We disagree on what fits and what looks good and what’s comfortable. We disagree on where to go and how to act. I look more like my dad than ever before. I’m his sharp nose, his eyes that squinch when I laugh. And I’m his booming, laddish laughter.
In high school, my hair is long. It frizzes and cascades, and I have to hold it back when I take tests, or bend down to open the tupperware drawer. And I am terrified of cutting it, because I can braid it and put it in a ponytail, and because it might be my most feminine feature. But my dad had long hair in high school, too, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
I’m seventeen when I cut my hair. I clock out of work at five, and within the hour I’m holding a severed, eighteen-inch braid.
I go to college. I am swept up in presenting myself to strangers. I take an Acting class, and remember that in the months leading up to my dad’s death, he was doing improv in the city. He kept it quiet. No friends or family allowed. Only strangers. Vulnerable, confident, unafraid. I wonder if I am any of these, all of these.
I come home from school for Thanksgiving. I’m driving with my mom to get coffee because I’m older now and I can be congenial instead of combative. It’s a quick drive across town, not more than five minutes. My Spotify is on shuffle. “Your dad loved Harry Nillson,” my mom says. Offhanded, observational. We haven’t talked about my dad in a while. Not at my high school graduation, or on move-in day, or even on his birthday. I make eye contact with him now in the rearview mirror. “We have that in common.”