Sure, my father and I talk. My father and I talk about computer software. We talk about getting the best deal on cell-phone plans. On one of my recent visits home, we talked about Cleveland sports teams and then watched the final two minutes of the 1988 AFC Championships on YouTube, in which the Browns fumbled and suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Denver Broncos. My dad and I then discussed heartbreak. But sports heartbreak, not the real shit.
I suppose our relationship was a common one between fathers and daughters, especially for those of us whose fathers had a very traditional upbringing in the 1960s. My dad was raised by second-generation Italian Catholic immigrants in a town where many of the adults still preferred to speak Italian over English. He was closest to his grandmother, who had immigrated when she was only 16. She was strong and had no patience for arrogance. “Big talk, big shit,” she used to say.
Maybe he took his grandmother’s words a little too literally, because my dad spent the majority of my childhood not doing a lot of talking. We made fart jokes together and we built school projects together, but when it came to actually communicating, he passed the baton to my mom, which turned my dad into somewhat of an unknown entity. I knew what made my mom tick; she was transparent in every way. She talked until she was a fixture inside my head. My father, on the other hand, was a mystery. But every now and then, my mom passed along a request from him that gave me pause.
“You dad doesn’t want you to use real sugar at your tea parties anymore. It’s attracting ants.”
How did he always know? I imagined him standing in the doorway, observing my tea parties and then vanishing just as I turned my head to look.
When I was away at college, I received the most mortifying request of all: “Your dad found your condoms while we were moving your old dresser. Please don’t leave that stuff around.” What bugged me more than the icky feeling of knowing that my dad knew I was sexually active, though, was knowing that my dad knew I’d grow up, without him. I’d moved out, fallen in love, taken my first steps into adulthood, and was still only capable of small talk with him. We were strangers.
The following summer, I was home from college and, unfortunately, living down the block from my boyfriend, Corby, whom I’d broken up with only a few weeks earlier. My mother was all over me: make sure you eat, let’s keep you busy, do you need to talk? I assumed my father had gotten the memo from my mother, but I still put on a fake, happy veneer whenever he was around. I didn’t want him to know I was in pain, and I didn’t want him to feel bad that I wasn’t talking to him about it.
About a week after arriving home, my breakup took a turn for the worse. Corby, under the guise of taking me up on that whole “let’s be friends” offer, came over and read my journal while I was out of the room. It was the exact journal entry an ex should never have to read. A few nights after our breakup, I’d had a one-night stand with a guy from one of my classes. Feeling like a character in a trashy romance novel, I’d written about it using the same, over-the-top vernacular. I’d even embellished the encounter, writing about positions we hadn’t done and orgasms I hadn’t come close to.
After reading it, Corby stormed out of the house, leaving me in shock. Seeing my obvious distress, my mother hugged me and I began to sob. My dad sauntered into the room and turned on The Shield.
As my mother continued to comfort me with a variety of sugary snacks, the doorbell rang.
“It’s Corby!” My sister yelled.
I froze mid-bite. I noticed the house had fallen silent and saw that my dad had paused The Shield.
I sprang to action and greeted Corby on the porch, deciding it was best if he didn’t come in. He said he was sorry, that he regretted violating my privacy, but that he was glad he did because now we could move on. His words were rushed, and then he broke into tears. I hugged him with all my strength. My first love was officially at its end.
For a while after he left, I sat on the porch alone. I don’t know how long I was out there, but when I came back in, the kitchen was dark and everyone had gone to bed. Only my father was still up, reliably watching Letterman’s opening monologue.
“Hey Mar,” he called out, shortening my name the way he had when I was a kid.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, coming over. I found some strength to smile but instead, tears began to form in my eyes. I threw my head back in a desperate attempt to catch them.
“It happens, kiddo. Corby has been sorted. You guys were great and I liked him, but now you’ve sorted him and you have to move on.”
I leveled my chin and looked my dad in the eye. I didn’t recognize his tone. It was … comforting.
“I had a girlfriend in high school, before I met your mother,” he continued. “I liked her a lot, but after we broke up, we never talked to each other again. Dragging it out would have been cruel. I heard a few years ago that her husband passed away from cancer. It was very sad, but I never reached out or said anything. She has other people in her life. I sorted her. We moved on. Corby has been sorted. He’ll be okay without you. It’ll be okay.”
I stood silently, afraid to move — afraid I might scare this moment away. This was a side of my father I’d never met, but every part of it felt tailored to me. The idea of moving on without looking back, even if it hurts, felt tangible. It was something I could actually use. And after years of small talk, the fact that my father had had an ex-girlfriend before my mom was shocking to me. I wasn’t the only one in the room with an unshared side of my life. I wondered if maybe we were more alike than I’d realized.
“Thanks, Dad,” I nodded slowly. I was no longer crying. I sat down and watched the rest of Letterman with him in silence.
In the years following the demise of my first love, I found myself often repeating my dad’s advice to friends. It seemed to comfort everyone who heard it. Yes, breakups were painful, but they were just part of the sorting process. They were part of life. C’est la vie! Delete your ex’s number from your phone! No good can come of it! Move on! When I attributed the advice to my father, friends always smiled and nodded knowingly, as if they suddenly understood something new about me. They thought it was sweet that my dad and I could talk to each other like that.
The assumption that my dad and I were tight often tugged at my heart. In the years since Corby, he and I had gone back to our old ways: I spoke to him on holidays, and in the entire year of 2007, only once, on Christmas. After college, I moved to New York City and with the distance came greater silence between us.
Like everyone else, I hit milestones throughout my 20s: I had new romantic relationships and painful breakups; I landed new jobs and promotions; I traveled, I performed on stage, I had one cool night when I met Bruce Willis. Through it all, my father remained at a distance, communicating messages to me through my mother. Things like: He was proud of me, he felt I should talk to my landlord about fixing the plumbing, and he couldn’t help but notice my new boyfriend had an earring.
One of the most confusing of those milestones was the second time I was preparing to move in with a boyfriend. I was anxious about the fact that I’d done it before, the relationship had failed, and I was now doing it again with someone new. As I packed my apartment, I decided to call my mom — I knew she couldn’t relate, but I hoped she’d at least tell me about her garden for a while to take my mind off things.
When my dad picked up instead, I panicked. By that time, it had been nearly a decade since our first and only heart-to-heart. And I was worried he thought my decision to move in with yet another boyfriend was a foolish move.
“Hey, Dad,” I said breezily, trying to sound in control.
“Hey Mar, I hear you’re moving.”
I took a deep breath.
“Yeah,” I said, “Jason’s place is bigger and in a better location.”
He paused. Did he suspect I was full of shit?
“Well, I think it’s the right choice,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said, ending the word extra inquisitively, needing him to continue.
“Yes. I’ve learned over the years that it’s always a good choice to support the people you love. You and Jason are both out there working hard in that city. I’m glad to hear you want to be there for each other every day. If that’s what you both want, there’s no reason not to.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I felt my confidence returning. Something in my dad’s answer told me that he’d been eagerly awaiting this conversation — that he wanted his chance to say the right thing. My heart broke a little. I thought of all the conversations we hadn’t had.
The last time I spoke to my father, he walked me through the logistics of hanging new cabinets in my kitchen. We were on Skype, and, 500 miles away, he was fixing breakfast for my 2-year-old niece. I told him how much I’d always loved his waffles when I was a kid. “Yeah,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “I wish I’d made more time for this stuff when I was raising you girls.” I knew what he meant.
“I can’t believe the Cleveland Browns are 0 and 16!” I suddenly exclaimed. “But, hey, there’s always next year.”