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Breaking Her Fallby Stephen Goodwin
On an ordinary summer night in 1998, my daughter, Kathryn-Kat, we all called her, a fourteen-year-old who still liked to wear her blond hair in pigtails-told me that she was going to the movies with Abby, her best friend, but they never got there. Instead, they hooked up with some of the other counselors from Rockrapids, the outdoor camp where both girls were working that summer, and decided to blow off the movie. It was a hot, dense Washington night, and one of the boys-Jed Vandenberg-invited everybody back to his house. He had a pool. His parents were away. The kids started drinking beer and vodka shooters, and before long some of them had peeled off their clothes and jumped into the pool. They started playing Big Dare, a drinking game. Just before eleven, when Kat was supposed to phone to let me know that she was safe at Abby's house, I got a call from a stranger, a man whose daughter had been at this same party. He told me that Kat-your daughter, he said-had gone into the pool house to perform oral sex on a parade of boys.
I wanted to kill that man. Performed oral sex on a parade of boys. I can still remember his exact words and his exact tone of disgust and judgment. He might as well have said, Your daughter is a slut, and I felt as though I had been shot. I felt a deep, burning fury, a heat and pressure that originated in my chest and made it hard to breathe, hard to speak, hard to see. Even my eyes felt burning and heavy, boiling in their sockets. I felt shocked and furious, and I was standing in my bedroom-naked, as it happened, with Christine extending her hand toward me in sympathy and puzzlement, whispering, "Tucker, Tucker, what is it? What's wrong?" and I brushed her hand away simply because she didn't know what had happened. She couldn't know. She was in her blue-and-white robe, stretched across the bed, fumbling with the remote to mute the sound on the VCR as she reached for me with her other hand, and I cannot forget the hurt, bewildered look that crossed her face when I batted her hand away. She hadn't heard what this man had told me, and even if she had, she couldn't have known that I had already crossed a line dividing one part of my life from another, dividing the past from the part that was to come. I was a single father and this was a moment I had dreaded, the moment when a child of mine slipped out of my safekeeping and walked straight into harm and grief. I'd been unable to protect her-failed to protect her, I thought-and I was ready to do anything, anything, to bring her back. My life was going to change. Had changed already.
That, of course, is how I now remember and interpret that moment, the minute or so-it couldn't have been much more than a minute-that I was on the phone with a stranger, another parent whose words seared into me as an accusation. I have replayed that conversation, that whole night, a thousand times, and I come back again and again to that moment when confusion and dread and rage lifted me from the bed and seemed to be propelling me toward the future.
In these pages I don't want to inflate or exaggerate my emotions, nor to wrap them up in cheesy images (cheesy, one of Kat's favorite words), but there are some images I can't shake. They've just locked in, and by now they seem to be as much a part of my experience as the events themselves. They seem to be the only way that I can understand the journey that began that night. Journey-even that word sounds grandiose, since I am still right here in Washington. But let it stand. This story, my story, is a love story, the story of my fierce, clumsy, painful attempts to connect with my daughter, Kat, and to accept and enter into the soul-shaking mysteries of love between men and women.
So: I write here that when I now think of my reaction to that phone call, I see a rocket rising into space, jets of orange flame lifting it toward the unknown, just as we have all seen innumerable times on TV and in the movies. Cheesy.
Nevertheless, I was the rocket and I was speeding toward places I had never imagined.
ALREADY I have gotten way ahead of myself, and I am going to back up and try to describe what happened on that summer day: Monday, July 13th, 1998. It was hot and sticky, the temperature up in the nineties, the air quality code orange, and my crews-I have a landscape business-were on a summer schedule, working seven to four. After checking the work sites that afternoon, I went home to the Hut, the brown-shingled bungalow in the Palisades where I lived with Kat and Will, my twelve-year-old son. It was Kat who named it the Hut-she was always word savvy-and the name seemed to fit the house with its dark brown shingles, the bungalow huddled in the shade of several huge old oaks and maples. I bought the place when the kids' mother, Trish, and I separated and she moved to New York. Back then it wasn't much more than a hut, but now it's been beefed up like the other houses in the neighborhood, a bungalow on steroids. I poured money into it and extended the back of the house by twenty feet-kitchen, bedrooms-and turned the double-door freestanding garage into a rec room that soon evolved into a music room. It's soundproof, and it had become the headquarters for my ragtag band, the Make Believes, a group of other parents who got together occasionally to pretend that we could still rock. I was the drummer, and even though I hadn't studied music since taking piano lessons as a kid, I'd played in bands in high school and college, and music has always been an escape and release. I have more skill than talent, but I can pick out a tune on the piano and my voice is a junior varsity baritone. When I soundproofed the garage, Will and Kat were still youngsters and I had the fantasy that we'd make music together, a trio, a tight little family combo.
But neither of the kids was really into music, and that summer Kat's thing was rock climbing. She'd been thrilled to get hired as a junior counselor at Rockrapids, the camp she'd attended since the age of eleven and where she'd discovered her talent for climbing. Several times I'd gone to watch her, and often to belay her, when she scampered up and down the cliffs at Carderock and in the Potomac Gorge, where the sheer rock faces drop straight into the river. God, she was fearless. I don't like heights, and it made my stomach churn to watch her hanging by her fingertips, grinning down at me, beaming and proud, all but crowing. Heights, she told me once-she must have been all of twelve-gave her a rush. Like any father, I was astonished and awed by this child who'd found a passion of her own, this girl who was discovering a skill and strength and daring I'd never suspected. By that summer, the summer of 1998, she'd reached her full height-five eight-and while she still had the slenderness of youth, she was lithe and limber and deceptively strong. The muscles in her forearms leaped and twitched when she made a fist, and her hands were grainy as sandpaper from all that scrabbling on the rocks. "Climber's hands," I'd tell her. "At least they're good for something," she'd say. Kat had always been self-conscious about her broad, bony, big-knuckled hands, which she inherited from me. For years Kat had been determined to beat me at thumb wrestling, and whenever our big hands touched, our fingers hooked together by sheer force of habit and I'd feel her thumb reaching for mine, trying to pin it. One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war. Sometimes, if she'd drifted away-and more and more she did drift away, hiding behind a sweet, dreamy smile-I'd grab her hand to pull her back, to start a thumb war, to connect with her, to see the gleam in her dark eyes. They're brown but look deep and tawny, like chunks of amber with old fossil fires still flickering in them.
That night, when Kat got home after the long bus ride, she was in a hurry. The bus was late, as usual. Part of her job was to stay on the bus until the bitter end to make sure that all the campers had been met by their parents. It was after 5:30 when she walked through the door, grimed with dust and sweat, deeply tanned, long legged in her yellow climbing shorts. Her backpack was slung over one shoulder and there were smudges of lavender climbing powder-the stuff they use to keep their fingertips dry-on her arms and legs and cheeks. There was even a dusting of lavender in her hair, in the little damp curling tendrils of blond that had broken loose along her hairline. I am her father and I can say that she was exquisitely beautiful that summer, exquisite because-it seemed to me-she was still indifferent to her beauty. Kat wasn't exactly a tomboy, but she attached far more importance to her climbing than she did to her looks.
"I'm late," she said, dropping her backpack in the front hall, pausing just long enough to look at me, to notice that I had on tennis clothes. "You're playing tennis? Isn't it hot for tennis?"
"A plan's a plan," I said.
"Playing with Christine?" That was an odd question, asked in a tone of false, bright cheerfulness. Kat had little use for Christine.
"Yes," I said.
"Coast is clear, huh?" said Kat, and she darted up the stairs to take her shower.
Maybe it shouldn't have surprised me that she could see straight through me, but it did. The kids were away-Will was on Long Island with his mother, and Christine's kids had just left for their camps-and since Kat was sleeping over at Abby's, Christine and I had planned to spend the night together. We were going to have an Amish night. Kat had met Christine, of course, but we had always tried to keep our private, intimate life concealed from the children, all of them.
But Kat had just let me know, for the first time, that she not only understood what went on between us but also the way we kept it hidden. Her disclosure was hasty and might even have been inadvertent, but as I listened to Kat showering and banging around upstairs, I wondered if it was time to tell her more about Christine. But what? That we had an arrangement? That I still wasn't sure, after almost two years, where our relationship was going, or if it was going anywhere at all? That ever since Trish left me I hadn't wanted to get attached to a woman? I thought that I was trying to shield Kat and Will from the grown-up world of disappointment and betrayal when I kept Christine at a distance.
Kat was showering upstairs-Kat, Kat, Kat, my little one, my Goldilocks-and I remember sitting in the kitchen and wondering exactly what she did think, not just about me and Christine, but about boys. About sex. She was getting ready to go out with Abby, but I knew they'd meet up with a group of boys. And I knew that her drift away from me had started when she had her first crush on a boy, although so many other things were happening to her then, so many jets of hormones had kicked in, that I never believed that it was the boy-a redheaded kid who couldn't stop fondling himself-who'd made her shy around me, unreachable sometimes, hidden behind the sweet smile that she summoned so easily. I had no doubt that she was still a virgin. There hadn't been any other boyfriends since the redhead, and while she and Abby, her absolute friend, talked about boys, they certainly didn't seem boy crazy. I knew that boys sometimes called Kat, who had her own phone line, and she had several boys on her computer buddy list, but she had limited patience for instant messaging. Stupid, she called it. In fact, she and Abby seemed to have set themselves apart from their classmates at Byrd-Adams, the girls they sometimes referred to, disdainfully, as girly-girls. As far as I could tell, they thought of themselves as climber jocks-or maybe climber chicks-and hung out mostly with other kids who also had an independent streak.
Kat and Abby liked some of the music that other teenagers did, and some of the movies, but they prided themselves on being retro, on listening to Van Morrison and Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt, whom they worshiped. They thought Madonna was totally cheesy but they were intrigued by Marilyn Monroe, and Kat had a poster in her room-alongside posters of Everest and Glacier National Park and a calendar showing women climbers on terrifying rock faces-of Warhol's photographs of Marilyn, the ultimate blond, the repeated images of Marilyn bathed in deathly hues of red and green. Kat had seen most of Marilyn's movies and liked to imitate her breathy, singsong voice, but her best piece of mimicry, the one she used to drive her brother crazy, was of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. She took French at Byrd-Adams and she couldn't get enough of his clotted, nasal, loopy accent. For at least a year she couldn't say room like a normal person. It was always rrrrheummm.
But her favorite line-her slogan, her mantra, her signature-was Duzz yerr dugg bite? (She loved that corny joke: Clouseau enters a hotel lobby, sees a feisty little dog, and asks the clerk, "Does your dog bite?" The grumpy clerk says, "No." Clouseau reaches down to pet the dog, who turns into a blur of noise, fur, and teeth. With dignity, with disappointment, Clouseau says, "I thought you said your dog does not bite!" The clerk replies, "That is not my dog.") On some days that line was her answer to every question, another way of vanishing into her own world, a way of putting up a smoke screen. Finished your homework, Kat? Does your dog bite? Want tacos for dinner? Does your dog bite? Have you called your mother? Does your dog bite? When are you going to clean up your room? Does your dog bite?
I didn't know what was going on in her heart or in her mind, but I always thought that she seemed to have her own purposes, even if they took the form of annoying her brother and exasperating her teachers. She was an inconsistent student. She was word savvy, as I have said, and did effortlessly well in languages (she was almost fluent in Spanish, having picked it up from our housekeeper, Gladys Ochoa), but she had trouble with math and the only time she took an interest in science was when the subject was the destruction of the rain forest. Ever since then she had regarded herself as an environmentalist, and she could get outraged by reports of pollution or global warming, but the subject that shook her to the core was history. As a sixth-grader she made her first visit to the Holocaust Museum, and she never got over it. A month afterward she was still crying about what she had seen. A year afterward she was still staying up at night to read Holocaust books-Anne Frank: The Dairy of a Young Girl, All but My Life, Night, Alicia: My Story-by the little light of her pillow lamp. She was undone by the atrocities in Bosnia; she made Gladys tell her about the years of war in Guatemala; she had a heart that went out instantly to victims of violence and oppression and injustice.
I was proud of her, proud that she seemed to chart her own course and think for herself. That was one of the Big Rules in our household: Think for Yourself. I had Big Rules and Little Rules stuck under magnets on the refrigerator. I tried to keep things on track and in order. Both Kat and Will sometimes called me Heffy, their way of saying El Jefe, the boss, which is what the guys on my crews, mostly Latinos, called me. Sí, Heffy, they'd say when they wanted me to lighten up on the enforcement of the rules. But after we settled into the Hut, when we began our life without Trish, once Gladys had started to work for us-a sturdy, steady woman with onyx eyes and a gold tooth who not only did the cleaning but also the cooking, the shopping, the driving, the ironing, and everything else needed to take care of us and free me to run the business-I began to understand how much structure and organization it took to keep everyone on track and on schedule, and I laid down as much routine as I could. I didn't know how else to manage.
WE WERE running late that Monday night. My game was at 6:30 and it was a gnarly ride from the Palisades, our neighborhood, over to Cleveland Park, where the Moorefields lived. Traffic, stoplights. I asked Kat what movie she was going to see. "I don't know," she said. She was definitely in a mood.
"Come on, Kat. You know how this works."
The rule was that she had to specify the movie.
"I'm fourteen," Kat said. "What difference does it make what I see?"
"I don't want you to see trash."
"You think it's all trash."
"I liked The Little Mermaid," I said.
"I did. I liked the sea witch the best."
Silence. She stared straight ahead through the window of the car, the Honda that we called the real car, as opposed to the Jimmy I drove to work. It was a champagne sedan (champagne-who gives colors these la-di-da names?) with leather seats, a CD player, and a moon roof, these being features the kids had required. They'd hounded me for years to get rid of the old and embarrassing Volvo wagon, which Kat had dubbed the Tackle Box.
"Kat, I hate to quiz you. I just want to know where you are."
Lift of her shoulders. "We'll probably go see There's Something about Mary."
"I thought that was R rated."
"So? You're fourteen. You're not supposed to be allowed into those movies."
"They don't check."
"You're telling me you've been to other R movies?"
Then Kat said, "What is it? Are you worried I'll figure out what men are like?"
She slipped down in her seat then, evidently to signal that the conversation was over, but I said, "No, Kat. That's not what I'm worried about. I'm worried that you'll think that men are like the idiots in the movies."
And she said dreamily, almost to herself, "Does your dog bite?"
Duzz yerr dugg bite?
She hadn't said that for months and it made me laugh. She shot a sly glance my way-surprised, I think-and put her feet up on the dashboard. Testing me. She knew that she was breaking one of the car rules (No eating, No drinking, No limbs outside the car, No feet on the dashboard), but in this moment of laughter and goodwill I didn't say a word. I don't like to quarrel with my children. I decided to let the whole subject of the movie just drop, but I did make her show me that her cell phone was charged. Yet another rule: she had to keep the cell phone on when she was out at night, and she had to answer it. She didn't like to be reminded of the rules, and it was clear that she didn't want any stern warnings about the dangers of the city at night. I looked at my daughter's lovely profile, her hair still damp from the shower and simply combed back from her face, releasing a fragrance of shampoo, a scent like a flower garden, and then I noticed that her tan feet were tucked into a pair of yellow flip-flops, yellow with a bright rubber flower, a yellow daisy, attached where the thongs joined, and it struck me that she had found time to put polish on her toenails. They were a shade-this is the kind of thing a single father knows-called Malibu pink. There wasn't a speck of makeup on her face but she'd painted her toenails, and I thought that if this was how she going to fix herself up-her feet, not her face-she was still a girl, still a long way from trouble.
Abby wasn't ready when we got to the Moorefields' and her mother, Lily, skipped out of the house, barefoot, her dog Rosa about a foot from her side and barking, with a CD she wanted me to hear-Songbird, by Eva Cassidy. Lily was a songbird herself, the vocalist in the Make Believes, and the best musician, the only trained musician in the group. She was always turning up new music. "Stop blowing your horn. You've got to overcome your LRTs." Latent redneck tendencies.
I said, "Are you going to let Abby grow up like you? Always late."
"El Jefe, so sorry," she said. Mock salute.
"What's this? The latest fad?" I caught hold of her wrist to look at the colorful woven bracelets she'd tied on.
"Are they not permitted by the dress code?"
"I thought there was an age limit on those things. Nobody older than sixteen."
Lily was leaning at the window of the car and she grinned at Kat, who had a single woven bracelet tied around her wrist. "I think he could use one, don't you?"
"Who'd give it to him?" Kat said.
Lily looked at my tennis outfit. "Big game tonight?"
"I'm late," I said.
"Big date," Kat said to Lily.
Those two, Kat and Lily, had always seemed to be on each other's wavelength. It wasn't just that Lily had known Kat since she was an infant-the Moorefields were neighbors and great friends when Trish and I lived in Georgetown, and the kids had grown up in and out of our two houses-but they shared a slightly offbeat, nuanced way of talking, laced with puns and halftones and odd dustings of emphasis. Sometimes they seemed to be more like mother and daughter than Lily and Abby, who tended to be direct and blunt. Abby was a grade ahead of Kat in school, and a year and half older, and she'd always been the trailblazer in the pair. In fact, I'd thought at first that rock climbing was just another case of Kat wanting to keep up with Abby, who was an out-and-out risk taker. Still, the girls had always shared a sense of humor, and they could talk and giggle for hours. I remember driving them back from a ski trip to Snowshoe, five hours in the car, and they talked the whole way. As soon as we got home after dropping Abby off at her house, Kat was on the phone-to Abby. Girls.
But Abby didn't look like a girl that night, not as she crossed the porch and came down the steps, her slip-ons slapping against the soles of her feet. She looked, excuse me, like what would have been called jailbait when I was in high school. She was dressed in shorts and a tank top, and she wasn't as tall as Kat, but she had filled out and she was shapely and dead sexy. Her shorts were cinched in at the waist, and there was a stretch of smooth tanned skin between those shorts and the bottom of her black ribbed top. This is the Age of the Midriff, and there doesn't seem to be much that parents can do about it, not when girls are Abby's age. That tank top showed every ridge of Abby's rib cage and the exact shape and size of her breasts.
"So long, Mom," Abby said, kissing Lily on the cheek.
They looked so much like each other that it was almost eerie. Same broad, high cheekbones, same wide-spaced blue eyes, same thick brown hair-though Abby's was sun streaked and Lily's blond highlights were, as she often said, store-bought-same wide, mischievous mouth that curled up at the corners and made it seem like they were always smiling, a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. I saw that smile on Lily's face as Abby piled into the back of the car, and she used it to put a little spin on her rueful compliment when she said, "My glamorous daughter."
I handed her the overnight bag that Kat had packed for herself and she handed me the CD. We'd been talking about it while we waited for Abby. "Listen to that CD," Lily said. "There's a cover of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'"
"You're telling me somebody had the balls to sing that song seriously?"
"Shhh," Lily hushed me. "Little pitchers."
"Lit-tle pitchers have lit-tle bit-ty balls," Kat said in a baby voice, and Abby giggled, and Lily turned her palms up. I drove the last few blocks down to Connecticut Avenue, where I let the girls off at the corner near Pizzeria Uno. Before they got out of the car, I did ask Kat if I knew any of the boys they might be meeting.
Kat said, "Don't worry, Dad. I'll let you know when my prince comes along."
She gave me a small nudge, not a kiss, as she stepped out into the evening. I was stopped at a light and I watched them stroll across the street, laughing, looking happy, looking eager to meet whatever might be before them, looking radiant and unafraid and absolutely heartbreaking.
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Goodwin
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