Written by Mara Strobel-Lanka // Edited by Chelsea DuDeVoire
I was seventeen when I met my father.
Sitting atop the sand of my Lake Michigan beach, I watched him cry. He was uglier than I wanted him to be, and shorter, too. There were children yelling at their mothers and horny teenagers sprawled out on blankets. There were dogs chasing after seagulls and winded boys kicking soccer balls with the breeze. The sand felt distant that day, as small grains of seasoned quartz grazed my calloused hands and filled my pores with misplaced familiarity. A north wind, a beautiful night, a little chilly. I met my father on a Tuesday and the world moved on.
It disappointed me how far off old photographs and my childhood imagination had been from his true appearance of sunburnt cheeks and splotched complexion; alcoholism is not a regiment for the beautiful. I am a spitting image of the Grateful Dead, Pabst Blue Ribbon, young 90s glory days that left him years ago. He no longer looks like the guy who gets the beautiful girl and breaks her heart, holds her down with a child and moves on.
I remember locking eyes with the horizon, wishing on ships to carry me somewhere far away. Sounds of the water spilled secrets onto the shore that my eardrums strained to hear, and I hated him. I hated him and his apologies and his cowardice and how short he looked next to the concrete pier that had raised me instead. I sat cross-legged and uncomfortably distant from the man whose carpenter's hands had planted seeds of loneliness in my childhood. Digging my fingertips into the abrasive sand, I cupped my palm deeper and deeper into the earth. I never meant to hurt you. Seagulls followed pigtailed girls with dripping ice cream cones. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about you. Powerful swells knocked against the boardwalk and I imagined it floating away, collapsing into shore, breaking our small beach town world. I should have been there. I listened but I didn’t attempt to hear. Kites hung in the gust like lanterns to keep me company in the approaching dark. His words slipped quietly from my conscience.
I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a hunger in the marrow of my wrists. I’m so sorry. A stranger’s heart sat in my chest; hard, heavy, and foreign to my new power over the man his absence had invented. I wanted to respond to your letters, I really did. My tongue searched my mouth, eager for a taste of anger. I wanted to find a retaliation, and not daddy issues, in the gaps of my molars. You’re beautiful. I’m proud of you. You were better off without me. The navy horizon reeled in the sinking sun as I looked down to the fists now balled in my lap. I think I was a better Dad by not being there at all. Small children leapt through waves, invincible to the chill. I watched their eyes grow wider and happier with each splash. They swam hard and happy, every movement their new favorite memory.
“You’re out too far,” their father called out to them, “don’t make me worry.” I yearned for the boldness of screamed truths to find their way into our barefoot introduction, but I couldn't find the words. Do you have anything to say? I looked down to see a saturated hole dug beside me.
Suddenly I craved my mother’s hug, the one she saved for Father’s Day and nights when I asked too many questions. The repetition of falling waves roused her voice in my memories as little Mara comprehended neglect and injustice and other things to raise my chin against. I couldn’t decipher if it was my mother's strength or self-righteousness that held me together as the shoreline introduced me to my father, but there was a resemblance I was proud of. Her determined love and crippling debt filled the back of my mind with flashbacks of her tired tenacity.
“Fuck you”, I heard myself tell him. Pupils falling wider, the same eyes I meet in the mirror looked to me with desperation, and an anxiety similar to one I had felt on the hardwood floors that froze my demons on so many nights. He looked old, small, broken. “Fuck you.” I dug my hands into the beach where I had learned to swim; where I picnicked, streaked, drank my first beer and built my first sandcastle. Grains of my homeland brought me back to reality. This time I heard his sorry in the crevices of my life that I still don’t understand. This time it stung.
I pictured the letters I sent him, the Father’s Days I wrote to the God I don’t believe in, the little Mara who waited to be good enough for Daddy to want her. Seventeen years and my mother’s poverty returned to me with jolting reality. The desolation of our struggles clogged the back of my throat. Underneath me, my legs succumbed to soft biting flames. Anxious calves beneath a tired heart needed to run, to be stretched, to be immersed in fresh water. I collected memories of his absence in kernels of the beach stuck under my nails: my first day of school, foreclosing on the house, winning my first race, my high school commencement speech. An ache grew in the pit of my lungs as I raised my eyes to find his.
Disappointment filled the spaces my expectations had carved into his covert character. I found a feeble pile of daddy issues looking back at me, remnants of the father my seventeen years had dreamed of. The breeze settled on the Lake, a trusted boardwalk lighting the night.
“You missed my entire childhood,” I said plainly. Elementary wishes for baseball games and father-daughter dances hovered over us. Children splashed drops to each other foolishly, their cackles swimming through the freshwater air, coloring our sadness with neutrality. I saw for the first time the reality of our lives: despairing daughter and cowardly defector. I wish I could change things. I no longer wanted his comforts, and the shiny possibility of a father figure melted into the spaces between us. His meager hand reached for my skinny knee and pulled away. I’d still like to know you. Please say something. But even my desperation to please everyone around me couldn’t work out the words to explain that I didn’t need him, that I never had, that it was just too late.
I left him there on the beach to spectate other people’s children that day. I hoped he would hurt when I left, hoped he would cry, hoped he would take my icy aversion home to haunt him. I did not listen to music in the car. I did not think of the life my mother had given me despite him. I did not make it to the front door of my best friend’s house before the sobs broke through my chest, ripping the veil of my womanhood into two clean halves: daddy issues, and mother’s grit. I was the girl who drew family pictures without men, and asked the mailman if he had forgotten to leave any birthday cards. I wanted to grow up to be a teacher and a famous author and have lots of children with no husband. I shied flirtatiously from the questions of my mother’s colleagues. I watched men leave our lives in the past and would again, never allowing trust to film my eyes from their failures. I would go to college far away, by myself, because my mother taught me I could do anything on my own.
But first, I would sit cradled in the small arms of another budding woman to mourn my daddy issues, and just as it always had, my world would move on.
Mara is the Babes Who Hustle executive assistant and the content creator for Jacksonville boutique, Momni. When she's not styling photoshoots and writing for the Momni blog: The Boutique Next Door, you can find her sailing, dancing, or sprawled out on a beach blanket with her latest read.