Lunch With Strangers

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 6.56.33 AM “So…tell me about your kids,” he says.

“Uhm, what do you want to know?” I say.

He smiles. It’s a little lopsided and his lips are thin. “Anything, really. It’s a wide open question.”

This could be anyone talking to me right now. A next-door neighbor. A therapist. Even the man at the deli counter, talking to me as he slices ham. It’s not just anyone talking to me though. The man sitting across from me at lunch is my father, and I have not shared a meal with him in twenty-two years. He is here in Michigan with my stepmother to visit my stepsister, Heidi. They made this trip for her, not for me, and I am trying not to be affected by that. Still, they wanted to see me. “They’d love to see you,” Heidi had texted me, but I’m still not sure if she’s the one who really wanted the meeting. She still thinks that a big, happy family and barbecues and Christmas together is possible. I gave up on that a long time ago.

I don’t know what to tell him. My kids, Louis and Simone—names he doesn’t even know—are ten and nine. I can’t put who they are into a response to “Tell me about your kids”. They won’t fit into a single sentence; their spirits are too big for that. “Oh, you know,” I say. “They’re kids.”

“They’re probably just like you,” Susan, my stepmother says to me. And inside I say But you don’t even know who I am.

The waitress asks us for our order. The three of them order macaroni and cheese. The menu says Twisted Macaroni and Cheese and I wonder how they twist it. Politics? Goat blood? Tears of children? I don’t say it out loud because that’s dark humor and they wouldn’t get it, or maybe they’ll think I have issues. Which maybe I do. I sip my wine and order a pulled pork sandwich. “So what have you been up to?” My dad tries again. His face is red and he is smiling and I wish I could slip inside his mind for just a moment, slip under the skin and into the dark recesses of his body to know what he is really thinking. Does it occur to him that he is asking me about the last twenty-two years of my life? That he knows so little about me he can’t even ask anything specific?

I laugh a little.

It’s hard not to. “I work. I have the kids and my husband. Life is good.”

I change the subject and ask about them. I turn to my dad. “How is your music? Are you still playing at church?” My dad worked at the VA, but he was also a percussionist in the National Guard. On good days growing up, he’d play marimba for hours, the hollow notes tripping over one another. He played piano too, a little less fluidly, the drums, the organ. He could get lost in music for hours. “I play all the time,” he says. “When I die, which I’m planning won’t be until when I’m one-hundred and twenty, I want to be buried in a national cemetery with the flag and military honors and I want my tombstone to say He Was A Good Little Drummer Boy.”

Susan laughs and says no.

I think this is the first real thing he’s ever said to me.

I ask Susan about her plans to become a minister, how it is in Oregon in their gated community, how are their dogs. I know what to ask because I talk to my sister about them, I’ve Googled them, I see their posts on Facebook.

But they seem at a loss to ask me anything and I realize that’s because I am no more than a stranger to them. They haven’t read my Facebook posts, or seen the pictures. They don’t read my blog. They don’t know about the 400 books I’ve narrated. They don’t know about the books I’ve written and published. They don’t know about how funny my husband is or that we’re meeting my kids’ grandparents (my ex’s parents) in Toronto this summer. All this time I thought, so, maybe we’re not talking, but I can feel him out there, my dad. He is watching me and wondering about me and keeping tabs on me. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to cross the space between us. Maybe he doesn’t know how to say he’s sorry.

But the truth is colder than that. He hasn’t even tried. And it doesn’t matter how much I accomplish in my life. It won’t make an impact. Not on him.

I eat my pulled pork sandwich. It has too much coleslaw and the meat tastes rubbery. I have no appetite.

I start to feel something then. Something so pure it’s a hard crystal in my gut. What I feel is anger. It surges over me. It’s a rush. It’s red and it’s beautiful. I look at Susan. She is so soft. Why did she scare me so much when I was a kid? I could crush her now with a few specifically chosen words. Why did I ever let her hurt me?

Heidi is laughing and talking about their visit. How they’ve gone on the boat and her boys stayed home from school and her husband took work off and I listen and I nod, but inside I feel like “What’s the point?”

There comes a time when too much time has passed. When bonds formed by being family are not strong enough to make you have a relationship, or even a connection.

My dad says, “You know, our life is great. It’s even and steady. It’s like this.” He holds his hands together and then pulls, the way you pull taffy to stretch it and I see the even-life stretching out before him. No dips, no highs, no pressure to take care of children or kids in college or adults. And I think, how sad.

I think of the years that have passed. The temporary families I’ve had to take the place of my real family. The people I’ve loved. The heartbreaks. I think of all the things that happen to a person to shape and change them, as I have changed and transformed from that skinny, insecure girl that I was. The one that, along with Heidi, had to hide the pills from Susan, had to listen to her scream at us, had to hide in our closet when she came after us. I think about my dad and his red, red face when I asked him “Why do you let her do this to us?” and he answered that he loved her, he loved her and she was more important than anything or anyone else, and maybe I would know about a love like that some day. And when he said that, I became afraid of loving.

I think about how when I turned 18 (the last of the five kids) they picked up and moved to Oregon and we, their kids, stopped hearing from them. We grew up. We got jobs or went to school. We meandered. We ran. Eventually, we had children of our own and they did not come to see them, or know them, or even ask about them. They lived their life in Oregon in a gated community that was calm and steady and free of the highs and lows of living.

I could have forgiven them, years ago. I had it in me then. But not now.

At the end of the meal, Heidi wants to take a picture of us. “You know, to remember,” she says. I stand between my dad and Susan. My smile is forced and my chest flushes a deep red, the way it does when I am stressed. Heidi takes the picture. She shows it to me for my approval. I blink and I can see it. Even standing next to him, there is still a missing space where my father should be.

We hug goodbye. We do not talk of when we’ll meet again, or barbecues or sending cards. We all know this was not a lunch to get us back together. This is a lunch to allow all of us, maybe, finally, to let go.