This Stranger I Am Half Of
Faith Gardner

My father has recently returned home to retire. Navy Seal, 25 years. He is a hero, Mom's forever reminding me. She really believes in America. Eagles, flags and red-white-blue paraphernalia decorate our house. We live in a hippie college town full of surfers, amateur poets and intellectuals, so we are exceptional.

A boyfriend-for-a-week once told me my father probably killed people. That hurt more than anything I ever heard in my life, even though I knew it was probably true. I dumped that boy. I may not know anything about my father, but I've guessed enough. I've Googled the war. I've read the news. And I know I love him anyway, a love that is scared and makes itself sick.

My father hasn't been home for longer than two weeks at a time until now. He used to visit every year or two. Mom would madly clean house and shear her hair and go on protein shake diets and quit smoking to pretend she's this better version of herself. She's trying desperately to keep up the illusion now but he never seems to notice because he's missing the comparison. He sleeps the time away, watches documentaries, lifts weights, spends hours yelling at the VA on the phone. He looks different than I remember—a beard with gray in it, skinny enough to count his bones. He knows nothing about me. He thinks I still play with plastic ponies, but I'm taking driver's ed soon.

I am afraid of my father. When I tell him this in family therapy, he nods and says, understandable. Which only makes things worse. He sleeps in a room downstairs that used to be our den. Mom says the therapist wanted this—sleeping separately, cameras set up to record him sleeping. A precaution. Everyone assures me my father won't hurt us, but the need to reassure me of this piques my unease. There is a vent in my room that connects to the den that is now my father's room and when I press my ear to it I can hear him yelling in his sleep. I wish I could turn him off like a radio.

My bestie Tatum used to spend the night every weekend because my house is fancier than her house and my mom is laxer than her mom, but these days, I go to her apartment instead. She too asked me if my father killed people, but besties are allowed such trespasses. Anyway, can't exactly blame her. Her father sells fruit at Farmers Markets where no one gets killed and nothing interesting ever happens. I tell Tatum no he did not, say it with such firmness I believe it for a second. It's just us braiding our hair and eating kettle corn and trying on lipsticks at midnight. In the swollen silence I can tell she can tell I'm lying. As I lay in the dark, my heart beats loud enough to hurt my ribcage. Sometimes I feel like I'm turning inside out.

Wednesday afternoons are "Daddy Daughter Day" as if I am five years old and he is familiar enough to be called Daddy with a capital D. I meet him at the Chili's near the bus stop and we eat wings and a fried onion together and mostly just stare at the other people at their tables who all have things to say to each other that aren't scripted clichés. School? He asks. Boys? What you want to be when you grow up? When I tell him I have been thinking about the Navy, hoping he will be proud, he shakes his head and tells me please, please don't. This confuses me. I call Tatum later and relay this to her and she just sighs and says well, what do you expect? My dad wouldn't want me working at the Farmers Market for the rest of my life. For the first time ever, as I hang up the phone, it occurs to me that Tatum is a fucking idiot.

My mom takes me to school one morning, fresh nicotine patch on her arm, nails flawless pink, and gushes about what my father was like when she fell for him in high school. How dark-eyed and driven. What a dry sense of humor. She met him in ROTC and when they turned eighteen, he gave her a ring strung with a warning—the life of a military wife wasn't for everyone. But Mom loved him, simple as a ship at sea.

Do you love him now? I ask.

The pause is too long.

I'm getting to know him all over again, she answers with a laugh.

At lunch one day at school Tatum and the Gibson twins and Erica and Vanessa and I sit on the grass. We're discussing a local news story where a famous serial killer was executed. Your dad probably killed more than that guy did, Tatum says. Everything gets quiet, except what's inside me. I slap Tatum's powdered cheek. It's my first act of violence, ever, and I'm shocked at the sting that lingers on my palm. The lunchtime chorus gasps as I stand up.

When I meet my father at the bus stop that afternoon, I am still so angry my throat feels full. We sit at the same stupid table. Order the same stupid fried onion and wings. I look at him, his one flannel he owns, his never-trimmed beard, this stranger I am half of. Tell me what you did, I say. He doesn't move. He answers, quietly, that if he told me, it would change everything. But it's too late, dear father. Everything has already changed.

Faith Gardner is the author of a young-adult novel, PERDITA, and is one half of the garage/punk/surf/rock band, Dark Beach. She's had stories in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cutbank, FRiGG and others.

Read her postcard.

Detail of photo art on main page courtesy of César Gutiérrez.

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