I pedaled after Dad, each downward push of my legs drawing me closer to meeting his wacko friends.
Overhead a storm brewed. With my luck, I’d be soaked before I ever hit their house, much less swim practice later.
Mom said Dad wanted to show me off to his friends. That was about as ridiculous as the cheery smile she’d pasted on divorce. More likely he’d told his friends his loser daughter needed their influence to “straighten up and fly right”—according to Dad’s compass.
The needle on Dad’s compass had a lot of play in finding true North, but it always hovered near weird. One visit potatoes were Satan. The next, cabbage was tossed onto the do-not-eat pile and potatoes were back on the menu. Holy mold grew on casseroles. He showed me a snapshot of a pile of wheelchairs and crutches next to an Arkansas backyard pool where people who took a dip got healed. TV and soap, unfortunately, always landed on the evil list. Radio, particularly the shortwave variety that wasn’t monitored by Big Brother, got Dad’s gold star.
Regardless, I landed in a straight-backed chair in the living room of an airy bungalow.
The couple, late forties like Dad, looked pretty normal. The woman wore a bra. The man’s hair had been neatly clipped above his ears.
But I didn’t trust them. I spoke when spoken to, enough to be polite, but I knew they played for Dad’s team.
My mind drifted to the metal, wall-less “tee-pee” Dad had constructed and slept under in our back yard. I tried to peek out their kitchen windows to see if they snoozed behind their house to absorb the power of the universe like Dad did. But I couldn’t crane my neck far enough.
Tensions at home had risen to an all-time high during Dad’s visit. I could only hope he’d dismantle his campsite and bike back to Miami soon. It didn’t take a genius to figure out an ex-husband and a current husband couldn’t cohabitate, even if one slept in the yard.
Dad packed his bike, light on clothing and heavy on drama. Not that he could be credited with all the undercurrents slamming around our house. Divorce only separated people geographically. All the twisty, symbiotic emotional veins still linked Mom, me, and R.J. to Dad. The thirty-some years Mom was married to Ralph never changed that.
I managed to exit the bungalow, bike home, and pile into the Duster for the drive to Halifax Swim Association before the sky doused Daytona.
I drove forty-five down rain-slicked Nova Road. No time to drive five miles under the speed limit like my father and stepfather did on dry streets—funny to finally find something the two had in common. In fifteen minutes pool water would wash the awkward from the afternoon.
I motored toward the Beville Road intersection, grateful for the green light.
A lipstick-red Porsche ran the stoplight into the intersection directly in front of me.
I slammed on the brakes and skidded across wet street.
Like a slow motion take, my bumper plowed into the Porsche’s rear-end.
I spun out of the intersection and came to a stop straddling the corner.
Stunned, I watched the Porsche land kitty-corner at the convergence of six lanes, a matchbox car tossed away by its toddler. The driver climbed out, flipped up the hood of his windbreaker, and strode to the opposite corner.
Thinking about how cars crashed, then blew up, on TV, I turned off the lights and ignition on autopilot and scrambled out of the car.
Rain dribbled out of gray sky as the blue lights of a police car throbbed down Beville.
I stood under a seeping pine tree and buried my hands in the pockets of my sweatshirt.
The mangled front of the family Chrysler scowled at me as though the accident were my fault.
My thoughts jumbled. I’d miss swim practice. Even with insurance, accidents cost a lot. Maybe I wouldn’t be competing for a long time. I shivered, wishing I were swimming a 500 in the toasty pool instead of watching a policeman hike toward me.
I told him my version of the accident. But how could a sixteen-year-old kid’s word with a worn out Chrysler possibly win over a guy whose pant creases I could see from across the street?
The officer asked if I’d had my lights on.
Of course. Who drove in the rain without them? I was a good little Brownie, always doing what I was taught—like turning off the lights whenever I got out of the car.
Too bad I couldn’t shove my Brownie-ness in the same direction as Dad’s compass needle.
But something essential—intellect or self-will or whatever it was that made me Ann—refused to die. I’d never be Dad’s mini-me.
By spring our Duster’s wrinkles had been worked out and mostly paid for by insurance.
I sat in a Daytona Beach courtroom, jiggling my knee, waiting to tell the judge my version of the accident.
Three hot college boys lined up single file in front of the podium. Each had been arrested for indecent exposure when he got drunk and urinated off a hotel balcony during Spring Break.
My shoulders relaxed and I hid a grin behind my hand.
After the three-piece-suited Porsche driver told his tale—I repeated what I’d said to the policeman.
The judge thanked me and decided the Porsche driver had been at fault.
A couple days after my accident Dad had stowed his teepee. He stood on our front stoop, leveled his gaze on me, and declared, “You hate me, don’t you?”
The serrated steel of Dad’s words plowed through the doors and windows of my person.
Maybe I didn’t like Dad, but I loved him. I wasn’t mean to him, but he must have picked up on my dread of spending time with him.
Old hurts crunched with new ones in a pileup I couldn’t separate into then and now. This second crash in a few days came four years after the mashup of Mom and Dad’s marriage.
He got on his bike and pedaled for Miami, our wreckage strewn across the lawn.
For over forty years I believed I would have been crushed under Dad’s fathering during my teens if I hadn’t been delivered by divorce.
But what if my parents’ marriage and my relationship with Dad had been salvaged like the family Duster?
I’d extrapolated Dad’s parenting when I was in elementary school into what kind of father he would have been to a teen. But maybe he would have lightened up like most parents.
Maybe our mutual love of competitive swimming could have served as the body shop for our father-daughter relationship. Maybe we would have been forced to work the wrinkles out if we’d lived under the same roof.
Instead of regret for what might have been, I think about the Charlie Peacock lyric that says if I meet Dad again, we’ll only see what’s right.
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