by Len Kuntz
ASLEEP ON HER BED, fully dressed and on top of the covers, my daughter looks like a dead sparrow, her hollow bones filled with air that never escapes, just as her thoughts have ceased being shared with anyone, except for perhaps—in the few weeks she went—the therapist my wife arranged.
My daughter’s over-sized journal is open at the centerfold, on pages with some inked scribbles and a flattened wrist-corsage—which I’m surprised about—from prom a year prior.
It’s odd how long a year can seem when a life you love shuts down and no longer seems to love you back, never appears to love anything at all but anger and ambiguity.
I can’t see it from where I’m standing, but I imagine strands, or even clumps, of her dirty, rice-blond hair sticking to the pillow, or else tangled up in the blankets. I find wads of it in the shower drain, in the sink drain. They always remind me of a wilted sunflower, drowned by excess rain.
With her hair falling out, along with her weight loss, my daughter slumps around looking shrunken and nearly bald, like an eighty-year-old cashew instead of an eighteen-year-old girl.
Something happened at that prom, something she won’t talk about, things I can only imagine, and when I try to reconstruct her night, I have to stop myself, or else I’ll shatter a drinking glass, or knuckle-punch the wall while my wife says, matter-of-factly, ‘You know that’s not the way, Douglas. Therapy is the way,’ she’ll say.
But what about her, my wife? She’s not seen anyone. Her way of dealing is to march forth, like her father, the Lieutenant Colonel. ‘You don’t think I experienced trauma when I was her age,’ my wife will say, sounding just like him, though she’s a prominent therapist herself. ‘You don’t think boys took from me what I wasn’t selling?’
The other night at dinner, my daughter did not want to join us, for the hundredth time she did not want to, yet my wife coerced her, and so I watched my daughter try to slice individual kernels of corn in half. While my wife shared about a Hypnotherapy conference, where she’d just been the keynote speaker, I watched my daughter scoop a wagon of mashed potatoes into her lap, then half a village of corn, then a husk of dry salmon, even the sprig of parsley.
Looking back, it didn’t help that, a month after prom, our beloved Lab died. It didn’t help that my wife was always flying places and I was always working. It didn’t help that fall became winter and winter spring, and it didn’t matter how beautiful the seasons were if no one noticed them.
I jerk from my reverie when my daughter kicks awake, her right boot jabbing the mattress.
‘What the hell, Dad?’
‘That’s creepy as fuck, you just standing there.’
If I was her mother, I’d condemn my daughter’s swearing, but I have long succumbed to my daughter’s argument—’Tell me who gets to decide which words are sinful and not allowed, and I’ll stop using them.’
‘I was just,’ I say, ‘you know, missing you, I guess.’
‘God, that sounds even creepier.’
‘You’ve been absent a while,’ I say, and feel my eyes move to the journal and corsage, even though, goddamn it, I don’t want them to.
When she slaps the notebook shut, it sounds exactly like that, like a slap on the face. People always say, a slap across the face, but it’s really the slap on the face you remember. The slap’s enduring sting.
‘I had a prom—’
‘I don’t want to hear it, Dad. Just go! Holy hell, you’re scaring me.’
‘—my junior year, same as you—’
‘—it was a group of us, three couples—’
‘—I thought Gordie was my best friend, and he was but—’
‘—we’d been drinking, all of us, and then somehow the prom was over and we were at the shore where kids went to park and do stuff, you know? My date was passed out in the back of my father’s car. I never knew where Gordie’s date was. I’ve tried and tried to remember even what she looked like, but I always end up with nothing. And so it’s just Gordie and me, and we’re drunk, though I’m more tanked than him by a long shot, and I remember him tackling me on the ground, my face hitting rocks, and the waves were lapping, and he had me pinned down, because Gordie was way bigger than me and I always wondered why he chose me as a friend, because he was, you know, a big deal at school, handsome and stuff, but that night, you know, he wasn’t the Gordie I knew, he was just, just ugly. Ugly and horrible. He got my neck in a vice grip and held me down, and I fought back, but I couldn’t fight back enough. I couldn’t. And then what he did next, I’ve never told anyone—’
‘Dad, it’s okay.’
‘I couldn’t do anything. I tried but I couldn’t.’
‘It wasn’t your fault, Dad.’
‘But it was.’
‘No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.’
‘I should have been able to do something, except I was too weak. I was a weakling, a punk and I couldn’t stop it from happening and—’
‘Dad, look at me.’
‘—the thing is he was funny. Gordie was so fucking funny! He made everyone laugh. They would laugh and laugh until they almost shit their pants.’
‘Dad, Dad, I’m right here.’
My daughter is somehow standing. She’s somehow in front of me, hands clutching my face. She shakes my head until my eyes flick away the fog and I see her, really see her, the tears, her panic and mine intertwined.
‘I love you,’ she says. ‘I do. And I’m right here,’ she says.
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of five books, most recently the personal essay collection, THIS IS ME, BEING BRAVE, out now from Everytime Press. You can find more of his writing at: