“Do you remember when I left you waiting?”
“When are you going to be there?” I inquired.
My hackles were raised, and I sensed one of my father's awkward apologies on the horizon.
We sat on a Monterey cypress branch bent low by a Pacific breeze: me, 35, with curly red hair
and blood-red lipstick, and Dad, 58, who looked younger than his 58 years with his trim physique and tattoos. Other people
in the park were playing with dogs
or talking to neighbors, and I envied their simple pleasures.
“You must have been 12,” my father explained, “and I came to the city to see you, and I was supposed to pick you up at the library
to go to a museum, and I was like an hour and a half late, and let me tell you, you were pissed.”
At 12, I was still in my cat sweatshirt phase, and visits with my father were rare, so anticipation had built up over weeks. The main library was in a rough area of San Francisco
teeming with unhoused people, some of whom were visibly agitated. Sitting on granite steps littered with cigarette butts and old gum, I grew queasy with worry and disappointment.
That day in the park, my father explained that he'd recently begun a 12-step program to recover from a pornographic addiction
— which, apparently, had caused him to be late all those years before — and that the fourth step involved finding people harmed by the addiction and asking their forgiveness.
“I'm so sorry I couldn't be there for you,” he said, his eyes the washed-out blue of melting icebergs, liquid trickling down his cheeks.
Nothing happened to me.
My father had apologized dozens of times for his absence during my childhood — each unburdening more emotional than the last — but none of it seemed to be for my benefit; instead, this apology
was meant to further his own progress in therapy
. Leave it to my father, I thought, to put the selfishness in self-help.
“You have my forgiveness,” I said.
I had lied to you.
When I was a kid, we were really close.
I loved his dad smell: cedar and sandalwood with a musky undertone. He shared his love of language by reading me “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Hobbit,” pronouncing each phrase with care.
Even back then, my father was obsessed with personal development, studying herbalism and tantra and meditating in front of an altar decorated with multicultural idols such as a Paiute rattle, a Tibetan singing bowl, and a dancing Shiva.
After my parents divorced, Mom and I returned to San Francisco, while Dad remained in the small town he loved three hours north of the city. In my new bedroom, I decorated an end table with crystals, figurines, and photos
of my father — a 9-year-old's idea of the altar he kept. Whenever I heard Mom answer a phone call from him, I screeched "Daddy!" and hopped around until she handed me the receiver.
For weekend visits, Mom drove me halfway, and I switched cars in the parking
lot of a roadside diner. Dad came to the city on occasion, but there were many cancellations, and a part of me will always look for his car on a drizzly afternoon, knowing in my bones that he won't show up.
My altar was eventually removed, and a lamp was placed in its place.
Even after my mother and I moved closer to my father's house — an hour away — I only saw him two or three times a year.
At the age of 14, I went goth, which piqued his interest.
Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails: Pancake foundation and greasy red lipstick
My dad was horrified by the crashing music
and spooky videos, so I doubled down by painting my bedroom black
, and he lectured me over the phone about the negative energy
I was manifesting — a reaction that irritated me but also scratched an itch.
He came out of the closet to me for the first time when he stopped by to exchange gifts
at Christmastime, standing near our blinking tree in a puffy coat, ready to flee.
“I'm attracted to men,” he admitted, “and it's something I've struggled with for a long time.”
I slouched on the sofa, unsure how to react, wearing a steel gauntlet with heavy chainmail that covered my left wrist and hand — literal armor.
“I mean, whatever,” I said, “that's cool.”
Months later, my father denied his bisexuality
, claiming it was due to an imbalance of yin and yang energies. He came out of the closet again, then went back in; this vacillation lasted decades. The fact that my father was LGBTQ
+ didn't bother me, but the confessions did.
When I was 16, I awoke in a rage, pacing the black AstroTurf carpet in my black bedroom, yelling into the phone that if he cared, he would have stuck his thumb out and hitchhiked when his car broke down, that he would have found some way to participate in my life. He'd given up too easily.
My father gave the same excuses for his absence: his work
schedule and financial difficulties. His own father had died when he was a child; no one had taught him how to be a father. I had a horn, the kind circus clowns used, and every time he repeated a tired excuse, I squeezed the bulb into the receiver — honk! honk!
I know, it's ridiculous: what kind of goth wears a clown horn?
I didn't want another apology; I wanted him to go back in time and fill the empty space
shaped like him; I wanted to remember my father as a presence rather than an absence.
After that, I cut off communication; we eventually patched things up enough to resume our occasional museum visits, but I had grown tired of being close.
Meanwhile, my father went down the self-help rabbit hole
, frequenting therapy groups and weekend retreats, and his visits became missions directed by gurus and therapists. When I was 19, he showed up unannounced with a massive bouquet of flowers, and while other men from his therapy cohort waited in the car, he kneeled and tearfully apologized for his absence.
He then returned to his car and drove away.
I resented these performances because he'd missed every birthday and sore throat since the divorce, yet he carried out his self-help directives with the seriousness of a soldier. The staged confessions left me feeling cheated.
I gritted my teeth as he apologized for the library incident while sitting on a warped cypress branch in the park, then went back to my regular life, never dreaming that this might be the start of real change.
My life was good. After years of dating
emotionally unavailable men, I'd married a loving guy who showed up for me as much as I did for him. We both belonged to a vibrant arts scene in San Francisco, and every month, I emceed a popular literary competition for a crowd of 200 book
Soon after our conversation in the park, he called to say he wanted to come to my show. I was wary because I needed to entertain a crowd, not confront my past, but I said OK, assuming he wouldn't show up.
But there he was in the audience, smiling over a beer, and later came to dinner with me and my friends. With his tattoos and quirky interests, my dad fit right in. He slept on my sofa-bed and left the next morning without drama. I didn't know what to think, but I invited him to the next show, and he came again.
We didn't rehash old arguments, and he stopped apologizing. These nights out infused our conversations with new material and revealed new common ground: a shared fascination with the artistic process, an eagerness for novelty and adventure.
He snuck into my world without a second's notice.
One month, he brought his new boyfriend
, a bisexual hippie like himself, and they stood together in the audience, holding hands. It was magical to see my father share affection with another man in public, to see him put the war inside to rest.
In response, a knot in my chest relaxed.
I liked this version of my father — one whose actions matched his words — and wondered if all those years of therapy and self-help were finally paying off. Not only was my father suddenly showing up for me, but he was also showing up for himself.
Traditional father-daughter roles didn't suit us after our long estrangement, so we formed a friendship
that does — one that has grown over time — and I've learned to trust that my father will be there for me.
On a warm September day in 2019, my father and I stood on the deck of a ferry boat
crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain
to Morocco as the late afternoon sun sparked over the Mediterranean water
. If you had told me that day in the park that my father and I would someday travel
internationally together, I would not have believed you.
As the ferry passed the Rock
of Gibraltar, my father yelled at the top of his lungs, "This is incredible!" We tried to take a picture on the deck together, but my hair was whipping my dad's face so violently that we just ended up laughing, and the photo came out a mess, which my father framed anyway.
He couldn't be the father I needed as a child, and I couldn't be the daughter he desired as a younger adult. By dissolving the roles we'd been trying to force one another to play, we allowed our stunted relationship to blossom in unexpected ways. We are, of course, family
, and always will be, but we're also more than that now.
We are acquaintances.
Alia Volz is the bestselling author of "Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana
, and the Stoning of San Francisco," a finalist for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the 2020 Golden Poppy Nonfiction Book Award, and her work has appeared in The New York Times
, "The Best Women
's Travel Writing," Bon Appetit, and "The Best American Essays
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