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Forgive me, father


by Henry E. Powderly II


Pregnancy's supposed to bring couples closer, but I wouldn't know what that's like. Because with five months to go before our due date my wife has decided that I'm as unattractive to her as an elephant with a spastic colon. She truly hates me, she's told me a dozen times this week. Even worse? She thinks the pregnancy was a mistake — and I'm not talking a didn't-think-this-through mistake, but a deep, haunting blunder of the soul.

For weeks, my only moments of joy have been the involuntary laughing fits I fall into when Chuck, my Boston Terrier, farts on my lap — one fart that moved my arm hair incapacitated me with the giggles for nearly seven minutes. Most of the time I've spent sitting on the couch, drinking television through a straw and wondering what comes next.

The future? I can't see it, my imagination dies out when I try. Because every time I think about becoming a father to a baby girl I remember Kelly Kominsky, and what a merciless shit I was.

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A boy's first love isn't always rainbows and bubble-gum. Really, it can be quite twisted. For me, it started with stalking.

Within the first few days of fourth grade, I knew there was something strange about Kelly Kominiski. When Sue, Tasha, Carol, Beth and Randi — not Haley, she was a stinky — picked up their lunch boxes, wrapped fruit rolls around their fingers, or kicked the doughy red kickball foul I hardly cared more than when Mike or Alex did the very same things. But I noticed Kelly, with her long, super-straight hair, her brown-bagged lunch and shiny black shoes. I'd follow her around the park and hide behind the handball wall when she noticed me. I'd pick a seat in the cafeteria always behind and to the side of her, so I could see her profile as she chewed or laughed with her friends. In class I stared at either the back of her head, or the silver star pinned to her earlobe, for most of the day. And I followed her everywhere.

I don't know what I thought her reaction would be when after I saw her leave for the bathroom I turned around and stared at the entrance, waiting for her to finish up her business and walk back through the archway. Because when she did walk through it, and caught my anesthetized glare, she stopped … and ran back to her desk. Of course, I stared her down the whole distance of her short sprint, and was still staring when she turned around in her desk, glared at me and mouthed, “What?”

Though, in time, I think the stalking worked. Because one day, as my classmates were rummaging for their coats before heading outside for another brisk fall game of kickball, she snuck up on me, slipped her small, clammy hand into mine and smiled. The result was immediate, we were a couple. Steve Mead saw it, Steve Mead told Wendy Rugget, Wendy Rugget snickered and told Lacy McGuinn and so on until minutes later there wasn't a player on the kickball field who didn't know that I had a girlfriend. And none of them, including me, knew what that meant.

Since it was clear that Kelly and I were the romance guinea pigs of the class we weren't shy in showing everybody how it was done. Everywhere we went we held hands, no matter how dirty they were or sweaty they became. I moved my desk to directly behind Kelly, and she'd reach behind and I'd lean forward so we could join hands when the teacher left the room. In the hallways, walking to gym class or lunch, we'd walk in step, with our hands clasped.

We always ate lunch together, sitting next to one another, each chomping crustless sandwiches with one hand while our other hands we locked under the long lunch room table.

It was the kissing that made us royalty to our peers. Whenever we could find a moment the teachers were distracted, we'd plant our small wet lips on the other's, which were always glazed with bologna fat and juice-box spit. From light pecks, to longer smooch-faced lip smears and tight, over-puckered mouth punches, we emptied the sexual bag of tricks for a fourth grader. We'd kiss everywhere, in front of our cubbies, on the hall on the way to recess, and often, under the desk when we thought nobody was looking.

I even had my first sexual dream about Kelly, though I'm wholly embarrassed to admit it involved me operating a giant poop machine made up of oversized buttocks. There was a big red button on the right butt cheek. It wasn't until the end of the dream, after running the poop assembly line like a kid in charge of his own … and I'm not lying … chocolate factory, that I learned the butt belonged to Kelly. It's true.

With all the attention from our peers being so wonderful, and planting my lips on the girl being such a fun thing to do, for all I knew our pairing up would last forever. At the least, until summer vacation. But then came square dancing

Fourth grade is full of milestones. It's the year you start traveling to another classroom for math class. It's the year you begin to learn a musical instrument. And it's the year when a week of square dancing takes over gym class.

Usually, a tan, stained and scuffed mechanical wall in the gymnasium separated the boys and the girls during gym class, which luckily kept me from knowing which girls were better than me at free throws and chin ups — I hoped there were none. But the wall was retracted when our class entered the gymnasium. A man carrying a microphone stood at half court, next to a record player and two black speakers. Before we knew what was going on our gym teacher, Mr. Liston started pairing us off, boy-girl, boy-girl, boy-girl and, for the truly forlorn, the poor victims of a smaller girls class … boy-boy.

Before Mr. Liston came our way Kelly and I paired off for ourselves, and when he saw that we were already holding hands he nodded and moved on to paring Bill with Becky, Saul with Lisa and Trevor with Michelle to complete our square. Poor Trevor hated Michelle, but he was too scared to stand next to Becky when our teacher came around, which was tough luck for him, because Mr. Liston explained that these would be our partners for the week.

The man who stood in the middle of the gym, who wore as clichéd a cowboy shirt as you can imagine — it looked like my grandmother's curtains — made sure we stood in our squares and started teaching us the moves. I immediately hated square dancing.

The Do-si-do was more goofy than anything, you held your arms to your side walked around the other person looking forward the whole time. I stepped on Kelly's toes a few times before getting the hang of it.

Then came the swing, a familiar move for most kids who've ever whirled a friend round and round only to get high on the dizziness. I remembered the move well because when my cousin got married a year earlier my mother made me dance with the flower girl, and we swung each other so much I puked wedding cake all over the dance floor. It felt different to swing Kelly, though. There was something delightfully queasy about that warm pressure between our elbows, and it surprised me that when we had to switch partners it was just alluring to swing Becky, Lisa and Michelle.

But any gooey feelings I had about the swing were dried up by the worst … dance step … ever invented: the promenade. I want to spit just remembering it. I had to stand hip to hip with Kelly, wrap my arm around her waist where she grabbed my hand, locking us together. Then, she held her other arm out in a “L” shape and I had to hold it in the air by supporting her elbow. It looked stupid. However, to make you feel even more like you'd come to school without your pants on you had to skip around the a circle holding his clownish position and it was impossible to do so without involuntarily making the dumbest face you've ever made, a goofy and terrified smile that felt like I was holding mouthful of water after I just passed gas. It was absolute agony.

Compared to the promenade, the other moves were a cinch, like circling around, bowing and walking to the middle. But when the demonstration was over, it was still a mystery how this clearly pointless dance would come together, until the music started.

The man who wore curtains for a shirt started the record playing, and an instrumental, honky-tonk tune, which sounded a lot like the songs that came out of the barnyard Speak-and-Spell my little sister played with, filled the gym.

“Face your partner, take a bow,” he sung in this ridiculous, pulsing monotone that you could hardly understand. After one sentence I knew I was in for worse gymnasium torture than discovering I was the only kid in class not strong enough to climb the cargo net. Kelly, whose sweaty hands usually made me happy, smiled at me, and I wanted to run.

“Circle right now round and round and round and round and round and round, now grab you're partner swing her round, swing her round, and do-si-do now round about, then come to the middle and back … now promenade—” Oh God.

I danced, locked elbows, skipped and circled, the whole time with that goofy smile I just couldn't prevent from happening. The man's singsong call, like a hammer hitting a couch cushion, was a kick in the back, keeping me skipping and swinging from one do-si-do to horrible promenade to the next step. If only I had stopped smiling.

Despite my newfound way of laughing through agony being ridiculous — it made me look like an absolute fool during the dance — it was nothing compared to the uncanny dysfunction of the other three couples in my square. They made Kelly and I look like we'd beed weaned on the horrible pastime.

Bill and Becky were simply uncoordinated, always swinging the wrong way and freezing when it came time to lock themselves in the lunacy that was the promenade.

Saul and Lisa, on the other hand, were uncomfortable with all the touching, and they kept as far apart as the could, held hands by their fingertips, and just couldn't rile up the courage to tie themselves in that promenade knot.

Trevor just acted like a jerk. He swung Michelle so hard a few times she fell down (I'm sure she's writing her own story right now about how square dancing screwed her up). I think he thought he was impressing Becky, but he was doomed to lose her. By the end of the week she was Bill's girl.

With the other couples an embarrassment, it was easy to see that Kelly and I were the stars of our square, and our gym teacher noticed. When at last the music stopped, and the man with the stupid shirt put down the microphone, and Kelly and I were about to split up and lick our wounds with the members of our own sex, Mr. Liston pulled us aside.

“You guys really got the hang of this, didn't you?”

Kelly and I nodded in unison.

“Did you enjoy it?”

This time Kelly was a half second ahead of me with the nodding.

“Great, well I'd like you guys to participate in the square dance demonstration at Gym Night this Friday,” he said.

Kindergarten through third grade I'd never been invited to Gym Night, an evening where parents would come to watch their kids perform elementary feats of athletics. As parents cheered them on, the fast runners would do wind sprints from one end of the gym to the other. The indoor soccer stars would shoot goals, and the best climbers would give the audience the great thrill of watching them monkey their way up the cargo net. I had sat in the audience a year earlier, with Bill's family. He was there to shoot layups and free throws during the basketball performance. I missed the square dance, however, it was the last act, and by then Bill and I were in the hallway laughing about poor Linus, who had flubbed all of his layups. I remember hearing music coming from the gym, but it was white noise at that point.

Kelly was the only one who nodded, which was enough for Mr. Liston.

“Great, take this home to your parents and have them sign it.”

He handed us a yellow sheet of paper with the details of the event and an empty line at the bottom.

“I need a signature by tomorrow.”

For years, when I retold this story to myself I lied, faked that I toiled over what I did. But, the truth is, my actions were reflex. I guess it always made me feel better to think I had a conscience back then, that I feared getting caught, that I feared hurting someone. But in truth, a half hour after that gym class, as my teacher quizzed the class on state capitals, I signed the paper, doing my best to imitate the illegible scrawl I'd seen my father use on many permission slips before, one big “O” followed by a long squiggle. I knew I only had one shot at it, so I just signed without second guessing the stroke, folded the slip and put it in my pocket.

That night, I went home as usual. I rode my bike through the neighborhood, played action figures after dinner, and slept under the patchwork quilt my mother had made for me. No talk of square dancing, no talk of Gym Night. The two didn't even exist.

The next day Mr. Liston asked for my permission slip when I walked into the gymnasium, and I handed him the piece of paper. He unfolded it, looked at the signature, collected Kelly's, and then he walked away.

Kelly and I had to say goodbye to our original group and join the “performance square,” which consisted of the two of us and the other three couples slated for the main event on Friday. They moved us to the center of the gym, right next to Mr. Curtainshirt, who smiled large when he watched us promenade around the circle.

I'll admit, by the fourth day the whole thing was a lot easier than it was in the beginning of the week. In our group there was never any confusion about which direction to circle, nobody swung the other too hard, toes weren't stepped on, do-si-dos were in unison, and, yes, those awful promenades were perfectly skipped around and around.

Kelly and I even seemed to become closer throughout the week. We held hands longer, were scolded throughout the day for whispering to each other during lessons, and we kissed more and more, longer and longer, in secret places like the coat closet or behind a tree at the edge of the soccer field. It was unbelievable what all the public displays of affection did for my social standing. I got high fives from the boys in the class, whenever they saw me, a sort of fourth grade salute.

When Kelly and I picked an area of the playground, everybody flocked there. When Kelly and I chose the table in the lunch room, everybody filled in after us. It was our grade, and I have never been as cool as I was that week.

Then it was Friday. When the last square dance ended Mr. Liston made an announcement about Gym Night, wishing us luck and telling us he couldn't wait to meet our parents. Kelly smiled at that, and squeezed my hand. It was a subtle gesture I never picked up on. She was really excited to meet my family. Later in the day she asked about my brother, who was in kindergarten, and my baby sister, who was only a few months old. Were they bringing the baby? Of course they were, she couldn't wait to come. Kelly smiled and we kissed one last time before she climbed the school bus steps.

High fives from the boys. “We'll see you tonight,” said Bill, who'd also be at Gym Night, shooting free throws in the basketball act again.

I remember the ride home on the bus, looking out the window as the grassy hills rolled by. I was sitting next to a first grader, a black boy who kept telling me how excited he was that we were going back “upstate.” “We're not upstate now?” I said.

“No, not yet … almost there … almost … almost,” he said.

The hills grew wilder, whiskered by tall grasses and unkempt shrubs, as we traveled farther from school.

“When will we?—”

“Yeaaaaah, we're upstate,” he said, jumping in front of the seat. “We're here.” The bus had just pulled into the housing development he lived in, where his mother stood on the corner, waving at him.

I went home and jumped on my bike, pedaled up the hills and coursed down them, pretending my bike was a spaceship and the paved side streets the jet streams of the universe. I flew over the dirt jump I once broke my arm jumping, I raced on the sidewalk, hopped off curbs and skidded on the dusty parts of the road.

At six o'clock my mother served shepherd's pie to the family, my father helped my little brother keep the food on his plate while my mother spooned mushed banana for my infant sister. It was a quiet meal. Then, as I was clearing my last forkful of mashed potato, corn and ground beef, the phone rang.

My father answered it, and I put down my fork.

“Yes, this is. … I'm not sure what you mean … Are we supposed to be somewhere?… Hold on. … Nick, are you supposed to square dance at the school right now?”

I shook my head, and mother wiped my sister's chin.

“No … I didn't sign anything, OK … No … Did you even look at the signature? … Is she there? … When are they supposed to go on?”

At that, I jumped up from the table and ran upstairs to my room. I closed the door, but was too afraid to lock it.

“Nicholas!”

I could still hear him.

“You don't want me to drag him down there? … I understand. … I don't know what to say, really. … I'll call her parents to apologize. … Have a good night.”

“What happened?” my mother asked.

“So, our son's an idiot.”

And then world went silent except for the shuffle of heavy footsteps on carpeted stairs. When he opened the door I was sitting on my bed.

“You stood her up?”

I didn't really know what that meant, and the truth was, not for a second as I lived the week-long lie did I think about disappointing or embarrassing Kelly. It was all about not embarrassing myself, about not doing that stupid dance in front all of those people, in front of my own parents, not promenading to that dumb music, not swinging Kelly, or holding her hand in front of my mother.

At the time, the look my father gave me seemed no different from the scowl I got when I broke the glass coffee table, or when I accidentally hit my brother with a baseball, giving him a black eye. But now I see that expression was different from any other my father gave me. Such disappointment from a man who'd that night rock his baby girl to sleep, who'd kiss his wife on the forehead as she herself closed her eyes for the night. It looked like he felt, even if only for a moment, that his son wasn't a good person, because he never thought he'd have to teach him how to treat people, how to treat women, the right way. It was in that look, the moment when my father realized decency might not be a product of nature after all.

But I saw nothing more than a father scolding his son for lying and forging a permission slip. He may have said through the night, and many nights after, that you don't stand someone up, that you don't let someone down. But all that really mattered was that I couldn't ride my bike for a week.

How I wish I'd felt some remorse.

And how I wish I felt bad two years later when I grabbed Lisa, the chubbiest girl in class, for my girlfriend, because I couldn't take being the class loser anymore. It was wrong, that when she grabbed my hand and looked at me I pulled away, that I refused to kiss her, that I ignored her during the sixth grade dance. The sad part was, nobody cared, not at the dance when I felt a little sick holding her heavy waist in my arms the one time I agreed to slow dance, and not when I called her after the last day of school and told her we were breaking up.

Though, I do now.

I feel bad I chased Myra in ninth grade, and yelled at her in front of everyone because she wouldn't agree to date me. I know I scared her, though it was my own fear of humiliation that made me scream.

Then, at a new school, where nobody knew me, I saw Rebecca, who was so cute and just a freshman. We smiled, we dated, and all of the sudden I was Nick-who-dates-Becca, which was for some reason was how I got to know people, because maybe I wasn't dorky after all, to come to a new school and land a girlfriend in the first few weeks. I shouldn't have let it go on, when I saw how much she loved me. My first French kisses, at first were fun, but later I just wanted them to stop. I'm sorry for that, for not stopping, for spending a few months tasting her tongue while some movie we never intended to watch played in the background, for taking my hand off of her breast when she placed it there, for feeling such unbelievable relief when I broke up with her in the hallway and watched her run crying to her next class.

Maybe memories like that are normal, just average adolescent love stuff, but with a little girl on the way I just can't take it to remember myself.

I can't believe how bad I feel about how I treated Meg, the girl I lost my virginity too, the girl who tried to sleep with my best friend. If there's ever a scenario where I'm the hero, and maybe it should be her, sitting on her couch, smelling dog farts and trying to reconcile the past with etherial apologies, it's that one. But I couldn't handle the humiliation, and I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry I made fun of her eczema in the middle of math class, and smashed the watch she gave me under the leg of my chair. I'm sorry I told everybody what she did, turning some of her closest friends against her, branding her a cold-hearted slut so deep that she had to find a new circle of friends for a while. I was awful, and the only consolation I have is by the end of high school most of her friends had forgiven her, and they spoke to me a lot less.

I know now that the three times I drunk dialed her college, usually around 3 a.m., were sorry attempts at an apology.

But I'm sorry now, especially for how I treated my first great love, Cathy. The first year, when we were still both in high school, was incredible, and I meant every “I love you” I said. But when I went to college, and she had a few years of high school left, I lived a double life. Back home I was the straight-edged boyfriend, but in the city I was chasing college girls like the rest of my friends. I'm sorry that I'd call her before I headed out to a bar to rub thighs with coeds, but I never slept with them until after that first time I slept with Cathy. God, forgive me, Cathy, for telling you that was a virgin when almost everybody in school knew I had lost my virginity to Meg. I know you found out, and never said a word. Forgive me for rushing back to the city, for sleeping with that dancer from Houston who had big feet and a beautiful accent, forgive me for kissing art majors, for chasing that girl I met in the bar who slept with me so I'd buy her cocaine, who took me to a club and left me to find my own way home. Forgive me for sleeping with the stripper who lived upstairs from me, who I later learned was HIV-positive. I wore a condom, and was tested after I found out, but you never knew. You never knew I scrubbed the cigarette smell off of my hands whenever I visited you either, and that when I told you I was faithful I was lying. I did love you though, but I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for breaking up with you three times and always coming back, pretending that I never dated anyone in between, pretending that I wasn't philandering my way through the Upper West Side. I'm sorry that I finally dumped her in a diner. Though I stayed there for the rest of the night, smoking cigarettes when she left.

Forgive me, for when I left the city and moved upstate and never called the sorority girl who seduced me, and didn't call the girl I had a one night stand with because I was creeped out by her long, twiggy fingers.

But forgive me most for Sara, who I used. I knew it was a bad idea, because she loved me, when lying in her bed I wrapped my arms around her, kissed the back of her neck and undid her bra, because I knew she'd let me. I'm sorry for leaving in the morning only to show up the next night at midnight and crawl into her bed. She wanted me, but I knew it would end badly. If only I could have loved her, which I know at times I did. Only, not when night after night I called her at midnight, after drinking the evening away in some bar, and she invited me into her bed.

I'm sorry I kissed her breasts in the shower, I'm sorry I fucked her so often, until sunrises dimly lit her street. I even told her one day that we should be a couple, to make our regular trysts something more, something real, but two days later I called it off. Forgive me my twisted head, my empty heart then, because it wasn't that I didn't love Sara, because the moment I called it off I knew I did. My whole life, until then, nobody had loved me like that, accepted my flaws, made no requests of me other than to be myself. And every thing I tried, every hope I shared with her, she treated like it was the only idea that could every work, that every true impulse I had was the right one because I had it.

So why couldn't I love her? It was because her mouth tasted funny. Because when we kissed the our spit turned sour. It was an anomaly I'll never understand. Her breath smelled great, her skin tasted lovely, but when our lips met and our juices mixed the flavor was rotten, and I knew I couldn't go on kissing her. Maybe it was the booze on my breath, or more likely a figment of my own fear, but it was enough to make me break her heart.

It's sad that I'm asking the first girl who forgave me to forgive me again.

The living room is hot, Chuck is chewing his bone in the corner, and upstairs my wife is shut in her room, refusing to talk to me, not for anything I did, but for who I am. My greatest love, the woman who I never wanted to be apart from, who I was never afraid with, who I laughed with and imagined a future with, whose hand I never wanted to stop holding, who I've never been dishonest with, who I swore to love until my death and who carries my baby girl wants nothing to do with me. If only I could apologize, because I'd rip the offending part of me right out of my chest and burn it in the yard, especially if it meant I could feel my baby kick through her belly.

Unless it's all of me she hates.

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The next day at school Kelly was sitting alone at her desk when I walked into the classroom. According to Bill, Mr. Liston paired her with Linus for the dance, even though Linus was still sweaty from shooting layups in the basketball performance — he'd made most of them that time.

Bill called it hilarious because Linus froze during the dance, stepped on Kelly's feet, circled the wrong way, and he couldn't figure out how to pretzel himself with Kelly for the cursed promenade. Eventually the dance ended and everybody went home.

Kelly didn't ignore me, she said hello like she did to every other boy in the class, but we never met again by the cubbies, we never held hands, we never kissed underneath our desks.

I didn't receive a single high five for the rest of the year.

At lunch time Kelly sat with the girls and I found a corner at one of the empty tables. For most of that year Bill, Trevor, Saul, Mike, Alex and Linus always joined me, but by fifth grade they had their own girls to sit next to. I'd often get the end seat, if it was left open, where I'd listen to my own lips smacking as I ate.

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