by Jacqueline Eis
Sleepless and ruminating at midnight, Phoebe gives up, gets up, and looks out her bedroom window at the night’s full winter moon, street-light bright, sharp-edged, with an icy-looking cloud hanging beside it. A couple, illuminated in the moonlight, ice-skates on the small neighborhood pond across the street. For a moment she thinks the couple could be her father and Dotty, his second wife, waltzing across the ice. Her father was once a very good ice-skater and dancer and has led Phoebe in occasional waltzes around a dance floor or an ice rink. As the couple skates closer, she sees it’s someone else, someone much younger, no one she knows, but playing at romance and showing off, the way Dad and Dotty might have done under her window on a winter night. The skater holds the woman close and leans toward her mouth. Just as Phoebe thinks he’s about to kiss her, he spins her away, her short woolen skirt flaring, and races ahead, teasing. He looks up and briefly makes eye contact with Phoebe at her window, a look she interprets as intrusive and cocky.
She steps away from the window, closes the curtain, and turns off her bedside light, but comes back to watch from beside the curtain.
Her father has been on her mind all day. As always, he called early in the morning, before she was awake, unable to gather her thoughts, and upset her yet again, enough to keep her awake and dwelling on him. He had chided her for failing to call or send a card congratulating him yesterday on his twenty-fifth anniversary with Dotty, “Seventeen years longer than I was married to your mother.” His remark filled her with such pain, she could not think of a come-back. She could not bring herself to remind him that it should also have been her twenty-fifth with Gil. Her father wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t remember that fact no matter how long she held her silence, before saying, “Yeah, Dad. A real special day.”
Yesterday marked twenty-five years since Phoebe was the bride, waiting in a vestibule room of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church with her two bridesmaids, ready in her gown and veil to walk down the aisle. Always worried that some detail would not fall into place, she and the wedding party had arrived early, and now she was looking at her watch. She was thinking that she and Gil could just go ahead with the ceremony without either of her parents, when her mother finally showed up ten minutes before the wedding, needing a comb-out, reassurance, and Phoebe to make a final decision on which shoes, hat, and purse went best with her gray silk dress.
“Who would have thought I’d be the mother-of-the-bride at such a young age? I don’t even need to dye my hair yet.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes but did not say that forty-nine years old was actually a little on the high side. She and Gil had both finished college and settled into careers before their decision to marry.
“Have you heard from Dad? He should be here by now.”
“Honey, you know I don’t ever expect to hear from your father again.”
Terence, Gil’s best man came down the side aisle from the vestibule near the altar where the groomsmen were waiting. He relayed the message that her father had just called to say he would be “a minute or two” late.
“Oh, walk on down the aisle on your own if you have to,” her mother said. “Who needs him?”
Her cousin Matt seated Gil’s parents and was ready to lead her mother to her pew, but Phoebe asked them to wait. The organist paused, waiting for a signal and looked at them. Phoebe shook her head and held up a finger to indicate not yet.
“Just another minute or so.”
“He’s completely unreliable, dear, we both know that.”
Still, they had stood there, ready to go down the aisle, her mother clutching Matt’s arm, the two bridesmaids waiting in formation, while the organist played her medley of preludes a third time.
“He’s already fifteen minutes late. Maybe he can’t handle all this – the fact that you’re getting married,” her mother whispered.
His look sometimes said too much. It was a questioning look that said, if you let me say this, you’ll let me say something worse. When she was nine, she didn’t quite know yet what worse was until the end of the next weekend visit with her father, when she feared that she was going to die of misery if she had to spend another day with him. Her father had taken her along to a construction project in Cheyenne one Saturday, a hot day in July. After her father had inspected what looked to her like a row of pipes being buried beside the road, he drove randomly until he found a black neighborhood, where he saw two black girls walking along one of the side streets with a bags of groceries in their arms.
“Here we go.” He rolled down his window and began to whistle and yell ugly words at them.
The girls were a little older than she was, but no more than eleven or twelve. They screamed and ran. The smaller one dropped an apple out of her bag, but didn’t stop to pick it up.
Her father laughed and turned to her, so proud of his jokes. “I’d like to see those black legs against white sheets.” Phoebe knew what he meant and burst into tears. “They’re just little girls,” she sobbed out.
He took her to a Dairy Queen and bought her ice cream, but she couldn’t bring herself to swallow it. She felt like throwing up. “I can’t go with you on weekends anymore,” she managed to say. “You’re getting too scary.”
He didn’t answer and kept on eating, occasionally looking across the table at her, his eyebrows crinkled with irritation and perhaps a slight touch of embarrassment.
She told her mother, who only asked, “Did he touch you?”
“No, only the good-bye hug when he dropped me off.”
“I’m going to talk to the lawyer.”
Her mother’s theory was that her father’s crude side came, not only from associating with rough workmen, although there was that, but also from a neglected childhood in a broken home. She was determined that Phoebe would not go down that path. The judge and both parents gave in to her wishes quite easily. Her father came to the house only on her birthday and Christmas and called when some obligatory spirit moved him.
With that modicum of security, Phoebe grew more confident and curious enough to find ways to see him in situations where she didn’t feel trapped. In high school, she visited him at the construction company’s office in the city, never out on a site. He was always happy to see her, as if her sudden appearance in his office validated him somehow. He made time for her, showed her blueprints for projects, introduced her to his supervisors, and bought her soft drinks. She preferred to come up on him unexpectedly like that, to see him talking to the other men, when he was actually being a grown-up, not just pretending as he did when he needed an audience. She found some comfort in knowing he had a better life than he allowed her to see. She often clipped and kept newspaper articles that mentioned him under Chamber of Commerce activities or as a judge at the Little Kids Rodeo.
He dated Betty; then there was Vonnie. It was Dotty who finally showed up with him on Phoebe’s wedding day, but all his women were cut from the same cloth – cute little blonds with high, chirpy voices, and every one of them faking helplessness.
“Strike up the band,” her father said, smelling of alcohol, and unaware of the order of the ceremony. “One on each arm,” he said, reaching for Dotty too.
“No, Dad. Your friend goes down the aisle with an usher, then mother.” She could see he wanted to argue, hating, as he did, to be corrected. “Remember how it was at your wedding to mom?”
“Your mom and I got married at the justice-of-the-peace. Without all this folderol.”
“He’s over-excited,” Dotty said and gave her a wink.
Phoebe could also see her mother fuming at having to wait for Dotty to reach a pew before the usher could escort her. When her mother was half-way to her seat, her father moved forward as if to go around the waiting bridesmaids.
“Wait until the wedding march starts,” Phoebe had to pull him back. “What’s with you today? You’re so jumpy.”
“Dotty and I got married on the way here. That’s why we’re late.”
Her first instinct was to let out a snort of disbelief, but she caught herself. “Congratulations,” she managed.
He shrugged, “I figured as long as we were dressed up, we might as well. In Colorado You don’t even need a JP anymore. Just pay your thirty bucks and sign the license.”
She tried to regain her focus on what came next. This had been her formula for endurance as long as she could remember. After all, she knew she didn’t – couldn’t – own the day. She wasn’t that kind of bride. Her father was free to remarry whomever and whenever he pleased. But she paid for her effort to quell her temper and dispel this distraction. Her two bridesmaids walked away ahead of her as if in a dream, and she only half-heard the first notes of the wedding march.
It took some time for her anger to deepen after he had grandstanded her wedding day, mixed her emotions, skewed her concentration when what she had wanted was to experience this special day with Gil. After months of preparations, she wanted to enjoy and relish the beauty of the day that would influence the rest of her life. As she approached the altar, her father made one of his weird quips to Gil as he handed her off, “Watch out for speed bumps,” but Gil didn’t look away from her or acknowledge him. He looked squarely at Phoebe, bent over and whispered to her, “You’re with me now. We’re in this together.” She had felt better then, and looked up lovingly into his smiling face – but she was so nervous she couldn’t recite her vows above a whisper.
At the reception, Dad and Dotty came out to dance at the same time she and Gil led the first dance. “It’s our wedding day too,” her father announced, but by that time everyone already knew. No one applauded his showboating, but her father was oblivious.
Uncle Gordon, her father’s own brother, said, “Outrageous! You deserve better!”
She heard other remarks but didn’t remember who said them. “Who invited her? Make them chip in on the cake at least.”
“They did. Gil and I paid most of the expenses, but all our parents contributed.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Gordon said.
Her maternal grandmother said, “He just did it to show you and your mother.”
“Show us what? Nothing we didn’t already know,” she said wryly, hugging her grandmother, determined to smile her way through it.
Her mother was on the verge of tears during the entire reception. “Did you know?” she asked Phoebe accusingly. “Surely you didn’t encourage him?”
Her mother had often suggested Phoebe’s forced composure was a kind of complicity. “Of course not. How could you think so?”
“No, no, I didn’t really think so.” Her mother patted her arm. “It won’t last,” she said, as if to comfort herself as well. “To think I married him because I felt sorry for him. How stupid!”
She calls every year, especially now, knowing the kind of feelings Phoebe would be having on what should be her anniversary, but they have a tacit agreement not to make things worse by gossiping about her father.
The female skater is tiring. She wobbles frequently, and finally bends and grabs her knees as if catching her breath. She says something to her partner. Phoebe can see his face as he says something to her, his shoulders drawn back, and he skates away, leaving her there in the middle of the dark pond. The woman calls to him, but he doesn’t turn back until he reaches the edge. He turns and beckons to her to come to him. That won’t be easy, Phoebe thinks. She has skated the ungroomed pond herself and knows the ice to be rippled and uneven from the wind. The woman tries to skate toward him, but she’s tired, turns her ankle, and falls. She sits there weeping on the ice.
When Phoebe was eight, her mother told her father, “Pete, it’s time you took that ‘I’m wonderful’ sign off and begin to notice the sufferings of others.”
“I guess the honeymoon is over.” He was gone by the end of the week.
After that first dance intrusion, Gil was angry. “He’s like a male dog, trying to establish his territory. If he wants a pissing contest, he’ll get it. I’ll be glad to knock him on his ass as soon as I get a few more drinks under my belt.”
He gulped down another glass of champagne.
“Don’t let him get under your skin,” she said.
Their wedding night in Gil’s apartment was spoiled by the liquor they’d both consumed, but the next day on their way to Steamboat Springs, their anger was directed at her father, not at each other. Gill asked when they checked in at the hotel if her father was registered. He was not.
“Good,” he said when they found their room and locked the door. “No more rude surprises. It would be just like him to think he could tag along on your honeymoon.”
“He did ask, but I refused to tell him where we were going.”
“Unbelievable. He must be suffering some kind of Freudian neurosis for him to constantly want your attention. It’s damned unsettling.”
When her father met even-tempered Gil, happy, lacking-all-neediness Gil, he reacted with a grimace of contempt. He called him “Short Stuff,” towered over him, and commented that height was a measure of manliness.
During their first real argument, months after the wedding, Gil said, “Phoebe, I am not your father. I’m not going to run off with a ditsy blond, I’m not going to steal money from our accounts, or turn into an alcoholic. I’m certainly not going to neglect our children when we have them, and I’m not even going to forget to take out the trash tonight,” he said with a laugh. “So let’s please drop the mistrust and get on with our otherwise wonderful life.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. And you remember, I’m not my father either, or my mother.”
“I know! That’s why I trust you. I married the adult in the family.”
She remembered this pivotal conversation for the duration of their marriage. Gil taught their son and daughter to be kind and responsible in their relationships, how to manage their money and take care of their cars. Their wonderful life ended only after Cathy had graduated from high school and Reed was in his second year of pre-law in Denver, when Gil died in a car accident on I-25 north of Loveland.
The skater can’t possibly be her father, of course. He’s long retired, suffering from “creaky bones.” When he calls it’s from his recliner, where he spends his days drinking martinis.
Phoebe whispers as if the woman crying outside on the ice could hear her, “Get up, girl. You can do it!” She’s trying, but slips, her skate blade catches in her skirt, and she trips again. The male skater stands still at the edge of the pond, obviously thinking, then relents to his partner’s tears. He skates out to her and tries to lift her from the ice. Their legs wobble and they both nearly fall back down. He does a few Charlie Chaplin-like arm flaps and near-splits to make her laugh. Even Phoebe smiles. He steadies himself and tries again, and this time the woman Phoebe thinks of as Dotty is able to get up. He helps her along. As they sit on the little bench beside the pond, he unties her skates for her, examines the ankle, and helps her put on her boots. He doesn’t forsake her, though his rescue and their walk away from the pond has a casual attitude of carelessness about it. A tease. Almost the way Gil might have done. The thought of him floods her with love again, as it does so many times every day. Yes, he would have bolstered her courage that way too, making her laugh and at the same time, confirming without a doubt that he would never abandon her in the cold. With Gil she became a stronger woman.
She wonders if she’s being unfair in thinking her father, had he still been ambulatory, would have taken off his skates, and left Dotty stranded. Maybe, but before he strolled away, he would have glanced up into the dark again, meeting Phoebe’s glance beside the window curtain, just to make sure she was looking.
Jacqueline Eis lives in Fort Collins, CO. Her short stories, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in many literary magazines, most notably, The Georgia Review, The MacGuffin, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Beloit Fiction Journal and many others.
Image source: Filip Mroz/Unsplash
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