I Will Not Have A Slice
It is my dad’s 60th birthday and I fly home to North Carolina to celebrate. Mom has been dead for five years and Daddy has been married to Gail for nearly three.
It seems like yesterday that Daddy called me almost giddy after he’d sat next to Gail at Sinking Creek Baptist Church in Elizabethton, Tennessee. There was a connection, he said. I could practically see the curve of his smile through the phone, a happy sound I’d not heard since his wife of thirty-four years succumbed to the cancer that took us all on that exhausting three-year roller coaster of heartbreak, hope and more heartbreak. My mother was the only girl my father dated. The only one he’d ever kissed.
Dad and Gail had gone to the same High School but she was a year older and he was painfully shy. They didn’t know each other back then. For several months, Gail had been taking my grandmother to church, and she showed up on Grandma’s astro-turf-covered carport one Sunday morning when dad was home for a visit. Gail had forgotten my father would be in town to take his mother to church that day, or so she said. Perhaps she’d come by hoping to see him. Rumor was, she’d had a crush on him in High School. Surely she’d heard he was a widower with a steady income. Whatever the truth was, they rode together to church that day and my dad began visiting his mother more often.
By his account, no woman besides my mother pay him any attention. I would beg to differ, having witnessed his reciprocated flirtations with waitresses in diners across the Carolinas and checkout counters at California cafes. My dad has a sparkle in his blue eyes and, if you don’t stay to talk too long, his puns can seem funny.
After two years of heartache and the ever-present cloud of loss, dating was nice. Daddy was getting his spark back. He called me on his way to pick Gail up for a drive-in movie off the highway near Johnson City. It was like he was making up for the dating he didn’t do before he joined the Navy fresh out of High School.
I loved listening as he told me about all the places they wanted to travel to together. I loved knowing he once again saw possibility for his future and that he realized he didn’t have to be alone.
Seven weeks after that first date, my father called me from Charleston, South Carolina, the city where he and my mom lived just after they got married. The city where I was born.
“I have some big news,” he told my answering machine, “Call me back when you can.” The news was that he and Gail had eloped. What? Come again? I was the only one of my three siblings who had even met her. This was Gail’s third marriage. What did daddy even really know about her?
I guess I should have sent a gift. I think she resented that I didn’t. None of us did. Are you required to send a present for a wedding you’re not invited to? I did send a card, welcoming her to the family and wishing them happiness. And I meant it. I really wanted happiness for my dad. But who was this woman he’d married?
When I’d call the house, Gail was never one for small talk. “Here’s your dad,” she’d say, and would pass him the phone. When he came to California for Christmas, Gail chose not to come. She had two sons of her own and she visited them. It was clear that I needed to make arrangements to stay with friends on my next trips East.
So on my father’s 60th birthday weekend, when I visit my childhood home and all our family photographs are gone, I get it. I do. I didn’t expect it to be a time capsule. But when I look at the mantle and the photo from my parent’s wedding is replaced by a slightly blurry shot of Dad and Gail under a gazebo in Charleston, the lump in my throat expands like a foam sea animal. I’ve never been to Gail’s home in Tennessee. I don’t know her style. I’m not prepared for the plastic tablecloth where grandma’s cozy Irish linen once covered the kitchen table, the plastic covers on the living room chairs or the fake flowers that fill my mother’s old vases. It makes sense that my parent’s bedroom with its rose-print wallpaper is now a crisp white office. My childhood bedroom now holds their bed, a four-poster far-too-big for the tiny square room with its view of seven years of Christmas trees from the seventies lining the driveway.
As my siblings and I climb into the car and head to the birthday dinner, my father says Gail will meet us there. We arrive at Neptune’s Galley, dad’s favorite place for fried seafood platters, but Gail isn’t there. I step outside to call her.
“We’re waiting for you,” I say.
She says she’s decided not to come.
“But we were all really hoping to get to know you better,” I say.
“Well, I just don’t feel celebrated by this family,” she replies.
“Give us a chance,” I say.
“Well, your daddy didn’t do anything special for me when I turned 60.”
“Let us toast YOU too!” I try.
And there’s a pause.
“Well then, I will come, but when the cake is served, I will not have a slice.”
More for us then, I think. But the fucking-bitch seed is planted.
Gail is silent through the meal save for the one-word answers she offers to questions until we all just stop trying.
A few weeks after I return home to California, I get a call from my father.
“Gail has given me an ultimatum,” he says, “She wants me to chose between her and my children.”
I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything.
Daddy fills in the dead airspace, “So I guess it will be a while before you hear from me.”
I am stunned that he doesn’t see the problem with her request and with that decision. His silence lasts six months. His marriage, another ten years. During that decade, we are definitely not a blended family. I never meet Gail’s sons. And I never actually see Gail again. Dad comes alone to California for holidays and summer vacations. Every time I bring my children to North Carolina, she is gone “visiting friends.”
I arrive in Raleigh for my father’s 70th birthday. He picks me up at the airport. I need to confirm the guest count for our dinner reservation. His sisters and my siblings will be there. Will Gail? “Well, Suzanne, I don’t know how to say this, but Gail left me this morning. The U-haul pulled away about two hours ago.”
He doesn’t seem upset. Just matter-of-fact. Maybe even relieved.
When I walk into the house, the first thing I notice is that the wedding photo on the mantle is of my mother and father. I point it out to my dad, who had yet to notice. “That must have been her parting gift to me,” dad says, “She always complained there wasn’t room for three people in our marriage.”
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As shared at Story Salon September 28, 2022 where the theme was "You Don't Have To Go Home, But You Can't Stay Here"