It is always around this time, after my mother has begun crying and my father has finished his first cigarette, that the therapist turns to me and asks how I am doing. My therapist has short, straight, silky, brown hair that ends at the bottom of her earlobes. She wears thick, round glasses, and her apartment smells of burnt food. When she talks, my therapist sounds like a cat purring. She always responds by saying, “yes, dear.” When my mother speaks, usually in between tears, my therapist takes long drags of her cigarette and sighs, “oh, I see, dear.”
We have met for the past three Wednesday afternoons in her New York City apartment. Her kitchen, which has teal blue tiles behind the sink, is small and dimly lit. There is a wall-to-wall dirt-brown shag carpet in the living room, with two brown couches and one brown cushioned chair. A Bob Dylan poster hangs next to a bookshelf. I always sit on the left couch, alone, my parents sit on the right one, together, and the therapist sits in the chair, which appears to be the most comfortable seat.
During our first week of therapy, we talked about addictions. My mother accused my father of being a sex addict. I sat on the couch and watched my brown clogs dig into the carpet. When my mother was done speaking, my father said, “the fact that I cheated on you once does not make me a sex addict.” He spoke in a deep voice that sounded like a large belch, and I wondered if my parents assumed that I was still too young to understand what they were saying. My mother, looking as thin as I had ever seen her, stood up and looked at my father: “I know that you have slept with Jane more than once.” The therapist inhaled smoke and then exhaled. My dad pulled out another cigarette. The therapist opened her mouth and said, “yes, dear, I see what you are saying.” And then she turned to my father and said, “why do you feel the need to sleep with so many women?” My father furrowed his eyebrows and scratched his balding head. “It was only one other woman. Are you telling me that’s never happened before?” My mother then replied, “He had sex with her in public. My friend Rachel told me that she walked in on him in the women’s bathroom at P.J. Clarke’s. That’s how I found out. Can you even believe that? I found out through a friend. Apparently, the stall door was open. Can you imagine? The amount of people who use that bathroom…It’s probably never cleaned, and my husband is having sex in it.” The smoke blew out of the therapist’s mouth again. “Oh, dear. How does that make you feel?” Then my mother cried until it was time for us to go.
This week, when the therapist asks me to tell her what I am thinking, I say, “nothing.” My parents are staring at me, and I want to ask whether or not my father having sex with another woman actually does make him a sex addict, but I don’t want my parents to know that I am having such mature thoughts. I suppose it depends on the reason behind the cheating. Right now, my father’s beard is short, mostly just small patches of hair, like fuzz around his jaw. Last summer, I remember that his facial hair was much longer, like overgrown moss protecting the bottom half of his face. I remember thinking that it had gotten too unruly one night when he came into my room to say goodnight. I was about to fall asleep when light spilled into my room, and I saw my father standing in front of my opened door. He told me that it was time for me to buy a bra. He was drunk. He walked in, closed the door behind him, and sat on the side of my bed. He asked questions that I had never been asked before: Do you have a boyfriend? No. Have you had your first kiss yet? No. Yes, you have. No. Don’t lie to me. I haven’t. But you are beautiful. That doesn’t matter. I think you have.
I could smell cigarette on the hair on his cheeks. His eyebrows were unkempt and hid his eyes, that I used to think were gentle, well. My father leaned toward me. He lingered near my forehead, where he sometimes kisses me goodnight. He whispered that he would take me shopping for a bra in the morning. His eyes met mine, and I felt frozen until he spoke again.“See this? You are at that age.” Without looking away from my eyes, his right finger touched my shoulder and then moved to the middle of my neck. He dragged his dirty nails onto my faded pink pajama shirt, and I thought that he would keep going until he got to my bellybutton. But, instead, his hand moved to the left. He poked the fat that had started to roll out under my nipple. His finger did not move for a long time, and I wanted him to say something else. My heart was beating fast, and the pressure on my left breast increased, as if he was trying to silence the thumping against the inside of my chest. We stayed there, and I wondered if there was anywhere else that my father would press before he left. Finally, he kissed me, once on my forehead, and then once on my top lip. His beard scratched my chin. Then, he left.
The therapist asks my parents if I’m OK. My father clears his throat and says, “she is going through puberty. I think her hormones are bothering her.” I look at my dad and feel embarrassed, so I looked back at my clogs. Suddenly, something seems to click inside the therapist’s head. “Mr. Morton,” her cat voice is gone, and she puts out her cigarette. “Describe your relationship with your daughter.” Sensing that an exchange had just happened between my therapist and me, my dad looks uncomfortable for a moment – just long enough for me to see that he feels as if he had done something wrong, but I am not sure if he knows what. “It is a perfectly normal relationship,” he responds. My mother is clearly annoyed that she is left out of the conversation. No one has asked about her relationship with me, and her mouth begins to open and close, like a fish, unsure of whether or not she should interrupt.
“What did you mean when you said that she was going through puberty?” the therapist asks.
“What the fuck kind of dumb question is that?” My father nearly yells, and then he takes a deep breath and tightens the muscles in his mouth. “Do you not know what puberty is? Are you just going to trust a dumb kid?”
The therapist and my father seem to be having their own conversation now. “Does it bother you that her body is changing, Mr. Morton?”
My father smiles for the first time. “How could it bother me that my daughter is becoming a woman?”
My mother is irritated or maybe bored. “An hour is up,” she says. “Let’s go.” The therapist looks at the clock. Without saying another word, she watches as we put on our coats.
Outside, it smells as if it will snow tonight. I ask my mother if we can take a cab. Instead of answering me, she turns to her right and starts walking. My father has already gone ahead and is crossing the street.
I bend to pick up a dime that sits comfortably in a crack on the sidewalk. I imagine that as I look down, a cab runs a red light and hits him. My mother screams, and the therapist runs onto her fire escape. She shouts down to my mother and says, “what happened?” When she sees the motionless coat lying in the middle of the crosswalk, a cab parked next to it, she says, “oh, dear.” The therapist disappears into her house to call 911, and my mother continues screaming. I stand still, clutching my 10 cents to my chest. Eventually, the ambulance comes and takes my father away.
My head snaps up when I hear my mother bark, “hurry up, it’s cold.” I look up and see my father far in the distance; a black coat blending in with the darkness of the night. My mother 10 paces behind him. I pocket my dime and shuffle my feet quickly toward the street corner so that I can cross before the light turns red.
—Eliana Max Blum was born and raised in New York City and now teaches English in New Orleans. She is currently working on a novel and can be reached through her website, elianamaxblum.wordpress.com.
Interview: Eliana Max Blum on “A father’s touch”
What inspired you to write “A Father’s Touch?”
When I was younger, my parents and I used to go to family therapy together… Ironically, the sessions always seemed counterproductive, and we usually left the therapist’s office feeling more angry and hopeless than when we entered. For many years, I found it strange that my family would choose to trust a stranger with so many intimate details. I wanted to write a story about family dynamics and keeping secrets in the presence of an outsider.
What was your writing process like for this story? How about your revision process?
I started writing this story by developing the characters and then formed a plot around them. The dialogue, particularly the mother’s, was the easiest to write because it immediately came to life in my mind. As the focus eventually shifted away from the mother, it became difficult for me to find an ending. I rewrote the final paragraphs in about five different ways before I committed to the version that I have now.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing over the years? How has that helped you as a writer?
The hardest part of my writing process is deciding what story to tell. I recently learned that the best way to overcome this barrier is to explore feelings that I am grappling with and then create a narrative around those emotions. I find that it’s therapeutic and more enjoyable for me to write when I am emotionally invested. I also think that readers can connect to my writing more when it is driven by sensitive moments that comprise the human condition.
What’s your best advice to fellow short story writers?
Always trust your gut. Every writer has different strengths and weaknesses; personalizing the process is the best way to create authentic work.