My phone was on silent, but I saw that I had an incoming call. I generally don’t answer if I don’t recognize the number. However, the 630 area code of the incoming call was the same as mine. I was alone in my dorm room and still had an hour before my first class would start, so I decided to answer.
“Hi, Jenny? It’s Dad.”
He must have gotten a new phone with a new number. Beside the area code, the phone number was unfamiliar. I considered hanging up.
“The boys told me it was your first day of classes, so I just wanted to say good luck. I hope that you’re settling onto campus okay and that you’re liking Boston.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Thanks,” I quickly mumbled back.
“I miss you, and I love you.”
“Yeah, you too. Thanks, bye.”
I hung up.
There was sweat from my palm along the sides of my iPhone case. I tried to wipe it off but ended up smearing it onto my screen. I looked at the phone number again. It started 630-209. I didn’t plan to memorize the last four digits, and I didn’t plan to save the number either. I just planned to ignore any future calls beginning with 630-209.
* * *
My dad was the coolest; my friend Stephanie in preschool even told me so. Every Friday while I was at The Caboose Club for preschool and daycare, he would visit me for lunch. And, if I at least tried all the food on my plate—including the lima beans, which I swore made me gag—he would stay for recess afterward.
My dad came to The Caboose Club from work, and he always wore a suit, a tie, and a nice watch—the kind with Roman numerals in shiny silver that no preschooler could read. I liked to look at the fancy, foreign symbols, and, once when I asked him what time his watch displayed, he replied, “It’s tickle time!” and tickled me.
Soon, everyone took an interest in my dad’s watch because, not long after, everyone was asking him to tell them the time, and it seemed to always be “tickle time.” Regardless of how often he would be asked, my dad, without fail, would make the effort to pretend to read his watch, ultimately proclaiming, “It’s tickle time!” My friends and I thought it was especially fun to ask my dad what time it was during recess because we could run away after asking and he’d chase us to tickle us.
Even after I began attending Monroe Elementary School, my dad and I still had lunch together every Friday. However, instead of him staying at school with me, I would go out to lunch with him, and, although he always gave me a choice of where we could go, I almost always chose the Quiznos in Gateway Square, just a five-minute drive from Monroe and the small downtown area of Hinsdale, Illinois. I would miss recess whenever I went out to lunch with my dad, but I didn’t care. The toasted turkey sandwich, the chocolate chip cookie, and forty-five minutes of his company were worth it.
I had Friday lunches with my dad all the way through fifth grade. It was only when I started middle school, and I was permitted to leave school only for a doctor or orthodontist’s appointment, that I stopped getting lunch with him.
Lunch with my dad wasn’t the only thing that changed in middle school, though.
* * *
Like any married couple, my parents would have the occasional fight. However, when I began attending Clarendon Hills Middle School, I noticed that their fights became more severe and more frequent. Eventually, their fighting actually became a constant among the more typical middle school changes I experienced, like getting my braces removed and abandoning my Abercrombie-dominated wardrobe. Every night, by the start of my eighth-grade year, my parents seemed to be arguing. Most of the time, I managed to ignore their fighting by focusing on my homework. When I couldn’t seem to drown it out, though, I generally couldn’t understand what they were yelling about anyway. But what I least understood ended up being what I remembered most. I recall my parents talking about “assets” and “clients” and “collateral”—“the economy” particularly stood out.
As a middle schooler, I came to the conclusion that “the economy going to shit,” as my dad described it, was the source of my parents’ problems. The shitty economy made my parents fight insistently—fights that left my mom in tears and caused my dad to storm out of their room and head to the basement. It was the economy that made my mom pick me up from school early on a memorable Wednesday in mid-October of 2008 with suitcases packed in the trunk of the car. It was the economy that required my mom, the boys (my two younger brothers, Michael and Jason), and me to go out of town for a few days while my dad moved out of the house. It was the economy that caused my mom to want a divorce. And, as long as I thought so—or let myself think so—I couldn’t be upset with my parents, especially with my dad. After all, he didn’t cause the economy to go to shit.
* * *
When my mom, Michael, Jason, and I returned home from that spontaneous trip—a trip in which we hopped from hotel to hotel in Illinois and Indiana while visiting a few museums, forest preserves, and historical sites along the way to make the trip seem like a short vacation—my dad had already packed up his things and moved out of the house. On the Sunday we returned home, my brothers and I met with our dad for what now seems like an overly formal lunch at P.F. Chang’s. Over egg rolls and sweet-and-sour chicken, my dad explained the custody arrangement to my brothers and me: we would visit him every day after school from 3:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (at which time my mom would pick us up); we would stay over night with him every other weekend; and we would switch off holidays between my mom and him each year.
“But, where will you live?” That was the question that my brothers and I all had in our minds but that Michael—the outwardly most assertive of us, even at eleven years old—actually asked.
“I’ll be staying with Chloe. She’s been kind enough to let me—to let us—stay with her for the time being,” my dad explained.
The table became quiet. Michael turned his complete attention to the sweet-and-sour-sauce-soaked rice left on his plate, while Jason, affectionately called “Peanut” and only eight years old at the time, fumbled around with his wooden chopsticks. I thought to break the silence.
“Oh, that’s nice.”
At the time, I meant what I said. It did seem nice that my dad would be able to stay with Chloe. Chloe wasn’t unfamiliar to my family, and she herself seemed nice. I’d even say I liked her. More practically, I thought it was convenient that she lived in Downers Grove, which was only fifteen minutes away from our house in Hinsdale and even closer to Clarendon Hills Middle School. Her three kids were all out of her house and in college already, but they were nice enough as well, so seeing them around wouldn’t be a problem. She was also a good baker and cook, much better than my dad, so any meals we had while visiting our dad would probably taste pretty good.
At the time, however, I also thought my dad meant it when he said that we’d be staying with Chloe “for the time being.” I didn’t think we—or at least he—would be staying with her permanently.
* * *
For many years, Chloe and my dad had worked together, and I often saw her around—both at my dad’s office and outside of his work. Even in elementary school, I remember her coming to some of my soccer games, cheering me on from the sidelines. I especially remember the chocolate-covered doughnuts or chocolate chip bagels that she brought for my brothers and me to enjoy after my games.
As I started middle school, Chloe began to attend more and more of our family get-togethers and holiday celebrations. That was largely because, in June of 2006 before I started sixth grade, Papa and Ellen—my dad’s dad and Chloe’s mom, whom my dad and Chloe introduced to each other—got married, and Chloe technically became my step-aunt.
Given that Chloe was, more or less, my dad’s sister, it didn’t seem all that strange to me that my dad moved in with Chloe following his separation from my mom. They were close, but they were also family. However, the longer I visited my dad, and the longer “for the time being” became, the stranger the situation became. By the end of my freshman year in high school in May of 2010, my dad had been living with Chloe for a year and a half. I couldn’t really imagine the adult version of myself wanting to live with Michael or Jason for more than a year—maybe a boyfriend or potential husband, but not my brother. I thought my dad must have felt the same way.
In May of 2010, my dad asked my brothers and me to sign a Mothers’ Day card for Chloe, a card claiming she was “the very best mom anyone could ask for!” The phrase took up the entire front side of the card and was written in curly, pink bubble letters. It was a stark contrast to the card that I planned to give to my mom—a handmade one containing a long, personalized message, which I wrote in my best cursive.
The very best mom anyone could ask for. I furrowed my brow in confusion and hesitated before telling my dad, “But she’s not our mom.” I intended to sound more definitive when I said it—as if I were simply correcting a minor mistake that my dad had made—but it came out more like a question, as if I were the one mistaken.
My dad explained how Chloe had always been there for him (but she’s not our mom), how she had done so much to take care of my brothers and me since the separation (but she’s not our mom), how she had even served as a mother to us in some ways (but she’s not our mom), how he loved her very much (but she’s not our mom), and how he wanted to ask her to marry him.
He wanted Chloe to be his wife, his new wife, our new mom.
But she’s not our mom.
* * *
Two years later, my dad and Chloe got married. I would describe the wedding ceremony, but I wasn’t there. I’m not even sure where it took place. My dad and I hadn’t talked since the summer of 2010, when I decided to stop visiting him. I only found out about the wedding through my brothers, who continued to visit my dad.
Although they were not overly enthusiastic about my dad’s engagement to Chloe, Michael and Jason nonetheless accepted it. While Jason had been too young to understand my dad’s relationship with Chloe, Michael wasn’t, and, as he would later admit to me, he knew—even before my parents separated, even before my parents began their constant fighting—that my dad had feelings for Chloe. He knew that she was never just a co-worker or a friend or even family. He knew my dad had cheated on my mom with Chloe before I had even considered the idea.
It was only during the summer of 2010, following that Mothers’ Day, that I realized that Chloe’s more and more frequent visits to my soccer games had coincided with my parents’ more and more frequent fights at home. I remembered going to the movie theater with my dad, my brothers, and Chloe when I was nine years old and my dad telling us not to tell our mom about it. I remembered my mom crying and storming out of the house a few nights after our trip to the movie theater, as well as my own crying when my mom didn’t come back until early the next morning. It was only during the summer of 2010 that I realized that I had an entire repressed memory of my dad’s affair with Chloe. It just took a cheap, generic Mothers’ Day card to unlock that memory, and all the anger and pain it held with it.
Realizing my denial made me feel stupid, which in turn made me angry. At first, I was most mad at myself for my own denial, but I eventually became more mad at my dad for his. He never admitted to cheating with Chloe when I explicitly asked him about their relationship. Even more, he never apologized—not for the actual cheating, not even for the pain it caused my brothers, my mom, and me. Instead, I was supposed to apologize for “being a brat” by asking. When I decided to stop visiting him, he told me not to come back until I was ready to apologize and show Chloe and him the respect they deserved.
My dad didn’t understand that I already intended not to come back—not until he was ready to apologize. Since that summer, I haven’t been back at their house. He hasn’t apologized. And I don’t yet have respect for Chloe and him to show. I won’t forgive and forget because I’m still angry and hurt and because I’m stubborn—a trait I apparently inherited from him.
For now, my dad is just a phone number, one I have memorized only enough to know not to answer. I want to believe him when he tells me in his occasional voicemails that he loves me and misses me. In some sense, I do believe him. The dad that I believe loves me and misses me, though, is the one who used to visit me for lunch and who could make any preschooler laugh when he announced it was “tickle time.” That is the dad I love. That is the dad I miss. That is the dad I haven’t forgotten, and he is the one I would have forgiven.