Later, I’d worry that I’d missed the point, the point being that my
father wouldn’t be here forever to help with the rent and I’d have to risk
more than ragged edges of cloth to discover my own relevance. But that
July, I only parried and dodged my father, maintaining a stalemate until one afternoon the plot unraveled and we collided as we readied for
an outside event in ninety-six-degree temperature. “Put on some decent
clothes, for Christ’s sake,” my father insisted when I wandered, distracted, into the den. He was incensed that I no longer presented myself
in attractive dresses and tailored pants, with well-combed hair, as he
thought a respectable Southern girl should, but ran around in shorts and
tennis shoes without socks, my hair loose and untidy, my face almost
bare of makeup. Startled, I glanced at him in his red-and-green plaid
golf pants and tomato-red knit shirt, his shape in profile a rounded arc
from belly to groin, his shoes a dazzling white. How could I tell him that
as a feminist I was released from the obsessive need to please men?
Instead, I burst into tears.
“Oh, stoppit,” he said, irritated, and walked away.
In retrospect, neither his irritation nor his expectations should have
caused surprise. As girls, my sister and I were forbidden to wear blue
jeans or shorts to his office, our bodies as well as our minds meant to be
representative of the family. Such decorum was expected.
But now I was defecting.
And yet the day I was to fly back to LA, I longed to make amends. More
than anything I needed to explain, to clear myself, to make my father see
that what had offended him—the way I looked and dressed—was in the
larger picture a good thing. It meant I could change and adapt, could fit
in with my peers in a new place, even though such choices were more
casual than those in Alabama. I wanted to tell him that this reflected a
focus on work rather than presentation, a heightening of ambition, and
a willingness to sacrifice, all things my father approved. As we stood in
his medical office that morning, patient charts stacked on his desk, his
stethoscope looped around his neck, he seemed distant, distracted. My
father was short and compact, light on his feet, with a quick grin and
a quicker wit. He had a restless, nervous energy that charged the room
and drew people to him, but when irritated, he could explode, veins popping out on his forehead, his words sizzling the air. He could frighten
me. He was my father. Not quite God, but close.
Watching his face, my voice tightened; my words were rushed and insistent, as if I were trying to win an argument. But this is a minor thing,