The weekend we learned about keeping secrets Dad was almost 33, and naked. The woman with him was naked too. Her breasts were chalk-white with long red nipples, and Dad’s penis was purple. We watched them from the center of a pond, tangled in ropey lily pad stems. The pond was carpeted in silt so slippery it sent shivers up my spine.
Earlier that day, Mom had dropped my big sister Sarah and me off. Dad met us at the end of a dirt road, kissed Mom, (they were still married then), said he missed her too, and sent her off. Dad was running a farm that summer. Though he’d never seen a cow up close before, he’d convinced the owner he could milk and feed a warm barn-full of lovely brown-eyed heifers.
Growing up, we witnessed our mother slowly disengage from our father’s confusing fits and starts of commitment. Our mother dodged his certitude, avoiding useless, unwinnable arguments in the spirit of self-preservation, and hoped we were smart enough to tune him out like she did.
With our mother refusing to fight, our father used his unchallenged power to remind his children that anyone cleaning a public bathroom, or picking lettuce for our table, was vastly more important than we’d ever be. Sarah and I lived in his kingdom, abided by his laws – our squares of toilet paper counted, hot showers timed, access to a phone spotty and contingent on whether or not he could tolerate the ring, and the conversation that followed. We lived in unheated rooms during Vermont winters, and recited reasons America was corrupt. In school I guiltily stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, wanting to fit in, to quiet his relentless directives – but that would take marriage and having children and getting divorced and, of course, therapy.
Dad came and went as he needed to, often spending summers away on adventures we heard about in edited bits and pieces. Occasionally, people he met on the road would show up, looking for him and the room and meal he’d promised, should they ever come to town.
At the farm that summer weekend, the woman with the long red nipples couldn’t walk over rocks. They hurt her feet, and when she shrieked, it echoed. Sarah said the naked woman was a faker because nobody could be that much of a baby. Dad carried her over the rocks and into the pond. He held her above the water that she said was too cold. A flower slipped from behind her ear and he fished it out of the water. He spoke in a low voice, an in-charge voice that said he had time to spare.
Dad said the naked faker was a secret. Sarah gave a warning pinch to my thigh. She knew I couldn’t keep secrets. I also was unsure if the naked woman was a woman or a girl. I’d never known a secret that wasn’t exciting. Dad’s secret made me feel like I’d stolen a pack of gum or killed a spider.
Dad stroked the girl’s cheeks and rubbed at the freckles on her nose. She was a girl. Girls had freckles. My friends had freckles across their noses. I wanted freckles too and once I’d used a marker to make some of my own.
“Girls, get naked!” Dad shouted. “Go back to the womb; don’t be squares!”
Dad held the girl over the water. She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
Sarah and I were not nudists. We were town pool regulars. My suit had vertical rainbow stripes and a racer back. Dad would say I looked like a watermelon and poke my potbelly. All summer long, every day at the pool, I ate a frozen Charleston Chew, pieces wedged into my molars, and I couldn’t wait for them to dissolve before biting off more. Sarah wore a black Speedo. She was a quick fish. She would dive from the high board and swim to the bottom of the pool, fetching rubber rings checked out like library books from the front desk. Dad never called her a watermelon. He called her an ice princess. (I think he meant to call me fat, and Sarah a bitch, but that came a little later. Not when we were eight and twelve.)
“I love your daddy!” the girl yelled.
“She’s our summer secret. Your mother isn’t sophisticated enough to understand such things!” Dad’s words splattered against the pond.
In the water, the naked girl’s breasts floated like the Styrofoam buoys at the pool.
Sarah pinched my thigh and told me to swim to shore. We were not taking off our suits. Sarah told Dad we were not doing that. She shimmied into her shorts, plastered her shirt over her wet suit. She twisted the pond water out of her hair, and handed me my shorts, shirt and hair elastic.
“Naked is our true state,” Dad said, sweeping his hand up and down his body, “Puppets of the global industrial complex, that’s all you two are. By agreeing that the human body shouldn’t be worn as proudly as the blazer of a man on Wall Street, you agree to abandon your right to free thought.”
We listened, dressed in wet clothes, and beneath them, encased in soaking swimsuits. I was uncomfortable. I wiggled; Sarah pulled me toward the campsite, away from Dad, who continued to talk.
The naked girl with Dad was one of the ways he made peace with his life, with how he had acquired a wife, children and a car. But the girl was in love. When she walked toward him and the pond, her hipbones ground forward with one leg and back with the other. He lifted her red hair, from her neck, and kissed the nape. Sarah pinched me again. I turned to tell her she was hurting me. She hissed that Mom could not know – could not know – and she nodded toward the girl.
The campsite had two tents, a barrel to catch rain, a smoldering campfire and a small camping stove with a blue-and-white-speckled coffeepot. Dad and the girl were living there, the girl said, like we’d walked into an apartment. Sarah pushed me when I asked where we would go to the bathroom. She pinched me when I said I didn’t want to poop in the woods. She knew Dad would get angry if I whined. We’d poop in the woods and we’d figure it out and I’d make sure not to cry. When we cried, Dad said he’d give us something real to cry about.
Dad and the girl scooped fistfuls of rice into their mouths. The bowl was communal; like jumping rope you had to find the right second to join the group. I worried there would not be enough rice. I couldn’t stop looking at the girl’s breasts. She sat cross-legged next to Dad, whose penis rested on his legs like a cat’s tail.
When Dad was in the barn milking the cows, the girl again told Sarah and I that she loved him. She told us they’d watched meteor showers through a hole in their tent. She said meteor showers made them fall even more in love. She smiled in wonder.
The girl squatted to build a fire, her body split too wide and too far. Sarah pushed my head in the direction of trees and toward the barn where Dad had gone.
We stayed in our suits all weekend, peeling them off only when we got home. Mom picked us up. She waved and smiled, looking for Dad over our shoulders. He’d sent us to the end of the road to wait for her. He was long gone, back up the road, back to the girl and their campsite. Mom was wearing a yellow dress and tortoise shell sunglasses. She always had on pink lipstick and chewed one piece of Trident gum, snapping it over and over. I couldn’t help feeling superior to her, just a little superior. She wasn’t “sophisticated” like Sarah and I were, like Dad said we were. We’d seen that adults, not just babies could be naked outdoors. We’d seen that adults could love each other naked in the outdoors, and that adults could have summer secrets.
Mom talked for us, told us she’d missed us, turned up the radio. Her husband hadn’t waited to say hello to her. What had he needed to get back to? What was so urgent he couldn’t wait with their children?
Sarah and I held the secret of the naked girl between us – the way the girl was shocking in sunlight, nearly transparent; the way the hair between her legs dripped when she stood in the rain; how she shook during the cool of the evening, her body covered in goose bumps, her lips blue. We said nothing about the shared bowls of rice over which Dad and the girl stared at each other, or how before finishing the meal they’d grab each other and disappear into the woods.
I had a lot of things I wanted to tell Mom. I wanted to tell her about the cow’s brown eyes. I wanted to tell her about the silt-y shivers in the pond, but I worried I might make a mistake and mention the girl. It was better to be quiet.
My eyes filled up. Sarah swatted me. No crying.
We’d survived the weekend. That was all that mattered.
* * *
No matter how much keeping the naked girl a secret from Mom made sense during the weekend, at home, clutched in our fists, it felt dirty and mean and hot.
When the letter came, our world tilted. Mom never needed help. She never asked for anything. Mom could walk over rocks. But the letter, on blue paper, written in bubbly cursive and spritzed with perfume caused her to steady herself, place her hand on the table, and lower herself onto a chair. She needed a moment to collect herself from the shock, and she did.
She never looked up any road again for Dad. She did not announce her decision, she did not proclaim – that was Dad’s department. But from that day on, she did not allow herself vulnerability of any sort. She went into lockdown. A skill we, her daughters, learned to always keep in our relationship arsenals.
Sarah snatched the letter and read it aloud. The redheaded skinny dipper declared her love for Dad. Initially, Dad denied the whole thing, said he had no idea who she was or why she’d make up lies about him. But there was a part about Sarah and me. She’d enjoyed meeting us and looked forward to becoming a stepmother. Those sentences exposed the degree of his lie. After that, even he couldn’t find his way out.
He confessed. Except he couldn’t, in good conscience, agree that it was wrong for us to see how men and women can love freely and more than one person at a time; and by the way, if Mom were more sophisticated, she’d understand.
The secret was no longer. Mom knew. There was relief and continued guilt. She knew we could keep something from her. She told us it was wrong for Dad to include us, and she loved us and understood we were asked to do something children should never be asked to do. Please, she said, do not worry. There was nothing to forgive. We cried and apologized anyway, over and over.
There was nothing more she could do. We’d have to find a way to forgive ourselves.
Dad’s campaign to undermine Mom’s intelligence, to create a life independent from us, while still controlling ours, continued. Their relationship wouldn’t end for another decade. When it did, he’d leave a list of reasons why: Mom didn’t understand metaphors and didn’t read enough poetry. Omitted was his real number one reason: the woman he’d later marry, on a beach in Texas, far, far away from Vermont.
* * *
I met the man I would marry when I was 23. I drank whiskey with him and played pool with his friends. I agreed to marry without the gravity of the decision concerning me. I had nothing to lose, no skin in the game and a locked-up heart.
I projected confidence, feigned being even-keeled and impersonated a low-maintenance partner, all the while remaining detached and unavailable.
The ruse worked until the babies were born. Then everything changed. A veil lifted. The world was brighter.
Driving our firstborn home on a May morning, tulip trees trilled and the air was buttery. I had never seen a more gorgeous baby. He was tendons and bones, cockeyed and jaundiced. He rattled my heart open, picking the lock.
I was vulnerable despite myself, despite my carefully cultivated remove, and it was terrifying. The secrets about my true self tumbled out; when the anxious person I actually was leaked into our marriage, my husband and I began to unravel. I slowly departed the marriage, stuffing my opinions down, shooing my feelings and avoiding conflict. The more I retreated, the lonelier I was, the angrier my husband became; the more he tried to control the chaos that is children, the louder his voice, the shorter his fuse, the more familiar to me our family dynamic became.
I was my mother drifting inside a marriage, just out of reach of my children, a realization that dragged me into a painful reckoning, and resulted in my husband and I agreeing we’d irrevocably disappointed each other.
Fiercely loving my children saved us all from repeating history, from dragging out a marriage that had run its course. It taught us how to navigate vulnerability and grief until we arrived in an open pasture with unlocked hearts, lost keys and fewer secrets.