The last we saw in the Alienated Youth is My Drink series, our Deb-lost-in-a-milltown narrator was Debutante Ball-bound (Part Sept). In Part Huit, I wrote about my workshop many years later with Frank McCourt and how I’d omitted from the Alienated Youth series much of the emotional fabric from that time: the despair of my patched-together family, how my stepsister’s cancer diagnosis shook us along the fault line we’d wanted to ignore. When a fissure snaked up the stucco wall of my San Francisco apartment many years later in the October of 1989, the San Andreas fault lit up in the my mind’s map of California like a subway line. What’d you think? my inner Iago whispered. You live on a faultline. When my sister’s diagnosis finally became clear, after the denial, after everything had been tried–she really did have cancer and she really was going to die–our fault line, the one that exists in every stepfamily, lit up and the ground between us pulled apart. What’d you think?
As much as my mother and stepfather might’ve wanted to pretend that the four marriages they’d collectively left behind them didn’t matter, cancer was there to hum a song with the lyrics that run “Blood is Thicker than Water” in the background of everything we did. It was my stepfather’s daughter who was dying. Daughter. Barbara. Dying. It was not my mom’s daughter. In fact, everyone knew that my mother and Barbara didn’t care for each other much. So what’s a man to do when his daughter’s dying and his wife is concerned, yes, but still somehow untouched? What were any of us to do?
We kept on living the best we could. My dad went to work everyday at the mill and at night my mom and he drank gin and tonics or scotch while I was in my room downstairs wishing I were back in the city. The Debutante Ball weekend finally came, and we took the ferry across the Georgia Straight and drove into the city. I wore a dress of white eyelet cotton that was wrong on every level. I looked more like a ten pounds overweight Little Bo Peep than a desirable young woman. I went with my old boyfriend from the city who was now seeing someone else. We all drank too much wine and a cluster of debs stood under a dripping awning and smoked a spleef of tobacco mixed with hash. I in no way felt like I was worthy of any of this or beautiful or that anyone would care that I was “coming out”–whatever that meant.
But there was one moment when I did. And when I think of that moment now–now that I have daughters of my own and can even fathom what it might mean if one of them were dying–I ask all my other tawdry memories of this time–memories of always being one degree off, of living in the wrong place at the wrong time, of liking the gay boy instead of the straight one, of being always the stepdaughter never the daughter–I ask them all to understand that they are mere interpretations that should step aside, so this one golden moment can shine through.
Eddies of white deb dresses frothed along the edge of the dance floor, a foamy surf coming to shore, when the band struck up its first notes. The black tuxed fathers arrived on cue. And here was mine. A stepfather but that’s not what I thought then. I thought: Dad. And like all the other fathers, mine pulled me to the floor. Everything that we’d done to prepare for this moment–evenings of clumsy waltzing in the living room–was of no use to us. The band was playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” Not a waltz, by any means. My dad shrugged and laughed. And we danced in the sea of white and black with our elbows chopping in the air.
Want to read more about my stepfather? Read this Huffington Post piece.