You Used to Know How to Dance (Really Well)
Somewhere, outside of my conscious memory, I am two years old and I am helping make peppermint chocolate frogs. Before my mom moves across the country away from my dad, they have a small chocolate business. We have a house in Sedona, Arizona, and steps away from the door is the Chocolate Kitchen.
From borrowed memories, the kitchen is silver and grey and light blue. There are the countertops of stainless steel and cold marble, to assist in tempering and various other chocolate pursuits. Here, a large melting pot. Here, the fridge. A smart-looking freezer stands next to the fridge, and the floor is cold to the touch, even in the heat of an Arizona summer. The walls are lined with giant racks of cacao powder, cacao butter, and Belgian truffle moulds.
“and I will finally hold on to memories of my own, of two different flavors: Arizona as cinnamon, Florida as saltwater taffy.”
In these borrowed memories, I am very small with whisps of light blonde hair and bright blue eyes. My dad is tall, lanky, and bald, with a loud laugh and clever fingers, and my mom is the same, but with some of the blonde hair I inherited. She wears summer dresses and platform flipflops, and my dad wears loud colorful shirts. I wear soft dresses and whatever I want, a Cinderella dress on an August afternoon, because I am too young still to be judged for those things. Here, in memories I will never have, we are happy. The frogs are happy too, I think, because they have little speckles of white chocolate on their backs, because I am the one who picked peppermint, and because I think that everything must be happy when I am.
My mom returned us to Jacksonville, Florida some months later. It is not the first time we have come, and it will not be the last time we will leave here together, but this time our center of gravity is a small pink beach house with a tire swing on the big magnolia in the back. I will grow up here, and in other small houses, and I will only cry at night for my dad for a year. I will be another year and another year and another year older, and I will finally hold on to memories of my own, of two different flavors: Arizona as cinnamon, Florida as saltwater taffy.
There are only a few good cinnamon memories, but in this one I am still blonde and still missing my dad when I am not with him. We are on my grandmother’s yellow corduroy couch, he and I, and he is reading Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” aloud. His voice drops dramatically, and I know before he says the name that Badger has something to say.
“’Foxy!’ cried Badger. ‘My goodness me, I’m glad I’ve found someone at last!’”
My dad’s voice gravels and rises and I gravel and rise with it, so eager to laugh with him.
Soon he’s falling asleep and I’m poking his cheek, scratchy from having shaved the day before, but I give up in favor of falling asleep too, curled up in his lap like a creature full of trust.
Time passes, and my hair turns darker even as I spend more and more time in my saltwater taffy home.
Cinnamon memories are soon displaced in favor of Michigan ones, tasting like licorice and something just a little wrong. Soon, my father will take me to a Coney Island (where I will order one of only a few vegetarian items—he seems to have forgotten this life-long trait of mine) and he will tell me in so many words that he wishes I had not been born. When I get home to saltwater taffy and my mom and our house with a red door and the pecan tree out front, I will cry in her arms until I fall asleep.
The next day, or perhaps the days following, my mom will start telling me stories about a light blue kitchen and peppermint chocolate frogs and a dad who loved me so much he broke down in tears when I was born. She will tell me that he promised to be the world’s best father, and perhaps her voice will tighten here, but neither of us will talk about it. She does not need to tell me about the bad parts. Instead, she will tell me that when she met him, they danced really well together. She tells me about the ferocity of his joy, and the quick passion of his interests. I will listen, even though I know nothing about the man she describes. The man she met, who wrote her poems and studied art in Italy for months, is not my father. We will both pretend he is.
Often, my father will tell me he is going to change. In one licorice memory he will take me to a small diner in downtown Lapeer, order me a hot chocolate and a blondie, and apologize, telling me he has realized the error of his ways. He will reach for my hand with fingers that are no longer clever, but I will clutch my mug like it could take me away from this moment. Still, though, I am young, here, and I will want so dearly to believe him, a creature of hopeless hope. I have so little proof of my own that he can be good.
15 years after my mom and I moved away, when I am less than a month from 18 and I am finally learning that none of this was my fault, my father will call me. I will ignore it, but his voicemail will apologize for neglecting to love me as he should. His voice is flat, and his pauses are long enough that it feels like he didn’t plan this at all. He promises to seek out more ways to show his love to me, says he’s proud of me, and that he thinks I have a lot to offer to the world.
Seven, five, even three years ago, I would have called him right back and heard him out, crying as he finally said what I had always needed to hear.
But this is not then, and I know that I am worthy of praise, that I am talented and brave and strong. I have proved these things to myself, and that’s all I need.
So when my father leaves me this two and a half minute voicemail of hollow praise, a last-ditch effort at fatherhood, I will laugh.
There is nothing else to do.