My father’s Ralph Lauren cardigan is age-stained and moth-nibbled, the cuffs are all stretched out. Although I have no recollection of my father wearing it, it corresponds to the type of man he was when he was still married to my mother: a long-legged, rare-steak eating, tennis playing man who belonged to clubs with letter-pressed stationary in royal blue and cream. He wore Fila windbreakers and white swimsuits and he listened to the Bee-Gees. He liked his swimming pools hot.
My father is not this man any longer. The change started when I entered high school, when I was living with him and his new wife. They were trying to have babies. They were trying to re-brand. They sold the oriental carpets and the uncomfortable antique furniture my mother favored and they upholstered a sectional sofa entirely in fleece. They started using the word “rec room” really often. My dad got an eBay account and spent his free time bidding on reinforced athletic socks and synthetic fur throws. When I was in tenth grade, they upgraded from a CD player that could hold three discs to one that could hold six. They loaded it with new wave country music: Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts. By the time I graduated high school, they’d had three new children. My father added a turquoise bear paw to my stepmother’s silver feather charm bracelet for every one. I went off to college. I majored in Comparative Literature. And then I moved to France.
By the time I moved back to the US in 2005, my dad and stepmom had relocated from Greenwich, Connecticut to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The memories of my father as a man who belonged more—stylistically speaking—to “heroine collegiate” than “country casual” became incongruous with the person who had my old piano bench re-upholstered in his favorite pair of jeans.
The first time my parents met my now-husband, the airline lost his luggage on our flight over from France. He showed up at my father’s house in a thin shirt and a light jacket, shivering from meet-the-American-parents-nerves and a cold caught on the plane. My father came down the staircase shouting, “Diego’s gonna love this,” old cardigan in hand.
Diego put the sweater on in front of my stepmother and father. They both said it looked great. The arms dangled a little bit and one of the white buttons fell to the floor when Diego tried to button it. It did look great.
I was really jealous when my dad gave him that sweater. It suited Diego’s style perfectly, and aside from being a little large on him, it was an appropriate gift. All my life, my father never seemed to “get” me, and his lack of comprehension was manifested by absurdly impractical presents. For my sixteenth birthday, he tried to give me a Vietnamese pot bellied pig that belonged to a neighbor. Another year, at Christmas, he gave me a print-out of an item he’d won for me on eBay: a giant, wooden canoe. It was located in Ithaca, New York. “Pick up only.” I lived in Brooklyn at the time, five hours away from it, and nowhere near a lake.
I instilled a lot of meaning into the handing over of that sweater. I felt like my father recognized something in Diego that he’d never been able to connect with in me. But now that I’ve come to learn the reasons behind some of his odder presents (the pig, for example, was part of a revenge plan against my mother for getting so much alimony because she had custody of me at the time, and thus, would be the pig’s primary caretaker. It never occurred to him that I’d turn it down), I realize that the sweater was just a three-pound, thick-knit relic he wanted out of the house.
In the last couple of years, my father has started referring to me in conversation as “our oldest,” or “our daughter” when introducing me to people I’ve never met. He’ll say this with his arm around my stepmother, and I don’t interject. I’m sure it would be more convenient for them if I was their daughter. In his perfect world, I’d be the kind of girl who loves Taylor Swift and has red hair and grey eyes like his other kids. Instead, I’m a dark-haired, Taylor Swift-despising reminder of a past he can’t rewrite.
I spent a lot of time—a decade—being angry at my father because he cheated on my mother with a woman he loved more. And then I fell out of love with someone who still loved me, and I experienced what it was like to live inside the emptiest version of myself. Today, I try to find the humor in my father’s missteps. I want to forgive him.
Sometimes I take the sweater out of my husband’s closet and put it on. I move around the house in it, like a child playing dress up. Like a child playing house.
The humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review,” Courtney Maum is a frequent contributor to Tin House, Bomb and The Rumpus. She has just finished a novel written entirely from the point of view of the celebrity recording artist, John Mayer, called “John Mayer Reviews Things.”