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Essay

Marrying My Father

The alternative, for her, was 'the dull innocence of more fortunate men'

October 09, 2005|Paula Priamos | Paula Priamos is a freelance writer based in Lake Arrowhead.

My father calls my cell after closing arguments on a reckless driving case. He wants to meet for drinks at what is then called the Bicycle Club Card Casino in Bell Gardens. This is after my mother leaves and before her reasons for leaving catch up with him. Before my father loses his privilege to practice law in California.

I don't agree to meet him. I rarely do. But he hangs up, as is a defense attorney's way, cutting me off before I have a chance to say something he doesn't want to hear.

I'm on my way from Long Beach to a bookstore in West Hollywood when he calls. Yet I find myself getting off at the next ramp, East Florence, because I've put off something too long. I have something to tell him. I don't know how he'll react to the news that I'm engaged to a man considerably older than me, a man like himself, both troubled over the past and unable to let go.

The Bicycle Casino is not owned by Indians. There are no slot machines and no gray-haired ladies in chaotic polyester pantsuits. This casino boasts 100 poker tables, a restaurant, gift store and a barber shop. Most of the men in here don't look like gamblers. They wear suits and ties, or work uniforms, mechanics coveralls. The kind of men who hold more than just a hand of cards. The kind of men who still hold their jobs.

I choose a table near the front where I can see the automatic doors split apart to the parking lot. My father comes in shortly, his face puffy from alcohol or fighting traffic.

When he excuses himself to go to the restroom, the waitress cards me. She takes an extra-long look, maybe because she notices that I have a birthday coming up.

"You look so young," she says.

At the time I'm 25. I don't see how at my age it makes much difference. But this is L.A. where every year counts, so I thank her.

The waitress glances toward my father as he makes his way back to the table. She hands me my license.

"There's a quieter booth in the back."

"We'll be fine here."

It bothers me when I'm mistaken for his girlfriend, when people don't see the resemblance between us, the dark eyes, the Greek nose. My father sits across from me. He orders his first double Jack. He doesn't ask where I was headed when he called. What plans I had to cancel. For him, it doesn't matter.

"The jury will return tomorrow," he says. "Some of them could barely stay awake during rebuttal. The prosecution bored them with facts."

He goes into detail about the trial, an expert at distorting the truth. The waitress comes by with another round of drinks.

"I should've cheated on her," my father says suddenly. "There was that trip to Syracuse."

He brings up my mother as he always does, and I try not to roll my eyes. When I think of hot cities in which to have an affair, Syracuse, with its wind-chill factor and Canadian cold fronts, isn't the first city that comes to mind. But what my father says when under the influence no longer shocks me. It's as if his drinking pattern is scripted. My role is to simply nod. But tonight I rewrite my part.

"You cheated on her in another way," I say.

He cheated all of us, even his clients. My father leans back, not expecting me to bring this up. How he spent money that wasn't his. How he's about to be disbarred. I want him to take responsibility.

"Can't you at least admit it?"

He stares down at his drink, then says: "You always defend your mother. But she left you too."

This is partly true. I had time that day, while the movers were taking her belongings, to make my decision. To point the movers toward my bedroom.

But I didn't. I couldn't. Earlier I'd found my father lying in the dark of his office, sprawled face down on the floor. I was 16 and had never seen him so hurt, so beaten down. I flipped on the light. I told him to get up. I shut the door so he could collect himself.

The alcohol has been talking ever since the day my mother left, and right at this moment I want to tell him the truth about why I stayed. It wasn't just that I didn't want to leave L.A. I was afraid of what would happen if he had no one to come home to. If all he had was the bottle of Jack he kept on top of the freezer. I was afraid that the hunting rifles he left unloaded but upright in his walk-in closet would be all the more visible now that the closet was half-empty.

I was afraid my leaving would give him ammo.

"Dad."

"What is it, Paula Girl?"

I'm about to tell him of my engagement. I'm about to let him know I'm in love, but the words won't come. He's too caught up in the past for me to tell him about my future.

"We should forget about why she left," I say. "Both of us should move on."

My father stares at the casino floor and I doubt that he's listening.

I rise from the table. "I have to go."

He looks up at me.

"But you just got here."

Carjackings are not uncommon in the area, and even with a well-lighted parking lot and security cameras, my father doesn't take a chance. He walks me to my car.

"I'll call you next week," he says. "Maybe we can meet at Jerry's Famous Deli for a change."

"That sounds good."

I unlock the door and get in. Part of me still wants to tell him. Instead, I start the engine. This man I love is divorced. Like my father he struggles with the past. Like my father he uses it as an excuse to drink. But there is more to them than alcohol and whine. They're both broken, unhinged by life. Yet I prefer these complications over the dull innocence of more fortunate men. My father will live long enough to learn of my engagement, though he will pass before the wedding. When I finally do break the news, I see it in his eyes. I see the loss and concern. Without having to ask, he knows what kind of man I've chosen.

For now, I remember my father on the night he walked me to my car outside the casino: I see him turn as I pull away, this big Greek who knows too well how to hold his liquor.

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