One of my fathers is tall; the other is short. The tall one wears grey polo shirts tucked over the bulge of his stomach into the high waistband of his slacks. The short one wears Hawaiian shorts and sweater vests over T-shirts. One only owns loafers, the other, sandals.
I have two fathers. My stepfather and my biological father. Both married my mother, who divorced one, then the other. I call them Dad Barnaby and Dad Neal. When I was younger I called them Daddy Barnaby and Daddy Neal.
I grew up in a house with Daddy Neal, who watched me take my first steps and taught me how to read. I saw Daddy Barnaby only on weekends, when he took me and my brother and sister to different parks we nicknamed “the castle park” and “the Yogi Bear park.” He sat me on the handlebars as he biked to the grocery store, and I still remember the wind and the quiet sound of the wheels rippling down the sidewalk.
Six years ago, when my mother divorced Dad Neal, she yelled, “He isn’t even your father!” I thought: but he is.
There is a photo of Daddy Neal and me. I’m wearing a little white dress and white booties. My hair is short and black, and my nose is small and squished like a button. Daddy Neal is holding me under the orange tree. He looks like a giant, standing there, squinting against the sun. I look very happy, holding on to him, hoisted onto his high hip. When we were younger my brother and sister and I played a game with the oranges and the nearby swing set. We would begin swinging, gaining speed with each swing by crunching up our bodies then spreading apart like divers and arching our backs, and when high enough, we catapulted from the seats into the thinnest branches at the top of the orange tree. We competed that way, seeing who could pluck the highest oranges by flying.
Dad Barnaby taught me about kindness. He would pull over on the side of the road, in the middle of traffic, to grip a turtle with his hands and gently reposition it on the bank of a nearby lake. He also taught me to be afraid of things—like men and marriage and alligators that climbed fences into people’s pools. As I grew up I got the impression he didn’t like me very much. He always paid more attention to my brother, and called me a baby, and once he screamed that I was a little bitch. He told me I was “just like” his mother. He hated his mother.
He taught me about Buddhism, and we’d chant together in his house. When I was a child I fell asleep to the soft drone of his chanting—scratchy, a little deep, always strained. I look like him. I’m the only one of his three children who looks like him. Sometimes I see pink around my knuckles—the same as his pink skin. Once after I cried for a long time I looked in the mirror and my eyes were bright green and yellow—a field in the afternoon, his eyes.
Daddy Neal read to me in the evenings and scratched my back. I remember his long claws—his nails, like the rest of him, seemed to belong to a giant. He took a keen interest in me, more than my other parents. He told me I was precocious and a great orator when other people called me a big mouth. He said that oration was a necessary skill for future presidents, and winked at me over the dinner table. He told me I could be a doctor if I wanted, or maybe a cetologist since I liked to study whales and locked myself in my bedroom to read and copy drawings from a book for hours. When I got accepted to my first graduate program he announced the fact at his wedding to his new wife, in front of a hundred people I’d never met. I was sort of like his first child: a baby when he got together with my mom, an infant in his arms.
He stole money from my mother during their divorce; he stripped their savings before she noticed. And he won’t pay for my youngest sisters, his daughters, to go to college. Now he has a new family: a new wife and two bouncing baby boys. He sends me emails every week and calls to ask for my vacation dates in between long-winded explanations of why he can’t afford my sister’s automobile bills or pay my mother alimony.
I have two dads. One is my step-dad and the other is my blood-dad. I look like one and not the other. Between me and Dad Barnaby, a live wire writhes. Between me and Dad Neal, there is the orange tree in the backyard that got struck by lightning three times and finally died, just before the divorce.
Neither my brother nor my sister associates very much with Dad Neal now, after the divorce and everything, because he isn’t their real dad. They call him Neal, and sometimes, in their company or that of my mother, I do too. I say “Neal,” and feel like I’ve sliced something in half.