The morning I left to see my father, I wore my favorite striped top and the jeans that actually fit. Nothing fancy, but still nice. I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about my natural hair, but there was nothing I could do about that now, nor did I want to. I was also clearly at least 20 pounds overweight. I hoped he would look past it, that he could look past it. My beloved rhino necklace, a small token of strength, stayed on my bedside table. Visitors at the prison weren’t allowed to wear jewelry. I was dressed and ready to go an hour before my friend Trent was due to arrive. I lay on my side in bed, my hands tucked between my thighs for warmth, waiting for his text. When my phone lit up on the nightstand, I almost fell out of my bed scrambling for it. The words “I’m here!” only added to the tension coursing through my body.
I checked my bag for the fifteenth time. Driver’s license? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook to write down important thoughts in the car? Check. Valium? I wished.
I met Trent at the bottom of the stairs. He pulled me into a hug, and breathed into my hair for a moment. My charging heart stilled a bit, just enough for me to take a deep breath, the first one of the day.
When he released me from the calming embrace, he grabbed my hand. “Thank you so much for letting me do this for you, Ashley.” When we got to his car, there was a flower sitting on the seat for me.
Halfway there, he asked when was the last time I saw my father, and I told him it’d been 13 years.
“Has he had any visitors since then?”
I rolled down the window, and considered his question.
“I don’t know. I hope so.” I kept my face just outside the window frame, allowing the air to whip around my nose, mouth, and closed eyes. It reminded me of being a child and jumping off the swings at the playground. Even when I was scared, I wouldn’t open my eyes. Sometimes I landed poorly, but it felt better that way.
Trent spoke again. “Thirteen years is a long time not to see anybody you love.”
I rolled the window back up.
“I don’t think it’s been 13 years.” I didn’t know if this was true, but I hoped. It was one thing not to see your father for 13 years. It was quite another for him not to have seen one familiar face in that long. If I was going to be the first loving face he saw in over a decade, I wished I had a perfect face.
The drive to the prison was shorter than I thought it’d be, or hoped it’d be. Only about an hour and a half. The facility looked the way you’d expect a prison to look. Everything was a flat concrete gray and a sickening yellow-leaning beige. Trent dropped me off at the door. Waiting in the parking lot wasn’t allowed, so he would have to find someplace to hang out by himself in the middle of nowhere.
I rummaged around in my bag for all my quarters. I had brought 10 dollars’ worth. I knew you could bring change for the vending machines, and sometimes you could use them to take a picture with your loved one. I wanted a picture more than I wanted anything else. The only photo I had of myself with my father was when I was 13 years old. I also wanted to be able to buy him a cookie. He had always had an insatiable appetite for sweet things. If you brought a treat into the house, you’d better hide it, or he would find it and eat it without remorse. When we were younger, my mother would shake her head and say, “Just like your daddy, you and these sweets.”
My mother never said anything bad to us about our father, but over the years she talked about him less and less. I assumed it was because she had run out of things to say. They hadn’t been married for very long before he went to prison. Maybe she’d told us everything she knew. I didn’t know what it meant to have a broken heart. I was unfamiliar with longing and despair. It did not resonate with me that the father I’d never really known was also the husband she lost. I did not know that there are miles between running out of things to say, and running out of the strength to say them.
Still trying to leave Trent’s car, nervousness radiated around me. I kept dropping the quarters, starting to leave the car, then stopping to check and make sure I had everything I needed again. It was as if I’d thrown my momentum out the window somewhere along the road. It didn’t feel right. It felt sudden. I was still afraid, I still had questions, and I wasn’t sure I could make it out of the car with everything I needed. Trent leaned over and placed his steady hand over mine. I looked toward him, and he smiled.
“It’s going to be good. You’ve waited a long time for this. Tell him I said hello.”
Again, my heart stilled. I put all the quarters in my pocket and finally stepped out of the car. My chest tightened on the walk to the door, but I remembered to breathe deeply. The waiting room was full of foot-tapping visitors. The chairs looked like the hard plastic Fisher-Price furniture that gets passed down over and over in working-class families. As soon as your cousins were too big for it, ta-da! You just inherited some bite-sized kiddie furniture perfect for playing pretend, and not messing up your mother’s good table when you ate. Its blue-gray coloring looked dirty to me.
The two officers working the sign-in booth were busy doing a job made for more than just two people, and they knew it. Don’t be any trouble, and you’ll be fine. Internally, my pep talks were thin and already guilt-ridden. I was certain I would do something to mess this up for my father and me. As I stuffed my bag into a locker that cost me four of my quarters, I checked and rechecked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID. I hadn’t. But I checked again.
In the long line to add your name to the waiting list, I watched a woman get frustrated with the officers. She’d brought her cell phone into the facility, and apparently, that was not allowed. It wasn’t just something you couldn’t take into the visiting room, it was something you weren’t allowed to have in the building at all. She would have to walk it back to her car, then come back in and find a place at the end of the line again. It was only then that I noticed the signage all around the room: NO CELL PHONES ALLOWED ON PREMISES! LEAVE CELL PHONES IN YOUR CAR!
YOU MAY BE ASKED TO LEAVE IF CELL PHONE FOUND ON YOUR PERSON!
My fingers twitched toward the cell phone I’d forgotten to silence in my pocket. I prayed it wouldn’t ring while I was so close to giving the officers my father’s and my names. When I got to the front of the line, I answered every question quickly, then raced back to my locker to silence and hide my phone. I would have taken it out to the parking lot except that Trent wouldn’t be there, and if I left the waiting room, I might miss them call my name. I considered burying it in the gravel on either side of the sidewalk and just digging it out when I was done with my visit. Instead, I just sat and wondered if they’d search the lockers while I was talking to my dad, if they’d pull me out of our reunion because I hadn’t noticed the signs about the cell phones until it was too late. I pictured myself being grabbed by the officers and dragged away from him. I knew it was terribly dramatic, but I couldn’t shake the image. The other picture in my mind was of my dad, fighting them all, eyes blazing, warning them through clenched teeth, “Take your hands off my daughter.”
I felt worried, and proud, and protected thinking of it. Despite everything my father had done, I was still so eager to be claimed by him. To be protected by him. To the world, he was a bad man. To me, he was my dad who did a bad thing. I was still trying to figure out what it meant to love someone who had done such a bad thing, but I did love him. And that was enough for me to show up, and say so to his face.
I couldn’t sit, so instead, I paced. I counted backward from 100. I picked at my clothes so much I thought they might check me for fleas before they allowed me inside. I jumped when they called my father’s last name, my last name. It was time to go in for my visit. I went through the pat-down and the metal detector. Then the female officer asked the male officer if I was allowed to wear my headband in. He shook his head. She said I’d have to put it back in my locker, and get back in line. I took it off and handed it to her.
“Just throw it away.”
“Are you sure?”
She looked at me like I might be a nut job, and threw it away in the garbage can at her feet. In that moment, I didn’t care what my father thought of the way I looked. I wanted him to see me. She handed me a plastic tub for my shoes, belt, and quarters, then opened the big heavy door in front of me. I walked through, putting my belt and shoes back on after the door closed behind me. When I’d gathered the last of my quarters from the bin, a second large door opened for me to enter. I held my breath and stepped inside.
Once I entered the room, I scanned the crowd of tables for my father. I’d stared at the few pictures I had of him enough to recognize him anywhere. I was no longer that little girl sitting on my grandmother’s bed not knowing who her daddy was. His face was burned into my brain as much as my own. Another officer directed me to a log sheet. I signed my name quickly, nearly dropping the pen. My hands were shaking. By the time I turned back around, my dad was standing up.
My tears came swiftly. My first instinct was to run to him, but I was mindful enough to realize that running in a prisoner visitation room might be on the list of Shit You Don’t Do in a Prison. I walked calmly, if eagerly, toward him. He held his arms wide open and smiled. Then, I sprinted. My right cheek landed directly in the middle of his chest. He squeezed me tightly and kissed my forehead. He knew me. He whispered into my hair, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
There was his voice. It was deep and sincere. It made so much sense why I loved talking to my uncle Clarence, my father’s younger brother, so much. They sounded almost identical.
“I love you too, Daddy.”
I’d told myself before I got there, that I would refer to him as “Dad” because I was not a child. I was a grown woman, and I was pretty sure grown women didn’t call their fathers “Daddy.” But in that moment, I felt like someone’s little girl. And I’d been waiting a long time to feel like somebody’s daughter.
He walked me to our seating area. He looked at me and smiled. He was handsome. I look so much like him. Much more so in person than in pictures. It was startling, and familiar, and I promised myself that I would make it a memory. I would not forget how this felt, to notice how much I looked like my father. To feel this sameness in our blood, and countenance, and capacity for love.
My father loved me as much in person as he did in his letters. Maybe even more. He held my hands as long as he was allowed, which was 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of the visit. He spoke to me softly, as if the full volume of his emotions might scare me away. It quickly became apparent that he was trying to put his best foot forward as much as I was trying to do the same. We were in awe and terrified of one another. He leaned toward me, his words low and hesitant.
“I could sit here and stare at you all day, Ashley. But we ain’t got but a couple of hours. Let’s talk.”
“OK.” I thought about every question I’d wanted to ask him, important and poignant questions. Instead, I said, “What have you been up to?”
I regretted the question immediately. I had asked a man who had been in prison for 24 years the unabridged version of “What’s up?” I assumed it made me look dumb, or worse, uninteresting. My father smiled.
“Not much today, but I’ve been up to a few things here or there since the last time I saw you.”
He filled me in quickly. While incarcerated, he’d earned two degrees, an associate’s in art and a bachelor’s in business. He read voraciously. He was a funny guy. Really funny. Inside, that’s what he was known for: scholarship, art, and his sense of humor. And he loved me. He loved me and my brother and my mother. He missed us. He drew us all the time. He had photos of us taped to the wall in his cell. Sometimes, he said, we were the only thing keeping him alive.
I was the first person to visit him in five years. His father, my Grandpa J, had attempted to visit him five years earlier and had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel. Since then, there had been no one. Not his brothers, his sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, or his children. The love he hoped we had for him sustained him though he could not see it. He looked around to see where the guards were standing, and when he was certain the coast was clear, he grabbed my hands again. My father is one of the few people I know whose hands are bigger than mine.
“I knew it was you.”
“What do you mean?”
“When they told me I had a visitor, they couldn’t say who it was, but I knew. If anybody loved me enough to come into this hellhole, it would be my baby girl.”
The first question he asked me was, “Is my daughter happy?” because that was what was most important to him. I said, yes, because it was mostly true. The parts of my life that weren’t happy, I wasn’t ready to talk about. Not with him. Not yet. There was nothing he could do about them, and I hadn’t yet figured out if there was something I could do about them.
My father and I sat and talked for 2 hours and 47 minutes about anything we could think of in the moment. We covered politics (both of us were progressive), religion (he believed in God, I didn’t), and even relationships (we were both happily single). I asked him about his relationships before he married my mother. He told me that he had been in love with someone else before he met my mother, but it was complicated. He would tell me more in a letter. I laughed more than I cried, but I did cry. He sneakily held my hands here and there. He spoke to me with the weight of a sincerity I’d never known; it frightened me. In every story he told, I could tell he had been waiting to say those exact words to me for 13 years, perhaps longer. He’d thought it through, what kind of conversation he would want to have with me. He’d maybe even practiced. He knew I would come, and he would not let himself be so overwhelmed that he could not say all that he wanted to say. We were alike, my father and I.
After telling a joke about the man he shared a cell with, a joke that made me laugh from the center of my belly, my father got serious and quiet.
“Do you need anything from me, Ashley? Anything at all? I know I can’t do much from here, but if you need something, I’ll do whatever I can to get it to you.”
My voice caught in my throat, then I coughed up the question I needed to ask.
“I’ve been writing about you. Well, really about me. But a lot of it has to do with how I feel about you. But not just you. Actually, it’s about me being a kid, a little girl, and all the stuff that goes with that. And I use passages from some of your letters when I write about what they mean to me, or how they made me feel. Is that okay? Me writing about you? I don’t want to stop.”
He put his hand up to stop me from explaining. He sat back in his chair, and released a breath that caused his whole body, shoulders down, to sink farther into his baggy tan uniform.
“When you sent me one of your stories, I thought, Damn. I must be the luckiest fool in the world. I got me a daughter who’s smart, beautiful, and she’s a writer. A real one. A good one. I’m so proud of you, Ashley.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” I stared at my palms, unable to look him in the eye. He sat forward, and without looking around, put his palm in mine.
“So, look, I don’t know what all you’re writing, and maybe it don’t make me sound too good, but that’s not your fault. That’s on me. This is something I can give you if you need it. You need my permission? You got it.”
I looked at him. I don’t know what I’d expected. I guess I hadn’t even expected to ask him that particular question, but his permission gave me direction.
“Hands off!” A guard glared at my father, and he released my hands, mumbling under his breath.
“These muthafuckas … I’m trying to talk to my daughter.”
I did not want to think of my father as a violent man, though his incarceration was the result of his capacity for violence. I wanted to believe that had he been a free man, he would have been a fierce guardian, and I wouldn’t have ever been forced to endure all the times I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about. I couldn’t reconcile these two desires. I thought I would have learned by now.
The machine used to take pictures was broken, so we didn’t get to take a photo. I wasn’t ready to leave when we were told our time was up. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be ready to leave. There was still so much to say.
My father and I hugged. He walked me to the front of the visiting room. He squeezed me one last time and sat in the designated seat for prisoners to return to wherever they came from on the inside. Separate from the rest of us. Separate from me. In most cases, I was glad to be separated from the dangerous criminals I saw on the news and in the papers. This day, it felt cruel.
I waited in the line of people leaving their loved ones, most of us weeping. I turned frequently to look back and wave at him as he waited. He was always smiling, staring at me, waiting to wave back. There in case I needed him. I was turning back for the umpteenth time when he said my name. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He wanted to say something he hadn’t prepared.
“Do me a favor, Ashley? When you write about you and me? Just tell the truth. Your truth. Don’t worry about nobody’s feelings, especially not mine. You gotta be tough to tell your truth, but it’s the only thing worth doing next to loving somebody.”
I nodded through my tears. “Okay, Daddy.”
Just then, the door opened and the visitors began filing into another world, the outside world. I turned and blew him a kiss. He pretended to catch it. That was the first time I got to blow my father a kiss and he pretended to catch it. I must remember this, I thought. I turned the corner and passed the last window I could see him through. As soon as he was out of my line of sight, I panicked. I ran back to the glass window, still crying. He was in the seat, smiling, waiting for me.
I mouthed, “I love you.”
He laughed, and I wished I could hear it, just one more time. He mouthed, “I love you too. Now go!”
I waved one last time and rounded the corner.
I got 3 hours to tell the person I loved who I was, now I had to gather my quarters and head back to my life, separate from him.
It felt wrong to walk out of that ugly building without my father. I wanted to be taking him away from there. It felt wrong not to be holding his hand and heading home together. I was in no position to pardon him for the crimes he hadn’t committed against me, and I didn’t want to be. I could not forgive him in place of those he had harmed.
I wept all the way to Trent’s car. He was breaking the law and waiting there for me, sleeping, and unafraid of being caught. I opened the passenger door, and he stirred awake.
“How did it go?”
I opened my mouth to answer, and instead, I dissolved. In the visiting room, there was no space to break down, to melt with emotion. Sitting across from my father for the first time in 13 years, both of us swollen with all the things we needed to say to one another, the thought of letting all of this feeling overtake me seemed wasteful. Inefficient. In those moments, I needed more from myself. Restraint. But now, I was in a car with one of my closest friends. The visit was over. Every little thing I couldn’t allow myself to feel in my father’s presence made itself known.
Trent rubbed my back. “What can I do?”
After I caught my breath, I answered. “A drink. I need a drink.”
Trent laughed, and mentioned that he’d spotted a winery on our way there. We should pop in and see if we could do a tasting. I agreed.
As we pulled off, Trent asked, “Did you get what you needed?” I rolled down the window again, and closed my eyes.
“Yes, I think I did.”
“How does that feel?”
I smiled to myself. My father’s permission to keep writing felt like a secret I wasn’t ready to tell. I leaned farther out the window. I could hear the wind zipping past the planes of my face, still tight and sticky with tears I hadn’t bothered to wipe away. The sunshine turned the inside of my eyelids pink and purple. Inside of myself, I let go. I did not worry about what I hadn’t been able to share, or the life I was returning to. For half a minute, I was flying. For half a minute, I knew I had it in me to tell the truth, and be loved anyway.