Photo by Katherine Briccetti, courtesy of the author.
The bunkbed in Dad's new condo is a dream come true. I am seven years old, 18 months older than my sister. So when I call "Top bunk!" it's mine, all mine. We stay at our dad's every other night. That was the agreement my parents made during the divorce.
"Girls! Are you ready for bed?"
My dad calls out from the opposite end of the condo. It's Wednesday, a school night. This is our bedtime routine. "I'm waiting!"
My sister and I race down the dark hall towards his bedroom. He's lying on his back in the middle of his big bed.
"Ready for Inchy Pinchy?"
I am never ready for this game, but I hold my sister's hand tight and pull her into his room. The smell of his mouth wash makes my nose tingle. My breath is trapped in a dark place. We screech as we race around his bed. I skitter past him, and he lunges at me. His fat fingers dart out, and he pinches my arm.
I squeal. It doesn't hurt. But it does.
He jabs at my sister and pinches her hard. She screams. Her thigh turns red in the spot where he got her.
My eyes meet his, and I see his thrill. He loves this game he made up for us before bed; we play it three nights a week when we're here. I want more than anything to run back to my room and climb into my top bunk where it's safe.
But I also want him to love me. So I inch my way around that enormous bed.
His grabby hand gets me again. "Daddy! That's too hard!" I beg.
He is not the kind of man who smiles. It is even rarer to hear him laugh. But when he pinches me, his laughter fills every corner of his room.
Don’t cry. I huddle up as he goes after my sister again. I should be with her. I should get her away from him. She screams. Tears pool up in her eyes. She always cries.
"All right, that's enough," Dad ends the game. "Off to bed!"
You Might Also Like: Breaking Up With My Narcissistic Father
More than ten years later, I am halfway into my first semester at college when my father follows me 600 miles to school. This is not for a visit. He has already done that plenty.
In his hotel room, he tells me that he is relocating from San Francisco to Portland for business. He already put an offer on a house near my dorm.
"I don't understand, Dad."
Didn't I just move out? And what father would follow his daughter to college? A father who loves his daughter on his terms.
“Portland is good for business.”
He tells me this is not permanent. I look over his shoulder at the massive bed in his hotel room. The sheets are twisted. He's still so unaware of how his actions hurt me. I want more than anything for him to love me. But I also want some space. I beg him to change his mind.
"Please, Dad. Don't do this."
Don't be a brat, I tell myself. He's paying your tuition. You should be grateful.
When I obey him, this pleases him. I like to make him happy. He seems so lonely, even if he has an occasional girlfriend. My mother remarried. He never did. Still, my rage simmers like a small pot of boiling water on the stove. The pot is burning.
Over my winter break, I can't sleep. I want to escape, but where would I go? I pack my bags and board a bus to Mexico with my boyfriend. I find a job teaching English at a school where no degree is needed. I tell myself I'll return to school in the fall.
I am unable to stand up to my father, but I can run out of that room.
I can run from his grabby hands. He can't chase me over the border.
Today, I am the mother of two daughters. I still want so badly to please my father. I invite him over for dinner every Wednesday night. This goes on for years. His mid-week visit falls on the same night I used to stay with him growing up.
When I serve him baked potatoes with all the fixings, I hope he likes it. He swoops in for a big portion. My younger daughter doesn't finish hers. He grabs half a potato from her plate. He's more fragile now. His gout is acting up. Tonight he hobbles into the kitchen.
"You should check out the Claremont schools," he says loudly, gesturing with his hands in the air. "I'd like to take her on a tour."
He's talking about my older daughter, who's a now a junior in high school. He spells out his plan: if my husband and I let him take over the college process, he'll pay her tuition. In other words, if I let him decide which schools she'll apply to, instead of making that choice for herself, he'll cover the costs. The eagerness in his eyes is so familiar. You're an adult now, I tell myself. My daughter's future is up to her, not him. But I am shrinking into the corner; he's waiting for an answer.
I've sabotaged myself for most of my life in my relationship with my father, but I can't let him sabotage my daughter.
He isn't going to change, but I can.
"No, Dad," I say, "It's not your choice. It's hers."
He's irate. Back home, he sends me an email telling me that he's hiring a lawyer to file a lawsuit. "Grandparent's rights," he says. I try to make amends because I still want his love.
I go to see a therapist with him. That's where I tell my father — for the first in my life — that his behavior is hurtful and unacceptable. He doesn't apologize. He does the opposite.
"You were my daughter," he says. "But no longer. Your bitterness will create an early death for you."
He can't physically grab me anymore, but he can try to grab me with his words.
I feel sick. He says that he has taken my daughters and me out of his will.
"This will be our final conversation for the rest of my life," he tells me.
I can barely transcribe this on the page without wanting to hide under the bed. What kind of father is capable of such cruelty? A father who can only love on his terms. It's Inchy Pinchy all over again.
I couldn't protect myself as a little girl, but I can protect my daughters.
This happened three years ago. It has taken me decades to stop inching around him, but today I know the truth. A father is not supposed to hurt his daughter. And a daughter should never have to choose between feeling safe with her father or feeling loved. His grabby hands can no longer get me.