Leah De Forest: Orange Peel

       When my brother and I were small, and my mother was out somewhere—at work, or perhaps in a psychiatric hospital, I don’t recall—my Dad showed us how he could peel an orange. All in one piece, he said. Look. He pressed his thumb in at the top of the fruit and nudged the skin away in a spiral. When he was done, he held the skin up with a flourish. He did this pucker-pout-smile (his standard gesture of pleasure and appreciation) and, I don’t know, maybe he handed us the orange, perhaps we ate it. My brother and I were impressed.
       When we told our mother about this, we were tip-toes excited. Her face turned blank.
       The summer I turned 12, my Dad took my brother and me out for dinner at the local pub. We ate fries and drank sodas from the bar. How about, Dad said, going to live with him in a pub up on the Murray River? The pub was in Mildura, a place we had been to once on vacation—it was north, which in Australia means sunshine and warmth. Dad would manage the pub and we would live there with him—upstairs, I imagined, in rooms with views of willow trees and river water. Sure, we said. Mum was in the hospital just then anyway, so she couldn’t look after us. We were going to have a fun new life. I was fizzy with soda and anticipation.
       After that pub dinner, Dad phoned my mother to say her children didn’t want her.
       We never did move to Mildura.
       Bullshit like this has trailed me all my life. By which I mean: I’ve been trying to figure it out for as long as I can remember. At first it was just a sense of: huh? What’s going on there? Then it was, hey, did he just …? Did she …? Which became, quite often, oh, I think he did. And then it was just—well, that seemed to be the end of it. For example: a year or two after that hospital stay, I learned that Dad had told my suicidal mother he’d left her antidepressants out. He was supposed to keep the medicine locked away. But, he told her, he was fed up. She should do whatever she wanted. Mum mentioned this to me several times in the years afterwards. I knew her medication was particularly dangerous if taken in an overdose. But the discussion rarely got much beyond a line or two. It was as if the meaning slid off the surface of the words.
       What’s up with that?
       My Dad had a gift for perceiving his own point of view as the absolute truth. This made him adept at transmitting that perspective to others. What made sense to him made sense, period: what annoyed or frustrated him was annoying, period. I don’t mean to say that he didn’t realize that other people had a point of view. I just think he understood this rather than felt it. He knew that we’d be excited by the idea of moving to a pub; he didn’t much care that we’d be disappointed when the plan didn’t come through. Our feelings were never quite real to him. He did later acknowledge that he’d done stupid things, but these were high-level admissions, designed to smooth things over among adults. His two oft-repeated phrases were: “hey, nobody’s perfect” and “always remember to look out for Number One.”
       That my Dad was narcissistic is not the most interesting thing here. What fascinates me is how the rest of us participated in his perspective. Arguments didn’t seem to stick to him. I do remember, reasonably often, having the sense that something was “off.” I might have read that blank look on my mother’s face, or caught a glimpse of my brother’s crushed expression after Dad made a nasty remark about his golf form. But then my Dad would smile. Then my Dad was all right. I could believe he was being reasonable. He’d tip his chin and make an appreciative face and I’d think, oh well. At least he’s not picking on me/asking too much. Why didn’t I think: don’t be a bully? Why didn’t I, at the very least, say: I’m not sure about that, Dad?
       Here’s a theory: my father was a master of creating a kind of “shrug bubble” of meaning. Inside my Dad’s coherent story, it was easy to shrug off alternative views. Part of this came down to power. For all that my father liked to say I could “be whoever I wanted to be,” he saw himself as the family patriarch. He meted out the punishments, he made the decisions. (When I told him I was engaged, he muttered that “it would’ve been nice to have been asked permission.” But it’s also to do with the shared nature of knowledge. The way we look to one another for understanding, and agree on the strongest version of reality. That’s how I mistook my Dad’s confidence for the unbiased truth. The dominance of his perspective made me feel like I understood, too. It felt good, having the answers. It made me feel safe. It was better to enjoy the performance of the orange peel than spend time wondering why my mother was so downcast by our delight. He was a good fun guy and she was just sad. Shrug.
       I can’t claim to grasp all the nuances of Dad’s meaning bubble (for one thing, I lack the confidence), but I’ve got an idea about one of its mechanisms. Dad’s strength relied upon my mother’s weakness; his charm depended on her discomfort. In every elision, in every bending of the light, there was an invisible opposite. If he was being reasonable, by definition his opposite (often, but not always, my mother) was being irrational. If he was feeling fed up, then the other person was provoking him. Of course these opposites might have been true occasionally, but as most adults learn, relationships are rarely so one-or-the other.
       But he was so good at making it seem as if they were. He liked to laugh—softly, indulgently—when other people struggled with things he found easy. This didn’t just make him appear more capable, more amusing, and better at golf; in the world of our family, he actually was. His genius was in knowing you don’t need to draw undue attention to the weaker/slower/dumber party to benefit from their existence.
       To child-me, that vision of life in the pub on the Murray River was a shining hope against the difficulties of my mother’s illness. It was part of a manipulation that required my participation well into adulthood. I didn’t want to believe that Dad would actually hurt Mum—not only because I loved her, and I loved him, but because something so plainly wrong didn’t fit inside the meaning we’d all agreed on. He did hurt her, though. He hurt a number of people. And I can’t just dump in an either/or formulation and move on. There is more, always more—his breakfast menu from palliative care, which I’ve kept, and on which he asked that I select only tea and apple juice; the Harry Potter books I found when I was cleaning out his house, books I subsequently read, and loved; the kiss I gave him on the forehead the night before he died. The miles I ran while processing my grief.
       It’s hard work, trying to get at the truth. But I do know this: a shared reality is not always a reliable one. And sometimes my Dad was mean.

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