Daddy lifts me up and plops me down on top of the counter in the neighborhood bar. The dark marble feels cold on the back of my legs and my feet dangle over the edge.
The room is smoky and filled mostly with men's faces. The bartender leans in and pinches my cheek. I look at Daddy for re-assurance. He smiles, so I know that everything is okay. I am not quite two years old and his smile means everything.
There are two Daddies in my life. There's the one who smiles and the one who is mad.
I was his first-born child, the surprise that ended his carefree ideas about life, and I wasn't a boy. From the start I think I triggered the not-happy part of his life, so it was important to me that in any way I could, I make him happy.
My earliest memories of him are sensual, if not sexual. I can feel his hands on me. He's caressing my cheek, holding my tiny fingers wrapped in his, stroking my back, or tickling my belly. His touch is soft and caring. Exploratory.
My baby mind doesn't know names for feelings yet, but it knows pleasure. Later, I will equate these first lessons in affection with love, but for now, the experience is intensely sweet.
My body knows what the skin knows ... and it is good.
"I love you, Blackie," he says when I smile in response to his touch.
He calls me Blackie because I have very dark thick hair, not at all like my mother's shimmering platinum blonde. His face lights up as he gingerly bops me on the nose and I smile back. He teaches me this way, the response reflex. I smile and he smiles. He smiles and I smile. It is warm when the corners of his mouth are turned up and I feel safe.
Sometimes, when he seems really happy, he picks me up and holds me close to him, dances around the room with me, holds me up to the sky, makes me feel as if I am the center of his world.
"I love you," he says again as he twirls me around. It is the best feeling I know, matched only by Mommy doing the same thing.
Years later, after a botched suicide attempt, my psychiatrist will ask me, "Did your father ever touch you inappropriately?"
I will sit there, trying to remember anything, my mind rushing through a wild patchwork of memories and sensations. I try to find it, that thing he is asking of me, but nothing concrete or specific will come to my mind.
My adult son will offer up, "Your dad said he messed with you," and he wasn't meaning as ‘in my hair'.
Daddy tells me later, when I am eight or so, that he took me to the bar so that Mommy could have a break. But more than that, he says he took me there to show me off.
No snappy foot pajamas would do for these outings. No, it had to be a frilly dress and maybe a ribbon in my hair. The ladies in the bar would all come up and coo over the "cute little thing" Daddy - or Coop as they called him - had brought. I think he liked the ladies attention more than he liked me. I think now, that I was part of his need to have other women pay attention to him, to let him feel desirable. But back then, all I knew was that I was with Daddy, and that if he was happy, everything was good.
By the time I was two, Mommy was pregnant with my brother and wanted to spend more time at home. That meant that Daddy took me to the bar more often. It was close to the duplex we lived in on the canals in Naples, California. Now, instead of carrying me most of the way, I walk next to him, my shiny patent leather shoes clicking on the concrete as we walked the narrow sidewalks.
Daddy wraps his big hand around my little one in a tight grasp. It feels safe walking with him like this.
The air smells like ocean and fish because we are next to the water. Fat seagulls swoop overhead trying to fish. Boats bop back and forth in their slips along the canal edge.
I turn my head toward the sky to see him, his face way above mine. Blue blue is the color that I see. Blue of the sky. Blue of his eyes. And they are smiling me. His eyes are smiling. His hand is holding mine and he is smiling. I can feel the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine on my shoulders. This is a happy day.
When I start to lag, he tightens his grip. Maybe it is to keep me out of traffic, or maybe just keep me directed on walking toward the bar. I want to look at every single thing, touch the bugs and smell the flowers. The world is such a big place, but that could make the walk take a very long time.
His destination is the room with the other people. The place with the glasses filled with colored liquid and ice. The one with smoke and the women who would touch him on the shoulder and whisper things in his ear. They'd laugh, all of them, and I'd get to feeling kind of lonely and maybe whine a bit and then Daddy would become the other one, the mad one. And he'd say something mean, like tell me to be quiet when all I wanted then was to go home.
He'd put me on the floor, not so softly, and we'd walk back to the place we shared with his mother, grandma Edna. He wouldn't hold my hand when he was mad and he'd walk fast and in front of me. I'd run along behind, trying to keep up, scared that he was mad and wanting him to be the other Daddy again.
We'd get home and he'd yell something at Mommy like I wasn't a very good girl. She would give him a mean look but not say anything. I think she hated to fight.
Mommy would put her arms around me and take me to the bedroom we all shared. She'd take the ribbon out of my hair and comb out the knots. By now, I'd be crying because everybody was mad. She'd kiss me and shhssh me. She'd take off my frilly dress, put on my warm footed jammies and tuck me into my bed.
"Don't cry, Cathie," she'd say as she kissed my cheek. "Be quiet now. Daddy's just tired and we don't want to make him any madder. Close your eyes and go to sleep."
I pull my yellow blankie tight to my body and wind the knitted edge around and between my fingers. It rubs against the webbing and all my insides go quiet. It's the same thing that happens when Daddy strokes my hair.
I'm sorry I made Daddy mad. Tomorrow, I'll be good all day, and then he'll be happy. I pull my blankie closer and fall asleep.