Howard Fluchter was my dad. Hugging him, my chin grazed his chest. He could juggle anything from oranges to flaming candles and make oatmeal that tasted like autumn. He was a history teacher and a husband. He gave piggy back rides that were more fun than the fastest roller coaster and told bedtime stories replete with shadow puppets on my bedroom wall. He smelled of soap and linen on school days and fresh cut wood on weekends. He had a nest of straw-colored hair with a mind of its own—just like me. His hands were rough—one degree shy of sandpaper—and somehow, this made me feel proud.
It is over a year since my dad died and still I wake up each morning surprised that he isn’t there to greet me; over a year since I touched the familiar calluses of his powerful hands and still I wake up with tears in my eyes.
Only there is no safe place to let my tears out. Everywhere I look there is my mother—Sam—wearing her perennial red lipstick with a fake smile, her busy eyes watching every move I make. She is there for me the way a turtleneck is in July: unhelpful and stifling all the same.
So I walk around our two-bedroom apartment holding in the pain I wear like armor, hardened after months of watching my mother pretend that everything is fine. I couldn’t cry if I wanted to in front of my mother, in front of a woman who never mentions my father. Just looking at the perky woman in her overalls, singing show tunes as she washes dishes, makes my tears turn to bitter salt.
There’s a price to pay for holding in pain, for not being able to talk about my dad’s car accident and what followed until there’s snot dripping down my face. Everything gets to me. I am a bomb ready to detonate. Sam is the trigger.
Sam looks like a brunette Tinker Bell: all tiny and feminine with a laugh that sounds like bubbling champagne. There’s something ephemeral about Sam, like she’s too frail for this world. People feel this unspoken, gravitational pull toward my mother: they see her and want to help. I think my dad felt the pull more than most. He was her protector, her knight in shining armor. They were perfect together.
But ever since my dad’s car accident, Sam’s laughter sounds flat and her gravitational pull feels false and desperate. I miss the woman with the glint in her dark eyes who breathed fresh life wherever she went. I miss her tiny hand squeezing mine with love. I miss the mischievous grin on her full mouth. I miss the way she tickled me until I was begging for breath.
The woman I’m living with and call mom is an imposter. My real mother is crying her eyes out somewhere in Houston, visiting dad’s gravesite daily. She hired this look-alike because she is too overwhelmed with grief to cope with life but will be arriving shortly with tearful apologies and lots of mushy hugs.
Okay, maybe not, but my fantasy sure beats the reality of Sam’s coldness any day.