A Story from Roxane Gay's Upcoming Collection, 'Difficult Women'
A girl goes with her father to see his mistress regularly. When her father dies, she pays the mistress one last visit and learns something surprising.
When I was a girl, my father once told me that women weren't good for much. We were parked at the mountain overlook just outside town. I was in the backseat, staring at my shoes, chewing my fingernails. He was in the front seat, drinking Maker's Mark from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He and my mother had just had another heated argument and he had dragged me out of the house as if I would ever choose his side. He said, "Don't become like your mother. She is a small woman." My father didn't love my mother. I don't even think he loved me but he did love making us miserable by refusing to leave.
My father's opinions didn't keep him from fornicating with any number of women. My mother told me that once, after she found another woman's earrings on her nightstand. "Tacky costume jewelry," she said, as if the quality of the earrings angered her more than their presence in her bedroom.
For years, my father dated a woman named Teresa. She was seven years younger and a waitress at a bar called the Mosquito Inn, which was decorated like an African safari. It didn't make much sense to anyone because we were in Upper Michigan. Teresa had red hair she always wore in a messy pile on top of her head. She smoked skinny cigarettes and wore low-cut shirts and too much makeup. She called me Steph no matter how many times I corrected her and said, "My name is Stephanie." She didn't mind that my father was married and had a kid. She never expected much from him. She was the kind of woman who didn't expect much from life. They were well suited.
Every Saturday, my dad told my mom we were going fishing, no matter what the weather was like. I'm not sure if he was being cruel or kind with that lie. We'd leave the house before dawn, and the night before, I'd stuff my backpack with books and a notepad and my Walkman, a set of clean underwear. We'd drive the 17 miles to Teresa's place. She lived in a trailer on a large plot of land her daddy left her. There was nothing around for miles. I know. I looked. When we pulled up, Teresa would be waiting in the doorway, wearing a silky robe that she let fall open. Underneath, she wore only a pair of lacy panties. My father always grinned when he first saw her, then he ruffled my hair and said, "You can look, my darling dear, but you can't touch." I would shrug away from him, and make a face, but I would look because Teresa was beautiful, in the hardened way women like her are.
I daydreamed about a time when I wouldn't have to spend my weekends in a shitty trailer watching shitty television listening to my father fuck his mistress.
As we ducked into her trailer, Teresa would toss me the remote to the small television that sat on the kitchen table and tell me to make myself at home. Then she and my dad would lock themselves in her room for hours. They were neither discreet nor quiet. My dad was a sloppy, vulgar lover, from what I could hear—all heavy breathing and grunting and ass slapping. I vowed to never let a man like him touch me like that. Teresa always giggled, her high-pitched laugh inescapable in that tiny trailer. I sat on the small couch next to the kitchen table and flipped through the three channels Teresa's television received and tried to read or draw, but mostly I daydreamed about a time when I wouldn't have to spend my weekends in a shitty trailer watching shitty television listening to my father fuck his mistress.
Eventually, Teresa and my father would emerge from the bedroom. He never wore a shirt, always letting his pale, saggy stomach hang out like he was proud of it. They would both be all smiles and my father would stretch out next to me on the couch, rubbing his bare belly. Teresa would make us grilled cheese sandwiches or corn dogs and tater tots or some other appropriately white trash meal. Then the three of us would watch more television, sometimes a movie. Around nine, they would turn in for the night and I would lie on the couch, staring out the small window, listening to the laughing and grunting and ass slapping and heavy breathing, hoping my mother was having an affair with the guy from the hardware store or one of the deacons from church. We went home late on Sunday evening and my mother was always waiting with a home-cooked meal. My father handed her flowers we picked up at the grocery store and kissed her on the cheek. She never asked me about our fishing trips or why we never brought any fish home.
When my father died after driving too fast over an icy bridge, Teresa came to his funeral. My mother, who never had been any good about making a fuss about things that just weren't right, didn't say anything. She simply stared forward, her eyes burning a hole in my father's casket as his mistress sat on the other side of the aisle. My mother sat with her spine ramrod straight. She didn't shed a single tear. She was going to mourn my father with a dignity he never possessed in life. Teresa, though, was a mess, sobbing openly, blowing her nose into a handkerchief an usher handed her. After the service, my mother stood in front of the church in her neatly pressed lavender suit, greeting the guests, thanking them for attending, ignoring their whispers. Teresa, she stood next to my father, her perfectly manicured hand on his casket, still making a mess of herself with her crying. I guess she loved him. It was nice that someone did.
I went to visit Teresa the first Saturday after my father died. I was driving then, almost on my way to college. At the crack of dawn, I knocked and waited, shifting from foot to foot. When she opened the door, she was wearing her silk robe, as she always did, and it was open, revealing her body, as lovely as it had always been. Her eyes were red. Once my father died, I don't know that she ever stopped crying. Silently, Teresa stepped aside and I ducked under her arm and into the trailer. She sat at the tiny kitchen table and lit a cigarette, then offered me one. I nodded, and for a while, we just sat there, legs crossed, looking at each other, smoking her cheap, skinny cigarettes.
"He loved spending Saturdays with you," she finally said.
I shook my head. "He loved spending Saturdays with you."
Teresa smiled sadly. "It's not that simple."
I shrugged, slid lower in my seat, lit another cigarette.
She slid her hand across the table, dragging her fingers across my knuckles. I looked at Teresa, saw how hard living had taken up residence in her features. I squeezed her hand gently. I wanted her to feel something soft. She stood, let her silk robe fall to the floor, and started walking to her bedroom. Then she turned to look at me over her shoulder and I stood.
Difficult Women © 2017 by Roxane Gay; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. "In the Event of My Father's Death" originally appeared in slightly different form in Pear Noir! #3.