“I’m curious about my birth parents.” I donned a second sweater because my adoptive father kept the house so cold. “What do you know about them?”
I was twenty-one and staying for a week at Dad’s place on Orcas Island. Although his main residence was in Atlanta, he had vacation properties in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Vermont, in addition to this one in the state of Washington. Orcas Island is picturesque, only twenty-four miles from Canada, and shaped like a half donut or a horseshoe. It curls around a bay called Eastsound.
“The adoption records were destroyed.” Dad did not lift his eyes from the weather forecast on television. “You can’t find those people.”
This had always been his answer. Dad was nonchalant and convincing. He was a record player, a well-oiled machine, an equity actor delivering his lines like a pro. I always nodded as if I was swayed, as if I was an easy mark, as if I was a model child. But, part of me knew he was lying. Otherwise, why ask him the very same question every two or three years? Why revisit the issue again and again? Why be repeatedly bombarded with the phrase “those people”? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result, but I was not crazy, and I was not gullible. I was wary. I suspected he was fibbing. I aimed to catch him off guard by posing the question at the right moment, on the right day, when he was looking to the left and not the right. I hoped to catch him in the midst of a mental nap and force him to blurt out the truth in frustration. But, Dad was not an “off guard” sort of fellow, and he rarely became frustrated. He was too controlled, too rehearsed, and just too darn composed.
I shrugged, knowing “those people” would remain a mystery for a while longer—maybe even forever—and ventured into the kitchen to make some lunch. There were two choices: frozen or canned. These were what Dad called “the primary food groups.” Packaged products or so-called convenience food had sustained me since babyhood with four exceptions: iceberg lettuce, carrots, red Delicious apples, and tomatoes. I had been taught that broccoli, spinach, green beans, and orange juice came from the freezer. Pears, asparagus, mushrooms, and peaches lived in tin cans. Whole grains were kooky and only wackos on the West Coast ate them. In fact, as I grew up, the only bread in the house had been white and pre-sliced. Tofu, quinoa, sushi, chia seeds, bean sprouts, and other “hippie foods” were simply never discussed. My childhood was all about Twinkies, tater tots, sugary cereals, pretzels, frozen pizza, and Oreos. Bad habits are hard to break, so my diet changed little after I left for college. In fact, on this very day, the fridge back in my Las Vegas apartment was stocked with my parents’ Kool-Aid.
“Why didn’t you at least get a mid-size, Missy?” (Family and friends called me by the nickname “Missy” back then.)
“What?” I popped my head into the living room to find Dad peering out the window at my economy rental car. I braced myself for another sideswipe.
“You should have gotten a mid-size. You’re supposed to be a debutante.”
“This car’s fine,” I mumbled. “I’m a little short on cash.” It was a blunder. I knew it as soon as I said it. I had given Dad a reason to gloat, a reason to climb I-told-you-so hill and reign down on me like a tyrant.
“Of course, you’re short.” The wood chipping machine that was my father roared with laughter. He always cushioned his cruelty with chuckles, a tactic meant to soften the blow. Dad had ground down my family tree and now he was crushing my confidence. My head dropped, and I stared at the white shag carpet.
My father had always thought I would fail. It was his refrain. I would fail at paying my bills without his golden wallet. I would fail at finding a husband because, as he put it, why would any man want to marry me? I would fail at life. Maybe his words were an attempt to spur me on, to motivate me, to shove me toward success. Maybe he thought he was doing me a favor. Or maybe not. It’s possible he wanted to feel needed as the adoptive father of a renegade debutante who had trampled on his rules for years.
“So, what happened? Why are you short?” His expression was a soup of righteousness and glee.
I stood there in silence. I was ashamed. I was disappointed in myself. I had spent my entire chip-chatting fortune on antiques, designer clothes, and travel in an effort to keep up with my entertainer friends. I had been jet-setting around like a Rockefeller, but reality had caught up with me. I was not rich or famous. I was poor and obscure with a measly $500 in the bank.
“Did you gamble it all away?”
“No,” I shot back. “I bought some really nice things.”
Dad shook his head as if to say that overspending was immature, classless, and thoroughly unbecoming of a highborn. “Well, I guess you’ll be moving back to Atlanta.” He returned his gaze to the set.
All air left the building, and I felt queasy. Moving back was not an option. Moving back would extinguish my dreams. Moving back would douse my fiery spirit. I gathered my courage and spoke, “I’m sick of Vegas, Dad. I’m moving to Los Angeles.”
“That’s where the fruits and nuts live.” He loved delivering his standard line about California. Then he swallowed his laughter, and his face became solemn. He made me an offer that he thought I couldn’t refuse.
“If you move to Atlanta, I’ll give you $500,000. I’ll buy you a townhouse, give you a Mercedes, and support you. If you move to L.A., you get a Volkswagen to drive and that’s it. You get nothing.”
“You want to give me half a million dollars, a place to live, and a new car?” I was dumbfounded.
“Or you can fail in Los Angeles.” He gazed back at the meteorologist on TV.
My initial shock shifted into reflectiveness and then the truth hit me. Dad’s offer was not about generosity. It was about power. It was about controlling me with his money. Dad wanted to turn me into the obedient socialite that he’d always dreamt I’d be. He hoped to prop me up in that “old money” world, a place I saw as flawed, as wooden, as stifling, but that he perceived as the only respectable place for his daughter. Dad aimed to make me dependent on him and to convert me into a fan of cotillions, curtseys, and pointed pinky fingers. He wanted me to be another Mom, only emotionally stronger.
But, Atlanta had been my coffin for eighteen years, and I had finally escaped from the darkness of its belly. Nothing could tempt me back, not even excessive riches. So, I thought about Dad’s offer for as long as it takes me to get bored watching the weather report: namely, ten seconds.
And I moved to California with only $500 to my name.