The Bleach

“I hope you know every day that he loves you.”

I looked down at my phone in disbelief, reading the words carefully, thoughtfully, over and over and over again. An unexpected text from an old friend is usually cause for celebration, but this message carried with it bitter implications. Here was my old mentor, telling me she’d seen my father, reminding me that my father still loves me.

The thing is, my father can’t love me anymore.

I’m sure he does — or at least he thinks so — but he can’t.

My father has committed many indiscretions over the years, the details of which no longer matter. The unfaithful deeds have been done and the resulting fights are old news.

The first time I was stung by a bee, my mother taught me to pour a little bleach on the wound. I remember crying out in pain until the bleach hit my skin, dissolving the hurt almost immediately. I’d be stung again and again in the years to follow, and each time I would bleach the trauma away.

Not one of those bee stings left me with a scar. That little bit of bleach healed all the injuries so perfectly you’d never know they’d even occurred. But my memory of them is still vivid. I can still name the exact spots where sharp stingers broke my skin. I still full-body cringe when I think of the pain that accompanied each venomous encounter. I still tense up when a bee buzzes by me. Bleach can only do so much.

A year ago, I wrote my father a letter. I chose my words carefully, explaining the hurt he’d caused me and my mother and how I didn’t want to be his daughter anymore. I asked him to accept that his actions had consequences, to respect my wishes, to leave me be.

I sat down on the big gray couch in the living room, my throat tight with anxiety, as my mother read my letter aloud on my behalf. It hurt too much to say the words myself.

My father sat quietly on the edge of his recliner, looking at anything in the room but me. I watched as his gaze wandered from the blank TV screen to the fire in the wood stove to the view of the patio from the window, but never to me.

I knew this letter wouldn’t change anything when I wrote it — it wasn’t a “let’s talk about this” plea or a “you can fix this” kind of letter, but rather, a goodbye. It was the bleach.

My mother spoke the last words of my note, her voice clear but shaky with emotion. And when it was over, nothing happened. My father didn’t react. He could’ve apologized. He could’ve asked me for another chance. He could’ve begged me not to shut him out. But he didn’t, and I knew I’d made the right decision.

A month later, my mother finally asked for a divorce.

That big gray couch is now firmly planted in my mother’s apartment. An apartment that she does not share with my father. An apartment that’s not stale with the aftermath of broken promises and screaming matches. An apartment whose walls have never heard the words “I hate you” leave my mouth, whose doors have never been slammed, and whose floors have never felt the weight of my heartache.

I’ve done my best to bleach away my father’s mistakes. I’ve stopped and started loving him again more times than I can remember. I’ve let go of my anger, my sadness, but the invisible scars remain. Like bee stings, broken hearts never truly go away.

It doesn’t help that my father still reaches out on holidays and birthdays and any other chance he gets, pretending like nothing ever happened. I used to take the calls, each time in hopes that he would apologize, even if I knew I couldn’t forgive him, but he never did. Now, I just delete the texts.

Every time I hear my name — his name — I feel the hurt. My last name is a reminder that I’ve always been my father’s daughter.

Growing up, others defined me by my father. I was referred to as his daughter more than I was by my own first name. It didn’t matter that my father wasn’t good to us, it didn’t matter that my mother was the one who taught me to be a good person, and it certainly didn’t matter what I had accomplished. Everything I ever did right was always attributed to my father. He has never made me feel good about myself, but he has always used me as his bragging rights.

My mother has since started going by her maiden name, making a quiet statement of independence, of moving on and letting go. I could take my mother’s name too, but doing so doesn’t feel quite right either. So much of me already belongs to my mother — my eyes, my nose, my tenacity, my optimism and my humor are all so perfectly hers, and I love that so much. But my mother now belongs to herself, and I need to belong to me. I haven’t spent enough time being and belonging to me.

My last name is just the next step in the healing process. In the coming months, I’ll begin the process to legally change my name, to bleach away the last bee sting. I’ll be taking my given middle name, Morgan — a name I’ve always loved — as my last name, and I’ve chosen a new name, Quinn, to take its place in between. I’ll still be Brittney Morgan, just without all those bitter implications.

I can’t wait to say goodbye to the parts of me that aren’t me. I can’t wait to see my byline on a page for the first time and feel at home in my own identity. I can’t wait to belong to myself.

My father can’t love me anymore, but I’m OK.