I’ve Come From Gum

I spent my whole life wondering. I used to sit in front of the mirror and pick my features apart from the half of my lineage I knew to be true; the half that was certain and weather-beaten into my brain. I had her nose. I had her bone structure. I had her lips, with their peaks and dips in all the right places. And yet, her eyes were a brilliant blast of blue, the kind of blue that loses you if you stare too hard, the kind of color that had layers on itself— folds of different shades of cyan and grey that collaborated to produce something multifaceted, something shimmering, something that, for as long as I could remember having the power of independent thought, I called “storyteller eyes.”

And then there were my eyes: deep and brown like pools of chocolate. Nothing flattering could really be said about them other than the fact that they looked like a pan of freshly melted milk chocolate bark waiting to coat a lush strawberry or perhaps get drizzled over vanilla ice cream, transforming it from something mundane to an exciting, deluxe dessert choice. Either my eyes looked like chocolate or shit, depending on who was describing them and how they felt about me at the moment.

Who was he? What did he do for a living? Was he a good person? Is he even still alive? Could I run into him in town? What if he was that guy in the grocery store admiring the rows and rows of peanut butter that wouldn’t move out of the way for me to walk past (even though he most definitely saw me in his peripheral vision)? What is his philosophy on the afterlife (or lack thereof)? Does he have a neck tattoo? Please, God, don’t let him have a neck tattoo.

Not having the other half of the picture, lacking the missing piece of the wishbone, being unable to solve for x in the simple yet complicated story of my conception…it made me wonder if every man I met who was visibly rooted in the mediocrity of his forties was my father. I had no choice, really. When you grow up not only without a father but without even a shred of clarity on who it could possibly be, your mind wanders to extravagant places. What if he was some sort of exotic foreign man? A nice Italian guy, maybe. It would certainly explain my propensity to tan with an ease that’s a little too misleading for my skin, making me feel invincible in the sovereign summer sun. Or what if I had the taste for tea—steaming and unsweetened despite the sticky Georgia air outdoors on any given day—because he was an Englishman? Or, perhaps the most frightening question that I pose to myself when my mind recesses to this place of personal introspection—the game of matchmaker between my mother and the countless suitors that she had, each and every one of whom gleaming with the possibility of being the man who gave me half of who I am, what I dream, how I feel—is that maybe he’s just the balding guy in the grocery store whose biggest decision in life is which brand of peanut butter to buy.

I never really felt cheated out of anything, out of any loving semblance of family by not having a father. I grew up far from the picture-perfect model of the nuclear family with a prior-service Army mom and a sister across the country, maturing before my eyes in pictures that were sent by her condescending stepmother twice a year. Having a father was a pipe dream saved only for the latest of nights when my mind was at its most unquiet. In my head, fathers were the white-button-down-wearing guys of a bygone era who would leave the house in the morning freshly pressed from pomaded head to polished toe and return at six o’clock with their hair in a tussle from the creeping hours of the day and their shirts crinkled a little after eleven hours of wear on the contours of their torso and retaining that smell that was uniquely theirs; a mixture of day-old cologne and the slight musk of sweat, with just a slight lingering of the soap they used in the shower twelve hours prior.

The Dad in my head would hang his jacket or maybe hand it to my mother, then pour a whiskey or a scotch, some kind of brown liquor that looked appealing—like a thinner, less viscous caramel sauce reserved for adults, yet tasted like hell — as soon as he got home. He’d foray over to a chair that was unanimously referred to as his, and have a seat, tumbler in hand, wincing after every bitter sip. The Dad I dreamed up was swanky, exuding a kind of coolness that was lost on the modern world as he lit a cigar and smoked inside the house, next to me, not concerned with secondhand smoke or the discoloration of the walls. “Yellow’s a gorgeous color,” he’d say with a chuckle before taking a drag, or a drink, or both.

And yet, the dream I stitched together from memories I never had (and never had a chance of having) seemed to exist within the confines of old movies and black-and-white television shows. The fathers of my friends that I surveyed with the most nonchalant of demeanors (outwardly, of course, as inside, I was recording their every move, trying to get a clear idea of what a Dad is supposed to actually be) were khaki shorts guys, they were La-Z-Boy guys, they were vegetarians and they were beer-drinkers. Each of the fathers I encountered had a different song to sing; some were active in their children’s lives, so active that it almost seemed as though they were trying to make up for the fact that they couldn’t have biologically grown the kids. And others were more passive, choosing instead to take a back seat on the plush living room furniture that they worked all day to purchase, a sweating beer can in one hand and a television remote control in the other.

I didn’t know which type of dad I preferred. I didn’t know what my dad would watch on television if he were the latter type. Football? Law & Order? ER? And I didn’t know what activities my Active Dad would choose to do with me; would we play football? Would he take me hiking? Would he, had he taken an interest in my life, happily and without dispute drive a dignity-starving minivan during the first sixteen years, the years that he’s shared the mandated chauffeur duties with my mom?

I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know his name.

For the first segment of my life, I convinced myself that he didn’t exist. I illustrated some fantastical tale in my mind that my mother simply woke up with a baby bump one day, full-term, and I arrived later on in the evening. I believed, in my wild-winded youth, that all the gum she rebelliously swallowed as a child and a Bubblelicious-smacking teenager with dark glasses and attitude all fused together to form a tight ball that sat against her stomach lining, garnering enough wayward cells to generate and regenerate through mitosis until I was no longer a ball of bubble gum, but a fully-grown human baby ready to begin life in the brave new world.

And then there was, of course, the stark swing of the hammer of reality. There was seventh grade health class. There was a classroom full of snickering boys and blushing girls. There was a teacher regulated by the county’s curriculum guidelines to teach this material to children who considered five stray hairs beneath a boy’s nose a full mustache. And there was the lesson of how people are made, how two bodies of the opposite gender must come together and how there’s a crucial exchange. There was the vision of me beginning existence as a sweet little ball of sticky, pink defiance crumbling with every rushed, terse word that our teacher said. I actually had to have a father, I realized to myself (never in a million years having the courage to raise my hand “simply to clarify” that there’s no possible way I didn’t originate from years of swallowed gum, despite really, really wanting to do so) in that moment.

There was a man, I realized, that was walking the Earth—most likely within the same small-town borders that held me (as it takes someone really special to leave this place, someone who is somebody). That sentiment in itself flooded me with a rush of sorts: he’s either still here, or he was important enough, ambitious enough, stellar enough to leave. Or, I remember, my mind always drifting to the worst-case scenario, he’s dead. But more than likely, the man that contributed to half of my entire body and soul—right down to the way my cells are aligned and the way I always take the first step with my right foot, despite my mother always using her left—is right here in town, right under my nose.

As I grew older, as my hair renounced its natural Jack Daniels hue to the arms of a brash, artificial box-borne blonde and my body curved itself into something mature, something desirable, I thought less and less about my father. As boys began to keep condoms in their wallets and have just the jagged silver edges of the wrapper stick out ever so precariously, so eye-catching to girls and so staged for that exact purpose, I began to lose any potential respect that could ever be drummed up for the man who, one blustery night in 1988, took my mom on a “date” and inevitably never called her back. These boys’ condom-wrapper charades were about as authentic as my hair color, and even they had the foresight to use protection.

But I couldn’t stop my mind from dancing through the possibilities of the reality of so many years ago, reenacting scenes between my mother, azure-eyed and hobbling with a bowling ball in her shirt and some faceless male figure with a voice whose tone was not unlike the teacher from Charlie Brown—a monotone warbling that my mind was unable to quite pin down. Did he know about me? Did he carry some tattered and weather-beaten picture of the two of us snapped before I could process the memory? Did my parents have a fight, the kind of fight that severs two people from ever being able to look at each other again? Was it about me? I want to believe that they loved each other. I want to believe, after all these years, that when she looks at my face and our eyes pierce each other, that she sees the face of someone she still misses, the face of the proverbial one that got away. And yet, as more and more reality permeated the walls of my brain with each passing year, as the world shaped itself around me as a young adult wading through the quicksand of my own interpersonal interactions, I came to accept the plausible truth that they probably didn’t even have a relationship.

They might not have even known each other.

I went to Helsinki for two years before enrolling in college, because the Finnish people—I heard—were very accepting and polite of other cultures, and from a shallow perspective, I had an affinity for blondes. It was in Finland that I met Petra, the woman with the neon green eyes who would, in time, help to cultivate a perception that it’s perfectly acceptable to loathe all men. I saw her for the first time wrangling a newspaper out of a jammed press box in Market Square on a grey day in September, her blonde locks whipped by the wind in front of her face, shielding her eyes. She was a fireball, cursing in sounds that my rudimentary Finnish-speaking ability couldn’t yet detect, yet her frustration seemed to pole-vault over the language barrier between us. I walked over from my table at an outdoor café, leaving my half-consumed tea for this spectacle of potential fueled by a high in my soul that I never, ever remembered feeling before. I was calm, my collected and even-keeled demeanor radiated around me, aura-like and glowing. Months later, this is what she told me reeled her in: the slow lapping of the waters of my soul against her uptight concrete seawall of a spirit.

I slowly opened the press box in a controlled method that was inconceivable to her in that moment of breathless anxiety and handed over the newspaper with a sly smirk, the ink of the day’s happenings rubbing off my hands; the same hands that spread the same ink over her bare skin a mere block of hours later.

Petra taught me countless things in the seven months that we gravitated toward each other, closing our eyes together in passion and fatigue in dim rooms, dark rooms and everything in between and opening them again in the unfailing light of morning; that birch kind of light that flows infallibly in even through drawn curtains, that type of light that illuminates bright eyes and casts a breathtaking glow on the person tangled up in the sheets next to you. She taught me how to toss a casting net. She taught me to parallel park. And yet, the thing I’ll remember the most about Petra—other than the way she always smelled like rose hips despite chain-smoking and sometimes going days between showers simply because she liked the way her hair looked—was the way she was so cavalier about me not having a father. It didn’t seem to phase her that I was missing an enormous chunk of my heritage, and that there was a man with a ticking clock out there who, at any moment in time, could be hit by a car or stabbed in the street or simply eat too much red meat and fall victim to the revenge of his clogged arteries.

I wanted her to understand, but more than that, I needed her to understand.

And when she didn’t, when she moved in to kiss me every time a mention of him leaked from my lips—shutting me up in the sexiest of ways—my infatuation for Petra began to wane; the fire of what I felt slowly tarnishing in the winter of her attitude toward something that meant so much to me.

I left Petra a note while she showered on the back of a bar receipt dated 15 April 2013 that I had to leave, I had to find him, I hope one day she can understand that I need to give the faceless man in my mind an appearance. The sky that day was color of milk and the wind was brutal, blowing dirt from a nearby flower bed into my eyes as I stepped out of the foyer of her apartment building with a tightly packed carry-on bag and hailed a cab to the airport.

Fast-forward to three weeks later, and I was sitting with my back plastered to the stiff makeshift booth of a Burger King a thirteen minutes’ drive from the playground where my mother used to take me to swing as a child who believed she originated from bubble gum; the park where I smoked pot for the first time in a fit of forbidden-fruit giggles. I was the only woman under the age of 40 in the room. I was waiting for an Italian with salt-and-pepper temples in a three piece suit to approach me, to take my hand and suggest we go somewhere more dignified. I was expecting a chipper and pleasant, “Excuse me, Miss?” over my shoulder, followed by a quaint handshake as he came into view, a tea bag sticking out of his wallet instead of a condom wrapper.

And yet, the man that I found sitting in front of me had a leather face, beaten by years of Early Times and a gut to match. His gait was unsteady as he clamored through the door, wiping the sweat from the unfeeling Georgia sun from his forehead with his bare hand before rubbing his hand along jeans that had to be as old as me, possibly older. He traipsed up to the counter, the cashier’s eyes glazing over as she regarded him like a common piece of gutter trash that she undoubtedly was forced to encounter day in and day out for a measly minimum-wage paycheck. He ordered two hamburgers in a gravelly tone, a voice whose inflections matched the scraping feeling of hearing the hostile revving of lawn care equipment being pumped to life at seven on a Saturday morning. Then, unceremoniously, he scanned the dining room and stopped when his eyes aligned with mine.

I could tell even from far away that this wasn’t just some middle-aged man gripped by the existential panic of living and dying in the backwoods of Georgia who was taking a moment to bask in the splendor of a pretty, polished woman sitting like a perfect juxtaposition in a dilapidated, germ-infested Burger King built before she was even as idea in anyone’s mind.

His eyes met mine, and I could already see it: they looked like shit.

He sidled over to me with a proud smile plastered on his scraggly face with its wayward brown beard hairs, a face that looked like it was smooth once before the rays of the Southern sun and the unforgiving passage of time dried it into something despicable, something hardened by life. “So you’re my little girl,” he slurred, before plunking down in the booth across from me, his bourbon-colored hair flopping down with him in a grimy sheen. I sighed sharply, awash with disgust and unable to formulate a proper response. I looked at him and he looked at me; he took in my black blazer, my delicate layering of necklace between the flaps of my collar, my rose gold watch that clicked louder and louder with every second of silence. He inhaled all of this with his eyes, and, in a moment of possible justification of the sheer lack of effort he put forth into our first known meeting, chuckled and offered in a voice that sounded less like an natural way of speaking and more like he needed to clear his throat, “Sorry, baby, I’m kinda hungover from last night.”

What had I done? I had a budding life in Helsinki. I could have stayed there forever, with Petra. We could have continued our dancing in the discotheques like we used to, accepting drinks from eager men all night only to just leave together, hand in hand, back to her place or mine just before the sun peeked out to play, bathing us in the golden light and making everything seem far dreamier than it actually was. Petra could get up, eyelids drooping yet acutely insistent on making me breakfast and scramble me a plate of eggs with more pepper than is necessary. I could be at some little café with an Earl Grey and hours of people-watching ahead of me right now. And instead of that whimsical sachet of who I used to be, what I used to have, I’m sitting in a decaying fast food establishment in the Bible Belt of th United States with a man who couldn’t even wash his clothes to come see me.

I handed him the swab right there across the table. I was sure that it wasn’t the first time this Burger King (probably even this booth) had to bear witness to such a scathing, hillbilly scene. I didn’t want to place his DNA sample in the vial myself, but I didn’t trust his dexterity, what with veins lubricated by God only knows how many years of liquor. I touched the cardboard middle portion of the swab with an uncloaked disdain and quickly tossed it in the small opening at the top with precision.

“Damn girl, how many men you tested? You’re good at that, sweetheart,” he snarled with a sincere smile. He was one of those old Southern codgers that felt that he could be as abrasive or as prying as possible as long as his sentence was waxed at the end with a term of endearment. I glanced at him with razor-sharp eyes and said nothing, sealing the vial and placing it inside the plastic bag provided in the kit and ever so reluctantly sitting it inside my handbag. I wondered in that moment how he would feel—Mr. Diesel Engine and thirty-year-old jeans that haven’t seen a splash of detergent in fifteen—to know that he had a lesbian daughter. I wasn’t able to read him enough to detect whether he would swell with pride or recoil in horror.

“I have to be going now,” I said quickly, the words feeling like cement on my tongue after total immersion into the intricacies of the Finnish language. I rose with a start, collecting my handbag with the sample of DNA that I already knew to be my father’s. I could see it in his shit-stained eyeballs. This is the man that made my other piece. All the days in my life I’ve felt lazy, felt as though lounging around in pajamas refilling bowl after bowl of Frosted Flakes as my stomach grew to pregnancy proportions without me really giving a damn—they all came from this man. “I’ll contact you via Facebook again if it’s a match,” I said over my shoulder as my heels clicked away on the tile floor whose grout was black with years of neglect.

I drove to my mother’s apartment in a haze. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and shake and mess up my perfectly coiffed hair. I wanted to bang the steering wheel so hard that the horn stopped working. And yet, I was paralyzed by the reality of the situation. The man who helped create me, the man whose blood and cells and soul I share, was not some handsome Italian. He was not a pleasant Englishman. He was just as I always feared but never wanted to truly believe: a common Georgian redneck with absolutely no ambition to better himself.

I found myself mourning the loss of an identity I never really had, one I simply invented for myself in reality’s absence.

I just had to have a look behind that closed door of my life, I simply had to make sure that there wasn’t some prize sitting there, waiting for me instead. I could have lived my entire life constructing fantasies of a gorgeous man with a high-paying job and a worn-out photo of me in his wallet behind his driver’s license, hidden from the prying eyes of a family he chose to have. My breath began to quicken as my hands gripped the steering wheel of my mother’s old car, sun-faded and familiar to me, and I pieced together a heartbreaking picture of what most likely transpired 25 years prior: my mother, blue-eyed and devastated, looking wistfully down at the bowling ball in her shirt, realizing that this man would be of no use whatsoever. Realizing that she didn’t really know him at all. Realizing that he would only really be a second child for her, and raising me alone would actually be an easier undertaking.

I got out of the car and wheeled the empty garbage can from the curb to the side of the apartment building and, without a lot of thought, tossed the DNA testing kit inside, shutting the lid. I can still have my fantasy, I said to myself. It doesn’t have to end here.

“How was it?” my mother asked with measured enthusiasm, testing the waters of the conversation.

I sat down at the table in the middle of her kitchen and set my hands down in front of me, cupped together. “He didn’t show up,” I sighed, and I forced myself to believe it. He didn’t show up.

My mother’s face fell in a swirl of disappointment, guilt, and, very subtly, shame. She walked toward me, extending her left foot first.

“Mom, why do you do that?” I heard myself blurt as she opened her arms and bent down for a hug. She popped straight up as soon as I said it, her face twisted in confusion.

“Do what?” She asked, startled.

“You always walk with your left foot first. I noticed it once when I was little and ever since then I can’t ignore it. I use my right foot, always. The left feels unnatural. But you use your left.”

“Oh, honey,” she said with a laugh, “that’s an old military habit. Always step off with your left foot. It was a bitch to get used to in boot camp, but I did. Done it ever since.” And with that, she walked, left foot first, over to the stove where she proceeded to make me a pepper-less plate of scrambled eggs.

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