When my mom went into labor, my father’s reaction was to be annoyed. He didn’t want a baby born on Friday night when it was busiest at the small-town pizza parlor they co-owned. My mom waited another day to go to the hospital; I was born at half past midnight on Sunday. After I was born, he composed a poem for me called “To My Child (II).” It hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom.
When I was six, my father crashed his car into one of Vermont’s many maple trees. In his hospital bed, in his months-long coma, he quickly became frail. The man who had once lifted me and swung me around and carried me on his shoulders was reduced to a sleeping phantom that grew more sunken and pale with each day. My mother took us to see the car, a black Lincoln Towncar, after the crash. I’d seen his denim jacket, dark spatters of blood on it, the smell of gasoline and alcohol imprinted in the fabric.
The twisted car was scrapped and shipped to a junkyard. His denim jacket disappeared from our house. The tree he’d hit continued to grow, undaunted, bearing a small scar on its trunk. My sister and I went back to school. Eventually my father woke up. I don’t remember much more of that year than that.
My parents divorced about two years after the accident. The restaurant they had owned together went bankrupt and closed. My sister and I stayed with my mother, and saw my father irregularly. Mostly, he served as a chauffeur, picking us up from school and driving us to art lessons and softball practice.
One day my father arrived early to pick me up from softball. He watched as my team wrapped up practice. He stood alone, away from the other parents. In the car he told me that winning wasn’t important; playing the game was. I nodded, embarrassed because he seemed so proud of himself, of us both. This was supposed to be one of those father-daughter moments. He thought he had imparted some life wisdom. To me, it sounded hollow, a sound bite from an after-school special, a line from a self-help book. Winning wasn’t important to me. Playing wasn’t particularly important, either. Strength was important to me. Smashing the hell out of a ball, watching it fly into the field, or even when it flew past first base and fouled — that was important to me. That brutal connection, that outlet for all my anger.
When I was ten, I started going to poetry readings and open mics with my dad. I would read his poetry. Middle-aged hippie men would come up to me afterwards, praising me for my courage in reading. I’d point them toward my dad, telling them that he was the author, and maybe they’d go to his table and try to talk to him. The conversations wouldn’t last long. My dad’s lasting speech impediment made it hard for others to understand him. More than that, it made him reluctant to talk.
That was also the first year I started keeping a journal. I mostly wrote lists: of things to do before I died, of secret crushes, of places I wanted to see. I wrote a series of packing lists for the day I would run away, editing them endlessly.
When I was thirteen, my father drove me to a film-writing seminar for teens. The seminar took place over four weekends in June, in a town an hour and a half away. That summer was full of thunderstorms. We would drive in the rain, listening to Ani DiFranco or Neil Young or Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan, music we shared a common love for. He told me he’d always loved extreme weather; when he was a teenager, he’d drop acid and go stand outside in the rain. I’d roll down the window a crack, just to catch the smell of lightning and wet tarmac. When I hear Neil Young’s Harvest or Ani DiFranco’s Dilate, I think first of watery green fields and black skies, then imagine my dad as a teenager, staring up into dark clouds with dilated pupils, letting the rain pour down his face and beard.
When I was fourteen, my father dropped me off at school for the last time. He was leaving Vermont. He had decided to move to Oklahoma to live with his mother, who needed help around the house after a recent accident. At least, that’s what he told me. After he drove away, I walked into the softball field and cried. The tears surprised me. So did the lightness I felt afterward, as if I had let go of something.
When I was eighteen, I left my boyfriend to go traveling in Europe. I cried when I drove away from him for the last time, then felt that same lightness I had four years before. Life had become simple. I was running away, and it was the most freeing thing I had ever done. The first thing I put in my travel journal was a packing list.
When I left home, the poem my father had written for me stayed on the wall of my empty bedroom. I kept moving, further and further away, taking longer to return each time.
My dad and I rarely talk. He sends birthday cards, maybe a little bit of money when he can. My grandmother relays to him what I tell her in my emails — news about jobs, lovers, school, travel. Of my dad, she always says the same thing: “Oh, he’s the same as always.”
The smashed car rusted into the ground. The tree lived, and grew, and still stands by Route 118. My father chose exile. I chose movement.
Nicole Cipri is a country bumpkin living in Chicago, having traded in the mountains and rivers of Vermont and Washington for public transportation and tall buildings. She currently works in Chicago’s theater industry, and writes on the side. You can find her frequently wasting time on Tumblr or Twitter.