In the grand tradition of striving to reach one's potential, my father attempted to get me into prep schools when I was in eighth grade. Dad was endeavoring to mold me into a more suitable character than I was shaping up to be by having me educated in the Northeast, which is the region of the United States in which spoiled children prepare for Yale by snorting cocaine. We spent a few weeks that summer driving from one exclusive boarding school to the next. My dad had gotten it in his head that I should go to Andover or Choate Rosemary or Deerfield or Exeter, like all the most powerful ex-coke addicts. My dad drove with his left hand gripping the top of the steering wheel, and with his right hand he would shake a handful of sunflower seeds the way a gambler shakes dice. Every now and then, he'd toss his right hand up to his face, filling his mouth with sunflower seeds. He sorted through each and every one of the seeds, one by one, removing them from the shells with his tongue. Every time, he shifted the mouthful of seeds to the back of his mouth while situating the empty shell on the tip of his tongue. Then he'd angle his face toward the open window and spit.
I hated the sound of driving fast on the highway with the car window open. All that air rushing into the car was so loud you couldn't hear the oldies station my dad played. No matter what city we were in, my dad found the oldies station on the radio. It was as if he had some kind of supernatural gift for locating a frequency giving air time to the Shirelles. We'd drive around past fields, past the ocean, past water towers and barns and skyscrapers and strip malls, and always the oldies station played in the background.
You couldn't hear the music though, with my father's window cracked. What you could hear was the wind, and of course, the sounds of my father crunching on his seeds and spitting the shells out the window. That was all perfectly audible. I don't know how it was possible that a one-inch sliver of open window and the chewing and spitting of sunflower seeds could drown out a blasting radio, but that's how it went.
I had interviews at all of these schools, and my dad and I were using it as an excuse to have some one-on-one time. It was nice to spend the time with him, because I never did otherwise. He was working hard, and if I ever did get to see him, I only got him from dinnertime to bedtime, and then I had to share him with my mom and my siblings. I used that phrase once with my shrink – "share him with my mom" – and he took it to mean that I was arrested in the Oedipal stage of development. "You want to have sex with your father, and this makes you resent your mother tremendously," he said. He followed the statement by assessing me for any homicidal ideation I might have toward my mother. I thought it was a bit over the top.
The trip with my dad was about 10 days long, and I was determined to squeeze in all the emotional bonding moments I could in that time. The only problem was that my father was not that kind of man. My dad didn't feel and emote; he lectured and led. That's where he felt comfortable. And because he didn't spend much time standing steady on emotional ground, he didn't know how to relate to me. He spoke to me as though I were his apprentice. I spent a good majority of the trip listening to Dad deliver monologues about hard work and why it's necessary. All of these speeches began with the same thing. My siblings and I had it memorized.
"If you work hard, get a good job, and make a lot of money, you can [fill in the blank]."
Sometimes my brother and I would say this to each other jokingly, but fill in the blank with something ridiculous.
"If you work hard, get a good job, and make a lot of money, you can have a rubber mold of your body made for the express purpose of filling it with freshly churned butter, which you could offer to guests when they come to your home," I'd say to Tim.
"If you work hard, get a good job, and make a lot of money, you can fund a team of Ivy League-educated geologists to locate the pet rock most suitable for your lifestyle," he'd reply.
The first school we toured was Deerfield Academy. My father had taken me to Kohl's and helped me purchase an outfit to wear for my interviews. The sweater he bought me had a picture of a sun on the chest. I wore it for every single interview. The man interviewing me at Deerfield was wearing a suit and tie. I remember feeling very inadequate as he questioned me.
"Who is your hero?" he asked me.
The fact was, I didn't have a hero. There were people I looked up to, but in those same people I was aware of qualities I preferred to avoid. Who has a hero in eighth grade? I didn't know how to answer the question.
"I don't have a hero," I said.
"With all the great women out there, you can't identify even one?" he pressed.
My mind went completely blank.
"You do know the name of at least one great woman, right?" he asked, condescendingly.
"By all means, then. Name one for me," he said.
"Sylvester Stallone," I answered.
"Sylvester Stallone is a great woman?" he asked.
"Sylvester Stallone is my hero," I said.
"Fine," he said. "Why is he your hero?"
I stared at him with an empty expression.
"Let's move on, shall we? Why do you think you'd be an asset to Deerfield Academy?" he asked.
"Because my parents would pay full tuition for me to attend. And I'm smart and stuff."
When I walked out of the building, Dad was sitting on a cement bench, smoking a cigar. He smiled at me.
"How'd it go?"
"Really well," I reported.
"What'd they ask?"
"Who my hero was." I said.
"Who'd you say?"
Each night of the trip, Dad and I stayed in progressively dirtier motel rooms. He was attempting to teach me a lesson about frugality, but it backfired. By the end of the trip, we were staying in the most squalid of motels, places with sticky carpets and pools full of dead squirrels. One night we stayed at a place called the Thunderbird Inn, a place that was undoubtedly the most putrid motel I've ever seen. My dad and I approached the counter to rent a room. No one was there, so I pounded on the little bell over and over again until a man with a tattoo of an octopus on his chest -- which I could see clearly as he was shirtless -- came shuffling out in an aggravated fashion.
"Whatchoo want, young lady?" he asked me through the wad of chewing tobacco he had stuffed in his cheek.
"I need a room," I said. My dad was by the newspaper stand, searching for his beloved Wall Street Journal.
"You're a little young," he said.
"I'm not alone," I said, pointing to my dad.
The octopus-man stared at my father, looked him up and down. He stared at me, chomping on his clot of tobacco.
"That your boyfriend?" he asked.
No one had ever confused my dad for my boyfriend before. I was only 14.
I said nothing.
He looked at my dad again. He turned up his lip and spit something black into a red plastic cup.
"We don't have any rooms with two beds," he said. "Just king."
My dad walked up to the counter.
"No rooms with double beds. Just king," I said.
"Well," Dad said.
So I slept in the same bed with my dad that night, a fact that my shrink found particularly interesting when I described the memory to him. He wanted to know how I remembered the motel room. Was it peaceful? Did it seem small? I told him that the room we rented was so rank I could barely keep the contents of my stomach internal. It was as though everything in the place was smeared with a thin coat of spoiled mayonnaise. The sheets felt damp, like we were lying on a big sponge. My shrink never told me what that meant.
By the time my last interview rolled around, I had gathered enough of a sense of rejection to just have fun with it.
"What are you passionate about?" the interviewer asked me.
"Well, for as long as I can remember, I've really been an ardent supporter of Sir Frances Galton," I said.
"Sir Frances Galton … as in the Sir Frances Galton who pioneered eugenics?"
"That's the one. I am quite a zealot in that regard. Just feverish over the whole eugenics cause," I said.
"Any particular group you'd really like to do away with?" he asked, trying to temper his reaction.
"I don't think there's any reason to keep the retards around," I said. "What good are they, anyway? Yes, frankly, I believe they're nothing but a drain on society."
"Men … mentally retarded people?" he stuttered.
"Oh, see, I don't really think of them as people," I said.
I walked out of the interview room and outside, where my dad was smoking his cigar. He was so reliable. I could always count on my dad to be sitting on a bench with a Wall Street Journal and a cigar.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
"Great," I said.
"What'd they ask you?"
"They wanted to know who my hero was," I said.
"Did you say me again?"
"No. I picked Mom this time around. You know, for the sake of keeping the scales balanced," I said.
"Yeah, your mom's an all-right lady," he said. "Good girl."
Dad was so proud of me in that moment. He allowed himself to believe that I'd succeeded. That I really shined in those interviews. And I allowed myself to bask in the parental pride my father was feeling for me, even though I knew it was only temporary. It was a great trip, seedy motel rooms aside. Dad and I drove back home with the window cracked and the sound of wind and sunflower seed consumption and the faint sound of the golden oldies. The rejection letters rolled in, one after another, and each one that arrived was another slap in the face for my father. Dad didn't want to believe that I'd blown the interviews. He had been so proud before the rejection letters arrived, and he didn't want to believe that his pride was unjustified. He decided I had been rejected because he was "only a doctor." "I should have been a senator," he said, defeated. That's how I could tell that he was profoundly disappointed.
I didn't care that I wasn't headed for an education at an exclusive prep school. I just wanted to spend time with my father. I loved his refusal to believe that I might have been the reason for the rejections, his refusal to believe that the pride he'd experienced was based on his imagination. That's how I could tell he really, really loved me.
Lenore Zion is a proud Midwest native, but she's been living in Los Angeles long enough to call 60 degrees "freezing." She is a writer and a therapist.