In the gray dawn of the morning he was supposed to leave, my dad came into my room. He sat on the edge of my bed, making a depression in the sheets. He told me to pack my bags and that he would come back in about an hour to get my sister and I — we were going back to Colorado. I resented the lifeless landscape of Nevada, so I quickly filled a suitcase.
An hour passed. And then another hour. Then it was morning and my mom was asking why I was waiting by the door with my luggage. I took it upstairs and emptied it into my drawers. It would be another four years before I spoke to my dad.
Before my dad moved out he left behind an electric guitar — the first he ever bought. It was dazzling, a sparkling cherry red, riddled with dials and topped with shining silver pegs. Looking back it has little financial value, but to a child’s eyes anything shiny is assumed to be expensive. When I watched him play, his fingers dancing along the frets and tapping those metallic strings, I thought I was looking at the most valuable guitar in the world.
Maybe he left it behind for a reason. Maybe the memory traumatized him as much as it had me. He doesn’t ask about that guitar, and I don’t think he knows I continued to play music in his absence.
Dad played in rock bands before he met my mom, performing electrifying songs in the dim orange light of bars that were foggy from the smoke and humid from the crowds.
I have hazy memories of being five years old in his makeshift studio in the basement of our house in Denver. He filled that room with bulky audio equipment and thrifted instruments, that glittering red guitar one of many. He sat me on his lap and we spent hours learning together, much to the chagrin of my mother, who rightfully did not think it appropriate to keep a six-year-old up until dawn.
My sister and I knew what Dad wanted out of us. He ultimately intended for us to play in metal rock bands, the broken remnants of a distant aspiration he had when he was younger.
I know he saw us as the daughters he never really wanted. When I was a teenager he admitted to wishing he fathered a pair of boys.
My grandfather instilled into my dad this intensely masculine tone. Literally hours after I was born Grandpa visited us in the hospital, and asked my mom if she was disappointed that she had two girls. Only boys, they thought, could control their emotions and grow up to be rock stars or professional athletes. I later heard stories that Grandpa used to smash my dad’s rock records. Metallica and Alice in Chains had no place in a traditionally Christian household.
Toward the end of my parents’ relationship Dad’s mental health deteriorated and he devolved into an angrier version of himself. Winning his affections got harder. He started to shut me out of the basement when he played music, so I sat on the steps and listened.
The alcohol addiction festered, an open wound in our family unit that no one felt a responsibility to address. My mom spent our formative years believing it was better to keep the family together than to stop the cycle of violence and addiction. Still, the final straw did come when I was 10, and she kicked him out of the house.
Even when I started using music as a way to handle the trauma that came from his departure, I could never use that gleaming red guitar. Part of me couldn’t touch it, like if I did it would burn my hands. As a teenager I stored it carelessly in our garage as a childish punishment, a way to convince him, and myself, that I hated him for the choices he made with us. It was only recently that my stepdad found it in our garage and I placed it on a stand in my room.
I tried to hate him. There’s a certain type of adulthood that comes from being wronged by a parent who never says sorry, an adulthood wracked with misguided guilt and suffocating trust issues. I struggled to reconcile the intimacy of the nights we spent together with the man who also drank and threw things at the wall because he had never learned how to communicate.
He would shake me awake at 3 a.m. to hear a new song. We would sit on the carpeted basement floor, him holding his vinyl headphones on my ears because my head wasn’t large enough to fill them. He paused and restarted those songs over and over again, explaining music theory to me in the witching hours of night as snow from outside dusted the windows.
The older I got the more I accepted that he was just a person, an unprepared young father who made bad choices. I am the same age he was when he became a dad. I found danger in dichotomizing the world between good people and bad people, as neither truly exist.
I really tried to hate him.
Mom was the more responsible one, but my dad was the one who hugged my sister and I. He was the one to pin our drawings on the refrigerator and ask us how our day went; my mom herself had a difficult upbringing and did not know how to express the affection she herself never got.
My stepfather called to ask if I wanted to get rid of that cherry red guitar that still occupies a stand in my bedroom. Maybe I could sell it, he said.
I told him to keep it, that I would get it the next time I visited that house. Maybe one day I’ll plug it in and see if it still has the hypnotic sound that had transfixed me when I was a kid.