(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

“So, what happened when you went shooting with my dad?” I asked my boyfriend, David.

“Do you really want to know?” he asked, leaning against my dorm-room wall. In the month leading up to his weekend visit from Boston, I’d savored his letters and homemade mix tapes.

Growing up, I’d never been allowed to play with toy guns and my dad kept his home arsenal locked down. Between the basement and the garage, he was ready for Armageddon.

“What was it like to fire a gun?” I asked again.

“It was a rush, but it felt like your dad was testing me,” said David, a minister’s son who had never before shot a gun. “He dared me to hit all of these aerosol cans 100 yards away. I hit the first. Missed the next two. Then he gave me this strange look. I pulled it together and hit the next two in a row.”

David’s smile widened. “Then your dad said I could marry you.”

I laughed; marriage was far from my mind at that point. But even as I rolled my eyes, I was glad my dad approved.

“Your dad told me something else,” David exhaled. “It was about his affair.”

“His what?”

David’s words defied everything I thought I knew about my parents’ story: As a teenager, Dad was the neighborhood paperboy who used to tuck love notes for Mom inside the rolled-up newspaper. They married in their early 20s, settled in the central Connecticut town where they’d grown up, never separated and together had dropped me off at a college just weeks earlier.

“Your dad got really serious,” David told me. “Then he said this weird thing: ‘Man is not a monogamous creature.’ ”

Why would my dad say this to my 19-year-old boyfriend? I cringed, but I waited to hear more.

“I think you were 3 years old when it happened,” he added.

That meant my dad’s affair began three years after his accident at the tool factory where he worked. A foreman, he’d spent his days in and around the massive machines that made Stanley Works hinges and hand tools. Two months after my Mom found out she was pregnant with me, he was crushed beneath one.

Mom had described seeing him in the hospital: He was purple all over from a punctured lung. For seconds, his heart had stopped. My dad – an atheist – had recounted the classic near-death experience: a bright light, levitating and not wanting to return to the battered body on the operating table.

Still, there was an unexpected mystery at the center of the story I’d been told repeatedly: The first words out of his mouth when Dad had regained consciousness were, “How’s our little girl?” But my parents hadn’t yet found out my sex.

This part of the story had always made me feel as though Dad knew me even before I could be known.

But now I had no idea who my dad was. As David detailed the shots fired that day, disjointed images from my childhood came together. Afternoons and weekends spent at my grandparents’ home. Mom teaching school and delivering Burger King to Dad while he worked third shift. Sounds of fighting. Mom’s inexplicable bitterness toward some of dad’s old friends. Someone leaving. Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind” on repeat.

In the weeks after David and I hugged goodbye, I couldn’t separate my anger at my father from my feelings for David, the guy who’d asked me to marry him in middle school by drawing a diamond ring in the center of a flimsy piece of math paper with the instructions: “Cut out on the dotted line.”

Alone and away at college, I was supposed to start living my own life, but I found myself absorbed in my family’s mythology. I began questioning even the purest of family memories.

Was it the other woman who suggested giving me a bunch of black machine gaskets from the factory where Dad worked that perfectly matched Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”-era jelly bracelets? Or maybe my dad was cheating that Christmas when he and his buddy dressed like Santa and and elf, passing out gifts to us kids. There was that overly friendly waitress at the pancake house who brought me a souvenir straw purse from her Bahamas vacation — was she the other woman?

Days after David’s visit, I broke up with him over the phone. The next semester I left to study in Prague, where I fell for another guy. When I returned home, I skulked around and snapped one-word responses at my dad. On Father’s Day, I couldn’t write a card or muster a gift. Dad knew something was up. I sat down across from him on the back deck.

“David told me,” I said.

He cracked open a Busch and poured it in an icy mug for me.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, your mom and I – ”

“Wait,” I stopped him. “Mom knows?”

Dad sighed. “Mom didn’t want to tell you. So after I moved back home, we agreed.”

“But then why did you tell David? You broke us up,” I cried. “Do you realize that? What was he supposed to do with that information? Keep it from me?”

“Jenny, I had no idea.” Dad unraveled the story of his infidelity. I suppose he thought that his telling would prevent David from being unfaithful. Two years after his accident, he taught an adult-education class. The other woman was his student. He thought it was serious and moved out.

The story, as if ripped straight from a country song, dramatically revised my average middle-class childhood. It also explained my mom’s resentment; like radon, it had always been in the air, invisible yet corrosive. A week later, I packed up my Ford Tempo and moved to Boston to wait tables for the summer. That was the last time I lived at home.

After four years apart, David and I reunited in our home town, the midway point between our respective cities. As we caught up, I recognized the bravery in what I had mistaken as betrayal, and I finally began to see David as an unlucky messenger.

David’s decision to tell me this family secret, more than any of the other sweet and risky things he had done during our teenage relationship – such as tossing little rocks at my window in the middle of the night – resonated on a wholly different scale. I felt humbled and ashamed that I’d run away from him simply for bearing bad news.

Ten years after that bright fall day on the steps of my college dorm, David and I married. Ultimately, I realized that my dad’s indiscretion gave me the distance I needed to move on from my first love. We met too young, trying to fill the roles of partner, lover, friend, sibling and even, at times, parent. Time apart allowed us to grow up.

It poured rain up until moments before our wedding vows, when the Vermont sky cleared and we prepared to stand together.

David’s dad conducted our ceremony. My dad walked me down the aisle.


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