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Club Tabu photo

We lost my dad somewhere under the blacklights of Club Tabu. Fake smoke billowed and clouded our lungs while we screamed our drink order over the quicksilver pulse of Eminem’s rhymes. Three Jack-n-Cokes! JACK-n-Cokes! The bartender barked the cost, slid our drinks across the lip of the slimy bar. Clear plastic thimbles reserved for juice at elementary school functions, but here they cost twelve dollars and brimmed with cheap whiskey. We toasted to the evening’s success and watched as Dad’s graying head vanished behind the splintered bathroom door. I sipped slowly, mindful that this was our third stop, still hours before downtown Orlando bars turned off the dark and stole back the music their partygoers wore like a second lustrous skin.

The night was your idea, the dinner. A real one with carefully folded napkins and a set table, a dish that followed a recipe and contained fresh produce. A formal affair hosted at what we called our home—although a bit ironically because we were afraid to admit to settling down. Because I didn’t want to be a domestic substitute for the one that came before me. The one that still lingered. Because the suburban trappings of your discarded life didn’t interest me. Your soon-to-be ex-wife didn’t interest me. I didn’t even know her name and I hoped we’d keep it that way.

We cleared the table and washed the dishes. Dad reclined on the loveseat, a beer in his limp fist, the Golf Channel at full volume on your giant TV. You suggested we grab some after-dinner drinks. We lived in the center of downtown, the smell of stale suds and Burberry perfume practically wafted at our apartment door. Dad quickly rose from the couch, perking up at the prospect. He put his arm on your shoulder, thanked you for a good meal. Dad wasn’t an intellectual, but he was a food snob. You’d impressed him.

Your dad will love me, you’d beamed while dicing the last of the onion before he’d arrived. You took over when I confessed my knife skills were terrible. I liked that I could be vulnerable with you.

I agreed, but not because you were so lovable. You didn’t know my father. He was far too amiable—quick to befriend the pickled idiot perched at the bar, the frenzied oversharer in the check-out line. If they laughed, he thought them funny. If they shared an opinion, he thought them intelligent. He held low expectations for his fellow man. Not because he was cynical, but because he expected so little from himself. At the time, I thought even less of him.

But I wanted him to know that I was doing okay. That I shared a life with someone who loved me. Someone who took care of me.

As we sloshed our drinks against our wrists and onto our feet and plunged our tongues deep into one another, a nightlife photographer asked if he could take a picture of us. I don’t remember either of us consenting but suddenly the violent pop of the flash burned our vision white into nothingness. Our momentary blindness a floater atop the warm flood of whiskey coursing down our throats. It made us giddy, near stupid.

The photo’s a polaroid. Yours to keep for five bucks, the photographer said. You palmed him the cash and I waved our image into being like sorcery. Our milky silhouettes slowly emerged from the box of night. Smitten ghosts, gooey-eyed and smiling. I wasn’t wearing any makeup and my hair’s pulled back so I looked even younger than you, all of 18 instead of 22. Your pupils were monstrously huge. But we looked happy.

You grabbed my dad’s drink and we climbed the stairs to the second floor where we told him we’d wait. You cupped the small of my back with your free hand and shook your head as we surveyed the scene. A throng of sweaty co-eds writhed to Usher under the mania of strobes, the siren wail of an airhorn, the insistent commands of a DJ to get wild because it’s Friday night, y’all. Between the lights and the fog and the dark, the crowd was a sprawling bruise aching to do damage to one another, to themselves. Chodes hovered, waiting to fill their hands with ass shelled in candy-colored denim. I don’t know how I ended up here, how we ended up here. This wasn’t our kind of place, but options for a good time were limited.

A bee’s eye of TV monitors flickered with images from today’s hot jams. Lil’ Jon, 50 Cent, a classic from Bell Biv Devoe. You checked your watch. We should look for your dad.

After we searched the bathrooms, the bar stools, the black vinyl corners where patrons snorted coke and screwed, I felt something leaden rising in my gut, spreading through my heart, drying out my throat, my brain. It was a sobering sadness, a heart-thwapping panic, a curdled shame—the particular heaving of the soul when the past threatened to rise like bile. You met my eyes, invited yourself in through my skull. You found all of this lighting me up like an x-ray.

Don’t worry. We’ll find him. He’s a grown man. He can’t be lost.

Outside the heavy doors of Club Tabu, the night rotted around us in pools of neon light. Assholes of all genders postured and crowded the sidewalk with their horny entreaties. The August breeze stirred up the stench of decay and blew it deep into our nostrils: beer, puke, desire. We scoured Latitudes Tiki Bar, The Social, Independent. Up and down and within the filth of Orange Avenue, music blared and people willingly gave themselves over to a vague promise of transcendence or escape. Exhausted but dogged, we headed back to the apartment complex. To the parking garage.

In the belly of your blue whale of a truck, we parted the seas of the politely buzzed and the disturbingly trashed. I rolled the windows down to have a clearer view and was assaulted by slurred shouts of “Bro!” and the tired bombast of “Freebird” descending from a sports bar’s open doors. But I didn’t see him yet: a man in a neon-trimmed Izod polo and charcoal slacks combing the streets for his young daughter and her older boyfriend. Hopefully, a panicked look in his cerulean eyes. Probably, a foggy look. I cried thick oceanic tears and apologized, explaining that this was always a possibility. That he’s had issues with this before. Mostly, I was mad at myself for thinking this time would be different. But I couldn’t tell you this.

I got quiet, picked at my fingernails while the streetlights singed the pink swell of my eyes. Downtown was a grid. Right turn after right turn. We drove in angles. We drove in tight silence. If you’d turned away from the wheel and gazed upon this wrecked ball of me, you’d have known my secret, that I’d held your pain so neatly and gracefully because I was used to handling my own. That my father was like you in some ways: impulsive, open-hearted, the one to pick up the tab. Burdened, dark-brained, the one to leave his wife behind. He wasn’t always like this. A liability, a lost cause. Before he left Mom, he didn’t even drink. It got worse when the one he left his wife for left him. It got worse when he remembered that when he’d left, he’d abandoned his children to take care of a sick woman in the dark months before her death.

We can’t do this all night. It’s not fair to you. He’ll turn up.

I hugged my knees to my chest and nodded. I let you take charge now. Before I could scream, we were back home under the flourescents of the parking garage where you let the engine idle. The radio faintly murmured of a better place as you calmed me with hands that moved like rain and a warm shower of soothing words. When the engine stopped humming, you pulled the wet shiver of me out of the truck and held me close until I almost forgot he was missing.

As we exited the ground floor of the garage, we encountered building security pacing the front entrance. You greeted him with a Hey brother while I stood in the shadows, snot sliding to my chin. You began to explain, to describe my father in impressive physical detail. But before you moved beyond height and hair color, this man’s eyes froze over with recognition. His voice was ice melting, cool and careful but warmed by something. Anger, concern. Pity maybe.

Yes, he was here. Been slumped against a concrete wall around back. Two teenage boys harrassed his blacked-out body but he’d scared them off. They urinated on him or near him. It was hard to tell which. But he wasn’t there anymore. Wandered off.

You thanked him for the both of us. Before walking away to complete his rounds, he’d said that he hoped we found him, that he seemed really wasted. I stood stunned, feet sinking into the mulch of curb appeal, rooted in my shame. Daughter of derelict, of vagrant, of drunk, of fuck-up. You dragged me gently into the elevator. I scrunched my eyes shut and tried to remember earlier in the evening: the garden salad in a wooden bowl, my father’s remarks on our apartment’s potential, the initial toast to one another at the first bar when he still asked innocuous questions about your job and where you grew up. A girl, her father and her boyfriend. Upon first glimpse, a conventional scene. Blessedly ordinary. I wanted to stay in that dull tableaux forever.

When I opened my eyes again, I saw the outdoor hall of our complex, the stretch of the second floor’s eerie yellow light muddied by mosquitoes who’d lost their way and now clung to its indifferent glow. You thought it best to drop me off while you continued the search. I agreed. I was so, so tired. So, so sorry.

When you unlocked the door, the light spilled in—a blotch of moonlight blemishing the dark, illuminating the pathetic shape of a middle-aged man, unconscious, spreading himself across our couch. Mouth agape, boat shoes still on. His silvery hair glinted and a pale sliver of stomach peeked out from his golf shirt’s nylon-cotton blend. His arms were awkwardly raised above his drooping head, outstretched as if anticipating a rollercoaster’s thrilling decline.

How in the hell? My whisper sliced like a blade through the stillness. Seriously, how in the fuck?

Within moments, we’d solved the mystery. The ecstatic wooing of clubgoers so shrill and near as if they were grinding away in our kitchen. We discovered the sliding glass door overlooking our balcony was ajar, wide open to the downtown revelry. Dad, as drunk as he was, had remembered which apartment was ours, correctly identified it from behind, climbed the two stories up and over the railing’s thick metal bars to slip through our door, equipped with the dumb faith we left it unlocked and our loveseat was waiting to embrace him in dreamless sleep.

I wanted answers. I wanted them now.

Dad, dad! Goddammit Dad. My small hands kneaded and kneaded into the stubborn dough of him but his flesh was unyielding.

You slammed the sliding glass door shut and searched for a blanket we didn’t own. I stood over the snoring bulk of him, fists dangling at my sides, until the dark settled and the moon retreated. Eventually, you pulled me to bed.

I woke up, damp from the late morning heat, back flat against the deflated air mattress because we still hadn’t bought a real bed. You stirred and instinctively climbed on top of me. Your thrusts were shallow, so he wouldn’t hear. I covered my mouth even though I wasn’t making any noise. When we opened the door, he was awake and chipper and inquiring about breakfast. I never asked him how he managed to find our place, to awake from his piss-drenched slumber and climb on through. And he never asked me what I was doing with you, a man who accepted all this mess without protest—a man who should’ve know better because he was a father himself.

We took him to a diner, just blocks away from where we’d lost him. We ate our breakfast in big, airless gulps. He ordered a second Bloody Mary, extra spicy, and you followed suit. I knew it’d be months before my dad would next call or visit, that I’d lost him again even though he sat across from me, oversalting his omelette and cracking jokes. When he excused himself for the bathroom, you reassured me that he meant well, that a man like him made mistakes out of guilt and old pain. As you talked, your hand climbed my thigh while the other picked up the tab.


image: D.T. Robbins