I drive to a porn shoot at a studio in Queens. I work as a dominatrix, and this crossdresser who follows me on Twitter and Instagram is meeting me to do our first film together, some type of cruising and pegging. I need more content; the pandemic has severely limited my income; there are only so many solo videos I can sell moaning to the camera to “stroke now.”
As I check my phone to see my COVID test results, I get a text from my dad: “It’s important that you answer my calls.” He has never texted me anything like that before, so it’s cause for alarm. I think it might be an emergency. I worry he feels another stroke coming on or that he’s fallen. My father’s health is declining. He hasn’t worked since my mom left him over a decade ago and doesn’t leave the house much. He’s afraid of getting cancer again, yet he refuses to go to the doctor. It’s probably been forty years since he’s seen one. I wonder if I need to start looking at flights to the OC, where he lives.
My dad has been preparing for an apocalyptic health disaster for years. He has severe OCD and some type of undiagnosed paranoid personality disorder which causes him to be afraid of germs, bacteria, pesticides, lead, and any other potentially harmful chemical compound. He’s not afraid in a healthy “go organic” way that neurotypical people might understand. He takes it to the extreme, keeping himself locked up in his bedroom, taking three-hour showers, washing his hands incessantly and ritualistically. Moreover, he expects anyone who lives with him to adhere to these principles. He thinks COVID is a conspiracy, of course.
My dad never used to text me. He refused because he said it was “going back to Morse code.” But talking to him on the phone is impossible. He talks for hours, will bully you into staying on longer, will get upset when you have to go, and just goes on about himself and his own twisted version of reality. I’ve been on the phone with him as he rants about how wicked women are, about “baby murder” (abortion), about various conspiracy theories. And after his two strokes (or stroke-like TIAs—we aren’t sure because he won’t see a doctor), he talks even slower now and checks that you’re listening constantly by saying, “Right?” and “Are you there?” Since my brother, James, two years older than me, passed away, my dad will now text and email me. He sends videos of old commercials, facts about the weather, more conspiracy theories. Because of my brother’s death, I think he has set his annoyance for texting aside in favor of communicating while we are still alive.
Today, I have missed several calls from him, followed by the worrisome text. I call him, but he doesn’t answer. I think he might be on the phone with Julian.
My brother, Julian, is the only other sibling of nine who still talks to my dad. Someone who knows our story might find this odd, as Julian endured some of the worst abuse at my father’s hand, but it makes sense because all Julian wanted, then and now, was my father’s love.
Julian is about six years older than I am. He’s a highly cynical and calculated person who only shares enough information to coax out a reaction. It satisfies him to cause distress, to hold something over you.
I call Julian to see what’s going on with Dad. He answers and says, “Dad’s on the other line, so I can’t talk.” Just like I thought: I didn’t answer, so my dad immediately called the next person he could think of. It’s what I would have done. Impatient fucks, we are.
“Is he ok?” I ask. “He texted me as if it was an emergency.”
“Well, he’s not dead.”
For a moment I resist being launched into the drama. “Can you just make sure that he doesn’t die?” I know my father is temporarily living alone. The woman whose house he has stayed in for the last ten years, Pamela (a retired nurse slash his ex? girlfriend), is out of town, “on vacation,” he says, and he’s been having health issues and refusing to go to the doctors since I can remember. After his two strokes/ TIAs a year (or was it two) ago, he relearned to talk and write on his own. He has two inguinal hernias and mentioned to me over the phone once that he occasionally pisses himself. The hernias push out of his pubis like big eggs.
Julian says, “I can’t help him. He can’t even help himself.”
“Does he need to go to the hospital? Or have a psych hold placed on him?”
“No, he’s basically the same as he has been.”
“But he said it was an emergency,” I say.
“Everything is an emergency to him. He’s been telling me ‘it’s an emergency’ for years.” Julian says this like a brag, showing that he’s been on this level of truthfulness with our dad for longer and better than I have. It’s a competition.
“Just make sure he doesn’t die. Please,” I beg. I’m surprised at the concern in my voice. I normally don’t worry about my dad in this way. At least not with any urgency.
“What do you know about his situation?” Julian challenges. "Just that his OCD has gotten worse. He doesn’t eat much. He’s having health issues.”
“He never leaves his room. Pamela is gone, so he’s by himself,” I say, wondering if I can exaggerate anything in the moment so that it’ll sound like I’m up to speed on what Julian is hinting at. Like in improv acting when they teach you, “if this is true, then what else is true?” and you have to continue the story by exaggerating whatever character trait you’ve chosen in the beginning of the scene. “He probably—no definitely—has an eating disorder,” I continue, “He pisses himself sometimes. I think he doesn’t leave his bed at all, actually.”
“Do you know what’s going on with Pamela?” Julian asks, unimpressed.
“Yes,” I say, confidently. “She’s not there. He doesn’t seem to like her. They don’t get along, so he’s very isolated.” Will Julian share what’s going on with me?
“Call me later, and I’ll tell you,” he says. He knows I haven’t a clue what’s going on, and I can feel it. “I've gotta go. He’s still on the other line.”
Julian hangs up. I am left on edge, angry at Julian but simultaneously feeling bad for him. We never talk, and I believe it’s a rare joy for him to be an expert on a subject for his sibling. How often is he consulted in desperation like this?
It seems like I don’t have anything immediate to worry about, yet I’m anxious at the information I haven’t gotten. I know, for sure, that my father has told Julian far more than he has ever told me about his situation. This is because Julian is a man. My dad is extremely religious and believes women (I am non-binary but a woman, nonetheless, in my dad’s eyes) are fragile vessels incapable of handling difficult information. It’s easy to say he’s a sexist pig, but in reality he lives and breathes in a delusional reality. He is severely mentally ill, and it goes beyond a character defect or an educational deficiency.
My father locked his children up in a house for years for fear that they would die of pesticides from plants. More than that, we were locked in our rooms with a gate. There were bike locks on all the kitchen cabinets, a padlock on the fridge, and cameras monitoring all common areas. We were sheltered from contemporary television and movies, only allowed to watch G-rated (not even PG) programming—anything approved for babies.
We had to ask permission to use the restroom and wait for our father to clean himself for over an hour before he would unlock the fence to let us out of our room to use the bathroom. “Pee,” “butt,” and “poop” were curse words, but we could use the alternatives, “weewee,” “popo,” and “poopoo.” Sometimes we waited so long to get unlocked that we went “weewee” and even “poopoo” in the closet, in a corner by the dresser where the carpet was crusted over from piss. We ate the same disgusting meals every day: Oat Groats for breakfast, canned salmon or bean sandwiches for lunch. I don’t remember dinners. We weren’t allowed to eat fruits and vegetables due to pesticides. Eventually, my father banned a Christian children’s show called “Veggie Tales” because of the vegetable characters. He told my mom we were “torturing” him by forcing him to watch the pesticide-ridden creatures dancing around.
He stayed at home in bed during the day while my mom went to work. He kept far away from us, switching between the channel that displayed his home camera feed of us and watching cartoons on TV. Even he never consumed above a G-rating.
My sister, Jaclyn, four years older than me, would cook for all of us. She even spoon-fed my dad while he reclined. He had her wrap the utensils in toilet paper so that her germs wouldn’t touch him. Then he would beat us regularly for sinning, for vague things like being heathens or stepping on a toy (not sure why we were punished for that—maybe getting foot germs on the toy?).
I was my dad’s favorite for a time and was spared extended beatings/ Bible verse recitations (“HE WHO SPARES THE ROD SPOILS THE CHILD”), unlike my brothers, unlike Julian. Julian was considered the “dirty” “fat” child, so accordingly, my father forced him to clean the toilets, take out the trash, or any number of degrading filthy jobs. On top of that, my dad disproportionately beat Julian. Above all, our father loved to beat his sons.
My mom, also religious and a mostly non-believer in divorce, attempted to run away from my dad several times so he wouldn’t kill one of us, until it stuck the last time. Then, I was required to go on court-ordered supervised “visits” with him as a pre-teen and then a teenager.
His armpits smelled like onions, and he would have me sit in his Cadillac while he rifled through some archaic candy—he always had a specific and bizarre sweet tooth—to hand to me like a reward (the supervisor peering into the car). I remember the California heat, the stench of onion, and the aged candy simmering in my palm.
“I’m running for president in my Government class,” I said to him once, sitting in that car. “Do you want to hear my speech?”
“You know, women shouldn’t vote or hold office,” he said. “It’s in the Bible.”
I was momentarily baffled before asking, “Do you still want to hear it?”
Sitting in his car, enduring the smell, the imminent onion hugs, was actually a bizarre relationship development for us. Since my mother divorced him, he aimed to prove to everyone that he had changed, that his OCD—the hours of showering and cleaning himself just to be near us, the inability to touch us—had dissipated.
Our weekly visits took place in different parks with a supervisor. At first, it was a social worker named Vanessa. She was moonlighting as a competitive bodybuilder. Though he never spoke of it, I can only imagine what my dad must’ve thought of having a woman preside over his visitations with his children. Especially one who could physically overpower him. She once showed me a photo of her muscled physique, complete with a revealing bikini, high heels, and an ultra-bronzed skin tan. As the years went by, and Vanessa’s oily competitions landed on more and more weekends, the supervisor could be anyone, including my dad’s girlfriends.
My favorite parks for visits were a park that had a concrete castle structure and a park with duck ponds and squirrels. My dad would bring an assortment of expired candies and snacks that might be the kind you’d see at the 99 Cents Store or Big Lots, always off brand and dusty. He’d eat a bag of peanuts at the park, and one would fall on the asphalt. “See?” he’d say, and pick the peanut off the ground, dust it off, and pop it in his mouth. “I’m not scared anymore.” Then he’d chew it and show me his crumbly tongue like a mental patient showing the nurse that they’ve swallowed their pills. Though he had yet to eat a fruit or vegetable in front of me, that kind of brazen disregard of germs did impress me. I believed he was getting better, somehow. After all, even I wouldn’t have eaten those dropped-floor peanuts.
But now, in all these years, as the kids got older and the visits disappeared, he’s gotten even worse with OCD. Moreover, he’s found a new obsession: lead in cords. Phone chargers, computer cords, any type of cord that plugs into the wall. And, as he’s explained to me before, the concern is never that HE will get sick and die, it’s that he will get SOMEONE ELSE sick and cause THEM to die. So if he’s not careful, he’s responsible for someone’s death.
I wonder how he deals with his OCD since I don’t live with him. I imagine he picks up cords with paper towels as a barrier, that he showers incessantly every time he comes in contact with one. My “if this is true, then what else is” brain stalls. I was never that good at improv.
The last time I saw my dad was probably over four years ago when his mom, my granny, was still alive. I remember he looked like a corpse. Walking around, totally skinny and scary in the face. But he’s always been scary in the face. He got skin cancer fifteen years ago and had red blisters all over his body like a rotting zombie.
Up until now, I have been ignoring my father’s recent calls, going so far as to put him on “Do Not Disturb,” but now I need to make sure he’s okay. He finally calls me back. He asks how long I can talk. I say twenty minutes, but I really have forty. Time with him is doubled that way. Since he talks so slowly and won’t let me get off the phone, I have to pretend I have to leave sooner just to leave on time.
After all, I am still going to shoot a porn in forty-five minutes. I am still going to give a handjob and fuck some guy in the ass with a strap-on. The crossdresser I’m fucking who is twice my age is on his way. I arrive at the porn set and start arranging the lights with my dad on speaker.
There is no urgency in my father’s voice, though there never really is (even before the strokes). “Don’t tell Julian I told you this, but he’s not being very nice to me.” He says it in a pouty, childish way, like his arms are crossed and his chin is pointed up. It’s funny to me that he says this because, on one hand, I can completely understand why Julian would be mean to him. In fact, he deserves being treated meanly by the son he absolutely ruined with abuse. Yet, on the other hand, I am sympathetic and understand how Julian can be unnecessarily rude sometimes. If my dad was innocent, Julian’s meanness would be unfounded. But, given reality, my dad deserves much worse. He’s lucky Julian is even talking to him.
He launches into a story, “A long time ago, Julian gave me a box, a—what’s it called?” He can’t remember many words anymore. “It has a lock on it. It’s a big box.”
“A chest?” I ask.
“Yes! A chest!” He exclaims. “A long time ago, Julian gave me a chest, and he wants it back. It has a bunch of stuff in it. It has, it has—a photo! Yes, a photo of Jaca- of Jaca-liy. Jaca—no, that’s not right.”
“Jaclyn?” I ask.
“Yes! Jaca-Lyn. It has a framed photo of Jaca-Lyn in it. And, you know, I can’t give it to him yet because I haven’t been able to clean it.”
“Clean it how?”
“You know, I have to really clean it to make sure I don’t get him sick. People say I have OCD, ‘oh he has OCD,’ but it’s not that. I am afraid. I’m afraid they’ll die. Do you know how it started?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
"When I was married to your mother, I was watching the news. And this woman said people were getting cancer from—from the goo that comes out of cracked tiles. What’s that called? Asbestos. So I went in the laundry room in the old house and saw some goo coming out of a cracked tile. Then we had to do the laundry three times just to make sure you kids weren’t getting poisoned. It was very scary because I just saw on the news.”
“That sounds scary,” I say, recalling how he had Jaclyn do the laundry for all of the kids three times over. Wash, wash, wash, then dry and fold and put away and repeat. Every single day, many times a day. There were so many towels, so many socks. I didn’t even remember he had a fear of asbestos. I only knew about the pesticides and now lead. “Are you okay, though? Are you safe?” I ask.
“I am alone. My girlfriend—my—she’s not really my girlfriend, but I don’t know what else to call her.”
“Maybe...Pamela is on vacation,” he says.
"Where on vacation?”>
“Well, she’s not really on vacation, but she asked me not to tell anyone.”
“Did she join a cult?” I ask.
“No. Well, it’s kind of like a cult, but it’s not a cult.”
“Why can’t you tell me? Is she okay?”
"Yes, she’s okay,” he says. “I accidentally told Julian, but I wasn’t supposed to...You know, I might ask her if I can tell you because she tells her family, so why can’t I tell mine?” Bingo, he’s told Julian. Maybe I can get it out of him.
“So Pamela’s not on vacation,” I say. “Can I guess where she is? Can you give me a hint?”
"I’ve already given you a hint."
She’s not really on vacation. She’s not really in a cult. She’s gone for a few weeks.”
“Look,” he says, more stern. “She has a problem, and she went away to fix the problem.”
“Ohhh,” I say. Like: Oh, it sounds like REHAB, but I’m not going to say that.
“I’m going to ask her if I can tell you,” he says.
“No, it’s okay,” I say. “I understand...Do you still love her?”
“Yes. I love her. But not like a wife.”
“Why not like a wife?” I look into a mirror and put pink lipstick on, blending it in with my fingers.
He says “Um” and “Uh” a bunch of times, I’m assuming because I’m a fragile gal in his eyes whom he’s trying to protect from complicated news. Or he’s struggling to find the words in his brain. “The main thing now,” he says, “is she has too many cords by her bed. She never used to have that many.”
It seems like a totally legitimate reason not to marry someone: She has cooties. “Does she clean her hands like you?” I ask.
“She used to try to, but she doesn’t anymore. And when I have a wife, I want her to do it.”
He pauses, hesitates. “The Bible says, ‘Wives submit to your husbands as you do the Lord’...But Pamela...She likes to dominate.” He says it like he’s revealing a secret, and I picture her: Pamela, the dominatrix.
“She likes to make decisions?” I ask.
“Yes, make decisions.” He grows quiet.
“What kind of decisions?”
“She told me I have some time, but she wants to sell the house,” he says. “I have to move.” I gather that this is why he needed to talk to me.
“How will you move? Do you have any money?”
“If I can get my car to run, I can get my driver’s license. Then I can look for a job. But I don’t want to live here anymore. My neighbors don’t like me because I tell them to believe in Jesus Christ.” I realize this might be it; he might end up in some sort of institution. He’s definitely not fit to work, not fit to drive, doesn’t even have a working car.
“Where would you move?” I check the clock and think about how my porn co-performer is on a bus and imminent.
“South Dakota. It’s a Free State.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“You know, a place where you don’t have to wear a mask or socially distance,” he says. Even though he lives in Orange County where most people don’t wear masks, the vaccine is more widespread, and social distancing is more lax than ever before. His lifelong concern of killing other people somehow doesn’t apply during a global pandemic.
“The governor of South Dakota,” he says. “She’s very good.”
“I thought you believed women shouldn’t hold office.”
“Well, she’s better than a lot of those yucky guys out there,” he explains.
Ah, I see.
“I might need your help,” he says. “I want to find a place to live where the cost of living is like $5 a month.” He pauses. “You know, I noticed that women don’t understand my jokes unless I really exa- exa-”
“Yes, one time a woman asked me to help her start her car with—with—what are those called?”
“Jumper cables?” I say.
“Yes, jumper cables. She needed help with jumper cables. So I got them for her, and I said, ‘That’ll be $50 and she got SO mad at me even though I was joking! So I learned that with women, you have to really—”
“Yes!” he says. “Instead of $50, you have to say $1 million. Like, ‘That’ll be $1 million’ and then they get it, and they laugh.”
“I have to go soon. We’ve been on the phone for about three hours,” I say, testing his theory.
“Three hours? Are you sure?”
"No, I’m kidding,” I say.
“Oh.” He laughs, delayed.
“But really, I only have about five minutes left,” I say, even though I have more like ten. He won’t let me go for at least ten more minutes, I’m sure of it.
“Okay,” he says.
“You really want to move to South Dakota with all your health problems? Don’t you want to be close to your family or Julian in case an emergency happens?”
“No, I never see anyone. It’s better if I go to South Dakota,” he says.
“What if something bad happens?”
“My life has been—it’s been very hard. First my kids were stolen from me by the government.” It’s odd hearing him say it out loud, even though I know he lives in an alternate reality where he didn’t abuse us and was an amazing, God-fearing husband and father. “Then I broke my back,” he says.
“When was that again?” I ask. I can’t remember if he actually told me about it.
“A couple years ago. It didn’t fully heal...I had skin cancer before that, you remember?”
“Which turned my skin red. Did I tell you about the lump in my breast?”
“No, you had a lump in your breast?” I ask.
“Yes, I thought it was cancer coming back. God told me I needed the sun to heal it. So I went out into the sun and rubbed triple antibiotic on it, and it went down,” he says. I close my eyes and hold in the laughter or tears, knowing he’s just given me an outrageous anecdote, a story title, a gem to remember him by if anything happens. Sunshine and triple antibiotic cured his breast cancer.
“Is it gone?” I ask.
“It still hurts sometimes.”
“Oh,” I say, feeling badly for him again.
“Then I had the strokes—the ITA?”
“TIA?” I suggest.
"Yes, Transient Is- Is- What’s it called?”
“Hang on,” I say, Googling it because I know he won’t let it go. He never lets any words go when we’re on the phone, but I’m an excellent guesser and an even better Googler.
“Transient Ischemic Attack,” I say.
“Yes! Transient Ischemic Attack. I had two of those. And the hernias. The In- In-”
“Inguinal Hernias.” I only know because he asked me to buy him padded hernia underwear to push his hernias in because he refuses to go to the doctors.
“Yes! But I’m still alive. I know what it is. It’s the Devil trying to kill me. It really is. I’m alive by the grace of God,” he says.
It’s funny, the weird little world he has carved out for himself, where he is the hero against the Devil. It makes complete sense and yet none at all. Jaclyn refuses to talk to him because he won’t acknowledge the abuse he put us all through. She has every right. The bizarre thing, though, is how child-like, almost harmless he seems from a distance. The baby words and the puritan way of life, even the cleanliness.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, zipping up my thigh high black patent leather boots. I’m wearing a sexy, tight PVC getup modeled after a vintage domme photo from the internet: A high-cut black bodysuit with a deep-v front, black gloves, black moto cap, and now the boots.
My time on the phone with him is nearly up, and I know I won’t talk to him for a long time after this. I seldom have the energy to listen, and now I know he’ll be somewhat okay for a while.
How weird that, out of all my siblings, I’m the central listening ear for my father: me, the boygirl dominatrix who shoots porno. Then again, it’s my job to listen to crazy old guys and make them feel like they’re accepted. My dad, like my clients, will never know the real me.
“Here!” the crossdresser texts me.
I push my boobs up and tousle the sides of my long blonde hair. Then I brace myself for the end of the call, expecting my father to fight me on it.
“I have to go,” I say.
“You do? Has it been that long already? Has it been twenty-five minutes?” It’s been almost double.
“Yes,” I say.
“I wanted to tell you something, but I can’t remember—”
“I’ll call you later,” I lie, so he’ll let me hang up.
“Ok, call me before 5pm Pacific St- Pacific- ”
“Pacific Standard Time, PST,” I say.
“Yes, PST.” He becomes quiet, docile, not fighting me for once.
I clear my throat. “I love you,” I say.
“Okay, bu-bye,” he says.
“Dad?” I say. I am his favorite again. I suddenly have big floppy bangs and boundless blue eyes. I’m small and looking up at him from his doorway while he lies on the bed watching TV. Mom’s away at work, Jaclyn is cooking in the kitchen, and Julian is scrubbing shit off the toilet. “Dad,” I say again, frantically, before he hangs up.
“What?” he asks.
“Do you love me?”
“What?” he says again.
“I said: Do You Love Me?”
“Oh. Of course I love you!” He pauses. “I love you, Janna.”
The way he says my name so clearly at the end cracks me in two. It’s all I get, but it’s so much. I hang up and pick the halves of myself off the floor before opening the door for the crossdresser.