A year or so after he walked me down the aisle, my beloved stepfather disappeared. My parents--that's what I'd always called my mother and my stepfather--hadn't quite called it quits. But my stepfather--my dad, the only man I'd ever thought of as Dad--had dropped out of my life.
Like most of the things that break our hearts, his disappearance happened so slowly and insidiously that it took months for me to recognize what had happened. First, he wasn't home when I phoned. He traveled a lot for work and I lived in another state, so the gap between phone visits wasn't anything unheard of. But after a couple months of not touching base with him, I asked my mother point blank where he was. She said something hazy and unsatisfying like they were "taking a break" or "trying to work things out."
I was thirty-one years old, and suddenly I was the divorced kid all over again. My dad was leaving me. And what real claim did I have on him anyway? Didn't he have every right to pack up and move on? People had always asked me, "He's your stepdad, right? Not your real dad?" A question I was never sure how to answer because to me he was my real dad.
I already had behind me a lifetime of feeling like I was on shaky ground in the father department. A lifetime of feeling like I wasn't a regular kid with a regular dad. Except for when I was with him. My stepfather had always made me feel like we were the real deal ever since my parents' honeymoon, since the first time I experimentally called him Dad from a Topanga Canyon swimming pool and he turned from the poolside crowd and said "Yes?" without flinching. Once--years later--my fortune cookie read: "Always give the child the extra piece of cake." I carried that fortune around in my wallet for years because it reminded me so much of him.
But now he was gone. And I began to wonder if he'd meant more to me than I meant to him. The untethered feeling that was the legacy of my family's serial divorcing was back. My "real" father had married four times in his 59 years; my stepfather was my mother's third husband. I was back to being the divorce-kid fumbling through again--dreading holidays, dodging questions about family, and wondering when I'd see him again. Or if.
And then the phone rang.
We talked for a few minutes about who-knows-what and then I asked, "Where are you?"
"I can't tell you," he said.
"What do you mean you can't tell me?" I asked but what I was really asking was are you my dad or aren't you?
"I don't want your mother to know where I am."
So that's how it was now. The chips were down. And when the chips were down, I was my mother's child. Biology trumped love every time.
But I needed him too much to just to give up. And now I was shouting: "But I'm NOT my mother and why won't you really tell me where you are?"
"Because," he said, "I'm afraid of your mother."
And that was when the distance between us shortened. He'd told me the truth. I told him I understood and then we started talking of other things. A few minutes later, he told me he was in Florida, which suddenly seemed to me like the most questionable state in the country, a refuge for retirement-age runaways, a place where the endless sun burned away the trail of one's past.
But now my stepfather and I were bonded in a new way. We were bonded now by one of divorce's unholy legacies: by a secret. But, I'd lived with secrets with before. I was willing to do it again. What I wasn't willing to give up--what I wouldn't let divorce take from me again--was my dad.