One Christmas, I almost stole a pair of designer jeans from the daughter of a famous rock star. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in the rock star’s New York loft apartment—the three of them were old friends. Neither the rock star nor his daughter were in town. I found the jeans in the daughter’s closet, along with a thousand other pairs of jeans, and they fit me perfectly, better than any jeans I have ever worn before or since. I strode around the city for a few days wearing them and feeling very nearly perfect. I felt they were holding me in, holding me up. I’d never before considered this is what rich people were buying—the magic of being constantly reassured.
We were in the city for a family reunion with my step-grandfather. My aunt gave me and my cousins matching sets of flannel pajamas. We put on a show for my step-grandfather and his partner at the rock star’s loft apartment. My aunt played the piano and the cousins danced in our pajamas and what was either a feather boa or a very fluffy red scarf—I can’t tell from the photographs. It is possible that the scarf, too, belonged to the rock star’s daughter.
I was having a lovely time, but my father was unhappy. He and my stepmother were upset I was staying with his sister and not with them at their hotel. I only learned this after New York, when we were home and before I returned to college. That’s when my father raged at me the way I’d seen him rage at my mother for many years. When they were still married, she refused to go with him to New York because he always came back home angry.
He always came back home angry because his stepfather made him feel like nothing. My father was three and still a happy child when his mother remarried. I see the difference in photographs of my father from before and after—the light was there, and then it wasn’t. The violence he witnessed was the kind that can extinguish all future joy. By the time his stepfather left his second family, my father was out of the house, finished with college, but the damage was intact. The paths of trauma were laid down so early they’d become easy. My father seems most at ease when he is talking about the past, talking about what it is like to be abandoned.
My grandmother was very ill with asthma for most of her life and died of a weakened heart, alone and destitute in Malta. I never met her. She once told my mother that my step-grandfather was the most exciting man she’d ever known. She said this even though he’d left her for someone else after years of beating her. After years of beating her in front of their children.
• • •
Years after I stayed in the rock star’s apartment, my father’s stepfather died, and the family gathered again in New York. During the weekend of the memorial, I stayed with my father and stepmother in a hotel. My aunts and uncles and cousins attended, but I stayed close to my father this time. He barely said a word. Over the years, he has gotten even quieter.
When he was a child, his own father lived far away in Florida and wanted him to be bar mitzvahed, but my grandmother, who’d become Unitarian, wouldn’t allow it. My grandfather was a doctor, he died when my father was fifteen. I’ve only begun to hear more about him recently. I’ve seen letters he wrote to my father and to his cousins. He adored his son and wanted so much to be with him.
At the center of our lives, we often put the people who can’t give us what we want.
In the end, my father never could stay away from the city, or from his stepfather, the central figure of his life. In the end, my father’s stepfather left him nothing from his considerable fortune. Nothing except an old leather jacket and his “paperback books.”
I was familiar with those books, that paltry inheritance. Whenever I had visited my step-grandfather from college, he greeted me at his door with open arms and a huge smile. He made the best gin and tonics and laughed so hard at my stories that I realized I could be funny. I liked the version of myself I became when I was with him. I loved eating meals on his rooftop terrace, the sounds of my favorite city alive below us. But when it was time for me to go, time for him to walk with me to Port Authority, where I’d catch the bus back to Providence, he always asked if I wanted any of his paperback books for the ride. It was my least favorite part of the visit, the moment I woke up and returned to that other version of myself—the less funny one, the girl he introduced awkwardly to friends as his niece or family friend, never who I actually was to him. I’m not sure he even knew who I was to him, or who my father was to him, either.
The pages of the paperbacks were yellowed, the covers faded, the titles ones I’d never heard of—dime store novels by forgotten writers. He kept these books on a small shelf, in a dark corner, separate from his prized hardcovers, books like Beloved, that he had enjoyed so much my father and I read it, too. The whole family read Beloved. It’s strange to consider I first fell in love with Toni Morrison because of this man who told my father he wasn’t smart enough to get into college.
I never accepted the offer of those books, because I felt my step-grandfather made it out of a kind of pity or regret he could not name. I think in a way I visited as often as I did because I held out hope that he would, eventually, name it.
My father didn’t take the paperback books. As for the jacket? The leather was cracked, the lining torn. My father didn’t want it either.
• • •
Years earlier, when my father was yelling at me about staying at the rock star’s apartment and not with him, I knew that his anger had little to do with the apartment or my choice to stay there. That didn’t make the anger less terrifying.
So he yelled and I retreated, without ever leaving the room. This was a device I’d already been practicing but now had the chance to perfect. I had created my own pathways out and back in. My usually quiet father was so loud, but the space behind my eyes felt foggy and still.
Perhaps I thought of those designer jeans, which I had considered taking back to college with me. The rock star’s daughter lived mostly abroad, and she had so many clothes! I figured she would not miss the one pair. My aunt suggested it was not the best idea I’d ever had.
I still think of those jeans sometimes, all folded up where I’d left them, their magic powers hidden in the closet.
Years later I saw the rock star’s daughter perform on stage with her father. I’d first met her when we were both children, and I still have a photograph of her whistling through a blade of grass in the English countryside. Now she had joined her father’s American tour, and they both looked happy to be together. Of course, I didn’t know if there were stories that haunted them, or stories that thwarted or pushed them onward. I didn’t know if they held onto silent regrets they could not name.
All I could see was that backstage after the show, they had an easy humor between them. What is it like, I wanted to ask, that kind of comfort? That kind of joy? Instead I told her and her father I liked the show very much and thanked them, for everything.
Sara Schaff’s writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Joyland, Literary Hub, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Say Something Nice About Me, was a 2017 CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in Fiction. She has taught at the University of Michigan, Oberlin College, and in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland. Currently she teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.
image: Stacks of paperback books, Creative Commons license