Despite the odds, we made it to Arizona. We moved into a place on Rainbow Avenue. What a glorious name for a road when you’re five. Full of wonder and magic. Our house was a white stucco one-story on the top of a dusty hill, a few scraggly trees and a single cactus in the backyard for vegetation. A long strip of sidewalk ran down the street, connecting our house to the one at the bottom of the hill, neighbors we soon befriended (they had five kids, one my age. And a pool). Theirs was the only house in the neighborhood with grass, and I used to run down the hill barefoot, gritting my teeth as the heat scorched the pads of my feet, until I reached their grass. Green as green could be, damp from the sprinklers. Like mana from Heaven.
You spent your days painting in the garage (begrudgingly; the location was not up to par but would have to do) and your nights teaching at the community college. On the weekends you sat in your Director’s chair next to the kitchen counter and railed on about how the heat had fried everyone in this godforsaken state’s brain, how no one in your department at the college understood what you were trying to do. Maybe they didn’t. I was five. My concerns were threefold: First, whether Mom would let me wear my favorite purple-striped shirt two days in a row; second, why the beautiful white fish you kept in a fish tank on the kitchen counter, right next to the Director’s chair, continually tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the tank onto the counter while we weren’t home; and third, what the boy who threatened me on the playground each day really meant when he said, “I’m going to get you.”
One morning I pitched a fit so grand, so grossly out of character, that Mom took note. There were no toys wonderful enough on the planet to make me set foot in school that day, the day the boy who’d trailed me down the halls and chased me into corners on the field during recess for every day since we’d moved here was finally, in his words, “going to get” me.
It’s funny now, but I don’t remember your reaction to this event. I can easily recall the terror that slipped through me at the boy’s threat. The vagueness frightened me. What, exactly, did he mean by “get”? Did he mean hit? Push onto the ground? Something worse even? If he’d only been specific, I might’ve been able to summon the courage to meet my fate head-on. But the vagueness plagued my imagination. I could conjure many ideas, each one worse than the other, about what he might do once he “got” me, but there was no way to know for sure until it happened.
The day I finally exploded my first-grade temper all over the living room, Mom called the school, her voice firm as she ordered them to find out what was going on. But nowhere in my memories are you. I suppose you left things to Mom, because no one could get things done the way she could. That’s the way Mom is. She’s the woman you go to to get things done.
Somehow, the school figured out who the boy was. I never saw him again, and I always wondered what became of him.
There are other things I remember from Arizona. The time you took us to the lake and told me that the bridge crossing it was originally from London. I thought you were pulling our legs, the way you did sometimes. (Like when you convinced us that the gold ring you wore on your right hand was your direct connection to Santa Claus and that we should whisper into it all of our Christmas wishes. Good one, Dad.)
I remember the morning you drove me to school and asked me if I liked it here, to which I replied that I didn’t know, that the sun was really bright and that it made it hard to see on the playground. The world seemed to move through the desert heat in slow motion. The afternoon sunlight was so strong I could barely stand to open my eyes at recess. On my first day of school, I stood in the center of a swath of concrete as a mass of jump ropes swirled around me, and peered out at the world through squinted eyes. How odd I must have looked to the other kids, a little girl with her eyes closed, standing perfectly still in the midst of the chaos of a two o’clock recess.
There was blessed shade at home. When you weren’t painting or teaching, you took J and me into the garage so that we could watch while you built art racks from lumber and chicken wire. That should’ve been my first sign that we were leaving. But I didn’t know any better.
Somewhere in the middle of the heat and the sand and the watercolor sunsets, we’d found a home when we weren’t even looking. Mom sang while she cooked, her pregnant belly brushing up against the edge of the stove. I learned my multiplication tables while sitting at the kitchen bar next to our suicidal fish, and little J developed such a deep talent for Nintendo that, at three years old, he came dangerously close to beating out a handful of college boys in a local Blockbuster Video gaming challenge. At night while you were away, teaching, Mom and I stayed up past my bedtime and watched Who’s the Boss and Cheers. All of us found our rhythms, found happiness, and found a place to plant our roots, even if the soil was tough and dry and the only time it rained was when storms rolled over the horizon in hot waves, filling the air with lightning and steam before leaving as quickly as they’d come.
Even when C was born, we adapted. C, with her Spanish name and golden curls. C, who as the youngest and most feisty of your children, won your heart from the moment she opened her baby eyes. It didn’t matter if C stole J’s glasses or tore out our hair or screamed until we worried the neighbors would think we were flushing her down the toilet. This ball of energy had burst into the middle of the desert and taken hold of your heart in a way I had never before witnessed.
After all, I’d never seen a father and his biological daughter interact before, not like this. Up close, in real time. The two of you were a thing of mystery.
It was while we lived in Arizona that my biological father, Tom, sent Mom a letter. He’d remarried, and like all things in life, it was complicated. The point was: I don’t believe I’m her father.
It was the last time we ever heard from him.
That previous Christmas, Tom was supposed to have mailed me a gift, per the agreement he and Mom had worked out. When no gift came, you and Mom picked out a dollhouse almost as tall as I was and presented it to me. It was supposed to be Tom’s gift to me, via you guys.
But you also gave me a gift while we lived in Lake Havasu, Dad. A portrait you painted of me, done in your signature brightly colored Expressionistic style. I’m sitting at a table with my arms folded, a glass of water beside my hands. I’m staring forward, as if I’m contemplating something I don’t understand.
This must have been a common look on my face, because there were many things that I didn’t understand about life in Lake Havasu.
I didn’t understand why the boy at my school had tormented me so, and where he went when he suddenly stopped.
I didn’t understand how the other children opened their eyes so wide on the playground, when the sun was so hot and bright.
Why Tom had suddenly decided that I wasn’t his daughter when I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Why even though you painted a portrait of me and no one else, you did not dote on me like you did C and J.
We left the desert when the college didn’t renew your contract. We never did cook eggs on the sidewalk, like you said we could. We took your word for it and saved the eggs. We packed up the house and the art racks you’d built and the paintings and Mom’s framing equipment and our cat, Pebbles, and we left the sand-swept hills and roadrunners and Rainbow Avenue behind.
Twenty-six years later, I don’t have that dollhouse, Dad. But I still have the painting. I would go on to hang it on the wall of my bedroom in our new home in San Diego, because that’s what you do with art. You place it in your home and you contemplate it’s mysteries, waiting for the day when you walk by it and the answer to the unspoken question drifts across the space that separates you, and the pieces fall into place.