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(E)STRANGE(D)

Updated: May 17, 2023


I. Washing Brushes


I've been washing brushes for about five hours now. I'm not done.


This is one of my least favorite chores, and I always wait until it seems like every single brush in my collection is dirty. That's not entirely true, but it feels true.


I hate it. I hate the monotony of it, the repetition of dipping, swirling, squeezing, laying out flat. Watching the clean water slowly go opaque with remnants of old makeup looks left behind in the bristles.


Suddenly, I'm crying.


It starts because I have a large playlist on random, and "Requiem" from Dear Evan Hansen comes on. That song always hits me in the feels, the beautiful interwoven vocals, and today...well.


Then I'm crying because despite several toweled layers of brushes sitting to my right, I see that I still have so many brushes still left to clean. A pile of tools in a heap covered with powders and shadows from who knows when.


I'm crying because I left this for so long. Because I knew that it needed to be done, but I just couldn't force myself to do it before now. I looked at all of those layers of dirt and felt tired, and I gave in. I ignored them. If I ran out, I bought new brushes so I could turn my back for a little longer, and a little longer.


I'm crying because I know that I should have taken care of this sooner. I should have looked the problem in the face and come to some sort of resolution, no matter how unpleasant it might be.


Finally, I'm crying because every metaphor, no matter how clever you think it is, has its limits.


My father died this morning.

II. Estranged


My father and I haven't spoken in years.


There wasn't any specific precipitating event, no big blow up, no catastrophic conflict that brought our relationship to a halt.


It was just his absence.


I was only about 2 years old when my parents divorced, so I don't remember them together. I mostly knew him as a voice on the phone, making promises that he almost never kept. But almost isn't never, and like Pavlov's dog, the two or three times that he came through over those early years was enough to keep me salivating.


He used to ask me over and over about what music I liked, what toys I wanted, what games and books I had my eye on, and I was young and stupid and so my heart was filled with all the wonders that he promised. He promised to come visit and to bring presents, and I was dazzled with the wondrous potential of it. I didn't have any shortage of toys or clothes, but the year-round Christmas that he described had completely captured my imagination. He kept asking me the same questions about my favorite things because he wanted to get it right. We didn't get to spend much time together, and I knew - I just knew - that he wanted our next visit to be perfect.


I think I was in second grade when I realized something wasn't right. I wasn't old enough to understand what his foggy attention and sloppy speech meant, but in the course of one phone call he asked me at least five times how old I was. What grade I was in. What my favorite subject was in school. If he started to get frustrated at not remembering, if I started to sound hesitant in providing the same answer yet again, he'd switch to talking about all the plans we would make for summer vacation. How he would come to pick us up and take us on adventures that never happened.


Eventually I stopped taking most of his calls.


Most of my dad's side of the family lived about 90 miles away from where I grew up. In North Dakota, that's nothing. We used to drive 68 miles to get to the good grocery store and go to the doctor. When my brother graduated, everyone from that side of the family came over, but when my graduation rolled around a few years later not a single member from that side of the family showed up. No one even sent us a heads up that they wouldn't be coming.


There had been some sort of recent dustup with my mom about the years of unpaid child support. My dad decided not to acknowledge my graduation, and apparently the rest of the family felt that it was something worth taking sides in. A couple of months into my summer job in Medora I got a couple of cards with a little money and some vague, hasty excuses. I spent the money, I didn't write thank you cards, and I filed it away in the back of my mind with other things to cry about with my eventual therapist.


And now I'm here, and I'm not sure what it means to mourn something that you'd already said goodbye to a long time ago.


It's strange. He was already an absence in my life, but now that the character of that absence has changed...it's new? It's unfamiliar.


I knew that I would probably never have any sort of resolution, but now probably is definitely. It's concrete.

III. Ten Shiny Red Fingernails


Clearly, I'm angry with my father. I'd resigned myself to never having any sort of resolution, but when he was alive there was still that one in a trillion chance that he would have some kind of epiphany and I would get that apology I always felt like I needed. That dumb kid trudging through the snow with his mother for a week or two every January, looking into the mailbox for birthday cards that never came, just couldn't give in and stop believing.


Swirled up in all of this anger and bitterness is another memory.


One summer my father pulled up in front of our little house to pick us up and take us for a visit at my grandparents' house. On the way, we stopped in Kenmare at the Ben Franklin, and he told my brother and I that we could each pick out a toy for the trip.


I don't know what my brother picked up, probably some G.I. Joe figure or other "appropriate" selection, but I was entranced with a makeup kit. It was one of those cheap kids' makeup kits with a couple of chalky eyeshadows, some tiny lipstick bullets, a little bottle of perfume, and 10 shiny red fingernails.


These weren't fake nails. They were little plastic fingertips with the nail painted a bright cherry red. The back side was open to allow for the slightest amount of adjustability, though it often pinched the skin of your fingertips painfully. I learned early that beauty and pain went hand in hand.

More than anything else in that store, I wanted those red fingernails.


We headed up to the cashier and I presented the kit to my father. He didn't look at me funny. He didn't tell me that it was strange or unusual or in any way inappropriate. He didn't even pause. He just put both of our selections on the counter, paid for them, and we left.


10 shiny red fingernails don't cancel everything else out. I'm still angry.


But for a little queer kid who was always doing and saying the wrong things, who didn't seem to understand all of the "rules," who was always being told that they were too loud, too sassy, too feminine, too sissy, too much - this moment meant something.

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