When I was ten years old, Disney released its animated classic, The Little Mermaid. I was a prissy little kid, but I feel like you’d be hard-pressed to find any little girl in 1989 who wasn’t enchanted at the thought of mermaids. Mermaids were more enchanted with princesses, mystical and probably not real, but what if they were? They’d be the most beautiful creatures on earth. I loved the water, and I loved the thought of breathing underneath the surface. Of swirling through the ocean and finding buried treasure, gold doubloons, jewels of every sparkling color. On top of the mermaid gig, Ariel had fire-red hair, something I’d always fantasized about, and what a pretty name! Ariel! Why wasn’t I named Ariel?
I wanted to see the movie the instant I saw the first commercial.
My parents were divorced, and shared custody. I was at my dad’s house when I decided I needed to see the movie immediately, and I asked him if he’d drop me off at the movie theater. It sounds crazy to drop a ten year old off alone at the movies now, but it was a different time. We were pretty free range kids, in a quiet town where bad things didn’t really happen. My father said yes, but then he asked me which movie I wanted to see. I told him, The Little Mermaid, of course. Disney classics may pop out every couple of years now, but they didn’t back then, and well. This was the first one ever about mermaids!
To my surprise, Dad smiled, and said he’d actually go see that with me. I was ecstatic. I was Daddy’s Girl, from the day I was born. Mom tells me that when I was born, and I was born a girl, my father was absolutely stunned. He was the youngest of six boys, you see, and since it’s the father’s side of babymaking that determines gender, he felt certain he’d never get his longed-for daughter. As Mom tells it, he ran up and down the hallways of the maternity ward, yelling out, “I have a little girl! I have a little girl!”
This tracks with all the memories I have of my father. He adored me, and I adored him in return. He indulged me, he took me on adventures, we cooked together and laughed together and he’d tell me about all the things he was going to do someday. Someday, I’ll have a big house, Al, and you’ll have a big room on the second floor. He always had a plan, to get rich, to give me the world, his head overflowing with dreams that he couldn’t help but tell me all about them. I believed in every one.
I remember details of the night we went to see The Little Mermaid that would seem unremarkable to most people, but were everything to me. He decided to make it a real night out; we didn’t just go see the movie. He took me out to a Chinese restaurant, my very first Chinese restaurant! The golden dragons and red velvet decorations made me feel like I was eating at a real palace. We ordered a pupu platter, which I had always wanted to try ever since seeing a segment about it on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and of course, I thought the name was very funny. I remember talking to him about what I wanted for Christmas, and asking what presents I should get for my mother and brother. He joked his answers and made me laugh, which he was always very good at. I remember that the bill came to thirty-three dollars, which was more money than I could imagine in 1989 at the age of 10. I remember that he tipped the waitress eleven dollars and feeling so awed and proud of my dad’s generosity. When we walked out of the restaurant and into the movie theater a few stores down in the shopping center, I was walking as if on clouds. This was a treat beyond what I was used to.
We watched the movie and my dad made jokes that made me giggle for the first half hour. Then he fell asleep. I didn’t care, I was too busy being enchanted by the film. Oh, it was perfect to me. “Part of Your World” was the highlight, of course, and thirty years later, I still don’t understand how “Under the Sea” got the Oscar instead. Ariel’s father in the end of the film gave his daughter everything she wanted, just like my father always did. The movie ended and I nudged Dad awake.
I don’t remember the rest of the night. I probably went to bed after such a long night out, dinner and a movie. I don’t remember the days that followed, but I know they were at my mother’s house, because after our dinner and a movie date, I never saw my father again.
It was close to Thanksgiving. The day before, I was meant to have Thanksgiving with my father. For the day proper, I’d spend with my mom and her aunt and uncle. Mom dropped my brother and I off at my dad’s house.
The dogs were gone. The cat was gone. The microwave was gone. No one was there.
I expressed worry, especially over the dogs. I loved dogs, more than people (this, perhaps, has not changed). My brother just looked uneasy and after about half an hour, declared, “I don’t think Dad’s coming back.”
I knew what he meant. It wasn’t the first time Daddy had disappeared. He’d been in and out of jail all my life. But there was something that felt so final about it this time. It was the look in my brother’s eyes. It was the realization that our special night out to see The Little Mermaid was more special than I had even known. That it was a goodbye.
I’ve always hated Thanksgiving because of this. The next day, we went to eat at my mother’s aunt’s country club, some relation too distant for me to be myself. I ate my food and I was polite but all I wanted to do was cry. My father wasn’t dead, but that was the day he died in my life.
Dad died eleven years later, on my brother’s birthday, when I was 21 years old. I’d been expecting that call for years. I’d given up on seeing him alive by then. I’d even told friends he was already dead. It was easier than explaining that he’s out there somewhere, but I don’t know where. When I’d cry at a viewing of The Little Mermaid, I’d always say my father took me to see it just before he died. It was easier than explaining that he was a crackhead and a thief, and that he’d run away from the law, that my mother had searched for him and found him only to lose him again, that maybe he’s dead and maybe he’s not, but he’s definitely a criminal, but you don’t understand, he was a great guy.
And he was a great guy. I know what it’s like to have my father love me. Lots of grown adults whose fathers are still part of their lives cannot say this. He never hurt me or abused me or talked down to me. He loved me and adored me and I have no bad memories of him. Whatever his demons, he kept them away from me.
When I went to his funeral at the age of 21, I felt shell-shocked. Here was his girlfriend, and her son, who was quick to tell me how much my father felt like a father to him. I wanted to wrap my hands around his throat and scream in his face that he was MY FATHER, HOW DARE YOU SAY THIS TO ME? His girlfriend was devastated and asked for my phone number. Like an idiot, I gave it to her. She called me, over and over again, to sob over my father, to tell me how much he loved me, how lost she is without him. She saw me as some link to him and was sucking me dry emotionally. I hated her, I hated her son, and I hated their big, beautiful house with a swimming pool while my mother spent her life pinching every penny without help from my father.
I lost my job. I was desperate for rent. I felt like these people owed me, so I emailed his girlfriend and asked for help. Her son emailed me back, admonishing me for asking for help from poor people, and then send his mother insisted on sending something, but to never ask again. They sent me fifty dollars.
I got fifty dollars and a lecture. They got my father. It wasn’t fair to me, and the fact that neither of them took a moment to understand what it felt like on my side made me hate them more.
I hope Daddy never showed this boy Disney movies. I hope he never took him out for a pupu platter. I just want some part of him to be only mine. I’m his little girl, the only one he ever had.