I’ve never met my dad. By the time I was born, at the early onset of the Reagan era, my parents had decided to call it quits. It wasn’t amicable. It was the final blunt kill shot of a relationship that was on, then off, then on again — love as skittish as taillights. My dad wasn’t ready to be stuck with whatever fate a kid entailed. And when he changed his mind and wanted to be a family after all, my mom wasn’t ready to be stuck with him.
My dad bought a house two hours south and moved in, never to be seen again. His child-support payments arrived reliably every month, but he never called, never sent a birthday card or a Christmas gift, never expressed the slightest curiosity about the son he’d made. He got married and had another son instead.
Eventually my mom got married, too, and all of us lived more or less happily ever after. I rarely thought about my dad then, except to ask people who knew him, as you’d ask about a serial killer, what’s he like? A loner, my mom told me, which explained everything and nothing. So I grew up, and his absence got smaller. Whenever I said his name I heard Robert Stack’s kidnapper voice from Unsolved Mysteries: “Do you have information about my dad’s whereabouts?”
One side effect of growing up is that people around you start to die. As we buried my grandparents, and assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins, my interest in my dad turned morbid. He’s going to die someday, I’d think. The average American male lives 76 years. I looked it up. I did the math. Assuming my dad is average, he has another decade left. Which means our would-be reunion — or union, since we’ve never actually met — will run fewer seasons than some sitcoms.
Late at night, on Sunday mornings, at odd hung-over intervals, I’d Google my dad’s name to see what came up. Not much, it turned out. His doppelgängers across the country led busy counterlives online. Someone with his name was an HR executive in Florida; someone else owned an aluminum company in Southern California; someone else did special effects for banal Hollywood films. But true to his loner roots, my dad remained an enigma. No digital breadcrumbs led me to his door.
That changed a few weeks ago. While doing the semi-weekly sweep of my spam folder, I noticed one of those emails from Facebook asking if I knew someone — someone with my dad’s name. There seemed to be unwitting sarcasm behind the question, or the thud of a punch line in search of a joke. The profile picture offered was of a silver Dodge Ram (not promising), but the hometown, high school, and employer matched those of my dad. How many estranged families have been thrust together thanks to algorithms?
I didn’t send him a friend request because I don’t want to be his friend. Maybe friends are all we can ever be now, but first I need to work out some private teenage melodrama. Instead, I lurked. And I’m still lurking. Once a week I scroll through his Facebook feed — the usual litter of vacation selfies, memes, jokes and lists and quizzes, links to articles I read only because he once read them— and try to reverse-engineer all of this shit into a real person, a consciousness that exists somewhere and that I am part of. It’s not easy.
I used to imagine my dad as fragments: hairy knuckles, razor burn, the scent of mown grass. But any hypothetical surrogate I could conjure was always undermined by the fact that I knew my dad was a middle-aged man with a vanishing hairline, who worked for an electric company in the boondocks of Ohio and was married to a woman my mom casually extolled as a bitch.
Still, I scour his Facebook for traces of charisma and profundity, for reasons to forgive his long exile. I become a student of his normalcy. His header image is a quote from Bill Nye: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” I’m of two minds about this quote. One is that it’s the kind of trite bullshit folksy people stitch onto wall hangings and put above their toilets. The other is that it hints at empathy and curiosity on the part of whoever believes it. So, I’m neutral about the header quote.
I’m less forgiving about my dad’s fetishization of his pickup. There’s an entire album devoted to it, the four-wheel-drive step-brother I never knew I had. The truck boasts a personalized license plate that puns on my dad’s name. It is washed well and often, and parked at nearly pornographic angles all over his driveway. The truck seems to symbolize virility — the retiree’s polite alternative to a dick pic. He also owns a Corvette, but the pictures of it are more like timid glamour shots than the pickup’s hard-core action scenes.
My dad also appears in some of the pictures. It’s not the first time I’ve ever seen him. My mom once showed me a snapshot of my dad as he looked circa 1982, stoic at someone’s kitchen table, sporting a beige sweater and huge tinted glasses that turned his face into a showroom. He wasn’t smiling in the photo, just staring at the camera as if it had said something stupid. The photo was taken with a disposable drugstore Kodak, and the paper had turned gray-green with age, like old smoke. I haven’t seen that picture in years. I’m not sure it’s real.
In his Facebook photos, my dad is top-heavy and balding. His calves are fluorescently pale. His preferred beachwear is denim shorts and tank tops, through which I can trace the dollops of his fatty pecs. I stare at his face for an unusually long time, although I’m not sure what I hope to find. I’m not picking out a suspect from a lineup. Still, it’s as if by studying his body I somehow come closer to knowing him. There’s an undercurrent of ridicule, too, probably self-defensive. I can imagine the decades of carbohydrates and small-batch booze that went into his body, the pleasant life of leisure that he led far away while I wondered where the fuck he was.
Now I know: He was playing golf for 30 years.
I can chart his life by the far-flung courses and country clubs he checked into: Skyland Pines, Tom O’Shanter, Turnberry, Sable Creek — his geography of escapism. I learn that his nickname on the links is “the Legend.” I learn that he once appeared on the cover of an amateur golf magazine, his only brush with fame and the justification for his nickname. Of all the many things about which I couldn’t give a shit, golf ranks high on the list, so I strain to overcome my biases and imagine my dad out there on the fairway, in the wide-open sun, teeing off with the easy grace of a born backslapper. Afterward he treats himself to a hero’s spread at Bimini’s Oyster Bar, Mike Dianna’s Grill Room, or the Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern. I wonder if it’s possible to measure my dad’s life in fried-shrimp platters? Or to understand his absence as a prolonged happy hour?
I can mock our differences, but some of what I discover about my dad is also endearing. Every year he vacations on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the towns — Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk — sound like poetry. The region’s official tourism guide describes the area as “a world of contemporary luxuries, where vacationing is easy and life is civilized.” My dad’s photos depict it as a windswept place of beachgrass and dunes. The Atlantic drags its laundry ashore at all hours. The sky is the eternal iron color of a highway, and clouds are like a child’s drawings of clouds. My dad’s daily itinerary here goes something like this: He posts crooked cell-phone shots of sunrises that are almost gory in their splendor; he hunts for sand dollars on the beach; he tracks the wild horses, Spanish Mustangs, that have roamed the seaside there for 400 years; he drinks beer until dark.
This is the father I might wish for myself if I were to wish for one at all. A man who wakes before dawn to commemorate daybreak and who photographs wild horses because of their beauty. Of course, if you think about your parents too deeply you’ll detour into narcissism. Or self-pity. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about cannonballing into a different gene pool? If my parents were artists or professors, I used to wonder, would I be smarter or more talented? If we’d talked about books around the dinner table instead of gossiping about the neighbors, would I be deeper and more interesting? In the case of my dad, so long as I didn’t know him I was free to create him in whatever Übermensch image I wanted.
“The water is like glass this morning,” he captions one picture of the ocean, and part of me wishes I had been there to see it with him and exchange clichés. Another part knows that I’m romanticizing the moment. Whatever his fleeting concessions to life’s mysteries, my dad is still a man who, in 2012, protested Obama’s reelection and posted a string of racist cartoons satirizing Muslims. He’s also a man who links to WordPress blogs that shill raw-food cancer cures. I’m not sure what we would talk about; worse, I fear we’d only apologize for each other: him for going AWOL, me for not trying harder to reach him.
He once posted a meme that read: “Never believe it’s too late to begin.” I’d like to think that’s true, just as I’d like to think he had me in mind when he posted that, but it seems cut from the same bullshit cloth as “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Maybe it’s never too late to begin, but sometimes beginnings come too late. We can be friends of a sort, I guess. We can pretend that what never happened never happened. But being a dad has a sell-by date. For now, it seems best, less harmful, to remain a stranger who lurks on the unreal outer edges of my dad’s digital life. Let me envy, in innocence, his panoramas of empty beaches and white-capped oceans about which friends used to tell each other: Wish you were here.