Nonfiction by Kathleen McKitty Harris
When I was five, I begged my father to teach me how to play checkers. I wanted to learn something new. I wanted a way into his world. I wanted him, I now realize.
I had already asked him to teach me how to play chess, but he refused. I was too young, he said, and the game was too complex for me to understand.
He relented, however, at the mention of a simpler activity, and we soon sat cross-legged on the floor of our Queens apartment with the checkerboard situated between our stacked shin bones. While he explained the rules to me, he’d flick cigarette ash into the recesses of a melamine ashtray balanced on his knee.
When I was 13, I was sitting with my father in “the den” — a relatively new phrase for my family to say to each other, since we moved from an attached row house in our ancestral New York City to a bedroom community in Connecticut. Now, my parents said phrases like “Metro-North commuter train” and “Bermuda bag” and “drinks in Westport,” like it was ordinary, like they had the birthright to do so. We were all playacting at this suburban comfort, while still reeking of the Gowanus Canal and Rockaway’s low tide; like the tang of piss and rancid beer outside outerborough bars; like fresh, coppery blood and the closeness of woolen-clad bodies crowding the Great Hall of Ellis Island; and like midcountry peat cut deep from Irish bogs.
My father and I were watching a show together which neither of us particularly liked, a show called “Kate & Allie.” I watched the program because Jane Curtin was one of the actors, and I remembered her from the early years of “Saturday Night Live.” Jane was funny and smart, as I so often wanted to be. My father watched it because he was bored and waiting for his wife to get ready; because Susan Saint James, one of the other actors, was pretty and had shiny black hair; and because he didn’t want to have to talk to me, his teenaged daughter, now so distant and unknown to him.
That week’s episode revolved around the fact that Jane Curtin’s character — Kate, I think, although I could never remember which was which — learns from her elderly father, now widowed, that he was once unfaithful to her mother many years before. The admission strains Kate’s relationship with her father during their visit and causes conflict — although like most sitcoms, the tension is resolved within the span of 28 minutes.
My father’s body tensed beside mine. “It’s none of her damn business,” he said. His sharpness surprised me. “She’s got no right to be mad at her father. That’s between him and his wife.” He inhaled quickly on his cigarette, tapped the ash into the amber glass ashtray perched on the arm of our sofa. We said nothing else, sitting quietly amidst the canned studio laughter and the commercials that followed, until my mother entered the room and said she was ready to leave.
“This is how you move forward,” he said, sliding one of his red plastic disks in a diagonal direction across the black and white squares, making a shushing sound against the coated gameboard. “This is how you jump your opponent,” he said, while moving his piece in a defiant arc over mine. “This is how you ‘king’ a checker with an opponent’s piece,” he said — and then proceeded to win in an astonishingly short series of moves.
Thirty years later, I sit across from my father, rocking my newborn son in my arms as he confesses his infidelity. The ghost of his long-ago affair has risen from the ashes of my parents’ recent divorce. He wants to be the one to tell me, he says. He doesn’t want my mother to get any pleasure from the opportunity. Besides, he says, he never believed in coddling me.
He’d met the woman at law school, while my mother stayed home and washed my baby clothes in a kitchen sink in a sparse Inwood apartment. Whenever he hears “Diamonds and Rust” on the radio, he says, he still thinks of her. He even went so far as to look her up on the internet, once the divorce was final.
I imagine him stroking each key on the keyboard to spell her first and last names in the internet search, like they were formed from her skin. She must have sat beside him in the passenger seat of our car while he drove us to Sunday dinners in Brooklyn. He must have smelled her perfume in a darkened movie theater while we sat together as a family, our faces aglow in the onscreen narrative. He must have sensed a lightening in his body at the thought of dropping my hand and my mother’s in a throng of tourists in midtown Manhattan and walking away from the barrenness of his life.
I rock my son and think of Joan Baez’s song lyrics, about her ex-lover Bob Dylan calling from a phone booth somewhere in the Midwest, about the long stretch of wires between them, about a halo of fluorescent light illuminating his form in the darkness.
My eyesight blurs, my son stirs in my arms. I imagine this woman, my father’s ex-lover, as Baez-like, lithe and brown-skinned, cultured and regal, but she could be anyone really, anyone on the street, just a woman who took up space in my father’s heart where my mother and I should have been, where we might have otherwise been nestled, sheltered, loved.
I scanned the grouping of his red checkers still dominating the board, seeking some kind of explanation. My father ignored the shamed blush of my cheeks, and lifted his cigarette to his lips.
He quietly stacked my pilfered game pieces near the ashtray, squinting at the curl of Marlboro smoke rising from his mouth.
“I told you I’d teach you how to play,” he said. I watched the cigarette bob in time with his speech. “I never said I’d let you win.”
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Longreads, Creative Nonfiction, Sonora Review, McSweeney’s, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” appears in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing, 2018). She has also performed as a storyteller at The Moth in New York City, and co-hosts the ‘What’s Your Story?’ live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two children.
Photo by Mick Bulstra on Unsplash