“Here’s a new package of Titleist balls – orange – so you don’t confuse your drive with mine.” Dad shoots me a wink. “Trust me honey, they’re the best balls for performance. And I know my balls.” Another wink. He shoves some tees in my pocket and heads for the cart.
X returns from the head. “Take these Maxfli’s.” Shoves balls in my bag. “Best new balls on the market. The pro said they improve trajectory. He pats my head. “Anything helps!” And heads for the cart.
At least they were orange.
“You want to ride with me honey?” Dad taps the seat.
“She’ll ride with me, Jim.”
Dad pulls his cap low. Nods and takes off to the first tee. His cart runs over a cone.
On the fifth hole green, Dad replaces my ball with a marker to clear the way for a putt. He stops. Pulls the ball back out of his pocket. Brings it up close for inspection. Glances at me — then throws it in my direction. Yes. He knows his balls.
Standing on the ninth hole green, Dad signals me, out on the fairway, impatiently, waving his cigarette-flare as if directing a 727, then points it spear-like to the right of the flag. His target. My target.
“Take your nine iron and chip slightly to the left. It’ll hit the green and roll down just where you want it,” X orders from his cart-throne. I hop out. Jog to the back of the moving cart and extract the necessary clubs, quickly — the nine (and the wedge) before he speeds off.
Dad shadow swings from the green — a visual demonstration of his previous commands — “Tee up just to the right of the flag. That’s it. With the wedge. Nothing fancy. Just do what I tell you.” He waits there, peering at me, cigarette in his left hand, jabbing toward the target. He waits. He watches. He hasn’t smoked in ten years. He’d be dead in two from it.
I take the wedge. Execute two practice swings.
“Hey! That’s the wrong club!” X stands in the rough, hands on his hips. “The nine iron — I told you the nine iron to the left!” He hits his forehead with the palm of his hand. A favorite gesture.
Dad looms on the green straight in front of me. I hesitate. I switch clubs.
His head jerks to the right. Then he throws his cigarette down on the manicured green and heads for the cart.
It had seemed like a good idea. Golf, Dad and X. Common ground. Dad bought me my first set of clubs and taught me the basics. My new husband was impressed. Our vacations consisted of various golf adventures – Hilton Head, the last (where my daughter was conceived). Twenty-four golf clubs in forty square miles. Eighteen holes in the morning. Lunch. Eighteen holes in the afternoon. Half price. Beautiful. Beautiful settings. Adventure-like courses with fairways through forests or next to raging oceans. Rain. Lightening. Nothing stopped us. I have to say that I loved it. I never kept score. It was simpler that way.
Our first day on the island proved golf free — a reservation screw up. A hurricane loomed off the coast, creating crazy swells, the waters swirling at unusual levels along the beach and inlets. Raining off and on in the Indian summer heat; we rode bikes along an unpaved beach trail for miles. His adventurous nature took charge. Nothing deterred him and I, of course, trailed behind with delight. Anything crazy, wild and out of the ordinary suited me fine. Rain was just water. Harmless. We came upon a part of the bike path that was washed out. A river had formed.
“Let’s put the bikes over our heads and wade across.”
“Yeah!” I say, feeling like an eight-year-old boy on an adventure with his best friend — the fun friend – and our parents have no idea where we are.
The spontaneous inlet is deeper than expected. Teetering with the bike over my head, I’m almost swept away — water surging up to my ears. Across with the speed of an explorer, he stands on the other side cheering me on. Like an Ironman finish, sand oozing from every orifice, he high fives me as I stagger out. Without a word, we throw down the bikes and race each other over the dunes toward the ocean. The Atlantic crunches and crashes on the unruly shore, clouds blanketing and sprinkling overhead. The beach lies deserted. I dive in, clothes and all. He follows. The smell and taste of the sea all over my body. The water warmer than the windy outside.
“Here’s a wave. Take it.” he yells.
We both turn and paddle, trying to find that high, that glide that we grew up with as beach teenagers in the Pacific. The choppy shore breakers of the East Coast chew us up and spit us out, throwing us through the foam, sloshing us in and out with the rip. The murky gray undulating water of a storm. We float on our backs, sneakers in the air and whoop. Pirates. Runaways. Ne’er-do-wells.
“God, this is amazing! I love the sea. It makes you feel part of it all, you know?” I pronounce.
“I do. I totally know. Man, I feel like a kid. This is the best time I’ve had in, well,
in I don’t know when.”
“Let’s not grow up? Okay?”
“I know. Let’s not.”
Another set comes in. “Take it! There’s two more coming, man; I can see them! Big!”
“We need fins.” I scream over the deafening pound.
We dive under a rocker. Ride at least three more. Bike to a beach side resort and talk our soaking wet bodies into the bar. Clams, martinis and soup. They lend us towels. We watch some important football game and laugh our heads off. Someone turns up the music. Tom Petty. He grabs my hand. We dance. We laugh. We play. The next day he comes up with a speedboat rental. Neither of us had ever driven a boat. We find a pod of dolphins that trail us – exploring the ins and outs of Calibogue Sound. Another rainsquall.
It’s just water.
I tell myself that that’s what kept me there. That part.
Hilton Head Lakes Golf Club.
“What’d you get on that last hole?” X demanded, lurching the cart toward the next tee.
“Five? How’d you get five? That’s impossible. You had three on the fairway, one to chip up and three on the green.”
He shot a six. So five was unacceptable to a competitive addict. Especially when it was his wife. The wife who was always happy, no matter how bad she played.
“How can you be that damn happy when you just shot a seven?” His head twitched back and forth at odd angles (a lifelong tick) as he inaccurately weaved the cart at break neck speed down the narrow path, branches scrapping the sides.
“It’s beautiful out here. I saw a deer. I could give a shit about the game, frankly.”
“That’s your problem. You don’t take anything seriously. You gotta have passion. You gotta kill to win. That’s why you’ve never been successful. You’re tentative, hesitant, afraid, and lackadaisical. That gets you nowhere in life.” He threw the cart up on the rough. “Where’s your ball?”
I pointed back over my shoulder. He’d passed it during his remonstration.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I don’t know if you don’t tell me.”
“I’ll walk. It’s no big deal. It’s beautiful out here.”
I gladly stroll. Pretending I’m alone. Smelling the wood-infused air, the dampness of morning, the sounds of invisible animals adjusting to human presence. I loved the East. A feeling of traditionalism prevailed. Formality. My childhood roots.
“Did you see where my ball landed?” He screamed his command over the entire fairway. Even the pink plaid woman in the group just ahead took note. The usual battle cry. Every hole. Me – the reluctant sentry. Drive and watch. Watch for the exact trajectory and location of the ball. I never had great depth perception. Pressure + expectation + potential anger = failure. My self-imposed mathematical life equation. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see the ball. I could stay with it till it peaked, usually; then it would just disintegrate. Dissolve into the sky. Gone.
“Did you see it? Did you see it this time? Huh?”
He was watching. Why the fuck couldn’t he see it? I never asked. Sometimes I’d just lie, hoping that my guess proved to be somewhere in the general vicinity. I began to develop a perverse pleasure out of sending him on impossible hunts. He’d drop me, slightly slowing the cart for a leap off, and then disappear into the woods at high speed.
Perhaps he’d never come out.
“No. I yelled over my shoulder. I have no idea.”
Our entire marriage played out on the golf course. I could have saved myself a lot of time and pain had I just gone out on the course once and evaluated the dynamics. But it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d never have seen it. I couldn’t leave Dad. I wouldn’t leave X, till he did. Couldn’t quit anything I’d committed to. Didn’t know how.
A ball explodes out of the trees at the edge of the green. Plop – in the sand. Wet sand.
“Throw me your sand wedge.”
The sand wedge was my Christmas present. I’d yet to use it. New. Pristine.
He misses, jamming the virgin club deep into the sand — the ball untouched. He swings, wildly, four more times; the ball continually rolls right back like a homing pigeon. Finally, it explodes free, skating with angry karmic force to the other side, landing in the rough. He smashes the disobedient club in half on the side of the cart. My club. In half. He waits, thrusting the cart to the forward position, a wordless summon for me to forge with him, immediately, to the next conquest.
I don’t finish the hole.
“Golf’s suppose to be fun. Suppose to be relaxing. You’re gonna have a heart attack.”
“Nothing fun about playing lousy. Winning. Now that’s fun,” he states; his hands choke the steering wheel.
The game brought out the worst in him. Fanned the flames of his abusive side and I was his target – in his guns’ sites.
“Where’s your dad?” X questions, perplexed as he mounts the green, his ball right next to the cup. “Pull the flag.”
“He left.” Distracted, I walk straight to the cup.
“Don’t walk through my putting line! For Christ sake, how many times do I have to tell you that? Your cleat made a divot – get the sand.”
I follow his orders like a well-calibrated machine. Pull the flag and carry it out of the way, taking care not to stand where my body will throw a shadow on his line to the cup.
The hostess sits us at a center table, over lit, among a throng of vacationers. A giant plate glass window looks out onto a packed patio where Mariachis perform. A party of five cackles in bursts at the next table. Mom, Dad, X and I sit, disconnected, as if shuffled into pews — the wood chairs upright and uncomfortable. The mariachi horn rhythmically blares in sharp surges. An overly cheery Senorita arrives, out of breath to distribute oversized placard style menus.
“Can I get you some drinks to start?” Her voice hums with a Spanish lilt.
“I want three shots of tequila. Right here. Right now. The best you have.” Dad taps aggressively with his index finger on the cheap wood table. “Presto. Andele.”
She nods, her painted eyebrows arch at a stiff angle.
“I’ll take whatever you have on tap.” I add.
“Tecate?” She checks. I nod, even though it’s my least favorite.
“Ditto.” X confirms.
Mom orders her usual vodka sedative.
The menu placards, convenient communication barriers, rise for intense Mexican meal scrutiny. The cackles rise in jarring crescendos table left. Dad’s placard lowers. He shoots a scowl. It goes unnoticed among the restaurant populace. A normal crowd.
I smooth the napkin in my lap. I’m not especially hungry.
The Senorita returns with Dad’s potent elixir. He downs them like a freshly docked seaman with scurvy. Manners forgotten. Menus, still raised above eye level, occupy our intense attention.
The mariachis now find our table like an unwanted fly to a bedside light. They sing a love ballad between Mom and Dad. Dad ignores the scene — his head buried in the menu, studying the description of the same meal he gets every time he’s here.
The happy little trio sings unaffected by his disrespect. Eyebrows furrow heavenward to the romantic lyrics of times gone by. Mom, hand to the side of her chin, nods affectionately with a pasted smile. Mom, whom I’m sure, knows nothing of love.
They finish abruptly. X fishes out a tip from his pocket. Dad manages a critical glance. They exit abruptly.
The menus lower, no longer appropriate props in the impending mental, one-sided gunfight. I smell blood, a honed detection skill from my childhood. The blood bath of an unexplained “Dad Bad Mood.”
He pushes his chair back slowly. He rises as if contemplating a strategic move. I wonder if he’s leaving. Something he’s done quite frequently throughout my life. Will he walk home? Possibly. Why? I don’t know. But dinner will be better if he does.
He stands stiff, with a slight lean due to the tequila. He doesn’t move. Stares directly at X. Our eyes rise to him as if expecting a speech. He places his hands on the table, finger tips like a tripod, and leans in, eyes boring through X like a predator ready to leap at easy prey.
“Thirty years ago, I could’ve thrown you through that fucking window,” he hoarsely whispers with his lips pulled tight. “You understand me, my friend?” His voice builds to full room volume. “I could’ve fucking annihilated you – you, you fucking little prick.”
“Jim!” Mom places her hand on his arm to coax him down. He shakes it off. The party of five, to the left of us, quiets. The Mariachis are gone.
X sits speechless. This part of Dad I can’t explain or forewarn to any who enters his target range.
I grab X’s arm. “We’re leaving.” He looks stunned, but my look is definitive enough that he doesn’t fight me. He simply follows. Dad, at this level, is unreachable, nonnegotiable. If X hadn’t seen glimpses of it during the Silverado golf trip earlier that year, I might not have persuaded him to cut out fast.
We left. Left my mother. I didn’t see Dad for two years, till weeks before his death. I had written a letter, asking him not to make me choose. It wasn’t fair. Wasn’t appropriate. I loved him. If that mattered.
He never answered. Never acknowledged the letter existed.
Interstate 10. Palm Desert to LA.
Screaming down the highway. Night in the desert. Still. Cold. Barren.
A lone trinket shack stands lit like a beacon in the dusty distance. A makeshift string of colored lights calls to the motorist — the last bastion before one drops off into the endless miles of dark desert void. He wheels to the right just making it off the road. I ask no questions. He disappears into the rickety store-shed that appears to be just closing up.
It’s then I realize I left my broken golf clubs in dad’s cart. For a moment, I consider going back. Telling X to turn around and go back. For the clubs. Dad will be asleep. Crashed. In the morning, it could all be different. He might not remember. He won’t remember.
The lights of the store-shed go dead. X appears at the car window, brandishing a blade. About nine inches long. A butterfly blade, he brags. Can cut right or left in a fight if one has lightening reflexes. The handle is embedded with an extravagant turquoise, lapis and onyx design, lined in silver. He waves it around. A smile of triumph on his face. Eyes wide. Angry. Revengeful. He chuckles low. An evil chuckle. Evil. He kicks the car in reverse with a spray of gravel, grinds the gears, then explodes toward the ramp for LA.
I slip down in my seat and pretend to sleep.