Dear (Deadbeat) Daddy by Anna Keeler

I am writing to a man who doesn’t exist with words that were pulled from between my teeth before I was old enough to feel them. There is a cavity in the middle of my chest where a hole should have been carved, but for some reason, what I feel festers more than it hurts.

Because I didn’t meet you in the delivery room, when I came up so attention starved I let oxygen hug my little limbs, or hours later, in a pink blanket, fists balled against a world that wouldn’t reach back. No, I met you on a piece of paper and the end of a cotton swab in a building made of granite and on par with men who robbed convenience stores and shot their neighbors because for some reason, child support and criminal proceedings habitate the exact same courthouse.

I didn’t meet you on the escalator, or in the same room. I still doubt I’ve met you yet. Our DNA match was only 98%.

And I can’t begin to tell you how hard it is to mourn a body that was never there, how painful it is to process a loss that weren’t really a loss through a brain so tender and electrified. Because that brain was conditioned through a childhood of Maury Povich to think that this sort of thing was normal. And it was until her thighs itched for a dance floor that only wanted daughters were allowed to want, and she from her seat, thought a little too long about men:

Men who hurt her and men who leave her and men who should protect her from all of the above, because it was easier to be a victim when such a weak foundation was laid into the eyes of a child that wasn’t wanted.

It was so much easier to push that all out and stop asking “When’s my daddy coming back?” Because there was no depth in being abused; in fact, it was routine, to be left, to be insulted, to be dropped so many times sweet bismuth skin became tarnished.

And it was easiest to pretend that my anomaly of cytosine belonged to some other man, that I fell into the cusp of the margin of error. That child services would do its job and put me into the arms of a paternal figure that could love me. Or even that someone who stood by and watched as my humanity was folded into a judge-and-jury mandated envelope—my existence valued at $98 a month—and see how desperately I needed my ‘like a father.’ They would see, oh Jesus Christ, they’d see how proudly I’d wear ‘like a daughter to me,’ and how warmly I’d accept their tight hugs.

But it’s easier to blame everyone else except him. Him. And, of course, myself.

I am just as much a part of him as he is a part of me, and I didn’t have to meet him to let that happen.

Ever since my ears could comprehend an insult, the image of ‘his daughter’ was a parasite on my skin. I grapple with the fecklessness that has slithered into my bones and threatens to swallow my identity whole. The burden of closeness—I got that from him. That, and feet too big to run. For my own sake, I fight genetics and instinct but know, in my heart, I’m a deadbeat.

My body is a mausoleum to a parent I didn’t have, an honorarium of just how much I am like him. Because I’m cheap and I’m short tempered and I only care about myself, and just like him, I keep too much distance to ever really flourish and abide.

And there are days I want to bury myself along with his image, because not being able grieve teaches me how to be in pain. I will stand here, by the courthouse, well-worn shovel in my hand;

But I still can’t mourn the man who was never really a man.

Anna Keeler is the assistant editor for The Chaotic Review, and was the 2016 recipient of the Arden Goettling Academy of American Poets Prize. Her work has been published or is upcoming on, Indiana Voice Journal, The Merrimack Review, Cleaver Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Sick Lit Magazine, and more.