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Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Counting Lefts” by Kennedy Hill. Kennedy is an essayist from California whose work often interrogates family, relationships, and gender dynamics. She studied human biology and society at UCLA, but pivoted to journalism after a disastrous run-in with organic chemistry. As of 2021, she’s been a frequent solo traveler, and even a full-blown digital nomad when she can afford it. Kennedy writes about her travels, the proverbial dilemmas of life in your 20s, and how it all intersects with the present sociopolitical maelstrom in her newsletter, kennedysbeenthinking.substack.com.
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There used to be men in my family. They were there, on holidays, huddled in some room talking about men who professionally huddled somewhere else, bearded and in charge of the barbecue. Then they were not, and a sauce brush was clenched in manicured hands. Sometime between then, when the separation between the men and the women was institutional, and now, when separation is no longer necessary, they left one by one.
My uncle went in this way, after the first and before another. He was always the black sheep, the man whose stories would leave the adults with no choice but to shake their heads and pray on it. He had a record and too many kids with a no-good woman. He did tattoos at the Thanksgiving table and asked me to hot comb his hair so he could be big pimpin’ like Katt Williams. He had a rundown Caddy and repped Long Beach. He liked his women with a little meat on ‘em and liked his meat to fall off the bone. He pronounced his liquor licka.
He was a man’s man, but a snoring, rib-eating, weed-smoking man can only sleep on couches for so long. Blood is thicker than water, but it’s never thick enough for a man who can’t do for himself. He had to go. He did. Somewhere he could stop messing with the women out here and get back on his feet. Somewhere a Black man could just be.
Then there was Grandpa, or Tim. I’m not sure what to call him now because he went loudly after always being so quiet. He only joined family conversations to correct or belittle. He never asked why I always approached him with a fearful formality. He only spoke when he spoke first or when he spoke to God on our behalf. The man of the house prays, and it was only ever his house.
Bless this meal, bless these hands, bless this home. Bless the church and my duties as a deacon. Bless my wife and her devotion. Bless this other woman who I’m running around with. Bless the God-fearing, good-gossiping Christians who whisper about my family until the pastor says to stop bringing my mess here, and even after that. Bless the stepdaughters who pick up their mother after she picks up cigarettes and debt and depression. Bless the grandchildren who don’t know what to call me anymore but don’t really need to know because I never call and they never do and that’s how it is.
Sometimes they go slowly. My stepdad (in practice, not paperwork) and I didn’t get along at first. Sixteen years in and he and mom don’t get along at the moment. He would come to Thanksgiving as my mom’s boyfriend and my little brother’s dad and my stepdad, speaking with a lowered head as if he didn’t have the grit to meet anyone’s eye. Then he would leave after moving the last of our boxes into the new house just 6 minutes from his. We’d stay in his house for long, for seasons, tumbling in and out as the pendulum of his and mom’s relationship swung so and away.
After my brother was born our third, my stepdad became our fourth. Mom and I were always two. I don’t mind that we went from two to three to four. Then back to three, but maybe they would really make four work this time. But no, he said, my mother just wouldn’t change, so three would have to do. Better to live together even if we can’t love each other, though, so let’s try four without benefits (well, not all the time). Let’s see what that looks like. I’m off to school so it’s just them three until it splits to one dad and one mom plus one son, and everything is getting so expensive so they’ll have to stay two and one under the same roof. Until that one’s girlfriend wants her own number and that four becomes unbearably stifling, sending the other two back out again. The girlfriend goes. The son shuttles back and forth, so it’s one and one, and the third split in halves . I come back to mom’s house, now two and a half. Christmas is always three.
When you’re young, you don’t see it. The strained expression at a hand on a waist. Things fold at the edges, but your vision is all narrow and naur Cleo. Then you get older and you can’t look away because the last man standing is starting to slip. He’s the uncle that’s still at Easter, but Easter at his house is now Easter at auntie’s house because the house is now hers. He’s moved into a pad for bachelors—a title he’s dodging with therapy and unrequited hope. But the papers are on his heels, and the seat at the head of the table sits empty while Grandma prays for us all.
Nothing can be done about the fall, whether you watch or not, but watching matters. At how quick or slow it goes, how much give gravity has.
One is trying to come back. He texts me, saying the void of my absence has only been filled by a numbness. He wants to make things right and was hurt that I didn’t call when his father died. He’s found God and wants to know if I’ve done the same. He wants to know if I need a God to heal that same numbness. I’m fine. I pray.
He was never even at Christmas. He was across the country or a state below living with a woman who would teach me to bake or play piano or speak in an Australian accent. He’d come to me, and we’d golf, or I’d go to him, and he’d scream at the new girlfriend until she cowered in their room and he plopped on the couch beside me to say I shouldn’t become a woman like that. Not a woman like my mother, either. The girlfriend has sucked in enough sorrow to ask if we’re hungry. I say yes because my appetite is used to this. He slaps her ass as she goes to make French toast and says now that! That is more like it. See how great she is when she stops acting so foolish? Sometimes we’d play cards.
He wants to meet and I say yes because I do have a God, and for some reason, he just won’t drop this. What will I even say? That I don’t think about him often. That if I do take a ride on the memory train, those of me kicking my legs during a tickle attack ride are just one stop away from those of me crying as he screams me into the corner of a car, telling me to shut all that noise up because he’s not my mom, and he doesn’t play that. That I can never find the stop in between. The times are all jumbled and have been for years, and now I’m supposed to untangle it just because he’s my dad? The first man who didn’t last.
I could tell him that even though I’ve only ever seen men leave, I want to save myself from being left. So I’ll avoid it all, the hand on the small of my back or the glances slick with expectation. If, by mistake, I do meet someone’s eye, I’ll never look at anything else.
Our women don’t seem to be good at this, so I’ll become whoever this seems to be made for. Our women are loud and demanding, so I’ll quiet myself and choose to please instead of be pleased. I’ll forget I want pleasure and latch onto the one who doesn’t care if I love him because he loves me enough for the both of us. I won’t wave the white flag, no matter how many red ones are thrown. I’ll stay here as her, someone with a dining table that’s only had chairs added.
But before we get too far, back to that moment when our eyes first went wide and had yet to be wetted by the other, I’ll make sure he can’t grasp the coarse me slumped inside. When he does go, I’ll survive the loss of whatever version of enough he offered. I’d only mourn the leaving.
But if he was all too. Too sweet, too understanding, too funny, too charming, too dependable, I’d turn away, because I’d rather lose him after a second than after a mortgage. I’d rather be the first to leave.