The Brooklyn Tolstoy
by Doug Benerofe
Illustrated by Alexander Lee

This is my daughter’s first day of her latest protest. Katie won’t come down from our backyard tree house unless I let her get a second hole pierced in each ear. I’d pierce her ears myself if it weren’t for the existence of boys. After all, it’s not the earrings and eyeliner and rouge by themselves that I’m afraid of. I might be inexperienced in the ways of girls, as my daughter has informed me, but I certainly went through boyhood. I know how mean and nasty it can get, and I know how earrings and eyeliner and rouge affect boys, how all that stuff is some cosmic, hormonal signal to go bonkers.

My doctor gave me anti-anxiety pills for times like this. He said if I feel a panic attack coming to breathe in calm and slow waves, and shut my eyes and think of the ocean. Maybe tonight is one of those nights I’d be better off calling my sister over, like I’ve done so often lately. But, standing under the big oak tree in my bathrobe, an unlit, crooked cigarette slipped into the corner of my mouth, I want—like I’ve wanted so often lately—to say something illuminating about Jane, Katie’s mother and my wife, who was killed in a car accident three years ago, just after Katie turned 10.

“Check my email for me?” Katie calls down to me.

“I don’t think Julia Butterfly Hill had email,” I answer. Katie learned about Julia Butterfly Hill in her seventh grade social studies class. Julia Butterfly Hill, Katie informed me, sat in a redwood tree in Northern California for over 700 straight days to protest what logging companies are doing to forests there.

“If she didn’t have email, then how did she talk to her friends?” Katie asks. “Maybe they stood under a tree and yelled up to her,” I say.

“Duh,” my daughter says, and she sticks her head back inside the tree house.

“What did I tell you about that kind of attitude?” I ask, but as soon as the words leave my mouth I feel like my mother. One of the bewildering side effects of single parenthood is that I say all the words I swore I’d never say, things my single mother pulled on me, which sounded as ridiculous and ineffective then as now.

My mother’s favorite argument after my father left was, “One day you’ll understand,” as if 20 years later I’d somehow reach an epiphany as to why I forgot my mother’s birthday or didn’t tell her I wasn’t coming home for dinner. What my mother probably meant was that single parenthood turns you into a neurotic lunatic, that despite therapy and advice from friends and self-help books, you are almost doomed to hold on too tight, to become one of those claustrophobic parents you swore you’d never become. I shut my eyes and try to think of the ocean, like my doctor advised, but it doesn’t work. So I walk over to the tree house’s ladder and climb up.

“Knock, knock,” I say, when I get close to the top. “Wait, wait,” Katie answers, alarmed.

There is some scrambling around, and finally, just after one of my slippers slips off and floats down to the grass below, my daughter invites me inside. She is seated cross-legged on her sleeping bag, with several unlit candles and three stuffed animals in a semi­circle before her—perhaps an informal conference on how to overcome and survive lame dads. Pinned to the wall directly across from Katie are three photographs. One is of me, although it’s hanging upside down. In the half-light of the battery-operated lamp in the corner, it appears that someone’s given me a Hitler mustache. Next to my photo is one of Julia Butterfly Hill. And the other is of Jane. I sit against the far wall and dig my hands inside the pockets of my bathrobe.

Except for Katie’s black nail polish and the silver dog collar she started to wear around her neck a few months ago, it’s like my daughter is a newer, younger version of my late wife. With her straight black hair, her narrow eyes, even the way she stands in a room with her hands on her hips, I am often startled by Katie’s likeness to Jane.

“I’m not even sure Julia Butterfly Hill even had her ears pierced,” I say. When Katie rolls her eyes, I add, “You know those environmentalists,” but I have no idea what I mean by this.

“Mom had two piercings, remember?” Katie asks, and I choose to ignore the question, as if I didn’t even hear it.

“When you got the one hole, you said that was it, remember?”

“All my friends have two piercings,” she argues, again. “Some have three. Debra Hopland has four holes in each ear.”

“If all your friends moved to China, would you?” I ask, and again feel foolish. It’s the same question I asked earlier, the one that propelled us into our argument. I want to say other, deeper, and more meaningful things: about Jane, about my daughter becoming a woman, about my own feelings of loss. But these words will not come. For now, I am the parent and she is the child, and we are both trapped by the words neither of us can communicate. I’ve already told Katie about my own father, how he left suddenly when I was 11, the confusion he left behind in his wake. But how could I explain that when she started to grow up, I mean really grow up, it hurt all over again; that hole inside me just ripped open again, as if I was again being left behind?

“I would go to China,” Katie argues back. “Because you wouldn’t be there, and then I could get as many piercings as I wanted, and wear tons of makeup too.”

“You’re not the type of girl who wears tons of makeup,” I say, but I realize I’m headed into murky territory.

“Maybe if you went on a date, you wouldn’t be so uptight about me growing up.”

“Young lady,” I say. But I say nothing else. A few months ago Katie taped an advice column cut out from a teen magazine to my bathroom mirror with a Band­-Aid. I found it in the morning when I went to shave. A 16­-year­-old girl wrote to say that she’s not going to college because she’s afraid to leave her single mother behind. The advice columnist, someone named Ms. Answers, responded with some hard data: over 60 percent of widowers under the age of 50 remarry after five years, over 70 percent of divorcées under the age of 50 remarry within three years. My daughter had added in pink, bold letters at the bottom of the page, “Dad, aren’t you glad you’re now a statistic?”

I pretend I am examining one of Katie’s books, a history textbook lying open on the floor. Katie picks up a stuffed animal with long, purple hair and hugs it. At some point, every parent becomes the parented, and every child the parent. At 13, Katie’s not quite there yet, but I can feel a beginning, a shift. I look at the photo of Jane tacked to the wall, shut my eyes, and try to follow the doctor’s advice. But instead of seeing the ocean, I remember Jane. Long before Katie was born, before we were even married or lived together, Jane and I had gone out to the boardwalk in Coney Island to look at all the old Russian ladies who sit bundled up on benches gazing out into the Long Island Sound. Jane liked to feed the birds and eat a knish from one of the little shops in Brighton Beach. An old Russian man with a long, white beard, whom Jane later referred to as the Brooklyn Tolstoy, took Jane’s picture with a Polaroid camera, and then sold the picture to me for 75 cents. Jane’s hair was long and wild, and she had a cigarette in her mouth. She was 28 then, around the same age as Julia Butterfly Hill when she went up into that tree.

“Face it, Dad, I’m changing,” Katie says, and I open my eyes. I’m back in the tree house and feel guilty that I regret being back, regret that I can’t live with my eyes closed in that delirium for good. Katie is still holding the doll with the purple hair.

“I know, honey,” I say.

“No, I mean really changing,” she whispers, and she won’t look at me.

I want to tell my daughter about the time, just after my father took off, when I smacked a double off the wall during a junior high school baseball game. After the small crowd stopped cheering—as I stood on second base and dusted the dirt off my pants—my mother, from the bleachers, yelled, “I love you, honey darling.” I wanted to reprimand my mother for being so embarrassingly overzealous. But I feared she would perceive this as a kind of abandonment, and I didn’t want to do to her what my father had done to me.

If it came down to it, I would’ve allowed her to greet me at home plate with a hug and a glass of prune juice.

“I’m doing the best I can,” I say now to my daughter, and I don’t know why, but I am sweating. I fumble in the pockets of my bathrobe, but feel let down to find the cigarette there broken.

“There are things I need,” she says. She is facing away from me, toward the photograph of Jane. Her voice is very low; I can barely hear it. She seems embarrassed. “From a drugstore,” she whispers.

“Female paraphernalia?” I ask. Paraphernalia, I think. Jane would’ve laughed at me for using such a word. “Is that the real reason you’re up here?”

“I still want the piercing,” she says, but she still hasn’t looked at me.

“I wish your mother was here,” I say.

Katie whips her head around and stares at me. “Well, she’s not,” she says.

“I’m going to call Fran,” I say. I know I can’t call my sister every time Katie wants something like black nail polish, or a training bra, or a tampon, but I don’t know what else to do. I really don’t.

“You might as well be dead too,” Katie says, and she looks away from me again.

“Young lady,” I say. I want to say more, but the words are stuck deep down inside me, so low that I don’t yet know what they are.

I tell her I’ll be right back, and scramble down the ladder and run inside. I think about going to our neighbor, Mrs. Finklestein, but she’s older, and I don’t want Katie to accuse me of embarrassing anyone. I run into my bathroom, throw myself down on my knees and jerk open the cabinet doors right under the sink. I am frantic. I can’t remember the last time I looked in this cabinet, but maybe Jane left some paraphernalia I missed when I cleaned out most of her stuff last year. Paraphernalia. There’s that amorphous word again. What other feminine accoutrements might Katie ask for in coming years? A year after my father left, my mother tried to have a talk with me about sex. We sat at the kitchen table in the tiny apartment we had moved to. She said she had found some strange stains in my underwear while she was doing the laundry. She wanted to know what I knew about girls. She wanted to know if I knew about condoms. I told her I didn’t want to talk about it. I could not look at her. She said she wished my father was around, but since he wasn’t I would have to listen to her about these matters. I stormed out of the kitchen and slammed the door. From my bedroom, I could hear my mother crying in the other room. Eventually, I returned to the kitchen and allowed my mother to talk to me about sex. I didn’t want to go through with the conversation—I felt both ashamed at the circumstance and angry at my father for leaving—but I let my mother finish, for I feared that if I didn’t, I would somehow be disappointing her.

I don’t know if Katie knows how to use tampons, or what Jane would have said to her to teach her. I just hope there are directions on the box, or maybe with any luck it’s something Katie learned about in her health education classes at school. It’s all too much. I don’t know when to give her space and when to comfort her. I don’t know when the boundaries I set are examples of good parenting or when they’re examples of my own fear of being left again. What if this experience would be natural, even healing, if it occurred between a mother and a daughter, but between a father and a daughter it will somehow damage her in a way I cannot even fathom? I start throwing things out of the cabinet onto the floor: a sponge, a towel, unopened bars of soap and shampoo, a bottle of perfume I gave to Jane years ago that she never liked, some magazines, a stick of deodorant, one of Jane’s shoes, a hair clip left behind by the one woman I tried to date in the last three years. Behind several rolls of toilet paper, I see a pink box. I bang my head on the counter as I scramble back to my feet, but I have found panty liners, and I hope to God there’s no expiration date on these things. I run back to the tree house, and climb up, and hand the pink box off to my daughter, who does not look at me, and then I make my way out of the tree house and down the ladder as if I’m running away from a fire.

I haven’t been inside for more than a minute when the phone rings. On my way to answer it, I stub my toe against one of Katie’s Rollerblades on the floor. And so, I pick up the phone and simultaneously say, “Shit, damn.” A voice on the other end asks if I’m all right.

“Coach Monroe,” I say. It’s Katie’s soccer coach. “I told you to call me Greta, silly,” she says.

She laughs and tells me about a pizza party she’s throwing for the girls at her house to celebrate the end of the season. She says she needs another parent to attend. To make it a more even ratio of parents to girls, she says. Will I agree to chaperone the event? This is not the first time Coach Monroe has invited me to things. She’s my age, divorced, with a daughter of her own. I believed Jane would be the last woman I’d ever date. Even now, more than three years after her accident, I still feel like a charlatan at times like this.

“I can even stop by beforehand and pick you up, and you can help me go pick up the pizzas,” Coach Monroe says.

“How old were you when you got a second hole pierced in each ear?” I ask. I just can’t help myself.

“I never did,” Coach Monroe says.

“What are you saying?” I ask, excited, hopeful.

“I wear clip-ons.”

I am thrilled with this information. I say my goodbyes and head straight for the tree house. “Can I come up?” I ask. My daughter says it’s all right, and I climb the ladder as fast as I can, and stub a toe on a rung. It hurts, but I don’t care, for I am breathless as I report to my daughter the wonderful, almost ideal information Coach Monroe has shared. Clip-ons, clip-ons. I can hardly believe it. Maybe there’d be an equally satisfying substitute for boys and drugstores.

“That’s what you talked to her about?” Katie asks, and even though she remains with her back to me, I can feel her roll her eyes.
I notice that now there are only two photographs hung on the wall of the tree house. There’s the photograph of me with the Hitler mustache. And the one of Julia Butterfly Hill. But the one of Jane is no longer tacked to the wall. And I don’t see it anywhere on the floor, or tucked within Katie’s books.

“Where’s Mom?” I ask.

“I burned her,” Katie says. “In the candle.”

“I told you. You can’t light a candle up here. This is all wood, this tree house. You’re going to burn the whole thing down one of these days.”

“You smoke cigarettes in here.”

“But I’m an adult, and sometimes adults are allowed to break certain rules,” I argue, but I feel ridiculous.

“I just wanted to stop thinking about her,” Katie says. Her back is still to me. But then she turns around and I see she has been crying. “It’s a cleansing ritual—I saw it on TV,” she adds.

“Those reality shows are not really reality, you know?”

“Dad, you don’t know everything.”

“I know that that picture meant a lot to me.”

“You don’t have to be such a freak about it.” And when I reach over to try and touch her shoulder, she says, “Don’t touch me.”

After a moment I ask, “How about you get a second piercing in only one ear? Let’s just take it slow. One ear at a time.”

Katie sighs and then lies down on her sleeping bag and closes her eyes. I return to the house, gather some blankets, and then go back up into the tree house. I cover my daughter with one of the blankets and fix a pillow for her head. Tomorrow I’ll look on the Internet for information about menstrual cycles, and maybe I’ll ask my sister for advice. I’ll go to a gynecologist myself if I have to. And I’ll offer to drive Katie to get the second hole pierced, in both ears. That will give us time to talk. We can be real open about all the things you are going through, I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her about my mother, and what it was like for me when she started to date again. Katie will look at me, even hug me, but she will tell me that she’d rather go get the piercing with Michelle or Heather or April, or perhaps with the whole group of girls she spends her time with. And I will give her some money, and tell her to be safe, and remind her to be home in time for dinner. Now, I listen to her breathing and try to concentrate on the moment. This moment also will pass. It too will go away, vanish with time. Like the photo of Jane that Katie burned, this moment will also drift away into the past like so much smoke rising upward out of my control. I look at the stars and try not to feel too panicked about all of the places my daughter will go without me.