During our third date, my future husband Theo and I had just settled onto his living room couch to talk — and, I hoped, to make out — when the phone rang. This was 1992, pre-cell phone-era, so he let his machine answer. After the beep, a voice chirped, “Dad, you there?”
It was Julie. His daughter. She was seventeen, only two years younger than me, and had already graduated high school and lived on her own.
“Daaaaddy, where are you?”
Theo scooted away from me and grabbed the phone. “I’m here. Hi, Jules.”
Uneasy, I wandered his living room pretending to examine knickknacks while eavesdropping. But Theo mostly listened to Julie, chiming in with an occasional “Uh-huh. She did? Jeez, sweetheart. How’d you handle that?”
My mouth filled with the metallic taste of jealousy.
At nineteen, I had never gone out with somebody’s dad before. Theo, a customer at the health food store where I worked on summer break, was a ponytailed grad student who looked a decade younger than forty-one, and had been amicably divorced from Julie’s mom for over a decade. Talking across the counter while I rang up his brown rice, our shared interests seemed to bridge the generation gap. I had survived adolescence in the eighties by listening to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Theo, a child of the sixties, had attended art school in the eighties, so we knew each other’s cultural references. We also both loved Fred Astaire movies and big band music made before we were born.
One day Theo brought me a mixtape of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songs as a friendly gesture. My boss, watching us from her lair in the vitamin aisle, took Theo aside with the intention of prodding him to ask me out. When he expressed wariness about the complications (our age gap, my impending return to college in a different state), my boss told him that if he gave it a chance, maybe none of the complications would matter. We went for sushi that Friday, enjoyed a swoon-inducing kiss afterward, and saw a play together the next night, followed by another epic kiss. My initial concerns about going out with a dad subsided.
On our third date, as I listened to Theo talk to his daughter on the phone, I couldn’t imagine confiding in my father the way Julie did. My father was a bitter, angry drunk who was always too agitated to hear any voice other than his own. He ranted nonstop about idiot bosses, idiot politicians, and us, his idiot family. Sometimes his ranting resulted in the closest person — usually my older brother — taking a backhand crack across the face. Once, he pushed my elderly grandpa to the floor. He and I never had a single normal interaction. I avoided his wrath by keeping my head down and mouth shut while my mother frantically tried to calm him. Then we would all sit down to a meal, politely place our napkins on our laps, and pretend his outburst never happened.
Even after Mom got the nerve to file for divorce, we didn’t speak openly about the violence we had endured. Growing up among smashed plates and dark secrets had made me a skittish, tongue-tied girl. As a woman, it made me vow to never be in a relationship that looked perfect on the surface but was rotten within. I needed a solid core of respect and communication.
“Wow, you guys are close,” I said when Theo hung up with Julie, my jealousy tempered by awe.
“It’s been a long road,” he admitted. He told me about the breakup of his marriage and the pain his leaving caused Julie when she was little. Since then, he’d tried to be there for her day in and day out until she trusted him again.
We spent the rest of the night on his couch talking about our families, and I felt my already intense attraction to Theo deepen. Not because he was Julie’s daddy and I longed for him to be my daddy, but because of the empathy he showed his daughter, and his honesty with me.
Over the next two years, Theo and I fell in love on the phone while finishing our degrees in separate states. We built the foundation of respect and communication lacking in my parents’ marriage. I told Theo secrets I hadn’t shared with my closest friends, including my plan to avoid having kids and possibly passing down my father’s bad genes.
“Some family trees are better off nipped in the bud,” I said.
“True,” he said. “But do you think you’d be making that choice based on a knee-jerk reaction to your childhood, or because it’s what you really want?”
Unlike my first boyfriend, a sweet guy my own age who wasn’t mature or strong enough to challenge me, Theo would always listen intently and question my thought process. Insecure and needy, my high school boyfriend had sought constant reassurance that I wasn’t cheating. Theo, on the other hand, trusted me and didn’t cling. He’d say, “I hope we’re together the rest of our lives—or I guess my life—but if what’s best for you is to find a younger guy, I’ll totally understand. Just tell me the truth so we can stay friends, okay?” But I met younger guys all the time around campus, none as compelling to me as my fully-formed, confident, funny, sexy older guy.
After graduation we moved in together and I had to face the issue I’d been avoiding long-distance. Julie, Theo’s daughter, had started nursing school in Connecticut, and once a month Theo drove down from Ithaca to visit her. I stayed behind. No matter how busy I kept myself with work and friends, on the weekends while he was gone I felt lonely and abandoned, consumed by the impulse to compete with Julie. These feelings of rivalry scared me, bubbling up from some swampy recess of my being. Clearly I had daddy issues after all.
On Sunday nights, after Theo returned from Connecticut, I tried to pretend everything was fine. But eventually squelching my feelings, like I had as a kid, didn’t feel right, so I told him the truth. “This is embarrassing, but I get jealous when you go off on your daddy-daughter weekends.”
“Why don’t you come along?” he asked. “I always invite you, and you say ‘no.’”
“It’s a little awkward hanging out with a girl two years younger than me whose dad I’m shacked up with. It doesn’t feel like my place to come along.” Even to my own ears, I sounded pouty.
Theo’s tone was sympathetic but not coddling. “Well, you always have a place with me if you want,” he told me. “It’s your choice. You’re welcome to come anytime.”
I knew that if Theo neglected Julie in order to devote all his attention to me, I would lose respect for him. Being a good dad was one of the qualities I loved most about him. I felt split between my hurt inner girl, hungry for all of this man’s attention, and my rational adult self who genuinely admired Theo’s bond with his daughter—who understood that just because I had a shitty dad didn’t mean I had a right to sabotage Julie’s relationship with hers.
That Christmas, when I had dinner with Theo’s family, Julie hugged me tight and told me that she was glad to see her dad so happy. We chatted about our jobs waiting tables. When Theo’s mother couldn’t quite grasp the difference between a ‘tapas bar’ and ‘topless bar,’ we giggled about it together all night. I felt ashamed of my earlier bratty urges and relieved I hadn’t acted on them.
I saw that I didn’t need to compete for Theo’s attention, because he already gave me plenty. The two days a month he visited Julie didn’t interfere with the other twenty-eight we spent together. We still made love, saw live music, took road trips, and communicated freely, even about dark, embarrassing emotions. Theo’s love for Julie took nothing away from me. In reality, it was giving me something, the chance to witness what I’d only ever seen in movies: a truly close relationship between a dad and daughter.
So close that, when Julie was expecting her first child, she wanted Theo right there in the delivery room. Out of respect for their dynamic, I stayed behind in Ithaca, sending him off with well-wishes and gifts for the baby. Theo understood my choice and thanked me for letting him focus fully on the matter at hand: helping his daughter bring his grandchild safely into the world.
The fact that I still felt jealous, even though I had no logical reason to, made me wonder if my jealousy of Julie — that prickly sensation and metallic taste in my mouth — was really jealousy at all. In truth, I think it was grief over the relationship I didn’t share with my own dad, a sorrow continually triggered by Theo and Julie’s relationship. Once that revelation sunk in, once I realized these feelings had nothing to do with them and everything to do with my father, Theo’s weekends in Connecticut stopped bothering me and the last jealous pangs faded away.
When Theo and I got married, Julie became more of a friend to me than a stepdaughter. Around this time, another irrational feeling I’d had began to fade: the hope I’d harbored that someday my father would change, and we could be close. Every recent contact I’d had with him confirmed that aside from his drinking, Dad suffered from an underlying mental illness that kept him locked prisoner inside his own brain. On nights when he called drunk and ranting, he never once asked a question about me, my work, my life. To continue clinging to the wish that he might suddenly become a different man — or even just apologize for being such a crappy dad — was foolish, and I finally began to let it go.
A week after my thirty-seventh birthday, my father called to say he was in the hospital, dying from liver failure. Why should I go see him, I thought, when we had no relationship? What was the point?
“Why do you not feel like going?” Theo asked.
“Because it will be awkward and uncomfortable. It’ll make him think his behavior all these years was acceptable.”
“Okay, and what reasons do you have for going?”
“I guess to show compassion for a sick, lonely man who finally drank himself to death,” I said. “And because my grandparents were sweet people and they wouldn’t want their only son to die alone.”
Knowing I had Theo’s support either way, I decided to go see my father. When I walked into his hospital room, he was barely conscious, yet still managed to yell at his nurse. His jaundiced skin clashed with the hospital gown, pale blue and patterned in tiny snowflakes, like something an infant should wear. I pulled a chair to his bedside and took his yellow hand.
He said nothing — no thank you, no I’m sorry — but he gripped my hand hard. Sensing his fear, I squeezed back. It calmed him, so I kept squeezing while he closed his eyes and slowly slipped from consciousness.
I hadn’t come expecting a deathbed apology. I’d let go of that hope long ago. And as I sat all afternoon holding the hand that had once terrified me, I realized I didn’t need an apology or anything else from him. Everything I should have gotten from my father — affection, encouragement, respect, a man to hear my voice — I had been getting from Theo.
I know it’s not supposed to work this way. We damaged daughters should seek healing in therapy, not romantic relationships. Freud warned us about repetition compulsion, the impulse to pick partners like our abusive (or absent) parents and repeat harmful patterns. It’s true that marriage isn’t some magic cure-all.
But digging deep into hard memories and murky emotions with a trustworthy partner can be therapeutic. Loving Theo and witnessing his love for Julie have challenged me again and again to confront and push through old pain. It seems logical that if my original injury stemmed from a relationship — or lack thereof — another relationship might offer powerful medicine.
After twenty-five years together, I’ve helped Theo with his childhood baggage as much as he has helped me. Now my skittish, tongue-tied inner girl is gone. Despite the stereotypes, not every relationship between an older man and younger woman is founded on a twisted imbalance of power. Theo and I are fifty-fifty partners in our business and life, and he has spurred, not hindered, my journey towards becoming the confident woman I am today.
Early wounds run deep, though. Sometimes, during sappy father-daughter scenes in movies—like when Harry Dean Stanton gives Molly Ringwald that hideous prom dress in Pretty in Pink— I still find myself sobbing a little too hard. That’s when Theo turns to me and says, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry you didn’t get a good dad.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him, and it is. There’s nothing I can do about the fact that I didn’t get a good dad. But I am so glad I chose to marry one.