The Prodigal Daughter PART 1 IN A SERIES

My dad and I have walkie talkies.

Let me say that again: My dad and I have walkie talkies, but the set was cheap and we could never get them to work. So instead we knock on each other’s doors, like polite neighbors, respecting some invisible boundary between parent and child.

I live in a one-room studio (shower recently added!) in the backyard of my dad’s house. When sending mail, I feel more normal if I add an apartment number to our street address, as if I were one of several rent-paying tenants: Yes I live at home, my address says, but I’ve got my own situation. But it’s a sham because it’s just me back here, separated from the big house up front by a field of grass dotted with doggie bones and squeak toys.

As new roommates, Dad and I try to keep a respectful distance for the sake of our privacy. But we can’t help stepping on each other’s toes when we live at the same address, drive the same car, and eat the same food. (The most recent offense? Asking my dad if we could barbecue, letting him prepare the grill, and then sleeping soundly for the next three hours while he did all the cooking.)

Our new living arrangement was spurred by my recent college graduation: long hyped as my final entrance into the “real” world, but in real terms, not exactly. After graduating with a degree in journalism during the industry’s death knell, I started packing my boxes to return to San Antonio.

It was the last place I thought I’d find myself. But as my final semester of college swept along, I began to consider my hometown with greater interest. To boost my spirits, I consoled myself with the words of a recent professor: There’s no place more exotic than your own backyard. 

So to the backyard I went, but this time not to my mom’s Alamo Heights neighborhood but to my dad’s Westside barrio. In addition to the change of scenery, I had failed to consider that due to the divorced parent situation, my father had largely escaped the ravages of my teenage girlhood.

I was not excited about relinquishing the leisurely habits I’d taken up in college, when I could leave the dishes and junk mail strewn about and get on with something more productive, like planning a party or thrift-shopping. Worse, what about dating? My dad has never known any of my boyfriends. Just how, I wondered, as a single lady in my 20s, would I conduct the business of romance while living with Dad?

As it turns out, dating has been the least of my preoccupations. Maintaining my room and his car to his standards of cleanliness is a full-time job in itself, and just trying to keep up with Dad is exhausting. He works constantly — in Dad’s world, a Saturday spent without committing multiple acts of auto or home repair is a grave sin — and he expects similar output from his only tenant.

My frequent napping is commented on with disgust, along with my other favorite pastimes, involving late nights at the bar and happy-hour specials. My closet full of used clothes is loudly regarded as the height of excess, matched only by my outlandish produce selections from the grocery.

Some friends of mine, a psychedelic rock band from Michigan, came through San Antonio, desperately seeking a place to stay. I offered the four of them my studio, and I went inside the house to sleep on Dad’s couch. I gave them the key to the big house so they could shower and do laundry and relax while my dad was at work all day.

This turned out to be one of my worst decisions of all time. When Dad came home for lunch, to his complete shock a crew of gangly long-hairs were reclining on the couch, watching TV and folding piles of laundry. He kept his cool in front of the company, but for the next week I received the most blistering critques of my life, art school included. How could I have forgotten “Trust no one,” the mantra of The X-Files, which we had religiously watched together for years? Dad made me give back my key and I was reduced to limited visiting hours in the front house.

“I’m an aristocrat, and a misanthrope,” he told me recently, while we ate dinner at Luby’s Cafeteria on the edge of downtown. This is no exaggeration. My dad emigrated from Poland to San Antonio in 1985, bought a sunbleached VW bus, and fell in love with the rows of palm trees on West Woodlawn Avenue. He spent the next quarter-century answering to a poorly Americanized version of his actual name, and worked for years in the unyielding machinery of America’s big-box retailers, living in neighborhoods I was too scared to walk alone in. 

He never remarried and things just stayed his way. But the boat has been rocked, and now we’re both scrambling to come to terms as roommates. In my new nest I’m learning the complex code of Dad, and I’m also learning about the city that I grew up mostly segregated from during my years as an 09er. I’m still looking for a date — but don’t be offended if I don’t introduce you to Dad right away. It’s for the best. •

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