The Island of Apples

MY DAUGHTER LIVES IN EUGENE. She is a slender woman, sometimes blond, sometimes brunette, 23 years old. I have been told that she is “very grounded, intelligent, not overly emotional, pretty independent and has never felt any need to seek out her biological parentage.” I have known she was a possibility since 1990—that a girl was born, that she might be my daughter—but I only found out for certain a few weeks ago.

The scene of the miracle was improbable. Eden House, erstwhile hippie collective in the Mission District of San Francisco, was a three-story townhouse with a compost heap, pervasive atmosphere of marijuana smoke, and a fridge crammed with tempeh and mung beans. The founding members had recently split into factions and waged a spite-fueled war of line-drawing and petty bickering, until a dozen of them moved out.

This was unanticipated. Only three members of the original utopia remained, and rent was due. They put up ads and held interviews, but they didn’t have the time to vet anybody—college students, gutter punks, Goths, wiccans, drag queens, an alcoholic ukulele player, a lawyer from Texas with a Napoleon complex, an ex-Buddhist monk with a Mohawk. They filled the empty rooms with anybody who could pay.

Despite the fresh diversity, the rituals of the old order were retained: there was a chore list, everybody had to prepare bi-weekly vegan dinners, there were never-ending weekly house-meetings where you had to hold a conch shell to talk. Some of them griped about trivial bullshit for hours, unwilling to relinquish the conch, and you had to sit there and be respectful, because they were holding the conch.

It was a drag, but it was cheap, and the parties were legendary. At one of those parties I made friends with a woman named Sharon Pell. A couple of months after that, she moved away. It was 1990.

~

A year later, Sharon’s friend Linda informed me that Sharon had gotten pregnant, and that—based on the timing—I was the father. Sharon had returned to DC, married her high-school sweetheart, and now the couple intended to raise the child as their own.

I didn’t find Linda’s story persuasive. A self-proclaimed anarchist—sporting a black beret and duct-taped Doc Martins—Linda was fond of quoting impenetrable passages from Marx. She and her comrades were guerrilla theater types. For them messing with people’s assumptions was de rigueur. I figured she was just trying to teach me some bullshit lesson about responsibility, about the impact of my actions on the world. “One day,” she said ominously, “you will need to know the truth.”

I laughed it off.

But I felt a twinge. Why would she say that if it wasn’t true? She had no reason to lie.

 

apples2

 

The child was a girl, and she had three names: Gwyneth Tegan Llewellyn. Like a shape-shifting green-eyed fairy that dwelt in a thorn bush, or in a forest glade beneath a ring of toadstools, or in the Otherworld, on the Island of Apples. Gwyneth Tegan Llewellyn. At twilight she wheeled aloft, mounted upon the backbone of a crow.

Why not Nineve, Lady of the Lake? Or Morgan le Fay? Or Galadriel of Lórien? Or Princess Langwidere? Or Miranda?

Linda was making it up.

Privately, I wanted it to be true. The unusual name made the story more compelling. The possibility of Gwyneth suggested that life was bigger than just me, that despite everything I’d done wrong—choices made, turns taken—I’d had a positive effect in the world. I’d made a difference.

Even then I realized that Gwyneth wasn’t an anchor, a rose, a swallow, an angel, the sunrise, a rainbow, an olive branch, a light in the darkness, or a thing with feathers. She was a human being with a destiny that had nothing to do with me. Nevertheless, she became a symbol for something like hope, or possibility. Lying in bed at night, drunk, contemplating mortality, lost and feverish, when I toyed with the idea of that misplaced girl—possibly a changeling, a pixie—I felt encouraged.

I was an alcoholic. I did drugs. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if I was a successful day-trader. But I didn’t have a job. I had no savings, no future. In my condition, I couldn’t have contributed anything to the upbringing of a person. Not that that was ever on the table.

What would I do with a daughter anyway? Go to a park?

And there were advantages to not having a daughter: I never had to change diapers, never had to hide rat poison or buy locks for the cupboards, never had to scream in terror as she bounded across an intersection, never had to sit through endless hours of cartoons, never had to hear the door slam on a bedroom plastered with posters of puerile boy bands, never had to prevent myself from cleaving her boyfriend’s head in with a tire-iron, never had to wash beets out of a carpet, or discover stale cereal in my hat.

Maybe this was how it should be.

But I fantasized that one day, when she was grown up, we might meet. I might be in better shape then, less of a mess. We might correspond at least.

~

I tried to locate her through the years, in a shambling way, without any luck. I knew her mother’s maiden name was Pell, but I never knew her stepfather’s name. Once, visiting DC, I drunk-dialed every Pell in the phone book, insisting—once they had denied knowledge—that they were covering for Sharon. It was a conspiracy, and fuck you. (My apologies, Pell families of the greater DC area.)

One Pell was compassionate despite my rudeness.

“You poor thing,” she said, in a kindhearted churchgoing sort of way, “I wish I could help you. So, you think this young lady is your daughter?”

“Yes. I think so.” My voice faltered. I thanked her and hung up.

I did web searches, inserting Pell as the last name, thinking Sharon and her husband might have gotten divorced, that she might have switched back to her maiden name, but these searches yielded nothing.

Years passed when I didn’t even think about it.

~

Last month, when I was talking with my girlfriend about all this—she’s heard the story too many times but always listens patiently—she started tapping at the keyboard of her computer. “So the mother’s name is Sharon . . .” (Jen’s father was an agent for the United States government, literally a spy, and Jen believes she has inherited a genetic predisposition for sleuthing. She’s good at digging up information on people. Mainly high-school frenemies, internet trolls, evil exes, and unscrupulous real estate agents.)

“. . . and her last name was Pell,” I said, “but I’ve never known her stepfather’s name.”

“So it’s not Llewellyn?” Jen asked. “Because here’s a Sharon Llewellyn.”

She turned the laptop around and there she was, looking out at me: the elusive Sharon from DC. Now professor at a prominent western university, chair of her department, author of a book on gender studies. Sharon Llewellyn, née Pell.

“All these years I’d assumed . . .”

It had never occurred to me that Llewellyn might be their last name.

I am that dumb.

Five minutes later, we were paging through the Facebook profile of Gwyneth Llewellyn, a slender young woman with my mother’s cheekbones and my eyes. The girl I had fantasized, fetishized, sought for decades—Jen had found her.

~

So what did I do?

Nothing.

I indulged a giddy feeling of unreality for several days. I didn’t know what to do. What if they’d kept the truth from her? What if they’d characterized me in a negative light, or said that I was dead?

I decided I’d remain anonymous.

Then one night, up late, after downing a bottle of wine, I composed an email:

Hi Sharon,

I know this is out of the blue, but I am curious about whether or not Gwyneth is my biological daughter. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and if bringing it up would, I’ll leave it alone. But I want to know. Thanks. I hope you are well.

Larry

Eden House, SF

I considered it admirably neutral. I sent it.

~

Weeks later—after I had given up on hearing anything—I received a response.

Sharon apologized for the delay. She’d been shocked to hear from me. She’d needed time to let Gwyneth know that I might attempt to reach out.

Also this:

Gwyneth has known since a very early age that her dad (who has always been in her life even though we have not been together for many years) is not her biological father. To be blunt she was totally nonchalant when I told her you had made an inquiry. She said it was fine if I gave you her email yet she was very honest and pragmatic about it, indicating that she would be unlikely to contact you herself except for a potential interest in knowing if there were any familial medical concerns. She said you could contact her if you want but I just wanted to give you the head’s up that she may not respond. This is not out of rudeness or some deep-seated emotional issue, she simply doesn’t feel the need to. Without going into a lengthy treatise about her character, suffice it to say she is very grounded, intelligent, not overly emotional, pretty independent and has never felt any need to seek out her biological parentage. 

I hope that doesn’t sound cold—that is not my intent! I just wanted to give you a little context so you were not surprised by silence on her end if you wanted to touch base with her. 

No. It didn’t sound cold. Defensive, certainly. Preemptive. But not cold. What sort of ungrounded, unintelligent, overly emotional, dependent person would be interested in piecing together the mysteries of their existence anyhow?

I found it hard to believe that any litany of character traits could preclude all curiosity. I was raised by a caring stepfather myself, and I never met my real father. He was an alcoholic asshole—just ask mom—but I would have preferred to meet him anyway. “If you’re looking for a father figure, it’s Ray. He loves you very much,” she would say. It was true. But it didn’t ease the longing to know my real father firsthand, not simply recited anecdotes filtered through somebody else’s bias. To gaze into the distorting mirror for myself.

I read and reread the email, deconstructed it. Honest pragmatism. No deep-seated emotional issues. Simply doesn’t feel the need. There were no hard feelings, just a bottomless well of indifference. Which was how it ought to be, unless one was hopelessly needy and erratic.

The door was slamming in my face. The letter was so guarded. It was as if any curiosity about her ancestors on Gwyneth’s part would be a tacit criticism of Sharon’s parenting skills, of her ability to provide absolutely everything necessary. It pissed me off. It wasn’t like I’d been an abusive boyfriend, a deadbeat dad, or a rapist. I’d been deceived; I was the victim of Sharon’s duplicity, and I had earnestly—if ineffectually—attempted to make contact for over two decades.

~

She had taken the time to respond, and I was grateful. She could have easily ignored me. And maybe she had a right to be defensive. She might have dreaded this exact situation for years. She probably wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible and get on with her life. Who could blame her?

She had included an email address where I could write to Gwyneth: allewellyn2014. It was obviously a new email account (2014), probably opened specifically for this occasion, even the name of it seemed designed to divest me of any illusions: a Llewellyn. Not G Llewellyn. Gwyneth was a Llewellyn, not a Benner, whatever ludicrous ideas I might have.

Or maybe I was just being paranoid.

I composed a reserved response. I didn’t want to be pushy. I didn’t want to mention how I had sporadically searched through the years because I didn’t want to sound pathetic. The result was a letter that, in retrospect, seemed mannered, wooden. I explained how I’d found out, I wrote: My intentions are . . . mysterious even to me. I honestly don’t think I have any. Except to know the truth. I finished up with a rundown of family medical concerns and listed my address and email.

I would leave it up to Gwyneth, whether she wanted to establish contact or not.

If at any point she feels she wants to enter into dialogue with me or has any other questions about whether or not she is genetically cursed, I would be very happy to hear from her. I am fine with occupying the position of well-meaning family friend, peculiar distant cousin, stranger, etc.

This was intended to sound humorous. I thanked Sharon and hit send, and forwarded it to Gwyneth, so everything would be open and above board.

~

And then I just let it go, right?

Nope. I eagerly awaited a response, any response—got it, fuck off—but nothing came.

~

I work graveyard a couple of nights a week and it throws my schedule off. I spend my free nights struggling with insomnia, trying to lie still so Jen won’t wake up. After an hour or so of tossing I usually go downstairs and log on. I check my email and my Facebook account, I click on links about the war in the Middle East, I read essays, I watch Netflix. Inevitably, I return to Facebook and type in Gwyneth Llewellyn.

According to her profile, she likes people and food. She got an octopus tattoo recently, and at some point posed for a selfie with a camel. There are pictures of her in what looks like a hotel room with three girlfriends dressed for a social event in little black dresses. There is a picture of her standing by a car, self-consciously pigeon-toed in her knee-high boots, holding a Starbucks cup and smiling through her hair.

The more I looked, the less I knew. Yes, her round apple cheeks looked like my mother’s round apple cheeks looked in pictures from the late nineteen-forties, and yes, her nose was similar to my nose, and yes, when she pulled a face, her eyes resembled my own—wide and staring.

But who was she?

Ask Facebook:

She likes Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Kingsolver, and Kurt Vonnegut. She likes Bob Dylan, Mumford and Sons, Bright Eyes, and Tori Amos. She watches Arrested Development, Dr. Who, The Daily Show, and Girls.

But what about the camel? What’s in the cup? Does she drink Americanos, or is she more of a latte drinker? Or pumpkin spice? Where did she get the tattoo? It’s just an outline in the pic. Did she get it filled in yet?

It’s a strange thing, stalking your formerly mythical daughter.

 

fairy ring2

 

For a while I stopped doing the things that mattered to me. I stopped writing, reading, exercising. Nothing mattered but Facebook and checking my email.

To distract myself, I started buying shirts.

I know it sounds weird, but at the time I only had two pairs of pants and three black t-shirts. I don’t buy clothes. But when you sign up for Obamacare, you get a fifty-dollar gift card for filling out a health survey. I bought a pair of pants from Men’s Wearhouse with mine, and I realized, after having bought the pants, that I needed some shirts.

There’s something satisfying about being able to command things to manifest remotely, to will things into existence. Where once was nothing, here is a shirt. If one could only have the same ease of gratification in one’s personal relationships. Where once was nothing, here the warm heart. Where once was nothing, here the loving relationship.

I found that when you order a shirt, you get at least three different emails. You get a thank you for your order email, you get a the item has shipped email, and after it has arrived, you get a thank you for your purchase email. It’s nice, getting emails. There would always be something there in the inbox besides spam or bills, a kind customer service rep wishing me well, asking me to drop a line if there were any problems.

Also, you get shirts in the mail, and I did need shirts.

The first was a regular white cotton shirt. Then a cotton spread-collar slim-fit shirt in sky-blue. Then a cotton twill spread-collar slim-fit shirt in pearl gray. Then a cotton pincord spread-collar slim-fit shirt in black. After I had bought the basic shirts—a white one, a blue one, a gray one, a black one—I got less discriminating. I started moving on to more bizarre colors, lime green shirts, orange shirts, and shirts in peculiar patterns, lavender stripes, etc. All these drunken decisions I made at four a.m. in a perverse effort to fill my inbox, with . . . anything.

I maxed out my credit cards. I ordered a burgundy ultra slim-fit smartshirt. I ordered a navy puppytooth slim-fit blazer. I ordered three pairs of slim-fit 511 jeans. I bought a wool and cashmere blend topcoat, black. I bought two sweater vests for work, one blue, one black.

Weeks went by and I heard nothing from Gwyneth.

Should I have sent her a personal email? Had I been too guarded? Should I try again, try harder this time? I used to imagine you were a pixie flying a crow through twilight on the Island of Apples . . . Maybe I should have said things like I whispered to myself through the long nights, feeling holy on drugs, like I had seen God, like I was going to die: Even though we have never met, I love you and I have missed you for a very long time.

But I had decided to leave it up to her, and I had to stick to the decision.

~

Then this sad parade of ill-fitting irregular clothing began queuing up at my front door. One day alone three packages came filled with clothes that didn’t fit. The sweater vests were too small and the buttons popped off. The smartshirt was cut so slim I couldn’t fit my arms into the sleeves. The navy puppytooth blazer was an itchy straightjacket.

I had to send it all back.

~

Historically, togetherness has been a brief occurrence.

When I consider all the people separated from one another in the world, people who loved each other deeply, and then one died, or went to war, or to prison; people separated by walls, feuds, or familial hatred; people loaded onto trains; children orphaned by misdirected drone strikes, men in deserts beheaded by fanatics who believe they know the truth, and—less catastrophic but no less heartbreaking—people exiled from their families—homosexuals driven out, pregnant teenagers disinherited, etc.—I realize once again (and again and again) that a fundamental truth of the human condition is loss. Even if you have something now, it will go away, even if you have love, it will vanish. We all know it. We improvise meaning. We philosophize our losses and move on.

I imagine an endless migration, on highways and secondary roads, to and from cities of glittering lights. A door slams on one coast, another opens up on the other. We raise temporary lodgings, create surrogate families, and we move on, move our caravans up over the ridge into the darkness, always migrating, until one night under a cold sky, lit by dead stars—their ancient absence itself a cliché—we die alone.

~

I imagine scenarios that will never occur.

I imagine myself swimming in an indoor pool, aquamarine tiles echoing with the splashes and shrieks of schoolchildren. I am in my eighties. I am one of those menthol-smelling old men who wear bathing caps and pink latex nose clips. I resemble a starved dog, swathed in a thinning pelt of gray fuzz, desiccated dugs poking through. I live in a sort of movie Manhattan.

Out on snow-flurry streets I meet my daughter for coffee. We go to a bookstore. I buy her that book she’s been talking about. She worries about my health. I worry about her decisions. How it would be if anything happened to her. How devastated I would feel. I picture myself alone, the world finally gone cold.

But we laugh and talk as the evening comes in, lamplight dancing on the dark windowpane.

~

I always thought that locating Gwyneth would provide answers, but it has only raised more questions. Is it better to know the truth, or to indulge in fantasy? There is less mystery now, of course: the city of Eugene, an octopus, a camel. She wears a black dress, she holds a cup of coffee, she gets a tattoo. She hasn’t taken down her Facebook page or blocked me, so I still have a window into her world. It’s a comfort of sorts to observe from afar. But she might as well live in a thorn bush.

As the weeks go by, I have grown more accustomed to the idea that there may be no joyful reunion. We may never meet. We may never walk on a beach, or go canoeing, or buy a shelter dog and name him Remus. We may never dash out of the rain into a hotel lobby, or visit Chinatown in February. She may never seek me out, for any number of reasons: a sense of loyalty to her adoptive father, a feeling it would constitute a betrayal of her mother, a fear of being disappointed. I might be a lunatic who mutters about the Archangel Gabriel by the dumpsters. I might spend my days under a bridge sniffing glue, dining on roasted crows. I might just be boring. Not knowing would be preferable to any of these.

I would rather that her silence was not motivated by indifference. Although it is probable, as Sharon indicated, that Gwyneth is not overly-emotional, not sentimental, that she considers her procreation a random event, as meaningless as the dust clouds and water droplets that formed us in the first place.

But knowing that she’s real, not a hallucination or a fantasy, not a symbol—an anchor, a rose, a swallow, an angel—the separation from humanity that I’ve always felt—the death angst, the loneliness—is gone. Where once was nothing, a camel, an octopus. Just by knowing she’s real, I take my place alongside the rest of humanity in that great procession.

I become human.

There is still time. I’m not dead yet. She’s not dead yet. I can wait, and hope that someday she might decide to drop me a line.

 

Lawrence Benner

About Lawrence Benner

Lawrence Benner squandered his early years as a punk guitarist and chapbook-slinging street poet in the Mission District of San Francisco. He did a decade as a subway musician in ex-Communist East Germany, worked as a zusammenfassung schreiber for the legendary Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and went on to write, produce, and direct three failed low-budget films for the independent production company Buried Pictures. (In reference to his 2002 film, Ether, actor Willem Dafoe scribbled, "Liked it" on a yellow Post-it note.) Mr. Benner has been a Weeklings contributing editor since 2012, and when he isn’t writing this bio, he can be found hard at work on his debut novel, Memorial World. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his common-law wife and three insubordinate cats.
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9 Responses to The Island of Apples

  1. Marni Grossman says:

    This was really lovely. Hopefully, one day, your daughter will read it. I think she’d be lucky to have you in her life.

    I can’t imagine actively making the decision to NOT meet my biological father. But then, I’m a person who IS overly emotional and, frankly, not particularly grounded…

    • Lawrence Benner Lawrence Benner says:

      Thanks Marnie! I find absolutely everything baffling. Put that on my tombstone. She seems like a really cool person, and I hope to meet her one day. But it’s heavy, and weird, and when you have your whole life ahead of you, you can wait a while. Of course I changed all the names, so i don’t expect her to see this, but there is a sort of lingering hope that she might stumble across it. But it might seem really obsessive and weird . . . no going back now, I suppose . . .

  2. Helena Baptiste somebodysbabygirl says:

    Wow, this pulled me in so many directions. I thought it would only be a distraction, and once refreshed, I could go back to concentrating on the things I was supposed to be doing. More important things.

    Except this is important.

    Like your daughter I grew up without my biological father. I did not meet him until I was five years old. We went on a picnic together along with the younger sisters I never knew I had. He’s been in and out of my life since then — much, much more out than in.

    Reading your story I know what I would do if I were in your daughter’s shoes. I would reach out, but that is how I am — a bit of a glutton for pain. I admit to being proud of your daughter even though her actions may wound you. She is refusing to let the past overtake her and it can, you know. It could swallow her up. There are so many things you want to say and my heart goes out to you. I just wonder if it is now too late. There is such a thing as too late. Love can’t always build a bridge. Sometimes love really isn’t enough.

    I wish I had never met my father. As long as he remained a fantasy he was a hero in my eyes. Instead, I know who he truly is and I hope that I am nothing like him as if his DNA is a character taint I must constantly resist. A few years ago, when I was very sick and it didn’t look good for the hometeam, he and I spoke on the phone more than we have communicated together via any medium in our entire lives. Perhaps feeling that this might be his last chance to unburden his conscience he implied that he might could be sorry for everything that had transpired (or hadn’t transpired) between us. “It was all a mistake. Just a mistake,” he said. He never clarified what that mistake was. To this day I don’t know if he meant his actions or my conception. But even then, it didn’t matter. When once those words would have devastated me, I felt nothing upon hearing them. I had already decided who and what the mistake was, there was no need for a feeble apology of sorts or any halfhearted explanations on his part. It was simply too late.

    Perhaps one day your daughter will decide to correspond with you, maybe even meet you. I hope that if that day does happen you are not a disappointment to her. When you have waited for someone so long, the illusion is usually better than the reality. And I have no doubt — knowing that her real father was somewhere in the world — she waited for you. During that time, little callouses built up year after year that made her, at such a tender and still very vulnerable age, “very grounded, intelligent, not overly emotional, pretty independent and [without] any need to seek out her biological parentage.” That’s not an indictment against you, just emotional survival.

    I was touched by your ordering shirts to fill up your void for your daughter — little neatly-wrapped packages that arrived almost magically at your door in lieu of a reunion (or in this case, a “new” union). But I was even more touched that you had a void. I wonder what your daughter has tried to fill hers up with? If I were in your position, I would write another email and I would say everything I wanted to say, without playing it cool or worrying about emotional boundaries. I would just let it all out because there may never be another chance. But then, I must again confess to being a glutton for pain and I always believe in the illusion that it still might not be too late.

    • Lawrence Benner Lawrence Benner says:

      I did respond to somebody’s baby girl’s comment, by the way, casual observer. We communicated through personal emails. If you comment, I will respond. Thanks.

  3. “We all know it. We improvise meaning. We philosophize our losses and move on.”

    That line and the astounding paragraph, then piece, it’s a part of really shook me. As someone raising one of those door-slammers with the boy band posters, it’s amazing how any honest thoughts on loss, whether absorbed or anticipated, ring true. Or maybe such is fatherhood in all its attempted forms.

    Thanks for having the courage to write this down and the humor and humility to see it through.

  4. Lawrence Benner Lawrence Benner says:

    Thank you, Nat. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  5. Helena Baptiste somebodysbabygirl says:

    Still one of the very best and most powerful pieces written for “The Weeklings”, although Mr. Benner has other great pieces for readers to choose from on this site. For instance, check out the utter brilliance of “A NUANCED REDUCTION OF HUMAN MISERY.” I hope this past holiday season brought Mr. Benner something more than carefully packaged, snazzy-looking shirts. I hope it brought him a daughter he could dress up in his love and who could drape him in the redemption of love returned. I want so much to see him receive all the things he’s traveled so far to find; may they be ever worthy of his journey.

    • Lawrence Benner Lawrence Benner says:

      Hi Helena. To update, we have communicated, and it’s cool. She is very dedicated to her father, and wants it made clear that her father is the person who raised her since she was a child. That is her real father. She wants it to be known that she never felt the lack of a father, and has never considered herself missing something. ”My life has been whole and good and never lacking in that respect. I don’t say this to be cutting or somehow imply that I am not available in any way, but I really do need to drive home the fact that my experience should not be painted as that of someone in the position of always having a hole in their life. I haven’t, and I don’t. Again, I am having trouble articulating this in a way that doesn’t sound terribly cruel, but I feel it should be noted.” Fair enough. She’s kind about it, and I’m happy to be able to communicate in some small way. Also: “The octopus tattoo has since been joined by several jellyfish, a seahorse, and assorted other sea life.”

  6. Helena Baptiste somebodysbabygirl says:

    You are a beyond extraordinary writer and an extraordinary man whom I am proud to know.

    On all fronts, well done, Mr. Benner. Wish I had had a dad like you.

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