Diary Of A Deadbeat Dad
"I ain't fucking talking to you!" my 15-year-old daughter screamed at me through the receiver. I had let the phone at the place she was staying at in Couer D'Alene, Idaho ring about 30 times. It's funny how when you let a phone ring and ring, the ring seems to change, and you wonder if you've gone crazy or something as you lose track of how many times it's rung. That's usually when I stop trying to get through. But then she picked it up. "Michelle?"I asked. "I ain't fucking talking to you!'' Then she slammed it down. She didn't say it, she hissed it, and the words echoed in the abrupt emptiness. She was 1,000 miles away; a beautiful, bright, confused teenager stuck someplace in between being a girl and becoming a woman. My daughter, and she'd just told me to fuck off. What the hell. I'd only known her for two months. I first found out I might have a daughter Jan. 14, 1991, the day before the shooting started in the Persian Gulf War. A man dressed in sheriff's olive drab had delivered a "petition for the determination of paternity"from Washington state to my parents' house. On the document "Robert Scheides" (sic) was named as one of two possible fathers. I'm a junior; my dad's R.V. Scheide Sr., and my mom freaked for a second until she realized the birth date of the child in question was long past the date of my father's vasectomy. She should have known better. Every time the cops come, it's for me. Mom is kind of ga-ga over children, and to be honest, my two brothers and I (I'm now 34, they are 32 and 29) have kind of let her down in the grandchildren department. My youngest brother's wife had just given birth to mom's first grandson a month before the summons was served, but my middle brother and I have so far failed to reproduce. I don't know what his reasons are; me, I don't like kids. But mom, she's just nuts about them, and when she realized the summons was saying she might have a second grandchild, she got right on the phone to give me the good news. "Did you know someone named Patricia Aubertin when we lived back in Washington?" she asked breathlessly after explaining about the "funny document"she'd just received from Wenatchee. Located in eastern Washington, Wenatchee is pretty close to Grand Coulee Dam, where I graduated from high school in 1978. I'd had plenty of girlfriends, but none of them were named Patricia Aubertin, at least as far as I could remember. The name didn't ring a bell at all. "Well ... I don' think so," I told her. "Oh," she said, and I could hear her rustling the piece of paper around. "The last name of the child is different than the mother's. It says she was born on May 12, 1979. Hey! That's grandma's birthday! It says her name is Michelle. Michelle Rosane. "I instantly hooked up the two names, "Patricia" and "Rosane."Patricia Rosane. Trish the Dish. August 1978 We moved to Redding, Calif., right after I graduated from high school. I was pretty much a rotten son of a bitch. I was stoned or drunk most of the time, my dad and I couldn't talk and mom and I constantly fought, usually over how loud I was playing my music. I was one pissed off 18 year old. So I joined the Navy on the delayed enlistment program and decided to spend my last month of freedom in Grand Coulee Dam with my friends from high school. I stayed with these older guys who drank beer and smoked pot nearly every night. They were all in the union and working on this tunnel down in Coulee City, so they had plenty of money. They had keggers all the time. It was at one of these parties that I met Trish the Dish. That's what everybody called her. She was only 14, but she could've passed for 21. Easy. A blue-eyed German blonde with a figure like Barbie's. The kind of girl every guy thinks he wants but can never get. Especially a geek like me, who on this particular night, was completely out of his gourd on a dozen or so beers. My one advantage in this state is that I'm funny as hell, and I think that's why she liked me, because I was funny. The next thing I knew, we were in the upstairs bedroom having sex. I don't remember if it was any good. I do remember that I never wore a condom. I hardly ever do. We had sex about a half-dozen more times that month. In the upstairs bedroom, in her mother's Montego, in my friend's pickup truck. The last time, we were in the pickup down by the gravel pits. I was leaving for the Navy the next day. She didn't want to have sex. She said she thought I was using her. I think she was right.January 1991 There's a small, selfish part of me that's always wanted to have at least one child, to have some sense of immortality, to carry on the family name. So when I learned that I might have a 11-year-old daughter, my feelings weren't completely negative. In fact, I thought if there was a way for me to have a kid, this was it: a prefab teenager, already past the diaper stage, ready and willing to be shaped by my years of experience. We'd be friends, I fantasized, without having to get hung up in the traditional parent-child relationship trap. But this wasn't what the state of Washington had in mind at all, as I discovered I got a hold of the paternity summons from my parents. Nowhere did it say, "Congratulations, Mr. Scheide, you're the new father of an 11-year-old baby girl." Nowhere did it suggest that I might possibly get to meet this alleged child. There wasn't even a photo. There was no apology for the belated notice of my alleged daughter's birth. Instead, it was all, "Here you go, deadbeat, now pay up!" Pay big. "[T]he natural father,"the document explained, "[will] be ordered to pay the sum of $300 per month ... or such sum as the Court deems reasonable ... for the support of the child and to provide medical insurance for child."The medical insurance was a nice touch. I didn't even have coverage for myself. But they weren't finished: "[T]he natural father [will] be ordered to reimburse the State of Washington or other responsible persons for funds expended to support the child in the past and for hospital and medical expenses of pregnancy, birth and delivery, in the amount to be shown at trial.''How much does it cost to raise a kid annually? $10,000? Were they saying I owed $110,000!? They were! It was quite grand, really. I'd missed her entire childhood, but I'd still get to pay for it. But still they weren't finished: "[T]he natural father [will] be ordered to pay the costs of this action, including the fee of the guardian ad litem, the costs of blood testing, and service of process fees, if any.'' There was going to be a hanging, and they were going to make me, the hangee, pay for the rope. I got scared and did the only thing you can do in such circumstances. I wrote a $1,500 check with money I didn't have and retained an attorney.July 1992 A year and a half had passed since my case had begun. A lot had happened in the interim. We'd kicked Saddam Hussein's butt in Iraq. Bill Clinton had been elected president. I'd graduated from college and was making some headway as a free-lance writer. Somewhere in there, I'd gone to the clinic for the paternity blood test. The blood had squirted of my arm with a will of its own. According to the results, there was a 99.96 probability that Michelle was my daughter. Which was either good or not good, I didn't know which. I still don't. My attorney had stalled for as long as possible, but my case was now coming to a close. I was supposed to appear in a Wenatchee courtroom the next day for my hanging. Which was why I was on Trish the Dish's porch in West Wenatchee, across the Columbia River from the courtroom. Because I had one last chance to save my neck. All I had to do was talk Trish into ducking court the next day. If neither parent appeared to testify that sex had actually taken place all those years ago, then the blood test alone wasn't enough to prove paternity. I'd walk away a free man. It had been 13 years since I'd seen her, but there we were, me sipping Jack Daniels while she sipped 100-proof Smirnoff across the porch from me. She was 30 now, but she was the same blue-eyed Barbie I'd bedded down years ago. "Why didn't you tell me?"I asked lamely. "You knew where I was, all you had to do was call ...'' "You were too damned wild, Mr. Life-of-the-party, and besides, you were gone to the Navy," she said. "I needed someone who was going to be around.'' The someone had turned out to be this Indian guy she was going out with the same time she met me. When my daughter was born, Trish didn't tell him Michelle wasn't his kid. They'd stayed together for five years, until she'd borne him a son. They'd separated, she married another guy and had a third child by him. Things got bad after that. Trish found her mother, a full-blooded German native with a history of depression, hanging in the closet one afternoon. Her mom had tied together some sheets and killed herself. The suicide devastated Michelle, who had been raised by her now-deceased grandmother. Trish caught her second husband cheating on her; eventually he left with their youngest son, leaving her to raise her other two children alone. She'd worked as a cocktail waitress for the last several years and had had a steady succession of loser boyfriends. Unfortunately, Michelle wasn't in Wenatchee. She was 100 miles away, spending some time with her brother at her step-grandparents. I had to drive 800 miles the opposite direction the next day, so I wasn't going to be able to meet her. But Trish showed me a Polaroid, the first picture of my daughter I'd ever seen. She had her mom's looks, but there was some of me in there too. If someone had just shown me the photo, there would have been no need to pay all those lawyers. My heart fluttered. Michelle! My daughter! "She looks like me,"I said proudly. "Oh yeah,"Trish said, "when the girls came over after she was born, they all said, 'That's Bob's baby!'" "You coulda told me,"I slurred over clinking cubes. The bourbon was taking hold. "You coulda got a hold of me. I coulda helped. ...''I woke up in a cot the porch with the reflection of the sun off the Columbia River bouncing in my eyes. There was a gray memory of Trish agreeing not to show up for the trial. She didn't, but, as I was to learn, out of no allegiance to me: She was wanted in Wenatchee for writing a slew of bad checks, and she knew the cops would pick her up if she showed up for court. The next day, the charges against me were dropped, and I headed south, a tattered Polaroid already fading in my mind.1992-'94 When I got back home, I tried to stay in touch. I wrote letters with Xeroxed copies of articles I'd written. My letters were never answered. I called Trish's house in Wenatchee. The other people staying there said they didn't know her or Michelle's whereabouts. Six months later, I learned that Trish had been sent to prison for writing $8,000 worth of bad checks with one of her loser boyfriends. My attorney sent me a copy of the docket she was listed on, along with the notice for a guardian ad litem proceeding in Spokane, where Trish's sister, Cathy, lived. The ad litem was a done deal, and Cathy had been granted custody of Michelle. No one had bothered asking me about it, so I called Cathy in Spokane. She gave me an earful about how Trish and I were like two peas in a pod, just a couple of drunken losers. Well, it was hard to argue with that. I did finally get to talk to Michelle. Our initial conversation was like the first few rounds of a prize fight, both of us feeling the other out, not really believing we were in the same ring together. She was a star student and athlete at her junior high school. She liked rap music and her hero was Michael Jordan. Someday she wanted to be an architect. I told her I was a writer. I left out the part about being a drunk. A pattern set in. I'd call or send a letter every couple of months, wait in vain for a return call or letter, start copping an attitude about the whole situation, then break down and call or write again. I sent Michelle rap albums, books about architecture, a Dallas Cowboys (her favorite football team) sweat shirt, and money when I could afford it. No answer. I quit calling. I quit drinking. I'd been sober for six months when, in March, 1994, Cathy phoned out of the blue from Couerdelene, Idaho, where she had moved with her new boyfriend and Michelle. Michelle was out of control, she told me, had been out of control for months, and she didn't know what to do. Her grades had plummeted and she was skipping school. The night before had been the last straw. Michelle hadn't come home, so they'd gone searching for her.They'd found her at an older boy's apartment, coming down off some unknown drug. It was finally time, Cathy scolded, for me to act like a father. She was sending Michelle down on the next plane to stay with me. Forever. "OK,"I said. "Send her down.'' March 1994 Way back when this whole thing began, when I'd first found out I had a daughter, I'd gone round to my friends bragging about it, intoxicated by the heady rush most guys get when they realize their seed has taken hold, before they realize the responsibility planting it in the first place entails. A woman friend of mine had seen fit to bring me back down to earth. "Your daughter is probably fat and stupid," she joked. But when Michelle stepped off the plane, I forgot about all that. She was the most beautiful creature I'd ever seen. A hundred times prettier than her mother ... because of me! Her eyes were the same shade of corn blue as her mother's, but they were my eyes! The hair was an ev lighter shade of blond, but it was my hair! The chin? Mine! The way she walked, the way she carried herself, her sense of humor, it was all me, me, me! And I, she, was beautiful. Things were tense at first. Michelle had been bounced around a lot during the last couple of years--most of her life, in fact--and she'd finally found herself in Couerdelene. She finally found a way to fit in. She was doing the same stuff I'd done when I was 14: smoking cigarettes, smoking pot, drinking, getting into the party scene. She had her first real boyfriend, a skate punk named Jeff, and a tight group of friends to hang with. She wasn't exactly happy about being yanked away from all that. Who was I to blame her? After a week, though, we were getting along like we'd known each other all our lives, and for the first time, I began feeling like a father. "Has anybody told you they love you today?" I'd tease her when I'd get home from work. "Whatever, geek," she'd answer. Geek was applied to anyone who was uncool, especially adults. She didn't have a lot of respect for adults. Maybe that's why I started acting like a kid again. Or maybe she just made me feel like one. We'd wrestle and fight over what CD to play. She always wanted to hear Dr. Dre or Cypress Hill or Nirvana. Sometimes I'd let her have her way, but sometimes I'd make her listen to stuff I liked. Most of the time, she liked it too. She would do some pretty weird things, like glue a bunch of Lee press-on nails to her fingers, then rip them off an hour later, taking the top layers of her fingernails off along with the crescent-shaped bits of red acrylic. One time, we went to the tanning booths--she claimed a dermatologist had told her it was good to get sunburned every once in a while--and she came out looking like a lobster, still complaining because the place wouldn't let her use any tanning accelerator. We went to Paramount's Great America on the train. It was a press junket and for the first half of the day we were stuck with a bunch of suit-wearing "geeks." Together we decided to ditch them, and for the afternoon, we were partners in crime. We laughed when we met the others back at the train and the geeks tried to make us feel bad about leaving the tour. Still, despite all the good times we were having, there was the sense that something was wrong with her, some deep-hidden depression that I'd only catch flashes of when she didn't know I was looking. One night, I asked her what was wrong, and she told me the story of the three lies. The first lie had occurred when she was 8, when her grandma Kady had committed suicide. No one told her Kady was dead; instead, they said she'd be back in four days. Which was sort of true. She did come back four days later--in a box. The second lie had occurred when she was 11, when the court had ordered her and her mother to get blood tests and she found out the Indian guy wasn't her real father. The third lie had occurred before she was born, but she hadn't found out about it until recently. Her mother, 14 and pregnant with a baby by a man who wasn't around, had gone to the abortion clinic to terminate the pregnancy. Only last-second intervention by Kady, who promised Trish she would raise Michelle, had prevented the abortion.The lie, as far as Michelle was concerned, was that anyone on this earth wanted her. April 1994 The water at Ocean Beach in San Francisco is always cold, no matter what time of year it is. Most people who go there don't go in, instead preferring just to sit along the shore, watching the ships pass by as the waves pound into the beach. Michelle and I, however, went swimming. It was kind of ridiculous; the two of us out there in our clothes. We hadn't brought our swim suits, since we hadn't really planned on getting wet. We knew that my parents (her grandparents, whom she had just met for the first time), my girlfriend, my brother and his wife sitting on the beach didn't approve of what we were doing, but we didn't care. They were geeks; we were cool. I dived through a wave and came up with a mouthful of water. It tasted salty, like blood, and I wished Michelle and I could just melt right there, our molecules mingling together in the ocean we had emerged from so many eons ago. "Whatever, geek," she'd probably say. I looked over at her, soaking wet in her denim dress, the water breaking just below her budding breasts, her hair stringy from the salt spray. She was looking out to sea at the rows of waves that were coming in, rushing up to meet each one headlong. Nothing can stop her, I thought. No one was going to hold her down. She was just like me. I don't know what went wrong, or if I can say anything did go wrong. After a couple of months of staying with us, she'd asked to go visit her friends in Couerdelene. I decided to let her go. I figured maybe if I showed her I trusted her, she'd want to stay with us permanently. She'd been gone a week and hadn't called when I decided to call the place she was staying. The phone rang and rang until I thought I would go crazy. Then she picked it up. "I ain't fucking talking to you!'' A couple of months later, she did talk to me. Her mom had been thrown back in prison for heroin. At a tender yet hardened age of 15, Michelle had decided to strike out on her own, and she wanted money to pay rent on a place she was sharing with some 18-year-old she'd just met. "I can't give you the money,"I said. "Why don't you come stay with me?'' She never really gave me a reason. I asked here where I'd gone wrong, what had I done to make her so angry? "You got my mom pregnant," she said. It was hard to argue with that.