The following is from Deb Olin Unferth’s story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance. Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies, Vacation, and Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Harper’sMagazine, McSweeney’s, NOON, and the Paris Review. She lives in Austin, Texas.
My Daughter Debbie
She doesn’t have any skills. While she was growing up, I always encouraged her to learn how to do something. I told her she should become an X-ray technician. Then she would always have work and she could pursue her hobbies on the weekend. She did philosophy in college and I said she could be an X-ray technician and still read her philosophy books and have a good paycheck and a skill she could move around with, because she likes to move. I never saw anyone move so much. Then that gave me the idea that she could be a flight attendant. She could travel and get paid for it and still read her philosophy books. By this time she was doing graduate classes in philosophy, and I told her not to come looking to me or her father for a handout. She needed to have a job with a paycheck, I said, and—see this?—she dropped out of the graduate classes, wasted all that time and money.
Years went by and she seemed to be doing nothing.
I told her she should be a social worker, like I was, because she loves people and is so good with them, especially men. One night, when she was four years old, we had a handsome man over for dinner, friend of her father’s from school, and she came walking down the stairs like a movie star and said, “Who is that?” A little flirt. She’s still like that, always has a boyfriend. Never had much of an interest in children—which she will regret one day, as I always tell her and as her grandmother does too. A woman without children will never be fulfilled. But she does seem to get a lot of boyfriends who are all entirely inappropriate, too old for her, brooding, and you can’t understand what they do for a living, can’t understand a word of what they write in magazines or say on the radio, and she always leaves them, every time, she’s always packing up and moving out, cannot make a commitment.
She had a strange brother, that’s why she likes these strange men.
So she decided not to go on with the philosophy (one smart choice) and then she did nothing (but was too busy to answer the phone) and then she had that bad breakup with a strange man we all thought she’d marry but frankly were grateful she did not. Then she moved in with a woman who I’m sure was unbalanced (I don’t know what was going on there) and I pleaded with her to get therapy.
“Now, look,” I said. “There are perfectly good, well-trained therapists. There is some discount therapy downtown and they are very selective about who they’ll take. You are ideal for it.”
They took her right away.
She quit going, of course, and wouldn’t say why, so who knows. Then I helped her get a perfectly good job. I flew out to see her. I went through the want ads for her because she wouldn’t leave the apartment. I uploaded her résumé for her because she wouldn’t get out of bed. Finally she got a job—not a lot of money but at least a job—at a lead-detection clinic, but after a few months, she quit, just walked out one day. Then she quit another job she had after that, I don’t even remember what that one was, at a homeless shelter. Then she had another at a day camp. And another as a secretary for the rabbi. She just kept quitting. It was sad. We all said so. “She just quits everything she does,” we said. “Remember piano,” we said. “Remember ballet.” Then she met some entirely inappropriate man and I heard nothing from her for months and then her phone was disconnected.
The next thing we knew she was calling herself a writer.
Now somehow she has managed to get this good job—I don’t know how, I don’t know how she does anything, but she did, and we all breathed a sigh of relief because we were thinking, It is just sad how Debbie turned out, it is just really sad, with all her potential, she was such a beautiful child and now look at her. That’s what we were saying, my sister especially (well, we’ll just see how hers turn out). Now we’re all holding our breath. First we were all holding our breath because honestly I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth, you never can tell with her. Then her sister found her name on the school website and we all sighed with relief.
Then we were saying, “Will she stay at the job?” Because sometimes she just runs off. And she seemed to stay. Now we’re saying, “Will they fire her?” Because she can’t get a book published, a real one, with a real publisher, not a publisher no one’s ever heard of with a weird name, and that’s why I always ask her about it. I tell her, “Look, you are not moving back in with me and your father for us to support you, so you can forget it. You better just write that book.” If she’s a writer, like she says, why won’t she write it? Either she’s a writer or she isn’t, I tell her. And she better say she’s a writer because otherwise, well, the job is out. Her first real job, I might add.
We went to visit her a few months ago, her father and I. She wouldn’t do one thing that I asked and wouldn’t tell me anything either. First I asked her did she know she was throwing money in the toilet, just flushing it down, and she said, No, she did not know that. I said, “So what do you think paying rent is?” Perfectly good houses standing all around her and she rents the worst one in town. Then I asked her, “How is that book coming along? Because if you don’t write one, aren’t you going to lose your job?”
The fact is I know something about jobs. I was a social worker from the time Debbie was a year old until her sister was born—then I had to stop because I had three little ones at home. But I was good at being a social worker. I helped young girls who had problems. The girls I helped liked me and gave me gifts like candles and cards. After I left, one missed me and came by the house. I always planned to go back. But then we moved for my husband’s job and I needed a new certificate for the state and then my mother was sick and I had to fly back and forth. Now, well, I’ve got my alumni club and book group. No one wants to hire someone my age.
My daughter Debbie is a writer and it is such a relief to have her be something, because she was always something to me. She was my favorite, secretly, dancing around the house. She drew me pictures, sang about her dolls. I used to use her name as my password at work. She was just a tiny thing—so was I back then, I was a child when I married, a child when I had her—and she was happy, not this silent sullen mop she is now. Somehow she got away from me. I don’t know how it happened. She’s the one I know the least.
Once, when she was very small, she decided to run away. I don’t remember what it was about but there she was. She had her toy suitcase and she was taking a few slices of cheese from the fridge. I said to her, “Where are you going?” And she said, “I’m running away.” She was sniffly and furious. I did not laugh. I said to her, “Why do you want to do that?” And she said, “Because Dad’s mean.” So it must have been something her father did. Her sister was always her father’s friend and Debbie was mine. I used to tell her jokes and read her books. She used to play fairy tale under my desk. I do like to encourage her.
I said to her, “I’d like it if you would stay.”
“My Daughter Debbie” from Wait Till You See Me Dance. Copyright © 2017 by Deb Olin Unferth. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.