When I was 22, my friend Larry helped me move out of my apartment on the east coast so I could spend my summer working in the midwest. As Larry lifted the heavy boxes still filled with college text books, and loaded the family car at record speed, my father fell deeply and madly in love.
The love affair became obvious to me when the two started swapping man-related data during the box-loading process. My father questioned Larry about the origin of his box-lifting skills, and Larry proudly shared the details of his upper body gym routine. When asked about his cardio workouts, Larry told my dad that he ran on the treadmill. “What’s your mile time?” my father asked. “About 6 minutes,” Larry said casually.
On the car ride home, with everything all packed away, and my east coast life falling away into a bittersweet new chapter, my dad broke the somber silence:
“Is Larry gay?”
“Not that I know of, dad. You interested?”
“It’s just that I think he really likes you and he seems perfect. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t gay before suggesting it.”
“Sorry dad, that’s never happening,” was all I could muster in response.
The next day, Larry and I talked on the phone (this was before texting was really a thing) and he told me that he had something to confess: He had lied to my father about his mile time. He’d never really clocked a 6-minute mile—close but not quite.
But, Larry assured, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that he decided he had to make his white lie true. He went to the gym the next morning and forced his first 6-minute mile, thus rendering his exaggeration a non-contemporaneous truth. The bad news: He had pulled a few muscles but did hope to make a swift recovery.
For the next few months, while Larry and I lived 800 miles apart, my father would check in about the progress of our relationship. I’d report the same each time: Just friends.
One morning, at 6:30 AM, I called my dad to ask about a flat tire on the bike I used to commute to work, “any advice for a quick patch?” My dad condescendingly delivered advice but he also reminded me that if Larry were my boyfriend, he’d be able to help me with these kinds of “repair” tasks. Larry probably didn’t even own a tool box, I grumbled under my breath.
. . .
Growing up, my dad taught me to drive stick, throw a ball, and play sports but his attempts to teach me to use tools had failed woefully. Unlike throwing a ball and driving a car—two tasks he couldn’t do for me—he could always swoop in and repair a broken toilet or change a hard-to-reach light bulb. Patience has never been my dad’s strongpoint; he never wanted to wait for his daughter to learn how to hold the power drill when he could accomplish the task-at-hand in a fraction of the time.
But no matter, my dad had a backup plan to fill in the gaps in my life skills. He would ensure I found a man-fixture to perform all household and car repairs (of course, in my dad’s version of my life, I would own at least two cars). I’m sure he expected I’d handle the cooking and cleaning, dividing the chores just as he and my mother had.
Coming out to my dad two years after his love affair with Larry involved delivering a lot of disappointing news. First, I had to destroy the dream my father had conjured for my future life, but, more importantly, I validated his fears that I would have to continue to rely on him for the “manly” tasks around the house.
For the last decade, I’ve desperately wanted to prove my dad wrong by showing him just how little I relied on others, especially men. And, over these years, my dad has changed in so many ways. His once epic disappointment about my sexual orientation and choice to work in public interest law have transformed into acceptance (gay stuff) and even pride (work stuff).
But, tools and repairs remain a third rail issue.
Two years ago, when I moved in with my then-girlfriend in what I thought would be a serious long-term relationship, I had a momentary sense that my dad and I had overcome this tool-related war. Although I hadn’t found a man to handle the tools, at least I’d found someone to help me call the repairperson or hold the latter if, heaven forbid, I tried to change my own lightbulb.
My then-girlfriend, complaining that the used piecemeal furniture that populated my tiny studio looked like it came from a college dorm, decided we should start new—a new spacious apartment filled with brand new furniture. After discovering that real couches and dining sets fell way out of our price range, we took a trip to Ikea. The dreaded assembly party awaited.
That week, my mom and dad came over and the four of us started to assemble the furniture against my better judgment. My dad couldn’t tend to all the simultaneous projects and watched as these three women in his life worked more quickly than he did on a number of assemblies. Sure, dad would sometimes pull one of us women away from any task that seemed too “physical” or comment on how we NEVER could have gotten this all done without him. But, at the end of the four hour session, we all broke bread together and no one cried. A success.
When my ex decided to move out eight months later and it came time to disassemble our life, my father was conspicuously absent. I didn’t know how to ask for anyone for help in breaking down the life we had just built. I feared, without a partner—even a female one—our old issues would return.
I struggled alone. I pulled muscles. I lost money on furniture I couldn’t sell. I got screamed at by neighbors for leaving virtually new furniture on the fancy sidewalk in the over-priced Brooklyn neighborhood that I could no longer afford. By the end of the move, I had sloppily broken down the couch that my parents had so carefully assembled, dropped it on my foot, and ripped the fake leather on an errant nail while awkwardly trying to get it through the door frame. Physically, I was no match for that giant shitty Ikea couch.
On move-out day, several friends offered their assistance, knowing that I probably wasn’t in a great mental space to ask for help. I felt surrounded by chosen family, and more grateful than they could ever know. Even though it was Yom Kippor and my father observes, he showed up too. The landlord, despite having no incoming tenants, refused to let me move out the next day. When my mom told me that dad didn’t fast for the first time in his adult life, my heart filled with love and gratitude. But my enchantment waned by the end of the move as my dad stormed around the empty apartment, finally asking in utter frustration with me, “didn’t we just set this place up?” That’s when I thought I might lose it but I mostly held it together as I closed the door behind me for the last time.
When I made it to my much smaller new apartment after an exhausting 16-hour day, the only thing I wanted was to assemble my shitty Ikea bed frame and sleep on a proper bed. We only had 30 minutes of sun left and the bed area didn’t have an overhead light or lamp yet. So, with my dad looking impatient, I tried to get the Ikea frame back together (for the 7th time since I moved to New York–shouldn’t I remember by now?). Every word out of my dad’s mouth seemed like a criticism of not just my lack of carpentry skill but my failure to find a protector to save me from myself. We snapped at each other viciously. He called me irrational and inept. I called him sexist.
My parents, unwilling to witness a full on meltdown, left to get a quick dinner. When they came back 30 minutes later, they found me in far more dire state. Moments before their return, having almost finished the frame, I discovered that I had installed a vital piece of wood backwards (this is a mistake I’ve committed many times). I had just finished disassembling 30 minutes of work.
My parents took in the scene: a dozen wooden slats strewn about a tiny space, an Allen wrench flung halfway across the room, and a 33-year-old woman on the floor weeping in the near pitch black. That’s when they literally took off running. “Time to go, sleep on the floor tonight,” they advised as they swiftly closed the door behind them. I could not have felt more alone.
Once they left, I pulled myself together. I finished the bed, installed the curtains, and slept. When I woke up with the worst emotional hangover I can remember, I knew I could never ask my dad for help again.
And then, eight months after moving into my new apartment came summer. It was 97 degrees in late June and air conditioning no longer felt optional. The only window in my apartment potentially capable of accommodating an AC unit faces the street, approximately two stories above my landlord’s front door.
And despite my mixed feelings about my landlady, I would go to considerable lengths to preserve her life. Aside from the moral obligation not to put even my worst enemy in harm’s way, her untimely demise would also spell my untimely eviction from my non-regulated apartment.
Unfortunately, the window at issue, designed in the late 1800s, needed some major alterations in order to safely accommodate an AC unit. My landlord had proved no help when I asked her about a contractor who might assist me. Although she gladly sent someone to my male neighbor’s apartment for his AC installation, all she sent me were nasty text messages warning me that the AC “better be” legally installed. Great.
Asking her for help meant that if she saw the AC in the window in the morning, she’d know I had it jerry-rigged with duct tape. So every morning at 6:30AM, I lifted the 65-pound-monster from its precarious perch while it leaked water all over the floor. Hardly a sustainable solution.
My dad’s warning about the situation, “you could kill someone!” kept me up at night listening for the sound of a stiff breeze that could disrupt my duct tape installation strategy.
Desperate, I reached out to a property manager I had gotten to know in the context of a quasi-adversarial litigation at my last job. Said property manager, unlike so many of the villains who kept me busy, respected clients and, even treated them like humans.
Despite coming from very different worlds, after I left my job, the manager and I stayed in touch. He drove from his home in Staten Island to Brooklyn for sushi. Over dinner, he confided that he had never eaten raw fish before and that he didn’t know any other lesbians (he had many questions…).
The property manager turned friend responded immediately, offering to send “some buddies” over ASAP. Those buddies, as it turned out, were from a construction company that I had brazenly accused of negligence and tenant endangerment in at least two court cases. Having cross-examined the head of the company, I worried I might be recognized, and considered various disguise options.
Luckily, the contractors did the majority of the work outside, placing a ladder in front of my landlord’s front door to work on the installation. A young worker, new to the company, came to my apartment to handle the small tasks required from inside. As he chatted me up, I felt so relieved that he didn’t recognize me that it took at least 10 minutes for me to realize that his line of questioning about my favorite neighborhood bars wasn’t his way of filling the awkward silence—he was trying to ask me on a date. By the time I realized what was happening, he had my phone number (we exchanged numbers, at least I thought, so I could have a buddy to call next time my toilet clogged).
Later that day, with the AC safety bolted into the window, my landlord called me at work. “Do you know what those workers have done to my property?” As she ranted, I interrupted her to let her knew I believed each of her accusations to be credible—I had every reason in the world to believe each of her grievances. “Send me the bill,” I sighed.
Later that day, I told this whole story to a friend at a BBQ, and, without realizing, I pocket dialed my landlord, leaving her a three minute message in which I had just depicted her in a less-than-flattering light.
My father’s dire warnings seemed to be coming true. To solve a simple home-repairs problem I had spent hundreds of dollars, invited the enemy into my home, withstood said enemy’ sexual advances, upset my landlady, and left her a message describing my true feelings. On the bright side, I hadn’t killed the landlord and I don’t think she knows how to listen to her voicemail.
Despite my better judgment, I ended up telling dad this story, and exactly how impotent I feel around home repair. His side of the story remains that I never showed a shred of interest in tools as a child (lies), but we have agreed to put the past behind us and work on some repair projects together this summer. Stay tuned.