Most of My Dream Fathers Are Women

When a girl’s love is not self-sacrificing then she is not a woman but a man.
—Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition, translation by M. G. Piety

My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women.
—Marguerite Duras, The Lover, translation by Barbara Bray

. . . s /he’s just a human in love . . .
—TC Tolbert


My obsession with my father is so pronounced that when I sit down to write about the women I’ve loved, I begin with a line about him. My memory of others is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of him. This is an old thought, the way a dream is an old thought, born in the mind and prone to illusions. Although his skeleton is underground, our relationship is ongoing. My father is a force from which I draw my power. He is everywhere resurrected—alive in smells, alive in tastes, alive in places, alive in words, alive in others, alive in me. As long as I live, he lives.

Anyone who loves me must contend with him. I have some pity for them. There are those whose power can never compare to his, lovers I find it hard to take seriously. There are those who stimulate a nearly identical part of me, for whom my appetite is insatiable. I pity them most of all. I pity least the dream fathers, those who, instead of replacing my father, fulfill a desire I have for another kind of father entirely.

A colored drawing, birds-eye-view of a woman in bed, checkered sheets pulled up to her nose.

Most of my dream fathers are women. It’s easier to love a female father, or a child father who carries his DNA. It’s easier to love a dream. Germanic in origin, love is a word our father never used, perhaps least of all with our German American mother. To be haunted is to be frequented by a ghost. To be loved by my father, the very same. Insofar as he persists in inhabiting bodies of all genders, my father is trans. A trans ghost. To say trans fathers are the best of both worlds is an understatement. “No such a thing!” he yells, as soon as I have the thought.

Most of my dream fathers are women. Alma is a mixed-race Chicanx dyke bearing lavish tattoos. A biker wallet hangs on a chain from the belt loop of her Dickies. Sometimes a shaved head, sometimes a pompadour, styled with fancy pomade. In her carefully selected white ribbed undershirt and black corduroy slippers, she resembles a fat patriarcha. She instructs me to call her Daddy, the effect of which produces in me a thrill so deep and electrifying, I could never have imagined or prepared for it. Alma gives me every pleasure I desire and a few I’ve never known I wanted.

Our love is an open secret, enclosed within an open marriage. Photographs of the two of us are forbidden. I tell everyone I know, even my father. He is nonplussed. I am euphoric. I’ve always wanted a secret father. When, throughout childhood, our father told the story of fishing my small, stinking body out of a garbage can, I dreamed of the day my real father would return to claim me. It takes twenty-seven years, but she finds me at Old Wives’ Tales Bookstore on Valencia Street. We belong to each other as only a father and daughter can.

She and my sister watch old episodes of My So-Called Life while I study Chinese; they play backgammon and crazy eights, munch on Takis and shrimp chips. Perhaps Alma is my sister’s dream father too, the sort who plays games with her, watches TV with her, lets her eat junk food—the opposite of our father. Or perhaps the two are siblings.

From Alma I learn the fine line between father and little boy, little girl and mother. Daddy likes her back rubbed when she’s sad, likes her meat cut into little-boy-size pieces. Someday she’ll be a bearded man named Alfonso—no longer my dream father—but none of us knows this yet, not even Alma.

Most of my dream fathers are women. Blue is a poet with a priestly aspect. We meet on the first day of graduate school. The crush—dizzying and mutual—is instant. She’s very shy, constantly blushing. Her face is elfin, her aquamarine eyes bright, like those of someone in a fairytale who shows you the way, a magical being no one but you can see. She calls me “forest creature” but she’s the forest creature. She calls me Pink. I like being that color with her.

Blue is even more different from my father than Alma. She is quiet, kind, patient, literary, mystical, gentle. Someone who cares about the soul. Of the American poets she teaches me to love Jean Valentine, Ruth Stone, W.S. Merwin, and William Stafford. She’s reading Lispector years before everyone else. Lispector and Tranströmer, Mandelstam (Osip and Nadezhda), Tsvetaeva, and Trakl. Unlike my father’s English which, despite his decades of living in America, is still heavily accented, Blue’s English is excellent. If, as Americans have deemed it, my father’s English is “broken,” in pieces, despairing, Blue’s is whole and full of hope. When she speaks, she sounds like she’s reading from a nineteenth-century novel or an essay by Montaigne. I want to write down all the beautiful things she says.

Her apartment is a dim labyrinth of books, towering stacks that begin on the wood floor and climb up past the windows toward the ceiling, skyscrapers in a miniature city. When I enter there’s usually a train whistling in the distance. I feel like I’ve immigrated to a foreign country, an old country whose mysterious streets I could wander for years.

Soon after we meet, we visit a colleague’s home to adopt a kitten. The colleague introduces us to a black, fluffy female whom we immediately name Hannah. In the car, Hannah sits on my lap, in the bowl of my black miniskirt, trembling for the duration. It’s like bringing a baby home from the hospital—she has been entrusted to us, we’ve named her. Someday I’ll wonder if Blue was thinking of Arendt when she chose the name Hannah, but not yet. We are so pleased with the name. It suits her, somehow. Within a few days it becomes clear that Hannah is a male. This pleases us even more. Hannah remains Hannah until his death in San Francisco years later.

One weekend Blue and I drive to Austin. We begin in Houston, where we’re living at the time. She drives. I look out the window. As we set off, I see the bayou and a bit of skyline on my right. We drive and talk and laugh, then drive some more, in clean silence. It’s the opposite of driving with my father. He’s a tyrant in the car, notorious for yelling at our mother whenever he gets lost. Although I’m sitting in the front passenger seat, in the same seat my mother used to sit in, I am safe; I am moving through time and space with my dream father.

An hour or two goes by, maybe more. Suddenly, out the window, I see what seems to me the same bayou and bit of skyline I saw in the beginning. “Is that Houston?” I ask, genuinely curious. “Oh my God, it is!” Blue says, and we laugh uncontrollably until our faces flush pink, until tears spring to our eyes, and then we really do drive to Austin.

Most of my dream fathers are women. According to popular astrology, Capricorns are the fathers of the zodiac. My father is likely a Libra, though he claims to be Gemini, the same sign as Blue. He has multiple birth certificates, fitting for a man who never dies. As children, when we ask him how old he is, he says, Your daddy is five hundred years old. What more could a child want than a father who can outlive her? To die in the arms of one’s guardian, never to be orphaned. In this way, my father makes himself a dream father.

Most of my dream fathers are women. Aviva is a Capricorn. She’s the director of a library where I used to work; she’s a boss. Regardless of my father’s true sign, according to popular astrology, Aviva has what it takes to be his father. Men find her extremely attractive. She is extremely attractive. Smart, funny, charming, effervescent, and with a body that, as they say, won’t quit. In fact, once she’s given a deadly diagnosis—cancer—and recovers. Our father, who abhors quitters, would approve of Aviva. There is an everlasting quality about her, a goddess quality. She exudes the eternal nature of a dream father.

A colored drawing of a person in jeans and a checkered shirt holding a bouquet of flowers, zoomed in so we see only neck to knee.

When my father dies, Aviva sends me flowers. No one has ever sent me flowers in an effort to console me before. No woman has ever sent me flowers for any reason. Over the years, various men have sent me flowers with the hope of winning my affection. They are never the men I am in love with. Aviva is not trying to win my affection, which is, perhaps, the surest way to win it. My father yells, Don’t quit! Use your head! Think about it! Talk less! Think more! He yells on and on while I try not to listen. Aviva says to me, Don’t overthink it. And I don’t.

You look just like him, people say, you’re just like your father. Throughout my childhood, our phenotypes and personalities are conflated, confused. We are voracious eaters, ambitious, hot-tempered, stubborn. We are vivacious in public yet seek solitude in private. We are fighters. We fight over who will suck the marrow out of the best bones, we argue about politics, about language and culture. When he yells at me, I yell back. At the slightest provocation, the smallest kindness, I profess my love: I want to marry you, I say. When I grow up I will never marry anyone but you. We look Chinese. Like a mirror, I will never know if I am truly like him or if I am simply committed to modeling myself after him, to being his reflection.

In many ways, my sister is our father’s opposite. He doesn’t blend in. She passes for white. He yells. She whispers. He shovels food. She hardly eats. His skin is dark. Her skin is pale with a sprinkling of freckles. His hair is black. Hers is brown, showing hints of apricot in the sun. He’s aggressive. She’s shy. He lectures. She listens. Throughout our childhood, my sister is my refuge from our father.

Most of my dream fathers are women. As my sister grows older she begins to resemble him. Or perhaps she always has but I can’t see through the haze of other people’s narratives. The first time I notice their resemblance is in a photograph, a Polaroid I take of them at a restaurant. They’re both wearing the same army green—like a uniform—each leaning their head toward the other. Their coloring is strikingly similar, their skin olive; my sister’s hair almost as dark as his; their foreheads high, a sign of beauty in China. It’s the only photograph I have of the two of them alone as adults. I cherish the image and yet feel strangely outside of it.

After he dies, I begin to notice more and more similarities between them. Their thirst for a good bargain, their willingness to walk briskly for fifteen blocks in order to save bus fare, their love of snacks, a certain way of furrowing their brows, their dark eyes examining something with suspicion, their tendency to worry. Suddenly their faces look alike to me, and when I look at my own face in the mirror, I see my mother. Our mouths in particular, our toothy smiles. Has it always been this way, or have we all changed without me noticing? Or has my sister, as loved ones often do, taken on our father’s characteristics since his death?

A family story: Our mother is out of the house. We’re waiting for her to call, to let our father know she’s ready to be picked up. The phone rings. Our father pounces on it and says: Be there in five minutes! The caller turns out to be an American encyclopedia salesman. Although we are all involved, my sister and I in the room with him when the phone rings, our mother soon to call, our father tells the story again and again. Sometimes the phrase Be there in five minutes! alone is enough to make us all laugh.

A woman can be a father, a child can be a father, a sister can be a father. A lesbian can be a bisexual man, an American encyclopedia salesman can be your wife, a potential encyclopedia customer can be a Chinese immigrant ready to drive across town to pick you up. There’s something funny about mistaken identity, but nothing makes us laugh more than our father—for once in his life—being wrong.

When she sleeps, she looks more like him. For hours, I watch her sleeping, I fall asleep watching her sleep—the act of looking at her, of seeing him in her, a narcotic.

Most of my dream fathers are women. The girl who carries his DNA is the most eternal. When she sleeps, she looks more like him. For hours, I watch her sleeping, I fall asleep watching her sleep—the act of looking at her, of seeing him in her, a narcotic. In my dreams, he’s alive. The year following his death, I can’t wait to sleep because there’s a chance I might see him, a chance he might pick up the dream phone and say: Be there in five minutes! It’s the year Xing turns two. Throughout her childhood, I have dreams of her vanishing. I spend entire nights frantically searching for her while she’s asleep in my arms, dreaming of me dying.

Sometimes during waking hours, like him, she is full of rage. But, unlike him, she is self-aware and wants to change. I can’t control my anger! Maybe I need help? Maybe I need anger management classes? She’s thirteen. Sometimes when she yells at me for crimes I’ve committed, instead of feeling hurt I hear myself laughing. I feel the utmost happiness at seeing him alive in her eyes.

Those flashing, willful eyes! I want to die with them watching. To be near them again. In a room full of books, jars of flowers on the table, a black cat in the window, the scent of pomade, on a bed I’ve climbed like a child to get into. It’s my last wish. To summon the dream fathers in those final hours. To see them, to be seen, then close my eyes. Alma. Blue. Aviva. Mei-Mei. Xing. All of them watching as I expire. The distance between desire and consumption is often slight.

Most of my dream fathers are women. “Hi-dee!” my father says. It’s the greeting he reserves for babies. He’s standing at the foot of my bed, wearing the beige traveling suit we buried him in. “Hi,” I say. He looks good for a dead person, his hair as black as it was when I was a child. My own hair is silver; my eyes, beginning to close. “What are you doing here?” I sigh, though by this time I know. I am never orphaned. We never marry, never promise “till death do us part.” We don’t quit. He goes everywhere with me. No such a thing as wedding vows for us.

A painting of a low bedroom dresser against a grey wall, with a religious statue on the dresser and, above that, two photos of men.