My father my lover

How can a father and daughter let their relationship go beyond the normal blood ties? In her new, controversial memoir, The Kiss, American novelist Kathryn Harrison describes her four-year affair with her father, a minister. In this exclusive extract, she recounts the first stirrings of incestuous love. Photograph by Marion Ettlinger
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We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognise us.

One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination. Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon - places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.

Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.

We quarrel sometimes, and sometimes we weep. The road always stretches endlessly ahead and behind us, so that we are out of time as well as out of place.We go to Muir Woods in northern California, so shrouded in blue fog that the road is lost; and we drive down the Natchez Trace into deep, green Mississippi summer. The trees bear blossoms as big as my head; their ivory petals drift to the ground and cover our tracks.

Separated from family and from the flow of time, from work and from school; standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns into the purple dusk - these nowheres and no-times are the only home we have.

My mother's parents raise me. I live in their house until I'm 17. In it, my father's name is never spoken, his existence is not acknowledged.

"Where's your dad?" other children ask. "I don't know," I answer.

"Why?" they ask, but I don't know what to say to that either.

He and my mother divorce when I am six months old. I stay with her and her parents; he leaves.

My father is an absence, a hole like one of those my grandmother cuts out of family photographs. Rather than discard the entire picture of an event that includes someone she dislikes, she snips the offender out with untidy haste, using her manicure scissors.

I sit on the foot of her bed and watch her edit the family albums, a task she undertakes with the kind of grim determination that can only have been inspired by a fight with my mother. Often, she cuts out only the heads and leaves the anonymous bodies behind as a reminder of her displeasure, and her ruthlessness. No one is safe from her censorship; from the albums she excises unflattering images of herself as well.

The few snapshots my mother has of my father she keeps hidden. If I ask to look at one, she might show it to me. In every photograph, he is a tiny figure in a suit and glasses; the only person in the frame, still, he is never in its centre or its foreground, he seems as incidental as a bystander. I can't make out his features.

A "man of God" is how someone describes my father to me. I don't remember who. Not my mother. I'm young enough that I take the words to mean he has magical properties and that he is good, better than other people.

He sends long letters to my mother, and sometimes, folded in with them, are little ones for me. In them, my father describes his work as a minister. He takes Christian youth groups into the slums, where they rebuild people's homes. They paint the walls white and bring blankets, food, and toys for children who have no toys. I have everything a child could possibly want, my father tells me. He hopes I'll have the opportunity to experience some poor people, because otherwise how will I learn to be grateful?

I'm six when my mother moves out and leaves me. She is gone, but her room remains just as it was. I pull down the coverlet and see that fresh sheets are on her bed, and in her closet hang the dresses she didn't like well enough to take with her. Dresses of all colours: red, blue, pink, green. I stand among them. I duck under the skirt of one and let it fall around me like a yellow tent, a tent the colour of the sun and smelling of flowers. I push my face into the smooth fabric, a hundred times more lovely than any other thing in this house. If a dress like this was not worth taking, how could I have hoped to be?

She's moved to a nearby apartment, although to protect herself from my predatory grandmother she never tells us what street she lives on, nor does she give us her phone number. She sees me often, but she comes and goes at her own discretion: she does not want to be summoned by fevers or nightmares or lost teeth. It's the first of my mother's attempts since the divorce to make an independent life for herself, a life that does not seem possible to her unless motherhood is left behind.

It begins when I'm 20. It begins with a visit, and afterwards my mother and I disagree over whose idea it was to invite him. My mother says that it was mine. I think it was hers.

It's been 10 years since I've seen him, and if my mother is right - if inviting my father to come see us was my idea - it must be that my curiosity over the hidden parent, the other half of me, is great enough to overcome the discouragement of the letters. Perhaps I suspect or hope that passion lies behind such a bluster of ideology. That something must require such a screen; some interesting beast must be contained by this cage within cage of words.

My parents have shared their secret meetings over the years. In distant cities, and despite another wife and other children, they've said they would run away, remarry, try it again, but their plans always fall through. My mother and father were together for no more than two years, married for less than one, divorced before my first birthday. If I suspect that the coming visit is my mother's idea, it's because I don't remember suggesting it myself, and it has been too long since she's seen him - too long since she's taken any solitary, mysterious vacations.

Perhaps what I later conclude is true: she uses his curiosity about me, and mine about him, as the excuse to plan a reunion that will include her. If this is the case, how bitterly she will come to regret the ruse.

The visit is scheduled for spring break of my junior year in college, exactly a week after my twentieth birthday, which falls, as usual, in the middle of exams.

"So," says my boyfriend, bidding me good-bye in the parking lot outside my dorm. "Pretty heavy."

"Do you think?" I ask. I've carefully not considered the prospect of seeing my father for the first time in 10 years, for only the third time in my life. As always, my course load was heavy, and the last weeks were lost to late hours in the library.

"Are you kidding?" he says, and I shrug and look away, a gesture, one among my many, of evasion.

This boyfriend is older than I, a graduate student. He's a gentle person, and the quality affords him a unique position in my brief history of boyfriends. His own father died when he was an infant; he has no stepfather. Having missed his lost father for all of his life, he knows what I cannot admit: that some of the longing in my life must be focused on that hole in the family portraits. It cannot all be consecrated to my mother.

Highway repairs and a detour make the drive home from college even longer than usual, and I arrive at my mother's barely in time to sit down for dinner, something French and ambitious to which she must have devoted an afternoon of labour. Even so, we leave the television on during the meal, and taste rather than eat what she prepared.

"You get it," my mother says whenever the phone rings. I find this odd - she's usually so secretive about her social life - but when it rings at nine-thirty, I understand. It's him, my father, calling to give us his flight number. His voice, which I have not heard for 10 years, surprises me with its high pitch. I'll learn, in time, that it doesn't always sound this way, but rises and falls in concert with his emotions. On this night, however, we speak only as long as it takes to confirm the necessary details.

"I'll be wearing a brown suit," he says.

"OK," I say.

"See you soon," he says, ordinary words made extraordinary by the fact that I have never heard them from him, a man I would have seen under other circumstances every day for all the years of my life.

"OK," I say. "Yes." He's due to arrive at two the next afternoon.

In the terminal, my father leads me out of the flow of passengers and the friends and family who have come to meet them. He finds an empty spot by one of the big plate-glass windows that looks out onto the airfields. "Don't move," he says. "Just let me look at you."

My father looks at me, then, as no one has ever looked at me before. His hot eyes consume me - eyes that I will discover are always just this bloodshot. I almost feel their touch. He takes my hands, one in each of his, and turns them over, stares at my palms. He does not actually kiss them, but his look is one that ravishes.

"Oh!" he says. "Turn around!" I feel his gaze as it moves over my neck, my back, and down to my feet.

"God," he says when I face him again. "Oh God."

His eyes, now fixed on mine, are bright with tears. "Your hair," he says. "It's... it's longer than I imagined. Than I could have. It was behind your shoulders in the picture you sent."

I nod. I don't speak. His eyes rob me of words, they seem to draw the air from my mouth so that I can barely breathe.

The girl my father sees has blond hair that falls past her waist, past her hips; it falls to the point at which her fingertips would brush her thighs if her arms were not crossed before her chest. I'm no longer very thin - away at school I've learned to eat - but, as if embarrassed to be caught with a body, I hide whatever I can of it.

We walk to the baggage claim in silence and wait where the metal plates of the luggage conveyor slide one under the other as the stream of suitcases turns the corner. My father picks up his bag and we walk, still without talking, out of the terminal.

Once outside, he takes one of my hands in his. I feel his fingers tremble. "Do you mind?" he says. "Could I?" I don't take my hand away.

"It isn't brown," I say of his suit as we get in the car.

"Yes it is," he says.

"Isn't it more of a tan or a khaki?"

"It's brown."

The trip home from the airport is mostly silent. I can't think of anything to say, and I don't dare do what I want, escape into music on the stereo. Turned sideways in his seat, my father watches me, and his look doesn't allow my hand to reach for the knob. As I drive I make mistakes I rarely make. My hands, wet with nerves, slip on the steering wheel. As we cross an intersection, my foot loses the clutch and I stall the car in traffic.

At home, my mother is wearing the clothes she set out the previous night: black trousers and a cream-coloured cashmere sweater that sets off her dark shining hair. She's in high spirits, a little too high perhaps - her laughter sounds shrill to me. On her breast is a small gold miraculous medal, rays of light bursting from the Virgin's open palms. My parents embrace quickly, almost shyly. They kiss each other's closed mouths with their lips thrust forward in prissy, monkey-like puckers.

We try hard to make it work, the three of us together.

We sit in the living room and drink iced tea. "At last," one of us says, "a family." Calling ourselves this, saying the words - Who says them? My mother? My father? Do I? - it's meant ironically, but the pain the words bring, the admission of failure, is so intense that afterwards no one speaks. My mother breaks away and goes into the kitchen. She returns with a platter of cheeses and vegetables and little sandwiches, her comments arranged with as much care as the food.

We all stare at one another, fascinated, years of observation collapsed into minutes. We catalogue similarities, differences. Whose am I? From the neck down I'm a replica of my mother, but my head resembles his. The line of his jaw is echoed in mine, as are his cheekbones, his ears, his brow. And how mysterious it is that my father and I do the same things with our hands as we talk. I've never had the chance to see his gestures and learn to mimic them.

I watch and listen as my parents begin to argue. They can't construct a year, a season, or even a week from the past without disagreeing. Whatever they talk about - their wedding day, my birth - it's as if my mother and father experienced two separate, unconnected realities, a disjuncture that allows no compromise, no middle ground. The picture that I form of their courtship is one that I have to piece together; no matter how hard I try to make things fit, it will always have the look of an incomplete collage - some details too large, others too small, many missing.

My father takes pictures of my mother and me. An accomplished amateur photographer, he owns a number of large-format cameras and develops his work himself in a darkroom he's set up in his parsonage. I watch as he poses and records images of her, and she watches as he poses me. Though no one counts aloud, I sense that he is careful to make an equal number of exposures of both of us, and that we all keep track of this quantifiable measure of his attention. Then, "How about the two of you together?" he asks, and my mother and I sit next to each other on the hearth. These pictures of my mother and me are the last I have of us together. As it turns out, they are overexposed; my father never makes individual prints of them, so I have only the proof sheets showing the two of us, our heads inclined, our bodies not touching. Behind my mother and me, visible between our shoulders, are tongues of flame from the gas log. In certain of the poses the fire looks as if it comes from our clothes themselves, as if the anguished expression we each wear is not the smile we intended but the first rictus of pain. As if what my father caught with his camera was the moment when we suddenly knew we'd begun to burn.

The three of us spend much of our week together at art museums and botanic gardens and other tourist attractions. We are drawn to these places of silent staring and confused, enervated wandering because they make us seem and feel less like freaks as we stare in speechless shock at one another. Rather than increasing the strain, the time we spend with my grandparents is a relief in that it diffuses and refracts our attention, filling a few hours with polite, careful conversation about politics and gardening and books we've all read.

Each night at my mother's house we stay up as late as we can, trying to drain sensation from every minute. Whatever I do - peel an orange, tie my shoe, pour water from a pitcher into the dry soil of a house-plant - enthrals my father. I get up to brush my teeth, and he follows me into the bathroom. He leans against the doorjamb to watch as I squeeze the paste from the tube. His scrutiny both excites me and exhausts me. How can it be that anyone finds me so interesting?

"Is that the brand you always use?" he says. "Crest?"

I nod. My teeth, as we've observed aloud, match his in shape and colour.

"Did you ever wear a brace?" he asks.

"No," I say. He nods.

I'm as captivated by him. I've never really known who my father was, and revelation is inherently seductive. There is, too, the fascination of our likeness, that we resemble each other in ways that transcend physical similarities.

"You walk like your father," my mother used to say to me when I was younger. "As soon as you stood up and put one foot in front of the other, I could see it."

"What do you mean?" I'd say. "How?"

"I can't explain it," she'd say. And she wouldn't try.

What she said was spoken wistfully sometimes, but mostly it wasn't a compliment. So much of what my mother and her mother seem to regard in me as alien - my bookishness, for example, or my killjoy disinterest in fashion and in what they consider the fun of manicures and facials and going out for high tea in a tea shop - has always been blamed on the other, rogue half of my genes. What a surprise to find that this judgement, which previously struck me as facile, turns out to be correct. In my father I meet someone not only familial but familiar: like myself. Now, my stubborn streak, my wilful, marching walk, and the way I frown when I'm thinking - all such traits are not evidence of my separateness but of my belonging.

One afternoon, when we've returned from a gallery, I fall asleep while sitting next to my father on the couch. I topple into his lap, and my head lands like a baby's in the crook of his elbow. When I wake up, whole hours later, I start like an infant, arms jerking in alarm. "I'm sorry!" I say. "I was so tired."

"Oh, no!" my father says. "Please don't apologise! I'm not sorry at all." He looks at me with his hungry eyes. "My arm went to sleep," he says. "I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn't dare move. If it was up to me, I would have sat holding you forever, I would never have woken you.

"They didn't let me hold you," he says. "Not at all. I don't remember that they ever let me. They had you on a schedule. It was sacrosanct, it was absolute. They tolerated no exceptions. They fed you, they changed you, they put you down. If you cried, no one was allowed to pick you up."

By they he means the baby nurse, my mother and grandmother. "They didn't even let me say goodbye," he says. He puts his hand under my chin and turns my face towards his.

My mother is watching him. At one point she opens her mouth as if to say something, but then closes it. As my father talks, tears seep into the crows' feet at the corners of his eyes. They don't fall so much as spread into a glittering web over his face, following the fine lines made by the sun, by laughter, by sorrow. I've never seen a man cry before.

My father's eyes: what is it about them? Their colour is utterly familiar - the same as mine, the same as my mother's - but they burn like no other eyes I've ever seen before or since. Burn like a prophet's, a mad-man's, a lover's. Always shining, always bloodshot, always turned on me with absolute attention. Intelligent eyes, enraptured eyes, luminous, stricken, brilliant, spellbound, spellbinding eyes.

I don't know it yet, not consciously, but I feel it. My father, holding himself so still and staring at me, has somehow begun to see me into being. His look gives me to myself, his gaze reflects the life my mother's wilfully shut eyes denied. Looking at him looking at me, I cannot help but fall painfully, precipitously in love. And my loving him is inseparable from a piercing sense of loss. Whenever I am alone - in my bedroom, the bathroom - I find myself crying, sometimes even sinking to my knees. How am I to endure this new despair? How can it be that I am 20 years old, that I've had to grow up without a father, only to meet him now when it's too late, when a childhood is over, lost?

On the last night my father spends with us, I wake after only two hours of sleep. I sit up in bed and find my wristwatch on the nightstand. It's 10 minutes before three. My throat is sore as if I'm catching a cold, and I go downstairs for a glass of orange juice. I move quietly so as not to disturb my father sleeping in the den. The thick carpet on the stair treads absorbs my footfalls. As I pass the den's open door, I see that the convertible sofa is empty, my father is not in it. I turn on the lights in the living room just to make sure he's not sleeping on that couch, but already I know where he is: in my mother's bed.

I sit on the carpeted stairs to consider this, their cheating on his current wife and my mother's banished, trusting partner. Do my parents perhaps consider their bond so primary that it is absolute, ungovernable by the dictates that guide more pedestrian relationships? Maybe they believe that they are being faithful only when they're sleeping together, and that other loves are the betrayal. Alone, outside my mother's closed bedroom door, I feel jealous. And, like all children, I discover that I'm squeamish at the thought of my mother and father having intercourse. I'm both fascinated and repelled.

When I turn on the light in the kitchen, I find a cockroach on the counter; rather than kill it, I gingerly and at arm's length place a water glass upside down over the insect - leaving the problem for my mother to resolve in the morning. I dislike insects, and cockroaches in particular have always frightened me.

As I drink the juice, I see the roach circle inside the glass, rising occasionally on its hind legs to touch the clear, smooth, obstructing surface with its forefeet and sensitive antennae. I watch how it must relentlessly search for the seam, the tiny ridge or rill in the glass that might offer some hope of climbing, penetrating, escaping. But there is nothing about the glass that it understands.

The next day, while my mother is taking a shower, my father talks about what happened the previous night. "I heard you," he says. "I heard you go downstairs." He leans forward over the breakfast table. "I did it because I had to," he says. "She asked me." I say nothing, but we both know that I know what he's talking about.

He describes their making love not as sacred, the way I've imagined it, but as an act of charitable reassurance. He answers a question I never voice. "I didn't do it because I wanted to," he says. Humiliated on behalf of my mother, and shocked that he would betray her this way, I look not at him but at my plate.

When it's time to take my father to the airport, my mother says she cannot go. She has a headache. She is flattened by discouragement. This visit, like all the others, has convinced her that she's wasted years on the wrong men, the wrong life. "You drive him," she says. "He seems more interested in your company than in mine, anyway."

I'm sitting in the rocking chair in her bedroom and she is on the bed, her face in her hands. Looking at her, I can't think of any words that might reach across the divide between us. "All right," I say at last, and I kiss her on her cheek under her closed eyes. "I'll go. You stay."

When I tell my father she's not coming, he smiles. "Oh good," he says. "I'm glad to have you to myself for a little while." He picks up his bags.

"Maybe you should go up and say good-bye," I say, surprised by his callousness, the way he doesn't seem to consider her feelings when she is slain by as little as a glance from him.

In the terminal, he puts down the camera case to embrace me with both arms. "I love you," he says. "God, I love you. I lost you, but now I have you back, and I'll never let you go again." He says the words and he holds me tightly. How solid he is, how real. Father. My father. The word made flesh.

"You don't know how I suffered when they sent me away," he says. "You can't imagine the pain of losing you."

He takes my face in his hands, and kisses my forehead, my eyes. "How can a daughter of mine be this beautiful?" he murmurs. "When I look at you, I wonder if I, too, must not be handsome."

My father knows he is a good-looking man. He's overweight, and I have to stretch to get my arms around him, but his features - a strong jaw, high cheekbones and a long nose - are good enough to excuse the excess. I smile, but I don't return to him the compliment I suspect he's trying to prompt.

We look at each other. We search each other's faces. "What happens now?" I say, and we make promises that we'll be together again soon.

"In the summer, maybe," I say.

"No," he says. "Sooner. Sooner."

With his hand under my chin, my father draws my face toward his own. He touches his lips to mine. I stiffen.

I've seen it before: fathers kissing their daughters on the mouth. A friend of mine's father has kissed her this way for years, and I've watched them, unable to look away, disquieted by what I see. In my family, lip- to-lip kisses between parent and child are considered as vulgar as spitting in public or not washing your hands after using the toilet, all of which failures my grandmother would judge as evidence of poor upbringing. She might excuse such kisses from a person raised in an exotic, backward culture, but never from a decent American.

A voice over the public-address system announces the final boarding call for my father's flight. As I pull away, feeling the resistance of his hand behind my head, how tightly he holds me to him, the kiss changes. It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss.

My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn. He picks up his camera case, and, smiling brightly, he joins the end of the line of passengers disappearing into the airplane.

How long do I stand there, my hand to my mouth, people washing around me? The plane has taxied away from the gate before I move. Through the terminal's thick wall of glass, I watch it take off, the thrust that lifts its heavy, shining belly into the clouds.

I am frightened by the kiss. I know it is wrong, and its wrongness is what lets me know, too, that it is a secret

Kathryn Harrison 1997. `The Kiss, A Secret Life' is published by Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99. To order a copy, free of postage and packing, call Book Services By Post (01624 675137)