It seems like a good idea, teaching your daughter to do chin-ups on the subway while she's still in diapers.  You know the thought would never have entered your brain if you'd been born a little earlier - become the beaming father of a little girl, say, 25 years back.  But this is modern America, and so you hoist her up by her miniature haunches and keep your hands squarely underneath her as you watch her strain, giggling, to touch that preciously dimpled chin to the handrail: once, twice, then three times! Amazing.  Your friends stare and laugh a little, shaking their heads at this odd manifestation of your parenting skills, but they don't have their own kids, haven't haunted the halls outside the delivery room until the nurses (who are used to making these kinds of jokes) say you're going to wear a hole in the floor with your pacing and would you please take a load off in the waiting room for just five minutes?  So its natural they wouldn't quite yet understand.

Maybe it's because you expected her to be a boy, a squirmy infant body you could dress in blue or in terrycloth onesies with appliqués of basketballs and baseball gloves sewn on.  As your wifes stomach began to balloon out toward infinity, started demanding pickles and hamburgers with Thousand Island dressing and fries with mayonnaise at four a.m., you saw visions of fishing rods, shaving kits and maybe someday an old hotrod whose engine you and he could disassemble and reassemble together like something out of an old movie you'd never been interested in watching before.  And in truth, you didn't really adjust your frame of mind when she emerged a fragile tiny thing, a red-wrinkled, screaming little girl-child that your wife would have the Father christen Jennie, hoping someday she'd croon her way out of the Bronx and into a life of celebrity and security and endorsement deals.

Or maybe it's because you've seen what happens to little girls who never learn to pull themselves up, who tumble into the barren borderlands between desire and guilt and a little respect for god-fucking-sakes, who end their nights not knowing where to put themselves, their bodies always feeling a little like they belong to somebody else.  Maybe you want her to love the vicious crack of her knuckles across the face of the boyfriend who gets a little rough after a long night of knocking back beer after beer, not to flinch terrified at the sound of the bottles splintering against the kitchen wall.  To remember that glass breaks just as jagged over his head as it does hers, that the real shame would be if she turned the other cheek to his swirling maelstrom of self-righteous rage.

Because making her a good Catholic might mean making her your mother in confession thanking God for what the priest could never see, the way both brown eyes would be ringed in swollen plum as she remembered her sins and omitted his.  It might mean making her just another woman cowering on the linoleum, beating it with her breasts.  (You watched the bruises change and fade and reappear, still see them now whenever you wake to hear a siren's whine hurtling through a sticky night that has you turning restless beside your sleeping wife, the sheets cold with sweat on your side of the bed.)

So you teach her to do chin-ups on the subway while your friends look on, and instead of getting tired she laughs and laughs and says "again" until it's you who can't move your arms anymore, rippled as your muscles are, you're so tired from holding her up.  Sometimes she'll sink back down before she reaches the bar and you'll ask her teasingly what happened, why she surrendered without a fight, because obviously she could have done it if she had tried.  It's in these moments that she'll start to know the vast expanse of your belief in her.  But later, she'll see this also means that she doesn't have the room to screw it all up: can't risk  getting fired or pregnant or kicked out of school, can't date the wrong guy - especially  can't date the wrong guy, Tito, the one with the fast car and the scruffy jaw-line and the cologne that smells to you like a nightclub at the crack of dawn, half sweat and half sex, who you won't even let in the door of your house when he drops by to try to pick her up.

And when she tells you she's lost her scholarship to UCLA because they found the needles in her locker, found the telltale little vials of yellow liquid and remembered how much faster she'd started sprinting and put two and two together, you'll wonder why you ever let her leave the state. She'll fly back home and get a job that you think is nothing special, start inviting Tito round to take her out to dinner and a movie, and they'll talk about getting married even though you tell her every day that she's too young. You'll start chain-smoking again, going through pack after pack in a way you haven't  done since you were her age, and they'll pile up in the wastebasket where you'll stare at them muttering about the heart attack she almost gave you out there in California.  You'll spend a lot of time wondering where you might have gone wrong, let your mind meander the paths you took and the ones you didn't, hoping to stumble your way across an answer.  You'll come up short every time.
Because all you ever wanted with the chin-ups and the races and in all the other moments where you pushed and pushed her was a chance for her to outpace the old legacy, your mother's and yours, in a burst of gorgeous brilliance.

Suzanne Marie Hopcroft is a graduate student in Comparative Literature and spends the bulk of her days reading and writing about twentieth-century narrative in a decaying pudding factory across the water from New York City. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Camroc Press Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, and BluePrintReview.

Riding the train back home from the city one day in June, I found myself sitting next to a visibly invested young father who was doing exactly this: teaching his infant daughter to do chin-ups on the subway.  I found my imagination captured by the laughter shared between the two of them and felt myself compelled to write out the experiences that might have preceded the scene.  Having begun the piece as a letter from an elder daughter, I eventually found that allowing the identity of the narrator to remain obscure let me spotlight what I really wanted to evoke--the very complex matrix of emotions of the father as I imagined him.




Copyright 2009