smelled like 1986 to me. I hadn't been inside a baseball stadium in ages, but the memories of my father and I frequenting Braves games in my childhood came flooding back that afternoon when I entered Turner Field
I was now 23, living four hours away from my father, and I was only managing to see him once or twice a year. So when he asked me to meet up with him at the game that day I figured I should make the hour-and-a-half drive into the city. My father, however, was not alone. He wanted me to come to the game so I could finally meet his new wife and his three new step-children.
I'd been standing near the main entrance to the stadium maybe 10 minutes when I heard my father's voice behind me.
"I'm so glad you were able to make it," he said as we hugged. He gave a chuckle as he spoke and I noticed he'd gotten some sun.
He led me to our seats, where apparently a flock of impressively loud little leaguers were also seated. I quickly learned they were the teammates of Cindy's 9-year-old boy James. I couldn't keep from grimacing at the sight of so many nacho-stained faces surrounding us, but it was because they further distanced me from my father-daughter bonding memory. And, at that time in my life I had yet to really enjoy the company of kids much.
"Jenny!!! Leave the poor boy alone and get over here! You finally get to meet Holly!"
The piercing command came from Cindy, Step-mom #3, just after my father introduced us. Jenny was her boisterous blonde 7-year-old, who promptly stopped punching the arm of one of the little leaguers a few rows down and bounded over to meet me. She gave me a huge hug, then screamed and grabbed for my purse.
"That's such a cute purse! Lemme look in it. Please?"
By the end of the first inning I'd started to wish I hadn't agreed to come to the game. A brief but brutal spitting battle had already taken place between two boys sitting dangerously close by, and being in the line of fire I receieved a bit of spittle of my own. I also hadn't been able to say more than a few words to my father, who's attention was completely taken up by Cindy and kids wanting concessions. Then, at one point, my step-sister shot her fist in the air clenching my new pack of menthols.
"Eeew!!!" she screamed. "You smoke?"
Distracted by the bizarre sight of my father cooing with Cindy, I had failed to notice Jenny's purse-delving discovery in time to prevent it's unwanted introduction to everyone in the vicinity. Mumbling, I snatched the cigarettes back and hurredly shoved them into my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father's head make a sharp turn my way. I kept myself turned from him, talking to Jenny, and hoped he wouldn't say anything. Luckily he didn't.
I wanted to be seven again. An age when rummaging through random people's bags gave a tremendous thrill and innocence kept you from understanding how troublesome it was to shove its contents in the air.
She was younger than wife #2, Cindy was. Maybe 10 years. She was noticeably thinner, and very quickly I was realizing Cindy was much more fun than any woman Dad had been with. Between third and fourth inning the woman sang "Fishheads" with a couple of the boys, made several fairly funny remarks about a left-fielder's oddly tight pants and the player's cocky demeanor, and also started a cutesy popcorn fight with my father. What?
I'd grown pretty quiet in the fourth. Some jaunty ballgame organ music inspired several kids to kick the chairs they sat behind in rhythm, and the oranging dusk ripened to where I could see the scoreboard again without squinting.
Jill, Dad's wife before Cindy, had hair with tips the color of that day's sundown. The burnt orange locks flew wildest against a Texas backdrop. I recalled watching the locks wave about at a gas station in Houston as she smacked me twice across the face for some infraction I fail to remember.
Jill treated my father horribly the last five years of their marriage. In the end she took a hefty some of his money, along with a sizeable chunk of his heart.
She asked, but I hesitated for a moment to share a Diet Coke with Cindy at the start of inning five. But more reason existed for this wariness besides the twinge of jealousy brought about by someone hogging all my father's attention that day.
I did remember this was Cindy's second marraige though- my father had given me a briefing over the phone a few months back on the circumstances of her first divorce- which were tragic. They'd been married for almost 20 years before her husband was in an industrial accident at his job where he lost both of his arms and a leg. The accident made him a wealthy man in terms of money, but his subsiquent alcoholism and frequent rages he started going into led to the couple splitting.
I agreed to share a soda and she grabbed us an extra large. The game went on, Braves up by 3. At one point while everyone else's eyes were on a player going to bat, I examined Cindy's hand as she took the oversized drink from the cupholder for a sip. I scrutinized the tanned claw, it's bony fingers, the fat band of platinum she sported and the new princess cut beside it.
These were not hands I longed to have. Married hands.
I'd seen the acrimony of divorce, the battles over the children, over money. My father was a mild sort of man who had tried like hell to keep his marriages from coming apart. I was aware of how sudden an emotion can change, like that of my mother's when after 10 years of marriage she decided she wanted a divorce because her love for him had gone.
I had a stockpile of images like this. A heap of broken images.
I marveled that my parents ever managed as a couple- they seemed virtually polar opposites. Having inherited their dualing personalities, I often speculated that if I were to marry, I would either end up being a doormat or one who just leaves.
I feared this was an inevitability.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.
Dad was smiling though, I noticed, as he returned to his chair from another food-run for some of the boys. The grin seemed almost unnatural on his face- so rare I'd seen him like this before. I smiled then as well. How great it was to see Dad so happy.
Both he and sat Cindy grinning, tanned and in love, laughing once again at the outfielder with his pants painted on.
I became more convivial. I started to enjoy the game more towards the end of it, and did finally catch up on things with my father. I talked about boys with Jenny some, how gross they were and mean. Her precociousness impressed and amused me. At one point though I noticed she'd disappeared from my side. I scanned the rows, wondering if she might be punching another boy in the arm.
Four rows ahead I saw that she was sitting beside her paraplegic father- he was the man who'd generously taken care of the entire little league team's trip from Alabama to Atlanta that day. His head was turned towards his daughter, the two steel arms that jutting out from his shoulders facing foward. I realized Jenny was helping him eat his french fries.
She was feeding them to the handicapped man, one by one into his mouth carefully, doing it a sweet little smile.
I blinked. Kept silent while gazing at the two of them. Eventually I looked up at the darkening firmament and the hazy glow of lights encircling it, thinking about how selfish and cowardly I was.
I watched her feed him the rest of his fries and then a hot dog, which I figured was probably his dinner.
I felt both tremendous pity and appreciation for people right then; for our condition.
There was atrocity and there was love. So much must be lost without connecting to others. So much time wasted. It ran long, this little life with dried tubers. No one wanted to go it alone.
At Braves 8 and Phillies 6, I was happy with my new family, so happy to have Jenny as my step-sister, looking into the heart of light.