LATELY I’VE BEEN starting my stand-up sets with a bit that’s supposed to be “my new catchphrase” that’s going to “shoot me straight to the top!” I put one hand on my hip, strike a pose, and sunnily say to the audience, “Where’s my dad?” The laughs are always mixed with sadness for the audience, which I like. It’s uncomfortable. It’s intimate. It’s real. It’s me.
The truth is, as of last year, I finally know where my dad is, even though I have never met him. He lives in Düsseldorf, Germany, with his new family. They’re not new to him, but their existence is so astounding to me that they will forever be his new family. My family is defined by his absence, my mother and I hugging in photographs where there’s a little too much room around us, where someone else should be flanking me in my blue high school graduation cap and gown, but isn’t. His new family is defined by his presence, big, fleshy, and secure. Knowing where my father is has brought me less peace than I’d hoped.
Who my father is, used to occupy most of my imagination. The world was so big and so full of potential dads! The first candidate was my favorite contestant on a popular trivia game show in the USSR called What? Where? When? The show had a very classy casino setup, and featured smart people dressed up in tuxes and dresses answering questions sent in by the television audience. The show featured the same regional teams and players, so you got to know and love them the way you do with your favorite basketball team. I seized upon a bespectacled intellectual named Alexander who looked a lot like me — curly brown hair, glasses, prominent nose. Alexander is my father’s name! was all I could think when he was on screen, bursting with pride when he answered a question correctly. I also understood why my mom never brought him up — his fame was probably why they broke up in the first place. How hard for her that he’s doing so great! I thought, as I snuck looks at my mom during the broadcasts, admiring her quiet fortitude. When it became clear that her quiet fortitude in the face of heartbreak was just indifference to a man she had never met, I had to move on to another dad candidate.
When I was about seven, my mother and I met a fun couple at the beach whom we very quickly befriended. They would go picnicking with us in the park, play tennis with my mom, listen to music at our apartment, and go on amusement park rides with me. We loved them as a couple. But secretly I wished she would maybe die. Because the man was very tall and strong and wiry, with gray on his temples and his chest hair, and he let me ride on his shoulders, which I never got to do with my mom, and he bought me honeycombs and even killed a bee that threatened me with his bare hand. He made a joke about how we looked like beached sea lions once, and at that point in my life it was literally the funniest thing I had ever heard. I repeated it to myself constantly after that, laughing at his quick — not to mention exquisite — wit. His name was Valera, which I knew was a fake name he took when he broke up with my mom so he could start his life over with this new lady, Lyudmila. I had to admire my mother’s poise and fortitude once more — here she was again, hanging out with my father and his new woman and acting like it was no big deal. I finally gave up the ghost when our friends moved, without much fanfare, and my mother, when I reminded her of the sea lion joke, looked at me like I was out of my mind. Either the joke wasn’t as good as I thought (impossible), or Valera really was just a friend.
The next dad I considered was somewhat of a reach, but I couldn’t resist the siren call of his velvet voice. I was 11, and we had just moved to Los Angeles from Ukraine. I saw him in a commercial, and thought to myself — okay, he would’ve had to move here a long time ago to be this fluent in English, and also to start his incredibly successful company like ASAP, but you know what? This is exactly why people move to America! Anything is possible here! Even a Russian man named Alexander who fathered a daughter, left her, moved to America, changed his name to George Zimmer, and started an unbelievably successful company called the Men’s Wearhouse! It could happen.
George Zimmer was the last “serious” dad I considered. My Hail Mary pass was a beautiful black man with a cane and fedora who used to visit our next-door neighbor — I knew the chances that my dad was black were slim to none, for various reasons, not limited to the fact that there were zero black people in the Ukraine. But it was my last desperate dad dream.
Giving up on finding out who my father was, I started looking for where he was. My senior year in high school, I somehow found his email address, but when I brought it up to my mom she got really upset. I decided to wait. I was also really scared. I knew nothing about him, and the sheer amount of information I would learn was daunting. When I tried to find the email address again a year later, it was gone. I was done looking, until last year, when I found his Facebook page. I devoured the profile photos, searching his face with the hunger of all of the Sofiyas that live inside me: the little one who hated Father’s Day, the older one who hated him, and the adult who has covered over the empty spot in her family with friends and cats and plants and stand-up.
He didn’t look like any of the dads I had imagined. His head, huge and with just enough hair to escape the label “bald,” holds the bluish-green eyes I inherited behind wire-rimmed glasses. His doughy face sits atop a towering body without elegance or athleticism. He is wearing fleece, which I find less forgivable than abandoning me. His face betrays no charm, no humor, nothing to latch onto. There is no light of recognition, no comfort in the familiar curl of his hair, no pleasure at the synchronicity of our features. The fire that spread through my whole body when I clicked on his face is replaced by a dull ache. He is no one to me.
His “new” family looks sturdy and blond around his mountainous body — based on their Facebook photos they seem to love the outdoors, conquering said outdoors, and maybe the Aryan race. Okay, the last part is just bitterness, but they are exceedingly and annoyingly blond, like a bunch of Joffrey Lannisters. The fact that they have been spared my father’s fleshy nose orb, which I have not been lucky enough to escape genetically, seems especially unfair. My half-brothers look sweet, and their eyes, green like mine, are empty of questions, of the burdens of looking, always looking, peering into the faces of strangers. Their eyes, green like mine, betray no storms, no darkness, no desperation to be loved.
Their eyes, green as grass, are not like mine at all. I look and look for a way in — maybe the delicate crookedness of the younger boy’s smile, maybe that’s where we’re the same — maybe there hides his soft spot, his lovelessness, his loneliness. But all I see is his mother’s blonde hair, and the comfortable way he leans on my dad. His dad. Who technically looks like me, but doesn’t, because the shared intimate language of his children’s gestures and millions of other unseen things has made them look alike, like dogs and their owners. But my face, my face that looks like his, has been growing away from him my entire life. My half-brothers, leaning into him like young birch trees, their faces full of light, will never see a reflection of themselves in my eyes. I am on the other side of the looking glass, where only children grow up helping their single mothers get off welfare, and make up stories about velvet-voiced men on TV, and practice, with one hand on the hip, their catchphrase, “Where’s my dad?”