I was twenty-five the year I found out about my father. I’d been living in Seattle since graduating college three years earlier, trying to make it as a writer and working as a substitute teacher and babysitter to pay the bills. Even then I was barely making enough to pay my rent. It was a week before the fourth of July when I remember sitting in traffic one night and wondering what exactly I was doing with my life. I’d needed something steady for a while, and I was seriously considering applying to the Burger King down the street. I supposed I thought I’d be past this by now. I’d wanted to make it down to LA to spend the holidays with Mom but it didn’t look like that was going to happen.
It was pushing nine by the time I got back to my apartment so I ordered Chinese takeout and opened a bottle of wine. I’d just made it back in time for Seinfeld, so I changed into my pajamas and tried my best to decompress. I was booked to sub the next day in seventh grade English, so I knew I was going to need my strength. The episode was just starting when the phone rang.
“Amy?” It was Mom.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you okay?” She usually didn’t call after eight.
“I’m fine,” she replied. “What are you doing?”
“Um, just about to watch Seinfeld.”
She seemed nervous as she continued. “Are you going to come down for the fourth?”
“I don’t think so, Mom,” I said. “I don’t have that kind of money right now.”
“Well, I’ll pay for your flight,” she said.
I paused. I didn’t think she had that kind of money. But Mom had never been responsible with it, which led to us getting in all kinds of trouble when I was growing up. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I want to see you too but maybe soon.”
“This is important to me,” she said. “Let me know when you’re not working and I’ll book it tomorrow.”
“Sure.” I supposed that if she wanted to do this there was nothing I could do to stop her. Besides, I supposed it would be nice to get out of Seattle for a few days.
I ended up flying in on the 2nd. I was staying through the 8th, almost an entire week. When Mom picked me up from the airport that afternoon, I was very surprised but pleased to see Tara and her mother Debbie in the back seat.
“Hey!” I said. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Surprised?” said Mom.
I smiled in response. Tara was a year younger than me and all I knew then was that our Moms had been friends in the early 70s, when they were young. They lived in the Midwest so we only saw each other so often, but we’d known each other since we were kids. Tara was very quiet and shy but nice, as was her mom, Debbie. We were often told we looked a lot alike. We both had the same blue eyes and face shape, only Tara’s hair was dark and her skin tan and I’d inherited my Mother’s pale skin, freckles and red hair.
“Your Mom said you were coming down for a few days,” Debbie said. “And it just lined up with when Tara was off of work.”
“What are you doing nowadays?” I asked Tara.
“I work in the archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” she said. “In Cleveland.”
That was not what I expected, but it sounded way cooler than what I was doing. “That’s awesome,” I responded.
She smiled shyly. “It’s tedious, but I did shake’s Paul McCartney’s hand last year.”
Yes, way cooler than substitute teaching.
“We thought we’d take you girls out for lunch or something,” Mom said.
We agreed and ended up stopping at a pizza parlor in Culver City. When the server came around they ordered a bottle of expensive red wine for the table. Then asked us if we wanted an appetizer. We agreed, but at some point Tara and I exchanged a look. Neither was acting like their normal selves.
It was when our pizza arrived that Mom squeezed the side of the table with her hand and then looked up at us.
“Listen,” Mom began. “We wanted to talk to you girls. And we wanted to do it in person.”
Both of us were silent. I don’t think either of us had any idea what was coming, only that it was serious.
“Does the name Jay Whitman mean anything to either of you?” Debbie asked.
All I knew was that he was a leader of a weird hippie cult in Denver and that several in the group had ultimately been responsible for five murders. But I didn’t know anything beyond that, other than a mugshot I’d seen once where he looked really scary. I told them this. Tara nodded in agreement with me.
“The twenty-fifth anniversary of those murders is coming up on the sixth,” Debbie continued. “And the press is probably going to be contacting the both of us soon.”
“Why would they contact you?” Tara asked.
“Because,” Mom said slowly. “We were a part of his cult. And, um, the two of you are sisters.”
I couldn’t speak for Tara, but in that moment I went numb, realizing what she was implying even though she hadn’t said it yet. “Jay Whitman is your father.”
I said nothing. The world around me felt as though it didn’t exist.
“We wanted to tell you so many times,” said Mom. “We just didn’t know how. But, like we said, we wanted you to know it from us.”
I tried to take a bite of my pizza, and even though it smelled amazing it was impossible for me to think of stomaching food.
“Do you have any questions for us?” Debbie said.
I was a million miles away. There were a lot of memories, some recent and some from long ago, that were replaying in my mind now. Things that didn’t add up at the time but suddenly made sense. About how Mom always dodged the subject whenever I brought up my dad and how all she ever said once I got older was that he wasn’t the person she thought he was and she had been young and stupid. That he was a bad person and that he was never going to be in my life. How once when I was ten reporters showed up at our house asking for Mom, and how later she’d never told me what it was about only that I was never to open the door to strangers.
“How long?” Tara asked. “How long were you a part of it?” It was a good question, I thought. Maybe they hadn’t been into it like the others.
“Two years,” Debbie said.
“For me it was a year and a half,” said Mom.
“So you knew Alex Altman?” Tara asked. I didn’t know who that was, but clearly Tara was more knowledgeable than I was.
Mom and Debbie exchanged a look. “Yes we did,” Mom said. They didn’t elaborate on this any further.
I tried to think of something, anything to say, but there seemed to be a giant lump in my throat.
“Were we ever there? As babies?” Continued Tara. I knew what she was thinking, what she wanted to ask but didn’t, so I did.
“Did he ever meet us?”
“No,” said Debbie. “That’s one thing we can be thankful for.”
I wondered how the press hadn’t found out about us before. I asked and they said they always refused to answer questions about us whenever they came up. “We wanted you to have normal lives. But now that you’re both adults, we didn’t feel we could keep it from you anymore.”
Neither of us said anything. Then, Mom continued. “What we want you to understand is that he has nothing to do with the type of people you are. You have the power to make something of your lives. Separate from him.”
If anything, I was most upset that this secret had been kept from me. That I’d known Tara since were kids and they’d never once mentioned that we were sisters. The world was numb still, and I ended up forcing a bite of pizza down my throat.