On an ordinary summer night in 1998, my daughter, Kathryn-Kat, we all called her, a fourteen-year-old who still liked to wear her blond hair in pigtails-told me that she was going to the movies with Abby, her best friend, but they never got there. Instead, they hooked up with some of the other counselors from Rockrapids, the outdoor camp where both girls were working that summer, and decided to blow off the movie. It was a hot, dense Washington night, and one of the boys-Jed Vandenberg-invited everybody back to his house. He had a pool. His parents were away. The kids started drinking beer and vodka shooters, and before long some of them had peeled off their clothes and jumped into the pool. They started playing Big Dare, a drinking game. Just before eleven, when Kat was supposed to phone to let me know that she was safe at Abby's house, I got a call from a stranger, a man whose daughter had been at this same party. He told me that Kat-your daughter, he said-had gone into the pool house to perform oral sex on a parade of boys.
I wanted to kill that man. Performed oral sex on a parade of boys. I can still remember his exact words and his exact tone of disgust and judgment. He might as well have said, Your daughter is a slut, and I felt as though I had been shot. I felt a deep, burning fury, a heat and pressure that originated in my chest and made it hard to breathe, hard to speak, hard to see. Even my eyes felt burning and heavy, boiling in their sockets. I felt shocked and furious, and I was standing in my bedroom-naked, as it happened, with Christine extending her hand toward me in sympathy and puzzlement, whispering, "Tucker, Tucker, what is it? What's wrong?" and I brushed her hand away simply because she didn't know what had happened. She couldn't know. She was in her blue-and-white robe, stretched across the bed, fumbling with the remote to mute the sound on the VCR as she reached for me with her other hand, and I cannot forget the hurt, bewildered look that crossed her face when I batted her hand away. She hadn't heard what this man had told me, and even if she had, she couldn't have known that I had already crossed a line dividing one part of my life from another, dividing the past from the part that was to come. I was a single father and this was a moment I had dreaded, the moment when a child of mine slipped out of my safekeeping and walked straight into harm and grief. I'd been unable to protect her-failed to protect her, I thought-and I was ready to do anything, anything, to bring her back. My life was going to change. Had changed already.
That, of course, is how I now remember and interpret that moment, the minute or so-it couldn't have been much more than a minute-that I was on the phone with a stranger, another parent whose words seared into me as an accusation. I have replayed that conversation, that whole night, a thousand times, and I come back again and again to that moment when confusion and dread and rage lifted me from the bed and seemed to be propelling me toward the future.
In these pages I don't want to inflate or exaggerate my emotions, nor to wrap them up in cheesy images (cheesy, one of Kat's favorite words), but there are some images I can't shake. They've just locked in, and by now they seem to be as much a part of my experience as the events themselves. They seem to be the only way that I can understand the journey that began that night. Journey-even that word sounds grandiose, since I am still right here in Washington. But let it stand. This story, my story, is a love story, the story of my fierce, clumsy, painful attempts to connect with my daughter, Kat, and to accept and enter into the soul-shaking mysteries of love between men and women.
So: I write here that when I now think of my reaction to that phone call, I see a rocket rising into space, jets of orange flame lifting it toward the unknown, just as we have all seen innumerable times on TV and in the movies. Cheesy.
Nevertheless, I was the rocket and I was speeding toward places I had never imagined.
ALREADY I have gotten way ahead of myself, and I am going to back up and try to describe what happened on that summer day: Monday, July 13th, 1998. It was hot and sticky, the temperature up in the nineties, the air quality code orange, and my crews-I have a landscape business-were on a summer schedule, working seven to four. After checking the work sites that afternoon, I went home to the Hut, the brown-shingled bungalow in the Palisades where I lived with Kat and Will, my twelve-year-old son. It was Kat who named it the Hut-she was always word savvy-and the name seemed to fit the house with its dark brown shingles, the bungalow huddled in the shade of several huge old oaks and maples. I bought the place when the kids' mother, Trish, and I separated and she moved to New York. Back then it wasn't much more than a hut, but now it's been beefed up like the other houses in the neighborhood, a bungalow on steroids. I poured money into it and extended the back of the house by twenty feet-kitchen, bedrooms-and turned the double-door freestanding garage into a rec room that soon evolved into a music room. It's soundproof, and it had become the headquarters for my ragtag band, the Make Believes, a group of other parents who got together occasionally to pretend that we could still rock. I was the drummer, and even though I hadn't studied music since taking piano lessons as a kid, I'd played in bands in high school and college, and music has always been an escape and release. I have more skill than talent, but I can pick out a tune on the piano and my voice is a junior varsity baritone. When I soundproofed the garage, Will and Kat were still youngsters and I had the fantasy that we'd make music together, a trio, a tight little family combo.
But neither of the kids was really into music, and that summer Kat's thing was rock climbing. She'd been thrilled to get hired as a junior counselor at Rockrapids, the camp she'd attended since the age of eleven and where she'd discovered her talent for climbing. Several times I'd gone to watch her, and often to belay her, when she scampered up and down the cliffs at Carderock and in the Potomac Gorge, where the sheer rock faces drop straight into the river. God, she was fearless. I don't like heights, and it made my stomach churn to watch her hanging by her fingertips, grinning down at me, beaming and proud, all but crowing. Heights, she told me once-she must have been all of twelve-gave her a rush. Like any father, I was astonished and awed by this child who'd found a passion of her own, this girl who was discovering a skill and strength and daring I'd never suspected. By that summer, the summer of 1998, she'd reached her full height-five eight-and while she still had the slenderness of youth, she was lithe and limber and deceptively strong. The muscles in her forearms leaped and twitched when she made a fist, and her hands were grainy as sandpaper from all that scrabbling on the rocks. "Climber's hands," I'd tell her. "At least they're good for something," she'd say. Kat had always been self-conscious about her broad, bony, big-knuckled hands, which she inherited from me. For years Kat had been determined to beat me at thumb wrestling, and whenever our big hands touched, our fingers hooked together by sheer force of habit and I'd feel her thumb reaching for mine, trying to pin it. One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war. Sometimes, if she'd drifted away-and more and more she did drift away, hiding behind a sweet, dreamy smile-I'd grab her hand to pull her back, to start a thumb war, to connect with her, to see the gleam in her dark eyes. They're brown but look deep and tawny, like chunks of amber with old fossil fires still flickering in them.
That night, when Kat got home after the long bus ride, she was in a hurry. The bus was late, as usual. Part of her