Short Story: The Golden State

Casey Dexter
19 min readOct 27, 2023

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The Golden State

I

Charlie and I never had friends over.

With our dad it was just too… risky. It probably would’ve been okay if there was just a door slam or a shout of “dammit!” once or even twice. But the chance that an outburst would be that small was… small.

I guess it depends on what you’d categorize as small, though. To me, a door hitting its frame so hard the entire house shook and shuddered was small. To me, a glass of water thrown in my direction, or drops of spit spewing from yelling lips and landing onto my cheek was small. An entire roast beef pushed out the kitchen window just before dinner because I said the “wrong” thing, that was…medium.

So largely, Charlie and I didn’t have friends over throughout our childhood. There was just no way of predicting what’d they see.

And there was no way we’d risk our friends, who thought we were composed and affable and genial (because we were), thinking any differently about us.

To our friends, we were Charlie and Louise, the blonde-haired, green-eyed, well-mannered siblings. There’s also Ethan, my oldest brother, equally green-eyed but seldom around, especially when Dad got bad. Dad’s condition, I should say. It was hard to separate the two. Ethan was at UPenn by the height of everything, so even though he wasn’t far, a lot fell onto me and Charlie. It’s probably why Charlie and I were so close despite him being two grades older than me. We bonded by sharing a lot of the same stress and consequences.

Let’s just say, though, for the sake of fairness, that Dad wasn’t always in a bad mood, because he was happy a lot, too. And that was the best. Then, maybe a neighbor or one of my mom’s friends would walk by and wave to my dad while he was gardening out front. And they’d strike up a conversation and it wouldn’t be long before I could hear raucous laughter floating up to my bedroom (usually while I tried to do math homework or write my English papers). Because when my dad was good, he was really good, and charming, and witty, and jovial, and the best storyteller, truly. He was adept at doing accents and little side characters and would form these grand sweeping gestures at the right climatic points. Most people who knew him really liked him. Loved him. I loved him, still do. But then things would just… change.

The stories could go on for too long.
And the chuckles would subside or sound hollow.

Because the high of the spotlight, the thrill of the attention, the allure of getting a laugh wasn’t enough. In mania, it couldn’t be. Satiation was never reached.

My dad could stretch a five-minute story into thirty minutes. He could regurgitate an entire sports documentary or interview from the news. He had a knack for remembering every single detail about the Mets new pitcher or so-and-so’s new book or the latest democratic candidate’s email chains. And if you were his victim (AKA you were too polite to interrupt), you’d be forced to listen, a spectator to a play in which you hadn’t purchased a ticket. I used to get so embarrassed when I was in elementary school, and he did this to my friends’ dads after soccer games or outside Aldi. I’d tug on his arm and say “Dad, I have to pee,” just to get us to leave.

When I was thirteen, I caught the eye of my friend Charlotte’s dad (Mr. Haven) in the baking aisle and gave him a look as if to say, “I know, sorry,” and instantly regretted it. My dad can be a lot, but he’s still my dad. That day I had crossed a line which I had not quite fully grasped before then, but now understood. This was why we didn’t have friends over.

~

Charlie was seventeen, a junior in high school when he read about it in his AP Psychology textbook under “Mood Disorders.” I remember seeing him cry as he showed the textbook pages to my mom in the safety of his room late one night while Dad was downstairs watching some game.

Mom had simply nodded.

This was before social media, before therapists were a video call away and self-help could be found online. We didn’t talk about these things.

She didn’t make us “promise” not to tell Dad or anything like that. It was just something we all kept to ourselves. Mostly out of embarrassment, I think. We all felt it differently.

I think Charlie was embarrassed because it was something he had stumbled across rather than hunted down, and he felt shame in revealing a “flaw” in his father.

Mom was embarrassed because she’d been married to my dad for twenty years and hadn’t once tried to investigate her husband’s behavior. “He’s just moody,” she’d say, pushing her glasses higher up her nose before pulling out a box of cereal. “Maybe you shouldn’t have asked how long until dinner.”

It was Charlie who’d first diagnosed him.

To this day Dad doesn’t know that.

Deep down though, my mom probably did know what was going on but couldn’t muster the strength on top of working and motherhood and being the primary breadwinner (Dad couldn’t keep a job for very long) to really handle it. I don’t blame her. Honestly, I don’t.

I know I was embarrassed because I selfishly thought about myself first. I wanted to know if there was a chance I could be like him. If genetics could pass on what he had. That was the first thing I googled.

~

It wasn’t until I left for college that Dad saw a doctor. I think Mom, after being granted the serenity of an empty house, saw just how poorly Dad was doing. When it was the two of them left at the dinner table, it was impossible to ignore what she had once deemed his “quirks.”

He finally got a diagnosis. A treatment plan. Medicine that wasn’t just “going for a walk” or “sitting quietly.”

Things got better after that. Or so I was told. Because now, at twenty-nine, I don’t really know the version of my dad that is “better.” I never lived at home again after my freshman year at UCLA.

I picked the furthest college from home that I could without leaving the country. Not on purpose, necessarily, but certainly as a defense mechanism. I had watched Charlie do the same and saw a lightness to him his first Christmas break. His face had changed. It was tanner, sure, but also less pinched. His brows weren’t furrowed, his lips were relaxed, free from the tight line they’d often form from pressing against each other so tightly. His eyes somehow looked bigger, brighter, the deep jade glowing against his radiant complexion. It was like his own body had given him permission to take up space. He needn’t shrink away anymore.

Charlie said he’d noticed that same change in me. I think it’s why we’ve both stayed in California.

But that means we missed, and still are missing, out on “Good Dad” in Pennsylvania.

There are phones calls and Thanksgivings and Ethan’s wedding and all of that, but they are just glimpses.

Even though Mom swears it doesn’t happen much anymore, I am still on edge during Christmas breakfast. Sitting in the same wooden chair from childhood, expecting the newspaper to be torn in two, wishing I was back in LA so I could take full, deep breaths again. And even if the moment never happened, even if we are laughing over eggs and smiling over toast, I still wouldn’t be able to relax. I have seen too much.

I find it all quite hard to comprehend to be honest, even knowing what I know now.

There is the version of my dad I see today, intermittently, that is distantly familiar but I’m hesitant to believe. And then there is version that I know very well, that lives in my head and activates when I hear someone yell or swear or talk over me and I am suddenly transformed into my childhood self, quietly retreating inwards, thinking about how I can diffuse.

I very badly want to believe my dad is the dad my mom says he is now. I very badly want to make up for lost time. To build what we never had. I want us to be friends.

I want him to ask about my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, and even remember their names. I want him to know what I do for work, not just the title, but what I really do. I want him to understand why I love LA, what I do for fun, what it is that my best friends like about me.

There’s a very childish part of me that still wants him to know my favorite color and my favorite flavor of ice cream. I want him to recognize when I get haircuts and when I’ve gotten taller. I want my dad to call me just to talk and ask about my day — and have a two-way discussion.

My mom hands him the phone from time to time, but I haven’t let the conversation go on for more than a few minutes. I’m afraid it will turn into another monologue, or worse, he’ll actually ask me any of the things I’ve always wanted him to ask, and I’ll freeze because I’m too afraid to let him in.

I know part of me is at fault. But I want that to change.

It makes my mind very scrambled when I try to hold all my feelings together about my dad. There are so many incongruencies, opposing forces. How he can be so one thing and yet also it’s opposite. Its polar opposite. I, myself, split in two when I try to understand, because I love him and push him away just the same.

II

I loved Noah in a way that I loved Charlie and Ethan and even my dad.

I loved him the way I loved all the men in my life. Even though they were flawed. Even though they made me feel mad and sad and anxious and hate myself at times. I gathered, though, that that was love.

That I should feel uncomfortable and itchy and only exhale when I’ve gotten them to smile or laugh or affectionately pat my leg.

Noah had dark hair and dark eyes and was tall and wiry and so opposite to everyone in my family in looks that I believed his actions had to be opposite, too. That there was no way he could be like any of them.

And in many ways, he wasn’t.

He was a great listener. Oftentimes, if I was telling a particularly good story, usually one involving one of my shifts at the hospital, he would stop me, and have me start from the very beginning again, just so he could really take it all in. He’d stare at me with his dark eyes and long eyelashes, and I’d swell with delight, feeling so fulfilled having his mind and gaze all to myself.

He was able to recall names he had heard only once. “Meredith, she’s on the pediatrics floor with you. The one that brought White Claw to work by accident instead of Red Bull?”

He was excellent at observing things. If I picked up a mug at Melrose Trading Post, saying something like, “this is cute,” I’d find it wrapped on my next birthday or promotion or for no good reason at all. He knew how I ordered my coffee with coconut milk, which shirts I hung and which shirts I put in the dryer, the exact amount of early I preferred to be at the airport.

If I saw a dachshund on the street (my favorite), I would look over at him and find his eyes already on mine, waiting for my reaction. I felt like he could read my mind. The way he made me feel seen and whole and worthy felt like a drug. I was obsessed.

About a year into dating, I made up this notion (which I clung to) that no one, not even Charlie, understood me like Noah. Charlie didn’t like this idea very much.

I felt like before Noah, without him, I was some ancient, undiscovered text. That I existed but no one had taken the time to look and see and understand. I reveled in this fantasy. It was exciting. It was thrilling. It was dangerous (I know this now).

I liked thinking of myself as enigmatic and tricky and maybe even a little broken. I admit sometimes I would play it up and act a little extra moody just to test him. “What is it babe, does your neck hurt again?” And he’d start rubbing my shoulders and I’d feel like I’d won a prize.

Noah had a great job in engineering, a circle of a few close friends, and a very orderly apartment in Los Feliz. He was handsome and engaging, and most importantly, he was my archaeologist, my translator. He brought me to life and proved I could be deciphered and accepted.

So when Noah started disappearing for days at a time, not answering my calls, or returning my messages, I allowed it.

~

Charlie was indifferent to Noah. This really upset me because I wish he had just liked him or hated him.

I think Charlie was jealous because I used to spend so much time with him before Noah came around. Charlie’s apartment was a revolving door for the women of LA, so it’s not like he needed my company — he was doing very well in real estate and humbling mastering the city’s social scene — but we were each other’s support. Just like always. I don’t think Heather or Katie or Jasmine were necessarily fulfilling Charlie’s emotional needs. And on a much deeper level, I don’t think he would’ve even let them try.

“I don’t dislike Noah,” Charlie would say. “I just don’t see what you see.”

That hurt because Charlie and I always (still) saw things the same way. We’d listen to Ethan drone on and during Thanksgiving dinner about how amazing Molly (his high-school sweetheart) was at baking sourdough bread (who cared?), and would share a look whenever Ethan asked Charlie why he hadn’t proposed to a girl in LA yet. There were some things my oldest brother never understood about our lives, and marrying the first and only girl he ever dated, plus his choice to never leave Pennsylvania contributed largely to that. I felt like he was born thirty-five years old. I saw Ethan about as much (or as little) as I saw Dad.

~

When Noah would disappear, I felt like I had to hide it from Charlie. It was isolating. But I couldn’t have the two people I cared about most finding reasons to dislike each other even more.

The first time Noah disappeared was eight months into our relationship. We’d just celebrated my twenty-fifth birthday at Bungalow in Santa Monica and were going to end the weekend on a hike in Runyon Canyon.

I waited forty-five minutes for Noah. The door of my small Honda pushed open, my feet tapping anxiously on the concrete, phone gripped tightly in my hand. I had called my hospital to see if they’d taken him in. I was convinced he had gotten into an accident.

And then he came over the next day. Cheery and attentive. Unbothered by my tears and missed calls. “Sorry, I just got really tired,” was all he offered.

And what did I do?

Instead of telling him I didn’t like his silence, instead of telling him I hadn’t slept that night, that I thought he was hurt or dead. Instead of pushing him further or asking for an explanation or telling him how he made me feel: I cooked him dinner. I baked us a cake.

The momentary fear of losing Noah, of thinking that the one person who could read me was gone, terrified me. I was so obsessed I thought that if I lost Noah, I’d lose myself too.

That fear pardoned all his behavior.

Instead of pushing him away, setting a boundary, I pulled him closer. I clung to him and the fucked-up notion I’d created and did all that I could to keep him around.

I baked him a cake for disappearing.

III

On July 3, 2015, Ethan and Molly welcomed their first baby, Jade. She had the trademark green eyes of our family and blonde fuzzy hair. She was, truly, very cute.

I was now on the daytime shift (a big deal) and had been Lead Nurse on my floor for the past few months. Charlie had just sold himself his first house and was dating Lucy or Taylor or Carly.

Upon receiving the news of our first niece, we booked flights to head to Pennsylvania early the following weekend. I booked a ticket for Noah under flexible-fare, having no idea if he’d show up at the airport or not.

My obsession with him had heightened. Every time a text would go unanswered, or my call would go to voicemail, I felt the muscles in my stomach pull, the pit (that seemed to never go away) restrict and sink deeper. I would brace myself for a weekend alone. A weekend where I’d lie to Charlie about my plans, where I’d binge pizza and popcorn and ice cream so I wouldn’t feel the hollowness left inside me.

I was two different people. Louise-with-Noah and Louise-without-Noah. I was growing to equally hate both. I scoffed and rolled my eyes at the Louise who took the time to plan her outfits based on shirts or dresses Noah had previously complemented. I groaned at the Louise who went to Trader Joe’s after a long shift just so she could have fresh strawberries for Noah in the morning. My head ached for the Louise who thought and thought and thought about all the things she could do for Noah to get him to stay around longer before his inevitable next disappearance.

Louise-without-Noah was awful, too. She cried and ate fried foods and watching shitty Netflix shows just so she wouldn’t be sitting in silence. She lied to her mom about how “great” Noah was and fabricated stories about all the nice things he was doing for her. The gift giving and attention hadn’t stopped, but it didn’t satiate like it used to. I didn’t want his gifts, I didn’t want to tell stories for his amusement, I wanted the truth. I wanted him to tell me why he couldn’t be constant, present, all mine.

The thing I hated most about both Louises was that neither held Noah responsible for his disappearances. I kept saying to myself, “this time I’ll make him talk about it. This time I’ll get the truth.” And I never did. Because I couldn’t lose him. I couldn’t.

I never believed he was a secret serial killer or was doing drugs in a group house or something. I had a vague idea that maybe he was cheating on me, but I believed that if I was just better, worked harder, I could get him to choose me over her.

One time I did tell him that if he didn’t love me anymore, he should just break up with me. To which he responded, “I do love you. I love you very much.”

And that fueled the next month of careful dinner reservations and outfit choices and day-trip planning and cakes.

I thought about Noah all the time. Even when we were together, I was thinking about what would come next. I would make myself think of all the scenarios, all the ways in which the day could play out. If I hadn’t thought of one, and then that was what ended up happening — say, I had packed us a picnic on the beach and we got stuck in traffic and missed the sunset — I’d kick myself for not planning more thoroughly. Noah didn’t get upset, he didn’t yell or react or anything. But I would just tie it to his next disappearance. We hadn’t spent good, meaningful time together. The day didn’t go as planned. That’s why he left.

~

I was shocked when my own boyfriend showed up at the airport, bag in hand, grin on his face, ready to meet his girlfriend’s niece, her oldest brother, her parents (who he’d only ever met on FaceTime).

Charlie gave him a curt smile, and we boarded the plane as a trio.

I spent the entire five-hour flight thinking of all the ways this weekend trip could play out. By the time we touched down, I was already exhausted. I hadn’t even factored in my dad yet.

Noah met “Good Dad.”

IV

We sat around the kitchen table, me in my same wooden chair, and spoke in low voices while Jade slept in my Molly’s arms.

The kitchen was exactly how I’d left it, exactly how it always appeared in my memories. The table was a big, dark oak, the countertops were a black and gray granite. The mail holder next to the microwave was stuffed with receipts and coupons and bills. There were magnets on the refrigerator, six-year-old me holding a soccer ball, ten-year-old Charlie in his baseball uniform. I stared at the loaf of Wonder Bread on the counter and imagined that time must move slower as you get older. If I lived here, I would have updated this kitchen years ago, but I don’t think my parents seemed to notice.

I observed Dad as he asked Noah questions, and stared at Noah while he thoughtfully replied. I smiled when Noah patted my leg and spoke fondly of our relationship. I laughed when Dad made jokes, and winced when he pulled out a photo from my teenage years, and offered to refill everyone’s coffee when their mugs ran low. I acted the duties of a daughter, of a girlfriend. And yet I sat there feeling as if there was an invisible wall, a barrier surrounding me from my family, from Noah. I sat there in the very familiar kitchen around me, feeling more out of place than ever.

I excused myself to help Mom fold laundry, taking deep breaths as I folded Dad’s shirts and paired Mom’s socks. My mind resumed its game of thinking ahead, preparing for how to keep everyone happy. Between Noah and my dad there were almost too many scenarios to dream up.

“You look very skinny,” Mom said. Which would have pleased me except I hadn’t been working out or eating well and was not very healthy at all. To compensate for the binges when Noah was gone, I’d punish myself and eat very little when he was around. Thinking if my body was perfect, he’d choose to stay longer with me.

That night, after dessert, Mom suggested we play cards games.

I instantly craved another piece of pie. Or maybe I wanted to throw up my first helping. My stomach constricted and I kept finding my hands clutching each other, curled into tight fists.

A vivid flash of drinks spilling and cards flying and a chair knocking over shot through my mind. I felt dizzy, hyper-aware. I couldn’t sit still.

And yet, less than two chairs away from me, sat Ethan and Molly. Calm and quiet, gently cooing and stroking Jade’s wispy hair. As a storm crashed inside of me, Ethan and Molly were in complete peace.

I felt total and all-consuming jealously towards them.

Their full attention seemed to be on their daughter. But how could that be? Wasn’t Ethan triggered by the mention of cards and the chaos Dad could cause? Didn’t Molly worry about her husband? Did she ever think Ethan would walk out the door and not come back?

I hated their boring relationship for so many years. Charlie and I teased Ethan’s “vanilla” ways, never playing the field, never having his heart broken, never even having sex with anyone else just to know what it could be like (Charlie told me that). Yet tonight, I envied them.

I wanted what Ethan and Molly had. Totally controlled, predictable peace.

Noah put a hand on my leg, sending an electric shock up my body. “I’m going to run upstairs for a few minutes,” he said. I nodded.

By then, Dad was passing out cards and topping up our glasses of wine. I smiled as he refilled mine and he winked at me. My stomach churned. I mentally made a note of where to grab the nearest roll of paper towels.

“Should we wait for Noah?” Dad asked. I said no, he could join the next round. I was keen to finish this game, to go to bed, where I could have at least a few hours off from my double-duty of overtime thinking.

~

Finally on Sunday, we left.

I hugged Mom and Dad goodbye, ignoring the tears in their eyes. If they really missed me that much they could come to LA, I selfishly thought, not seeing past their age, their inability to travel with ease and flexibility.

“Your parents are great,” Noah said as we finally boarded the plane. I rolled my eyes.

That night Noah said he couldn’t stay over, that he had to get back to his apartment before work. I braced myself for an upcoming week without him.

As I was getting into bed, I saw my phone light up with a call from Charlie. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he said.

“Okay,” I replied, pulling back the sheets.

“Noah’s…” he took a sharp breath. “He’s cheating on you.” Charlie exhaled slowly. “I heard him on the phone the night we were playing cards.”

I switched off my lamp. “Okay. Is that all?”
“Louise, did you hear me?” I felt the frustration in his voice. “Goodnight, Charlie.”

~

I didn’t break up with Noah right away. It drove Charlie crazy. It was the least he ever spoke to me.

In that time I isolated myself even further. Restricted my food, cancelled plans, spent all weekend in my PJs.

My co-worker, Sharon, who I had gotten quite close to, noticed that I hadn’t eaten lunch three days in a row. She didn’t press, but instead conducted a loud conversation with Meredith in the break room about how great it was that us nurses had free counseling at the hospital.

It wasn’t great acting, but it did get me thinking.

I booked an appointment the next day during lunch. Partly because I didn’t want Sharon to see me not eating again, and partly because I was so miserable, I figured anything could help, or at the very least, distract me for thirty minutes.

Dr. Cindy wore the same glasses as my mom, and I did nothing but cry the first time I met her.

V

It’s uncomfortable, digging through those years.

I’ve been pulling them apart and examining them, and then piecing everything back together in a way where they can live in my brain and not cause spirals or ripples of more and more thoughts.

The weekend I brought Noah home, I failed to notice that my dad didn’t have a single outburst. That he had patiently sat and asked Noah questions, not interrupting or distracting. He only told stories with clear starts and finishes, and did not once monologue about the Supreme Court or the Phillies’ Manager. He held his granddaughter until she fell asleep, he played cards with a smile, he baked my favorite pie (and it made it on to our plates). He showed effort in trying to be a father and I refused to see it.

Or rather, I refused to believe it. I had played my part of broken victim so well, that I didn’t recognize his healing. That he was trying.

I can only imagine how hard it was for my dad to accept help. I, myself was reluctant to go and I’m part of a far more-willing generation. I do not want to hold my dad’s sickness against him like I used to.

We are not the same, but we are not as dissimilar as I once thought.
I very badly want to give my dad a chance.
I very badly want to make up for the lost time that I withheld from him. I want us to be friends.

So now, slowly and carefully, I am excavating my childhood memories and unearthing my relationship with my dad. I’m pealing back layers and seeking truths in pain, explanations in disappointment.

I’m doing the same with my relationship to Noah. Of course, it’s long over, but I’ve already spent time uncovering, shedding light on his behavior, his tendencies, and motives.

For all the times I called Noah my archaeologist, I am finally becoming my own.

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Casey Dexter

Casey lives in London and works in publishing and entertainment. caseydexter.org