Writings: Escaping Margaritaville

[CN: Spoilers for the Dream Daddy dating simulation game.]

I spent the last week of July briefly obsessed with a visual novel dating simulator called "Dream Daddy" in which you are a single-parent who, yes, dates dreamy daddies. It's sweet and good and wholesome and funny and fat-friendly and trans-friendly and I have all the feels about it. I recommend the game very highly. Here is a twitter thread in which I gush even more. I also made my best friend Kristy write a post for kir patreon here, and there will be another one going up on kir patreon which is a follow-up to this post. DUAL PATREON POSTS.

If there is one thing I do not like about the game, it's that I think they dropped the ball with the character Joseph. There's a looooong backstory to the creation of this character, which I will not get into here, but the short version is that the character started out as a villain before the creative vision for the project shifted and the character was re-purposed into a sympathetic character. This isn't a bad thing--we got the movie FROZEN out of such creative vision shifts--but I think the developers didn't quite go far enough with their revision of Joseph.

Joseph is a youth pastor in the game, and heavily involved in the local church. He's the only dad who is still married when you meet him, and he and his wife Mary are trapped in a loveless marriage. He is heavily implied to be a closeted gay man who has 'strayed' with men before in the past, and Mary is managing her understandable anger at the situation with alcohol and barbed insulting witticisms at every turn. I love them both and they are both hurting so much and I want them to stop hurting each other and themselves and get a healthy divorce.

Instead, what happens in the game is you go to bed with Joseph on his yacht, losing yourselves to happiness in the "Margaritaville" he's constructed for himself as a retreat away from his wife and church. Then he panics and dumps you, returning to his wife and trying (again) to make their broken marriage work. All the other daddy routes in the game end with you happily coupled with your daddy of choice, so Joseph's breakup ending is a painful slap in the face and shows the stitches of the developers changing his ending hastily from the "villain" ending they'd originally planned for him to a more sympathetic ending in which he dumps the player instead.

As a trans and queer person raised in an oppressive church community, I had a lot of feels about playing a trans man dating Joseph. This scene is set on the yacht just after the player character and Joseph go to bed for the first time. Kristy's scene--which I highly recommend--is set in the end-game party, and involves a much-needed conversation with Mary.

Escaping Margaritaville

Sunset glitters on the ocean and we drift in a sea of liquid gold, yellow and warm as Joseph's hair. My fingers brush over his skin, savoring the glow where he's bathed in the light from the yacht window. He catches my hand and kisses my fingers, but gently this time; we've worn each other out. I've been this happy before plenty of times but it never stops being special, this feeling of being with someone you love and knowing they love you back. I could get used to this, with him.

Joseph's eyes are as blue as his favorite sweater. He squints against the dying light, sensitive to the sun, but the age-lines in his face only make him more beautiful. I know he's been miserable for so long, living a life that was true for him once but soured into a lie, and I don't blame him for any of this. We should have handled it better, maybe, and there'll be awkward conversations when we leave the sea and go back to shore, but pain is necessary. You can't set a broken leg to heal without hurting the patient.

"I love you." His voice is gentle, but with a wistfulness that brings me up from the endorphins I've been riding. He sounds like he's saying goodbye, memorizing a moment he'll never have again. He sounds like sorrow.

I know that voice: it was mine once. He thinks I don't understand because I'm not Christian like him, that the guilt he wears wrapped around his shoulders at all times isn't familiar to me. I haven't told him I once was a Christian. I didn't want to get into an argument with my new neighbor and then, later, I didn't want to pressure him to make the same choices I'd made. But I know that voice like I know my own, the lament of a sinner memorizing his best and sweetest sin before he vows to give it up forever. He's trying to save his soul.

If he were anyone else, I would be angry. I would feel used. He got his urge for sin out of his system, scratched the itch, and now he sets me free with a fond farewell I'm not supposed to resent. But I'm not angry. I know him too well and I see the misery behind his eyes. He isn't afraid of losing Mary and his kids and the church; his greatest fear is losing me and this, the freedom he's craved for years. What we did together didn't scratch an itch--we put a band-aid on a broken leg and now he's trying to walk out of the hospital as though he were healed and that was all he needed to be well again.

"I love you, too." None of his wistfulness in my voice; I won't play this game for him. I love him too much to coddle him while he ruins his life and I take collateral damage. "What aren't you saying to me, Joseph?"

He's startled, eyes widening. I've shocked him by being too direct. Does he ever speak honestly with anyone? His ministry involves a constant verbal two-step: speaking what he ought, but hiding his own hypocrisy and treading around those committed by his audience. Mary is more abrupt in her speech, but still not direct; her words hold layers of painful meaning, cutting him with veiled references to their problems. I can pity them both while wishing they would call a halt to their intricate verbal dance and just talk to each other.

The lie coalesces behind his eyes, spinning soft truths as webs to let me down 'gently'. "I'll just miss... all this. Margaritaville." I'm supposed to pretend he's talking about tomorrow rather than forever.

"Joseph." I prop myself up with my elbow, and brush fingers over his perfect chin. "I like Jimmy Buffett as much as the next red-blooded American dad. But have you actually listened to Margaritaville?" My eyes soften at him. "It's not a happy song, baby. It's a sad, guilty, trapped song. Jimmy's singing about living in a dream vacation spot and drowning in regrets even as visitors to paradise envy him for living the good life."

He opens his mouth to object, but I stop him. "No. Joseph, listen to me. You're living a dream life. Beautiful wife and four lovely children. Your community looks up to you as a religious leader and you throw amazing-yet-wholesome parties for the neighborhood. You have a decked-out grill that could pilot someone to the moon, and you know how to use it." My fingers swipe gently over his lips. "And you look perfect doing it."

A pink blush colors his cheeks, but I've coaxed out a smile. He's beautiful like this, shy and confident all at once, averting his eyes in embarrassment from my praise even as a part of him--the younger rebellious part that raised hell and got tattoos and hoisted a middle finger to the world by bringing me out here on his boat--knows he deserves adoration. He's handsome and strong and charismatic and clever, and his church has made him feel guilty for those talents while profiting off him for years. They took his youth and used him until he's wrung out and miserable, and then told him that misery was his own fault.

"Margaritaville is my escape." His whisper is soft in the gathering darkness as the sun dips below the dancing horizon. "It's where I retreat with you and... and let myself be myself."

I shake my head, wondering if he can see me through the tears pricking his blue eyes. "Baby, Margaritaville is where you're living. You're boiling shrimp to pass the time and watching life move by without you. You're wrestling with whose 'fault' it is that your marriage is broken, going back and forth between shouldering the entire burden yourself and blaming Mary."

He jerks his head up to look at me. "It's not her fault."

The words are automatic, spilling over his lips without pause for breath or thought, and I shake my head again. "What, you know it's 'your own damn fault'? Yes, I do remember the song, Joseph. Hence my point." My teasing echo of the lyrics is cruel under the circumstances--we are talking about his marriage--but he's so mired in his Buffett metaphor as coping mechanism I don't think he'll listen if I don't brutally dismantle it.

"It is, though." Joseph looks away, unable to meet my eyes. "If I'd been a better husband, if I'd been a different kind of man..." His voice trails off in the dark.

"If I'd been what the church wanted, what my father expected." I stroke his hair as I whisper, letting him hear the old pain in my voice. My wounds have healed, but scars linger. "If I just try a little harder not to be queer anymore, if I make the right choices, if I cross my fingers and tap my heels and wish on a shooting star and pray every night as hard as I possibly can..." Leaning forward, I kiss his forehead and let him feel my warm breath. I'm alive and I'm here, and even that much is a miracle. One I made myself, when I gave up on God to hop to it. "It didn't work, Joseph. Not for me. And I... I don't think it's working for you, baby."

His sob almost breaks my own composure, strong arms finding me in the darkness only to cling as he cries. I'm small enough for this man to pick up and carry to bed, but he holds me like a life-raft on the stormy sea. "I want to do the right thing. I promised her forever and I love my children. How can I leave them? I keep telling myself we can stay together, we can be... partners if not lovers. But there's so much old hurt and anger and we both just..."

"I know. Baby, I do know." Gentle pats on his back, letting him cry it all out. "But this thing you're doing together? Joseph, it isn't working. And if you think your kids will grow up not noticing the rift in your house, you've got another thing coming." I kiss his forehead again and wonder if I'm doing the right thing. I don't want to break up his marriage, I don't want to break up anyone's marriage, but their marriage is already broken. Six miserable people in a house together and all of them deserve better.

"Joseph, I can't tell you what to do. But no matter what you've told yourself, you have options. Hugo is divorced and shares custody over his son with his ex-husband. He's happier, healthier, and very much a part of his child's life. You don't have to choose between your children and your happiness." My fingers find his chin and tip his face to me; I can just make out his face in the moonlight. "And you may have promised her forever, but I think you need to sit down with Mary and talk about whether she still wants that with you. It's okay to be friends and partners in raising your children and not be married to each other anymore."

"Do you really think she would let me go?" Hope and need mingle in his voice, sharp enough to stab a heart.

I stroke his hair again, as gently as I would a newborn kitten. I think of Mary, sharp-tongued and miserable. Easy to hate at first glance, until you see how gentle she is with Damien and how fond she feels towards Robert. Even when she has every reason to be angry with me, she's apologetic when hurling her mocking barbs; going through the motions of hating me as a homewrecker even as her empty eyes plead for me to point her towards her own escape. How miserable is she at home, married to a man who dreams of escaping their relationship? Playing the perfect Christian wife at their bake sales, pretending their problems aren't real? In her shoes I would want to end the sham, to make a clean break and find a fresh start. To look for love in the Maple Bay bars, and not the fleeting attention of drunken strangers she doesn't intend to ever touch.

"Joseph, I don't think she's the one who's been keeping you here. When you're finally ready to escape Margaritaville, I think you may find she's on your side and ready to escape with you."


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