I hear the high pitched screech of the entry phone.
“Come on up.”
Allowing him entry, I bite my lip. Hard. Eyes closed, I wait for the wet, copper taste of my own blood. The sting is my assurance; I allow it brief, momentary prominence.
Awkward hug. He feels small, more so than last time. It has been a slow but steady decline since Mom died in 2010.
He starts talking, something about the cab dropping him too far away. I am not listening, my mind is on what I know is coming.
We eat dinner, and after more slightly strained conversations about nothing in particular, he says “Let’s sit down and talk.”
This is what he always threatens with. I can write the script. First he will ask if I am seeing anyone. When I tell him no one serious he will say that life is done better with two. Like he and Mom. He will again remind me that even in the best relationships there are problems. But what can you expect for fifty four years together, he will ask.
I will want to say “more than you gave her.” But I won’t. What’s the point?
All this is of course the lead up for him to talk about the woman he has been indirectly alluding to. It will take him hours to work up the nerve, and then he will start by saying sometimes he gets a bit sad over that time when things were rocky between he and Mom.
A bit sad? No, sad is not where I go.
This time, instead of the talk, he falls asleep on my couch for the next two hours.
So, I wait. I clean the kitchen, walk the dog, consider going to the bedroom and having a hot, dirty skype session with a friend from LA. Quickly deciding that’s just weirdly gross with my father sleeping a wall away, despite the potential vicarious thrill.
I go back to the living room and read a few pages of a short story in Ploughshares. Twenty minutes later he stirs and rubs his eyes. He is ready now.
It begins as it always does.
“… Allan, it was very unlike me, it was just about companionship really, your mother and I had drifted apart, and I don’t know why …”
And so begins my refrain of silent responses:
Did my mother know why? Or that you had even “drifted apart”? As I recall, no, she did not.
“… anyway, she worked for the airlines, LAX TO LHR, Pan Am. She always wore black dresses, that was the first thing I noticed. Because your mother always wore black …”
No, Mom did not always wear black. She always wore navy. Hardly ever black. If you were paying attention that’s not a small difference.
“… we drank a lot of Chardonnay. She had been to Europe several times, with the airline of course. She spoke another language, French. It worked for me …”
He winks. I remain expressionless, my stomach makes a slight heave. Not because I hate Chardonnay.
“… she had a way of playing with her hair when searching for words …”
So did Mom. Why do you think you noticed it?
“… we did not touch … I held open doors … did I ever tell you she had a son …”
Did she know you had a son? Did she know who I was? Do you?
“… divorced, divorcing the father, the father was still involved, you know. So you understand, she said. Right right right, he said. We talked about how to invest her money. We talked about maybe renting a cottage in Provence. We talked about my son’s teacher. My son …”
“My son.” Me, that’s who you’re talking about Dad, me.
“… and the swimming injury that halted any hope of your athletic success at the elite level. You had such potential, it really was too bad …”
Once again, this. From a four time Olympian, it’s the implicit suggestion that leaving swimming was my life failing. And his greatest disappointment. Probably not, he never said it was. Though he never said it wasn’t.
“… we talked about maybe. Well, there was a moment in my car when nothing happened. A moment when I thought … well, the point is nothing happened. She leaned toward my lips, and said “No”, then she smoothed back her hair. She had that habit …”
This is the point where I will usually break the cycle.
“Shit, forgot I need to email …” A fake focus on some non existent detail.
“Allan I never slept with her. Not once. For all I know she was a lesbian.”
Does he not know that does nothing? Except make it infinitely worse. Not because I don’t believe him, and I don’t. Because it makes a deceptive betrayal about so much more than a drunken one time fuck. It makes it about when he wrote her poetry. About taking her to see Cats (Cats, really?) And it’s about spending my mothers birthday with another woman having a God damn picnic in Central Park, while “on a business trip.” Because when it’s not about a horny one time mistake, that makes it about every single, silent way my mother heard “I’d rather be with her than with you”.
I remain quiet, fiddling with a button from the stereo that is not on, serving to only exaggerate the tension between us. For a long moment the air between us hangs heavy with the weight of everything I almost say.
“Dad I need to send that email, back in a second …” My voice trails off as I take cover in the bedroom.
Closing my eyes, I sigh and lean back against the door. I refuse to fucking do this!
Because all that’s left in this story is for the one person who doesn’t know any of it yet to find out all of it. So no, sorry Dad, I’ve already heard that ending from the person who knows it better than you. And it’s not an ending that is in any need of a re-framing.
When I come back into the room he is surprised at how late it has gotten, and he has a sports officials meeting in the morning you know, then a long train ride back to Ottawa, so not now, not now, but next time, he promises, next time we can talk about it some more, he says, pouring a glass of milk.
“Cold milk, ahh the best drink in the world”.
How many times have I heard that? Each time slightly more grating than the time before.
Close eyes, bite lip, breath, count to ten.
Shuffling off to bed, he says goodnight and thanks me for the talk. No problem, I say. Goodnight.
It’s heartbreaking to see him move now. Shuffling down the hall in tiny steps, a walker his constant companion. So weak, so frail, so unlike the man who was once my father. Heartbreaking, though sometimes it makes me feel that karma may actually be a thing. Then I feel guilty for that, wondering why I can’t just see him as a man who made a mistake. I know I’ve made more than my share.
But then I see my mothers face the night she told me what she could no longer keep bottled up. Grasping to understand the things that ultimately she never would.
He’s my father and I love him. In many ways he has been a great father, though I was always my mother's child. The duality of loving him while disliking him with seething intensity is something I am doing a piss poor job of managing. But what bothers me the most is my lack of concern in attempting to change that. The co dependent baggage of an only child; surprisingly heavy, messy too. Again, I tell myself he’ll be gone in twelve hours.
I take a shower. Long. Scalding. Thick jets of water roll down my back, and I have a sudden, unyielding need for the ocean; a cool blast of salt wind, sharp and scouring. I crave the burn.