Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Salutatorian

A story

Well, I saw her face between the cans of tomato soup and cream of mushroom.

There in aisle 3 of Cub Foods, long tendrils of brown hair softly framing her face, peering at the price tag, crouched down on her knees. She was holding a little girl’s hand, a tender little girl with blonde curls who had turned up her lips in a petulant frown. The girl was fidgeting, there in her pink flowered dress, trying to get away from her mother, who was fighting her high-heeled stilettos in an attempt to crouch down comfortably and get a look at the yellow-starred price.

I wiped my hands on my jeans and nonchalantly pushed my shopping cart down aisle 4, then swerved and came up aisle 3. I walked over to her as though I didn’t recognize her and said, “Here, ma’am, can I help you?” Knelt down beside her and read the sign, told her it was three for five today, a bargain.

“Oh, thank you,” she turned, her voice filled with relief, and I met her brown eyes again. A flicker of recognition and a wrinkle on her brow as she tried to place me, but couldn’t seem to remember how I knew her. She looked uneasy so I smiled again and said, “Well, Kathy, it’s been a long time.”

Her face cleared immediately. “Rob!” she said, her voice lighthearted and cheerful. “Fancy meeting you here!”

She got up and dusted off her skirt. I took in her outfit, appreciative as always of a woman who dressed well; today she had chosen a crisp white shirt with a flattering charcoal A-line skirt. No pantyhose, but smooth-shaven as always, and her skin smelled of strawberries. An anklet, silver, with a tiny charm, just before the black pumps, and she was the image of a working mother. Hair perfectly styled, as ever, fluffed up but soft, and her conditioner smelled like grapefruit. Garnier Nutrisse, I thought ironically; most probably she had kept to what was simple and what worked.

“How have you been?” I asked, always an inane sentence, and politely looked away as she struggled with the little girl who looked tired and bored and seemed about to begin whining.

“Oh, I’m good,” she said, struggling with her daughter. “This is my daughter, Doris,” and even as she said it I could see the glow come into her face and soften her features, a kind of motherly regard for the girl, and I envied her for a moment. “Doris, say hello,” but Doris hid behind her mother’s skirt and popped her thumb into her mouth, trying to avoid me and all unwelcome interruptions. Her mother absently smoothed her golden curls and I looked for the sign of a wedding band, but not finding one, decided I couldn’t ask.

She noticed my gaze. “Oh, Don and I don’t go in for all that traditional stuff,” she smiled, and I felt a stab of envy, a pang of jealousy of this Don, whoever he was, because he had Kathy and could make her glow. It wasn’t that I really loved Kathy, anymore, but you never forget your first love, even if you were in eighth grade in the time, and short and snotty and freckled-faced.

“And how are you?” she asked politely, eying my silvering hair and my worn black jeans. “You look fit.” I smiled at her in thanks for the compliment, tossed my hair wryly and wondered how to answer her.

Should I tell her about Evelyn? The divorce? The kids? How do I answer this question? I decided to play it safe. “I’m fine,” I said, then motioned to my cart, which held two packages of Swiss Miss chocolate pudding. “Buying junk food, you know, a night alone at home, just me and the television. Relaxing and all.”

She laughed, a tinkling sound. “Oh, I wish I had time for that!” she says happily. “But Doris here needs to be taken care of, so TV nights are rare, unless I’m up for watching Bambi and Aladdin live out their ever-so-fascinating lives.” She laughed again and met my eyes in a kind of private smile, sharing the joke. Doris chose to speak up at exactly this moment.

Mommy,” she whined, “I’m hungry. I wanna go home.”

Kathy smiled at me apologetically. “Well, it’s been great catching up with you, Rob,” she said, “but I think this young lady needs to get home.” She hoisted Doris into the seat, then began pushing the cart down the aisle. “Hey,” she turned and stared at me for a moment, “you live around here?”

What should I tell her? Tell her I do and probably be invited over for dinner, to face the shining perfect life of Kathy and Doris and her beloved Don? No, I didn’t want that.

“Nah, not really,” I say, “just stopping by.”

“Oh,” she says, and her face falls, like she’d really wanted to see me. “Well, if you’re ever in the area again, feel free to stop by- 93 West Park Lane, you know- not that I can promise anything fancy, you know. Probably just spaghetti and marinara sauce, and canned at that-“

“Spaghetti and marinara sauce sounds great,” I answer, “but I’m keeping you and I think Doris wants to get home.” I nod at Doris, who ducks her head in fright. Look back at Kathy, try to memorize her face, then let her be.

“All right, well you take care, Rob.”

“I will.”

I watch as she walks off, purposefully, her heels clicking against the tile of the store floor.

I look at the tomato sauce and wonder whether to buy it, if only to remind me of the encounter. “Damn,” I mutter under my breath and shake my head at my own sentimentality. It’s been a long time since I saw Kathy. Last time I saw her must have been senior year of high school, when she still wasn’t sure of herself and didn’t really think she’d ever grow into a beauty. I had known about that, how worried she was about her looks. I’d always wanted to tell her that I knew she’d be fine, that she’d turn out okay, that anyone as sweet and kind as she was bound to make it.

But the words of a seventeen-year old boy don’t amount to much, especially if he’s the one who’s had a crush on her since forever, but who never dared to speak about it, really, not since she broke it off in eighth grade before anything could ever start. He’d never asked her why she did that, figured it was probably because she wasn’t ready, and more importantly, she couldn’t have known how he’d worshipped her, loved her from a distance and wished he could soothe all her fears away.

I snap back to reality, head over to the freezer section. Reach for the frozen peas, my hand hovering over the vegetables. Hell, why bother? Reach for the bagel pizza instead, figure I’ll toss it in the toaster oven and eat it in front of the television. Why should it matter? I’ve got no one to please. Evelyn’s gone and the kids aren’t here for the weekend; there’s no reason to take care of myself, really. I can do what I like.

Wander through the rest of the supermarket, honing in on brightly colored signs that advertise sales or bargains, “three for the price of two,” oranges that cost 69 cents a pound! I absentmindedly reach for the oranges, then put them back and go for a crate of clementines. I don’t know who will eat all these clementines but it reminds me of when I was younger, a kid, growing up with my siblings and coming home to a crate of clementines on the kitchen table.

I think I’ll work out tonight, go running on the treadmill or maybe around the block, maybe even on the bike trail if I’m up for it. Kathy had noticed I’m fit; if there’s anything that describes me, it’d be that. I work myself, hard, as though doing that will make up for all the things I’ve failed at, not that they’re all my fault, necessarily. I don’t beat myself up about too many things anymore; I see that there’s no purpose in it. I let myself off the hook once in a while. It’s only when I want to remember that I bother to feel the loss, because that’s the only way I can really understand.

Go to the checkout and pay for my items; the saleslady sniffs disapprovingly as she sees my packages of Swiss Miss next to the clementines. “Chocolate topped orange wedges,” I say to her politely. “Party tonight. At my house. Don’t worry, it’s all very healthy.” She gives me a bit of a look, as though she thinks I’m slightly mad, and looks down at me, her dyed-blonde updo unable to conceal the dark brown roots. I almost want to make a comment about the futility of the pretense but hold myself back, refraining from giving vent to the desire to critique someone else. After all, this isn’t her fault. My life isn’t her fault.

I smile at her very nicely as I go to pack my bags, but a mentally retarded man is doing it for me. He gives me a big wide smile and I smile back. I’m always glad when I see these fellows at the supermarket; they so like to be useful and I like to make them feel happy. It’s nice to see people who actually need the job doing it. Not that I really mind college kids bagging groceries, but I figure they’re smart enough to get some other job, secretary maybe, so why not leave the bagging to the folks who really need it? I smile at the guy with Down’s Syndrome again and thank him and he insists on shaking my hand. I can’t walk out of this store without feeling a little happier, though I’m still dwelling on Kathy, my somewhat pleasant shock of the day.

It’s raining, dark already, and I head over to my Buick and pack the groceries in the trunk, loving the sound of the water as it hits the glass. I always feel calm when it’s raining, very in control. I lift each grocery bag into the trunk, one at a time, following a pattern, lift and thud as it hits the bottom of the trunk, then wheel the grocery cart back into its place. I could leave it in the middle of the parking lot but hate it when people do that; it’s so frustrating, especially given the wind outside. The carts move when the wind gusts and they come toward the cars, and even though they’re not really going to hit them, it’s a frightening experience for the drivers. So I move them back and wonder why more people can’t take the time to do that. Is is that they’re all in a rush? Probably. They’ve all got families to go home to.

Slide inside the car, arranging my torso and legs so that I fit into the car, electronically adjusting the seat and moving it back a little. Think I’ll turn on the radio and tap my fingers on the dashboard, feeling the thrum of the music, but decide against it. The rain’s enough for me. I look out at the dreary grey world and for some reason I feel alive, as though in contrast to the bleakness that overshadows the dark. I hear the trees rustle and the leaves in the wind and all that is music enough for me. I move my foot against the gas pedal in a kind of unfulfilled rhythm, drawing to a stop by red lights and racing the yellows, hoping to get home faster. Not that home has anything waiting for me, but it’s still a place to go against the dark.

Walk inside, toss my keys on the dining room table. I take pleasure in muddying the entrance rug, something that Evelyn hated. It’s not exactly that I enjoy spiting her; I just like being myself, having my own space again. I wish I could give a good reason for why Evelyn and I split up. It would make so much more sense if I could give one concise reason. But there was no affair, no form of infidelity, no dramatically differing goals. It wasn’t that I wanted to live in Indonesia and she was a Kansas hick. Nothing like that. We just drifted apart. It’s so much more subtle in life than in the movies.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life worked like a movie? I think philosophically as I pop the top off a beer. Sink into a chair and watch the rain storm down across my window, hitting the planks of wood on the porch. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were all those fights, those meaningful conversations, those blowups and finally one clear-cut reason for why we went our separate ways? But she couldn’t explain it if she tried, and I couldn’t either. Still, I wasn’t surprised when she asked for the divorce. We weren’t connecting. But then, had we ever?

It’s easier to take the blame on yourself. I realized that. It’s so much easier if you can find something, someone to blame. Reasons. We like reasons. Reasons are controllable; reasons make sense. Reasons help you understand why you’re a fuck-up when you are one. But sometimes it’s just not that simple. It made me feel better to blame myself for a while, claim that I hadn’t listened to her enough, hadn’t cared enough about her feelings, hadn’t been romantic enough, had stayed at work too late. But these were all excuses. It really wasn’t any of those things. It was just that I wasn’t there, not in any way that really mattered. But neither was she. And neither of us have the least damned idea why.

Head for the bathroom, take a long look in the mirror. I like what I see. My silvering hair makes me look distinguished. Hell, I look like one of those televangelists, one of those preachers you see on TV. You know the type. Strong, muscular, silvery hair, very distinguished, deep voice that tells you to listen, voice that sounds pretty authoritative and important. But I bet you never saw one of those TV preachers wearing a black leather jacket like I’ve got. Or my worn black jeans, or my scuffed up shoes. Nah.

I wet my hair in the sink, slap my cheeks as though to add some color. Look in the mirror again, then growl, shaking my head like a dog. Water flies everywhere, spotting the silvery glass. For some reason, I find this amusing. I give a laugh like a bear, a growl of sorts. Then out, throw my jacket on the sofa. Just wearing a t-shirt now, one of those soft ones of some grey sort of fabric. Throw myself back on the couch with the beer and noncommittally turn on the TV. Flip through the channels. Entertain myself by seeing how stupid the commercials are tonight. A Friday night and here I am, laughing at the TV and drinking a beer, and not feeling half bad about it.

Why should I feel bad, after all? It’s a life; it’s my life. I can do what I want with it. Who am I to care if society says I should be feeling bad about it? That my life is wasted? That I haven’t got a wife, a family, anything that supposedly matters? I’m content, for the moment. It’s pretty okay.

But that’s when Kathy swims before my eyes and I head back. Thinking about her and how she smelled today. Of strawberries. She always smelled of strawberries, always. Thinking back to me in eighth grade, that freckle-faced kid who was so shy, far too shy to ever tell a girl I liked her. But I loved Kathy. I always loved her. She was my first love and she probably knew it, just not the extent.

Kids can love pretty deeply. Most adults dismiss it. They claim it’s puppy love; they claim it doesn’t matter. Not true. Kids can really feel, far more than adults can feel, and far more deeply. Adults, you see, are desensitized. We get used to the world and its crap. Kids don’t yet know about that. Kids don’t have to pay income taxes, you see, or worry about money; they don’t have to try to explain long silences and figure out why their relationships are coming apart. All they’ve got is love and the ability to love pretty deeply, till they’re kicked and kicked again in the faces, and then like a whimpering dog they shake loose. And then they decide whether to trust again, and often they don’t, because why should they? They’ll just be kicked.

Ah, maybe I’m bitter. I swig the beer and throw back my head, some of the spray landing on the side of my mouth. Swipe at it with the back of my hand, dry it on my t-shirt. Kids. Well, I loved her. I loved her pretty deeply, loved her for all the reasons I can still remember loving her today. She was good and kind, always nice to everyone. She defended some of the losers in the class, I still remember. A bit of a goody two-shoes, always busy with her homework. She was one of the ones who wanted to make her parents proud. But then, we all did then. I did, too. They had such high hopes for me.

It makes me laugh, to look back on that now. Laugh to look at my life and look at what was predicted for me. Star student. High school salutatorian. Everyone always clapped me on the back and told me I’d made my parents proud. I was shining, always smiling from ear to ear. I thought it all meant something. To be honest, I still do. Wouldn’t trade those moments in for anything. The way my mother smiled at me, the way my dad kind of started to tear up but wouldn’t let himself go. They were really proud of me and it feels good for someone to be proud of you that way. Because you know you matter. You know you’ve done something right.

Tears me up to think of my mom right now. She’s in a nursing home. I put her there. She’s getting too old to live by herself, can’t do it. She fell and broke her hip and when I stopped by, later on, it seemed like she’d been living off of stuff in cans. Now, that’s okay when I do it, but she needs real food, good food, food with vitamins and junk. She can’t just live on cans of baked beans. So I was thinking assisted living, but she’s on pills and all. So I decided on the nursing home. I don’t really want to know what goes on there. If I knew, I don’t think I could stand it. I already can’t stand it.

Went to visit her last week. Saw her in the day-room with a bunch of highschoolers there for their community service visits. Saw her talking to one of the girls, a girl with light brown hair and blue eyes, not too tall, telling her about how she used to love turtle soup. The girl was looking at her animatedly and chattering happily about how turtle soup is a delicacy and so exciting. Then she pulled out these different hats and started putting them on the residents’ heads. You know, putting them on, like they’re playing dress up. Made me sick to my stomach. My mom, sitting there, just grinning foolishly while this girl put her hat on her head.

But I could tell that the girl didn’t mean any harm. Really, what she was doing was a good thing; it keeps them occupied. Gives them some kind of purpose. Far better than sitting and watching the television all day, getting into fits over the news, worrying about wars and talking about the political affairs of their day. No, the girl charms them out of all this. She dances around and entertains them. Puts on plays, performances. Gets them to play along with her. “Shirley, come on Shirley,” she wheedles. “For me?” Shirley nods, tells the girl that she’s “her golden-haired angel.” The girl smiles, her cheeks pink. I think it’s the saddest sight I’ve ever seen.

I want to take my mom out for lunch. I’ve cleared it with the resident, the nurse, signed her out and got her into the car. She looks at me confusedly, her eyes unsettled. She wears a powder-blue sweater. Why are old ladies always in sweaters? I hate the damn thing, but can’t tell her to take it off. What if she’s cold? And anyway, why should she have to take the sweater off just because I hate it? Get her into the car, start driving down the street. “Not the highway,” she says, her voice quavery, her thin white hair shining, translucent in the sunlight. “Not the highway, Rob.”

“We’re not on the highway, Mother,” I say, but obligingly slow my pace. She seems to sit up and stare about her a little more, a little longer. “So what do you do at the nursing home, Ma?” I say, hoping to make polite conversation. It takes a long time for her to answer. “Well, there’s the TV,” she says, her voice soft, hollow, “and there’s bingo.” Her face lights up when she says this. “I won once, Rob! I won Bingo.”

I can’t help it. My eyes fill with tears. I shake my head, press the gas pedal savagely. We jolt forward. “Rob!” she says, and I immediately stop. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean it. I just can’t deal with seeing her like this. Bingo, for chrissakes. Bingo.

I calm down. Drive carefully, trying not to upset her. We’ll have a nice lunch, her and me. Sit down, order the salad, the pizza, eat it politely, nicely. I take her to one of her favorite restaurants, but she doesn’t seem to recognize it. This is normal, I think to myself. This is what the doctor said would happen. I want to order something nice for her but it occurs to me that I don’t know what to get. This is what she always did, the ordering. She was the one who picked out what Dad and I should get. I just ate. It was always good.

I look at the menu. All the fancy dishes are in Italian. I don’t want to get her anything too spicy, anything that will upset her palate. Luckily, she’s not on a strict diet, so almost anything goes for these brief excursions. Except she’s not supposed to have too much salt. Seems like the older people get, the less salt they can have. I think it’s a good thing. It means they’ll be less pickled on the inside. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t.

I figure we’ll go with pizza. We’ll be safe with pizza, right? Order the pizza, help butter a roll for her. Give it to her and notice that my hands are trembling. I don’t know why. Everything’s under control. She’s fine. I’m fine. There’s nothing to be upset about.

“So how’s Evelyn?” she asks sweetly, suddenly seeming lucid. I look carefully at her, wondering whether this mention was intentional, whether she meant to wound. I don’t think so.

“Evelyn…Evelyn’s great,” I lie, hoping that will satisfy her. I reach for my glass of lemon water, take a sip. The ice cubes clink against the inside of my cup.

“She is? Then why didn’t you bring her with you?”

I freeze. Don’t know how to reply to that one. “Um…well, she’s busy. Wasn’t the best of days, if you know what I mean. Work and all.” I hope it’ll pass as a suitably vague excuse. I try to think of a way to switch the subject. “So-bingo,” I say and the subject settles lamely on the tablecloth as I try to reinvigorate it, like a dying balloon in need of air. I need to inject it with something. “Who do you play against?”

“Oh, the other ladies,” she says, waving her hand vaguely as though that explains everything. I notice that her fingernails are polished, an odd orange color. “Hey, your nails!” I say in fake excitement. “Your nails are done! Who did those for you?”

She looks at them and her brow furrows, as though she wishes she could remember. “Oh. The girls, I think. The girls who came by.”

I watch a waitress walk by our table as I think back on the laughing blue-eyed girl. They’re the ones who paint my mom’s fingernails, now. One of the few things she can take pleasure in. I stare, dry-eyed, at the ugly painting on the wall, as though it can give me the answers.

“Well, they’re very nice,” I say, and turn my eyes away.

A silence. I wonder how to break it, what to talk about. Finally, it’s broken by our waitress, who comes over with our pizza. I take it with relish, breaking the slices apart in my hands, placing one cheese-laden piece on my mother’s china plate. She looks down at it, confused. I cut it for her, but her hand grips the fork, then loosens so that the fork clatters against the plate, its tines striking against the tablecloth. I look around surreptitiously to see if anyone has seen. I feel like there’s a neon sign over my head. Incompetent Son. Unable to take care of aged mother. Please advise.

I reach for the fork and begin to feed her. Slow, bite-sized pieces, placing them gently in her mouth, urging her to chew, to make the half-remembered motions. I feel closer to her than I have ever felt. Is this what it is like to truly love; must someone be dependant upon you before you can offer yourself up so totally?

I gently tuck a napkin into the collar of her shirt. A beautiful cream cloth napkin. And I feed her the bite-sized pieces of pizza and I feel like crying.

There are a couple of times where she looks at me and I feel like she remembers. That I’m her Rob, her son. And maybe she even remembers about Evelyn. And how we’re not together anymore. And the kids, and how she’s got custody. But I’m not sure of any of that. I just know that she’s my mom and I’d do my damndest to protect her. I don’t know what to protect her from, however. She’s got an invisible enemy, something I can’t kill.

I wish it could be easy. I wish I could see something, a fire-breathing dragon, something tangible, something real, and just make it go away. But that’s not how it works, anymore. Everything’s gotten complicated. And that’s part of growing up. And that’s life. And there’s something really beautiful to that. But it’s also frustrating, like now, because all I want to do is take away the vague look in her eyes and replace it with the knowledge that was always there.

But then I wonder- why do I want that? Is it just to make me feel better? Is it so that I know that someone cares about me, someone knows me? In which case, I want to help my mother to help myself. What a bastard.

I recall myself to the living room where I sit, sprawled out on the couch. It’s a Friday night but the TV is off; I’m drinking beer but I’m not happy, and the bottle has stuck to my hand. I ease off the couch and put it down on a coaster by the sideboard. I’m stuck, I think. It’s Friday night and I’m staring at a blank TV, thinking about my mother. How much more fucked up can you get?

It puts me in mind of the kids. They need to visit her. They need to visit their grandmother, the woman who made them sugar cookies, the woman who had them over to use her swimming pool, damn it. They need to know her. I need them to know her. I need them to care about her and see her and realize who she is.

But they’re kids and as kids they’re not going to like the smell of the nursing home; they’re not going to be polite and quiet but whimper and cry and say that it smells bad and why is Grandma so strange and why doesn’t she know them. And we can explain it all to them in advance but that won’t stop their questions and their questions embarrass me because I don’t know the answers either, and really, I don’t want to be there, either.

Evelyn will know how to handle it, though. She always does. Working mom, always impeccably dressed, always put together, tough, a lawyer. She’ll explain it to them. She’ll explain all about their Grandma and how she’s sick and how she’s still the Grandma they know and love, but the sickness makes her a little bit strange sometimes. And tell the kids they need to hug and kiss her anyway, because she’s still their Grandma and they still love her.

She never shows them her tender side. I wonder why. I hope it’s not my fault. I wonder sometimes whether I’ve bruised everyone too badly, whether nobody can feel anymore because I’ve taken it all from them. But then I tell myself that I’m giving myself too much credit, and there’s no one who’s really to blame there. I’m not the one who changed her, am I? She was only ever herself in the dark, after all. She’d come close to me and whisper to me in the dark, soft and tender and vulnerable, wearing white, a white tanktop and white panties, black hair cut to frame her face, wide eyes open and willing. But only ever in the dark.

And I’d take her then, softly and gently, as she wished it, and I would be good to her, because I would never want to hurt her. And I’d love my way across her body and scatter kisses on her stomach and her breasts and trail them up to her face until I reached her lips and softly, softly I would love her until we would sleep, nestled together or turned apart, but satisfied.

So what happened? When did we drift apart? When did it start, that we were two strangers in a room, caught in the same place but not part of the same family? When did that disconnect begin? I wish I could pinpoint a date, an argument, but I don’t know when it started. I don’t know what caused it. We just seemed to drift. Farther and farther away until our goals did not align, until she was one way and I was another and it seemed that I was sucking the life out of her, but that’s not how I wanted it; I would never have wished for it to be that way. And then she asked for a divorce, her hair perfectly combed, and told me she would fight me for the kids and I didn’t want to fight her and handed them over because I knew even then that she would make a better mother than I would make a dad.

I don’t know how I ended up this way, and that’s the perfect truth. What went wrong? What did I do wrong? I was a shining star, a perfect example of everything that everyone wanted to be. Salutatorian. Good grades, good friends, nice girlfriend, not the kind of guy to ever get into too much trouble. A little pot, some alcohol, maybe smoked a bit with the guys, but nothing serious. Nothing that makes me deserve to end up here, in this wasted stage of my life, going nowhere fast.

What do I want? What do I want to be doing? If I had a goal, maybe it could all come clear. Do I want to turn my life around? And if I did, what would I say? I want to be a good father to my kids, even if they only see me on weekends. I want to help care for my mom. I want to be there for the people who need me. But I think, more than that, I want people to need me. I scare myself pretty badly sometimes when I think that nobody knows I exist anymore.

I had dreams once. I know I did. They come before me, flutter in front of my eyes. I wanted to be great at something. I wanted to change the world. I had a dream of me with a golden trophy, something I had won and deserved to be proud of. Or a better dream of me curing cancer. Doing something grand and noble for the world. But then I got married and changed my dream, because it was something simpler and nobler and more important- just to have a family. And we did that for a while, but then I failed at it. And we drifted apart and now here I am, middle of my life, not knowing what I want or how to get at it, looking back in the mirror at all my forgotten dreams.

Memories are bittersweet. They’re linked to happier times. It’s not that I’m not happy now. I am happy. I’ve got nothing to complain about really. I’ve got a nice house. A nice life. I can afford to do a lot of things. I’ve got kids and they’re pretty decent as kids go. I can entertain myself, afford to go to the movies or maybe even something highbrow, if I’m in the mood. The reason I go usually isn’t to see the show. It’s just to be among people. To be part of the audience.

I’m realizing now how much I took for granted. The easy relationship I had with people, the way they flowed in and out of my life. That easy camaraderie, where I could just slap someone on the back and he would grin right back up at me. School, the bane of our existence. School was great. We hated it but it was great. Because it put us all together again, a group of kids who were ready for life and living, looking at the world and everything that we wanted to do. We had such grand dreams. I’m really glad for the people who fulfilled their dreams. I really am.

I just wish, sometimes, that I could have been one of them.

But this is stupid. I don’t need all this self-pity. Better go sober up; it looks like the dawn’s approaching. Spent the whole of Friday night wallowing in memories. Best go take a shower. Face the new day.

Get into the shower, the hot water hissing against the walls, steam rising up and bathing me in sweat. Take the soap, thick and yellow, and lather under each arm. Close my eyes and douse myself in the water, wanting to get clean. Find the Head and Shoulders shampoo, pour some into my hands and begin lathering my scalp, my fingers digging beneath my hair, water sluicing off my shoulders. I sing for a bit, a tuneless sound that makes me feel happier, refreshed. Turn the water off, enjoy the first shiver of cold. Towel off, shaking my head in every direction so the water splatters the mirror. Towel dry my hair so it stands up straight, stand in front of the mirror, naked, and begin my shaving routine. In the middle, shaving cream covering half my face, I hear the phone ring. Wrap my towel around my waist- strange this acquired sense of modesty, when no one’s home- and go downstairs to answer it.


Evelyn’s voice, crisp and assertive. “Rob. I was hoping you were home. There’s been an accident. Katie fell and broke her wrist. I’m taking her to the hospital.”

A wave of concern passes over me. “Is she okay? Is she going to be all right?”

“She’s fine. I need you to take Marion for the day. You know, just take care of her, play with her, make it a special Daddy-daughter day. She’ll probably need to stay the night. I’ll be busy with Katie and then I’ll need to catch up on work.”

“Do you want me to take Katie to the hospital for you…?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Just take Marion for the day, please.”

“Okay, great. I’ll come pick her up—“

“No, I’ll drop her off by you. It’s on the way. See you in ten minutes.”

The phone goes dead. I look at it, blinking back the water in my eyelashes, seeing myself through an outsider’s eyes, dripping wet on the living room rug, my hair uncombed and a side of my face covered in shaving cream. I burst out laughing, though there’s nothing particularly funny about this. Go back upstairs, hurriedly finish shaving and change into a comfortable pair of t-shirt and jeans. Blowdry my hair quickly, so that it’s damp instead of sopping, then pad down the stairs and make myself a cup of coffee. I’m standing in the kitchen when I hear the doorbell ring.

Open the door to see Evelyn in her crisp, pressed, business attire, holding Marion’s hand. “Hey sweetie,” I say, a big smile on my face. “How are you?” I toss her up in the air and she giggles nervously, looking back over her shoulder. “Daddy,” she babbles, “Katie fell of the monkey bars and hurt her wrist and Dr. Lauren splinted it with newspapers and now she has to go to the hospital and Mommy had to buckle her in because she can’t even move her arm; it hurts so much” but I stop her as I swing her up over my shoulder and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“It’ll be fine,” I mouth to Evelyn, who gives a strained smile and heads back to the car, her heels clicking nervously against the cement. An unwanted image comes to mind as I compare Kathy in the supermarket, her easy smile of genuine warmth and Evelyn, everything so strained, so controlled. I leave her be and turn my attention to Marion.

We have a wonderful day. I make her breakfast (hot cocoa and Rice Krispies) and take her for a walk, chasing the autumn leaves and frolicking in the park. I play ball with her; I push her on the swings; I dance around the park with her and otherwise act happy and goofy. A great bubble of warmth wells up in me, a love for this precious child who is partly mine, who I created and helped to form. I want her life to be better than mine. I want to give her the world and would, were it only in my power.

After a reassuring phone call from the hospital during which Marion got to speak to Katie, she snuggles up against me in her teddy-bear pajamas and begs me to read her a story. I read her a fairy tale, telling her about a princess in her castle. “You’re my prince, Daddy,” she says, and I blink quickly to hold back the tears. “I love you,” I say and snuggle her closer, kissing her fine hair, playing my hand over her neck and stroking her shoulders. She is mine, mine, my child, the one thing I have done right in my life.

“Daddy,” she says, looking up at me with her round blue eyes, “we have a show and tell day on Friday and I’d really like to tell about you. About the things you did when you were little and the things you do now, what you like to do and stuff.” She looks at me hopefully. “Could you write it down for me, Daddy? Could you write it down so Mommy can read it to me and I’ll remember so I can tell the teacher?”

I look at her and I feel a pang of remorse; a sob catches in my throat. What do I tell her? Do I tell her that I still fantasize about the girl I loved in eighth grade? That I fear and resent my own mother because she is so far from me, that I have placed her within a nursing home and cannot forgive her for playing Bingo? That I have done nothing with my life but pushed everyone away from me? That my idea of a good time is staying at home on Friday night and drinking beer, lost in memories?

“Sure,” I say softly, quietly. “Sure I’ll write you something about me.”

I put her to bed, tucking her quietly underneath the blankets, making sure her teddy-bear is close to her. Then I sit down at my desk and begin to write.

I’ll write you my life, Marion.
The life I never had
but wanted.


Credits: Same Old Lang Syne


corner point said...

Wow...beautiful...and scary, too.

It frightens me a little that some of us will end up that way even though we're shining now in our young adult lives...

corner point said...

And by the way, Chana, where do you get the ideas from your stories from? I find your choice of topics fascinating...

Chana said...

corner point,

Thanks. They're all a little part of me. Rob exists as part of me, or what I'm scared I'll be. I can only understand things I know, after all. I can't really explain how I know them...

jackie said...

This is the first of your stories that I've read all the way through, to be honest. They're all so long.

But boy, am I glad I read through it.

Thank you. Great Job. I really enjoyed.

And although (you and) I are not in Rob's place in life at all, I can see why you can relate to him. I can relate to him also.

Maybe I should follow the link in the sidebar and read some of the stories I have missed in the meantime.

Rebecca said...

Wow, Chana, amazing...

Being the optimist I like to think I am sometimes, I'd like to point out that Rob still has a future. I know that's not the point of the story, but I'd like to point out the irony in this situation. Rob symbolizes a life that has lost so much, but I believe that there is hope for him and for all the people he has come to represent.

Notice (well, I suppose you did, Chana), that Rob can still identify with that pure love he once experienced so many years ago. Though that capability for love has been terribly trampled upon, he still holds within him the hope that Kathy will somehow love him. He still feels the love his daughter has for him. He has been beaten and bruised, but he has not become numb.

So for all of us out there who have tasted the bitterness of having dreams that were once loved and lost, I believe that we can (myself included) take heart. If Rob can still hope for those dreams to become actualized, so can we. Rob has the ability to pick himself up when he is ready to do so, to try again after he has healed. We can do the same.