“No, he won’t be coming back.”
Outside the window I can hear the birds chirping. Inside it is quiet with just the movement of steam over hot black coffee.
She isn’t looking at me. She looks outside the window. I know by the creases on her face that she means what she says; somehow I’m not surprised or hurt by this. It is almost like he had promised that he wouldn’t.
Well, he didn’t promise. I thought he was excited the first time I met him – excited and a little embarrassed, maybe; shocked certainly – he had no idea I existed. That is why he never looks me in the eye, I told myself.
I had heard him when he left from the couch where I wasn’t sleeping – his nervous hiccups like the ticking of a stopwatch. It was only after he stepped outside and lit a cigarette that I fell asleep in those early, dark morning hours. Only after the headlights swept through the room and I heard the sound of tires moving on gravel, could I fall asleep in this stranger’s house.
Because then the waiting was over. And he didn’t have to pretend anymore. And I didn’t have to pretend. We could just be who we were before – before Ma told me about him.
“Your father is a good man,” the woman says stoutly. “You have to believe that.”
She turns her face to me. Her skin is wrinkled in the way people’s skin wrinkles when they get too much sun, and her hair should be gray, but instead it is an unnatural blonde.
“Do you believe that?”
I have a feeling that she believes. I have a feeling people have been telling her the opposite all her life. I have a feeling that she needs me to say I believe that, even if I don’t so she won’t feel alone anymore in believing in my father’s goodness.
If I took a picture of her I would see a beautiful vase with cracks letting the sun in.
“I believe that,” I say. What else is there to say?
She almost smiles and looks at me to see if I am telling the truth. Her eyes are ice cubes; the kind of eyes that don’t dim with time – the kind of eyes that see everything exactly as it really is.
I guess she is satisfied. She looks at me with pity.
“I’m sorry about him. He really is a good man.”
“What happened to him?” I ask cool-headedly and detachedly. I think about the pictures I took of him on our road trip here, only I didn’t know we were heading to her house all along. Well, I knew it would end something like this, the way a child knows the end of a fairy tale before the story’s even started.
My favorite snapshot is the black and white one, his nervous-yet-smiling eyes half hidden in the shadow of the wrinkles across his forehead and cheeks, the light that reflects in his eyes and the check in his lips – like he knows what a soul looks like – like he remembers a time before he was born.
She sighs and shakes her head, “He never told me much.”
Her eyes snap back up to my face. “I was his first wife. Your mother was his last.”
“I guessed as much.”
She drums her long, made-up nails on her coffee mug. They make dull thuds on the porcelain. She looks like she’s okay with being called old, despite the hair dye. She looks like she’s not fighting time. I pull up my phone to the edge of the table and snap her picture. She doesn’t notice. Or care. I can’t help but smile a little.
She sighs, “He was married to me the longest. He was…more normal…than he is now. In a way he is still the same. We met here, you know. Not this house, but this town. I felt I knew him almost immediately. He has that effect on you. You meet him and you know him.”
There is a pause and I can’t be sure whether she meant it for emphasis or she wanted to gauge my reaction. I slurp a touch of the coffee, still looking at her. I taste the grounds at the bottom, hot sand, my lips parched.
“All the trouble started when my mother died. It wasn’t that he was fond of her, but I was. Of course I was. I became depressed like anybody else. He was comforting at first, but…I didn’t know him the way I do now, you see. My distress made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t take it. He’s such a sensitive creature… I can remember him telling me one night that she wasn’t dead at all. That we’d go visit her tomorrow. He told me she was still alive. I don’t know how much either of us really believed in God, but I always imagined my mother in a nice place, you know, like a warm bath…she believed in God.
“He pretended to invite her to supper on the phone. He pretended to pick her up and bring her over. At supper he talked to her. He wanted me to talk to her, too. I humored him for a while. Well, I humored myself, really. You might think it strange or disgusting, but I was happy, pretending with him. He made me happy. He’d do anything to be happy.”
She sighed and I could hear the neighbors’ talking in her sigh. I could hear their snide remarks and then their impending urgency to act but nobody doing anything. I could hear her caring about what they said and felt. I could hear her giving up her mother.
“When I stopped playing and told him to stop playing, he was mad at first. With him, he never wants to give up a good thing. He took a new approach. He stopped mentioning my mother. That was a relief to me too. When she first died he knew I wasn’t ready to let her go. He kept her alive for me. Now the time had come to move on, and he gave me peace in that, too.”
She stirred the spoon lazily in her mug. The corner of her mouth curved up.
“When I was ready, I talked about her – about the woman she was, what she meant to me – and you should have seen his eyes. He pretended he had never known her. More than that, it was like she had never existed at all. I didn’t realize he had forgotten. You’ll never know him like I do. He always forgets the unpleasant things. He never suffers. That’s what makes him so beautiful.
“One day I asked him to bring me to her grave. It was the fifth year anniversary of her death. I cried then; I needed to. I don’t cry anymore.”
She looks at me again, and her face is without joy, without pain. She is greater than time now. Beyond the mundane experience. In a world of her own.
“That night your father left me. It was a good seven years before I heard from him again. He came over here like no time had passed at all, like he’d just been gone on a milk run. I couldn’t believe it – I was ready to be angry, to throw him out of my house, out of my life; this time it would be my choice. But his eyes… I couldn’t be angry, not yet. He told me how he had changed his name and taken a new wife. He told me how he loved her and how sweet she was. I didn’t want to hear that, of course, but he was crying like a child as he told me. He told me she had miscarried and that she became depressed. And it clicked,” her glacier eyes bore into mine, “I knew what he would say next.”
“It was what he had done with my mother. He pretended the child wasn’t dead. It was torture to the woman. She attempted suicide. He left her at a hospital.”
She drummed her nails along the table. “He had done what he could for her, but it wasn’t good enough. He only made her worse; and he couldn’t stand to see her pain…” Her eyes fell into her coffee mug and her lip trembled. “He didn’t tell me that, but I heard it in his sobs. He’s a good man, Gavin. One of the few. It wasn’t right for him to leave her, or him to leave me, the way he did, I know – but what could he do? He cried through most of the night onto the table, into my lap. Then he forgot. In the morning he smiled at me and I asked him if he was alright. He told me, ‘Why wouldn’t I be alright?”
“It was then that I really knew what your father was. He was a forgetter.”
“He left and I waited. It was only a couple of years this time. It was your mother. She had mysteriously walked out on him. He didn’t know why. My guess is that she pieced together the type of man your father is faster than I had. His condition to avoid suffering must have been very apparent then. I suppose she left him before he could know you existed. Maybe she thought you’d be tainted.”
She wrinkles her nose. “To some people the idea of avoiding all suffering is undesirable.”
We both sit quietly at the table, I trying to digest what she had said.
“So my father…you think he avoids all suffering? By forgetting?”
“That is the only way,” she says with a shrug and reclines back in her chair. She is relieved by my lack of criticism or attempts to understand – I can’t be sure which.
“He comes to me when he has a problem. He always returns to me. I let him cry in my lap and I soothe him. And then he falls asleep and forgets.”
She turns her head so I see her full profile. Her hair is curled as though she slept in braids or curlers, the loose hair emphasized her cheeks beginning to sag, beginning to hollow out like a mindless grinning jack o’ lantern as the frost sets in.
“Why does he always come back to you, if he is supposed to forget?” My tone was even measured and perfectly uninterested enough to arouse her slacking shoulders back into a tight hunch.
“I love him,” she says simply. She sighs and closes her eyes and I can tell she is wishing that was enough. “And who else is there?”
She eyes me, trying to sum me up. “I wouldn’t try calling him if I were you. He’s left the place wherever you found him, changed his name, face, and occupation. He’s new.”
There’s a dash of admiration in her eyes, like she wishes she could rise from her own ashes, too.
“He’s like a child,” I reply, tapping a finger lightly against the table, twisting my ankles around the chair legs.
I almost like it this way better; it suits my expectations and my predictions about him, about the man he was and is. He’s like someone from a dream.
She blinks, but her mind hasn’t yet returned from her revere.
“Yes.” That is all she said.
“How can he function?”
She shakes her head. “He is a happy man. He doesn’t remember suffering. He is an attractive force, because he is all joy.” She sighs.
I try to see my mother with my father. Ma had never said anything bad about him when she spoke of him. It wasn’t like Auntie Bee’s husband, Leo and Leah’s dad, whom no one ever spoke of. The feelings behind my mystery father were never fear or hate like Leo and Leah had about their father.
My father isn’t that man. The one that inspires anxiety and bruises.
He isn’t a family man either.
And I accept that. I had accepted that when I was old enough to realize that having two mom-figures wasn’t the norm.
What is hard to grasp is his avoidance of suffering. If you brought up pain, he would run away and forget you.
“I didn’t run away from him, though,” I murmur, trying to piece events together, though that wouldn’t change anything. Then a little louder: “That’s what I don’t get. I wasn’t a problem – I didn’t ask for the trip, you know. That was his idea. I didn’t even want to find him – I didn’t need him, I don’t need him. I wouldn’t have called him, but my mom insisted I meet him, and I just went along with her -”
I stop myself. I don’t need to bring mothers and death back into the conversation.
“Maybe that’s why he brought you to me,” she answered, looking out the window as though she would see my father, or herself as a young woman again, if she sat still long enough.
“You didn’t need him,” she sighed, “and I suppose you’re right. So he left you – why stick around? Though I think every boy should have a father-figure in their life if they’re going to grow up right.”
I sip the coffee again. Our thoughts patter on the table as silent as cat paws. I can’t agree because I think Leo and I have grown up alright enough without our fathers, but I can’t disagree because there have been times when I wished I’d had a man to turn to, even having the best of moms.
“Do you think he really forgets,” I finally manage to ask.
She looks at me a long time. Her eyes are patient and yet withheld. Then her eyebrow arches, and I know she has heard my real question: can someone really cease to suffer?
“Not many of us could, could we?”
“No,” I say.
She grabs the cold coffee off the table and places each precariously, chipped mug in the sink.
“Do you want me to call you a cab to the bus station or something,” she asks.
I don’t answer right away because I am thinking, and she grabs the phone book from the top of the fridge and dials a number. I sit in silence another moment. I’m not being rushed, I know. There’s nothing about her or this house that moves in a time-conscious way anymore. I suppose that’s for my father’s sake.
The cab eventually pulls up in the driveway, and I have my suitcase on the porch, and she is looking at me through the screen door.
“Do you think he is happy, really?” I ask, considering everything.
She smiles faintly with her eyes, the corner of her mouth twitching silently upwards, and closes the door.
There’s only one person who could answer that question, and he’s gone off on a new adventure.
I wonder if being happy is the most important thing.
I look through all of the pictures I took over the road trip with my dad. It’s getting to be the hour I normally call my mom, but I can’t seem to get the right resolve. Did she really know my dad the way the other woman described him? Did she know this is how it would end?
Why would she tell me to find him if she knew this is how it would end? I mean, I sort of expected this, but why would she encourage me if this is what she knew would happen? She wasn’t the mom who sheltered me from experience. I smile to myself. She’s too much of an artist to resist the powers of a fresh emotion – but still. She’s dying; she should want me close to her, for love and comfort. She should not be the daring artist now; she should’ve left that to me. Maybe in her will.
I have endowed my son with art and intuitive talents from birth; now, upon my death, I give to my son my intuition for color patterns in both acrylic and oil paints, my knack for spotting new things, my lack of conventions, my bravery against all critics…
I ask her when I finally call her room at the hospital, an hour late, her raspy voice comes on the line.
“Did you have a good time with him, anyway, Gavin? While it lasted?”
“How can you ask me if I had fun? Who cares if I had fun? Did you know how he was, Ma? Did you know he would run away from me? That he would bring me to her; forget about me? Did you know he avoided pain at all costs?”
“I didn’t know about that woman,” she replies so slowly and laboriously.
“And I never thought that it was pain he was avoiding.”
I stop a moment and I hear her breathing through her mouth. I imagine her lying on her side in the hospital bed, the phone pressed up close to her head on the pillow because she doesn’t have the strength to hold it, or maybe Auntie Bee is holding it for her; her cracked lips and the last tuffs of hair on her head matted to her sweaty scalp.
“What did you think he was avoiding?”
I pressed the phone closer to my ear like I would have her hand. Is she envisioning my face beside hers the same way I am?
“…He was always pretending. I loved it at first. He created a magical world. It was like a child’s world. He…it was like he didn’t grow, didn’t change. I wanted a man I could talk to and grow old with. I wanted someone to share my experiences with. But your father…I don’t know what. He…he couldn’t do that for me, Gavin. He was so deep into his illusions that he had stopped growing as a person…”
She takes three rapid breaths, trying desperately to hold onto the conversation, to me, to life.
“I never thought about him avoiding pain. I guess that makes sense, though. You can’t grow or change without pain. I guess I never consciously put those things together…”
I am quiet; I listen. I just want to listen now. I can hear the mucus rattle in her throat. “I’m glad you’re not here…I guess I hoped you’d see a little of the magic in his world. The world.”
Her words beg me to smile, and I do so without her seeing it; though maybe she feels it through the phone. All the words in between the others pile up on the empty bus seat beside me and I reach out to them as if I might feel the soft, warm fur of love unspoken but not unfelt. She isn’t asking me to be happy or for this to be okay or to mourn her forever. She isn’t asking me to find beauty in the suffering – yet.
She inhales. “I love you, Gavin.”
Those are my mother’s last words.
I think about Ma in the garden with her easel, painting the lilies and heads of lettuce, tomatoes and daisies. In the living room at home there’s a golden seed, ruptured by a lightning bolt-like green root, hanging near the front door. When Ma had hung it up there, she’d put down her level and stood next to me.
“What is it?” I’d asked her then.
She touched my shoulder with her hand; her hand’s favorite resting place, she’d once laughed.
“You,” she’d answered.
At eight, I didn’t think it was a very worthy likeness. Now, I am so proud to be synonymous with that sprouting seed.
My father wouldn’t have understood her painting. But I do.