Driving home the night before Thanksgiving, I see a view my schedule rarely allows. The California sky turns to night in layers. First a white skirt covers the foothills. An orange-pink layer hides behind it. Then, the light and dark blue layers lean back into outer space. To the East, the yellow moon shines.
My father died the day after my eighth birthday. He was 44, a New York trial attorney who loved abstract art, Bertolt Brecht, steak, Jaguars, Remy Martin, Marlboro Reds, New York, my mother, sister, and me. There isn’t a day I don’t feel his absence. Would he be proud of me? Would my daughter remind him of me? At sunset, it’s worse. When someone dies, you never stop waiting for him to come home at the end of the day.
I stop at the end of the exit ramp. Instead of heading home, I make a sharp right, heading higher into the foothills. His absence expands in the car as music drives me deeper into memory. Stars above sway with each bar of music. Sound and light are waves, moving until they hit something and shift direction. Do memories move until they hit something? Is that forgetting?
I pull over. A guitar riff rolls from my navel to sternum. The seatbelt across my chest cradles the rock sitting on top of my heart. Tonight, it is a smooth river stone, perfect for skipping.
I remember standing on rocky Orient Point beach. Daddy is to my left, his Minolta around his neck, blocking my view of the black and white lighthouse protecting the fishing boats from the harbor. “Take your time, find a good smooth one. It should be flat, not too big – you want one that’ll fly.”
“No, thinner. Try this one.”
I hurl the stone into Long Island Sound. It plunks into the water. The wind on the water turns the ripples’ concentric rings into rhombuses and parallelograms. I pause for a beat, willing the stone to bob up and skip across the brown salt water. Nothing. I find another stone. It blubs down from the surface faster than the first.
Distracted, I look over to the Cross Sound Ferry Service parking lot bustling with departing day-trippers from New England. Woody station wagons burst with pumpkins, Indian corn, and wine from North Fork wineries. They’ll serve up harvest supper in Connecticut tomorrow night. The cars load in an order only understood by frequent ferry travelers – weight distribution trumping first come, first served. A man in a red Mercedes complains to a sturdy dockhand who ignores him, waving on a large purple van. “Daddy, he has bad manners.”
“Worry about your own manners.” He raises one eyebrow. I turn and play with my eyebrows, holding one down with my index finger, unable to replicate the gesture.
While we’ve watched this Saturday afternoon dance roll on, the sun moved. Orange and purple-gray clouds hint at evening and the half moon appears white in the eastern sky. Daddy takes out his camera. “Bloody slow shutter,” he grumbles then laughs. “Got it.” The 5:40 Cape Henlopen honks three times as it departs for New London.
“Skipping stones is important. You can’t be a kid if you can’t skip stones.”
“Daddy, that’s silly, I can’t skip and I’m a kid.”
He laughs at and with me. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go home.”
I press my head into the steering wheel. My teeth chatter. I grind my molars to stop them. Anxiety races out from under my sternum to my fingers and toes. After a few seconds, I exhale air I’d held in. I breathe again. “Who are you?” In the hills, no one hears me.
Straightening my spine, I steer the car back on the road and drive toward my house. Hot salty tears blur my vision, threating to send me careening off the snaking road. Too warm, I feel claustrophobic in my own skin. I sweat. A thin stream stings my invariably slightly sunburned neck, creeping down my chest, where it becomes cold; forcing me to notice that it’s reached my navel. My “rosy” face becomes purple and the whites of my eyes turn pinkish red. From my nose, hot, clear, liquid runs into my mouth. A pocket pack of Kleenex is buried at the bottom of my handbag. It is all utterly out of reach. My foot covers the brake and I raise my arm to wipe my eyes with my sleeve.
I remember a clear October day at Cupsogue Beach. We walk out onto the sand, take off our Reebok sneakers and white tube socks, roll up our jeans, pull up our hoods, and run in endless tire tracks left on the sand. Ahead of me, Daddy runs toward the jetties, now visible only out in the water. His body shrinks until he dissolves into the mist. I panic. Willing my legs to push through the sand, my feet sink further with each step. “Daddy!”
He’s right in front of me, but I can’t see him; his form obscured by mist, sun and blowing sand. I reach forward, running faster – arms open, until he runs back to scoop me up into his arms. The smell of a damp un-dyed Irish wool Aran Fisherman’s sweater mixes with lemony cologne and left over Marlboro smoke to capture the sound of a voice I can no longer recall.
When I was seven, Daddy and I shared a notebook. He bought it for me to write notes for a school project. It became something else entirely. I remember us waiting for my mother.
“Daddy, write me a letter.”
“Yes, a letter. Here, use my notebook.”
“I just want you to write me something. So I don’t forget.”
“Ok.” I pass the small beige wire-bound notebook between the two front seats. He reaches back, grabbing the well-chewed pencil placed on top of the notebook. He rubs the bite marks but says nothing to admonish me.
He hands me back the notebook. I read his note out loud.
This is a letter about my favorites.
My favorite color is blue.
My favorite food is steak.
My favorite car is Jaguar.
My favorite people are you, Mommy and Tracy.
Does anyone need to know any more than that about her father? But it’s not this kind of knowing that I crave. I feel unfinished and his absence wraps around my flesh from every direction. On my street, the neighbors’ houses are dark with drawn shades. The only light on the street comes from my headlights pointing towards my night. Am I still loved?
I pull into the grainy clay parking spot in front of my house. The porch light is off. Yellow light from the living room lamp glows through the cracks in the plantation shutters. My shoulders fold together as I exhale, my head presses back into the headrest. I lick my lips. And then it comes into my mouth again, that delicious pain – the absence I know so well.
I turn off the ignition, step out into the evening air, close the car door, and lean back onto it. My eyes trace the black silhouette of redwoods, up the trunks, past the triangle branches to the point where they become the night sky. I am far from everywhere. West of the Rockies, the absence of fireflies adds to the otherness of this place, halfway up a foothill, on its way to somewhere else.
Children whose parents die are half adult. It starts when someone lies to you. For me, the lie was that my father would get better. I was seven and I knew. I don’t know how, I just did. They were thirty-seven and they didn’t. Now I realize that they weren’t lying to me, they were lying to themselves. Lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous.
Would we even know each other if I saw him passing on a sidewalk? Would he say that I lived well? Would he love me?
I imagine Daddy in a blue corduroy chair, one leg crossed with his ankle on his knee. He drags off a cigarette and says, “You are incomplete.” Who was he, really? As much as I wish to know more about my father, I will find that knowing more about him leaves me unsatisfied. That is because I want him to know me. That remains impossible.
I look up. The sky above me is covered with stars; my eyes trace the dusty edges of the Milky Way. The light above me shone a billion years ago. The past is literally with me. What does that say about memory? Are the images in my mind mere chemical reactions? But I can’t bring myself to go inside. I stay with the night air and the illusion of time and truth a little longer.