When my father needed something he came by the Fifth Avenue penthouse he’d bought with my mother in 1970 and rummaged through his old things, calling out to her about a book, a favorite tie, his prescription sinus medicine. He still had a key and the doormen still knew him, as Mr. Thayer from 13c. He was living at his club by then and once as I watched him disappear upstairs into what used it be his home, it occurred to me that he was lonely. Often it turned out he’d already taken the item he was looking for, that what he wanted from us was something else, something we hadn’t been able to give him and still couldn’t.
One October night my parents sequestered themselves in what used to be their bedroom and talked for hours in urgent, serious tones. But I needed something too: help with geometry, and my mother, who’d taught math before marrying my father, was whom I went to for that. I knocked on the door. My father was standing by his side of the bed in boxer shorts and a smoking jacket.
“Not now, Tessa. We’re talking.”
I shut the door, stood there, decided it wasn’t his place to tell me what to do in a household he no longer inhabited.
“Mom. What’s the Pythagorean Theorem again?”
“Not now.”
“But you don’t even live here.”
He pushed me into the hallway and hit my ears one after the other so that my head went left, right, as if in a military salute. I staggered against the banister, my ears buzzing, singing, dropped my notebook, slipped on it, lost my balance, rolled down the first three steps. He pulled me up by my armpits, grabbed hold of my ponytail, and marched me to my room. “H squared equals A squared plus B squared,” he said. He tossed the notebook after me.
My mother came in later, clutching her silk robe around herself. She set a cup of chamomile tea on my radiator. She rubbed my shoulders, explaining that someone had stolen his car off the street, explaining away his bad behavior the way she always did, as if he were a favorite, spoiled child.
He spent Christmas with us that first year, as usual, except that he didn’t throw the tree across the room in a rage the way he had in the past. He was eerily quiet, squirreling his few presents into a neat little pile, staring glumly at the spot on the ceiling where he’d overflowed the bathtub. Finally the divorce papers were signed and he was installed in his own apartment on East 79th Street. I had imagined I’d be relieved, but after he left for good, taking his books and guns and hunting trophies with him, I abruptly missed the commotion of his presence. I missed his Bach and Bob Dylan records, the sharp smell of his disgusting onion sandwiches, the way he’d walk around in his underwear puffing out his pale hairy belly, even the way he’d sign his notes, “God.” I missed the racks and skins, those sad dead animals, the way the caribou’s eyes would follow me longingly across a room like those of a jilted lover. My father hung the caribou in his front hall and when I stayed with him on Fridays in his new beautiful apartment, I’d reach up to stroke the bristling cheek.
I discussed the ear incident with various boyfriends, all of whom condemned my father. He’s not really that way, I said. I sounded bogus I knew, but it was the truth. He wasn’t some slothful, beer-drinking, sports-watching wife-beater, some gun-toting Republican (though I had to admit that he was, in fact, a gun-toting Republican). He’d attended Woodstock; he peppered his conversation with the sayings of Groucho Marx and Winston Churchill. He knew wine and women’s fashion, he encouraged my artistic leanings, he not only read poetry but wrote it—under a pile of The Paris Review I found a snippet of verse, scribbled on a Post-It, something about his lover and her green bag.
Then I was a senior in high school and it was my turn to leave home. I wore my mother’s flowered blue dress to a bar downtown and ordered a mai-tai and when the bartender told my his name instead of what I owed, I wrote my number on a cocktail napkin which I pushed into his palm. On our first date, after dinner at an Indian restaurant, he took me walking along an abandoned railroad track high above the sidewalks of Chelsea. It was April and flowers thrust up between the rails, purple and yellow and white, like they couldn’t care less about the dirty city air, the pigeons and rats and roaches. “It’s the high line,” Zach said. “The city wants to tear it down.” We lay down on the tracks and made out until a homeless man hobbled our way, croaking something about Dolly Parton. We went back to the apartment Zach shared with a data processor named Spike. I called my mother, said I’d be sleeping at a friend’s. Zach put on Guns n’ Roses. I stretched my arms up and turned my head to the side. I kept my eyes open, loving the way the red lights of the stereo jumped in the dark room.
We woke into soft rain. I took the C train uptown and then the cross-town bus home. It was late morning by then and the only other people on the bus were mothers and little kids and old women and men in wet navy slickers. The driver was listening to a portable radio which played a song about a wedding ring, about something old and borrowed and blue, and I saw myself older, maybe an artist like my father wanted me to be, my hair twisted up, I saw that I’d be happy not now but later, that my life would be something different entirely. The bus went by an exercise studio called Body Design by Gilda. I watched the women jumping and turning and kicking their legs inside the big window. A mother said to another, “I don’t know if I’d want my body designed by Gilda.” The second mother laughed.
I called in sick to school and ate a stale bagel. I drank a bottle of Evian and clipped my toenails. At six-thirty I put on the same blue-flowered dress, now smelling of my night out, the same dangling chandelier earrings. I walked ten blocks through the fading light and the gossamer beginnings of warmth and a strong, debris-filled wind to my father’s apartment. The reek of spring disturbed me, promising change. A pigeon huddled in the shadow of an awning. The high wind blew dirt into my eyes.
In his apartment full of dead things, my father was cooking asparagus. He had the kitchen window open and the wind ruffled his shirt. He filched a stalk from the steaming pot, blew on it quickly, and bit into it. “Taste this,” he said. He held it out to me.
“I don’t like asparagus.” I hung my book bag on a deer hoof.
“My daughter,” my father said, over his shoulder. “She doesn’t like asparagus.”
A young dark-haired woman was sitting drinking wine at the kitchen table. The wind blew the curtains towards her and her hair across her mouth. She tucked the hair behind her ears and smiled shyly at me. Then her eyes returned to my father, as if hypnotized. “Tessa, “ he said, “this is Sandrine.” He was wearing an apron, which annoyed me, as when he’d lived with my mother he’d done none of the cooking, would never have donned an apron. And though he cooked regularly now he would never cook something ordinary, like meatloaf—no, even in the kitchen he was an artiste.
“It’s white asparagus,” he said. “You might like it. You never know.” He poured me a half glass of wine and I sipped at it, holding my tongue out slightly between my teeth.
“So you are going to college?” Sandrine’s voice was smooth and sweet, heavily accented.
“Berkeley.” My father poured the asparagus into a colander and swished water over it.
“Really?” I said. “You’re going to Berkeley?”
My father said, “She can’t get far enough away.” Deadpan, so I couldn’t tell if he was angry or joking.
“I know all about that.” Sandrine brushed hair from her mouth again. “I came here last month from Paris. Everyone tells me, why would you ever want to leave Paris?”
“The music,” said my father. “The people.”
Sandrine smiled at him.
“Wow,” I said, politely. “Paris.” I took a sip of my wine—it tasted floral and clean, like some sort of delicious rinse. Sandrine made a temple with her fingers, then took out a long thin cigarette. I watched the pretty curve of her jaw as she smoked. I wondered what my father would do if I asked her for one. After he’d left home, he’d dated a bipolar Swedish woman, the one in the poem. His girlfriends had gotten progressively younger but less strange, since then—they’d turned into younger more exotic versions of my mother. Patient, capable, slender, bird-like women. I watched Sandrine’s fingers hold the cigarette, imagined them handling my father’s uncircumcised penis. I tried to focus on Zach—looked out the window, over low buildings, pigeons flocking to a rooftop, thought of him tending bar sixty blocks downtown, whistling to Guns ‘n Roses, his hair pulled into a ponytail, thinking of me. My own hair blew across my face, attached to my lip-gloss. I got up, pulled on the window. It stuck and I slammed it, glass shuddering in the frame. Sandrine and my father looked at each other. My father spilled the asparagus onto a china platter and drizzled oil over it. From the oven he took a fish, complete with tail, head, and down turned mouth, a branch of rosemary by its side.
I said, “I don’t like fish.”
He touched my earring. “You’ll hurt yourself with those,” he said.
But the thing was when I tried the fish, just to make my point, I did like it. The asparagus too. I shrugged. “It’s fine,” I said, and my father said, “Good. I’m glad.” I even liked Sandrine, who in the awkward silence that ensued after we began to eat said, “I couldn’t sleep last night. Did you hear that girl last night, Eamon?” Then she looked quickly at me and blushed.
“It’s all right,” my father said. “She’s an adult. What girl?”
“There was a girl smiling down on the street. For one hour. Smiling and smiling.”
“Laughing,” My father said. “A girl laughing.”
“Laughing.” Sandrine put her tongue into the word like she was licking it. “Laughing and laughing, down on the street.”
“It’s quiet here,” I said. “At the back.”
“What subject do you study?” she asked me. Then she waved her hand. “No. Never mind. Instead, do you have a boyfriend?” She put emphasis on both syllables.
“His name’s Zach,” I said. I liked the bold, snappy sound of his name in my mouth. “He’s twenty-two. He’s a bartender.” I looked sideways at my father. I wanted to shock him but he just looked amused.
“I’d like to meet him,” he said. “Next week?”
“He works Fridays.” I traced a pattern down the interior of my glass.
My father said, “Those are the legs.”
I tensed my body. I watched his hands, ready to jump away. But he just shrugged and ate a stalk of asparagus with his fingers.
From the kitchen came a thud, like something soft and heavy being thrown against a wall. We all stood up at once.
A pigeon flailed softly on the windowsill, beating its wings. It hopped in a circle, then hunkered down and folded the right wing. Sandrine put her hand against the windowpane.
“It hit the glass,” my father said.
The plump body twitched quietly. The red eye stared straight ahead.
“Wow,” I said. “Bird suicide.”
My father pushed the table away and stepped into its place and raised the window. Cords stood out along his neck and arms. He cupped his hands around the soft filthy creature. One, two, he rocked it this way and that. Then his hand covered the head and face and when he laid the body back down it was empty, the life gone right out.
I looked at Sandrine. She was watching my father with wide eyes. I barely knew her, but I still didn’t like to see her this way: in his thrall.
“Listen,” Zach said. “I’m going to sing you something.” We lay on his bed under a thin Indian blanket. “You’re going to want to rip my clothes off.”
“They’re already off,” I said.
“And whose fault is that?” He clutched me briefly. “You’re so small!” He got up, naked, and approached a black guitar case covered with psychedelic stickers. I could see the dark hairs in the crack of his ass. He touched the instrument lovingly, and I felt embarrassed at his pride in it; it occurred to me that naked guitar playing was not necessarily something I wanted to see. Next-door Spike talked on the phone to his mother in an agitated way about his career. He had spiky hair (hence his silly nickname) and high, pointed ears that made him look like he was about to take off. He was gay and his habitual expression was mischievous; he always seemed to be enjoying a private joke, as if coming out of the closet had earned him the right to be in a good mood for the rest of his life. The walls were thin so he could hear our love-sounds all night long, just as clearly as we could hear him right now. In the mornings he looked at me lasciviously from under half-closed eyelids. The apartment used to be an office and the half-walls and small spaces were reminiscent of cubicles. Wooly gray carpeting covered the floor. It made me think of my father’s office; how years ago I used to visit with my brothers, loving the many colored pens, the attention from strangers, the Xerox machine, where we would photocopy various body parts: a hand, a cheek, a closed eye.
Zach leaned over the guitar and touched the strings. With his ponytail loose his hair was shoulder length, like mine. Chords floated up towards the drop ceiling. He sang a song about a girl named Suzanne. It reminded me of the music my parents had listened to when I was little and for a moment I wanted to weep. My father still put on those old records occasionally, when I stayed with him; there was one in particular I liked, something about boots, Spanish boots of Spanish leather.
Zach finished with a flourish and laid down the instrument. “Leonard Cohen,” he said. “It’s the shit, right?” A mouse scrabbled at the wall. The ground floor housed an Italian restaurant and on warmer days a smell rose through the window, one of garlic and tomatoes and trash. On Saturday nights the tub filled up with spaghetti and sauce. I removed my chandelier earrings and laid them carefully by the side of the bed. Zach stood. I admired the way his penis swung between his strong legs, forgave him for the nude recital.
“I love it,” I said.
I invited Zach to my high school graduation. I visited Lord & Taylor, bought a white dress with a white satin sash, heels that made me the same height as my best friend Sophie in her heels. I tried to picture Zach at my father’s club, dark hair slicked back. “It’s coat and tie,” I told him. “Do you have a coat and tie?”
“Of course I do.”
I looked at him doubtfully, bent over a bowl of noodles at the coffee table, slurping broth off a plastic spoon. I wished I could take back the invite. There were so many potentially embarrassing things about his person: his age, his occupation, his ponytail, his sexual relationship to myself. My mother would be shy and alarmed, my father bemused and possibly sarcastic.
“Don’t worry,” Zach said.
We did tequila shots and went with Spike to a coed strip club on Eighth Avenue. I crossed my arms across my chest and watched a young, heavy, dark-haired girl stripping to a Stevie Nicks song, a love song. The girl mouthed the lyrics intently as she stripped, looking straight ahead, as if singing to herself in her bedroom mirror.
“Do they get to choose the music?” I asked Zach.
“I think so. They choose the music, make up the dance, everything. It’s like, part of the deal.”
“Do you think she’s pretty?”
“That girl?”
“A little fat.”
I pushed at him.
“Ow.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Be careful.”
“Oh!” I jumped up and stood in first position, arching my arms over my head. “You’re delicate. I didn’t know.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said.
My father took me to a Japanese restaurant on 86th Street. He ate expertly, capturing the rice and fish with his chopsticks, dipping them in the soy sauce then the wasabi. I was so incompetent with the chopsticks that I gave up, still hungry, halfway through the meal, not wanting to use a fork with my father as I always did with my friends. We stopped in Tower Records on the way home. My father muttered something about Wagner and disappeared into the classical section. I flipped through the folk albums. I was looking for something in particular. That Leonard Cohen song, “Suzanne.” I found it and showed it to my father, imagining he’d be pleased.
“Leonard Cohen is a drip,” he said.
“Really? But his songs are good,” I said quickly.
“No. They’re not.”
I didn’t know any of the rest of his songs, just “Suzanne.” I said, “But ‘Suzanne’ is a good song.”
My father shook his head. “No. It’s not a good song. I’ll buy it for you though, if you want it.” He put out his hand.
I did want it. But I held the CD behind my back. “Come on. You have to admit it’s a good song. Maybe his other songs aren’t good, I don’t know, but you have to admit ‘Suzanne’ is a good song.”
“You like the song,” he said. “What do you care if I like it?” He reached behind me and took the CD. “Leonard Cohen was a pedophile.” He walked toward the cash register.
I hurried after him. “What?”
“He liked younger women. Girls.”
“You like Sandrine.” I backed off. He stood in line.
“That’s different. We’re both adults. I mean like you and your friend. The bartender?” He paid, not acknowledging the kid behind the counter except to hand over his Master Card.
“His name’s Zach,” I said. My father headed outside and I had nothing to do but follow him.
He handed me the Tower Records bag and hailed a cab. “I’m not trying to influence you,” he said.
My mother went out of town and I invited Zach over to watch The Untouchables. We drank beer from my mother’s refrigerator and ate blue corn tortilla chips. A piece of blue corn ended up between Zach’s teeth and I watched it, stuck there, in the shifting light of the film, causing me for some reason a nagging pain as if it was poking into my own gum. He was my boyfriend but I didn’t feel comfortable telling him he had something in his teeth. Why not? I wanted to fix the distance that suddenly ached between us by turning off the movie and asking him something profound, by telling him something profound about myself, but I didn’t know what—I thought about that morning on the bus, after we first slept together, but I didn’t know what, about it, what was so good, so important? Suddenly everything had gone to shit. A song caught in my head, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” something else my parents used to play in the car—the flowers gone to young girls, the young girls gone to young men, the young men gone to soldiers, the soldiers gone to graveyards, the graveyards to flowers and so on, the song never ending in a way that was satisfying, you just had to keep singing and hearing it in your head until the trip was over or whatever. Zach had sung “Suzanne” and it was like a shred of myself he was giving back to me, a scrap of hair or skin in a white paper envelope, but now I despised the song and him, the album lay unopened on my cold radiator, my father had swept the joy and sex and beauty out of it all at once, like a waiter in a Greek coffee shop clearing plates.
“I’m still hungry,” Zach said. He headed to the kitchen, hooking the swinging door open. I could see him bending into the fridge He removed some turkey and an English muffin.
“Don’t eat that turkey,” I called out. “It’s old.”
He smelled it.
“Please don’t smell it.”
“It’s fine.” He laid the English muffin on the counter, spread it with mayonnaise, arranged the meat.
“Those are raisin muffins.”
“I like raisin with turkey.”
He returned with his sandwich. I moved away from him on the couch. I watched an aerial shot of a man bashing in another man’s head. I laughed—it was so horrible.
“What,” says Zach, “why are you laughing? Are you laughing at me?” His voice hit a high, whiny note. He chewed his revolting sandwich. He put his arm around my shoulders, wanting something—contact, comfort, me—and I let him, but with every rotation of his jaw, I despised him more. I watched the way the television lit his face as if catching him out, isolating him in his absurd, adult life.

Beloit Fiction Journal #19

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