Hunting season my father hung pheasants out the library window to dry, all in a row and upside down over Fifth Avenue. He claimed that to bury a turkey overnight improved the taste, so the last Wednesday in November found him hacking at my mother’s planter as our bird waited beside him in a burlap bag. My brothers watched through the terrace doors but I stood beside him, clutching a flashlight, which lent nothing to the city’s vesperal glow.
For his birthday he required a flourless chocolate cake from Dumas. And every Halloween, he donned an overcoat and a feathered green Tyrolean hat and walked four paces behind my brothers and me as we visited the other buildings on the block. I was a mouse, a tulip, a princess, a pumpkin, finally a gypsy. I wore a long red dress and shoes my father had brought home to me from Thailand. I stood at the shadowy foot of the stairs and my mother took my picture. My noisy brothers had gone trick-or-treating with friends and in the hush I heard the radiator banging, water boiling for the thin green pasta my parents liked to eat. The doorbell rang: my friend Genevieve, dressed as a skunk. She carried a bottle of Diorissimo and when I opened the door she sprayed me with it.
My father emerged from the library and went to the coat closet. He disappeared for a minute, came out holding the overcoat and wearing the Tyrolean hat.
“Holy shit,” Genevieve whispered. I glanced at my mother but she was fiddling with the camera. “He’s coming with us?”
I took my mother’s wrist and whispered in turn. “We want to go by ourselves.”
My mother put down the camera and looked around for my father. “You can stay home. She’s old enough.”
He shrugged on the overcoat. “What?” His hearing was notoriously selective.
“I’m making dinner.”
“I’ll eat later.” He adjusted his hat to a more rakish angle.
Crossly, my mother said, “They don’t want you.”
The hallway radiator clanked. I looked down at the glittery shoes, at Genevieve, at my mother. Sometimes I felt she and I were the sole interpreters of a secret language only my father spoke. I knew that the big vein stood out across his forehead, the way it did when he talked about work.
“Is that right, Tessa?” he asked.
I glanced up at him. It was true about the vein. The lines around his mouth were deep and his jowls sagged a little. His large blue eyes considered me soberly. “I’m teasing you, Tessa,” he said. “Don’t you know when I’m teasing you?”
I didn’t know. The truth was, I understood little about my father aside from the basic facts. He’d been born and raised in Indiana, then left the Midwest to attend Haverford and never gone back. He was president of a financial consulting firm he’d founded himself. Under his desk, he kept a large pair of clipping shears, and when admonishing someone he would hold the shears in his left hand and slowly click them open and closed. But when I asked him questions about his childhood or his parents, he would change the subject or say he didn’t remember.
He took off the hat and pointed it at us. “Be careful!”
We called on the Whitmans, who owned two large St Bernards; the Bergers, who fought in the mornings as Mr. Berger waited for the elevator; old Mrs. Cohen, who every Halloween dressed up as a witch, draped her door in cotton balls, and created smoke with dry ice. We reached into bowls and pulled out Hershey’s kisses, tiny Mounds and Milky Way bars, mini packs of M&M’s. We walked out onto Fifth Avenue and towards Genevieve’s building. As we stopped for a light I felt something bump me and I peered around to my left.
I saw a trick or treater of about my height, but not like a child in his build. He wore a dark coat, a felt hat, and, over his face, a paper bag with holes cut out for eyes and mouth. The eyes looked at me through the holes. I stared back at him until Genevieve grabbed my hand and pulled me into the street, through a flock of shivering ballerinas.
Nobody greeted me in the hallway at home. A Tupperware container of green pasta sat on the second shelf of the fridge, as if little had been eaten at dinner. I heard my father’s classical music through the closed door of the library, and my mother was in bed already, with her book and her glass of wine; she called out to me as I passed by my parents’ room on the way to my own. I went in and let her kiss me goodnight. I put my red dress and my glittery shoes away and tried to sleep. I watched the panes of weak light on my ceiling appear and disappear as cars passed below.
I crept downstairs, walking in the quiet way my father had showed me, putting my heels down first. He was sitting in the exact center of the camel’s hair library couch. He held a book on his lap but had paused in his reading, and was staring into the fireplace, which didn’t actually work. I slid into the revolving black leather chair in the corner of the room.
He looked over at me. “Can’t sleep?” My father and I were both night owls, while my mother fell asleep at the dinner table in restaurants. “Too much candy?
“Not really.” I spun the chair around twice. He finished the last sip of his drink and set the glass on the coffee table, then touched his chin and closed his eyes. Again, I noticed the loose skin around his jowls. I went to the window. A family of pigeons came to nest on that sill every spring, and I would give them bits of cracker and stroke their smooth heads with my index finger, although my father told me that they were dirty and carried disease. He coughed behind me. I resented the sound, any sign of him—he was depressing me, with his books and his music and his sagging, melancholy jaw. I bent my forehead to the cold glass and wrapped my arms around myself.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Don’t be upset,” he said. I heard him stand, as if to cross the room to me. “Your mother and I will be all right.”
I shrugged theatrically. “Okay.”
“Good,” he said. “Go to bed.”
Upstairs, I lay awake. I stared at the lit windows across the street. I pictured my father below me, looking out at the same windows. Classical music rose softly through the floorboards.
By the time I heard my father’s feet in the hall and the door to the master bedroom open and close, all the lights across the street had gone out.
My parents separated soon afterwards. It happened quietly, with little explanation or legal involvement. My father moved out and took up residence at his club. Privately, I wished for more disruption—some yelling, some ugliness. I wondered what had happened between them.
I learned how to dress for my new figure, how to brush my hair into a neat ponytail, how to clean my face and put on makeup. I grew bolder with my mother; I began to question her about the relationship she’d had with my father. But her answers infuriated me.
“What would you talk about?” I asked her.
“You. Ryan, Sam.”
“What about us?”
“How you were doing in school. I don’t know. Your interests, remarks you’d made. Things like that.”
“What else?”
“I don’t know Tessa. Whatever people talk about. Work, our friends. At the end we just listened to the radio.” I recalled eavesdropping outside the door of the library, hearing low murmurs, a clinking of forks, then the classical music closing in, replacing all conversation.
When I was fifteen, my father bought an apartment on 79th Street. He said, “If you like, you can stay with me for part of the week. Your mother and I have talked about it. There’s a guest room which could be yours.” He was walking me home from dinner, and his bumpy forehead shone in the light from the street lamps. I looked down at the sidewalk. I didn’t really want to live with him, for any amount of time. It would require a familiarity that didn’t exist anymore between us—that, when I thought about it, never really had. “Let me think about it,” I said. The next day, I told him no.
He put a room together for me anyway. It was done in a flowery, Victorian style I didn’t like: carved furniture, velvet drapes, wallpaper swarming with vines and lilies. I told him I’d stay there one night of the week. So every Friday for the next three years, I packed a change of clothes into my book bag and stopped at his place after school.
Sometimes we went out for dinner, to a restaurant around the corner that served coffee flavored with chicory. Sometimes we stayed home and he would cook; delicate, expensive-tasting things, like quail eggs and truffles. He kept fresh flowers in my room and soda, which he hated, in the refrigerator. I would go home loaded with gifts: obscure Russian novels, jewelry I never ended up wearing, tiny ivory music boxes that, when opened, played familiar-sounding classical tunes. I would experience a painful tug in my chest, looking at the things he’d bought for me. It may have made me feel better to wear the jewelry when I saw him, to talk about the books, but I never did.
Walking down Lexington Avenue one Friday night with a group of girlfriends, I spotted my father coming towards us from the other end of the block. “Hide!” I said to my friends, and, giggling, we ducked into a doorway. It wasn’t that I was smoking or that we were drinking cans of beer out of paper bags, although he wouldn’t have liked these things. It was more that I was made up, as we all were, in bright red lipstick, dressed up in black lace and high-heeled boots.
He passed by safely, not seeming to notice us. Or maybe he just didn’t recognize me.
At school, we were told to start thinking about college. I knew I wanted to go far away. I sat on the floor of my homeroom and watched the plump college counselor wave her arms. On the wall was a framed print of the San Francisco Bay, and I gazed at it during English class.
My father asked me to list the colleges that interested me the most. When I’d finished, he said, “Have you thought about staying closer to home?”
“I kind of want to go somewhere different.” I picked up a piece of bread and began to tear it into tiny pieces. “I’ve lived on the East Coast my whole life.”
“But won’t somewhere like California be distracting for you?” He reached over and took the bread from my fingers. “Just don’t rule anything out yet.”
I visited Haverford, Brown, and Williams. I stayed for the weekend with older girls from my high school. We went to parties, walking in the dark along chilly, narrow streets. The energy was low at these parties—flat beer, classic rock on the stereo, blue jeans and wool sweaters. I tugged self-consciously at my stretchy black Betsey Johnson top. At Brown, a tall, homely guy cornered me and breathed heavily into the close space between us, and I turned my face away.
I sent in the applications to Berkeley, UCLA, and Pomona. The others sat on my desk.
Two days before the Haverford application was due, my father came over to have dinner with my mother, as he occasionally did. I lounged on my bed with a yellow legal pad and picked at a scab on my chin. I heard my father’s feet on the stairs. He knocked and opened my door. “How’s it going?” he asked.
“All right. I’m just working on this essay.”
He frowned and glanced at my typewriter. “I’d be happy to look it over for you, when you’re finished.”
“Thanks. I think I’ll be all right.”
I had plans to meet my girl friends at a bar a few blocks away. I decided to work on the essay in the morning before school. I could skip my first class, or maybe even take a sick day. I brushed out my long hair until it was soft and crackly and put on lip gloss and eyeliner.
I scribbled a note for my mother and slipped on my coat. I eased the front door open, but my father came out of the dining room with an empty wine bottle in his hand and caught me.
“Where are you going?”
“Just out.”
“Did you finish your application?”
I was silent. I considered saying yes. “I’m going to finish it tomorrow.”
“Why not tonight? Are you planning to do it at all?”
“I just can’t think anymore tonight. I’m tired.”
He set the bottle on the front hall table. “You shouldn’t be going out on a weeknight.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.” The anger in my voice surprised me. I tightened my grip on the doorknob.
“I’m trying to help, Tessa. You aren’t planning to finish the thing at all, are you?”
I didn’t answer. My eyes began to water. I blinked, but held his gaze.
“I know how you think.”
The fear that he was right scratched at the corners of my mind, like a mouse trying to find its way through a wall. “No, you don’t. You barely know me.”
I turned to go but he grabbed my arm and spun me around, then pulled me towards him. I held onto the doorframe. He got hold of my shoulders and pushed me towards the stairs, and I screamed. We reached the foot of the stairs. I hung onto the banister as he pried one of my hands, then the other, loose.
My mother ran out of the dining room. “Eamon!” she said.
My father looked towards her. His hands slackened, and I extracted myself from his grip. I let the front door slam behind me, ran down thirteen long dim flights of stairs, then out on the street, towards Lexington. I didn’t go to meet my friends. I didn’t want to tell them about the fight, but I couldn’t face not telling them either, the sense of dislocation this would bring. I bought an entertainment magazine and a pack of cigarettes from a newsstand and slipped into a Chinese restaurant, the kind of place where the wait staff wouldn’t look at me strangely for being alone. I ordered tea and looked through the magazine without reading anything. Elvis Presley played softly from the kitchen at the back. Pots clanged together and the cooks laughed, singing along to the music in their quick, elastic accents.
When I came home much later, my father was sitting alone in the library. I tried to slip upstairs. But he saw me and came over, and I paused on the third step. He put his arms around me and pulled me close to him. I looked over his shoulder at our reflection in the hallway mirror–the top half of my face, the back of his head. How strange this was, I thought, almost embarrassing; he hadn’t hugged me, really, in years and years.
I was relieved when he let go of me. I watched him get his coat from the closet and stood at the door while he walked to the elevator, but he didn’t look at me again.
I went to Berkeley and quickly accustomed myself to the thick, thrilling fog that rolled in at night, to the hard brilliance of the sun. I cut my hair to shoulder length and twisted it on top of my head in a clip. I wore tank tops during the day, and at night I wrapped a thick cotton sweater around my shoulders. When I went home for vacations, New York seemed strange and dirty. I wandered through my mother’s apartment with a feeling of deja vu that stuck until I was back on the plane.
I graduated from college with a major in art history. I moved to D.C. to be with a boyfriend, then to Santa Fe to get away from him. I moved to Seattle with somebody else. I came home once a year, for Christmas. My mother always looked the same, but my father seemed to age with my every absence. His face twisted and fell and shrank, and fell again. He spoke of moving to London. He disliked New York, he’d decided, and the whole American way of life.
The December I was twenty-two, he and I went to see the Christmas tree at the Met. I spotted him standing near the main desk where he’d said he would be, a section of the newspaper folded over in his hand. He wore a dark suit and his skin looked gray and thin–dirty, slightly damaged, as if the grime had sunk into his pores. He’d blended right in with the other people waiting around him; he had that closed, bored, uneasy look on his face, the one I noticed now as different from what I was used to.
The enormous tree and the crèche at its foot had always struck me as magical when I was small. But now the Nativity figures seemed too colorful, their faces and skin and the folds of their robes defined in a way that was almost vulgar. The whole spectacle depressed me a little, and my father, maybe sensing my change in mood, suggested that we grab a cup of coffee. We left the museum and walked over to a restaurant on Madison. My father arched his hands around the thick white mug and again mentioned London, saying that he thought he could be very happy there.
There was something strange about the look of him across the table, something to do with his chin and neck. He turned his head to signal for the waiter, and I identified the strangeness. There was a lump in his jaw the size of a walnut in its shell.
“What is that?” I put my elbows on the table and leaned forward.
“That thing on your jaw.”
He brushed at his jaw, found the lump, and pressed at it.
“How long has that been there?”
“I’ve never noticed it before.”
“How could you have missed it?” I hadn’t seen it at the museum, but face to face with him, the lump was obvious and bizarre. He rubbed at the lump, his head tilted to the side as if he were listening to something.
“I don’t know. Strange.”
“Here.” I took a compact out of my bag and passed it over to him. “Have you been to the doctor lately?” Then I wondered if he even had a doctor. I wondered why no one else had said anything about the lump; I wondered whom, besides his employees, he saw on a regular basis. He had no girlfriend, as far as I knew, and he saw my mother less these days. It was possible that I was the first person in months to really look at him.
“No,” he said. He seemed intrigued by the lump. He turned the compact this way and that.
I reached across the table and tapped the lump firmly. My father’s skin was loose and soft; it moved under my fingers, but the cluster of cells it covered did not.
“You should see a doctor,” I said. “You should see a doctor right away.”
He put off his visit to the doctor until May. When he finally went, they carved out the tumor and doused him with radiation, filled him with poisons. But the cancer spread all through the summer and fall. In December they stopped treatment.
I booked a flight home. “Let me go with you,” my boyfriend said. I sat at my desk looking surreptitiously through grad school applications. The schools I was investigating were in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin; I didn’t think Seattle was where I wanted to be, or Ethan was whom I wanted to be with. He came up behind me and rubbed my shoulders. I tensed, and his hands dropped away.
“It’s better if you don’t.”
“You don’t want me to.” Ethan swiveled my chair, the office kind on wheels, around to face him.
“He wouldn’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
“He’s sick. He wouldn’t want to meet you, like that.”
“But it’s now or not at all.”
I put my hand over his mouth. “Don’t.”
“Sorry.” But he wouldn’t let it drop. “He doesn’t want to meet me?”
“Sure he does.”
“You don’t talk about me. To him.”
“I don’t talk to him much, period.”
“You don’t talk about him to me either. I want to know more about him.”
I made a face.
“Tell me something, about him. Anything.”
“Jesus. I don’t know. He likes music. He writes poetry—some. He hates artificial flavoring. On Thanksgiving he used to do this thing with the turkey. He’d wrap it up and bury it outside. Before cooking it. He said it tasted better.”
I waited. Ethan waited. I looked down at his bare feet.
“Fuck you,” he said. He smacked the doorframe on his way out.
I took the applications with me and flipped through them on the plane. But as we gained altitude, I turned towards the window. I thought of the first and only time my father had visited me at school.
We’d driven down to Los Angeles to see a friend of his from Haverford. The friend, Aldin, lived in Malibu with his wife and son. He was a teacher and a sculptor, and struck me as the flamboyantly bohemian type of person my father usually scoffed at, but my father embraced Aldin as if he didn’t notice the deliberately overgrown beard, the colorfully mismatched clothes, and the gold gypsy ring in his left ear. Aldin and his wife and my father and I sat in the garden of a little house that seemed built into the sea, and we drank yellow liquor with ice and orange wedges, and watched the sun go down, and listened to the radio. It was my kind of music, not my father’s taste at all, but he didn’t say anything about it.
Around us, Aldin’s sculptures grew luminous and pale. The radio seemed only to be playing songs I liked. I listened to the music and I listened to my father and Aldin discuss their college days. I’d thought my father would appear out of place on the West Coast but he didn’t. He wore a golf visor and a preppy green shirt I’d never seen before. I had a sense that something had happened to him. He seemed almost to be in love, although he told me of no one, and no one surfaced after his death.
The son and his girlfriend joined us in the garden, and although they were my age, they didn’t seem interested in talking to me. They turned toward each other and murmured things I couldn’t hear, and my father drew me into a conversation the older people were having about one of the Russian novels I’d rejected years ago but had finally read for a class. My father took my hand as we left the house and walked to a Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner. He glanced back at the son and the girlfriend. “Sullen,” he whispered. Then he said that I was smart to have wanted to go to college in California; that he hadn’t taken into account how beautiful it was.
I took a cab from LaGuardia and dropped my bag at my mother’s. Tomorrow, my father’s fifty-third birthday, he’d be leaving the hospice center for home. I bought a flourless chocolate cake from Dumas and unlocked the door to his empty apartment. I put the cake in the refrigerator and stood for a few minutes looking in at the contents, which struck me as both luxurious and sparse in a European sort of way: wine, coffee, eggs, sweet butter, jam.
The phone rang and rang. I let the machine pick up. I put new sheets on the bed and whacked at the pillows. I ran the dishwasher, capped pens, and blew dust from figurines.
Then I left the apartment and took the elevator downstairs. The lobby, with its black and white diamond-patterned marble floor, smelled of chicken soup. I walked towards the subway, not knowing what to do with myself. I waited on the platform for the train. I’d left my gloves in my father’s apartment, and I crossed my arms and slipped my hands into the opposite sleeves of my coat. My car was empty except for a few teenagers holding skateboards, a couple holding hands, a man in a gray jacket swaying with his back to me, two women speaking to each other in a harsh language I guessed was Arabic. I turned to the glass and stared into the black of the window, at my pale, slanted face.
I got off at Bleecker and walked for a while down Houston. I hadn’t called my high school friends and had nothing to do, no one to see. I walked through Little Italy, where colored ribbon still hung from some storefronts, left over from the Festival of San Gennaro. I took the scarf I’d brought with me out of my bag and wrapped it around my head and nose. The warmth sent tears down my cheeks. I licked them away from the corners of my mouth.
I got to my mother’s after ten. I found her in the library, drinking wine and listening to the radio, looking through photographs by the light of a single lamp. An empty shoebox sat on the coffee table. I threw my coat across a chair. “I just talked to your father,” she said.
“How is he?”
“All right. Considering.” She dropped a jumble of photos to the table.
“He’s not all right. He’s dying.”
“I called the apartment,” she said. “Where were you?”
“I met Lexi for a drink.”
“Uh huh.” She lowered her brown eyes to her wine.
“What is this?”
“Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. Your father loves this piece.”
I picked up the photographs she’d dropped. “May I look at these?”
A man sat on a long wooden bench, holding something in his hand. Over his face he wore a white cloth. “What’s this?” I asked. “Who is this?” I held the photo up.
“That’s your father. On our honeymoon, in Spain. I can’t remember what part exactly, but they had these little birds there, called ortolans, that you ate whole. They were so tiny that you could just pop them in your mouth and eat them, the bones and everything. They were a real delicacy. And you had to cover your head with a napkin when you ate them, because it was a sin to eat the whole bird, in the eyes of God or something like that, and you had to hide from God.” She took a sip of her wine and stared into the glass. “Your father loved that!” she said. “He just loved that. He loved to hide his head and eat the bird!”
My mother went to bed and I curled up on the camel’s hair couch, sinking into the deeply indented pillows. My mother had replaced some of the heavy furniture with light, modern pieces but this remained, the black leather spinning chair still sat in the far corner. She had left the radio on and I didn’t bother to get up and turn it off. I flipped through a magazine and listened to the music, the radiator’s choleric clanks. I counted the seconds between them. The pieces of time would have seemed the same to me if I hadn’t been counting, but as it turned out they were all different—eleven seconds here, nineteen seconds there. Occasionally, one was louder than the others.
My fingers relaxed around the glossy pages. Rough fabric scratched my cheek. I heard bursts of a circus song; then the music resolved itself into something fuller and deeper, and it rose and flowed into my ears and up my nose, blue and purple and gray. Shadows moved around the leather chair, came together in its arms: a dark shape, a man, with a sack over his face.
A sudden chorus of violins jolted me awake. I started up. The magazine slid to the floor.
“Are you there?” I asked softly. He wasn’t, of course. The chair was empty. I rose from the couch. The music fell back, and in my head something shifted. Instead of my own muddled, busy thoughts or the deft clamor of the violins there was a clean, anticipatory silence; then a loosening in my chest, as if something that held me there had impatiently released its grip. It occurred to me I might never find somewhere I wanted to live; that I might never meet anyone as nice as Ethan. The radiator shut down with a bang. The radio went to static. I shuffled the photographs into a neat pile and put them away.

North Carolina Literary Review, ’07

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