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Yesterday and Tomorrow
My father died over ten years ago, yet here he is, sitting at my kitchen table and staring at my cartoon snowmen salt-and-pepper shakers with disgust. He had always hated those things. It was my mother who had loved decorating for the holidays. She would set out a multitude of decorations months early and refused to put the decorations meant for other holidays away, so that Thanksgiving often clashed with Halloween and New Year’s with Easter. Christmas was the worst for her. Our house would have so many snow globes resting on the shelves that it often felt like walking into a house of mirrors, our reflections oddly bubbled by the glass; many different versions of Santa’s “Ho, ho, ho!”ed and “Merry Christmas!”ed whenever anyone walked by.
Dad hated it. No one complained louder than he did when he stubbed his toe on a turkey figurine peeking around the corner. He cringed every time he saw a wreath on the door and absolutely threw a fit if he found mistletoe. Yet, even though he complained daily, he let my mother do whatever she wanted. Dad was a softie, and Mom knew this most of all. She would always offer to take the decorations down, would swoop over him and kiss him on the cheek, tell him she would do whatever would make him happy. And he would only grumble and blush, shooing her away but pleased all the same—until one of us managed to ruin it. My older brother Nate would pretend to throw up his breakfast, my younger brother Eric would gag, and I would pipe in to advise them to “get a room.” Then Dad would start yelling all over again, and we were saved from all the embarrassing but secretly pleasing shows of affection.
Mom left me some of her decorations when she’d died, which is how I came to own the salt-and-pepper shakers Dad is curling his lip at. Mom loved snowmen more than anything else, had collected them year round. Seeing those Buddha-like, squished and smiling faces everywhere we turned affectively robbed my brothers and I of any desire whatsoever to build one of our own come the first snowfall of the year, and I can’t say that my fondness for them has improved twelve years later. But I’ve kept them. At first, the last thing I wanted was to own her ornaments, to even look at those items that reminded me so much of her. Besides, I was angry—of all the things she could have left me, she chose a few glass bulbs and some Christmas lights? At first I thought that, because the cancer had progressed so aggressively, she had simply run out of time to give me something truly important, or something meaningful. I’d even destroyed some at first, feeling a fierce kind of approval at seeing the smashed, glittering glass spread like a net of diamonds over the floor. Now I appreciate them, not as meaningless junk, but as some of the most important things my mother owned, symbols of all the holidays celebrated under her roof. But then, I was only fourteen when she’d died.
I’ll never be as fervent a decorator as my mother was. I’m not much into the holidays anymore, haven’t really been since she died. There’s just not that much to look forward to, when Christmas means watching movies on TV about real families while I sit alone, New Year’s means drinking my weight in wine and hoping that this next year won’t be as bad as the last, and birthdays are better left unacknowledged. Eric invited me over to his place last Thanksgiving. He said it was because he was inviting Nate too and wanted the family to be together, but I knew that, really, it was to keep me from spending the night alone crying into my bath bubbles. I really hate the holidays.
The only reason I even bother to put the decorations out is in memory of my mother, which is how those gaudy, rosy-cheeked snowmen ended up on my kitchen table. Dad sets the snowmen down delicately (because they were still once my mother’s, even if he believes them to be horrendous), and says, “I never would’ve thought I’d see these things again.”
I stare at my father. He looks like I remember him, but not of my last memory of him. My last memory of him isn’t pleasant, because he had never been well after Mom died. His normally light-brown hair had thinned even more than usual, the hairline grew sharper and sharper, peppered with gray streaks. The creases at the corners of his light-blue eyes deepened as well as the ones between his eyebrows and the parenthesis framing his mouth. His skin had become a pale gray color and looser from his bones, as if it had been stretched out long ago and he was determined it should still fit. He’d stopped eating after Mom died, stopped caring about anything at all, and his face had sunken in because of it, dented like a rotting pumpkin. Dad died two years after Mom did (from a heart attack, the doctor’s said, but Nate and Eric and I all knew it was really from grief), but he’d looked dead well before he’d passed.
He looks better now, younger, his complexion tanned from the sun—Is there a sun, where he is?—his hair streaked gold instead of gray. His wrinkles aren’t quite so severe, and his eyes haven’t yet lost their light. He still has all of his weight on, including a sizable bulge hanging over his belt. His smile comes easy, as if the muscles of his face had been waiting to spring into it: His lips spread over his straight teeth, a flash of white, like the glint of the sun off metal.
“Hey there, kiddo,” he says, still grinning. He’s acting like this is a normal day, like it’s completely ordinary to have your dead father sitting across from you. He folds his hands on the shelf of his belly and observes me with his blue eyes, the ones that always made me feel, as a kid, like an interrogation lamp had turned in my direction—I couldn’t help but confess, or want to confess, even if I was guilty of nothing.
“Hi, Dad,” I say slowly. I had come into my kitchen with the plan of choking down some cold coffee from last night before rushing off to work, but it’s not every day that your dead father visits you, after all. I stand with the table between us and look at him. He doesn’t look transparent. He’s not dragging chains or covered in grave dirt or blood. He looks just like he always used to: He’s wearing his old flannel shirt, the same red plaid one I always swore he stocked up on, and jeans with the knees wore out. His heavy work boots, even, which I always remembered being caked with dirt, are completely spot-free. Even his fingernails have no dirt underneath, as if Mom has only just gotten after him for filthiness before a meal. I suddenly have to blink back tears, taking him in, and emotion chokes me. But I’m glad. It’s good to know that he looks so good, that he’s doing so well…wherever he is now…
“’Hi Dad?’ That’s the greeting I get after ten years?” He crosses his arms over his protruding belly and sits back in his seat, reminding me of a petulant child refusing to eat his vegetables.
I clear my throat. “Sorry,” I say through numb lips. I shake my head experimentally, thinking I must be in shock. Or I’m hallucinating. “It’s just…you know, I wasn’t really expecting you today.”
“Well, they don’t exactly have a great phone service where I’m at,” he mumbles, but he sits up, peers at me with those blue eyes, making me feel like I’m being X-rayed. “I’m sorry, Meg. I know this is a surprise. You’re taking it well, you know—better than Nate did, anyway. Scared him half to death.” He lets out one of his barking laughs, his eyes brightening before his heavy eyelids swallow them up almost completely. Seeing him like this, remembering that this was how he used to laugh, looking just like all of those snowmen that haunted my childhood, made me have to swallow what felt like a fist. I reach out and clutch the back of the wooden, round-backed chair nearest me, leaning on it for support.
“You visited Nate? When?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he says gruffly, leaning forward in his seat. “What matters is why I’ve come to see you, Meg.”
Feeling like I’m going to regret it, I ask, “Which is?”
“You’re not happy, Meg. And you know it.”
I sigh and sit in the chair across from him. “Dad, look, I really appreciate your concern, but I’m fine. I’m happy—I’d be happier if we didn’t have to have this conversation right now, actually. I’ve got things to do now, Dad—a job, responsibilities...” I stand up and grab my briefcase from under the table where I left it, pretending to busy myself with shuffling the papers inside when I’m really trying not to look at my father.
I hadn’t realized how many things I’ve forgotten in ten years, and wonder how much of that has been intentional. I have photo albums, pictures, but all are kept hidden, only taken out occasionally when my sentimentality overpowers me. But those pictures don’t show Dad’s hands, the deep swirls on his knuckles, the tanned, gloved look of them. They don’t hold memories of how those hands felt as they pushed my hair back from my forehead as a child to check my temperature, or how it felt to have his arms circle me after a nightmare. They don’t smell like he does, a mixture of sawdust, Old Spice, and Marlboro cigarettes. Each memory pierces me like a shard of glass through my heart, and I have to duck my head to hide my tears. I’ve never liked anyone to see my crying.
“Dad, really,” I say, and I smile brightly. “I’m happy. Super happy. I have a great job now. I work for a great business and have at least a dozen people reporting to me. Speaking of which—“ I stretch my wrist in front of me and check my watch. “I’m about to be late for a very important meeting. I really have to get going, but maybe we can reschedule—“
“Megan Rose McCartney, sit down,” Dad orders, in a voice I’ve never heard him use before, especially not towards me. The anger in it shocks me, and maybe that surprise is the reason that I fall into my seat immediately.
“Just listen to me, Meg,” he says, his tone softer now. “Now, you can blather about how successful and happy you are until your tongue falls off, but there’s not a lick of truth in that and you know it.”
“No, no, no,” he says, holding up one of his weathered hands, his palm towards me. Once, when I was young, eight or nine I think, I decided I wanted to be a fortuneteller. My mother wrapped an old purple sheet around my head like a turban and pinned on of her brooches to the front, like a light to a cave dwellers’ helmet. She let me drape all of her jewelry over myself, even the expensive pieces. I walked around the house that day as if I was ten feet tall (and I nearly was with that turban, which was so heavy I had to hold up my head with my hands as I walked) and offered to tell anyone their fortune. Nate and Eric told me, in no uncertain terms, to screw off, but Dad volunteered. He offered his palm and I drew all over it, tracing the deep lines etched into his calloused flesh until it looked like he had dipped his palm into an ink well. Finally, I told him he would live to four hundred and thirty-seven years old, and so would Mom.
I try to shake the memory from my mind, but even as I try to tell myself it’s meaningless, I wrap my arms around my stomach, as if physically holding myself together will keep me from falling apart.
“Meg, look, you can’t lie to me. I know you better than that, and I’ve been keeping an eye on things. You’ve pushed all of your family away from you, anyone that matters—Granted, I’m not complaining about you getting rid of that Jasper fellow. Don’t know what you were thinking about, letting him move in with you in the first place…”
I massage the bridge of my nose. I’m getting a migraine. It feels as if someone is steadily beating a hammer somewhere behind my eyes.
“Jake, Dad,” I say. “And he moved in because…because…” Because we were in love, or at least I thought we were, but I don’t say that. I don’t want to talk about Jake. I don’t want to mention that I probably never would have kicked him out at all, even though I was given plenty of reason. I don’t say I would have only settled with threats if I hadn’t found a bra that certainly wasn’t mine semi-hidden under the backseat of Jake’s pickup, and a phone number written in swirly, bubbly handwriting tucked into his jean pocket. The truth is, Jake left me a long time before I gathered the nerve to make it official.
“Why are we talking about Jake?”
“Because you’re still moping about him, aren’t you?” He stares at me, his normally kind eyes hard. “You feel like you made the wrong decision, or that you should have done something differently, or that it was your fault he’s a cheating bastard? Is that it?”
I blink at him, my migraine forgotten. “How did you…? Dad, since when have you understood girls?”
He shrugs, but a blush is beginning to work its way up his neck. “I’ve always—don’t act like—look—“
I stare at him. I inherited his glacier blue eyes, which must have held some of the effectiveness his has, since he squirms in his seat before bursting out with, “O-kay! Fine! Your mother said—“
“Is she here?” I grip the table so hard my knuckles shine white, and my voice is little above a whisper. Suddenly, the meeting I’m now probably late for and my migraine and my life now drops away, and I’m fourteen years old again, in the hospital room watching my mother draw her final breath and wondering how it would feel to live the rest of my life with this empty space inside me, where I imagined my heart used to be.
Dad stares at me, that horrible pitying stare that I used to get after the funeral of both of them, condolences offered as if they made any difference by people who never even knew them. I’m ashamed that I let down the wall I’ve so carefully constructed over these many years, even for a second, to show anything but a strong front. Dad reaches his hand out to cover mine, but even before I can draw away, I can tell something is wrong. The warmth I expect doesn’t come. His hand merely hovers above my own, suddenly less solid than it was. I stare at it, my vision trailing up his arms, his shoulders, to his face. Is it my imagination, or is he beginning to blur?
He withdraws his hand quickly, looking chagrined. “I forgot,” he says, but his voice sounds different now too, more distant, as if he is moving away. But he isn’t. He’s right here, right across from me.
That’s when it hits me—It’s time for him to go.
“Don’t leave yet,” I burst before I can help myself. I reach out to him, but he recoils further, as if my touch might burn. “I still…there’s still so much I haven’t gotten to talk to you about. Please. I don’t care about missing the meeting. Just don’t leave.”
“Well, that’s a start.” He smiles, but it isn’t his usual, easy grin. It’s a closed-lipped smile that looks as if it’s costing him a lot of effort. “I’ve gotta go, Meg.”
“No,” I say, standing up, as if to manually hold him back if anyone comes to take him away. I remember when I was a kid and wrapped myself around his legs to prevent him from leaving—I will do the same thing now. Except now I wonder if I can even touch him. “Please Dad,” I beg, beginning to feel desperate. “You’re right—I’m not happy. I hate my job; I hate it so, so much. I hate coming home to an empty house every day. I hate who I’ve become.”
I don’t tell him everything. I don’t tell him that I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes stretching my hand to the empty side of the bed next to me, before I remember too late that I’m alone. I don’t tell him that I wear my business suit and success like a shield, that I work so hard so that I won’t have to think about how my life has turned out. I don’t tell him that I think about him and Mom every single day, and that my grief is a real physical ache that never seems to go away. I don’t tell him any of this, but I know he understands. Because he is my father.
He stands up across from me. He coughs into his fist, and tries to surreptitiously wipe tears away from his eyes with his knuckles. “You’re strong, kiddo. I know you are. I just came down to tell you…don’t waste your time with something that makes you unhappy, all right? Life’s too short—" He laughs dryly. “Look at me.”
“Don’t leave,” I whisper.
“I’ve never left you, Meg,” he says. Then he smiles. He’s fading quickly now. I can see the potholders hanging on the yellow-and-white checkered wall behind him now, as if he is made of glass, and the note I’d stuck to the wall reminding me of the meeting I’m now ten minutes late for.
He lifts his hand in a wave. “I love you, kiddo. Goodbye.”
He dissolves like mist in the sun. I lift my hand, too late, and say to nothing, “Goodbye, Dad. I love you too.”
It’s just like the last time. I wasn’t prepared then, hadn’t had a chance to say all of the things I’d needed to, to tell them how much they meant to me. Here again, even after ten years of dreaming of another opportunity, our whole conversation had centered around me. How selfish can I be? I never asked about him. I never asked where he is now. If he’s happy. If he’s with Mom.
If they miss me half as much as I miss them.
I stare at the place he vanished for a long time before giving a last, shuddering sigh. I turn to pick up my briefcase. I still have a life, after all. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that life moves on, no matter who is left behind. It’s easier not to resist that tide, because even if you try you’ll be pulled under. If I keep busy, I won’t have to think so much—not about my parents, not about Jake, and not about my life. If I fill my time with work, I won’t feel so empty.
My hand just closes over the cool leather of my briefcase handle when a scent fills the air, of peaches and baking flour and fruity shampoo. I draw my hand back quickly, as if the suitcase threatened to bite it, and I stand as still as stone, afraid to move, hardly daring to turn around. But I do. There is no one there, but the strong scent lingers. It’s almost as if she was here too. Close enough to touch.
I look at my suitcase again. I think of my boss, who will already be furious with me by now and will probably have an aneurism if I make her wait one more minute. I think of all my responsibilities, which had seemed so important just a second ago, although now I can’t remember why.
“Ah, screw it,” I mutter, and sweep the briefcase off the table and onto the floor, where it lands with a dull thud. I have better things to do, anyway. I have a life to start living.