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Objects in the Mirror are Closer than They Appear

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The piano riff drifts across the foyer and down the hall to my bedroom. I lie on my bed, eyes closed, a packet full of un-conjugated French verbs tossed across my pillow. Oh God. Not again. I lie still for another couple seconds, then roll off the bed and close my door. It slams shut harder than I thought it would, but to no effect. “Blue jean bay-beeee…” Elton John continues to croon.

My chest tightens and my fingers clench around the pen in my hand. Where is his consideration for the homework I am currently procrastinating? Doesn’t he have anything better to do? I glare at my closet doorknob, struggling to place my indignation. I could venture down the hall and lean over the railing and yell for him to turn it down. I could put one of my own CDs in the little blue player sitting on the dusty part of my bookshelf, turn it up, blare it, beat him.

I yank open the bottom desk drawer and start rifling through odds and ends that have collected there, but only come up with frustrating results: old Suzuki piano CDs and the embarrassing mementos of my middle-school infatuation with musicals, particularly the 1980s British rock operas. I shove Miss Saigon back in the stack and ponder my remaining options. A pile of soundtracks hides in the back corner. I pick up The Parent Trap. It is actually one of my Dad’s, but a while ago I snuck it out of the shelves in the family room. I feel a certain satisfaction now as I hold it. I’m glad that I saved it, hid it away in my room where he won’t be able to dig it up and play it eight million times in his car and then look over and ask me, “Do you like it?” I slam the drawer shut. What do I care if he wants to play the same freaking song eleven times over? That’s his perogative. But still.

But still. I can’t even look at him as he whistles along to the radio in the car. You don’t even know that song, I want to scream. You’ve never heard this song before because I just heard it on this station for the first time last week, so stop humming along. I have to position myself so not even his shadow invades my peripheral vision, but I can still hear his fingers tapping on the wood of steering wheel. Might as well be tapping on the walls of my skull. I wait to explode.

But still. The irrational rage rises up as he asks what my schedule looks like for the rest of the week. It’s like it is every week. Why does he ask it as if he’s going to be around any earlier than eight thirty at night? It’s the little questions that set me off now, like when he sits down and the computer and asks how you bring up the Internet browser. God, Dad, have you been living under a rock? And who calls it a “browser” anymore? As he stands a few feet away from me at the kitchen counter, eating microwaved leftovers in his rumpled business suit, I sit at the countertop with my math, quietly grinding my teeth. After a while he piles his dirty dishes by the sink instead of in the dishwasher and I glare at those instead.

The most time I spend with my dad is probably in the car, on the way to some other part of my life he is clueless about.

“Life is so short,”” he sighs one day on one of our silent journeys. “Everybody always told me that in high school and I never really believed them. Does it feel that way to you?”

“Not really.” I clip my words as short as possible and focus on the small letters printed at the bottom in the rearview mirror. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. My face stares back at me, so pinched-looking it takes me surprise and I focus on the gray and beige sedans passing by outside instead. I hate it when he talks like this, spouting phony philosophy, “meaning-of-life” crap that he knows nothing about. How dare you? I think , but it’s hard for me to articulate exactly what he shouldn’t be daring to do. He looks at me sideways and I brace myself. For his frustration. For the attitude check. For the question I know is coming. “Why do you act like this?” he’ll ask. And I’ll have nothing to say, no answers for him except the set of my jaw, the frost in my tone, the stomp in my footsteps.

Instead, Dad turns back and stares ahead. Stoplights cast his face in a red glow.

“I remember when you were little,” he says quietly. I try hard not to respond. He turns on the windshield wipers and goes on. “And every day when I’d come home from work, you’d run, literally run up, and start telling me about every detail of your day. You’d always tell me you had the best day of your life. Do you remember that?” I remembered. In our old house, when I heard the front door slam, I would race against our dog down the long stretch of hardwood in the dining room, jumping up into Dad’s arms when I slid to the end and almost knocked over our umbrella stand. “You don’t say that anymore.” I stare hard at the raindrops running sideways across the window. Of course I don’t. Why would I do that? Who does that anymore?

Even now as I lay on the floor my stomach seethes with anger. Without any clear direction, it simply spills throughout my body, lining my veins, paralyzing my muscles. My Dad. My Dad tells me to “hang on” whenever we make a turn in the car. He collects coins. He listens to the Wicked soundtrack alone on his way to work. He asks me what time I want to be woken up even though I’ve set the same six a.m. alarm for myself since freshman year. He collects every brochure from the racks sitting out in hotel lobbies. He takes about twenty napkins at a time from Starbucks and hoards them in the glove compartment of his car. He says the wrong things at the wrong times. He likes to tell me how much I’m like him. He likes to play Elton John’s song, “Tiny Dancer,” eleven times in a row in one evening.

The song fades out the same way it fades in, with that tinkling piano riff. Silence follows. I can picture my dad sitting alone on the sofa in the darkened family room, eyes closed, still absorbing the final notes. He always wished that he could sing. When I was little, though, he sang lots of songs. “Abba dabba dabba dabba dabba dabba dabba says the monkey to the chimp…” and “You put the lime in the coconut and mix it all up…” The grand finale consisted of him picking me up and swinging me around the room, singing, of course, “You Can Fly.” Now he only just hums along to the car radio. The sound of footsteps echoes downstairs. He’s up. I wait for it. I can just see him adjusting the volume, pushing the button. The beginning of “Tiny Dancer” starts up for the twelfth time in a row this evening. I suspect there will be a thirteenth time, too.

I look up at the clock. It’s eleven thirty. Exhaustion floods my body and drains me of any other thought, any other emotion. At the end of the day, I’m simply too tired to feel. It’s hard to remember a time when every day ended perfectly, when I sang along to my dad’s CDs. My French homework is still unfinished, but I make no move to get up. I don’t have the answers. On the floor, I close my eyes and start to hum.





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CatherineK said...
Dec. 17, 2010 at 7:12 pm
I totally understand. My dad sings or hums with ANYTHING on the radio even if he doesn't know it and he says his 'hearing is going' so the music is always way too loud and people start to stare. Every little question he asks makes me mad, and he's never home before 7. And he tries to talk to me about things I would rather not talk about. This is a great article and I can REALLY relate to it. Good job!
 
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