My dad reads the paper, and he expects me to do the same. He doesn’t read a whole lot else – Consumer Report, maybe a Sports Illustrated here and there – but every time I visit home there’s a gray stack waiting for me, The Times getting old on the kitchen table. There’s always a lot to catch up on. I make a point of seeing my parents every couple of months, but that leaves a huge pile waiting for me. If I let it go any longer, the pile trickles down to the floor and makes my mother complain. More than usual, anyway
That’s my memory, my association with getting home. It’s walking in to see the papers towering, just sitting there for me to unfold them again. Then, once she hears the door shut behind me, my mother’s voice makes a strident nasal edge in the air. “He’s had the paper, just sitting there like always, gathering dust, making the table impossible to clean, uncomfortable to eat at, and we never know when you’re coming for a visit – when you’re coming home. Not that we don’t like when you visit, Helen, you know we’re happy to have you, it’s fine that you come so often, but maybe just let us know so that we can make some plans of our own, so we’re not always waiting for you.”
That’s the part where my dad will lumber forward with a hug, wrapping his arms around me so that I have something to hold onto and don’t drown in the icy torrent of her words. He’ll say something like, “Karen, honey, let her put her bags down. Hi, sweetie, good to see you.” When he lets go of me my mother will come over to clasp me, briefly and perfunctorily, against her skeletal self before letting me go again. It’s always the same afterthought.
Then I carry my things, bags and suitcases that pull my heavy shoulders to the ground, up to my musty-smelling old bedroom. She’s still nattering in the background. I settle back onto my bed with the familiar whine of her voice scraping at my ears. The familiar atmosphere of home.
I have a hard time with figuring out when and how often to get home. For every morning I want to spend with my dad, sitting across the bleached-wood table with the sun washing everything to bright and nothing but the quiet of a new day – each of those moments, I have to counter with a, “Well I’m sorry it’s not good enough, Helen,” and gusty sigh. Those are the worst, my mother’s sighs. She inhales, gathering all the disappointment and resentment she can fit into her lungs, and then she blows it into my face in a foul-smelling mess of uncomfortable emotion.
Home beckons, because my dad is there. He’s waiting, making me scrambled eggs and toast and pushing my orange juice toward me. He’s sitting across the table staring at the chair I usually occupy, and his eyes are sad. I can hear it in his voice when I call and get him on the phone. “Hey, bunny. How are things going with you? I miss you. You’ve got a whole lot of newspaper to catch up on.” My dad is home, reading the paper by himself and then placing it carefully on the growing stack so that when I get back, I can catch up on what the world’s been doing while I’ve been gone. It hurts my heart to think of all that paper, so patient for me to just flip through it for a weekend and then toss it in the recycling bin on my way out.
But when I do go home, my mother is there. She’ll say, “Oh, how good to see you. Sweetie.” She’s gotten better lately, and her tacked-on endearments almost sound like she meant to say them in the first place. She’ll say, “Please stop being so nasty, Helen dear,” as if the extra words meant anything. She’ll give me a look acknowledging that she really just thinks I’m nasty, and then she’ll smile like it’s all fine. She’ll say, “No, it’s all fine, really,” and let me walk off wallowing in the guilt she’s emanating. She tells me it’s fine until I’m curled in the corner trying to cry quietly, and then she wonders what she ever did wrong.
My dad almost married someone else. Some woman named Laura, I think, something with an L. I learned about that when I was seven, and was wide-eyed and confused for weeks. It was very strange to me that I could not have been born at all, if only things had worked out a little better. Laura was flighty and high-spirited, by all accounts. She didn’t have the time or the patience for my father, and she got bored halfway through planning a wedding. The one virtue my mother has is patience, and she puts up with my plodding-slow father in exchange for his careful silence while she rails or rants.
When I get home, I go to bed tired. I get up early, though, because my dad’s always waiting downstairs with my breakfast and the oldest paper. He insists I go in chronological order, because that way I’ll get a real sense of what’s been happening all this time. I start with December and work my way up to April, reading about last season’s hurricanes, elections and business deals. My dad will occasionally read a headline to me, or I’ll interrupt him to ask about an article I want more background about. He watches the news a lot, so he paraphrases some news anchor until I understand.
I eat my scrambled eggs while flipping pages, sometimes eyeing my dad sidelong as he eats and reads too. While I’m supposed to be reading up on the tragedy in Brooklyn, he almost misses his mouth with the fork because he’s so engrossed in yesterday’s news. I never read the news when I’m on my own. It’s too depressing. I think my dad gets a certain kind of comfort from it, though. He likes seeing all the horrible or awe-inspiring things neatly encapsulated in an article, all in the same typeface on the same newsprint, with a photo to prove that it happened. I think about this while I’m buttering the toast, or drinking the last sip of orange juice. I look at him and think, and pretend that I’m concentrating on the trade problems of Mozambique or something.
I think about how he lives his quiet life, reading the paper with breakfast. Sometimes he looks up and smiles at me, so I smile back at him. Seeing the surprised look on his face when he catches me looking at him nearly breaks my heart. He smiles as if he’s delighted that someone noticed he was there. Eventually my mother comes down into the kitchen, pours herself some cereal, and maybe starts talking. I check my watch, the calendar, anything that tells me the time. I have to make sure that it’s not too long before I leave. I’ll be gone, the papers hidden away again and a new stack starting. I’ll be gone and things will carry on just as they are. My mother will fill the house with high-pitched complaints and accusations. My dad will still sit, alone now at the breakfast table, with the black-and-white safety of the world’s disasters.