Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

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Colossal Mistakes

Ellie crossed the street the way she did absolutely nothing else. She left the curb and plunged into traffic, ignoring green lights and headlights and the warning voice of her mind telling her to please not get splattered across the sidewalk. She dove into the swarming cars as though nothing could possibly go wrong. When she climbed stairs, or made phone calls, or typed memos out for her boss, she was never reckless. She was meticulous and grammatically correct. Nobody ever had a reason to swear at her or click their tongue impatiently or roll their eyes. But when she crossed the street, the falling wails of car horns washed over her and she just didn’t care. Nothing else felt that safe, for her to put herself in danger.

Sometimes her boss sent her on weekend trips to meet somebody upstate. That was the only time Ellie ever drove a car herself. She would rent one for a couple of days and keep the receipts for expense reports, and drive on the winding highways until she got somewhere that she’d probably been before. In the car herself, she knew the impotent rage of the drivers watching somebody cross the street in front of them. Until she got out of the city, she tugged at the steering wheel and screeched while people blithely stepped in front of her car, as though they couldn’t see her coming and didn’t care about the tons of metal barreling toward their unprotected bodies. People are so soft, she thought, and they don’t realize that when you hit them they might break open. Her phone rang promptly as soon as she got onto the highway, past the red lights and out into a stretch of speed that felt like unbending muscles into the air. Ellie glanced at her phone, just to see, and nearly swerved. Her father’s name was on her screen for probably the first time, ever, that she could remember. Since she’d been old enough to have her own phone. She turned her eyes back to the road and fastened her fingers on the wheel. She didn’t ever answer her phone while she was driving. It was far too risky and irresponsible. She would think about calling him when she got to Croton or wherever it was that the GPS was telling her to go, when she got out of the car, when she had started to believe that her father had called her.

The robotic voice telling her that she had reached her destination startled her. She’d been thinking about her father for what felt like hours, and she’d barely paid attention to the route. The GPS directed her, and her body moved to answer it without her brain interfering. Ellie hadn’t spoken to her father in more than a year, since last Christmas when he stopped by her aunt’s to say hello and then left just as abruptly. She hadn’t called him since she was in college, when she’d been in the hospital and thought she’d needed him. He hadn’t called her, she didn’t think, since he’d told her he couldn’t make it, he was sorry, work was bad, she understood of course. In between obligatory family holidays she almost forgot the halting rasp of his voice.

Ellie got out of the car and put quarters into the meter, mechanical, reaching into her purse and feeling for the coin slot while her eyes rested farther away, unfocused. She turned and pulled her phone out to check for the address. Her boss’s name was on the screen under her father’s. She had a voicemail. She clicked on it expecting, somehow, that it would be her father’s message, but it was just her boss. Some halfway through the message she registered what he was telling her. “I’m sorry, El, I sent you up there for nothing, it was really last minute, of course the company will still cover the car and everything, if you want to stay the night because the reservation is there already you might as well, think of it as a paid vacation or something, I hear there’s a really good bar. Can you send me that report from Thursday sometime today?”

She stared at her phone. It faded and went to black, and she looked at it in her hand without seeing it, and then she got back into the car. In the driver’s seat she leaned against the steering wheel, resting her forehead against the leather, and touched her father’s name. Maybe it was important, she thought, what the hell. If she was careful and didn’t call him, she would never know. The phone rang against her ear and Ellie braced herself for his voice, the tone of surprise or accusation when he picked up, whatever it was that made him call her in the first place. It rang, and she tensed, and then it ended. He didn’t even have a voicemail set up. Ellie stayed in her car with her head pressed to the wheel for a long time before she straightened and carefully, methodically, painstakingly maneuvered back onto the street and turned for home.

Just Breathe

“Hold on a minute, let me just look for my glasses. You know I just put them down on the counter right here and now of course they’re gone again, would you believe that…”

He went on. Alex ignored him. His father could talk like nobody he’d ever met. His voice was a constant low rumble, mumble of words that dripped out of him like a faucet nobody could fix. He just seeped words, wasting breath, until everybody near him was half crazy and looking for a wrench. Or something else heavy. Alex heaved in a breath and held it in his lungs, summoning patience. His father was sick and needed patience, not a surly son. The old man was still shuffling around the kitchen, leaning over the counter like he was falling in slow motion to peer at the smooth stone. “I can’t find them anywhere,” he said. “My goodness look at that they just disappear, don’t they?”

“Let’s go,” said Alex.

“All right,” his father said, dubious. “If you insist then we’ll go but you’re going to have to read labels for me, you know, I won’t be able to see a blessed thing.” The prattle didn’t cease as they got out onto the street. “It’s really a good thing that we live so near a grocery store–” Alex’s mother had died three years ago. His father hadn’t yet adjusted to speaking in the singular. “It’s really so convenient and it’s a good one too, shame about that other one that closed, what was it called? Oh look, there’s a Chevy, you know that was my first car, or was it a Dodge? Can you remember? Of course you can’t, you probably weren’t even born yet, were you? Did you know that Jonathan is coming over tonight? We’re going to heat up some dinner for him. You know I think most of the time he doesn’t eat much of anything. We’ll give him a good meal, you know I’ve got plenty in the freezer.”

Most of the time Alex could tune his father out until the words all blurred into pleasant static. He’d only been staying with his father for a week and already he felt like his teenage self, rolling his eyes when nobody would see and counting the days until he could leave the house. They walked down the same familiar street he’d known as a kid, except the barber had gone out of business and a cute stationery store had taken its place. The grocery store was almost the same. Some of the canned food was probably the same too.

His father wanted to share with everybody. It made Alex’s skin itch. They got through three aisles before his father said, “Well then I’ve had enough, we’d better go home now.” Of course, then they got to the cashier and he started up again. “Hello there, how are you, too bad about this weather isn’t it, I lost my glasses somewhere in the house and it’s very silly but I just couldn’t find them anywhere, this is my son Alex staying with me because I’ve had a touch of pneumonia but not to worry nothing serious I’ve got some medicine and it’s really very nice of him to come visit. What’s that? Oh, yes, here’s my card, sorry about that, you can tell I’m having a busy day, forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on.”

Alex shouldered the bag and they started back again. He said, “Dad, I’m pretty sure there’s milk already in the fridge.”

His father said, “No, of course there isn’t, I used it all up this morning, don’t worry.” He kept talking all the way back home and into the kitchen, where he said, “Oh, goodness, look at that, there’s half a quart of milk still in the fridge, you ought to have reminded me it was there, now there’s too much and it’s sure to spoil, isn’t that too bad.”

Alex drew in a deep breath and held it.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Lost Dreaming

When Amanda saw him, even though she was dreaming, she lost her breath. She wavered and probably said, faintly, that she might need to sit. He was so close and so real, three-dimensional, his face before hers and she could reach out and touch it. As soon as she did – as soon as her fingers lit on skin – she woke up. Of course.

When she gasped in the darkness, gathering the sheets around her shoulders, she felt Mark stir. At once she tried to be still, to keep her hands from grasping and her voice from breaking out. She wanted to wail, but she shivered instead. Mark woke up anyway.

“What’s going on?” His words rustled and rasped in the black bedroom.

She shifted closer to him and tucked her head down. “Nothing, I’m sorry for waking you. I had another dream.”

“You saw him?” Mark pulled her closer. “Honey, come here.” Amanda nestled against his chest, fitting her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder and stretching out against his body, trying to let her arms relax. The tension of waking up still ran like electricity through her bones. It took her a long time to fall back asleep, but at least she had no more dreams.

When she woke up, Mark was already out of bed. He couldn’t have been up for long because his heat was still fading from the sheets. The muted clatter of pans sounded from down the hall. With a shudder, Amanda climbed out of bed and began to dress in the numb air. Mark must have heard her footsteps, because he called down the hall, “Want eggs?”

She paused and thought about it, then called back, “Okay. Thank you, sweetheart.” It took much of her concentration to pick out clothes. The red sweater – no, she’d been wearing that, there was a picture, that time they went to the park together and pushed the swing for an hour. Not those jeans, there was still a marker stain on the knee. That shirt had been her favorite to wear on weekends, when Mark had made pancakes for all of them on Saturdays. Eventually she found clothing that was unburdened by memory and she ducked out of the door, down the hall, turning her head from the closed door. They acted as thought that door wasn’t there. She hoped that eventually it would be easier to ignore, just like part of the wall, and they wouldn’t ever have to go back inside. They could pretend that it didn’t exist.

When she got into the kitchen, Mark snagged an arm around her waist and kissed her. Her smile back was wan at best. They sat with eggs, toast, and orange juice, across the table from one another in silence. When the sound of their chewing stopped, Mark sighed. “I hate when you dream about him. You’re upset all day.”

Amanda’s heart thumped in her chest. She said, “I don’t hate dreaming about him.”

Mark lifted an eyebrow. He was trying to be brave, she thought. He always tried to comfort her, as if it weren’t his loss too, as if it didn’t hurt him as much. It made it all worse.

She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not like that’s bad. I mean, they’re not nightmares. He’s there, you know? Still there, still fine, nothing’s wrong. It’s, I don’t know, do you know what I mean though? I just get to see him, while I’m asleep.”

Mark’s mouth twisted. His eyes were beginning to sprout crinkles when he smiled or scowled. She had just begun to notice them. He swallowed, and said, “Right, that makes sense. Okay, so why is dreaming about him so bad if you get to see him?”

She looked at him as if he were crazy. Surely he didn’t really need to ask. “I always wake up.”

 

Familiar Shifts

Kate was uncomfortable as she walked over to meet her father. Her new shoes were rubbing blisters around her heels and she could see the skin already reddening. He was waiting when she got to the cafe, his coffee already half empty.

He looked up, and gave her a flat grim smile. “Hello, sweetheart.”

“Hi Dad,” she said, sliding herself into the seat opposite him. “Joey’s all unpacked.”

He scowled at once. “I was hoping we could have some nice conversation before we started fighting about this, Kate.”

She pushed out her lower lip. “Well, we can’t,” she said, using her best firm-but-clear voice. “I’m not going to change my mind, so you just have to get used to it. You should just talk to him already, this is dumb.”

“No,” her father said. He leaned onto the table, folding his arms over each other and looking straight at her. “He comes to his senses, or we don’t talk to him. You know that’s how that is, and I’m surprised at you that you’d go against us like this.”

“Really?” She felt suddenly upset, heat flushing up her face. “You’re surprised I’m doing something that you didn’t tell me to do first? God, Dad, he is my brother and he is your son whether you’re mad at him or not. And you’re mad at him, I’m not.”

“We’re not angry with him, Kate, but he needs to change before we’re willing to talk to him again.”

Kate folded her arms back at him. The anger built in her chest, boiling and overflowing until she spit it out at him. “You can stop talking to me too then. I’m done with you.” She said it and watched his face drop into sadness, and then she left.

She started home earlier than she’d expected. She had to help her brother settle in, after all.

Exit Only

I’m driving with Sarah when my dad calls, and my phone lights up. The road is just shifting into darkness now, my headlights spreading timid light on the pavement of the highway. The brightness of the screen is distracting, a tiny beacon pulling my gaze from the road ahead. Sarah taps the screen before I can stop her, and picks up the phone. I shoot her a look and turn my eyes back to the road. She covers the phone with one hand, and whispers, “You need to tell him we’re moving. Hurry up then.” Then she clicks on speakerphone and lays the phone down, where my father’s voice spills into the air between us.

He starts talking almost at once, telling me that he wishes he’d called me back sooner and he meant to tell me they’d thought it would be nice to have us over for dinner and they could really try to give Sarah another chance, as long as I wasn’t too silly about anything.

“Dad.” I can hear my own voice crackle on the line, little bits of static darting in like sparks.

“-you know how your mother is, of course we’ll get back to you on that. Nice to talk to you, Sam.” He’s still rushing over me, words clattering. Sarah moves the phone to slip into the cup holder and my dad’s voice is suddenly floating in the air by my ear, the sound thin and strained now.

“Dad,” I say louder. “Listen!”

He stops, and I stumble in the sudden silence. “I wanted to talk to you. I mean talk, can I talk for a minute?”

I can hear his sigh puff against the phone. He’s nodding, I bet. “Sure, sweetie, go ahead.”

“Um, okay,” I say, the words stark and loud now. The quiet stretches and stays. He sighs again.

How do I form the words? When he heard I had a new girlfriend he didn’t call me back for a week. He avoided asking where I lived or what I did. He pretended she didn’t exist, and now he wanted to have us over for dinner. Maybe, I thought, he would be okay with this. Maybe he would be okay with this if I weren’t about to move across the country with my girlfriend, hours away with a new job, a new house, and a new family.

I’m distracted now. I suck in a breath and let it slide out between my teeth, turning my attention back to the road amongst the gray shapes of the cars and the shadows enveloping everything. The lines between us and the rest of the highway are lengthening, coming together to block us off, and there’s a sign we’re about to pass – EXIT ONLY, it says, Exit 21 to Scarsdale. I don’t want to go that way. I signal and move into the next lane, fitting neatly between a clunky old car and a sleek little sedan.

My dad is still waiting on the phone, the silence stretching long and flat. “I don’t know, Dad,” I say. “I guess I forgot, we’ll talk later though. Sarah and I would love to come over for dinner. Can I call you back once I get home, since I’m in the car?”

“Sure,” he says, “talk to you in a little while then.” The phone beeps and goes quiet, and I can feel Sarah’s stare on me. I snatch a glance and she’s frowning. She doesn’t even need to ask. I know she thinks something’s wrong, because I didn’t tell him we were leaving.

“Oh,” I tell her. “It’s fine. I’ll tell him later.”