Sunday, May 6, 2012

Family: Chaper XX- The End of One Story, but the Beginning of Another



     After my trip to New York City I perceive a definitive change in our marriage. At first I shrug it off, because I am quite stupid, but after a few days, it is clear that the relationship has changed. We have angry sex. I can’t say that I don’t like it, but it’s obvious that she does not.

     It is a clear and sunny April afternoon. I return from our long separation and write a breathtaking romantic letter. It’s pretty good really. It would have worked on me anyways. Touching in all the right places. This will fix everything, I think to myself.

     I offer to run out for sandwiches, ever the dedicated father and husband. Upon my return, I notice that my letter is unfolded. She has read it! I offer the daughter her meatball sub, which she accepts graciously. My wife is unusually quiet. Like creepy quiet. Normally she would be criticizing me about towels or the way I drive too fast right now.

     “Would you like to go out on the porch and talk?” I ask. She nods.

     While she eats her eyes tear. This can’t be right, I think. I am a genius. I can fix everything. Women too.

     “What’s the matter?” I ask, ignorant in seven ways. The air is rich with the smell of freshly cut grass. One might say its impossibly beautiful.

     She looks me in the eye.

     “I am not in love with you anymore,” she admits. “I want out. I want the divorce.”

     There is a sudden stillness. My body weighs a thousand pounds.

    “What.” I say…. But I realize that it is not a question.

     I can actually hear the sound of my own heart breaking. It sounds like two cinder clocks cracking, miles underwater. Only fish will hear this sound.

     “What.” I say again. Overhead birds soar past; I can see the earth turning on its axis.

    “Please don’t make me say these words again,” she begs, “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.” As if such a thing was possible.

     I stand up suddenly and the world lurches beneath my feet.

     “So, then…. This is it.” I am out of options, something I have never experienced before. I walk to my bedroom. My daughter sits on the edge of the bed, her eyes haunted, she knows. Only days ago I promised I could make this work out. Now I am only another man to break a promise. I know one day she will adjust to this feeling…. But I wish I had not introduced it to her. She looks up at me, unbelieving.

     “I’m sorry honey….” I begin, “I couldn’t fix it.” She erupts into a cacophony of tears. I hold her so tight that I can actually feel the air escape her lungs. Natalie stands in the doorway, watching the crying child. Natalie does nothing. Years of male inattentiveness has transformed her heart into a black void encased in ice.

     “You’re sure?” I ask, mostly out of desperation. “Not even one counseling?”

     “That’s it! She screams. “Manipulate me with a crying child!” As if I had made a child cry myself. The monumental selfishness of women is apparent to me in a flash. I reach for my suitcase. We are done here.

     I reach for the doorknob. It’s slick in my hands. I have all the wrong clothes, the wrong toiletries but I cannot stop. My head is pounding.

     II toss my gear into the convertible. I turn the key and the Toyota roars to life. I tur n on Lit, on of the most underrated bands of all time. It’s like, super loud. I sit for maybe five seconds, thinking about where I might go.

     “Far”, I decide. I peel out in an acrid fume of burning rubber. I think of the home we built, the life we shared, the trips we took, the daughter we raised, the vows we took. Suddenly its all meaningless to me.

     For a second I almost look back, but then I change my mind.              

     I stand in the airport. My plane is arriving, her silver skin shimmers in the may afternoon sun. I take my seat, wordlessly, moving slow and steady, a zombie among the living. I look out the window. Everything retreats; a matchbook town recedes into thedistance and out of this story. A beautiful stewardess approaches me.

     She asks me if I would like anything, and I answer, for the first time in years with honesty, that No. I do not want anything.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Family: Chapter XIX- The Flood

After what seems like weeks, the muddy waters recede, and I finally begin assessing the water damage in earnest. We have had storms before but not like this one. The rain fell for days, thick gray sheets of water that slapped the pavement with a wet scream. At first everything was okay, but by the third day, the sump pump went out, and naturally the basement started filling with water. I stood at the top of the stairs and watched as the bubbling tide seeped into all manner of boxes and blankets. Truthfully I don't even remember what half of this crap is. I sat heavily on the top step with my head in my hands. If Natalie were here.... she would have known what to do. I guess it doesn’t really matter now.
I start down the stairs into the darkness. This old water heater will obviously need replaced. Oozing and burping, it looks like a broken contraption from some kind of monster movie. I know better than to try and mess with it. Thank god I have a stash of bottled water. Hopefully the power will come back on tonight, but I have to try and clean some of this up. Damn I wish Natalie had stayed.
After last month Natalie finally ran out. She just couldn't take it anymore. The drinking, the lying, the constant phone calls. I admit I totally saw this coming. But what can a man do? Natalie already knew about my girlfriend. It turns out she had known for months, but was just too tired to care anymore. I had been out of work for months and living off of my trust fund. If you can even really call that living. Once the money was gone, there was no real reason for her to stay. I wouldn't have stayed either. I just stood there in the driveway as she drove off, wordless. I wanted to say something, something profound... but what? I was too drunk to fight anymore. It just seemed like so much wasted emotion. And so I stood, like a coward, and did absolutely nothing as she backed out of our driveway and out of my life.Another one of my great Life decisions, but that’s for another story.
I sigh and grab the old shovel that hangs on the basement wall. The one with the cracked handle. It feels good in my grasp, heavy and reassuring, a reminder of a simpler season. I guess I better start before the sun goes down.
I shovel away the muck and mire, shards of cardboard and tattered remnants of my broken life. Christmas ornaments, Halloween decorations and ancient video cassettes swirl in a hideous soup. My arms ache. I throw old ruined sweaters into a plastic bag, and beneath my old cd case I find the sopping mess of a photo album. Of course it is beyond destroyed; all the photographs are soaked and stuck together in a huge grey glob. I flip through the pages, which come apart as I turn them. In the middle, I find one photograph almost miraculously untouched. It is a picture of Natalie,ten years ago, standing before the gates of Disneyworld in Orlando, smiling as I take her picture. I hold the photo up to my eyes. For a moment she seems real. I sit heavily on the floor with a splash, heedless of the puddles and grime. I drop the shovel. I rub my forehead with mud- streaked blistering hands. My head is pounding as I remember her the way she was. She is thinking only of the sunshine, and where she will go next.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Family: Chapter XVIII- The Prison

I go to visit my brother in prison. It is late November and the leaves swirl about our feet as my mother and I enter the secured parking lot. We are on the far side of the prison, the section typically reserved for immigration violations. Her face is like ash as she speaks.
“This isn’t going to be easy, you know, …” she warns.
“I know.”
“I have done this before,” she mutters, “and I swear they make it difficult on purpose.”
“Well, I was expecting that, so…” My voice trails off.
For a second we stand outside the gate, readying ourselves. A coarse wind blows as we make our way toward the huge metal doors.
We give our names to a uniformed guard, and take our seats in a room full of frustrated Hispanics and their attorneys. My Spanish is terrible, so I can’t really tell you what has them all so worked up. My mother explains that this wing is always that way, and that most of these people are in the country illegally.
“Then why is Patrick here, instead of in the General Population?” I want to know.
“I guess it’s because of his mental state, and the fact that because of his addiction issues, the authorities felt that he would be safer…”
“Oh.” I say, although I still don’t really understand.
After a lengthy wait, it is time for our visit. I haven’t seen my brother in months, and truthfully I was not prepared to see him like this. He looks gaunt as he shuffles into the Visitor’s Area and takes his seat. A thick pane of plexiglass separates us.
I greet him warmly, but the pitiful sight of him catches me off guard. He wears an orange jumpsuit and is clearly heavily medicated. His hair looks like a bursting volcano. I wipe off the telephone by my side with sanitizer. Our conversation is stilted and uncomfortable. Neither one of us knows what to say. After exchanging awkward greetings, he leans forward.
“I had a dream,” he says. “I dreamt I saw Dad, and he was standing at the foot of my bed.”
This revelation shocks me a little. I hadn’t really come to terms with grief. In fact, I was still seeing my therapist. I was pretty sure I was crazy. Now I lean forward. Our faces are inches apart.
“What did he say?” I whisper.
“He stood there, not saying anything until I was awake. I sat up on my bed, and he looked right at me. He told me not to worry. He said to remember that we love each other, and that’s the most important thing.”
A deep chill runs down my spine. If you knew my father, this was exactly the kind of thing he said. For a moment I considered the impossible- had my father’s ghost actually passed through York County Prison? It seemed unlikely; but on the other hand, he had spoken to me from beyond the grave three times now. This was basically the reason I was seeing the therapist! Remember, I’m crazy.
“Oh my God,” I say, stunned. “That sure sounds like him.”
For a moment I see our faces reflected in the thick glass, and I swear I can see my father watching us. I experience a terrible flashback.
It is now twenty years ago. I am at a party after hours, celebrating another successful gig with my brother. I am sixteen years old. In front of me some bleach blonde expresses her admiration for my performance. Truthfully, I have no idea who she is. While she begins her own performance, I glance over into the next room. The lights are dimmed, but I can see my brother in a group of older guys. They are taking turns snorting cocaine off a glass mirror. The mirror gleams in the twilight. All four guys huddle over the white pile, twitching. An old Magnavox stereo is playing Metallica’s “Fade to Black”. The music thrums and for a moment my head swims. I blink. Why isn’t anyone watching my brother? Why aren’t I watching my brother? What the Hell is happening to our lives? After the girl is finished, I stand up and head to the filthy kitchen to get another beer.
I blink as the guard flicks the lights.
“Time’s up!” he says, and by his expression I can tell he means it. I hang up the phone. I reach out and touch the glass. My brother does the same. A man comes and leads my brother away. I watch as he shuffles unsteadily down the hall.

After we leave, my mother and I pause beside the car for what is becoming an increasingly emotional moment. The November wind kicks up and pelts us with dry leaves. She leans heavily against me, and cries until she cannot cry anymore. I place one hand on the roof of her car and brace myself against the storm that is coming.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Family: Chapter XVII- Sleepless in Nagoya

On the second night of my trip to Japan I find myself increasingly unable to sleep. It isn’t the accommodations; they are quite to my liking. Clean, efficient and truthfully much better than any hotel room I visited back in the States. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but my rhythm is off- kilter. I toss and turn in the bed. I sit up and look at my watch. 3:50 am. I rise and walk to the large glass window. I am thinking of my daughter, sleeping soundly, literally on the other side of the Earth. After a few moments I get dressed and walk downstairs and out into the street.
Although our tour has recommended against it, I take to the Nagoya downtown streets alone in the middle of the night. I make a careful note to myself of the approximate location of my hotel. My Japanese is barely sufficient to order food, let alone navigate an unfamiliar city in the dark. After a few blocks I come upon a karaoke club called Joy Joy. Unbelievably it is still open so I walk inside. An attractive female attendant asks me if I would like a booth. I make a few halting attempts at conversation and before long we are laughing it up in the lobby. In the distance I hear the unmistakable sounds of people butchering their favorite songs. For some odd reason this comforts me. We talk and joke for a half hour until she politely explains to me that the club is closing. I say my best goodbye and head back out into the night.
I come upon a convenience store. An incredibly tiny pickup truck is pulling up to the entrance. I mean, this truck is literally not much bigger than a motorcycle. It’s the smallest truck I have ever seen, and it is here delivering what looks like the day’s fresh lettuce. The door jingles as I enter the store.
“Irrashimase!” says the attendant, but he is eyeing me warily. Gaijin are a little suspicious at this time of the night. I ask for an English newspaper and he looks at me like I have two heads. After a few attempts, I realize I have asked for an English “talking” newspaper, instead of an English language newspaper. We both laugh as he pulls me a copy of Asahi Shimbun. The front page is plastered with gruesome images of the latest train crash. Apparently it’s a pretty bad one. On my way to the refrigerator I notice a young salaryman in a rumpled business suit passed out face down unconscious in one of the aisles. I stop in my tracks and glance at the shopkeeper. “Daijobu? Is he ok?” The shopkeeper waves his hand dismissively. “Sake….” He says, and rolls his eyes. I grab a bottle of Aquarius, my favorite new drink, and pay my tab.
I attempt to watch television, but the choice of programming is bizarre even by my standards. Apparently tonight’s choices are two different kinds of black and white samurai soap operas, the Matthew Snellick show (that crazy guy from Lost in Translation is real!) and some genuinely disturbing rape Pornography. I sit wide eyed at this sordid array of choices. I watch a little bit of a game show in which a man uses a magnifying glass to focus sunlight in order to burn another man’s nipples. Both men are wearing diapers for some reason. After the nipple burning, they start putting live eels into each other’s diapers. I take a deep breath and head for the downstairs bar.
For the next five nights this becomes my habit, drinking myself to sleep. I love the country but I cannot make the necessary adjustment for conventional sleep. During the days I visit Buddhist temples and Nijo castle, ancient and dusty. Just about the time I am really getting the hang of the language it is time to go home.
We board the plane headed for America. Everyone is laughing, jovial with the thought of home. The flight is brutally long, almost an entire day in the air. As we descend into Baltimore, I listen to Fountains of Wayne on my headphones as the twinkling runway lights come into view.
After a few moments I realize I will never experience this sensation again. As I arrive in Baltimore, my daughter rushes through the gate and jumps into my arms. My wife is almost tearful with joy. She asks me how it was. I begin to describe it, but for the first time I really realize that none of this will make any sense. The language barrier, the alienation, the crushing loneliness, the unspeakable beauty of the Orient. It is impossible to describe.
“It was great.” I say, and hold her tighter than I ever realized I could.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Family: Chapter XVI- The Wake

In the middle of the night my cell phone rings. It’s my father, explaining in a resigned tone that his mother has passed. I can’t say I am surprised- she was 96 for God’s sake- but still the call catches me off guard. This is just the perfect way to end my week. On Monday I lost my job, on Wednesday my brother crashed a stolen car, and now…. Well, you get the idea. I stand for a second in the darkened spare room, wondering about the best way to tell my family. I seem to be developing a knack for delivering bad news. There certainly is plenty to go around lately. For a second I ponder the impact of this news. I may as well just spit it out.
I have a terrific headache as I walk into the living room.
“It’s my Dad…” I say.
“Oh no!” my wife replies. She knows, obviously.
“Well, uh, yeah, uh, I guess the funeral is on St. Patrick’s Day. We are going right?”
“Of course!”
“On the plus side I don’t have to worry about missing work.” I smile, she doesn’t. My wife doesn’t always find the humor in desperate adversity. My daughter starts crying. All the lights are out.
In the morning, while we load the car, I think of all the things that keep changing. The drive takes place in a blur and we arrive in New York in record time. I think of my grandmother. I picture everything happening to someone else.
After the Catholic mass, the funeral party agrees to meet at the nearby Phelps hotel. An Irish Wake is an interesting thing, if you have never seen one. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Church Service and a Frat Party, except with more drinking. I don’t remember much past about 1 o’clock. At around dusk we make our way back to my dad’s place. My wife drives me, I guess.

My father is hammered up. He is holding a martini glass filled with vodka. In a pronounced slur he launches into a story about my mother. I can the feel the weight of the years slipping away from him.
His story is compelling. I enjoy viewing the 1950’s through his distorted lens. He smiles and looks out the window. He talks about growing up poor, and the way that back then people did not know when they were poor. He talks about being Catholic. He tells us about his father. Then he tells a story about meeting a girl.

“She kissed me,” he says, “Twice.” He holds his fingers in a peace symbol to illustrate the number two, a helpful gesture considering my inebriated state.
He takes a deep breath but says nothing, and as I look at the film over his eyes, I realize he is far away.
As he finishes his sentence, my father faces me, and I can see my own face reflected in his glasses. He looks directly at me but is seeing something else for the first time clearly now, A beautiful young woman stands beneath a flickering porch light, waving goodnight as she begins to fall in love with him, delivering her kiss from beyond the forgotten corners of 1959.
I walk out on to the porch after everyone falls asleep. The stars wheel in the night sky. Suddenly anything might happen.
I forget this night until some months later, when my father has medical trouble of his own. He undergoes some serious surgery. We talk on the phone. He tells me how he cheated death, and he really means it. We laugh. The Doctors think he’ll be okay.
Come November I get a kidney stone; and damn it, I just can’t pass it. An ambulance takes me from the doctor’s office straight to the hospital. On a cold Friday the surgeon removes the stone and I go home late that same night. I am sore but glad to be home. As a matter of fact, I plan to take two days off work…. Just take it easy, and rest. I lay on the couch, thinking.
Suddenly my iPhone is vibrating on the table. My wife and I freeze. I look. The number is from upstate New York. Wait…
The phone vibrates again, more insistently this time; the sound of marbles being poured on a tin roof. I turn and look at her. There is a hunted look in her eye.
I imagine my childhood home, all of its rooms standing empty.
“You’d better get that,” she says.

Family: Chapter XV- Cub

Before breakfast I look out across my porch to enjoy the sunrise as is my custom. I am surprised to see an unruly shock of spiky yellow hair sprouting up from behind the lattice of my deck. “That’s odd,” I think to myself, and taking up my cup of coffee I go out onto the porch to see what it is.
As I cross over onto the porch my knees go weak. There, just beyond the railing of my porch, a full grown African lion devours his morning meal. His magnificent mane gleams in the sunlight. A small sheep hangs limp in his powerful jaws, dead eyes staring dully at the ground. The sheep, if that’s what it is, has a black face and feet, but the rest of his body is covered with white fleece. The lion, oblivious to me, snaps his head and tears a huge chunk of meat from the sheep’s midsection. There is a warm spray of blood and the lion gives a soft growl of contentment.
“Ugh…” I say involuntarily, and suddenly the lion looks directly at me. He stares at me with malevolent determination, sizing me up. There is about twenty feet between us. “I’m alright,” I think, “he has already eaten.” The silence is deafening. I can hear my heart pounding. “Be cool.” I tell myself, “he can sense fear.” A slight breeze whispers in the long grass. “Nice lion,” I say.
His forearms tense like steel springs and in a terrible flash he is over the railing and after me. I stumble backwards toward the door, my coffee cup clattering to the deck. For a moment everything seems to be happening in slow motion; I can see his gnashing teeth, the foam on his jowls, and the smell of hot blood on his breath. I fall backwards through the door and lock it with a snap. The lion looses a frustrated roar that stands my hair on end.
I crawl into the kitchen, shaking, helpless with fear. Natalie stands there, nonplussed, cheerfully stirring pancake mix with a wooden spoon.

“Good Morning!” she says with a smile. I attempt a reply.
“Ahhh….ahhh….” I sputter, breathless. Tears blur my vision.
“There, there.” she says gently, and puts her arms around me. I fall to my knees and clasp her waist with all my strength. She smells of butter and flour, breakfasts and motherhood, sunlight and all good things. “Shhh…. It’s alright,” she whispers. I realize that I cannot let go of her. Not now, not ever. In this moment, she is everything. I bury my face in her apron, paralyzed with distress. She strokes the back of my neck and smiles.
“He cannot hurt you now,” she promises; but from outside come the sounds of the feeding lion, the cracking of bone and the slavering of his great maw.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Family: Chapter Fourteen- Raincoat

I rummaged through the closet, looking for my raincoat. Several years ago, Marlboro ran a promotion where heavy smokers could earn merchandise by saving proof of purchase from cigarette packs. I used my points to buy a red Marlboro rain slicker. It’s pretty cool. When it rains, the jacket proudly announces to the world that I am a heavy smoker. Anyway, after several months of raping other peoples empty packs for points, I finally earned a sweet rain slicker. Obviously now my friends would think I am nine kinds of awesome! I wore it for a few days and then quickly forgot about my brief obsession with cigarette themed gear.
Years passed. I got married, switched jobs, had a kid. The usual stuff really, barely worth mentioning. I experienced all the typical day to day stresses that I am certain most men feel. A decade slipped past before I’d even noticed.
One Tuesday afternoon my wife and I had a fight. It seemed pretty serious at the time. Outside the rain was pouring down in sheets. I hated arguing, in fact I still do. I an effort to avoid conflict, I threatened to leave, planning to spend the night at the local Holiday Inn. I had done this before, it’s always been my preference to take the cowardly way out. My wife claimed I was avoiding conflict, but the truth is, I wanted to escape before I caused damage that I could not repair.
I rummaged through the closet looking for a jacket. The contents of the closet were unfamiliar to me as we had recently moved into our new house. I swear I could never find a goddamned thing around this house. I was positive she had rearranged my coats just to confound my escape. In a rage I seized upon the red Marlboro jacket, yanking it around my shoulders in a huff. With shoes untied, I barged out the door into the rain.
I stood on the porch, fumbling through my pockets for the car keys. My fingers dug through the jacket’s many zippered pouches and found something I did not expect. It was my daughter’s pacifier.
In her younger years she would not go anywhere without it. It was a rubber pacifier, attached by a long cloth cord to a clip shaped like Winnie the Pooh. We used it often, attaching it to her little blue coat so it would not be lost. Losing the nookie often drove her into an ear shattering tantrum. Everywhere she went, the binky followed, attached to her like a life line.
I stood on the porch, holding the pacifier in my right hand. I turned it over and over. Thunder crashed. I realized this thing must have been in my pocket for almost ten years. I had almost forgotten about it. It seemed so small in my hand …. almost looking as though it had shrunk. It felt warm and heavy. Of course that was impossible- it was made of rubber and white plastic.
I looked at the pacifier. It seemed precious, more valuable than ten miracles. I held it in the palm of my hand.