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fam

 

I saw my father twice.

1. In Virginia, just before he closed his apartment door after claiming his wife was at the grocery store, and didn’t allow guests unless she was home.

2. In court, just before the judge ejected my brother and me from the room because we giggled while the bailiff cuffed him.

 

About the first time.

When my mother drove my brother and me from our South Texas home to visit our birthplace, Alexandria, Virginia. We were five or so, had been gone for two years, and we begged our mother to take us to him. She knew. Somehow she knew. That he lived with a woman who wasn’t the mother of his children. Not us or the two before us. My mother and I stood in the shadows while my brother stepped forward to knock. The door opened, slowly, creaking with apprehension, as if for the past five years our father had been eyeing the peephole, expecting us. His voice quivered as he spoke. As he claimed he couldn’t let anyone in until his wife returned from the grocery store. Then he closed the door.

About the second time.

Chest Pains

By Zach Ellis

Essay

itsababy

I’m going to tell you a story about breasts. Tits. Boobs. Bosoms. Chesticles. Headlights. Hooters. Jugs. Knockers. Melons.

Mine.

The first time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a fourteen-year-old girl. I was doing jumping jacks in our basement for exercise. He asked if he could join me. We faced one another, sweat pouring off my forehead. Journey was on the radio. We jumped at the same time, his middle-aged body facing mine. Steve Perry reminded me to not stop believin’ as I caught my father’s eyes, staring right at my tits. Just enough time for us to get out of sync. Just enough time for him to see me following his gaze. He walked away when the song was over. We never said anything about it.

The second time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a grown man.

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One of the things my little brother does at work is take a kidney out of one person and insert that kidney into another person all while keeping both people alive. This is not something I could do if you paid me, as my great aunt used to say, “all the money,” nor could I tell a patient the cancer has spread, or the liver no longer functions, or that the end is, in all likelihood, near. My brother tells people these sorts of things regularly, and then, instead of weeping, he goes on with his workday. He can write prescriptions; he can diagnose exotic diseases. He is handsome and admirable, and people tell me he’s one hell of a surgeon.

bull-charging-rodeo-clown-escape-horns-cowboy-hat-dirt-reality-show-i-will-try-anything-once-on-air-promo-cablevision-video-photo

When I was a young boy, there was no greater adventure in the world than visiting my grandparents’ ranch in Eastern Montana. Among the things that made this place magical were the people who populated the area, including a kid my age named Kelly Kornaman. Kelly was a typical ranch kid…tough but shy, quiet but very easy to talk to once you got to know him. He had a perfectly round face, and a high cackling laugh that always made me laugh along with him.

Cold sore 2Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

Two Revelations

On Thursday, May 3rd, 2007, at about six in the evening, in Spokane, Washington, my mother and father had a fierce argument. Fights and conflict were rare for them, and never lasted long. They’d been married thirty-nine years. They had a happy marriage. My father said, “If you want me to go, then I’ll really go.” He went upstairs. A few minutes later, my mother followed. She found him sitting on the end of their bed, his eyes unfocused, his head and shoulders sagging. “What did you do?” she shouted. “I took some pills,” my father answered. “ You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” My mother went into the bathroom. All the bottles from the medicine cabinet, a pharmacy’s worth of drugs including the Ativan and Trazodone my mother took for bipolar disorder, were out and open and empty on the counter. She called 911.

 

“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.

We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.

“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”

I wish the magazine Parenting would just go the full shot and rename itself Mothering; it’s never too late to be honest.

It’s a magazine by women, about women, and for women, with only a few obligatory Man Ghettos, a page or two on which fathers rear their dense and uncomprehending heads. I won’t bore you with comparative page counts or (follow the money!) an analysis of the advertising: more tampons than pickup trucks (and the latter at least can be gender neutral).

Never/More

By Kristin Iversen

Essay

My father died last summer, and now I have his car. He didn’t leave me his car, but I have it all the same. What he left me was his music—his guitars and his stereo and his records and his tambourine that I had already taken years ago and have always kept in my bedroom. But he didn’t leave me the car. The car just kind of came to me. It’s a twenty-year-old Mercedes station wagon with an out of service car phone in a black metal holster. It looks like it ought to have a Bush/Quayle ‘92 bumper sticker on the back, but I’ve been told that a Puerto Rican flag on the dashboard would really recontextualize everything.

“How do you remember someone when they are gone, especially when you’re not sure how well you know them?”

My Father’s House has all the hallmarks of a Ben Tanzer novel: the characters are socially aware and mired in pop culture; they struggle with coming to a deeper understand of themselves; they run and shoot pool and frequent dive bars and stack the coffee table high with The Nation, Cineaste and New Yorker magazines. This novel though, Tanzer’s sixth, has taken a markedly darker path.

On weekends, my friends and I play pickup tackle football. Coop is the only younger kid who is allowed to play with us because he’s tough enough to compete with the older boys. By his junior year, colleges will begin recruiting him to play defensive back.

One Saturday, my father plays too. My friends and I are excited to see how he mixes it up. We’re fifteen. He’s forty-five but still in excellent shape, and we want to see if we can hit like him, hit as hard as an NCAA Division I athlete. None of us have played college sports yet.

Our two teams trade touchdowns without me going head-to-head against my father. Then my team kicks off, and the ball rolls right up to him. I shade to his side and come sprinting down, imagining that I’ll lay a vicious blow, imagining my father ripped off his feet, thrown wickedly to the ground. But he doesn’t pick up the ball, and I slow down. He steps forward and lets it roll between his legs. Slowly. The game stops as he stands over it.

I’m in front of him. “Pick up the ball, Dad.

“No,” he grins, “you can down it.”

We both hesitate. The ball is between his legs. Sitting there.

The game is live but we’re both standing still, waiting over the untouched ball.

“Come on, Dad. Pick it up.”

“No. Go ahead and down it.”

I’m confused, but I shrug and lean down to reach the ball.

My father bends with me, slowly, then tenses and swings his forearm like a short axe. I don’t have time to get out of the way. My nose snaps and lodges underneath my right eye. The hit takes me off my feet, lays me on the ground. I blink. Lying on my back. My nose opens and the blood spouts over my mouth, choking me, then off the side of my face. I stand up. The blood runs down the front of my white shirt like abstract art.

My father jumps toward me and I step back wobbling. He’s pointing and laughing and ready to block but I don’t make contact with him. Coop picks up the ball and runs off to the left. All my friends stop playing as Coop runs for an uncontested touchdown.

My father yells, “I broke your nose! I broke your nose!” He’s laughing so hard that he’s hyperventilating. He jogs down the field following Cooper.

My friend Doige says, “Man, that was fucked up.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

My father jogs back. “Want me to set it?”

My friends laugh at the ridiculous scene.

“I guess.”

My father sets my nose at mid-field. “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure, Pete.” He works his thumb left to right. My septum slowly moves out from underneath my eye. He puts his right thumb opposite. Counterpresses and wiggles. Counterpresses again. He shakes his head. “You should’ve seen your face when I hit you. You were so surprised.”

He’s still smiling.

My friends shake their heads.

We keep playing. The blood on my shirt dries to a starch. When I run hard, red mist comes out of my nose.

After the game, my father buys all us ice cream at a shop two blocks away. The girl behind the counter looks uncomfortable as I pick my flavor. My shirt has a two-foot peninsula of blood down the front and my right eye is swelling shut.

Moonscape

By Siri Z. Müller

Essay

Moonscape. Something died all over them, they ran and scattered, and I watched from a distance, between work, between papers that were not falling from the sky, but sitting blankly under my hands. So much dust, roiling. I was transfixed to screens in conference rooms I actually had not even known previously existed. I felt the dark, cool mahogany. I am sure it was actual mahogany. The leather below me was taut and expensive. My shoes were cold. I tried to ground myself there, to gawk, to feel, as if the observation of a thing could expand the knowing of it, but the tether was tight; in an unusual act of compassion, my boss commanded me to continue working. To not think about it, to simply go on, though clearly she did not expect much actual work from me. It was shocking, but it was not wrong, I could not deny her logic, at least not in that moment. I did not know where I was, really. I do not now know where everyone else was, exactly, why I had to stay. Maybe because nobody waited for me at the home I had alone, though my family advised me, in all seriousness, to begin walking towards Boston.

The Meeting

By Zara Potts

Memoir

I am mid-way across the sea that divides my home country of New Zealand from its nearest neighbour Australia, when the old woman beside me taps me on the shoulder.

“You should watch your bag, dear,” she says in a whisper. “I don’t like the look of those men sitting in front of you. They may try and put drugs in there when you’re not looking.”

I look at my bag which is firmly stowed away under the aircraft seat in front me. I twist my ankle around the strap and pull it closer with my leg.

“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”

I plug my earphones back into my ears and turn to look out at the clouds below me. The old woman has been annoying me since take off and I am trying my best to ignore her.

I feel a tap on my shoulder again.

“Would you mind looking after my bag while I go to the bathroom?” she asks.

I nod my head as she passes her handbag to me.

I am fourteen-years-old and strange old ladies annoy me.

***

I am on a plane winging my way to meet a father I have never met.

I have lived all my life without any contact with this man and now, in what feels like a whirlwind rush, I am going to meet him. A man who I am related to by blood, but who is, technically, a stranger.

There have been recent telephone conversations with him where we have scratched out details about each other, in strained but relentlessly cheerful voices. We have sidestepped difficult questions and steered away from explanations- giving of ourselves, just enough detail as to make the fourteen-year-silence bearable.

When he asked me to come and meet him, I said yes straight away. There was no thinking about it. I knew his face from an old passport photo and I wanted to see whether the real thing matched the picture I had stored away in my head.

And so here I am.

Untethered at 35 thousand feet. Restless in a airline seat, worried about whether I will actually be able to pick out my father from all the faces waiting in the arrival hall.

***

I walk slowly through customs and collect my bags. There is no hold up for me. Why would there be? I am a fourteen-year-old girl with neatly brushed hair and a smart new skirt who doesn’t look like any sort of trouble. The old lady has disappeared in the crowds and I am glad to be alone.

I stiffen my back and stand up straight as the automatic doors open into the airport waiting area and I am exposed to a crowd of hopeful faces waiting for families and friends. In unison, the faces turn to look at me expectantly to see whether I am who they are searching for. In an instant they all turn away.

Except one.

His hand is raised and there is an uncertain smile on his face. This is my father. I know him immediately. This is the first moment we have ever seen each other. We christen each other with shaky smiles.

I walk towards him and he walks towards me. There is no slow-motion running, nor are there outstretched arms or wild displays of emotion. We walk purposefully as though sizing each other up. He stops in front of me.

“G’day, mate.’

And then he hugs me. He pulls me in to him with awkward arms and I notice the tattoos that run the length of his biceps. I put my arms around him and have no idea what to say.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I say, feeling hopeless. Somewhere inside, I register how strange these words are.

Behind him is a blonde woman holding the hand of a little boy. My father steps back from me and introduces me to my stepmother and brother. We hug quickly, knowing that this should be momentous but the fourteen-years of questions hang over us, as thick with expectation as the stifling Melbourne heat.

My father takes my bags from me. I know that he needs something to do. This is something to do. He begins to walk off, beckoning me to follow him.

“You gave me a fright when you came through that door,’ he says. “You looked just like my twin brother.”

He has a twin? Had a twin? I try to process this. Just as I try to process his voice. It should be as familiar to me as my own, but it is not. It is gravelly and foreign and I try to shape it into something recognisable and comforting.

I don’t want to stare, so I try and sneak looks at him as he is walking to the car. I try to match our features, play connect-the-dots with our faces. I see that I resemble him more than I thought. Our chins are the same. Our noses are the same. His colouring is the same as mine.

And then I notice he has blue eyes.

I always imagined his eyes were as brown as mine. I had never questioned it. I am shocked to see that his are milky blue.

It hits me then that this man is a total stranger.

***

We drive away from the airport into the countryside surrounding Melbourne.

I am disapointed when I realise that my father lives out of the city. I hate the countryside. I am scared of spiders and snakes and I know the Australian bush hides many of these creatures.

The drive is strangely silent. My five-year-old brother keeps up a steady stream of chatter as we sit in the backseat, looking out at the Eucalypts and burnt orange bush.

Finally we reach the house. There is a long driveway. There are no other houses around. There is a dog called ‘Banjo’ that rushes out to greet me. There is the hot and unforgiving Australian sun beating down on me.

I am suddenly tearful and feel the bottom of my stomach lurch into homesickness. I don’t know these people. I want to go home. I am not as brave as I thought I was. I don’t want to be here.

My stepmother shows me to my bedroom. It looks out across a field and there is a magpie sitting on a fence staring at me.

“Are there any spiders here?” I ask her.

“No, love. No spiders.” she assures me and goes off to see about dinner.

My father comes in to the room as I am unpacking. I have no idea what to say to him. He has no idea what to say to me.

“Could I please call home?” I ask him. My throat is tight and I am worried I am going to cry. I don’t want him to think I am not brave.

“Of course,” he says and brings me the phone. He dials the number and gives me the handset. I take it and say thank you.

As he backs out of the door, my mother answers. Her voice seems an age away.

“Hi Mama,’ I say, choking back tears. “I’m here. Everything is fine.”

Ghosts

By Angela Tung

Memoir

“Cancer,” my father’s voice whispered in the night.

I rolled over on the mattress on the floor. The light was on in my parents’ bathroom.

“Cancer,” my father said again. “Now it’s in her bones.”

Nai-nai, I thought as I drifted off back to sleep. He was talking about my grandmother.

The year my father’s mother got sick was the same year I couldn’t sleep. I was nine and had seen The Exorcist at a friend’s house by mistake. I didn’t know it was scary till the girl started flipping back and forth on her bed, her eyes rolled up, and her throat swelled as though by a bee sting.

“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” said my mother, who was playing mah-jongg with the friend’s parents. But it was too late.

Shortly afterward, I came down with the flu. Weird thoughts of demons and shaking beds mingled with my fever. Too much cough medicine gave me hallucinations – the curtains in my bedroom shrank and grew, shrank and grew – and the jitters. I had ringing in my ears and could only sleep where there was noise – in the living room with the TV on, in the den with the clock radio, anywhere there was someone else so that I could hear their breathing. On bad nights though, nothing worked, and I’d sit snuffling on the stairs, long past midnight.

I was already an anxious kid. I worried myself into stomachaches over book reports, was terrified of situations with lots of people I didn’t know, and broke into tears over any harsh word. But now I felt nervous all the time.

One night when my father came home from work, I threw myself into his arms. I was crying uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “I can’t help it.”

My parents worried silently, as they did about everything. Our grades, the mortgage, the kids on our block who called us ching-chong. My father kept his concerns about my grandmother quiet too, whispered only to my mother at night.

He rarely talked about his family. It was my mother who showed us the black photo album hidden in the closet, the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same. Her hair in a bun, her face bare of make-up, her large bucked teeth protruding over her lips.

“You don’t want teeth like Nai-nai’s, do you?” my aunts on my mother’s side said when they learned I was still sucking my finger.

No, I didn’t. I wanted to look like someone pretty in my family. Everyone said my brother resembled my mother’s handsome baby brother. I told myself I was the spitting image of my father’s beautiful sister.  I knew I actually wasn’t, that I took after my father, who had Nai-nai’s smallish eyes, her peasant cheekbones, and thick coarse hair.

“Your grandfather didn’t want to marry Nai-nai,” my mother told us. “It was an arranged marriage.”

I gazed at the photos of the handsome young man. He had big eyes, round black glasses, and favored natty suits and ties. When the Communists took over China, Nai-nai and her two children fled to Taiwan while my grandfather stayed behind. I wasn’t sure why. He worked for the government and couldn’t get away. Or he underestimated the situation and thought his family could return. Or he saw it as a chance for escape.

Whatever the reason, he’d eventually marry the widow of one of his colleagues, and would raise the widow’s daughter as his own.

At nine, I didn’t think too much about my grandmother, although I knew she was ill. I wasn’t close to her the way I was with Puo-puo, my mother’s mother. Puo-puo was loud and fat and cooked constantly – dumplings, scallion pancakes, and steamed buns. During the summers, she taught us Chinese, and quizzed us like a real teacher. My grandfather, Gong-gong, would watch game shows all afternoon with the volume turned high.

“Come on down!” he’d shout with Bob Barker.

The several months Nai-nai stayed with us was like living with a specter. She mostly stayed in her room, knitting vests and socks from brown scratchy wool. She’d make sudden appearances, once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed). Another time to scrub pots and pans with the same torn-out pages, which for some reason, made my father mad.

“We have perfectly good paper towels!” he yelled.

When the weather got warmer, she emerged again to wander in the wood behind our house with a scythe. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do. Clear weeds, perhaps. Sometimes she returned with flowers; once she came back with poison oak.

My father was so angry, he couldn’t even say anything, just shook his head. My father rarely lost his temper. If he did, it’d be for a second, then over, unlike my mother who was a storm that raged on and on. A nurse came to help with Nai-nai, and it was my mother who sat with her and translated.

Nai-nai was always nice to us, in her quiet way. She was always smiling. But I was glad when she returned to L.A.

* * *

My nervousness continued through the rest of the school year.

Scary things followed me everywhere. Commercials for The Elephant Man on TV. I didn’t know what Joseph Merrick looked like, but what I imagined was far worse. The two-faced man on That’s Incredible! UFOs and aliens.

When my language arts teacher didn’t feel like teaching, she read us Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe. We fourth-graders listened with horror at The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sometimes I was able to tune out, but then somehow I’d catch the scariest parts: a man peering through a keyhole to see a troll-like creature drain a woman of blood. At night I’d lay petrified, wanting but not wanting to peek through the crack of the door, in case I saw the same thing.

My father came and went, came and went, to Los Angeles. He’d always leave in the early morning and return in the dead of night. Finally, that spring, Nai-nai died.

“Bow to Nai-nai,” our mother told us gruffly. We’d just run in from playing. A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter.

Did my father know? I wondered stupidly as I bowed once, twice, three times. He was watching television in the living room. He had no reaction.

I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles. I stopped sleeping in the den, which was where Nai-nai had slept. I bunked in my brother’s room till he got sick of me. Finally, over a year later, I moved back into my own room.

* * *

I once asked my father about his father’s second wife. I was in the 7th grade and had a family tree assignment. My question was purely pragmatic: Should I include his father’s second wife and daughter in the tree?

My father’s face darkened. “Who told you my father has a second wife?” he asked. “My father doesn’t have a second wife.”

Confused, I felt my cheeks burn. “Mom said – ” I started.

She appeared in the doorway. Without looking at her, my father asked, “Did you tell her my father has a second wife?”

Her mouth dropped open. “No,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”

It would be a long time before I asked my father about his family again.

* * *

My junior year in college, my grandfather died, and only after that could my father display his portrait. Only then would the black album appear on the shelf with our other photo albums, and in it pictures I hadn’t seen before. My grandfather and two young men in 1930s New York. Decked out in suits, fedoras, and long winter coats, they posed on top of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue.

I was amazed. How was he able to go? Did he ever get to go again? Did he think, looking at the snapshots my mother secretly sent him, me on Columbia campus, at Rockefeller Center, in Central Park, Now my granddaughter is there too, where I once was, so long ago?

“My father was very handsome,” my father says now. “Of course I look like my mother.”

I don’t know if my grandfather’s second wife is still alive. His stepdaughter is. Does my father ever think about seeking her out on one his annual trips to China with my mother? His stepsister would be able to tell him all about his father. But would it be too painful, knowing how much he had missed?

My father is now the same age as Nai-nai when she came to live with us. She had already seemed ancient at 70, as though I might break her if I sat on her lap. My father walks three miles a day, and sings karaoke and plays mah-jongg several times a week. He reads two or three books at once, and paints constantly.

But he’s aged suddenly, in the past five years or so, since his retirement. His hair is grayer, he’s a bit more stooped. He can’t hear as well. He’s not a grandfather yet, and I want to make him one, not an easy task now that I’m 38. Some nights I lay awake worrying about this. What if I never get pregnant? My boyfriend and I could adopt but would that be the same? I don’t want my father’s lineage to die out.

I’m not ready yet for my parents to be old. I look for obituaries of people ten, fifteen, twenty years older, and somehow that makes me feel better. I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts. I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.

For now, I remind myself, they’re real. For now, it’s not too late.