Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Driving Home

I've been toying with a Prologue for the book for a few weeks.  After the careful help of this semester's Creative Non-Fiction class at Stanford, I have an essay, but it's not the prologue yet...

November 2013
The sky turns night in layers. First the white skirt covers the foothills. The orange-pink layer hides behind its mother. Then, the light and dark blue layers lean back, smoking cigarettes.  As my Volvo pushes into the brisk pre-Thanksgiving evening, the yellow moon shines, “I am ill and sad. I see you, I see you not.”
Before I let myself sing, “I see the moon and the moon sees me,” the track turns on the CD to Kath Bloom. She warbles, “There’s a wind that blows in from the North and it says that lovin’ takes course. Come here. Come here.”  Crooning melody slides around me, and then it punches my spine. I cough, closing my eyes just long enough not to kill on the 280.

My father and I listened to music all the time. I still do. Songs have a way of delivering my mind into memories the way that smells do. I think back to our apartment on East End Avenue and a Sunday afternoon listening to the discordant pounding of keys on a piano and Lotte Leyna singing, “Pirate Jenny.” It could be any or all Sunday afternoons when I am six or seven. My flat-ended nose presses against the dirty glass while I watch barges slide up and down the East River. Containers full of iron, oil and nameless goods push upstream, all pulled by the tiny, powerful red and black McAlister tugboats. Before I can cover my ears, Leyna asks the terrifying question, “Kill them now, or later?” Even then, I somehow knew that losing people was inevitable.

Daddy died the day after my eighth birthday. He was 44, a New York trial attorney with an appreciation for abstract art, Bertolt Brecht, steak, Jaguars, Remy Martin, Marlboro Reds, New York, my mother, my sister, and me. There isn’t a day when I don’t feel his absence. Would he be proud of me? Did he like other ice cream flavors besides Hagen Daaz peach? Am I living up to his expectations? What would he think of Mitch McConnell? Would I make him happy? Would he come with me to see a David Sedaris reading? Would he and my mother still be married? Would my daughter remind him of me? At sunset, it’s worse. When someone dies, you never stop waiting for him to come home at the end of the day.

I stop at the end of the exit ramp. Instead of heading home, I make the sharp right heading higher into the foothills.  His absence floats in the car as the music drives me deeper into memory. The stars are silent but their light seems to sway with each bar of music. Sound and light are waves. They move until they hit something and have to change. Do memories move until they hit something and we forget?

Today is one of the worst days. These are days when I imagine him next to me in the passenger seat and watch the tiny hairs on my forearms lift up into the empty pocket of air around me where he should be. I don’t see dead people. I know I carry them into the world just the same.

As I climb higher into the hills, the road narrows and branches creep out into the street. Their twisty fingernails tap my windows and doors, ticking and scratching. I press the gas even harder.  As the gear shifts, my body lurches forward.

I pull over. The seatbelt across my chest cradles the rock sitting on top of my heart. Tonight, it is a smooth river stone, perfect for skipping. My mind wanders again.

I remember standing at the shore at Orient Point. Daddy stands to my left, his Minolta around his neck, blocking my view of the black and white lighthouse protecting the fishing boats from the harbor. “Take your time, find a good smooth one. It should be flat, but not too big – you want one that’ll fly.”
“Like this?”
“No thinner. Try this one.”
I hurl the stone into Long Island Sound. It plunks into the water. The wind on the water turns the ripples’ concentric rings into rhombuses and parallelograms. I pause for a beat, willing the stone to bob up and skip across the brown salt water. Nothing. I find another stone, this one blubs down from the surface faster than the first.

Distracted, I look to my right. The Cross Sound Ferry Service parking lot bustles with departing day-trippers from New England. Their wood-paneled Ford station wagons are loaded with pumpkins, Indian corn, and wine from the North Fork wineries. They’ll serve up harvest supper in Connecticut tomorrow night. The cars load in an order only understood by frequent ferry travelers – weight distribution trumping first come, first served. A man in a red Mercedes complains to a sturdy dockhand who ignores him, waving on a large purple van. “Daddy, he has bad manners.”

“Worry about your own manners.” He raises only one eyebrow. I turn and play with my own eyebrows, holding one down with my index finger, unable to replicate the gesture.

While we’ve watched this Saturday afternoon dance roll on, the sun has moved. Orange and purple-gray clouds hint at evening and the half moon appears white in the eastern sky. One or two stars poke through the blueness. Daddy takes out his camera.  He grumbles, “Bloody slow shutter.” Then, he laughs, “Got it.” The ferry honks three times as the 5:40 Cape Henlopen departs for New London.
“Time to go. Skipping stones is an important skill. You can’t be a kid of you can’t skip stones.”
“Daddy, that’s silly, I can’t skip and I’m a kid.”
He laughs at me and with me, “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go home. Mommy will be worried out of her mind.” I failed stone skipping. How else I have I failed?
Everyday, I work hard in a glass room with a speakerphone. I love my clients and hope they love me. Yet, I still feel like I’m waiting. I press my head onto the steering wheel. My teeth chatter. I grind my molars to stop the movement.  My throat won’t swallow. After a few seconds, my diaphragm gives up and spurts out the air I’d held in. “Who are you?” I ask. In the hills, no one hears me.

I feel unfinished.I put the car back on the road and drive back toward my house. A hot salty tear threatens to blur my vision, sending me careening off the snaking road into a ravine with dried brush and horses. One of the reasons I hate crying has nothing to do with losing control, fearing vulnerability, or being told that no one likes a cry baby. It’s that the physical sensation of crying is horrible. My body heats up. I feel claustrophobic in my own skin. I begin to sweat. This is not polite glowing. A salty stream of sweat stings my invariably slightly sunburned neck, creeping down my chest, where it becomes cold; forcing me to notice that it’s reached my navel. Under my black black suit jacket, a pink monogrammed Brooks Brothers blouse sticks to my back. My “rosy” face becomes purple and the whites of my eyes turn pinkish red. From my nose, hot, clear, liquid runs into my mouth. My pocket pack of Kleenex is buried at the bottom of a not-quite-ostentatious black Prada handbag in the backseat. It is all utterly out of reach.

I remember a clear October day. Mommy is at home packing up the summerhouse. We walk out onto the sand, take off our Reebok sneakers and white tube socks, roll up our jeans, pull up our hoods to block the wind, and run. We run in endless lines of tire tracks left on the sand. Daddy is ahead of me, running toward the jetties, now visible only out in the water. As he runs, his body shrinks and shrinks until, he dissolves into the mist. I panic. Before tears stream from my eyes, I will my legs, scratching against my rolled up Osh-Kosh jeans, to push through the sand as my feet sink further with each step. “Daddy!”
He’s right there in front of me, but I can’t see him obscured by mist, sun and blowing sand.  I reach into the mist, running faster with my arms open, until he runs back to scoop me up into his arms. The smell of a damp un-dyed Irish wool Aran Fisherman’s sweater mixes with cologne and Marlboro smoke to capture the sound of a voice I can no longer recall.
When I was seven, Daddy and I shared a notebook. He bought it for me to write notes for a school project about a Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It became something else entirely. I remember sitting in the back seat of our silver Volvo, the one Daddy said made a part of his soul die every time he drove it, in front of St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village. Mommy is inside visiting 87-year-old Aunt Katherine and her broken hip. She’ll only be a minute.
“Daddy, write me a letter.”
“A letter?”
“Yes, a letter. Here, use my notebook.”
“I just want you to write me something. So I don’t forget.”
“Ok.” He exhales and I pass the small beige wire-bound notebook between the two front seats. He reaches back, also grabbing the well-chewed pencil placed on top of the notebook. His fingers rub the bite marks but he says nothing to admonish me.
I wait patiently while Willie Nelson sings “City of New Orleans,” on the radio. I sing along, “Good morning America, how are you? Dontcha’ know me, I’m you’re native son?”
He hands me back the notebook. I read his note out loud.
Dear Kate,
This is a letter about my favorites.
My favorite color is blue.
My favorite food is steak.
My favorite car is Jaguar.
My favorite people are you, Mommy and Tracy.

Does anyone need to know any more than that about her father? Probably not. But, it’s not only knowing him that I crave. I still miss him every day and know that there are probably only three or four other people on Earth who think of him at least once every single day. The world has her own people to miss every day. 
The Volvo turns onto my street, up a short curvy hill. The neighbors’ houses are dark and their shades drawn. The only light on the street comes from my headlights pointing towards my night. I don’t know this native son at all. Am I still loved?
I pull into the grainy clay parking spot in front of my house and see the porch light is off. Yellow light from the living room lamp pokes through the cracks in the plantation shutters. I turn off the music. My shoulders fold together as I exhale, my head presses back into the headrest.  And then it comes again, that delicious pain – the absence I know so well.
Once I turn off the ignition and step out into the evening air, I close the door to the almost black car, and lean back onto it. The engine’s vibration whizzes into my spinal column. I remember to breathe in and out and forget to worry about my clothes. My eyes trace the black silhouette of redwoods, up the trunks, past the triangle branches to the point where they become the night sky. I am far from anywhere. There are no sounds. Crickets are asleep. There is little light save the stars.  I’ve always found it curious that there aren’t fireflies West of the Rockies. Their absence, albeit appropriate for a November night, adds to the otherness of this place, halfway up a foothill, on its way to somewhere else. What am I doing here?
Children whose parents die are half-child, half adult. It starts when someone lies to you. For me, the lie was that my father would get better. I was seven and I knew. I don't know how I knew, I just did. They were thirty-seven and they didn't. Or, so I thought at the time. At the time, I thought they were naive or even dumb. A few years later, I thought they were liars. Now, at their age, I realize that they weren't lying to me, they were lying to themselves. The lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous. And I am the greatest of liars. The time has come to ask the questions, I’ve feared.
Who would we be today? Would we even know each other if I saw him passing on a sidewalk? Would he say that I lived well? He’d say that I was incomplete. I will learn from his siblings, his friends, his co-workers, my mother.
Each interview will begin with, “What was he like?” To a one, they will be responsive, kind and helpful. As much as I wish to know more about my father, finding out more about him will leave me unsatisfied. That is because I want him to know me. That remains impossible.
I look up. The sky above me is covered with stars; my eyes trace the dusty edges of the Milky Way. I see stars above me that shone a billion years ago. What does that say about time? The past is literally with me. What does that say about memory? The images in my mind are merely chemical reactions. I can’t bring myself to go inside. The night air and the illusion of time and truth sit with me a little longer.

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