Saturday night I had the pleasure of reading from my short story "Impressions of a Family" along with four other readers included in Baobab Press' new anthology This Side of the Divide: Contemporary Stories of the American West, produced with the assistance of MFA students at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The event was held in Portland in conjunction with the AWP writing conference—14,000 writers gathered to take part in 550 official presentations, a massive book fair, and dozens offsite events, like the one I participated in at Mother Foucault's Bookshop.
I was fortunate and delighted to have four good friends cheering me from the audience. For those of you who couldn't join us, here are the excerpts I read. You can order a copy of the anthology here. And yes, that's Van Gogh's "Starry Night" I'm wearing, and yes my skirt received its own round of applause!
My father is dying. He’s been dying all week. I know it when I see him opalescent and shrunken, bony in the nursing home bed. My stepmother Janice leaves her place at his arm, and I shuffle in, nudging my son Jared in front of me. It’s the first time Jared and I have been together since August when he moved in with his father, my ex-husband, to attend an arts high school.
I lean alongside Jared’s shoulder, which tops mine now, and squeeze my father’s flaccid hand. I remember it firm and huge.
“Hi, Dad.” His eyes flick in my direction. “I brought Jared to see you.”
“Hi, Grandpa.” Jared inches closer and peers at his grandfather. The last time they met was almost a year and a half ago, after my father’s first stroke, and Jared was pissed that he missed his first day of high school to visit some stupid stranger, as he put it.
My father lets go of my hand and reaches for Jared’s. “Straight on ’til morning,” he says, quoting Peter Pan, his voice hoarse.
I see their interlocked palms—-pale and fading, strong and tan. The last time they held hands was also in a hospital. Jared’s newborn fingers, tiny pearls, curled around my father’s index finger, firm and golden. My father had driven the length of the state to meet his first-born grandchild, only to kiss us both, buy Jared a stuffed giraffe from the gift shop, then turn around and leave within twenty minutes.
I can tell Jared thinks I’m the only link between them, the one who holds them together. But I feel the inverse, the force with which their lives have forged me. First, my father’s distance, cool as ice in a whiskey glass, even before he left, then Jared’s infant need that demanded all my time, all my attention, all my wonder, and then evaporated before I was ready. I rest my hand on theirs for just a moment before Jared wriggles from our grip.
The next day Janice and I join my father at the convalescent home again. We make small talk and greet visitors.
“Oh, you’re the teacher from Napa,” they say. “Isn’t your son the one who’s attending the high school for the arts? He wants to be a painter, right?” I’m invariably surprised they’ve heard of us.
An attendant brings in lunch, solids exchanged for purees, and Janice feeds my father, though he seems barely conscious. “Just one more bite,” becomes her prayer, but he’s helpless as a newborn bird, and with each meal less able to prove his love for her. I flip through a magazine and try not to watch.
That night after his ski trip, I lure Jared to the Best Western with the promise of all-you-can-eat pizza and in-room movies. When I pick him up Don’s new wife fills the doorframe with her big hair, big teeth, and big breasts. “You’re early, Jared’s in the shower.” Rhonda pauses. “Won’t you come in?”
We’d both prefer that I wait outside, but it’s dark and sprinkling and that wouldn’t be civil, and we try to be the poster family for modern divorce.
Jared takes the stairs two at a time. He’s carrying his portfolio on one shoulder. His wet curls glisten.
After he’s eaten seven slices of pizza, and about eighty-seven people are killed in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest movie, I ask Jared how he likes living in L.A. Instead of answering directly, he spreads his portfolio over one of the beds. He’s done dozens of sketches and almost as many paintings this semester. He holds each piece, framing it with his delicate fingers.
“There are five principles of organization,” he explains as if he’s giving a school report. “Balance, movement, contrast, emphasis, and harmony.”
He has me compare a series of charcoal sketches, and we determine that I favor irregular rhythm, and asymmetrical over radial or formal balance.
“You’re catching on, Mom. Now, there are five basic elements of design: line, shape, color, texture, and space.”
I study watercolor, oil, and pastel renditions of the same still life until I can correctly identify realistic from abstract shape, dark from light values, actual from simulated texture, and positive versus negative space.
He shows me an experiment in Pointillism. “Everything is made up of tiny dots using only primary and secondary colors. What do you think?”
“It feels static.” I do my best to sound like an art critic and not a mother who wants to snatch her son back for purely selfish reasons.
“Exactly. The precision of color sucks all the life out of it. That’s why I like Impressionism. This is my favorite.” He holds up a painting of our yard in Napa.
From across the room I see everything clearly, the dilapidated barn, the almonds and magnolia in flower, chickens pecking near the pond. When I come close, the images blur and become indistinct. They could be anything.
Jared falls asleep while I floss my teeth. He’s sprawled across the bedspread, face down. I pull a corner over him and rest a hand on his back, feeling the shallow rise and fall.
When he was a baby, Jared couldn’t fall asleep without my hand on the round of his back. Until he was three, I eased him into his crib after our ritual rocking and countless verses of “Bye Bye Baby Bunting.” I stood for long minutes with my hand across his spine waiting for the breath of sleep. Gradually, I retracted my hand into the space above him, feeling the connection between us diminish. Finally, I’d turn to tiptoe away, but often he sensed me move, and I’d repeat the process again. I was everything he wanted, and everything I could give him was enough.
But I wonder now if that was ever completely true. Because Don was there, too, often taking my place on the second and third rounds of hand-on-the-back sneak-away. My marriage is over, but Don did not evaporate from Jared’s life the way my father evaporated from mine. My son has a father whose love is visible and present.
I lift my hand and crawl into my bed. Jared doesn’t move.
In the morning Jared asks me to take him to the Rose Parade New Year’s Day.
“It depends.” I park on the street.
“I mean, if Grandpa doesn’t kick off tonight.”
“That’s rude.” I open my door.
“Sorry.” Jared shrugs.
“But it’s also true.”
Don is a landscape architect who specializes in ripping out lawns and flowerbeds and replacing them with gravel. He calls it xeriscape. This morning he is washing his truck with some eco product from a spray bottle and pretends not to see me while I walk to the front door with Jared’s portfolio while they talk.
“Dad said okay.”
“I love you, Mom.” He hugs me.
I hug too hard. He bounces into the house.
I walk toward Don who looks up.
“I’ll probably be over really early tomorrow,” I say. “I hope it won’t interfere with your New Year’s plans.”
“It’s fine. It’ll be good for the two of you. Jared won’t say it, but he misses you.”
I nod. “He seems happy here. I’m glad.”
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
“I never liked him.” He smiles, quick and sad, a lapse in the usual reserve.
“I know. Thank you for that.” I return the smile and remember the afternoon I told Don about my father.
“What kind of scumbag runs out on his family?” he’d asked while we were twined in bed. “I will never leave my family. When I get married, it will last forever.” It was a proposal, a confession, and an opportunity for someone to hate my father for me.
Jared is a kid who sticks to his New Year’s Resolutions. “What did you resolve, Mommy?” he used to ask, showing me his crayoned list.
“Nothing.” I’d reply. No resolution, no failure.
This year it’s different. Alone in my hotel room, I can’t sleep. There’s a party in the lobby, firecrackers in the street, and a new century ready to impact me. I take a sheet of stationery from the bedside table and write resolutions for the first time in ages.
I want to write something about coming to understand in a deep way the difference between being alone and being abandoned, but I can’t figure out how to phrase it. I fall asleep with pen in hand.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.