The heat from the sun shone through the window and woke me up. I rolled onto my side to face the alarm clock on the night table. Noon. I felt slightly queasy. Not full-on hungover, thankfully, but I could definitely tell I had been drinking.
I pulled jeans and a shirt out of my bag, trying not to disrupt the organization of it. As I peeled my pajamas off— some ratty blue sweatpants with a hole on each butt cheek, and Tim’s Minor Threat t-shirt, I watched myself in the full length mirror. How many times had I done this before, in this room?
I walked down the fuzzy stairs, rubbing my eyes.
“Hi,” I said sleepily.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Grandma said.
“Sorry I slept so late,” I said sheepishly.
“Oh, no need to apologize. I know you must be so tired from your trip.”
I smiled. Grandma never questioned my sleep. It was something I loved about her.
“So I’m going to head home,” I said, trying to sound casual. I knew she clung to every minute we were together during my visits so I added, “Can I stay with you again tonight?”
“That sounds good,” she said warmly, without even a frown.
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked.
“That’s ok. You need some time with your mom and dad,” she said matter of factly.
“Ok, I’ll call you in a few hours,” I assured her. I hugged her quickly and tried not to think about how small she felt in my arms.
The gravel in the driveway crunched under the rental car’s tires. I pulled up next to my dad’s silver Malibu and got out, taking a deep breath. I had forgotten how quiet it felt out here. There were birds singing but somehow they only added to the stillness. Mom appeared in the screen door before I got to the first step. She opened it and smiled.
“Welcome home!” she said, her smile filling her face, her cheeks creasing warmly.
“Thank you!” I smiled back and hugged her. She held me hard and I breathed in the smell of her hair. Nag champa, lavender, and something else— a smell uniquely my mother’s.
I followed her through the door, letting it slam behind me.
“Just leave that open,” she said, motioning toward the front door. “It’s hot today and I like to let the breeze come in.” I loved how she talked about her habits as if I didn’t know them all. She was so self-contained— so her.
Daddy was sitting on the couch, holding a reporter’s notebook and pen, which he set down as he saw me. The pen rolled into the crack between the cushions and he left it there.
“Sweetpea!” he said, rising to greet me, his 5’8” stature just a few inches larger than my own.
“Hi Daddy,” I said and gave him a hug.
“Tell me about this new job,” he said.
“Ok. Let me put my things away,” I said, and went to the stairs. I climbed them two at a time, eager for the feeling I always got when I saw my childhood displayed before me, seemingly in miniature. It was as expected, Winnie the Pooh decorations, boy band posters, and all. I set my bag on the bed, did a slow full turn to take it all in, and went back down the stairs.
I sat on the reclining chair across from my dad and waited for him to reopen the conversation.
“So the job!” he said, never failing to please. “I want to hear all about it.”
“Well, I don’t know a lot about it yet,” I started. “I haven’t actually met anybody there in person yet. I did my interview on Skype.”
“Amazing,” my mom said, sitting down.
“Yeah!” I agreed. “But it’s for a women’s magazine. A feminist one.”
“So what does that mean?” Mom asked. “It isn’t just about how to give the best blowjob?”
“Pretty much,” I said. My mom’s frankness about sex had stopped surprising me when I was a teenager.
“It still has beauty and sex stuff but it is supposed to be more woman-centric and less about just pleasing men. It’s supposed to be for more educated women and reflect more diverse interests,” I explained.
“So what will you be doing for them?” Mom asked.
“I’m a features staff writer,” I said proudly.
“A reporter!” Daddy grinned. I smiled. He had been the editor of The Record Delta, Buckhannon’s paper, for years.
“Yeah, basically a reporter. But less like…news, and more human interest-y,” I said.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said. I grinned.
“And tell us about this boy!” Mom said.
I smiled again, a little embarrassed. I was a real adult, with a master’s degree and a real job, about to move in with my boyfriend, and somehow I still got embarrassed talking to my parents about my love life.
“His name is Tim,” I started.
“Where is he from?” Mom asked before I could say anything else.
“A Dolphins fan?” asked Daddy.
“Yes, actually,” I said. It always seemed weird to me that Tim liked football.
“And how did you meet him?” Mom asked.
“At school,” I said.
“What was he studying?” she prodded me to continue.
“Political Science,” I said.
“Is he a Republican?” asked Daddy.
“He’s kind of an anarchist,” I said.
“Good,” he said.
“I saw the picture of the two of you that you posted. He has a lot of tattoos,” Mom said, scowling a little bit. She was a hippie and she even had a tattoo of her own— a small heart over her breast, but she still didn’t like heavy tattooing.
“Yep,” I said, figuring it was better to force her to be on the offensive if she wanted to talk more about it.
She’s going to drop it, I thought, relieved.
I adjusted the cuff of my pants with my foot to be sure my newest tattoo was covered— a cartoony version of The Fool tarot card. I had gotten it to represent setting off on this new chapter and I wasn’t ready to tell my mom about it yet.
“And what are the ones on his hands?” she asked.
“They’re Xs. He’s straight edge,” I said, starting to get annoyed.
“What is straight edge?” she asked.
“It means he doesn’t drink or do any drugs,” I explained.
“So what is he going to be doing in Los Angeles?” she asked.
“Not drugs,” Daddy said and we both laughed.
“He’s doing an internship in the mayor’s office,” I said.
“They let anarchists in the mayor’s office?” Daddy laughed again.
“Career-minded ones,” I said, and laughed too.
“How did you meet him at school?” Mom asked, backtracking. I had purposely been vague and she seemed to have picked up on it.
“I wrote a story about him,” I said, and paused. I knew I might as well go on, because there was no chance she would let it go at that. “He was arrested. At a protest. There was a movement at the University to raise money for his legal expenses.”
“Why was he arrested?” Mom asked, seeing right around my plan to give her just enough information to try to stop the questions.
“He…” I paused. “Punched a police officer.”
“What?!” she exclaimed. I knew my mom was not a huge fan of cops, but she also was not a fan of stupid choices.
“Not until after the police officer had hit him first,” I tried, more quietly.
“How did it get to that point?” she asked.
“He crossed the barrier they had set up. I can send you a link to the story I wrote.” She frowned. I looked over to my dad, who was grinning widely. I grinned too. I was embarrassed about this part of Tim’s history. Like my mom, I thought peaceful protest was great, but that what he did was more a sign of his white male privilege than any blow to authority. Daddy’s obvious approval made me kind of proud of it.
“So, honey, we need to talk to you,” Mom said after a minute. Daddy’s grin disappeared and he suddenly looked very serious.
“Ok,” I said, bracing myself for the talk about what a big deal it was moving in with someone.
“Your father,” she continued. “Is sick.”
“Sick?” I asked, not sure what she was saying. He seemed fine.
Daddy reached across the coffee table and put his hand on my knee. “I have esophageal cancer,” he said quietly. I blinked, silent, waiting for him to continue. “There wasn’t much they could do for me here,” he went on. “So I went to Houston. A guy had an experimental treatment that sounded promising, but it didn’t work for me.”
“So…now what? What are you going to do now?” I asked, feeling like I had just arrived in some movie scene— in someone else’s life. Mom and Daddy looked at each other and Mom pursed her lips. They were quiet, and we all sat there for a minute, holding our breath.
I shook my head. “I’m going to go upstairs,” I muttered. “I have to…” trailing off, not able to come up with a coherent excuse. Daddy and Mom looked at each other again, Mom’s eyes worried. I stood up and ran back up to my room.
It felt different than it had 20 minutes earlier— the smallness now suffocating. I wanted to rip the posters off the wall. I wanted to scream. Instead, I sat down on my twin bed, my feet flat on the floor, facing the door and let one tear roll down my cheek. I sat for a long time. Finally, I took my phone out of my bag. I went to my contacts and found Tim, then pressed call. It rang twice and then went to his voice mail so I hung up and pressed call again.
“Hey, what’s up?” he answered.
“Why did you send me to voicemail?” I asked.
“Sorry, it’s busy here. Setting up our place. It’s sweet!” he said.
“My dad’s sick,” I said.
“Sorry dude. Hope you don’t catch it,” Tim said.
“He has cancer,” I said, the words feeling strange as they came out.
“Oh wow. I’m sorry dude,” Tim said, suddenly present in the conversation. I was silent, waiting for more.
“I guess I’ll let you go,” I said finally.
“Are you…ok?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Bye.”
“Um. Ok,” he paused for a moment. “Bye.” He stayed on the line.
I hung up. I had hoped he would be a little more comforting, and then felt mad for hoping it. I knew emotional conversations weren’t usually his strong point. That wasn’t what had drawn me to him. What attracted me to Tim was his intelligence-- for the first time, I didn’t feel like I was smarter than somebody, as arrogant as I felt admitting that to myself-- and I was attracted to his older brotherly affection-- the way he teased me lovingly. It actually reminded me of my dad. The downside was that he didn’t show me much outright affection. Unlike Daddy, who could make me feel his love with a look and a smile, who would wrap me up in a hug that made me feel safe and warm, Tim made me feel like hugs were some favor he was begrudgingly doing me. He didn’t do feelings talk, and when I did, he made it feel like a weakness of mine. I didn’t feel any better than before I had called him. In fact, I felt a little bit worse.
I went back downstairs and sat back down on the reclining chair. I wanted to ask questions. Questions like "How did you get it?" And "How long?" but I couldn’t. Instead I just said, "I told Grandma I wanted to stay with her again tonight.”
"Do you have any questions, Rebecca?" Mom asked.
"No, I don’t think so," I said, and stood up.
I walked to the kitchen and peeked my head in the pantry, eyeing the ceramic cow figures my mother collected on the windowsill. They were dusty, covered in grease and cobwebs.
"Why do we have a window in our pantry?" I asked my mom once when I was about 12.
"It’s so beautiful here, I like to be able to look outside wherever I am,” she had told me. “I asked your father to put windows in every room so he did."
Looking out that window now, I realized why she had wanted that window. It made the pantry into a little retreat. You could stand in there and be alone for a few minutes. The 30 seconds back on the reclining chair were about all I could handle. Unlike Tim, I was usually comfortable with affection and emotions, but the exception was when someone older than me-- one of my parents or my Grandma, was weak.
I picked up an oatmeal cream pie that looked like it had been in the pantry since the last time I was home at Christmas and brought it back to the living room.
“I talked to Tim,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “He said our apartment is great.”
“That’s great, Sweetpea,” Daddy said.
“How much is your rent?” asked Mom.
“$1250,” I said, and both of their faces grew wide. “It’s actually a good find for out there. In a good neighborhood and it’s pretty big. And it has a parking space.”
“That’s important,” said Mom. “I didn’t really like Los Angeles when I visited. It’s a completely different world from San Francisco.”
“I know,” I said. “You told me.” And she had, several times.
She changed the subject. “I’m glad you’re spending time with your grandma tonight, honey. I hope we can have some one on one time together too.” I nodded.
“Can we go get dinner?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. Mom smiled and stood up.
“I’ll give you two some time,” she said and went upstairs.
I moved over to the couch next to Daddy.
“Come here,” he said, lifting his arm. I scootched closer to him and leaned over, putting my head on his lap. He draped his arm over me. My throat ached as I tried to hold back tears. “Oh, Sweetpea, won’t ya dance with me,” Daddy started to sing. “Won’t ya, won’t ya, won’t ya dance with meeee.”
I let myself cry and the tears came out in heavy sobs, making it hard to catch my breath. Daddy kept his arm around me and let me cry, just holding me.
“Daddy,” I said, wiping my face. I was still hiccuping. I hadn’t cried like that since I was little.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“What do you think happens when you die?”
“I’m not sure, Sweetpea. But the thing that makes the most sense to me is reincarnation.”
“Like you’re just reborn as someone else?” I asked.
“Yep. But I don’t think of it as supernaturally as some people do,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
He paused. “So say you are buried and you eventually decompose and become part of the dirt around you. A seed falls from a tree nearby and grows in the dirt you’re a part of. A little tree grows and maybe a deer eats some of its leaves. A hunter kills the deer and his family eats it. Maybe his wife is pregnant. So all of that is a really physical version of reincarnation. But I think it’s possible that your consciousness, or parts of it, become a part of that tree or that deer, or the baby in the woman’s belly.”
“Hm,” I said, thinking.
“And there are other ways consciousness goes on. Part of mine is in you,” he said.
“I like that,” I said.
“Me too,” said Daddy.