Jen jiggled her leg nervously as she tries to relax on the plane ride home from visiting her Dad. She watched out the window, as the trees shrank into broccoli. She pictured her Dad, ensconced in blankets shrinking into a cocoon: a world-worn moth awaiting the turn of time to bring him back to life. The urgent care unit of the hospital had a sense of time all it’s own. It wasn’t so much urgent as painfully slow. One twitch of a finger could take months as liquid dripped and bodies turned cold. The urgency lay in the desperation of life about to end. The ward seemed to battle against the ravages of time, to slow things down; a citadel of patience in a world bent on fast-forwarding. In a tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, her Dad lingered, for once the world would wait for him.
As clouds obscured the view and rain chilled the panes, Jen takes comfort in the fact that her Dad’s urgent care nurse is strikingly beautiful. Porcelain skin glowing like a creamy white paper lantern, sparkling bright blue eyes, and cheekbones chiseled with chilling scientific precision. A stark beauty quietly working in a rural catholic hospital; almost as if the nurse had been waiting all this time for someone like Jen to come along and find her existence romantic. Jen’s Dad had taught her to appreciate beauty and she felt that this nurse was chosen for him.
As the stewardess’ less than arousing backside plodded up the aisle, Jen considered how many people’s memories involved that woman’s ass. Perhaps her father’s nearly fatal stroke had concentrated her mind to record every detail out of fear of losing everything. Jen felt so acutely aware, like she’d never forget a single sensory input from this trip. She wondered what smells, feelings and images came to her Dad while he lay on his floor for three days before his land lady came to see what the fuck was up with the rent and found him, face down on the floor, mumbling incoherently and probably covered in booze. Jen wished she could ask her Dad what he was thinking about while he lay on the floor. Jen couldn’t help but hope his thoughts had at least touched on her. But she couldn’t ask right now, his thinking was too cloudy and his speech was still too crackly, like a foreign radio station with poor reception.
One time, when Jen was ten or so, all bangs, skinny legs in lilac jean shorts, her family had rented a house at the beach. She remembers walking home from dinner with her parents. Her little sister was adorable, stuffed in a light teal sweatshirt, nose nipped red by the wind and waddling in bursts on the beach, like a wind-up toy with a wonky pelvis and stiff little legs. Her Dad walked similarly home from dinner, stumbling childishly for an adult. Jen remembers thinking it was funny. She skipped behind him, wanting to laugh but still sensing she shouldn’t, feeling confused for not laughing out-loud, despite the pulling of her lips into a smile. She was also confused why her mom was walking abnormally fast, holding her little sister, glancing backwards; the whites of her eyes glinting in the navy blue night.
As if it was in a dream, Jen can picture her Dad one moment wobbling, cartoonish on a slight precipice, then the sound of something dry being crushed, and suddenly he was square on his back in a deep pit of sea grass. It was so sudden and surprising she didn’t even see the slipping in the soft sand, the rolling down the embankment, and flattening of thick grass. She remembers him lying in the pit and coughing, she sat, hands at her sides, gripping the cool sand. As she looked down, she felt distant, like he was in a deep dark pit. Leaning forward from the sandy edge and looking down, she was trying to make out his face under the darkness, like it was under a dark mesh sheet. Her Dad had a distinctive face: warm, intelligent eyes, and a full German beard. Her Mom had always said when they met and he was fresh shaven and barrel-chested, he looked like a young Sean Connery. Her Mom had told her friends that her new husband looked like James Bond. Now his diet of meat and beer had muddled his features and his beard obscured his commanding jaw line. His face now looked a rough sketch of a past photograph, a sad, soft blurry mess.
Jen dug her fingers into the sand as she leaned forward; the sand felt wet, cold, and scary like quicksand, like maybe she might fall too and like maybe she wanted to. “Dad??” She called down, her voice wavering with concern. “Just give Daddy a min…” a wave crashed, hissing and loud, “…ny.” His voice was like words she had carved in the sand earlier that day, only to have a wave erase the middle part away.
"Come on Jenny, Daddy will be fine. He just needs to rest a bit!" She remembers her Mom yelling. She looked up feeling torn. Feeling like her Dad was a beetle she should probably flip; that somehow the world might be more right if she helped him out of this predicament. How absurd Jen now thought! "He just needs to rest a bit!" This wasn’t Alice & Wonderland; this was her Dad in the sand, toppled over from alcohol, not from whimsy. Jen’s mother had been insistent, dragging Jen by the skinny little arm away from the sand pit. Jen kept looking back in the dark, wondering if she would ever see her Dad again. At that age she already knew that some people never come back to you.
A minute became two hours later when her Dad wandered home. Jen had been tucked in with a quilt that felt thin and stiff, she lay, uncomfortably still and quiet, acting asleep, while her parents fought in the next room. She could make out the words but did not care to listen. She blocked it out so well that she didn’t realize they had stopped yelling until she heard her door creak open. She closed her eyes to fake sleep and interpreted the heavy footsteps to be those of her father. A kiss planted on her forehead, cool and sandy and smelling a little like varnish. The kiss felt rough, cold, and sad. But, there was so much tenderness in it.
Even then her Dad must have realized the fragility of his marriage and the precious few more moments he would spend with his two daughters before he would fall into a pit so deep, nobody could see the bottom of it.
Jen had always felt like she left a little of herself back at that sandpit. The part of her that hated distance and longed to be so close to someone she knew they would never leave her and she would never leave them. A mutual trust built to withstand the tenuous grip we have sometimes on life, like a slipping foothold in the sand.
Maybe if I was beautiful like the nurse, she wondered, giving into self-pity.
Maybe if I had precious sapphire eyes and creamy skin smoother than a manila envelope and fire red hair that gave my every movement an electrifying sense of thrilling intelligence…
Of course the nurse, she had learned, was also a paramedic who flew helicopters. Jen pictures the nurse’s fiery curls bouncing, bounding Baywatch style to the rescue, perky tits drawing everyone’s attention to the severity of the situation. This nurse was hot and cool all at once, science and sex…she was surreal. When Jen looked at the nurse, she felt like Salvador Dali.
Jen imagined painting the nurse, a figure standing holding her own face, yes, in hands of glossy, statuesque alabaster, like long gloves of propped silky sheets billowing from mahogany twigs, fragile against washed out desert and vast azure sky.
Why do I love surrealist art? Jen wondered. I think it’s the textures. Surrealism brings out the melting dimension of every object and delivers it in a way that’s dangerously sharp and kitschy—like fondue—art served hot on a stick. Ultimately though, I think surrealism is essentially making things ooze. Ooze out their secrets. Narrate their subtext. Say their inner thoughts. Gush their desires. The slime of everyday, the buildup of years … Jen guessed she was afraid of what her Dad might ooze. Afraid he might ask why she never came to visit him. Afraid he might ask her Mom why she had left—why she abandoned him—why she gave up on his attempt to stop drinking. Ask why he couldn’t change—why he let alcohol and depression ruin his life. Ask why he had been given life if he had been cursed from the get go to destroy everything that ever mattered to him.
Jen was afraid he might tell them that their absence from his life made him want to die. That their inability to help him had turned him into this oozy mess that couldn’t stop bleeding, yet couldn’t stop breathing. Why every time things were almost good, almost perfect, they would fall apart and he’d be left alone like in the dark in a sandpit. Maybe he felt more comfortable drowning in depression than being happy. Like a cold blooded amphibian preferring the cool wet muck to the warm sand. A sputtering, lost, cursing fool, twitching in a pool of his own excess, drowning in their absence, Jen knew her father was more of a man who had the heart to love but lacked the discipline.
His oozy mess was sweet and endearing, like a baby eating mashed yams in a high chair and smearing them all over his face. He just wanted to see Jen and her Mom, to look them in the eyes and say he loved them. I wonder how long he’d wanted to do that, Jen thought and realized that it was she that had wanted to forgive him and love him again for so long.
“Why are you crying?” her Dad had asked as she hovered above his bed. “Because I’m happy to see you,” she tried to assure him. Jen was also crying because she wished she had seen him before this… but would she have understood him so well? Would she have loved him so much, so directly?
Somehow she could interpret his ooze. Jen understood his sorrow, his passion, his inability to be the person he wanted to be due to a crippling illness—addiction—that complex triangular vortex of his own endless passion for women, art and wine; his endless romance with life; his insatiable lust for living. He couldn’t find a peace and a home and Jen knew as she looked in his eyes she oozed too because she shared the same inability to find peace, the same desire for a fuller life yet the inability to wait for it, to build it, to trust herself enough.
Jen understood that she and her mother represented the closest he had ever been to a stable, happy life and he wasn’t as miserable in it as he was without it. She had seen his regret in the visits over the years: the hugs that lasted too long with her Mom, the apologies for not being a better father that made her so chocked up for all her own regrets that she couldn’t swallow. She knew she represented his failures, yet he was willing to face her, and had been trying to do so for a long time, it was Jen who had to let him back in.
She knew it was time to tell him she finally understood and that she would learn from him. It was time for her to show him that she was his daughter, give him a reason to feel he might belong somewhere.
Jen’s Mom sat helpless and sad, not sure what to do and Jen knew it was up to her to reach out to her father. So Jen reached in her pocket and pulled out her iPod and her headphones. She carefully selected her Dad’s favorite song, putting one headphone in his ear and one in hers. The Animal’s The House of the Rising Sun, raw and supple played, she sang along with him; happy at the awful sound as he closed his eyes and garbled the words like gravel. She closed her eyes too and imagined the day when he had played that song on vinyl and told her that this song was why music existed. The iPod dipped into silence.
They made eye contact and she felt the texture of his eyes. The soft outer coat shone like watercolor, the saucy melty middle served over-easy on toast, yet a crisp intelligence popped underneath in the dark pupils. A resistance. He was not resigned, not remote, but a wry smile twitched on his face at the grand surprise that he was still alive after all. It wasn’t about hope, it was about chance and struggle; about taking risks. Hope had nothing to do with it. Desperation made things fall apart and made you put them back together again. The best we could do was trust ourselves and wait for a moment to make our wrongs right and do the perfect thing.
The nurse served her Dad a tiny plastic container of Jello Tapioca pudding that night and when she asked him how it tasted, he grandiloquently responded, “It’s like crème brulee!” Paralyzed left side or not, that old son of a bitch was still there, ready for a chance to be wily, charming and funny despite all the stupid pain. He would be extraordinary until his dying day.
Her Dad might have been a shitty father for a bit, but he was one hell of a character, one strong, stubborn, passionate man and though no Hallmark card would ever fit the bill, Jen would take this fucker any day, hold him in her arms and proudly call him Dad. She