I want to begin with an apology.
I’m sorry to make you read this. It’s quite painful for me to write it, in fact. I’ve been starting and stopping this essay for the past month and I still don’t know if it’s worth your time. Nonetheless, it had to be written — semaphores to my older self, if you will. The idea was to tell a story of revisiting the past, saying goodbye, disappointment, forgiveness, and that private sense of joy that comes from suddenly recognizing your own ignorance. It was supposed to be layered with pop history, poignant quotes from well-known novelists, a song lyric or two, all framed within a personal anecdote about going home and finding a part of myself.
But every time I sat down to write that piece, I’d get the sensation that I was hiding from you. I was writing around my own fears and an uneasy desire for your approval. It was a better version of myself — the one without the insecurities and hesitations, a stronger more streamlined model where the shut lines actually matched up. But then I’d look at that manufactured facade, with the smiling white teeth and all the answers, and a part of me would start to feel sick. It would begin as a slight pressure at the base of my skull, then crawl up my scalp until eventually my whole face felt numb. It was the exact opposite of an out-of-body experience, as if my outer-self was shrinking into some desiccated pouch that my inner-self could only squirm against the walls of.
The only viable remedy for this was to scrap everything and start over. This is me beginning again, without any assumptions. I can’t pretend there’s any wisdom in what I’m about to tell you. You’ll have to decide that yourself. It’s a simple story made complex by my own flawed attempts at grasping at life’s profundity. So, I’ll just start by describing a trip back home, which seems as good a place to begin as any.
Three months ago I flew to Ohio to visit my father. He had just gotten back from being in Cambodia for most of the year, and yet again, he’d left without leaving any way for me to reach him, nor did he bother to contact me while he was there. Over the last seven years, he was in the U.S. less and less. Due to a conspiracy of random forces and events more commonly referred to as bad luck, he was gradually divesting himself of his properties and interests here in order to spend the rest of his retirement in the place where he was born.
The long periods of silence and his often-surprising ignorance of proper notification protocols made me feel like I was rolled into that junk portfolio of his, labeled: Sunk Costs. For most of my adult life, I’d been weighed down by this perennial suspicion that no matter what I did, no matter what I’d accomplish, I’d always end up a disappointment in my father’s eyes. How else could I explain this relationship that consisted of nothing more than barely recognizable attempts at familial decorum? These accumulated resentments, the stinging lack of interest in my life, and the unspoken resignation to my deficiencies as a responsible adult were taking up too much space. It was this dawning realization that compelled me to find some way to liquidate all this dead stock and make room for something better. My plan wasn’t to rattle off a list of infractions and provocations in the hopes of him acknowledging his negligence. In fact, my strategy was much simpler. I just wanted him to know I was angry. Moreover, I wanted him to feel my anger. I’d use this trip to jettison some dead weight of my own.
When I first see my father at the airport, I make note of all the little things that make him look older than the last time I saw him, like a kind of transparency overlay to stack on all the previous versions of him picking me up from the airport. He seemed much the same since it was only a year before that we were together to celebrate my brother’s wedding. It didn’t appear as if he’d traversed some new parabola of the aging curve, plunging him into a steep decline in vivacity, but I embrace him just to make sure. No. It’s my same old dad — ever stoic in his reaction to all things worthy of celebration. There’s no animosity. I’m saving that for when I’ve steeled myself up sufficiently and we’re alone together. Until then I’ll enjoy our time together without the tinge of bitterness I know is coming.
My father and stepmother drive me back from the airport, and I drop my luggage off upstairs. Then my cousin comes over to relieve me of having to spend the next four hours watching bad TV while the parents go to bed. He takes me to the new casino built where the old GM plant used to be. It’s pretty much the only thing that’s changed in my old neighborhood in the last 30 years. I’d left Columbus when I was 27, and since then the trips back had always been underlined by an experience of stasis so pervasive it bordered on the uncanny. There was barely a brick out of place since moving away.
At the casino, my cousin and I each have a couple of beers while I watch him loose a hundred bucks at a blackjack table. Afterwards, we eat pancakes and country-fried steak at a favorite all-night diner from back in high school. During the course of the evening our conversation drifts past the accumulated novelty of our lives and into observations of how perplexing it is to feel estranged from our respective parents, especially when they aren’t dead or in prison somewhere. They just don’t know how to be here, is all. By the time I join him on the pancakes, we softly land upon a consensus: our parents are broken.
During the week I make the obligatory pilgrimage to visit family I haven’t seen in years. And on the days when my dad’s away fishing and there’s nothing to do, I hang out in coffee shops and write about the particular texture of boredom that’s become synonymous in my mind with Columbus — a place where the most scenic feature is its creeping cumulonimbus clouds, and where the pulse of youth slows to a similar inertia during the summer months when school’s out and football season has yet to begin. There are parts of the city that are growing, changing, evolving into some other version of the place I grew up in. My father just doesn’t happen to live in any of them. He lives in an area whose heyday came and went during the Ford administration. It’s a working-class part of town with conservative values. There’s a church sprinkled every half-mile or so, and soft-serve ice cream shops near every school. It sounds nice, until you see the people that go there now, or in the case of the churches, the absence of them. It’s become a place irrevocably tarnished by too many sour notes — like a symphony with a terrible second violin. At what point does the conductor just cross his arms and abort the whole performance? There’ll be no encore, but at least the orchestra can bow out with some dignity.
A part of me realizes it’s a pretentious attitude I carry from having since moved to larger, more cosmopolitan cities. I justify its usefulness to that of a one-way turnstile — preventing me from ever considering living here again. The older I’ve gotten the more I seem to reject the notion of anything better than the present lurking somewhere in the past. It’s the old cliché of a shark roaming the ocean depths — survival and movement becoming one in the same.
Despite the aversion to the city itself, when I’m at my father’s house we easily fall into the familiar performance of living under the same roof again: me fixing his chronically-ailing technology, or scooping rice onto plates before dinner is put on the table. The time I cherish the most, however, has always been standing outside with him while he smokes a cigarette. Being a maker of things, he knew what smoke did to furniture, carpets, and upholstery — not to mention its resale value. I think he felt it communicated a type of low-class apathy to let the odor of your home smell distinctly and completely like an ashtray. Also, my mom hated his smoking. It was for these reasons that my father never lit a cigarette inside the house. I remember following him outside in the colder Midwest months before the gradual eclipse of winter would roll through, shivering and doing my cold-weather-jig to stay warm. He’d voice some half-assed warning about how I should wear a coat — a cursory nod to his parental duties — but then go on smoking all the same. He never let on to it, but I think these moments meant as much to him as they did to me, explaining his lax attempts to turn me away. It was our unacknowledged ritual, him with his Marlboro Reds, me with my second-hand smoke and persistent curiosity. We’d talk about everything from engine repair to Pragmatic philosophy, his childhood in Cambodia to the flaws of capitalism. I could ask him anything, and he’d answer without any of the conventional apprehension about corrupting my so-called “childhood innocence.” Is your father still alive? Are we middle-class? Have you ever shot anyone? Why do you worry about money so much? It was one of the few instances where our relationship wasn’t defined by his obvious authority over me. In what would eventually become the oppressive statute of My house, My rules, the porch occupied some kind of loophole — an annexation of neutral territory between my father and I.
It was on the porch one day during my visit that I listened to him recap the afternoon of fishing he’d just gotten back from. In between drags he’d tell me about the type of bait he used or how much better he’d gotten at picking the right spots. My father has this way of staring off into the horizon when he speaks. Sometimes he’ll look up into the sky, time traveling to a bygone memory he doesn’t tell me about, and it’s only once in a while that he’ll turn to look at me directly. Because of this, whenever I think of him it’s usually his profile that comes to mind. As I stood there listening to the differences between certain species of lake fish, he seemed much more fragile than before — smaller, perhaps. In that moment, the image of my-father-the-adversary, the obstacle to my happiness, started to break down. Instead, I saw just another person doing the best with what they were given — exceptional in some regards, flawed in many others. I started to feel like a hypocrite as a tingle of shame rippled through me. My frustration had found a convenient target in this man because I judged him harshly for not giving me what I needed, but how could he ever know what that was, especially if I never told him? It was like punishing a dog for drinking out of the toilet, or eating food off someone’s plate. What were these but natural desires born out of the need to survive. Isn’t that all he was doing? Surviving?
Within my own personal mythology, my father is the archetypal tragic-hero. The collected anthology of our porch discussions reveal a man of tremendous intelligence, idealism and concern for our common humanity — someone who was destined to do great things for his people and his country. But just as obvious was an unfathomable sense of mourning for a life he didn’t get to live which colored his entire worldview — its origins extending to a time past his own lifetime: before the divorce, before becoming a refugee, before the concentration camps, before his mother’s death, even. By his own definition, my father is a failure.
To be honest, I think that’s what angered me about him. The selfish, emotionally-entitled aspect of me, his son, wants him to channel all of that ambition and love and caring into my own life as a gesture of birthright. Instead, I’ve inherited some form of intergenerational post-traumatic stress and a confused sense of purpose. I wanted, more than anything, to shake him out of his never-ending eulogy, of warming his hands at this pyre of the past, and make him see that the balks and beams he sacrificed as fuel were made of present moments too precious to be treated so carelessly. But because he’s also my hero I inevitably feel unjust and guilty for having these thoughts.
I’m now past the age my father was when he had me, and it’s quite likely that I’ll live the rest of my days and never know a tenth of the suffering he’d known by this point in his life. For a time I wanted to witness the kind of darkness he experienced just so I could understand what it was that we came from. I was a child of Exodus, after all. Before my birth, there was nothing — no homeland, no old photos of where so-and-so lived, no history at all — only death. It was like staring into the darkest part of the night before your vision has time to adjust, waving your arms out in front of you and not registering that your eyes are still open. In the callowness of youth, I thought I could relieve a part of that metaphysical vertigo by living as close to the edge as possible — through various means of self-destruction or liberation I’d be able to see further into that darkness. The truth, as I found out, was that I could never comprehend what my father went through or the sacrifices he’d made. My attempts were those of a resentful juvenile flailing against the cage of his own privileged life; and deep within the interstitial spaces of my very being a stark and undeniable truth screamed out, I’ll never be greater than my father. And in this way, I’ve let us both down.
I think it was out there on the porch listening to fishing stories that all the anger I’d carried from home bled out of me. How might I remember this particular cigarette? Was it just another cloud of smoke wafting away with the breeze, infused with the memory of a conversation already half-forgotten, or did something else evaporate with it?
At the end of my week in Columbus I’m left with a profound sense of uncertainty. I’d made this pilgrimage seeking an epiphany that I thought would reveal itself in a feeling of lightness, of feeling less burdened somehow. Instead I feel heavy and saturated. It was like throwing a bottle into the sea just to have it wash up moments later as a piece of waterlogged driftwood. Something happened under those waves and I wonder if it mattered that I included a message at all. Even the city itself feels different. I mistook the inert landscape as a sign that the people who’d inhabited it had settled, that they’d surrendered themselves to whatever good enough was in their minds. But after talking to those who still lived here, I discovered whole wars fought and lost, entire ghost armies whose divisions were made up of unique prayers drawn fine on the hearts of its generals, struggling — if not for life — then for the ability to be remembered. These were people caring and hurting, performing and resenting, drinking out of toilet bowls and stealing each other’s food. Their stories were told in the scars they kept hidden beneath a convincing guise of moving on.
I never did tell my father how angry I was at him. But at the airport, as I’m leaving that Saturday evening, I set my bags down on the curb and I tell him that I love him. I tell him that he shouldn’t lay awake at night wondering if he was a good father, because he was a great dad. His face doesn’t change. He doesn’t even look at me. It’s his profile staring off into the distance again, but this time there aren’t any clouds or cigarette smoke to look at.
Despite his indifferent demeanor, I know it affects him deeply. I can see it in how my stepmom reacts to me saying this. The way her eyes smile verify how real those doubts were. I walk to my gate and board my plane. In six hours I’ll be back home in LA.
Weeks later, while reading that wonderful novel, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shytengart, I came across this passage:
“OBJECT LESSON: My dad died about eighty klicks north of Karachi. He was a gunner and those are always the toughest assholes. But in the very last message I got before they ambushed his ass he basically said, David, you are a dreamer and a disgrace and you’ll never get your shit together, and I’ll always fight everything you believe in, but I’ll also never love anyone more than you, so if anything happens to me just keep going the way you are. I think that’s where we went wrong as a country. We were afraid to really fight each other (…) When we lost touch with how much we really hate each other, we also lost the responsibility for our common future.”
Every time I read that passage out loud I always get choked up when I get to the ‘just keep going’ part, and have to stop. Somehow, this expression of how you can simultaneously care about someone more than anything, yet be tremendously disappointed in how they’re living their life feels like the most accurate description of love I’ve ever found. I can’t help but think of my father’s profile from when I said goodbye to him at the airport, but this time it feels more symbolic — proving we were never meant to see eye to eye. Did he look older that time or was it just me? My overlays are getting out of order; I can’t keep them straight anymore. Maybe it’s for the best.
It’s funny how our mortality can sneak up on us unnoticed. Frown a certain way for long enough and suddenly a new wrinkle shows up one day, unpacks its bags and never leaves. “It’s all part of getting older,” we tell our friends. But it’s always surprising when it happens to us. How, just like that, the expectant sheen of youth is replaced with a dull plaque of heaped-together misgivings about the life we could have lived, all interwoven and symbiotic — our own Great Barrier Reef of disappointment — leaving us to wonder, “How long has this been going on?” Of course, the opposite of this is true as well — that all these unconscious habits and routines, these stories we tell ourselves, in the end combine to form a life that’s uniquely ours, one that we might even be proud of. For me, however, it’s that space between them that I find so fascinating. On one side lies doubt and endless lamenting, on the other, a beaming sense of pride catapulting us into tomorrow, yet walking on that shifting sandbar inserted between two oceans, is a kind of magic much quieter, yet no less beautiful. It’s there that we find a supple acceptance of life’s awkwardness, a feeling of weightlessness, of gently floating just beyond the reach of memory or imagination — like clouds dancing on the horizon, or smoke disappearing into thin air.
Originally published at www.chetbaby.com on September 8, 2015.