A Short Story
By Mike Siemasz
The daughter sat before the walnut hutch in a warm square of sunlight, dull against the matte and rough hardwood floor of the dining room. She had pulled out the middle drawer of the hutch, and it tilted forward with the weight of packages of photographs. She held a picture of her family nestled together like a Venn diagram–the mother, her, the father–in the front yard of the first home they lived in when she was baby.
The mother was young and tight-skinned with a sweet smile sparking white teeth between her bulbous pink cheeks. She wore a flouncy magenta dress. The father was upright and muscular with an urbane smirk sidling up his right cheek. He wore a white button-up, sleeves rolled midway up his forearms, tucked into khakis. The two of them, appearing almost too young to exude the nature of parenthood, held between them the baby daughter wearing a tartan dress. Sunday morning, first home, 1992 was written on the back of the picture in smeared, blue permanent marker.
The father walked into the dining room and peered over the daughter’s shoulder at the picture. She looked up, startled and insecure. Words conjured by the emotional contrast of happiness in the picture and emptiness in present life crept out of her mouth: “I wish you hadn’t come home this weekend.” She looked back at the picture and waited for him to leave. The father turned red and walked out. He told the mother what the daughter had said.
“I should’ve stayed and worked this weekend,” the father said. “There was plenty for me to do. I didn’t have to drive seven hours north to be unwanted.”
“You’re just being sensitive,” the mother said.
“Your daughter wishes I didn’t come home for the weekend,” the father repeated.
“Girls always dislike their fathers for a few years.”
“So just deal with it?”
“Essentially. Excuse me.” The father was standing in the doorway of the bedroom and the mother wanted out.
The father was alone in the bedroom and lay supine on the bed. He remembered the baby daughter, when he was a young father. On summer evenings, after work, he’d hold her in one arm and walk the front yard, her little bottom resting on his bicep. He wrapped his forearm around her to keep her from falling. She made vowel sounds and squinted at the falling sun, kaleidoscopic between the tree branches and leaves. He brought her up to the tree and let her peel the bark.
The mother took pictures of the father and the baby daughter from the porch of the first home, a humble and unsophisticated rectangle containing them tightly within its one bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and small family room, like a fruit’s pericarp around seeds. The mother watched the father describe to the baby daughter the deciduous leaves, the spider crawling across the tree trunk, the birds finding worms in the lawn as the sun scattered a golden haze across the grass. Things the baby daughter couldn’t understand; things the father failed to show her years later when she could.
When the daughter was two, the father’s company asked him to take over for a senior project manager in Europe. Taking over a senior level was an eight-year leap of experience. The mother told him the money wasn’t worth it. She didn’t seem to understand the father had a family and the beckoning American dream on his mind. The little house wasn’t big enough for three humans. The small spaces made him feel stuffy and cloistered, “Like I could roll around in a pile of my own dead skin,” he said. He told her one year in Europe would set the pace for his career. “You can visit,” he told the mother. “I show you zee city. Bring zee child and we forget zee Midwest,” he said with French accent. The mother laughed and put her face against his chest. He held her while the daughter stared from her highchair and put her arms up to be held, too. The father smiled. His heart beat fast for them.
In Europe, the father rented a loft above a bar. The narrow streets he imagined would reflect descriptions in books were plagued with commercialism at first glance unnoticeable behind the facades of centuries-old buildings. The river running through the city was brown and lackluster; like everything, pseudo-romantic. Six months passed. The mother wouldn’t visit with the daughter because she didn’t want to bring the daughter on a plane or leave her with grandparents for a week. The father was lonely and let down by his people and the city.
In the bar under the father’s loft he met a French woman, a Ph.D. candidate from the nearby university. Two nights in a row they drank beer at a small table and complained about existence. “It’s too capricious,” she philosophized. Her cynicism validated his own depression and she quickly became a comfort to him. At the end of the second night she put her hand on his arm, opening a channel for lust. The sensation needled his skin with desire. They were talking about leaving soon. He felt so desperate. His conscience kicked in and he told her he’d concealed his family. The woman left her beer half-drank and walked out with a smile. He drank her beer and brooded over Europe’s ephemerality and inoculation of false ideals and that brush with infidelity, changing his soul and thereafter haunting him.
After Europe, the company moved the father to New England. The mother brought the daughter over once. It was October and cold and windy, but the family walked to the Atlantic. The daughter was in a puffy coat. She walked up to the water but wouldn’t touch it. She started crying when a loud wave rolled in and flattened and stretched further up the beach than before, licking her shoes and soaking her toes. The father told the mother to pick her up. The mother asked why he couldn’t; he never gets to see the daughter. Doesn’t he want to hold the daughter? “Damn it,” the father said, “don’t guilt-trip me.” The mother and the daughter didn’t visit him again.
After New England, the father had more short stints across Europe. He came home on occasion, but he missed things like the daughter’s first day of kindergarten and first day of first grade. When the second sojourn in Europe ended, the company let him work from home. He had asked for a break. He took the daughter to her first day of second grade. “No more working far from home,” he told her before she walked into class. The daughter was happy. Her little mind thought the father being home would make the family close again.
Two months later the company asked the father to go to Canada. The family slid back into the former rift between them. The father was too afraid to take a stance for family life instead of abdicating it to the company’s obscure forces launching the mother, the daughter and him in opposite trajectories. He meditated on how capricious his life had become, like the Ph.D. candidate said. It stayed that way after Canada, when he went Southeast, Southwest, down South, as the daughter grew and the mother plated her soul with an impenetrable callousness.
Lying in bed, the father wondered when the daughter first came to despise him, why memories of her were central and those of the mother had been lost somewhere. Last June, when they visited him down South in the new city his company had placed him, it was the first time visiting him anywhere since the daughter stood at the Atlantic. It was the summer after her freshman year of college. It was awkward. They were going downtown to eat. “Someone told me this is where they test out all the chain restaurants before heading to other cities,” the father said, driving towards the freeway.
“It looks like where we live,” the daughter said. “Right, Mom?”
The mother looked up from her informational pamphlet about the southern city. “Everywhere looks like this.”
“You want culture, variety, huh?” the father said.
“You’ve been everywhere. Can’t you tell when a place sucks by now?” The father looked in the rearview mirror and saw the daughter in the middle seat, between him and the mother. The daughter bulged her eyes at him. He merged onto the freeway to head downtown. Ten minutes later he looked in the rearview mirror. The daughter was looking out the windshield at the skyline.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” the daughter said. “Looks kind of artificial.” She looked at him in the mirror again.
“Well, it’s not a huge city. You should see some of the old homes, though. Beautiful architecture. Rich history.”
“A couple of homes can’t make me love a place.”
“I don’t think we’ll have time for that this weekend anyway,” the mother chimed in.
The father hesitated. “Okay, next time.”
They ate at a chain Italian restaurant and afterwards walked around downtown and along the blue-brown river where the dirty ferries rocked and bumped against the quay.
“I don’t know how I feel about eating Italian in the South,” the father said jokingly. The mother and the daughter didn’t laugh. “What do you two think?”
“I don’t know,” the daughter said.
“It was typical,” the mother said.
“Next time we’ll eat like Southerners,” the father said and smiled at them.
The mother stretched her lips tight, a faux smile, and crossed her arms so the father couldn’t grab her hand. The daughter walked alongside them, always looking ahead, not daring a glance toward the father for fear of him catching her eyes and starting a conversation. The father wanted to cry because he hated the inexpressible rift, the distance created long ago, a determined requisite for their family to subsist. It was dark. They went back to the father’s apartment, paid for by the company, and slept. The mother and the daughter left the next day.
The father had been alone in the South a long time. Sometimes he drove downtown and walked along the river and gazed up at families walking past, meanwhile wondering what his wife and daughter were thinking or doing separate from him in that moment hours north. They were the phantoms of his familial recollections, which he spent his nights rifling through, either on the quay or sitting in his dark apartment in the bloom of an artificial, phosphorescent glow emitting from the parking lot lights, the electric signs glowing over strip-mall storefronts and the tall diner sign illuminating the blue night like a match across the street.
Seven hours north of his lonely southern life, he had fallen asleep alone in the mother’s bed. It was evening. He walked downstairs and saw the yellow square of sunlight was shaded over, the hutch drawer pushed in. In the kitchen, the picture of the family was on the fridge. The juxtaposition of south, north, weeks, weekends, transitions between places placed the father in a constant state of acclimation, muddling his sense of belonging. He didn’t know what to make of the daughter or his wife. He hadn’t had enough time to study them over the years. But he figured perhaps the picture was more than a vestige of love, a museum piece to showcase what life was like. He was too nervous to ask the daughter; too nervous it might be too hard to say I love you. Down South, it was as simple as getting used to the silence.