“Anna,” my lover says, “Why do you never talk about your family?”
I am curled around her back. The delicate bones of her shoulder blades make indentations in my breasts. Her voice is clouded by sleep and blurring around the edges. I stay quiet. Her breathing gets deeper, and I know she is not waiting for me to speak anymore. In this moment, I almost want to answer her. I want to kiss her below her earlobe, in the delicate part of her neck next to where tiny fine hairs grow into long strong hair, and wake her. I miss her quiet listening presence beside me in the night. Instead, I roll onto my back in the dim-lit bedroom we share. In the shadow of our city, it is yellow and humming even with the shades drawn.
When I was nine, I saw my father fly. He stood at the top of the chimney in the abandoned field at the corner of our street. I saw him from the edge of the woods, from where I had followed him when his voice talking to my mother went from loud to quiet to gone. Our front door slammed and the house grew still. I waited long minutes before following, my knees curled into the heat of my child stomach at the top of our creaky wood stairs.
At the top of the chimney, my father had looked brave like a statue or a toy soldier man. I held out my fingers and squinted my left eye, holding him between my index finger and thumb. If I pressed my fingers together, he disappeared. My father was big, with rough hands that made me feel safe when they stroked my hair and crinkles around his eyes. It was not right that my big father was so high up that my fingers could squash his outline. I sighed, and opened my fingers. The meadow smelled like hay and drowsy bodies. My father was gone.
I am a bad liar and she looked at me like a stranger. I am terrified that she will think I am having an affair…
I did not try to find him. It seems strange to me now that I had not raced towards the stones of the chimney far out in the field. It seems strange that I had not run so hard that my ears could hear my heartbeats, towards the dent in the ground my father must have made when he fell. If there had been a sound of his falling, it was covered by the groan of the afternoon train passing through two streets over. The meadow was the same as it had been a breath before, when up on the chimney in the center of the field my father had stood straight and still, looking out toward the bay. I turned around and ran back towards our house. In our kitchen, I told Mom that I had seen Dad fly.
I am 24 and my skin is made of tears, some healed over and some with untethered ends that blow in the damp Portland wind. I drive to Rockaway Beach every other weekend. It is two hours from the city in my rundown Toyota, one way. It is late fall and raining most times. Claire asked me last month about where I go for long hours on Sunday afternoons. I am almost always gone before she is awake, on those days. I come home by evening but I am silent and listening to thoughts sunken deep like private rivers. I told her that I go to visit an old high school friend nearby in Tigard. I do not know why I couldn’t tell her the truth. I am a bad liar and she looked at me like a stranger. I am terrified that she will think I am having an affair. She is the first person I have had in my life who I have wanted to hold on to.
Today is Sunday and I stand by the shore in the 9 o’clock grey. Most people are drifting between sleep and wake in warm weekend beds, so I am alone. The surf is angry and slaps across the Twin Rocks that stand between the edge of the sea and the sky.
When I was small, I would go to the sea with my father and stand by the rail of his boat. I remember looking down into deep, deep water that went from gray to green. The green color looked so cold, like if you fell in it would seep into your heart. You would carry the sea around forever, a tiny cutting gem wedged within your chest. If I became afraid I would go to my father and press my face into his rain jacket. He always smelled like rubber and fish and home.
My Sunday sea rituals were very different then. I would wake in the pre-dawn blue when everything is frozen in time, and wait for my father to come in and fold his great height onto the foot of my twin bed. His weight would dimple its edge and make me roll towards him. He would place a gentle hand on my shoulder as I pretended to sleep on, and whisper “Anna, it’s time to go see God.”
“Seeing God,” meant sitting on the rain-slick stones of the Maine coast with our thermoses, hot chocolate for me and coffee for him, and a chessboard. We would play silently for hours, until the light grew stronger and our necks and bums ached, and then we would go on a walk down the shoreline past the Baker house. It stood rustic-elegant and alone on that stretch of beach. Sometimes Mr. Baker would slip out from behind the large glass doors of his deck and join us on our walk, but more often he would be a blurred, bluish shadow looking out from a high-up window, a twitch of lace curtain. His wire frame glasses reflected the light in white ovals so that he seemed to have no eyes; he was a blind face retreating into glass. This did not scare me. When Mr. Baker did walk with us, he was kind and did not speak to me like a child. Sometimes I would take his hand and my father’s hand, and they would swing me into the air between steps. Mr. Baker was my father’s best friend besides me, so I liked him too. I walked between them and our feet sank deep into the sand in the same rhythm, mine rushing to match their long steps, and to our side the Atlantic stretched out and swallowed the horizon. Those were the unending days, when I believed I could walk off the Earth, if I tried.
She wears the glasses that she only ever uses for driving or for punishment..
In our kitchen, Claire is making tea. Our apartment is all peppermint smells and glass ornaments, stacks of open-knit sweaters and patchouli scented candles. The kettle screams and Claire rushes to turn off the burner. Steam condenses on the interior of the kitchen window and trickles down like tears. Our apartment feels tropical compared to the view outside the windowpane, the air the color of second-day snow.
“Where have you been, Anna?” Claire’s voice is sharp and flat at once. I feel the coldness rolling off of her in currents.
“I couldn’t sleep — stressed about work. I didn’t want to wake you so I drove around.”
“Did your drive take you to Tigard again?” she asks. There is no color in her voice now. It is not accusatory. I wish it were.
“No, not this morning,” I say.
I step across the kitchen and wrap my arms around her waist. Her chin grazes the top of my shoulder and rough curls tickle the side of my cheek. I grasp her hand and kiss her unresponsive fingers. Claire stays stiff in my embrace, long enough that we both become uncomfortable. I drop my arms. She stalks across our kitchen and into the bedroom, closing the door softly.
There was a time when we were without walls. We met as undergraduates, classmates in a Contemporary Literature seminar. She first kissed me on a Saturday afternoon in the art history stacks. Weak sunlight flooded in through the low windows between empty study carrels. Her lips tasted like the good, strong coffee we had been drinking, and I willed myself to impress that taste in my memory. She was the first woman I had kissed, though there had been many boys.
We have not always owned matching holes in each other’s trust. It is easier to love when you are in it shallowly, before the ugly and hidden pieces have to be unearthed or else become alienating in their mystery. Claire is softer than I am, and I love her softness but I cannot emulate it. She writes a weekly column on literature and spirituality in the Portland Mirror. I draw up plans for buildings with sharp, clean lines. Claire speaks explosively about philosophy and art and pleasure. I listen and adore her. She becomes frustrated with my adoration. She wants me to speak of my inner life, and the things that hurt in me and make me silent. She wants to know about my history and family. This is our perpetual impasse.
I love you. I love you, I love you, I always say. It is not enough.
That night at dinner, the table is a no man’s land between us. Claire chews her pasta with scissor-like precision. She wears the glasses that she only ever uses for driving or for punishment, for creating another layer between her and me when I have done something wrong.
“Next Sunday,” I say, “I will bring you with me. I promise.” I promise.
“Do what you want, Anna,” she says. Her glasses glow in the candlelight. For a moment I think of Mr. Baker and his blind eyes, high up and far away.
On Sunday, I wake in the 5 a.m. blackness. Claire is a concealed bulge on the right side of the bed, curled into a tight knot.
“Wake up, Claire, it’s time to go see God,” I say. She groans, but opens her eyes.
Rockaway Beach, when we get there, is reliably quiet. Claire kept silent for most of the long car ride, dozing with her forehead against the passenger window. But for the past 30 minutes, she has been awake and tense, waiting.
I looked over towards the grave, and saw her rushing at us in her high heels, her black coat billowing around her.
We walk to the edge of the sea. We do not touch. The sky is clear and the sun is rising bold and red on the horizon. This is a relief after the cloudiness of the past weeks. I feel somehow new and clean. Seeing the sun rising is like a baptism.
“Claire,” I say, “I want to tell you things about myself, but I am not sure how to start. I think the best way to do it is in pieces. Is that okay by you?”
Claire nods. She is not wearing her glasses today. I breathe deep. We sit on jagged rocks, and sip thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee.
“I have been coming here every Sunday. There is no friend in Tigard, but I was not sure how to explain these trips to you and I was afraid you would not understand why I come.
“I used to come to the ocean every Sunday with my father when I was small. He called it coming to see God, but mostly we just played chess and walked on the beach and collected perfect round stones. Sometimes I would slip them into my mouth, under my tongue, and try to imagine they were pearls. My father’s best friend was Mr. Baker, who lived on that stretch of beach. Sometimes, we would all play chess together on the rocks, or walk down the beach until we were too tired to move anymore or the sand ran out. Sometimes we would go sailing in Mr. Baker’s boat. One afternoon, we went too far out and a bad storm blew in. The waves were cresting high, and the sky was getting green-tinged, and I was terrified. The three of us stood out there in the cold rain, and I could tell that Dad was scared too. When I looked back at him, I saw Mr. Baker touch his hand and squeeze it, and the fear fell away from my father’s shoulders. I had never seen grown men comfort each other before. It was like some sort of private magic.
“My father did not die in a car accident, like I told you close to when we first met. When I was nine, he climbed an abandoned chimney and looked out towards Mr. Baker’s house, and he jumped.
“Dad was always quiet, and was sad most of the time. When he left the house on Sunday mornings, though, he was happy. I remember it as his only happy day. Somehow my mother blamed his death, I think, on those Sunday trips with me. We have not spoken in three years. She lives alone in Maine in a small farmhouse with her thoughts and some pet goats. My brother visits her during every break from university. She does not ask about me.”
I stop talking, and look at Claire. She reaches for me and holds me in a way she has not for months. I can feel her sympathy in the loosening of her muscles. I had expected her to respond with an endless series of questions, but she does not.
“I love you Anna,” she says. “I want you to tell me more.”
I rest my chin on her shoulder and look out at the water, where there are no boats visible yet, far, far across, through seas and other continents, to the other side of the country where perhaps my mother is looking out toward me from the coast of Maine.
Throughout the next weeks, Claire and I make a game of sharing stories. She tells me about her older brother with Asperger’s, and how she feels she betrayed him by feeling embarrassed by his strangeness, before she understood it. I tell her about all the times I would walk to the abandoned chimney in that field, and sit in its shadow to talk to my father. I tell her how sometimes I would bring my miniature violet-painted tea set and put a cup out for him, and how once Mr. Baker came and sat there with me and drank the cup of tea I offered him. I tell her how for a while after my father’s death, there had been a movement in the town to tear down the abandoned chimney in the field where the Wright house had stood in the 1800s. It was too much of a hazard, with its irregular jutting stones that were perfect for climbing. I tell Claire how on the day they meant to do it, I stood in front of the chimney and secured my small body to it with bedsheets until they took the machinery away. I tell her how I had made the front page of the paper, and how my mother shredded her copy of it that week. With every story I let out, I feel my heart creaking open.
In our minds, oranges were Florida and alligators and people in overalls. We had to have them.
Two weeks after our trip to the beach, my little brother calls and convinces me to visit our sad mother in her quiet house with the creaky wood stairs. Rich is a second year engineering student at the University of Maine, Oreno. His winter break will be a month long, and he tells me he will literally go insane if he is left alone in our childhood home all that time. I want to prove to myself that I can be brave.
Claire comes with me to the airport, because I have asked her to meet my family. All about is a whirring of suitcase wheels and the sound of mechanical-voiced announcements of departure times and desperate solo-traveling mothers bargaining with small wailing children. The air smells like sesame bagels and sweat and cheap bathroom soap produced for commercial customers who order in bulk. I rest my head on Claire’s shoulder and try not to feel ill.
Across the row from us, there is a family dressed in shades of sharp black. The parents sit rigidly, their eyes swollen and unfocused. The wife has her fingers laced through her husband’s, and their hands rest absentmindedly on his right knee. Their two suited little boys sit on the dirty airport carpet and play with Legos, oblivious to their parents’ dull grief. I wonder who they have lost, and how recently. I wonder how they were told.
My father did not have a public memorial. At his funeral, only my mother and brother and I and our grandparents had stood with the priest around a deep hole in the earth. They had not let us see our father’s body, so I did not believe he was in the wooden box everyone was treating with so much solemnity. I believed he had turned into a bird — something beautiful and rare, perhaps a blue heron — and flown away, out towards the ocean. I held my little brother’s small, sweating fist and stood in our quiet ring of family, wondering why my mother had not let my father’s friends come. So many people in our town had loved him. Anywhere we went in the days after the news of his death was published in the paper, my mother’s figure was followed by tens of pitying eyes and her path was continuously blocked by a neighbor who would press her into a swift hug and whisper in her ear. After the first several phone calls from neighbors inquiring about a service, my mother shouted at me to take the damn phone off the hook.
When my father’s wooden box was in the hole in the ground, the priest asked my brother and I to throw a trowel full of earth down onto it. When I refused, my mother looked at me sharply, and hissed “Do as he says, Anna.” I started to cry. The priest patted my head and handed the trowel to my small brother. I hated to watch the shovel-fulls of earth fall down onto the wood. They made a muffled tinkling sound, which went away as the surface of the coffin was covered. I could not breathe properly, because I had realized in horror what it would mean if my father was not a bird and was in the wood box and could not get out.
I do not remember the rest of the ceremony, except that my grandmother pulled me away from the side of his grave and the rest of the family and walked with me toward the wood at the edge of the graveyard. “Just breathe, sweet,” she said. Her large papery hand had felt delicate in my grasp. The sun was setting, throwing long shadows from the many grave stones. At the edge of the wood, I saw the sun wink off of something. I turned to get a better look, and tugged at my grandmother’s hand. “It’s Mr. Baker,” I said. I was so happy to see a friend of my father’s that I forgot the rule of quiet sadness and shouted “Hi Mr. Baker!” towards where I had last seen the gleam of his glasses.
He did not come out of the fringe of trees. My mother must have heard me, though, because I heard the crunch of running footsteps. I looked over towards the grave, and saw her rushing at us in her high heels, her black coat billowing around her. I had never seen such a look of terrifying rage.
“How dare you come here!” she screamed towards the edge of the graveyard. “You have ruined this family! How dare you!”
My grandmother dropped my hand and reached out her arms to catch my running mother. I remember being surprised by the strength in my grandmother’s crepe-paper arms. She held my mother back, and held her close. Strands of blonde hair had escaped my mother’s neat chignon knot and stuck to her cheeks in the places where tears ran down. She leaned her face against the top of my grandmother’s head and her body shook. The wink of light from Mr. Baker’s glasses vanished into the trees.
“Zone 3, flight 2473, begin boarding” announces the loudspeaker over our heads, and the parents in black snap to attention. The father sweeps his children’s Legos into a carry-on bag, and the mother scoops one up and takes the other’s small grubby hand. They move briskly toward their departing flight.
“My Dad never had a proper funeral, Claire” I say. She lowers her Barbara Kingsolver novel and puts her arm around me. “He should have been absolutely surrounded by friends,” I say. “It’s not right that my mother kept them away.” She hugs me to her. We sit unnoticed on the pleather of airport bench seats, clutching each other.
“Going home is really hard on you, isn’t it Anna?” Claire asks as she traces circles on my back.
“It brings up a lot of forgotten memories,” I say.
On the plane, Claire’s hand is warm and comforting in mine. I hate to fly even when I like the places I am heading to, so I order several gin and tonics in quick succession and close my eyes. I wake up only long enough to transfer flights. Claire leads us through the crowds and I walk with my eyes half-closed, grateful for the tug of her arm against mine. On the next flight, we fall asleep with our heads leaning together. I dream fractured pictures of sinking boats.
When I open my eyes, we are descending through the clouds. It is raining, and the sky outside the small thick window is growing light. Claire sleeps with her head on my shoulder, a small trickle of drool at the corner of her mouth. She is grinding her teeth in her sleep.
When I last flew home for Christmas break 3 years ago, I was a sophomore in college studying architecture and in love with the woman beside me. My mom had met me at the gate and gave me a rare, long hug. I breathed in the clay and baking bread scent of her. The house was dark and empty when we got home, my brother away at a friend’s. We ate clumpy leftover oatmeal at the kitchen table and went to our rooms before it was fully dark. I unpacked my suitcase and tucked the wrapped Xbox games I’d gotten Rich under his pillow. Santa had abruptly stopped coming on the year of my father’s death, so my brother and I had been doing a secret gift exchange for years. On Christmas Day, I sat on Rich’s bed reading the novel he’d picked out for me while he sat on the floor and played Fallout. Our mother had been gone when we woke up, and came home late in the evening. She came in holding cartons of Chinese food in front of her like she was waving small white flags. She did not tell us where she had gone.
The next days were tense and punctuated by arguments that sprang like overnight weeds from small slights or thoughtless acts. Leaving dirty plates around the sink would mean I was “Just like my father,” and prompt my mother to retreat to her room for hours. On Sundays, when she would wake up early to attend the Catholic Church down the street and I would walk towards the coast, I could feel my mother’s anger in the way she moved. She rattled her keys a little louder on her way out, and shut the door a little harder. She never invited me to come with her; she had given up on that long years before.
Still, we tried at times to be like the kind of mother daughter pair we’d watched in Gilmore Girls when I was young. When things were peaceful we went shopping or read together in opposite-facing chairs by the weak light of the public library fireplace. She liked Josh Grisham; I was on a Haruki Murakami bender. We started to build routines. In the mornings, we fed the reject goats my mom had gradually acquired from local 4-H kids who no longer wanted them. The goats kept her company during the long hours between her appointments to teach piano at the youth center. On weeknights, we cheered at my brother’s pre-season hockey practices and teased him about the girl who sometimes kissed him on the mouth when he came off the ice. He was in the separation stage of high school. He wanted to graduate and move on to conquer the world far away from his nerdy sister who stared at buildings and his strange, isolated mother. He escaped our unfunny teasing by going to his room for long stretches of the day, leaving my mother and me to orbit each other confusedly.
In some of these moments, we took steps that closed the space between us.
That second Thursday is lodged stickily in my memory. We had visited our town’s weird hybrid of natural food store and boutique to buy refried beans and cherry juice and apples. We paused by the wide glass windows at the back, where the brick of the old factory building jutted out over a winter river. We watched the water move, and shared a silent fear at the way giant blocks of ice jammed into the thin support pillars below us. I wondered if my mother too was thinking of falling. Beside us, there was a doily-covered counter blanketed in costume trinkets. I picked up a pair of sky blue earrings and held them up to my reflection in the window. Earrings and doilies drew prim walls around a world where ice blocks eroded the surface I stood on, where people jumped or sometimes fell.
“Those look lovely, Anna,” my mother had said. She touched my jawbone with warm fingers, looking into my face in search of another face, and briefly pressed her mouth to my cheek. Her lips were dry and smooth, the way I imagine pressed flowers would feel.
“That was your father’s favorite color, you know,” she said. “When we were young, he used to say he wanted to be a jeweler so he could take away the color of the sky and make it into a ring for me.”
“That’s really lovely, Mom.” I patted her arm awkwardly through her thick coat.
“Yes, well,” she said. She smiled, but her eyes were filmed and blinking. “I’m going to buy those for you, my girl.”
There were also moments when my mother and I took large leaps apart, ripping open the ground between us.
The worst had happened a few days before my return flight to university. The family had developed a desperate need for oranges. We hated citrus, but we felt the Vitamin C leaching from our goose-flesh and our eyes looked dull and bruised in our pale faces. Rich was eating 6 raw eggs a day as part of an attempt to bulk up for the start of hockey season, and my mother thought that Vitamin C would somehow combat his risk of contracting salmonella. In our minds, oranges were Florida and alligators and people in overalls but nothing else, going about in an unending 90 degree afternoon. We had to have them.
We drove to the grocery store with the heat cranked all the way up, shivering in our parkas. The building crouched unappealingly above a packed parking lot crowded with weekend shoppers. It was the same squat, cement rectangle I remembered from many unwanted errand runs as a child. The interior, though, was different than I had seen before: when my mother and I came into the produce section, we saw a gay couple holding hands while examining the leafy vegetables. I felt my mouth turning up at the edges.
The couple was beautiful. When they looked at each other, their eyes were like the bright windows of warm houses. I felt like a voyeur on the winter street, sucking up the possibility of other lives, other Annas, my lips pressed to cold glass. The couple did not notice me watching them. The world beyond the boundary of the other’s voice and skin was unimportant.
My mother reacted differently. She drew in a sharp breath, stiffened her shoulders and loudly hissed in my general direction: “I do not care for that kind of behavior in a public place, it’s disgusting.” She breezed past them and onwards to the oranges. Shutters fell over the couple’s faces. They walked stiffly towards the exit with their partially filled cart. I retreated a few steps and hid around the corner in the empty organics aisle. My eyes were hot and my face burned like I’d been slapped. I patted my hot face with my cold hands and tried to make my breath come back. Rich followed me into the aisle, opened a bottle of apple juice, and handed it to me. When we silently rejoined my mother in the checkout line, I promised myself I would not come home again.
In the months after I left, my mother tried to call from time to time. She left quiet, cold messages and then angry, hissing messages. After the list of unreturned voicemails grew thick, my phone went silent.
My brother and my grandmother tried to mend us many times.
“How can she be so judgmental?” I once asked my brother.
“Anna, the man she loved killed himself, and the town seems to think it is because she was not a good enough wife” he had said. “Be patient with her.”
“Grandma, she acts like she hates me half the time,” I once complained.
“You remind her too much of him,” my grandmother had said. “When you were born, that was the happiest time they had. It is painful to remember when things are so different now.”
Change is the hardest thing to admit to. That’s something I’ve come to agree with my mother about. But now, things have to change. I want my mother to know me before we get old and brittle and can no longer bend towards each other. My greatest fear is that she will blame my father for the fact that the person I love is not a man. My greatest hope is that maybe, just maybe, we will be able to sit down together and get genuinely pissed. Maybe we can say the things we’ve held in over the years, spill out the pain we’ve caused each other, and then be sad together. If we can be sad together, for each other and what we have lost, there will be a future. Then I can tell my mom that I feel her loneliness and that I am sorry for it. I can tell her that I wish she would date or fuck or remarry or do whatever she has to do to mend the hole in her heart my father made when he left. I can tell her I know she loved him very, very much, and that it is not her fault that her love was not enough to keep him on this earth. I have wanted to tell her these things for a very long time.
When we leave the plane, my little brother is waiting with a large handwritten sign that says Anna Banana. I run to him and hug him hard, for long minutes. He is a full half foot taller than me now, and his face has lost its baby fat.
“What’s happened to you, Rich? Have you been dunked in something radioactive?” I ask.
“Just growing up, Anna Lee,” he says, dropping a heavy arm around my shoulders. “And this must be your lovely lady. It’s great to meet you, Claire.” Rich shakes her hand and offers to take her bag, with an easy social charm I don’t remember him having.
In Rich’s Jeep, headed toward home, I press my nose to the window and breathe out in a small halo of steam. When we get off the highway, the pine trees gradually become less dense. They are dotted by houses here and there, covered in well over two feet of snow. The sun is strong and high in the sky, reflecting off the snow with blinding brightness. The landscape of my childhood is utterly the same as I left it. When we turn onto the corner of our street, I ask Rich to stop the car. I have a place I need to show Claire.
“Alright, Anna Lee, but if you take too long I’ll freeze solid,” he says.
“You have enough meat on you to wait awhile,” I say, taking Claire’s hand. We cross the street and walk into a meadow where the snow lies undisturbed. In the center of the meadow there is a four-story rock chimney, now with stones missing in places like a child’s lost teeth.
“Oh, Anna. So this is the place then,” Claire breathes.
We walk to the base of the chimney and look far up above us to its top. I do not feel ghosts around me now, like I did when I was young. Often when I would sit here having my tea parties I could feel the presence of the Wright family around me. I had felt my father here, too. They had been friendly ghosts.
I cross my ankles and plop myself into the snow at the base of the chimney. Claire sits cross-legged across from me, waiting. Tomorrow, we will walk through the center of town and I will hold her hand brazenly and kiss her check on the sidewalk in the bright afternoon sun. In minutes I will introduce her to my mother and hope for the best. Perhaps she will accept and forgive. For now, the sun is warm on my cheek and I feel brave.
I’ve come home, Dad, I think. I’m glad to see you again.
I look up and the sky is blue, bright blue. If I were at the chimney top, I could see all the way to the bay.