Wednesday night, already dark, I fully intended to ask my lovely teenage daughter something quick about dinner, but she blew by me, dumped her green army bag on the tiles and headed to the bathroom. I’d been standing there awhile, smoking at the sink, trying to figure out what to make.
Hey, ClaireBear, good to see you, I said to the air, which, wouldn’t you know it, didn’t say anything back.
A typical scene since Claire’s moved in, because she doesn’t want to live with her mom right now, because her mom is getting remarried and Claire can’t stand the creep. I said, sure, I got room, I’ll take the couch. It’s no bother. And most days it isn’t. I don’t see her all that much. I see her green army bag more than her. It’s tattered and covered with safety pins and Sharpie and has been one of my best friends lately.
Last Wednesday when she came in, she tossed my little friend right into the cardboard boxes I’d brought home from the restaurant and stacked in the middle of the kitchen. I went over then and straightened them, because these boxes are important. The guy at Home Depot said you do this first when you want to add something to a room. Lets you get used to the idea, see what it might look like. I was thinking a kitchen island might be nice. Weeks later I’m still thinking an island might be nice, always thinking with me, but I do find it funny how just the idea of one is making me feel more like an adult.
I thought then to wait a little longer until Claire came out. Because kids should eat, I decided. Even if it’s late.
The first time I felt this, “being an adult,” I was seventeen, just a little older than Claire is now. We had a habit back then, my kid brother and I and all our friends, of breaking into houses, vacation homes usually, snowbirds, those people who only show up to Arizona in winter. We knew they were second homes, empty for weeks on end in summer, and what else was there to do as a teenager in Tucson except scope one out on a quiet cul-de-sac, the back of some nice neighborhood in the foothills. Ventaña Canyon, maybe, or Shadow Hills Estates.
We’d bust in, drink everything we could find, eat whatever food they had, screw in their beds, and leave the place pretty well trashed on our way out. Someone always got sick someplace creative, like between leather couch cushions, or inside an expensive vase. Once all over a family of kachina dolls. And all of us—every single one of us—thought that was just about the funniest thing in the whole world. It became a game, the best place to yak. My kid brother was king of this. Barely knew where he was half the time.
Where’d I do it, he’d ask, drunk as a prince. Laughing and wiping his mouth.
We were a bunch of punks and skins. Not much redeemed us then.
But the one thing those houses always had were large eat-in kitchens, big appliances and winding counters, the kind with huge islands that looked out to the rest of the place, and for that I thank them. For that, all the damage we caused was worth it. Because there was always a point in the party where I’d be at one of those islands smoking a cigarette, eating some stale thing I found and looking out at my friends doing some very disrespectful things to someone else’s home and I’d think to myself, if only for a second—what in God’s name am I doing?
This story comes to me in three parts. The first is about a blind man, the second a handwriting fortune-teller, and the third about a father and a car.
I’ve told these little stories for years, because I’ve worked in bars and restaurants for years and all of us who do that have stories like these to tell. The “I knew a guy once…” sort of thing. They surface, roll around a bit, become part of your repertoire. They don’t mean anything. At least I never thought they did. We tell them because it gets late and things have been flowing all night and sometimes people just want to listen. I have tons of them.
But now I think stories are a problem for me. They’re useful. In the way a cigarette is useful when your hands are bored. And these three I can’t get out of my head. I’ve been very distracted lately.
Like just two weeks ago I was having coffee with my ex after we closed up at the restaurant, trying to unwind with a couple splashes of whiskey mixed in with our espressos (I’ve told Claire if she ever works the business it’s what you have to do to turn it all off, have a drink to undo the shift—that and tattoos, which essentially do the same thing, though tattoos undo more) but then Marcella was staring at me with her cup in mid-air and asking what the fuck was wrong with me. I guess along with the whiskey I also put a pat of butter in my coffee and was stirring it in. I shook my head, annoyed at her for suggesting I’d do something so unaware, but then I looked down and saw the swirling oily surface at which point I said, nothing’s wrong, I like it this way. Then I drank it. (Oh, and by the way, if you don’t try it now you’re an idiot, because it’s a thing and it’s fucking delicious.)
Marcella, my ex, is a waitress at the same place where I work on the line. I got her a job there because she needed one and we’re civil to each other after fifteen years apart, well past the point of bitter, though I certainly never had the right to be. So now I get to fire orders and look out from my little window to the waitstation counter at my ex-wife slicing limes, which gives me more than enough time to wonder about how much of my past behavior might have contributed to her current situation. Claire’s right about the fiancé. He is a creep.
Marcella’s much younger than me and still looks great. She and Claire could almost be sisters. I’m starting to see more of each in the other. It’s a mystery how I even landed someone like Marcella in the first place, although the older, damaged me seems to do well enough. This is the restaurant business after all. Not much else happens. Everyone has potential at the right time of night. But Marcella, she was different, is different. She’s so pretty there are moments I
have a hard time thinking about her in any other way. I look at her and I see her face. She’s half Mexican and has creamy brown skin and wide-set Mayan eyes. Her eyebrows are so faultless they look drawn. She has perfect teeth. I should say most men don’t see any of this, not at first. Her hair is a brassy kind of brown with an almost gray sheen to it and her features are strong and set in a way that makes you think she can’t move them. But it’s when you look again that something doesn’t match up, what you see and what you think you see, and that’s when you notice how beautiful those hard features actually are, how striking she really is. Guys usually don’t look at her twice, the kitchen ignores her, but it, her face, is actually one of the reasons I can’t stop thinking about “the blind man” story. I told her this—the story about the blind man, that is, not her arresting face—the night I had my butter coffee.
Well, sure, fine, such is life. People live with all kinds of limitations, you might say. But at the end of the day this blind man was also a man. He had needs. Like all of us. And at one point he started dating a girl. He’d been in love with her from a distance for a long time, a real distance as you can imagine, so when they were finally together, when he was finally as close to her as he had been dreaming of for so long, he would have given anything to see her face, all of it, in total. But he was only ever able to see her face in pieces, scan just a tiny portion of it at a time, his own face hovering just above hers as he slowly moved over it inch by inch. He would try then to compose this into something tangible in his mind, something complete, but no matter how much he tried, the pieces never fit. He could never picture her fully.
Now, when the blind man finally realized this was going to be the reality of things, he got depressed. Very depressed. His friends and family grew worried. They urged him to carry on, find something, anything that would make life worthwhile and eventually he did for a spell. You see, even though he continued to try again and again to create her real face in his mind (and continued to fail again and again), every time he did it he would always stop his close scrutiny right over her open eyes. He would stop and linger and let the color of his lover’s eyes fill his field of vision, that half-inch of vibrant clarity, which over time became more intense than anything he had ever seen. Over time, he came to associate that color, that particular intensity, with her. It became her face. What he recognized.
I had told the blind man story to Claire many times when she was younger—minus the second part; she didn’t need that—but the first part sounded like a fairy tale to me and I thought she’d like it. As I drove her back to her mom’s on a Sunday night, she would look out the window at the passing lights and tell me how she was bringing the night into the car.
I’m a light girl, Daddy, she’d say. I make the lights go long.
She was maybe three or four when she did this. Every Sunday, the same thing.
I bring the light into the night. I bring it into the car.
It took me a while to figure out what she was talking about, that she was squinting the street lights into prismed stars. And more, that she actually thought she was changing these lights when she did it. Not just how she was seeing them, but changing the light itself. That’s why I thought she’d like the blind man’s tale about eyes. And I liked telling her about the blind man. I thought it was a story worth telling.
Back in the kitchen, I heard the bathroom door open and just like that Claire came in and
graced me with her presence. She’s no preschooler anymore and she picked up her bag and opened it and squinted inside.
Dinner, I ventured.
I got a raised index finger in response as she took out her phone and started trolling it with her thumb. I waited. Then she dropped her bag and her eyes hit me, just once, quick and silent, before she went back to the bathroom, this time taking her best friend, the phone.
Her face looked tired. But then again it always does. It has to do with her eyes, the way she blinks. She does it slow, like it’s an effort, like she’s choosing to blink every time. It looked tired when she was little, too, only three years old, back in the car with me and the lights.
This, incidentally, is not the “father and car” story, I’ll get there eventually, though I do have a lot of car stories. Like the time before the divorce when Marcella and I were stuck in traffic after trying to buy a fridge. We were coming back empty-handed, grid-locked and stuck behind a car covered in lame bumper stickers, whirled peas, dog is my copilot, that coexist one made out of religious symbols. I thought the driver was an idiot but Marcella, well, she thought it was somehow inspiring, because, she said, at least he was being genuine. Yeah, I heard what she meant. So we argued about it, pretty easily in fact. And we would have kept arguing except for that jackass who tried to pass everyone on the shoulder. A police cruiser nabbed him and both of us laughed at the asshole. We made a big deal about it, pointing at the guy and laughing as we inched past him in traffic. It was one of the last times we acted like a team.
I liked being part of a team. My kid brother and I were a team. I looked out for him in tight spots, like the houses, and he kept it fun.
Claire, honey, I tried on the empty room. How you doing?
Her bag looked at me. I ashed in the sink and watched it fall to the standing water in the basin. Both Claire and Marcella are trying to get me to quit, or at least smoke less. They’re both so damn healthy and on this they are in complete agreement. It’s a disgusting habit. I should stop. But if either of them had been in the kitchen with me I would have pointed to the ashes in the sink and said, look how pretty they are, spreading out in the water, expanding and breaking apart like little explosions. That’s beautiful right?
The second story, the “handwriting fortune-teller,” is also like a fairy tale, like “the blind man.” Maybe I can’t stop thinking about it because in addition to all those late nights at bars I also told it to Claire. Although she was much older then, twelve or so, after she started talking about boys. She’d sit up on her foldout in the living room and rattle on about some boy in her class, some kid I probably would have known if I didn’t work nights and could make it to a parents’ night or whatever. My place was miniscule then—no way at all to fit an island in that kitchen—but she still loved it. We made mini-pizzas on English muffins in the toaster oven. But her face when she talked about these boys, her excitement and animation, it made me nervous. I hoped her mom was telling her to be careful. The following was all I offered.
There once was a woman from a foreign land, a handwriting fortune-teller. She had the ability to look at the handwriting of someone, a
stranger, just the smallest sample, and predict with exacting detail the most profound truths about that person. She was famous for this. People considered her brilliant. They would send her writing samples of their friends’, usually famous artists or writers, and she would say of the
person who wrote the sample, “quick-thinking, playful, reckless, bohemian, witty, full of ideas, conceited, and presumptuous at times;
at other times easily discouraged, insecure, and short-tempered.” The artists ate it up. Whether the woman’s talent was in reading the
handwriting or reading the audience doesn’t matter so much. The point is she was successful. She was great at it. But after a while
things started to change. Her comments on the samples became shorter. Her sentences simpler. Her explanations grew sloppy, inconsistent.
Many times, she was just plain wrong. Soon, she lost the talent completely and gave up the practice for good. Years later, she ran into
someone from this old life and was asked if she might devote herself to it again, restart the talent that brought her so much fame. And it was
then, by her own words, that everyone learned the brilliance had left her because she had fallen passionately in love.
I don’t think my young Claire understood what I was trying to say with this story. Which was (and is): love makes you stupid.
She’s sixteen now and doesn’t want to hear much about anything. No more stories from Dad. And I know she doesn’t tell me much either. I know she has secrets. She’s starting to look exactly like the kind of girl I used to break into houses with.
I tried to tell her about my teenage years, the break-ins, the “how I got on that path” story. She stood with her back to the wall, being
nice actually, waiting for me to finish even though it was clear she wanted to go. Her cheeks were pink from running around trying to get ready for something. And I wished I could have finished. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it without making it sound like I was bragging. And I couldn’t get past those slow eyes of hers. How they’d focus on something through me.
Marcella says it’s a phase, and I know it is. But my own phase was endless.
Marcella says kids come around. She did.
Marcella says I have problems of my own. Like my reputation with the waitstaff for one. That I should start acting like the feminist I claim to be.
She’s usually not so critical. She’s actually a very positive person. She eats well. She does yoga. I’m lucky to know her.
She’s had a hard time so far, a tough upbringing, all that Mexican machismo to deal with, then me to deal with, but she’s managed to retain something in spite of it all. She’s very forgiving.
Love makes you stupid. God bless love.
When we were having our late-night espressos, I had started to tell Marcella why people always confess things when they get tattoos (it’s all about the touch), but I stopped. I didn’t want to say the words confess and touch to her in the same sentence.
What can I say? Love makes us stupid.
I heard then the shower start and music come on in the bathroom. I dropped my finished cigarette in an empty bottle and started another and then went over and moved Claire’s bag from the floor to the counter. I do love this bag. She’s made the safety pins into a kind of chain mail armor, interlocking all the clasps. It must have taken a long time.
The last story, the “father and car” story, I’ve told many times over the years to that faceless crowd. Depending on the time of night and mood I can make them cheer or cry. I’ve yet to tell it to Claire.
It made the local news when it happened. You see, this father, who was a new father, had gone to the grocery store with his new baby. He would later describe his state of mind on that warm Arizona morning, his lack of sleep, the stress of being a new parent, the home-life less than ideal. He would find little sympathy. He said he had been driving on autopilot, that he parked, entered the store, started shopping and simply forgot that the child was asleep in the backseat. When the story broke, it was not a tragedy; the baby was fine. He had remembered in time, with half a cartful of groceries, and rushed outside, so happy there wasn’t a mob waiting to kill him and that the baby was okay and still sleeping in the backseat. And that would have been the end of it. No one would have ever known, except this idiot of a father had also locked his keys in the car. He didn’t know what to do. He tried all the doors, over and over again, even the trunk and hood as if there would have been some secret passage to the inside. He went around and around the car but each time the doors didn’t spontaneously unlock. He stood there,
sweating under the sun, looking at the dangling keys in the ignition, trying to will them back into his pocket. Eventually, and he’s not sure how long, reason did return. His head came back to him and he called out for help, yelled to those near, call someone, please, get me a coat hanger, anything, the keys are in there, I just shut the door, as he went for the handles again. The baby woke and started crying. People gathered as he continued to try to get in, as he tried to calm the crying child through the window, mouthing at the child through the glass that he was sorry, he’d do better. Wasn’t it clear he was trying? Anyone could see that. Someone handed him a tire iron. Everything would be fine. They cheered when he busted the window. He raised the child like a trophy for the clapping crowd, tragedy averted. He gave interviews.
So all in all a happy ending. A good story.
But the thing is, what I’ve always wondered to myself, even when right in the middle of telling the damn thing, is this: Why was this father so worried about a crowd around the car? That was his first thought. He hoped there wasn’t a crowd. But really, wouldn’t a crowd have been better, in terms of time at least? A better chance that someone would be helping if things were already bad? Coming out of the store he had no idea the baby would be fine, time was key, but he was happy there wasn’t a crowd. Why? Was he just flustered, not thinking straight? Or was he more concerned about getting caught, of what others would think? I’ve never been sure.
It’s been a few years s
ince I’ve thought about that story but I think I may have something passable now in ways of an answer, at least in terms of why I never had one, why I never understood this man in the story. It has to do with the story itself, all of them in fact, why I told them in the first place, continued to tell them, how they mattered.
So here we go:
The blind man is my kid brother, who’s been gone now for twenty years.
The handwriting lady, I know only from a book.
In my memory, these two more or less hold the same place now. They feel the same. My brother and some character from a book no different to me at this point.
The child in the locked car is my own. I’m the parent mouthing silently in the window. That absolute mystery.
So how could my brother and a stranger from a book even begin to share the same weight for me? How come I’ve never understood my own thoughts running out of that grocery store?
I think it has to do with the stories themselves, the telling, that is.
These are not fairy tales. They’re not anecdotes.
It’s my brother. My daughter.
So I don’t think I want to tell these stories anymore, at least not in the same way.
That night in the restaurant with Marcella was endless. She listened to me and my stories again, which she’s done for years, and as I talked I watched her face watching me, maybe for the first time, watched it working, squinting, scrutinizing, going over the details, finding the cracks. Figuring it out. She doesn’t deserve to become some bar story either. God knows I’m lucky to love her.
And I’m glad Claire’s bag has found a place at least. Even if I can’t seem to decide how big of an island I want, how much of an adult she needs me to be.
And so maybe one last story: