3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Summer 2003

Lost and Found

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Robin Romm

In memory, I can see my father standing there, his thick steak of a body coated in the light of the television set, his mind reeling, his life a set of cards stamped in symbols known only to him.

But much more precedes this. There is a story here. You remember, don’t you, the way that I found him, curled like a fetus, wrapped in a dirty sheet in the center of the desert?

I was out walking the dog in the hot Arizona morning, tumbleweeds and cacti punctuating the barren landscape. I liked the emptiness of this particular road. No cars whooshed by, no other dog-walkers walked. I could wake up, put on my shorts and wander for miles without seeing anyone. My dog trotted dutifully beside me, but he did not like to walk. I was the one that liked spending my mornings out here with my old, tired dog, the sun on our shoulders, the dusty desert air in our ears.

The dog had not shown interest in chasing jackrabbits—or anything, for that matter—in a number of years. I held his leash loosely, looped over my thumb. In my mind, the leash was just part of the ritual, not a means of establishing control. But the day it happened, the day we found him, the dog became bizarrely animated, tugging at the leash and leading me off the gravel road, into the sand and sagebrush, whining and gulping. Surprised, I fumbled for control, lost it, and followed him partly out of curiosity, partly because my thumb had become painfully tangled in the leash.

We walked a short distance to a patch of scraggly desert brush and there he was, a full-grown man, naked and curled like a comma, lying beneath the paltry shade of a damaged cactus. His eyes were closed in blissful delirium, his fists balled like a child. He was humming faintly, starving, near death, and there was a note attached to him on a decaying piece of twine.

This is your father, the note read. Do as you will.

“My father!” I exclaimed to the dog. The dog looked up at me, sad and patient, and tugged back in the direction of the car. I wrapped my father as best I could in the sheet and dragged him behind us.

t home, the dog slept fitfully, twitching and snorting on the rug near the door. I rubbed ointment into my father’s burned skin as he slept on the sofa. In his delirium he cooed and reached for my face. The touch of his hand was like the leg of a large dry insect.

For a while, I sat on a chair, watching my father sleep. His eyes were set far apart in his face like a lizard’s. Deep lines stamped his sweaty brow. His skin was burned, but the color beneath the burn was pink, nothing like my own olive skin.

As he slept, I began to grow nervous. That unblinking desert sky had left no room for doubt; but here in my living room, dark clouds gathered. After all, what does a person do with a found father? It is easy to lose a father. They get sick, they get old, they die, they abandon. But no one ever finds a father—or at least this sort of thing is infrequent. I had no books on the subject, no similarly situated friends to ask for advice.

Would I have to take care of him? Dress him in a blue uniform and send him up the street to the French Immersion School? Or would he awake with a profession? A lawyer, maybe. Maybe a dentist. It would be nice, I thought, if he were very wealthy. But one can’t get too caught up in such fantasies.

Unable to stop my mind from reeling with potential outcomes, I grew anxious for something to do. I figured that while he slept I could run to the store to buy him something to drink. He seemed so parched and leathery, dried up like jerky in the hot desert sun. But what should I buy him? Seltzer? Beer? Juice? Milk? I couldn’t decide. I bought every beverage in the beverage aisle. Apricot juice to zinfandel. After all, it’s not every day you find your father.

When I returned to the house, there he was, sitting upright, rubbing his eyes. Blue blue eyes the color of cornflowers.

“Father?” I asked him, setting the bags down on the beat-up floor. He squinted at me, stretched his arms up into the air, extended his legs out in front of him so that his kneecaps popped.

“Excuse me,” he said and tugged a blanket from the arm of the sofa. With it wrapped like a towel around him, he got up and found the bathroom.

I filled the kitchen with the beverage bottles. Lined them up on the counter by color. Wine and berry coolers. Orange and carrot juices. Coffee and soda. The shower ran for quite a while.

“Can you find something for me to wear?” he called from the bathroom. I paused, looked at the bottles sparkling in the light.

Under my bed, where I keep journals and old letters and sweaters that I never wear, I also keep the clothes that Duncan left tangled in the sheets of the bed. They were all I had left of Duncan, except for a slow-moving sadness. I always felt I should toss them out with the weekly trash, but I liked the way that Duncan smelled and I thought of the clothes more as potpourri than memorabilia. Two pairs of hospital scrub pants, one t-shirt with a faded monkey on the front, a pair of argyle socks with a hole in the toe, and one faded pair of plaid boxer shorts. I gathered up the clothes and slipped them through a crack in the bathroom door.

He emerged freshened, head erect, dressed in the monkey shirt and scrubs.

“I feel like a new man,” he said. “A new man indeed.” I smiled at him, but he was not looking at me, and anyhow the smile felt fake and nervous, a potato-head smile.

“Would you like something to drink?” I asked politely, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot.

“Actually,” he said, “I would like it if I could get a cup of tea at a café. I would like to get out and about.”

Out and about, I thought.

“Do you want company?” I asked. I imaged the two of us, wide-eyed, drinking coffee out of heavy white mugs and talking all morning. We would clarify what the past twenty-nine years—

“No,” he said breezily. “Don’t you bother. I’m up for a solo tour.”

The dog woke up from where he was sleeping in the corner of the room and looked at me with ancient, patient eyes.

“All right,” I said, trying to mask my hurt. “There’s a lunch counter two blocks away.” I drew him a map. He smiled and nodded. His dark, wet-looking eyelashes were the only softness to his square face. I caught myself trying to memorize them—the black fringe around his cornflower eyes. What if he never returned? Would I be able to explain what he looked like? It felt as if someone were pulling on a string near my heart. He reached out for the map, gently tugged it from my hands, winked, and walked out the door in a pair of my flip flops and the monkey t-shirt.

It took a long time to adjust to him. We had to go shopping for new clothes, and because he had nothing, I had to buy him things. We had very different taste in clothing and this proved troublesome. “It’s MY money,” I insisted when he wanted the silk American-flag boxer shorts. He made short snippy exhalations and then, “I’ll pay you back.”

He got a job changing oil at the garage down the street. No one there seemed to care if he came from Arizona aristocracy or a hole in the center of the earth. No one asked questions and no one expected answers. He brought home his meager salary and I turned my office into a bedroom for him.

We didn’t talk much, my father and I. At first, I had not wanted to pry. Maybe I was afraid he’d leave if I asked difficult questions, or maybe I was just afraid of what I’d find out. Soon, we settled into the rhythms of cohabitation and the questions I’d had at first dissolved into the tickings of daily life. He would leave for work in the early morning, before I woke. I would hear him rattling things in the refrigerator, clanking around in the silverware drawer. He’d return in the late afternoons when I would be trying to work in the kitchen. He’d plod around, car grease on his chin, leaving dark oily footprints on my white tiled floor. He’d pop open a can of warm beer, then stomp back into the living room to watch television.

“Did you see this?” my father called from the sofa, where I imagined he was placing his oily feet. I bought the sofa only months before I found him and already it was beyond repair, the black smudges as deep as the batting.

“What?” I called from my computer in the kitchen. My irritation didn’t faze him.

“This show,” he cried. “It’s so crazy! They just torture these people while they have to answer questions and if they can answer the question anyway—”

“I don’t care,” I called back.

A tiny silence and then, “No need to be rude.”

“Who’s being rude?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question.
“Well, I think you are,” he said.

I tried to type louder.

“Maybe I should try to win at a game show,” he yelled.

I stopped typing. The words on my screen wiggled and then stopped wiggling.

“Did you hear me?” he asked.

“Yes,” I called back. “Yes, I heard you, but if you hadn’t noticed, I’m trying to work.”

“Well, excuuuuuuse me,” he called.

I took a deep breath.

My father.

Duncan never knew his father. This attracted us to one another at first. I could sit in the big bowl of loss inside of him, and then he could sit in mine. I knew nothing about my father, though, and Duncan knew everything about his.

Duncan’s father was a psychotherapist who kept avid journals about his life. “Today,” the journals read, “I woke and walked Mercy (the dog) through the neighborhood, thinking about the baby asleep at home.” Each day was recorded carefully, and each day revealed a boring pattern like the day before. Duncan read and re-read the journals. He was fixated on them. To me, they were proof of how boring most people’s lives are. To Duncan, they were the pieces of the puzzle, the clues to his father’s suicide.

The journals had a lot to do with why Duncan and I split up. I couldn’t listen to him read them anymore. We tried to go on a trip to Northern California. I wanted to see the ocean, the way it would break on the cliffs and spatter up into the sky. Duncan wanted to sit on the cliffs and read his father’s journals. “Today,” he read, “after walking Mercy, I returned home to re-read my notes about patient 106.”

“Don’t you ever get bored with that?” I asked. Duncan jutted his chin, his eyebrows went up and he said, “No. I’m sorry if I’m boring you.”

“It’s just that we’ve read this part already.” My voice was inadvertently whiny.

“This is all I have left of him,” Duncan said. “I think that should matter to you.”

The waves crashed against the cliffs and sent foam up into the sky but it didn’t seem magical, like the image in my mind. Just water spraying up from the ocean and then falling back onto the rocks.

The truth is, it didn’t really matter to me. The journals, Duncan’s feeling of abandonment, the way he cried when we fought—as if I was dying. He used to reach for me when I was angry, his tan skin glistening, his fingers pulling me toward him. He would hold on to me as if I were a buoy and I would feel a little bit claustrophobic. I loved him, but I didn’t really understand that sort of grief.
I never mourned the loss of my father. My mother didn’t talk about him, and by the time I was old enough to confront her, she was dying. He was a mysterious smoke way out in the distance. A forest fire that happened before I was born. I had no clues, no puzzle pieces to spend my life putting together. Just a clean, sharp hole. Duncan did not have this clarity; he lived amidst a dark bloody thing full of roots and broken teeth.

Eventually, Duncan started spending a lot of time with a girl named Lucy, whose parents had died in a car wreck when she was young. I felt Duncan drifting away, toward another buoy, and I couldn’t stop him. I’m not even sure I wanted to stop him. I watched his eyes fill with distraction, muddy with small dishonesties that eventually became large ones. And then one day he was gone.

I often wondered what it would have been like if Duncan and I were still together the day I found my father. Would it have given us hope—hope that our lives would be full of such unexpected fortune? Would he have seethed with jealousy? Or would he have seen the impending gloom hanging low on the horizon? Duncan always had a knack for detecting encroaching misfortune. “The movie is going to be sold out,” he’d announce in the car on a Friday night. And then, “I just had a feeling,” he’d explain after we’d been sold out of the show. “I just get a feeling about this kind of stuff.”

But even if Duncan could have detected something gloomy, what could I have done? You can’t just leave your father to die in the desert after almost thirty years without him. Surely Duncan would have understood that.

It’s conceivable that Duncan would have been jealous of me. My father had vanished from my life completely, leaving no trace, therefore leaving a vast potential for reappearance. Duncan’s father had killed himself, his stiff body a cruel reminder that he would not be there later to comfort, instruct, or console. Duncan’s loss was permanent; mine, permeable. There is such a thing as love linked by the definitive absence of a father.

And if the father reappears?

But it hardly mattered. Duncan vanished not because my father re-entered. The reason for his departure lay in the negative space of the things I didn’t do, the kind of loss I didn’t feel. Lucy’s bowl of loss was shinier, more pregnant with possibility, her long fingers limber with need.

I made my father a set of keys for the house. Silver for the front door, gold for the back. He could never remember which key was which, and so, most days he would press the doorbell in a perky three-ring succession to get in.

“I made you keys,” I would say as I opened the door.

“I know. But I just can’t remember which one is which,” he’d say breezily, giving me a half-cocked smile. Sometimes he’d leave the keys at home in the morning. I’d find them under a stack of newspapers or wadded up in an old lunch sack of his beneath the kitchen table.

“Sometime I might not be home when you lock yourself out,” I chastised.

“Ohhhh, you’re always home,” he said, his hair greased in rigid little ropes over his thinning pate.

My father was a very messy man. He never learned any discipline when it came to tidying up after he used something. He’d leave the olive oil on the counter, bags of herbs strewn around it like windblown trash. His socks gathered in little heaps and his bedroom began to smell sweet and fetid. I’d be in the bathroom brushing my teeth and that strong, footy smell would come wafting through the door. Sometimes, when he went to work, I’d gather up armfuls of his dirty laundry and throw it in the washer. I’d strip his filthy sheets, streaked with oil residue and dotted with toenails and hair, gather the damp towels, straighten the stacks of papers and magazines. When he came home, he’d either pretend not to notice, or he really didn’t notice, that the room was orderly and aired out. This, more than the fact that I cleaned his bedroom in the first place, always infuriated me, causing me to bang pans around while cooking and burn my hand on the oven rack.

And then my father began to bring home friends. Large, pomaded men from the garage suffering from various degrees of bowleggedness.

“Hey, it’s the missus!” they’d cry when they stomped in, a parade of oily feet, oily fingers dragged against the white walls. They’d gather on my small back patio, smoke cigarettes and drink beer until the moon hung bright above them. I tried not to listen to them talk, but words slipped through the screen, over the tiles and into the kitchen. Women, car payments, garage politics.

I purchased a pair of earplugs. Fancy ones made out of an expanding gelatin. I sat in my kitchen and worked and pretended that they were not there. But eventually more and more friends began to appear. My father is popular, I realized. Ten friends crammed on the back patio gave way to fifteen. Then twenty. Brothers and cousins of the bowlegged men spilled down the patio steps, into the small parking lot I shared with my neighbor.

“Look,” I told him one night when he came in to go to the bathroom. “We have to discuss this.” I gestured toward the mob of greasy heads bobbing outside the kitchen window. My father paused, furrowed one eyebrow.

“This isn’t your personal ballroom,” I told him. “You can’t just invite the entire garage over every night.”

“It’s not every night,” he said, wiping his brow with his forearm. “I have to go to the bathroom.” He began to walk away. I sat, fingering a stack of papers with my thumb. Then, “No! Wait a minute. It is MY bathroom, MY house. You are STAYING here. You can’t just do whatever you want whenever you want. There need to be rules—” He blinked incredulously at me.

“Rules?” he asked.

“Rules,” I said.

“What kind of rules?” His blue eyes turned one shade darker.

“Rules,” I said, “so that I can get something done around here. Not everyone in the world has your hours.”

“I’m your father,” he said gravely. “Watch how you talk to me.”

“You may be my father,” I said, “but you’re making me crazy.”

“Ah, well, family’s like a tin of nuts—” he began.

“No, really,” I stated. “Really, you can’t just come in here and take over everything. I spend hours every morning bleaching oil stains off the walls. If this doesn’t stop you’re going to have to find somewhere else to live.”

An awful silence ensued. He looked at me, then at the floor. He raised his dirt-lined hand to his hair and stood with one palm pressed against the back of his head.

“Are you threatening me?” he finally asked.

What was I doing? Again I thought of Duncan. Some people go chasing these phantoms all of their lives. Each day begins with a shadow of loss that hangs with the curtains, each evening comes to a close with a list of ways things could have been. And here was my answer to all of that, standing puzzled and wounded in front of me.

“Maybe I am,” I said to him. “I guess maybe I am.”

He entered the bathroom.

I sat reading the same line over and over again, half-heartedly.

What was I supposed to do? The men outside laughed big full laughs and a bottle of liquor fell and broke on the cement. I heaved a sigh.

When my father came out of the bathroom, his cheeks hung sadly. “I’ll tell them all to leave,” he said and walked slowly out the door.

Soon, all the men went back to wherever they came from and my father traipsed in, closing the door with a pathetic click. He gave me a hurt look as he wandered past me into the living room.

The next few days my father returned from work silently, sighing and shifting in boredom. He would examine the contents of the fridge, pick up each container individually and then set it back down. He’d get out a deck of cards, sit next to me and shuffle them. He brought home a book of word-finds.

“Can’t anyone else have people over?” I finally asked him. “Why don’t some of your friends ever have parties?” He shrugged.

“Doesn’t work like that,” he muttered.

The morose mood that settled over him made him even more of a slob. Dirty Q-tips appeared behind the bathroom trash can. Beer cans wedged between the sofa cushions. And the smell that came from his bedroom grew danker and more difficult to air out. Each morning, I wandered the house with a mug of coffee, picking up the residue of his depression, burning piñon incense and scented candles. The house began to smell of a nauseating mix of foot, earth, and flower. The dog began to sleep with one paw draped over his snout, trying to create a little puddle of dog air to breathe. I began to get headaches.

And then the phone calls started. Every hour, the phone would ring. Even during the hours my father was at work.

“Is your father around?” the voices would ask. Men, women, even small children called. I took messages for him in a spiral binder. First one filled, then another. At night, he would sit in his bedroom, the phone dragged in, and return phone calls until I went to sleep. Who did he talk to all these nights, hunched over in his pungent bedroom? I didn’t ask, and he didn’t tell me.

The mood was tense and the air thick. The dog began to tremble in his sleep. I would hear his tags rattling from the kitchen and go to him, stroke his ears until I soothed him back to silence. But I couldn’t soothe him for very long; he’d quickly begin again. Soon the trembling occurred even in his waking hours. It interfered with his eating. He limped and his joints quivered. Then one day, I let him out in the side yard for a minute while I was writing, and when I went out to fetch him, he was gone.

Sometimes, you lose something—an earring, a sweater—and you have a sharp hope that it will turn up, as if signs will point you back to the missing object. I walked every street of the neighborhood hollering for him. I hung bright yellow posters of his face around our street and the nearby church. I even prayed. But the loss felt final. Infinite. Tears gathered in a rising reservoir in my chest.

“Look what you’ve done!” I said to my father, my voice breaking.

“I wasn’t even home when it happened. I didn’t DO anything,” he said, his eyebrows angled angrily.

“He couldn’t deal with the stress between us—”

“What are you talking about?”

“All the phone calls, the crap everywhere—”

“I think you’re the one with the stress problem,” he said, turning toward the fridge to grab a beer. “You need to chill out or you’ll die young.”

“Wouldn’t that be a blessing,” I said hotly, slamming out into the side yard to fume and miss my dog.

I went to the pound every Friday afternoon, just in case he had been brought there without his tags. I became friendly with the woman behind the counter.

“Sorry, hon,” she’d say when I opened the door, the bells on the handle dinging. “No beagles today.” I would walk the strip of cages, looking at all the dogs, their dark, shining eyes pleading or distrustful. I’d walk slowly, lingering, allowing the plaintive barks to bounce off of my tired body.

I was looking at my favorite little dog—a runt with a bad case of mange but a sweet, polite way of barking, when I felt this cool, highly charged shadow of wind pass behind me. It felt like a ghost—or what I would imagine a ghost feels like, passing by you in a tunnel of barking dogs. I turned to see. Shock lapped over me like a wave.

He looked older, his hair short and his body lanky. His shoulders stooped; I didn’t remember this about him.

For a moment I felt glued to the concrete.

“Duncan?” I said, walking towards him. He looked over. At first, he seemed not to recognize me, a cloudiness over his face, and I imagined I was seeing things. But quickly, his face broke into a grin.

“No way,” he said. “No fucking way.” His teeth were still crooked. They made him look honest.

We went out for coffee.

Duncan was always a beautiful boy, and he grew into a beautiful man. His skin shone like copper rocks in a river and his eyes had this feline watchfulness, green as those bright spots in the sea.

We drank coffee and talked of the three years that had passed since we had last spoken. He had moved with Lucy to Santa Fe. She had wanted to open a jewelry store, but the money got tight and the relationship fizzled and he moved back to Arizona.

“I wanted to call you,” he said sheepishly. “But I was too ashamed.” My heart soared and plunged; I felt a little sick. Duncan was peering at me from over his coffee cup, his eyes greener in the light of the window. I was trying not to look at him, taking store of the cars in the parking lot. Three red ones in a row, flanked by trucks. A nice, cosmic symmetry. And then, suddenly, he laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Tell me about yourself, what you’ve been up to.”

I looked at him.

“Well,” I said, “for starters, I found my father.” Duncan’s hands were wrapped around his coffee mug, set on the lacquered table. I watched to see if he would move them but his hands remained still.
“What do you mean?” he asked gravely.

“Just that,” I said. “I mean I found him.”

”I thought he was dead.”

“So did I.”

A long silence.

“So he wasn’t dead?” Duncan asked skeptically.

“Duncan, I really don’t know.”

Some internal debate was brewing inside of him. Did he not believe me?

“Okay,” he said decisively. “You found him. Okay. That’s great!” He had decided to be supportive. “You know, you look great,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “You look really happy. Your skin and your hair. That must it be it, right? Your father.”

I tried to tell him the story, but he seemed pained, and besides, every detail felt like it needed to be omitted, edited. The explanations sounded vague. It is hard to explain large changes to people who have not been in your life for some time.

“I’d love to meet him,” Duncan said, leaning forward again, reaching across the table to take my hand. “I mean, if that would be okay with you.”

I felt, in a way, that Duncan was testing me, that he did not really believe what I was telling him. In Duncan’s world, fathers died and stayed dead, leaving their regrets hovering in the heat that the living skin of the bereaved gives off, in the condensation of breath; leaving boxes of journals—mean little mementos to remind the living of the futility of life.

“Well, he works a lot—” I could see Duncan’s eyes grow suspicious. “But I suppose we could work something out. If you really wanted to—I mean, if you think—”

“I want to,” Duncan said. “I want to, really.”

We traded phone numbers and I returned to my house, a crazy shaking in my arms that wouldn’t stop.

I had wondered what Duncan would have thought if he’d been there when I found my father, his arm linked loosely through mine. But I had never considered what it would be like for the two of them to meet after my father was back in my life, as permanent as a hum in the pipes. I had never actually imagined my life with either one of them, let alone both. What would they say to one another—both of these men with various claims to my past?

When Duncan left me, I didn’t really miss him. In fact, I had sort of enjoyed the idea that he had earned my spite. That I had a free pass not to like him and could feel completely guiltless about it. My friends sympathized with me. They banded against him.

But there is something about seeing a lover after a long time without. The sharpness of the thing that came between us was difficult to recall. He had betrayed me. But then, hadn’t I also betrayed him? There is betrayal, after all, in not relating to the person who has become a part of you. In setting yourself apart from the pain of your lover.

The house was empty when I returned. I had deadlines looming, but couldn’t settle down to work. I turned the television on in the living room. I turned the radio on in the kitchen. I turned all the lights on. I started the dishwasher. I cleaned out the fridge.

I was repotting every plant in the house when my father walked in. He was still sore at me for banning his parties.

A strange thing happened then. I looked at his face, really looked at it. His skin was a little puffy around his eyes, his stubble dark and thick. Lines had deepened further into his brow. Touchable, traceable lines that grew shallow and almost imperceptible before his receding hairline began. His eyes were a brilliant, pale blue, too shocking for his plain face. And his lips—his lips were so pink. It hurt my heart to look at them.

My father, I thought, incredulously. My father.

I stood up from where I was crouched over my African violet, soil wedged beneath my fingernails. There was suddenly so much I wanted to say to him. About living without him all of my life, about finding him, about the obvious stress this put on our relationship, about his life before me, about my life before him—

Words raced around my stomach, tried to arrange themselves into sentences.

My father went to the fridge and took out a beer. He unscrewed the cap, set it on top of the fridge, tipped his head back and took a long, deep swig. Slowly, looking straight into my eyes, he swallowed and let out a rolling burp. Without saying anything, he kicked off his oily shoes and plodded into the living room to watch television.
The feeling of tenderness vanished.

I squeezed my hands into fists and then flattened them against my thighs.

I still felt jumpy and wanted to tell someone about finding Duncan. I could hear my filmmaker friend in New York. “You found Duncan at the pound?” she’d ask. “Maybe I should come back to Arizona and do a documentary about your crazy lost and found life.”

I walked into the living room and stood behind the chair where my father was sitting, his ankles crossed, watching baseball bloopers. He pretended not to hear me come in.

It was going to be tough to have Duncan meet my father if we couldn’t clear up this tension. Waves of nervousness started in my stomach and I went back into the kitchen to make some peppermint tea.

I looked around. Along the baseboard, smudges of dark oil residue screamed my father’s presence. The trashcan was perpetually full to bursting. The beer took up an entire shelf of the fridge, forcing the bread onto the counter, the bottles of juice out into the laundry room. I had taken to buying potato chips and mayonnaise, things I had ruled out as a matter of ethics long ago. I had set up a workstation beneath the kitchen window, since my father had taken over my office. So much had shifted in such a short time. I began to drum my fingers on the table. This helped me with my nerves. I was getting a real rhythm going when my father came in. He went to the fridge and began foraging for dinner food. Leftover Chinese food, cheese, apple sauce.

I didn’t know where to begin.

“Dad,” I imagined saying. But I hadn’t been calling him that. “Father,” I would say. “Father, I have this friend I would like you to meet.” How contrived. I couldn’t say that. We didn’t have that kind of thing going, my father and I. I would just have to bring Duncan over and hope for the best.

But I’d be paralyzed by the nervous larva wiggling in my stomach. I’d be sick with nerves.

My father was busy making some sort of Chinese food melt in the toaster oven. The smell reminded me of my missing dog.

“How was your day?” I asked. He turned his head in my direction.

“Who wants to know?” he asked.

“I do,” I said.

“Fine,” he said.

“Great,” I said.

“Gross, there’s rice in the silverware drawer,” he said. “Yuck.”

“I have an idea,” I began, sarcastically. “You could clean—” This was not going anywhere.

My father began to scratch his inner thigh. I began to drum my fingers again. This time, though, it didn’t help.

The phone rang. My father turned, his face lit up, and he trotted off to begin his night of talking to whomever it was he talked to.

There was no way in, I thought hopelessly. My father. How embarrassing. What would I tell Duncan? “I’m ashamed of him, Duncan,” I imagined saying. “All of your life, you’ve wanted a father and now I have mine and I don’t want anyone to see him.”

Suddenly, my father stalked back in to the kitchen.

“Phone’s for you.”

“Hello?” The receiver smelled faintly of beer breath.

“Was that him?” Duncan asked in a gossipy, conspiratorial tone.

“Um. Yeah,” I said.

“That’s amazing.”

I had nothing to say to that.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Since a few hours ago? It’s fine. Sorry to break the three-day etiquette thing, but I figured I knew you well enough to call when I wanted to.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure,” I said. “Sure, call anytime you want.” Who did Duncan think he was anyway? The larva in my stomach started up again.

“So, I was thinking about having breakfast at the little lunch counter near your house on Saturday—I guess that’s tomorrow, and I was thinking that would be a great time for us all to get together.”

I looked over at my father who was standing, hypnotized, in front of the television. He had turned off all the lights and was being bathed in different colors from the screen. It made him look a little spooky.
“Tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yeah, how does that sound?”

“Gosh, Duncan, I don’t know how to say this but—”

“What?” Duncan asked.

“Well. I guess—I mean—I think. Well. It’s just that things have been a little topsy-turvy and. It’s just—I’m not sure that. Well—”

“Don’t overthink it,” he said. “You guys just meet me at the counter at eleven. That’s not too late, right?”

“Eleven? I guess not, but—”

“See you then.”

He hung up.

Now I was in a bind. No matter what I did, it seemed I would be destined for embarrassment. I could show up alone and Duncan would think I had been lying; I could stand him up and it would seem like I had been lying (and I’d probably never see him again—I wasn’t quite ready for that); or I could bring my father and hope that he behaved, well, fatherly.

“Hey,” I said to my father. “We have breakfast plans.” He glanced over his shoulder at me.

“Says who?”

“Says my ex-boyfriend, Duncan.”

“You had a boyfriend?” my father sneered.

“We’re meeting at the lunch counter at eleven tomorrow. Okay?”

“Fine with me,” he said, cracking his knuckles.

I stood there, watching the lines of my father’s body. He was not a tall man, but he had a sort of presence. His arms were thick with ropes of muscle. His neck was wide and short. His build did not indicate the presence of a delicate spine—no gorgeously stacked vertebrae. Instead, he looked bolstered up by a large pole of metal.

I thought about the way that blood goes through the body. The liquid seems to know exactly which way to go, as if every cell in the body has a tiny, thoughtful brain. I thought of my father’s blood, my father’s bones, the ligaments that held him upright like that, his arms crossed, his legs apart.

How smart the body is, I thought. I closed my eyes and imagined my own blood racing through the tubes of my veins, making my hands and feet warm. I wished I could ask those tiny brains what to do.

My father’s Chinese food melt lay half eaten on a plate on the coffee table. Some noodles had fallen on the floor, glued there by orange cheese. He’d already gone through two beers, the bottles wedged haphazardly between the couch and the wall. His socks were off, as usual, and thrown out like bait into the center of the room.

In that moment, my impatience with him ebbed. I am not going to lie and say that I was filled with a strong, peaceful love or anything. I just felt resigned. And in a way, this felt like progress.

“So eleven, then,” I said. “I guess we’ll just walk over there a little before, okay?”

My father didn’t turn around. “Whatever you say. You’re the boss around here.”

The room flashed in reds and blues from the television. Strange shadows came and went.

“I guess I’m going to bed now,” I said. “Goodnight.”

“Mhmm,” went my father and then guffawed at the commercial.

I went into my bedroom with a strange, heavy emptiness and lay in bed for a long time without sleeping. I would get up in the morning, I reasoned, clean the house, get dressed, have coffee so I was alert before the lunch counter encounter, and then we’d head over there together.

Somewhere, in between thoughts, I fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke up exhausted, a feeling of failure in my bones—dream residue. I looked at the clock. Ten-thirty. “Shit,” I said, throwing myself out of bed. “Fuck fuck fuck.” I threw on a robe and dashed into the bathroom. I began to strip off my pajamas when I realized that the bathroom was spotless. The sink wiped clean, the toilet seat down. The razor and shaving cream that usually crowded my toothbrush jar off the shelf above the sink were gone. I put my robe back on and went out into the house to find my father.

Each room was completely clean.

The door to my father’s bedroom was shut. I knocked.

"Father?" I called. And then, "Dad?"

I cracked open the door. The room was spotless. My father’s tupperware storage containers of clothes and shoes were gone. The notebooks of his phone messages, also gone. The only thing that remained was the futon, sheetless, and the empty bookshelf.

I went back into the living room and sat on the couch. At that moment, all I could think about was Duncan, waiting expectantly for me at the lunch counter and me, sitting there, with no father to prove myself by. I imagined Duncan’s face—all sympathy at first, hardening into distrust.

“He’s gone,” I’d say. “I woke up this morning and he was gone as suddenly as he came, like a dream father—” Duncan would tilt his head back knowingly, his eyes looking down his long, perfect nose. “But,” I’d say, “it wasn’t a dream.”

The stillness of the house clung to my skin, sticky and disconcerting. The feeling in my stomach was dark and heavy, a slick precipice of granite rising. One last larva wriggled and grew still.

I would surely blow it with Duncan now—there was no doubt about it. He’d excuse himself and tell all of his friends how I had lost it since the breakup.

I began to work myself into a panic about it, searching the house for details that would prove that I had had a father. He couldn’t just come into my life, turn my house on its head, and then vanish without a trace. I couldn’t accept it. There had to be a note, a photograph, something.

My head began to pound. I was frantically turning the sofa cushions over, looking for beer bottles and petrified cheese when I heard it—a soft whimpering coming from the side door. For a moment, I couldn’t move. And then, with unsteady legs, I walked over and placed my head against the cool whiteness of the door.

Robin Romm is an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University. Other stories of hers have appeared in the Nebraska Review and Fourteen Hills. She works at the University of California Press in Berkeley.


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