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Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Sometimes you go home just to be among the people who named you. Fights which had seemed manageable have become relentless. When you cry for the fifth time in as many conversations with your mother, she says, take a few days off, come on home.

Annie drives you to the airport and, part-way there, she says, you're lucky. Her voice is quiet and, beneath that, sad. She says you are lucky because you find solace at home. For her, going home is like being held underwater. You try to imagine this and what you remember is being ten and being picked up by your father and step-mother for a weekend visit. It's a late Friday night and you are sitting in the backseat of their Corolla and holding your breath in between stoplights. You keep your eyes closed so they will think you're asleep. You know that if they talk to you, you will begin to cry, because what you want to do is go home, back to your mother. You say this out loud and Annie shakes her head, angry because you've got it wrong.

It is Saturday and he hasn't answered the phone all day. First, I believe that he is in the bathroom. Then, asleep. Then, dead. Driving towards his house, I imagine how quiet it will be. I tell myself I will not disturb him. I will call the ambulance and then my mother. I wonder if his eyes will be opened or closed and then I stop because this feels perverse.

The sky is just getting dark and his porch light is burned out, the top of the bulb charred. The front door is unlocked and as I open it I take a deep breath. The front hall is dark and unopened mail is scattered on a small table near the door.

His voice is gruff as he calls to me from the bedroom. It sounds as if he has just woken up. I walk down the hall slowly and watch my feet sink into the plush, rose carpet.

He is propped up in his bed, a comforter pulled to his chin. A collapsible card table stands unsteadily on the carpet, an arm's length from the bed. It is covered with a pile of crumpled Kleenex and a large plastic pillbox, organized by the days like an advent calendar.

The phone has fallen and he cannot find it. He is angry that I didn't come earlier if I was worried. He begins this way:

"There are three things I need you to do. There's a box of photos to organize. Of your Grandma. I had the girl buy me a photo album the other day. OK? Now help me with the blankets. See how they're tangled?"

I walk around to the other side of the bed, where a heap of blankets has fallen onto the floor.

"The blue one first. Then the white one. Do you see it? Just hand me the corner."

The blue blanket is framed by a satin border. It is smooth and cool and I let my fingers linger on it as I pass it to him. He seems pleased as he pulls it over his feet.

"Now, sit down. How's your leg? Are you driving?" He nods towards the chair at the foot of the bed, indicating that I should pull it around and sit down.

"Since last week."

"What'd the doctor say?"

"Another month till I'm out of the brace."

He shakes his head and his eyes fill with tears. It happens so quickly now, even over small things like this.

"I'm like a baby." His mouth tucks into a sheepish grin and I smile at him and reach towards his hand.

"Look at all those pills they've got me on." He points towards the plastic pillbox. Half of its cubbies are open, the hinged lids raised like the hoods of cars. "The doctor at the hospital was a bastard. He barely knew English. Terrible." He closes his eyes and shakes his head, as if he has been betrayed and cannot stand to think of it any longer.

I nod, imagining him there. The doctor, I imagine as a small man, with fine hair and slender fingers.

The third thing is this:

He wants to get a driver's license. He does not have a car or much occasion to drive anywhere. But he is insistent and I need to get my license renewed when I'm home anyway. We set a time to go.

When Annie's father and I met three weeks ago, it was an accident. Annie and I have been fighting since then. We fight differently, and this is part of the problem.

Her father wants her to marry a rich, white man. Her mother counters that wealth is easier to obtain and lose than faith. For her, Catholic, white, and male are the essential qualities. Annie told me this one night as we were getting out of her car. Well, I said, I'm white. She heard the bitterness in my voice and I knew she wanted us to be able to laugh at this, to let it roll off. This was when I began to understand how deep it goes in him.

Last time she was home, he said that if he ever sees me, he'll shoot me. He paused, cocked an imaginary gun with his thumb. He aimed it towards their front door, conjuring up an image of me. He steadied his arm, transfixed whoever he imagined me to be. Bam. He laughed. Blew smoke off the end of his forefinger, and slipped the gun back into his holster.

Her mother has been losing weight. She's shrunk down three sizes. She falls asleep crying every night and has begun going to mass twice a day. Look what you're doing to your mother, he'll say over the phone. Then, after a pause, he'll mention his high blood pressure. Are you trying to kill us both? he'll ask. When he says this, she'll grow quiet and, before long, they'll hang up.

When we moved in together, she had a phone line put in just for them. They are the only ones with the number. We bought a cheap, red phone and we call it the umbilical cord. It's easier for her if I leave the room when it rings.

Annie and I can never talk about this for long. She says she runs out of words. Before I realize it, my voice is sharp with incomprehension. It's your life, I say. And she shakes her head, enraged by my willingness to see any part of this as simple. One night she tells me that she might leave at any time. It would be easy, she says, her voice as precise and measured as when she is describing a lab procedure. She is a scientist, equally at ease with logic and doubt. To me, all of this is crippling and painful and I feel sometimes as if parts of me are being buried.

Hate and fear are like those days which fall between seasons. They run together and it is no use trying to hold them still and separate. My mother tells me that I won't understand until I'm a parent. She says protection is the fiercest instinct -- sinewy, jagged, unpredictable. Nothing to mess with.


At the DMV, there is no line. Had there been a wait, we would have left. My grandfather would have grown impatient. As he thumbed through a pamphlet about organ donation, he would have slumped towards sleep in a plastic chair. I would have said, maybe we should come back. He would have nodded, frustrated and tired.

But there is no line and the woman, officer, or maybe sergeant -- I do not know how rank is determined at the DMV -- waves both of us in, past the "wait to be seated" sign. The woman, who introduces herself as Faye, directs me towards the testing area, a row of dark wooden school desks placed far enough apart to discourage cheating on the written exams.

My grandfather shuffles towards Faye's station, grunting as he settles himself into the chair opposite her. He rests his hands on his thighs and sighs loudly.

Her uniform is starched, coin gray and serious blue, and her hair is parted clean-line down the middle. Her tie, a clip-on, hangs to just above her belt, thick leather, and nearly polished.

"How's your New Year going?" My Grandfather settles his hands on the edge of her desk. Resting there, they do not tremble.

"No tragedies yet," she says. Across the room, a machine spits out a completed license. Faye's pants cling to her thighs as she stands up to retrieve it. She reaches down to loosen them and then reaches towards her ears, tucking a loose strand of hair behind each. She does this delicately, as if it is someone else's hair and it matters that her touch is gentle

"When did your tragedy happen?" She looks at me as she reaches down and retrieves the license, still warm, and smoothes its face between her thumb and forefinger.

I look at her blankly.

"Your tragedy." This time she points at my leg.

"Football injury." My grandfather laughs as he tells her. He is proud of me and will boast about it to anyone.

In preparation for her father's visit, Annie began to pack my things. They would be stored in our housemate's room for the weekend. I refused to help. It becomes hard to say if resistance like this is petty or self-preserving. It seems like a small thing, not meeting her father. But sometimes it is the quieter, more pedestrian forms of cruelty that cut the deepest.

Three hours before his flight arrived, she was on the other side of our room, packing a pile of my sweaters into a suitcase. She zipped the bag and carried it out into the hall. As she came back in the room, she reached towards the wall over the desk, where two photos of us were taped. She peeled the tape off carefully. These went in an envelope, and then in the bottom drawer of the desk.

I lay on the bed and closed my eyes and concentrated on my hands. It was dark behind my eyes and felt as if I could slip further and further down into my body. I heard her voice, but her words sounded slurred, as if I was listening to her across a growing distance. I did not want to concentrate enough to decipher their meaning.

The room looked stripped down and I began moving around it tentatively, careful with everything. When I spoke, my voice was quiet and hoarse, as if that could disappear too. The rage under all this seeped out slowly, like blood spreading beyond the edge of a bandage, thin and tentative, easy enough to wipe away.

My Grandfather jokes with Faye as she tallies the score on his written exam. She laughs, high pitched and appreciatively. He will take the driving test on my mother's car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass, ten years old and ill-suited to her personality. It's too big and assuming for her.

"Why don't you bring the car around, Mr. Calloway? I'll meet you out front."

As he walks to the door, he reaches towards the wall and uses it to steady himself. We both watch him push open the glass door, shouldering his weight into it. Faye turns towards me.

"We'll see how far we get. It's the driving that gets them. Men over seventy usually fail by the time they're out of the parking lot. But you don't want to insult them. We have a different route for them. Low-risk, nice scenery."

He pulls the car around front and, through the driver's window and the DMV glass wall, he waves at us. As she gets up from her desk, Faye nods towards the officer at the desk next to hers.

"Carl'll help you out with your renewal when he gets off the phone."

On the wall behind her desk, there's a framed photo of Faye and the Lieutenant Governor on a stage. In it, he's handing her a plaque, his other hand cupping her shoulder. I try to imagine what kind of awards are issued to DMV officers.

Officer Carl laughs loudly and then whispers into the receiver. He glances at his watch.

You've got me for ten more minutes, baby.

I begin reading the graffiti which has been scrawled on the desktop and then I close my eyes and run my fingers over the indentations in the wood. Officer Carl laughs again.

Imagine a crash. As sudden and jolting as nearby thunder.

Jump in your seat. Your neck snaps towards the noise and your hands shoot up to cover your head. Glass sprays towards you like mist from a waterfall. You watch it fall in a shimmering arc and then feel it hitting your skin, a light pelting. You see Faye emerge from the car, positioning herself in a half-crouch and pivoting towards the shattered window. She is ready, you realize. Maybe this is what the plaque was for. The "wait to be seated" sign topples to the floor and bounces before settling on the linoleum.

An alarm goes off, bleating like an animal in distress. Carl hangs up the phone and picks it up again, muttering "Code Orange." His voice is sleepy and soothing as he talks to the 911 dispatcher, as if he watches this happen every afternoon about this time.

It is illegal to crash into the DMV.

He has slammed the rear half of my mother's car through the glass wall like an angry, cocked fist. Smoke is filling the office. The trunk of the car has popped open. It is gaping, granting a full view of its contents: a cheap vinyl overnight bag, too full to be zipped; a month's worth of newspapers, some still in their plastic bags; a mini-fridge, turned on its side, its almond paint chipped at the corners; eleven pairs of shoes; a Yamaha keyboard that I know hasn't worked in seven years; two pairs of jumper cables. My mother views car trunks as satellite closets.

I go towards them as Faye is walking around the front of the car. She peers through the window at my Grandfather. His hands are still on the wheel and he is staring straight ahead. She opens the driver side door. I reach in to touch his shoulder and let my fingers rest on his back. His whole body is trembling.

"Damn automatic cars." His voice is gruff. "Get me out of here."

"Let's just wait a few minutes. Just let the paramedics check you out."

"I'm fine. Get me out of here." His voice is sharp.

I look over my shoulder and see the extent of the damage. The whole window is shattered.

"Grandpa, just stay still a few minutes."

"Get me the hell out of here."

There, there's the edge. This is what you avoid, do any dance you can think of. Soothe your own voice. Compromise. Distraction.

"Mr. Calloway, it's a matter of protocol."

Faye glances at me and raises her eyebrows. Maybe this is what she got the plaque for.

"I said get me out of here."

Hear that in his voice? This is him swinging. Boom. Making his own private storm. Choosing how furious to get. When he screams, his voice is like a blade. He takes it from its sheath and runs his own thumb down it like he's smoothing a crease. His cut-work is hideous and artful. Efficient. He could take my Grandmother down with two words. Listen, bitch. Jerking his hand up from the table cloth. Angling it at her from the head of the table.

"Don't, Grandpa. Just a few minutes."

My voice sounds distant and precise. I feel a slow heat covering my back as I realize that none of this is private.

Faye stands up straight and rests her forearm on the hood of the car. An ambulance and police car are pulling into the entrance of the shopping plaza, sirens blasting.

"Do you mind?" She looks pointedly at a woman who's car is idling a few feet from us. The woman shrugs and slowly pulls away.

"The ambulance is here, Mr. Calloway. Just let them give you a quick once over."

His cheeks are flushed and he is still gripping the wheel tightly.

Years ago, I began to make him into two men. I wanted to know him as kind. Splitting him like this took practice. Stare only at a man's hands and know him that way. Hold your blink, until your mind is clear. Now, look at his eyes. Let him become a different man.

Back at his house, I sit three feet from him, my hand resting on the edge of his bed. He is still shaking and he will not talk about what happened with the car. His voice creaks as he asks when I can organize the photos. It becomes nearly impossible to imagine him as the man he was fifteen, twenty years ago.

A wine bottle hurled across the dining room, breaking when it hits the fireplace. The glass sprays, beautiful and green, and I imagine this is what a star looks like when it explodes. Red wine puddles on the cool slate in front of the fireplace. My grandmother says his name sharply. He reaches for his plate, which she has piled high with food and placed in front of him. He lifts the plate up and stares at it.

Turkey's dry, isn't it?

Don't. This is my uncle, his voice low, measured.

The plate hits the hardwood floor and wobbles, turkey, stuffing and potatoes slipping from it.

Don't serve me shit like that.

My uncle's dog comes running from the living room, burrowing his nose in the steaming food, licking greedily.

My grandmother is clenching her jaw. My mother looking down, her eyes retreating. My uncle cursing under his breath. My cousin, still an infant, is on her father's lap. She begins to cry. I cannot see myself. I know I was seven. From pictures, I know what I looked like. Freckles, always in cowboy boots or sneakers, missing a front tooth. I would have been sitting between my mother and grandmother.

This is where you learn what to do when people yell. My cousin crying louder, my grandfather glaring at her. Just a year, her hair hasn't yet been cut. My uncle's hand stroking her back, trying to soothe her. Her cheeks are full, her eyes jacked wide when she cries like this.

Get her out of here. He lowers his eyes towards my cousin.

I had set the table, been allowed, for the first time, to light the candles. Brand new ones, cornflower blue, perfectly smooth and tapered. Probably, that is what I did, watched the candles, their flames tentative, bending as sharp, pained inhalations and steely, branding words moved across the table like air currents.

She is crying louder now and he says it again. Get her out of here. But her father is anchored in his seat. No one moves. His arm swings, open palm, his fingers close to the flame. He comes close to the baby's head, too close to be safe or accidental. She screams louder.

During dinner, my mother and I watch the local news and, after the weather, there is a story about the day's events at the DMV. We laugh hard, uncontrollably and defiantly. Stop, one of us will say, gasping for breath. But we can't. The story makes the front page of the local paper the next morning. There is a large color photo of the front of the car sticking out of the building, like a strange, obtrusive growth.

In the afternoon, I go to the Hillsborough office to get my license renewed. The officer recognizes my last name, the same as my grandpa's. He looks at me curiously and I nod.

"You were there, huh?"


"Quite a scene."

I grin and from behind the camera, I hear him laughing.

Annie's father arrived on Friday night. On her way to the airport, Annie dropped me off at a friend's apartment, where I'd be staying for the weekend. I spent Saturday practicing being alone. Wrote letters, read a book, watched a movie, went out to a club with my friend.

Sunday morning, it poured. The line at the coffee shop I always went to stretched from the counter to the door. I'd brought the paper with me, still in a plastic bag and tucked under my arm. I stared out the glass window, streaked with rain and starting to fog up.

I watched a man walk towards the door and as he opened it and scanned the room, I recognized him. So like the pictures, and so much like her. When you first begin to sense that things are unraveling, reflexes kick in and then a type of paralysis does. I knew that she would come in soon and that if I left right then, all of this could be avoided. But I could not move quickly on crutches and it was still raining and my leg was throbbing and all I wanted to do was read the paper over a cup of coffee. There was something about his proximity that was tantalizing, a sense of being close to danger and, also, close enough to prove him wrong. There was a part of me that wanted to know what all of us would do. Another part that knew exactly what she would do and wanted to watch her do it. But these feelings came as flashes, too quick and slippery to hold onto or act on.

He stood behind me in line, slipping out of his trench coat, running his hand through his thick, silver hair. He took off his glasses and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe them off. I turned towards the counter and slipped the paper out of its plastic bag. I unfolded the front page, putting the rest of it on the counter next to me.

She was the next one through the door. I heard her inhale sharply. Moments like this, you must make yourself go somewhere else because this is the only thing that will allow you to come back later on. Otherwise, you will just slowly disappear. This is what you do when people you love act strangely or cruelly, when they swing recklessly with their hooves and nails and when they say stare coolly and choose to say nothing.

Dad, let's go somewhere else. The line's too long.

It won't be shorter anywhere else.

The nasal Midwestern flatness that surfaces only occasionally in her voice is pronounced in his.

Let's try the place down the street.

It's raining.

It was clear by his tone that they would stay. I imagined that this is how he sounds in board meetings, announcing unilateral decisions.

I knew that if I left, he would never know. But we already did and it was as if we'd finally arrived at a moment we'd been moving towards for years. My mind felt blind and hot. A blush began flowing through my body, furious and drenching as a sweat. It's so rare to feel only one thing and rare for all these things to stay untangled. But, as I stood there, the emotions aligned themselves as if in strata. Somewhere in there was the pleasure of seeing father and child together, the call and response of their features and mannerisms. Next to that, the shame that twists around your spine like a wild vine, shadowing and haunting every move you make. Below that, the relief of finally knowing that she was capable of this. Way deep, a molten, righteous fury.

At first, I didn't realize that he was talking to me. I heard the noise and inflection -- a question -- but I did not recognize the words. But his voice was so close and he spoke again.

Excuse me. Do you mind if I check the scores?

I turned towards him slowly.

The sports page -- do you mind if I look? He nodded towards the paper on the counter.

I shook my head no and reached for the paper. Everything moved slowly. Her eyes went from me to the paper and back again.

As I handed it to him, I stared at his hand, the skin a little dry, his nails cut evenly and the sleeve of his maroon sweater just covering the gold band of his Rolex.

I could feel how close Annie was standing, but I could not look at her. I turned towards the counter and felt the burn moving back down through me. I heard only simple words in my head. I imagined woods and the sound of water rushing through them. When damage is happening, sometimes it is best to hold your breath and think of other things and just know, deeper down, in a place that only you go to, that later recovery will also happen.

Shit. Look at that. The Pacers lost again.

He flicked the paper with his finger.

They don't have a chance this year, Dad. Her voice bantering, teasing him.

Send you East and you turn traitor on the home team, huh?

I'm just looking at the numbers and the numbers aren't good. Her voice was playful and, for a moment, I was furious with her for feeling anything but remorse.

Always the scientist, aren't you, Annie?


He laughed and the sound was rich and easy and I could almost hear it moving through his body, trickling down his throat, gathering momentum as it reached his chest. I imagined the quiet smile on her lips, the relief of having made him laugh.

Thanks. He extended the paper towards me and it brushed my arm. I turned around slightly and nodded, reaching towards it.

What happened? He nodded towards my leg.

I heard myself answer. ACL.

He winced. Annie did that in high school, playing soccer. He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her slightly towards me as if to include her in the conversation. Her face looked contorted with effort and restraint. I could hear her willing me to get through this.

She still got recruited though. There is pride in his voice.

I look directly at her.

Do you still play? I want to know if she'll answer.

Yes. Her voice sounded as if it was being torn. Her father looked at her strangely.

When you'd do it? He looked directly at me as he asked and I saw that his eyes were the same sterling blue as hers.

In October. I looked at Annie out of the corner of my eye. She had pivoted slightly, her shoulders angled away from me. She was staring at the chalkboard menu over the counter.

I had the surgery last month. I was shocked to hear myself volunteering any information.

He shook his head. It's a test of patience, isn't it?

I looked down at the paper in my hand.

Take it easy then. His voice was light and he nodded gently before turning his attention to the menu.

I turned away from them and when I got my coffee, I left.

What I hear, over and over, is her not saying my name. Moments like this move slowly, as if they are meticulously encoding themselves in the part of your memory where you keep the purest forms of pain hidden. These are moments which strip you down and I feel lucky that I haven't known many. The Saturday dinner that my parents announced they were getting divorced. The Tuesday afternoon that my grandmother died. That Sunday morning has become another.

That night, we sat in her car and I began to cry until the sounds I was making seemed to be hollowing my chest out. Sorry, she said over and over and then she grew quiet and stared out the driver side window.

I did not mean to start banging on the window, but once I did, I could not stop. The thudding felt stronger than my heart. This was the car he'd bought her for graduation, which he was always asking about, checking on. I wanted to break the glass and I wanted to break through my skin. I wanted to show her that I was alive and human and not to be overlooked and that I could hurt enough to bleed and that this is the feeling on the other side of hate. Pounding until I didn't feel the impact of my hand against the glass and didn't feel her pulling my arm, or pinning it to my body.

Thirty years ago, in 1967, my Grandfather was almost elected mayor of a small town outside of Baltimore. Until the day before the election, polls had him just a point or two behind the incumbent, a breezy, confident man who, years later, would be forced to drop out of a state senate race when charges of racketeering and infidelity surfaced. But that fall, the year my mother was sixteen, this man seemed to have a golden touch. He beat my grandfather handily, his wife gave birth to twins, and, although it never aired, he was interviewed by Walter Cronkite about the closing of a GM plant outside of town.

My mother says that year was a turning point for all of them. She stole the family car, its bumper still emblazoned with stickers from the campaign, and ran away to San Francisco for three months. She called her parents only once that winter, from a rest stop in Nevada. When she finally came home, it was because she missed her baby brother, just six at the time. All that meant she failed her junior year of high school, which meant she went to college one year later than she would have, which meant she took freshman composition from my father instead of the man he replaced. Had their marriage been successful, it would be tempting to read this as Fated.

I do not mind having been an accident, the byproduct of a mutual seduction that began in my mother's attempt to raise a borderline "D" to an "C" and my father's shy curiosity about exactly what a young, bookish professor could get away with. Anything could be described this way. If one or two things had gone differently, even by degrees, well . . . what then?

My grandfather's stories are full of things which almost happened. The screenplay he wrote which was almost picked up by a major studio. The nine months he spent with McGovern on the campaign trail in '72. How, at eighteen, he met a Yale trustee on a train, how they talked, straight through, from Chicago to Denver. How the man all but promised him a full ride in New Haven. But then the war started, and as he gets to this part of the story, he will shrug and trail off.

He is not a modest man, but he has always managed to be gracious in defeat. When my grandmother died, he left Maryland quietly and moved to Chapel Hill to be near my mother. The house he lives in now, solid and symmetrical, feels hollow compared to the sprawling Victorian he emptied out. There's a sticker -- Calloway for Mayor -- at eye level on the side of a tall bookcase in his living room. The white letters in Calloway have yellowed and the edges of the sticker are peeling back, their adhesive dried up.

He has been in the hospital four times since August. The list of conditions he can claim has grown recently. Diabetes. COPD. Congestive Heart Failure. Glaucoma. He spends long parts of every day in bed. The aides who stay with him at night say he talks to my grandmother through the night. But then he'll declare his staying power by doing something like calling up a local talk radio show and getting in a fight with the host, or flirting racily with another regular on the senior van which takes him to and from doctor's appointments. As if to say, here, here is my heart, thumping away.

The box of photos he's been talking about is in the bottom drawer of his desk. It's a narrow shoebox with the logo of an Italian brand scrawled in gold across the black cardboard. It is filled with loose pictures of her.

He wants me to lie them out on the bed next to him so we can put them in chronological order in the album. He picks up a photo of her playing tennis at age twenty. She is mid-swing, up on her toes, her calf muscles flexed.

"The Hospice doctors killed her."


"They gave her an overdose of morphine."

"Grandpa, she wasn't going to get better."

"I saw them do it. They upped her dose and, two hours later, she died. I was there."

"I was there too."

"Not like I was, PJ. They killed her."

He picks up another photo and holds it close to his face.

"Look at her eyes. Beautiful. That's what I always called her. Remember? Beautiful."

I start to peel back a page of the album. The plastic cracks and sticks to the adhesive page. He wants me to make captions to go alongside each picture.

"Look at this one." He hands it to me.

She is swimming in a lake. The water is dark and only her head and the curves of her shoulders are exposed. I can tell that she's naked. The lake is circled by thick pines and sunlight shatters along the surface of the water. Her smile is easy and electric. It's how she drew people in all along.

He takes the picture from me and his hand is shaking. "Joy. That's what I see. Pure joy."

I put it on a page of the album and then peel it back up because it's crooked.

"The kids never thought I'd be the one left. They all wanted that time with her. But, what the hell. I pulled through. Surprise." He laughs and his voice cracks.

Inside, I ache when he says things like this.

"I still talk to her though. She laughs. She says, get on up here, Fatso. She tells me she bribed St. Peter to let me in."

I realize that I believe him and that we are laughing together.

The two simple things to say are that he is a bastard, a cruel, violent man or he is a human, he deserves love, he is capable of kindness. On paper, I can make a compelling case for either assertion. But what of the daily choices we make in our lives, the decision -- concrete, real, inescapable -- to speak to him or not, to visit him or not, to care for him or not. In real life, I can never do it. He's never not human to me.

Suppose a woman you work with volunteers at a women's shelter. When you eat lunch together, she goes on and on about the men she hears about. They've done such terrible things and she swears that if she ever meets one of them she doesn't know what she'll do. She says she's sick of men, tells me she wishes she was a lesbian, that it would make her life easier. You look at her strangely, but she doesn't notice.

Suppose that when you talk, he reaches out to hold your hand. The muscles in his hand are sunken and his grip is loose, so that it seems as if he is shy. His nails are coated with clear polish, to keep them from splitting. He reminds you, often, that it's dangerous with his nails, because of the diabetes. Suppose that when he tells certain stories his voice is so gentle that it cracks and you realize that he is trying to tell you about something which was beautiful.

Suppose he asks questions about the things you love. And suppose you do the things he did as a young man. Write. Run. Play football. Work in politics. You have a temper which scares you and which no one believes exists because, usually, you are so mild and quiet. But, in your mind, you keep a list of the things which you have broken. A cupboard door. Two phones. A plate. The bathroom mirror in your old apartment.

When you leave, it will be easier not to think of him. An old man lying alone in bed is not easy to think about. Old bodies are not easy to think about. You will call, every other week or so, and the conversations will be short because he is so tired. But mostly, because you will not want to feel any more pain, you will gladly fall into the cadence of your life.

Annie meets me at the airport. It is past midnight as we drive towards our apartment. The streets are quiet and the snow has melted, except for a few patches along the curb. She smiles as I complain about the wind and compare it to North Carolina's mild nights.

When we are falling asleep, she begins to talk about her father. I try to clear my mind. I want to hear her voice uninterrupted by my own. The sheet covering us has just been washed and smells fresh. My forehead rests on her shoulder, where the curve of her bone is pronounced and her skin is smooth and cool.

She wants me to understand him because she says she is like him, too like him. She tells me that when she was young, maybe eight or nine, he used to leave work in the middle of the afternoon to pick her up and take her to soccer practice. He would have a baggie of cut oranges and a Gatorade for her. During practice, he would stand on the side of the field and watch. He never said anything or yelled or talked to the coach or the other parents. When practice ended, he would drive her home and go back to work.

I put my hand on her stomach and I try to imagine her young like that, the way you do when you are in love with someone and you feel a longing because you did not know them as a child.

Annie and I will not last and we both know it. The list of things we never meant to do to one another is growing. But the leaving is hard and when you are young, like we are, the four years you have spent together seem like a very long time. You have learned certain things together. That pain is part of love. That cruelty matters more when it happens to someone else. That, once forged, bonds and promises are best not broken. They are like bones, fragile and capable of outlasting generations.

You lay there, thinking these things, knowing that when you stop being careful with yourself, as you will in the next few weeks, your body will find ways of tending to itself. Like a child who learns to fall asleep to screaming each night, finding solace in the curve of her slim thumb gripped in her mouth, in the sudden, hidden pleasure of a finger slipped between her legs. Unless you are too far gone, you will keep measuring the dimensions of what is not there, so that you can build or find something to fill it.

When he falls next, it will be early spring. It will be warm out and he will decide to go outside to sit on the porch. He will slip as he goes out the kitchen door. Hours later, a neighbor will hear him calling for help. The hospital will call my mother who will call me who will call him. The food is lousy. The intern is lousy, even worse than the last one. His voice is harsh. This time he is unforgiving. But then he gets distracted and wants to tell me a joke, and then another. Each one is about heaven. Again and again he asks, don't you think it's funny?

I cry quietly on the other end of the phone and hope he hangs up soon. My leg is better now and I go running to clear my mind. I cross a busy street at the wrong time and a car swerves to miss me. Brakes whine and a horn blasts three times. My stomach jumps and I run faster. I'm living by myself now, in a new neighborhood. I don't know my way around it yet and I get lost on most runs. When I reach my apartment, I am bent double, trying to pull more air in.

I begin to pay close attention whenever advice is dispensed. Try to apply it to this situation even when there's no fit.

Few things are as simple as they want to be. Bastards, infants, love them indiscriminately. Forgive those men who intend to be kind. Joy is as temporary as a secret. Fear is to love like boiling is to water. You lean over the steam because it is warm and the radiator in the kitchen does not work. You breathe the steam in deeply. In a few minutes, when you spill this water, it will be the heat that scalds you. The water only carries the heat.

Weeks pass and, one morning, my mother tells me I should come home. It's time, she says. She got a call from his doctor. She has been visiting him. He sleeps most of the time. Her voice is subdued. No one else will be coming until the funeral.

I call Annie, to tell her, and her voice is distant. Even when she tries to make it soothing, it cannot bend that way. It feels like I am slipping deeper and deeper away from her.

I leave that night and, in Southern Virginia, three hours from home, I get pulled over for speeding. The officer looks at my license and lets me off with a warning. In the picture, I am laughing. My eyes are shut and my mouth is open. He follows me for five miles and my body is tense from being watched. I keep the speedometer at exactly 55 and watch him in my rearview mirror. When he turns off, I wait five minutes and then begin to push it up, slowly. 70. 75. 80. I keep it there for a minute. No one else is on the road. 90. 95. I roll my window down and the wind on my face is strong and warm. It is three in the morning. Both sides of the road are lined by thick trees and the exits come infrequently. I will be at the hospital soon and by then, I think he will have broken, like a fever or a drought. All that precious, wrecked venom, lifted finally from a body which had been guarding it closely as marrow all along. All that precious, wrecked kindness.

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