FEAR OF WATER
MELISSA, MY DAUGHTER, just turned twelve.
She loves to hear stories about her mother.
“Tell me again about how she was scared of your drawings.”
I can draw people that have never existed, from my imagination, and draw them well. The skill developed out of boredom in high school, from doodles. I would draw people, standing around, or talking, or holding hands; just normal things, and my girlfriend, who would become my wife, would say, “That’s creepy. That creeps me out when you make up those people, they look so real.”
I’m teaching Melissa how to fight, how to argue. This is an essential skill, and I teach her to be detached, to not let herself get emotionally involved. We practice on the old arguments my wife and I had.
“But mom was a writer.” she says.
“A story writer.”
“So she was making people up all of the time.”
“I mentioned that to her.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said, ‘That’s different.’”
“That’s different? Do you think so?”
“I don’t know, all that matters is that it was different to her.”
“I guess it’s because her writing made the money.” Melissa says.
“What?” I have never considered this.
“Yeah, mom was making money with the words, and your pictures were just for fun.”
Her mother hated to write, but it was the only thing she knew how to do, and the only thing she did well. Her stories still pay the bills, all of her words lying on the page, simple and inert, are more capable than I am, with my hands and feet and heart and blood.
“Like the careless gods of the Egyptians.” Melissa says.
“Your pictures. You make up those people, and then move on, to new people, and forget about the old ones, and make more fake people and then more. Maybe that’s what was creepy.”
“Where do you get this stuff?”
“From Sunday school, I guess.”
“When do you go to Sunday school?”
“When I stay over at Robin’s.”
Robin is Melissa’s best friend, and Melissa spends Saturday nights with her. My wife and I used that night to relax together, and I have let the tradition continue, though now on Saturday nights I fall asleep alone in front of the television, the room bathed in watery, flickering light. I didn’t know that Robin’s family went to church, or that the girls attended Sunday school.
I have taken it as a given that I am going to lose touch with my daughter, to misplace her as she turns into an adult, into her own person, but still.
“Maybe you should start spending Saturday nights with me, at home.”
She looks at me, her eyes wide and unblinking, and then she reaches out and takes my hand, and says, “Okay.”
“DID YOU SEE the way they had the fruits and vegetables?” Melissa says.
We are on our way home from a barbecue fund-raiser for the cheerleading squad of her junior high school. Next year she is going to be a cheerleader. That is her plan, and Melissa’s plans work out. This year, instead of trying for the squad, she watched how the process works. Who you need to talk to. Who you need to have as your friend. She learned every tiny part of what it means to be a cheerleader, and next year she will make it happen.
“I mean, they were mixing the little slices of cucumber with the chunks of cantaloupes and watermelon. And they had grapes and carrots on the same plate.”
Melissa’s mother had countless obsessions and fears, and this is one the two shared. Fruits and vegetables should never mix, under any circumstances, in any fashion. When I asked them about it, when I could still ask them both, whether it was the taste or the mixing of colors or what, they looked at me as if I were the dumbest man on earth.
“I think that Samantha Burbank is the worst in the squad,” Melissa says, winding her hair around a finger. “It’s her hair. Most girls’ hair seems to keep time with their body, you know what I mean? But Samantha’s hair is always too slow when she spins, like it’s from a different time zone or something. And then it keeps moving after she’s stopped. She’s like Medusa.”
“Medusa had snakes for hair.” I say.
“So I don’t think the snakes ever stopped moving, whether she was spinning or not.”
“And Medusa wouldn’t have made a very good cheerleader anyway.”
“Anyone who looked at her got turned into a statue.”
“Boys and girls?”
Melissa looks out the window, nodding. I imagine she sees Medusa on the field, spinning and twirling, and in the stands, all the people turned to rock, their arms up in the air, screaming forever as the Badgers score a touchdown.
“Gorgons,” she says, “I remember now, from Miss Lezinski’s mythology class. Medusa was a Gorgon. From here on out, Samantha Burbank becomes Samantha G. The Gorgon of Woodville Junior High.” She waves her hands in front of her, completing Samantha’s transformation.
MY WIFE TOLD me that she was going to leave, to disappear.
“Oh yeah?” I said, “When?”
“I’m serious, “she said.
“Oh.” I said, “So, when again?”
She smiled at me, not as if she had been joking, but as if it were all going to be okay, that it would all work out.
“Now what fun would it be if I told you when?” She had folded her book on her knee, and she opened her arms to me.
What do you do when someone tells you the end is near?
I hugged her.
I kissed her.
Now her daughter turns her classmates into gorgons. There’s something I should say in this situation.
“Just make sure not to look her in the eye,” I say.
“To stone.” She says.
I nod, “To stone.”
WHEN MELISSA GOES down at night, she has always, since she was a baby, fallen straight to sleep. No tantrums. She can sleep through anything, and falls asleep whenever she is given the chance. In cars. At home, I find her curled up on the couch or on the carpet. Her favorite activity on Saturday is to follow the shafts of sunlight throughout the house, lying down wherever they fall.
“I like the way the sun shines on me when I nap, “ she tells me, “it’s like having ruby colored eyelids.”
Her mother couldn’t seem to sleep at all.
The first night she stayed with me, when we were still in high school, she lay awake beside me, and I asked her what was wrong.
“I don’t like the way my eyes adjust.”
“Your eyes adjust?”
“You know, how when you first turn off the light, it’s pitch black, and then your eyes adjust.”
“Yeah. I get it.”
“No, listen to me. It really scares me. It’s like the room gets lighter because your head is filling up with darkness.”
“I think it’s got something to do with rods, or cones. One of the two. I think it’s rods.”
“There’s only so much darkness in the world, and it’s all waiting to get inside your head, if you let it.”
“How do you keep it out?” I said.
“I keep my eyes closed.”
“So why can’t you sleep?”
“I’m afraid that I’ll forget and open my eyes and all the darkness will rush in.”
That’s why her daughter can sleep in the sunlight. Her mother would lay Melissa in the crib, and then walk to the doorway, and stand there, her hand on the light switch, trying to will herself into turning out the light. But she could never do it, and would watch her baby sleeping instead, before leaving the light on and coming to bed with me. When I got up to piss, in the middle of the night, I turned off the baby’s light.
Things occur to me slowly. I forget to repeat my wife’s name, Claire, like she asked me to, before she left. But that is the way it’s always been. I’m dense. Isolated. Things happen around me. When I wake up in the morning, I’m surprised to find myself still breathing.
It was years before I thought to ask Claire why she didn’t sleep with the light on. She touched my face.
“I did, before I met you.”
Some days I try to list what I sacrificed for her, and I can never think of a single, solitary thing.
“AREN’T YOU EVER scared?” Claire asked me, once.
“Scared like you are?”
“Yeah.” She said.
“Not like what’s going to happen to Melissa when she goes to school, or how are we going to pay for the brakes on the car, or what if Russia drops a bomb on us.”
“No, not those things, but like me, aren’t you scared of anything the way I am?”
“I could lie to you, and say ‘no.’”
“Why would you lie to me?” She said.
“Well, we have the rest of our lives to learn each other, and I figure I have to hold some things back, to keep you interested.”
“We don’t have the rest of our lives.”
“You keep saying that.”
“Does that frighten you?” She said.
“No. Though I guess it should.”
“Do you believe me?”
“And you’re going to miss me when I leave?” She said.
“More than anything.”
“But it doesn’t scare you?”
“Of course it does, but you leaving is like Russia and the bomb. It’s that kind of fear, not the other.”
“Not like I’m scared of water because it’s clear.” She said.
“You’ve never mentioned the water thing before.”
“You’ve never told me you’re a calculating liar.”
I’VE READ THAT sleep comes in waves. Waves. The writers that used that image always seemed to think that it meant gentle, rolling.
Now, I snap awake, my heart racing. I’ve forgotten something. There’s something left undone. I have enough time to notice the thump of my heart, and then the next wave hits, and I’m back asleep.
When I was very little, my family took a trip to San Francisco, to the ocean, and I jumped right in thinking it would be warm. But it was so cold I couldn’t catch my breath. The beach sloped away beneath my feet, and I was up to my neck. The waves would recede, and I would stand, gasping, and then the next wave would cover me in darkness.
My mother pulled me out, blue and shivering.
That is how sleep has become.
And for the first time in my life, I have a recurring dream.
Claire and I sit at the kitchen table, and she says to me, “You don’t think I’m dead, do you?”
When I don’t answer, she says, “I have always hated that word, dead. It’s so flat and ugly. I’m not dead, don’t think of me that way.”
Then she lights a cigarette, a habit she had for a few weeks in junior high school, and then quit. I reach across the table, to touch her, and she gets up. I’m desperate to feel her. I know this is my only chance, that when I wake, she won’t be there. I follow her from room to room, never catching up, until I turn a corner and she’s gone. The house empty except for the smell of the cigarette. I wake up, aching for her skin, and then the next wave hits.
I SAVED MY fears for her, waiting for the right time. And there was never a right time.
I’m scared of the dark space under seats in crowded places, like restaurants, theaters, and airplanes. In airplanes I hate to place my bag under my seat, sure I’m never going to see it again. It will be stolen. There will be turbulence, the plane will dive, and my possessions will be lost under the feet of strangers. I’ll have to get up, while the stewardess says, “Please sir, the captain has turned on the seatbelt sign.” But I’ll have to fight her, and upend everyone, asking, “Have you seen my ticket? My anti-nausea medicine?”
In theaters the fear is worse, because of the darkness, and the floor is already tilted. Melissa sets her drink or purse down on the floor, and I say, “Don’t do that, you’ll never see it again.” She shrugs, which has replaced whatever. But I can’t stand it, and I end up cradling her bag in my lap, and passing her drink to her when she needs a sip.
Only once did she get a small glimmer of my phobia, when she had bought a box of Milk Duds and halfway through a movie, she went for one and dropped them. I was holding her left hand, and as I heard them scatter across the floor, I flinched and squeezed her fingers. She yelped and yanked her hand away, “Jesus, we can get some more.”
She wanted me to tell her. I know it doesn’t count, that it’s not the same thing, but now I want to say to her, “I’m too scared to share my fear.”
“Doesn’t share well with others?” She would’ve said.
“Give me the phone.”
“I have to call your college, and tell them to take back your diploma.”
“That’s pretty harsh.”
She would’ve laughed and said, “So? Your whole life has been a lie, and so that’s what you get.”
That’s what I get.
WE HAD OUR rituals. I imagine every marriage, every relationship that lasts for any amount of time, has them. I always sleep on my stomach, my right arm up above my head. Claire slept on the right side of the bed, next to the wall and window. In the mornings, I always woke up first and curled up behind her, my hand cupping her belly. If she wanted to make love, she would take my hand and move it to her hip or breast. So simple.
When she left the house she always said, “I’m leaving now,” and if I were in the same room, I would hug her and tell her to drive safely, and to hurry back and to not let the bed bugs bite. The last bit coming from how her car, when she first inherited it from her parents, was flea infested because her mom and dad had owned dogs. Lots of dogs. It took us a while to figure out where the explosion of fleas was coming from, and then weeks of bombing the car with bug spray before we were rid of them.
“I’m really going. Leaving. Now.” and I would say, “Okay,” and kiss her goodbye. Sometimes we stood in the doorway, with her saying, “Yup, right now, I’m leaving. Right this second.” I always just said okay, but the kisses would change. There was an order. First goodbye: lips. Second goodbye: ears. Third goodbye: nose. Fourth goodbye: neck and collarbone, leading to a long hug.
It was a good system.
And the same when she left for the last time. The door closed, I heard the lock catch, the sound of her heels clicking down the sidewalk, and then the car started and she drove away. She was going shopping for a pumpkin for Melissa.
It was to be Melissa’s first year to cut a pumpkin by herself.
She was eight.
Claire never came back. She vanished. Disappeared, as she would have said, as she had told me over and over she was going to one day. She had even told me there wasn’t going to be any warning. Sometimes she laughed when she said it. The words had become another one of the things I could depend on, that she would say that she was going to poof! be gone.
And then she was.
There were police. The car was found at the airport. Her parents were long dead and she had no brothers or sisters. Her friends, who were scattered around the country, all claimed to have never heard from her.
My wife left me.
But that doesn’t quite do the action justice. It’s another way that I’m dense. All of the times I’d heard that phrase, I’d assumed that the wife was still around, in the child’s life, sending Christmas cards, getting in the way. Starting arguments. Or, worst case, that she was dead.
But my wife left me. Vanishing as if she’d never existed.
At first, the nights were unendurable. I moved to the couch. I watched television. I wished that I were deaf or blind. Blind, I wouldn’t have to see the house, with all of the thousands of things that Claire had touched, picked out, painted, arranged. And if I were deaf, I wouldn’t have to hear Melissa’s voice, a younger version of her mother’s with the same inflections and rhythms.
“Do you ever think about being deaf?” I asked Melissa one night over a meal of noodles.
“Sure, “ she answered, with one piece of pasta dangling from her lower lip, “all the time. There’s this kid in my class, Bobby Westerfield, who’s deaf in one ear.”
“Maybe that would be nice. You know, quiet.”
With her fork and spoon Melissa corralled the noodles and said, “Nah, he says his ear rings all the time.” She sucked up her pasta then said, “I pressed my head up against his, but I couldn’t hear it.”
Dense. I had never thought that being deaf didn’t mean silence, or that being blind didn’t assure blackness. I watched Melissa suck up the noodles, and decided that we were going to move to a new house, a few blocks away.
WHILE CLAIRE WROTE her stories, I did most everything else. I cooked, washed the dishes, took out the garbage, cleaned the house. But when she was between books, we shared the household chores, except for the clocks. It was always my job to set the alarm on the bedside clock, or to reset the time when the power had gone out. I learned about Claire and clocks from her father, Owen, when I picked her up for our first date.
I went to her house, driving the car I had borrowed from my mom, and when I rang the doorbell, she answered the door wearing a t-shirt and cut-off shorts, her blond hair smushed against one side of her face.
“I’ve been asleep.” She said, “Talk to dad until I get ready. It’s all his fault anyway.” She bounded up the stairs to her room, and Owen yelled, “In here.” from their living room.
He was reading in front of the television, and he set his book down when I came in. He didn’t offer me a chair. The evening news muttered from the TV.
“The power went off today while I was at work, and I didn’t reset the clocks when I came home. That’s why she’s late, the clock in her room’s off.”
“She can’t reset it herself, doesn’t like to see the numbers speed by, thinks that time’s passing.”
I thought maybe he was joking, and waited for him to laugh, but he peered up at me through the bushiest eyebrows I’d ever seen.
“She’s been that way as long as I can remember, scared to death of clocks and carpets and chairs with thin legs and vegetables that have been cooked too long and goddamn fuckall else, but she’s my daughter, and I love her. Do we understand each other?”
He had enormous hands, roped with dark veins. His fingers, laced over his stomach, were thick, each topped with a blunt nail, stained from running the press at the paper.
“Yes, sir.” I said.
“Good. You can sit down now. You want a beer?”
“Uh, no, that’s okay.” I was sixteen years old.
“You don’t like beer?” He narrowed his eyes, “Not scared of it, are you?”
“No. No, sir.”
Claire saved me. She appeared in the doorway, in a pale blue dress, her hair gathered and pulled into a tight ponytail behind her head.
“Don’t let him worry you,” She said to me, then brushed past to bend down and peck her father on the cheek, “We’re gone.”
“Good. Now maybe I can read my book in peace.”
It was only when we were in the car that I realized I had forgotten to introduce myself.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Claire said, “I talk about you all the time.”
I nodded and pulled away from the curb. Clocks. Carpets. Chairs. Vegetables.
Photo by Laura Shill