My father stands roasting in his black neoprene wetsuit, a surfboard jammed under each arm so that he looks like he might just take off at any moment. In his face I find memories, sewn in amongst the creases and the tufts of gray, there to be dug up and revealed. He looks nothing like he did eight years before, when he left in the night, taking his truck and his clothes and nothing else. In the morning my brother and I jumped the four short flights down to the kitchen and breakfast, where we found our mother disheveled and unconscious, a bottle of sleeping pills emptied out across the floor, a note written hastily on the counter. Light streamed in through the windows. My brother cleaned up the mess before phoning the emergency room. It was strange to think, then, how our mother felt she could not live another day with our father gone, and the two of us, orphaned at 17 and 12, made breakfast and went about our normal routine. My brother made scrambled eggs as we waited for the police to arrive.
And later that day we surfed, like we always did, on waves ten feet high and a sun that bore into our blonde heads. My brother would burrow deep into the curl, whooping and hollering as he embarrassed men who had been in the pipeline for a dozen years, while I watched and laughed in the back of the line. We lived with our uncle, then, our mother’s brother, who didn’t get us and never really tried. He didn’t understand why we would head out a couple of hours before low tide, our bags spilling loose-leaf paper and pens across the sand as we ran down the beach. He said our antics were what killed our mother, not the pills and not even Dad. He looked at our hair bleached near white by the sun and our skin so dark it looked like we never spent a moment out of the sun, and called us ‘hoodlums’ and ‘bandits’ and ‘wasted minds.’ And we didn’t mind or care to challenge him. A bomb blast in Korea had taken his legs and he never struck fear into us, sitting there in his wheelchair, up at six every morning, even when the tides were in, reading the paper and cursing the heat.
We had driven all night to get to him. My brother and I sat in utter darkness, letting the air slosh around between us, and we clung to the feeble guide of the headlights, one of which was broken. The wind poured into our faces, just cold enough to keep us awake in this our fifth hour of driving. The highway was barren. Across all four lanes the shadows cast by the skinny lampposts were uninterrupted for miles in each direction. The concrete divide gleamed porcelain white to our left and my brother insisted on buzzing it as we rode in the speed lane, his side mirror almost grazing it as the car hummed along close to one hundred. He wanted us to die that night. That much was apparent, as he let the wheel go, untouched for dozens of consecutive seconds, his eyes straying from the road to my hands, which rested calmly on my lap.
Night had fallen in a heap, and with it came the rain—thick and lashing. The interstate glistened in its abandonment, and my brother pressed the gas firmly as we accelerated through a long strip devoid of light—headlights or otherwise. The car’s beams barely stretched ten feet ahead, casting a deathly yellow glow across the divide. In the ocean current, standing beside my father, I see the exchange again: my brother is terrified but he keeps the pedal pressed. “It’s black as pitch,” he says, and he pushes himself further up into the seat, and opens his eyes wide as the wipers move furiously across the windshield, squeaking at each turn and flinging drops up into the air to fall against the asphalt in our wake.
“How is she?’ He asks then, his voice tired and hopeless. His right arm is twisted behind the seat, drumming softly on his daughter’s knee. She doesn’t respond, save for a flicker in her blue-green eyes. Eyes like the ocean, my brother had told me over the phone when she was born. Eyes like home. I look her over. Her skin is white as the sink basin and blemish free, and her hair dangles auburn down her front. Her eyes are red from crying, and her neck is a shade of purple stolen from summer sunsets. A clap of thunder bellows behind us as the storm continues.
“What kind of woman did I marry, Goddamnit?” He asks desperately into a fogged up windshield. He removes his seat belt and furiously clears the glass with his shirtsleeve. “What a disgusting, vile woman. And I loved her. I fucking loved her. And she has hurt our child. My daughter, my only daughter.” He is delirious as he drives, drumming his daughter’s legs, trying to tickle her calves. She yields no response, just whimpers that are drowned out by the thunder and the car’s motor.
“We should take her to a hospital, Julian,” I say to him as he continues to shout, “There could be something we missed.” He stops drumming on his daughter’s legs and puts both hands on the wheel for the first time in an hour. He had called me over a little before then, his voice cracking as he rocked his child on his lap. His tears came vividly through the phone line. “She left, just like Dad,” he had said, “they finally did it, the two of them, they finally killed me.” It was hard then, as it is now, to equate our father whom we hadn’t seen in eight years with my brother’s wife of three. Neither one of them, of course, had tried to kill him, but they had both stolen something from him that he would never get back: a bit of love and trust that he could give without fear—the knowledge that people were generally good. He didn’t believe that anymore. As he screamed into the dark night, the windows rolled down and the rain coming in and pooling on his jeans, the frigid air encapsulating all of us in the car and keeping us from coming together, I watched in horror as he hurt himself for the first time. He slammed his head into the wheel, three times, each time crying, each time blaring the horn, each time sending his daughter into a dazed cry that sounded like she was deflating slowly. A cut opens just above his brow.
“Why does everyone leave me, Jonathan?” He asks now, as he bites his lip to fight back more tears. He pushes his seat back as the car jets forward so that he can hold his girl’s hand. He can just barely reach the pedals or see over the dashboard.
“They’ve left both of us,” I reply, looking out the window as streetlights reappear along the highway, “but I’m still here.” He doesn’t respond to this, a sign that he thinks it’s not enough.
“Where are we going, brother?” I ask, finally, feeling stupid that I’ve let him drive for so long. It’s been twenty minutes since I noticed an exit sign.
“The shore,” he says, quietly, and he turns to look at me, his emerald eyes stained around the edges with the blood from his forehead, “We never use that house.”
For a reason, I find myself thinking. We’re going home then, back to the beach where we grew up, my brother and I. But there’s only the two of us, now. My brother moves his seat up after he peeks back and sees his daughter’s asleep. The rain is letting up and he turns the wipers down a setting. His cut has stopped bleeding and the thunder has quelled.
He didn’t want him back, my father, not when he thought about who he was. His slicked back hair and his open collar and how he glided around a room like a parasite, feeding on things—on people, pets and room furnishings. One could always tell if my father was the last person to sit in a particular chair or use a room. His imprint left behind in the fabric was unmistakable, the cigarettes left smoking in an ashtray, mud tracked in from the yard. He didn’t want him because he made us feel like we weren’t his children but instead we were just objects, my brother and I, and he could use us as he used others. But he didn’t know where else to go. And he had written, diligently, for seventeen weeks, detailing us of his whereabouts, his new wife and home. Seeing him, though, was something neither of us was ready for. We had heard from some old friends that he was camping out at an old surfer’s beach, waiting for that day’s tides to go out. My brother and I sat side by side in the car, feeling the heat as the asphalt boiled beneath us. We could see our father’s truck across the lot. The air in the car was noxious, thick and unbearable. I rolled down a window.
“We can’t forgive him,” my brother says. His glare is hard and unwavering, fixed on the peeling red paint of the truck. A strong gust comes blowing through the near empty lot and wrenches some twine off the truck bed and into the air. We watch it go. My brother climbs into the back seat to check on his daughter. Her throat is still swollen and discolored, but she breathes easy and he lifts her into his arms. “There, there, darling,” he whispers softly onto her ear lobes. I think of how he has changed since those days when we would go out and surf with our father, hardly leaving the beach on weekends. His skin has lightened, a product of an East Coast college education and a job in an office, and his hair darkened. Indeed, neither of us looks much like the children we were when this beach was our playground. My brother tickles his daughter’s belly. She giggles a little, but it devolves into coughing.
“Shit,” he murmurs, and holds her close. I exit the car. Walking a straight line, it takes one hundred and thirty three paces to reach my father’s truck. I can hear my brother whisper sweet lies into his daughter’s ears, children’s stories and light little fables that will keep her from feeling the bruise on her throat. They will have a happy ending, I imagine. Why can’t I believe in them? I reach my father’s truck and take the thing in. The back right tire is a spare, a doughnut whose grooves are completely worn away. From the rearview mirror hangs an old, tattered air freshener, and on the dash is a girl in a hula skirt. And at the wheel, staring contentedly out into the sea and the horizon, is my father. He looks old, but not weak. His eyes are blue and cloudless, and his long, dexterous fingers wrap around the wheel and hold it loosely. I rap on the passenger window. My father jumps a bit, and his eyes flicker in bewilderment before settling on my face. A few moments of unrecognizing on his part pass like hours on mine. Our eyes, his the Carolina sky, and mine the blue-green sea, meet and wrestle one another, until both of us is forced to blink.
“Jonathan,” he murmurs. I open the door and slide in next to him.
His car smells like oatmeal. Indeed, there are several packets spilled out on the floor. In the cramped back seat are bottles of sunscreen, surfboard wax and sneakers. A couple of dirty towels are wrapped around a small cooler. The only noise is the sea breeze and my father’s raspy breathing.
“I can’t believe you’ve come to see me.”
“I can’t believe it, either.”
“Why did you come?”
“We need a place to stay for the weekend.”
He looks me over, then. Then he cranes his neck out the window and looks across the lot to my brother’s car. A smile comes across his wrinkled face, and it forces out a few tears from his strained eyes.
“Why did you leave?” I ask, simply. It has to be asked, of course. I cannot sit in my father’s truck and not ask, after all this time. He never cared to address it in his letters, or never could. He decides to tell me about the day he met his new wife. It was she, he said, who he was going after that morning. “Your mother was very sick, and I was very careless. My leaving that morning probably sent her over the edge.”
“Probably?” I am unbelieving. After eight years he cannot accept fault.
“I was in love, Jonathan.”
“Not with our mother.”
My father describes a day when the sky was washed out by sunlight, and everyone wandered the streets, dazzled by their own blurry vision. He says she stumbled into him, and that was the beginning of their love. We have stepped out of the truck and are walking towards my brother’s car. He approaches us, carrying his daughter in his arms. My father is stupefied as he takes in his oldest. The sand is whisked up our legs as we sit to listen to him, while he stretches out on his back to watch the sun go down. As the wind comes across the beach and over the dunes, it sears his scorched chest and makes him gasp for air. The sun is bellowing a golden tirade and we seek shelter in the trapezoidal shadow of the car parked in the near-empty lot.
And so, in the low light of the August sunset, he told us stories that we believed. In between the purple of the clouds, his face had nestled, like a sphere carved from a gnarled oak and suspended there to bob in the heavy air as bait on tepid water. His white teeth then sprinkled embellishments on us over the fire, as we burned the newspapers in the trunk so that we might stay warm. He only had a bit of wood still dry, and we huddled together, though still apart from him, so that we might be able to get a good look at his eyes as they darted across the campground and over the dunes.
Beyond us was the surf. It roared as it devoured the coastline and ground the rocks into dust. Waves six feet high reared up and crashed right on the shore. We listened to them, too, and the screech of the wind that came off of them and swept the sand up into our hair and faces. Later we laughed as our skipping stones were driven off course by the gusts—sent sideways as if having collided with something harder than them. Those stones were now devolving, as we were, to some essence that our exteriors had kept hidden for a thousand years.
And when the tides went out, our father was the first down the beach, all tan and sweating, his surf board held under his right arm like one half of a pair of massive wings. My brother and I watched him go, sitting on the shore by the burnt logs and ashes, he rocking his child and me taking it all in. My father rides a waist-high wave all the way in to shore, looking as graceful as I remember when he first took me out to learn. I recall how he and I sat in the living room, some old movie on that my mother was watching, as he and I practiced pop ups as Cary Grant seduced another woman. My father ends his ride with a perfect dive into the ocean. My brother whispers to his daughter, “isn’t grandpa good?” It’s all something like a dream.
I doze off. When I wake up, I see the familiar dunes and a sky spotted with clouds, the blue pervasive and suffocating. My brother’s daughter is still asleep, her hair in folds around her neck, covering her bruised throat. She looks clean and unharmed and peaceful.
“You have a perfect child,” my father says to him, “you are both perfect children. I’m sorry I left you.”
My brother starts to cry, and his child wipes the tears away with the flick of her index finger. He is bawling now, a twenty-five year old man cradling his baby, in the presence of his father and brother on the beach where he first learned to ride a wave. I rip off my shirt and take my father’s board from under his arm. The water is cold but revitalizing. Each dip of my hand into it sends a shock of life up and down my spine. I can feel my father’s eyes on my back, watching my feet and hands as I position myself for the next wave. It’s an hour past low tide, and nearly dark. We are back to living by the sea, again, not our wives or uncles or anyone else. I jump up and ride down the face. My father is standing at the shore, his gray hair blowing madly on the top of his head. I can’t see his eyes; they are totally sunken into his face, swallowed up by his bulging cheeks and crow’s feet. But his smile comes like a missile over the water. The ride ends. I dive into the ocean and feel the water fill my pants pockets, my ears and my nostrils. When I surface, my father is holding his granddaughter for the first time, and my brother is running down the face of the dune with a board from my father’s truck. His blowing blond hair is our father reincarnated. I take a swallow of air and wipe the salt water from my face. A few moments later it’s wet again, from crying this time.
Our youth, then, is finally back—seeing us tearful and afraid, as we seek our father’s approval against the roar of the sea.