I woke up that morning to Angus towering over my bed, wearing a white towel which he fastened across his chest like a woman.
“Just tilt your head a little that way, Angus; you’re almost blocking the sunlight.” I said. He didn’t smile.
Angus is the type of guy who is best defined by what he’s blocking at the moment; he’s also my brother. The first feature that strikes you about him is his sheer bigness—how much air he has to displace just to exist. In pictures, it’s always what he’s in front of that’s most important. In our last family reunion portrait his shoulder eclipses our grandmother’s face, and in an old tee-ball league championship photo, he’s clouding the trophy itself. He even found a way to push to the foreground of our ultrasounds, blotting out my silhouette and my heartbeat. The obstetrician couldn’t even find me until five months into the pregnancy. And in the in-between time, after my discovery but before my mother picked a name, I was referred to by a placeholder name, “Thing II.” I guess I’ve always been Angus’s twin more than he’s been mine.
“You left the drain closed when you showered yesterday.” Angus said.
“So pull it up,” I said.
“You go do it. I don’t want to touch your water.”
I curled into a ball and waited for him to leave. He didn’t.
“Fine,” I said, slipping out of the covers. “Princess.”
“It’s not princess. It’s rationality.”
I reached my hand into the settled water and pulled at the drain plug. A little cyclone formed. Then I flopped back onto the bed; I wasn’t tired, but I wanted to appear burdened.
“Nobody look,” Angus called, and then took off his towel before running into the shower.
I heard rustling from the other bed. Kat flipped onto her stomach. “Oh, for chrissake!” She said.
“I said nobody look.” Angus yelled back.
“I wasn’t ready yet,” she said, squeezing her eyelids together in that theatrical way she used to as a kid when she didn’t like something, like when our dad would walk around the kitchen in his underwear. She was twenty-six now.
These past few days had turned us all back into kids; it had been so many years since we’d been together like this, sharing a motel room again. Every childhood vacation—be it as kids bundled up in a Swiss A-frame villa, or as teenagers in Barbados, eating rum cakes from cellophane sheaths and passing around a bottle of Captain Morgan’s—we’d always look forward to nights spent lazing around in hotels and talking so long into the morning we’d fall asleep in our clothes. But today was entirely different; it wasn’t one of dolphin-petting or splitting fondue in the Alps. We were stuck in a Days Inn in Newark, New Jersey to visit our father for the first time in our adult lives.
The entire trip was impractical; Kat had planned it. After fourteen years of severed communication—after he told us we’d either live part-time with him again or end all contact—Kat got it through her head to write him. Rather, it entered her thoughts after a run-in with our grandmother—the one that isn’t his mother—who cornered her this past Thanksgiving with a butternut squash in hand. She’s the kind of woman who can guilt-trip you by stating the same fact over and over again until you want to strangle her, or else crumble at her knees.
“You know your father is a disturbed man,” she said.
“But he is still your father.”
“And you haven’t talked to him.”
“He hasn’t talked to us.”
“He’s a mentally disturbed man. A woeful man. You know that.”
“But he is still your father.”
Until Kat reached the point at which the image of my grandmother’s hand wringing the neck of the squash so overcame her with guilt that she called us in a panic, convinced we ought to write Dad an email.
“I’ve been losing so much sleep thinking about it,” she said.
“I guess it’s inevitable we talk to him sooner or later,” I said.
“What? No it’s not. That’s such crap.” Angus said. But he came around in the end; he was outnumbered.
We drafted the letter with the goal of sounding friendly, yet firm. Offer no apologies, but don’t request any, either. Foremost, we wanted to sound grown-up. But in the end it read like the sort of nervous jumble an adolescent boy slips into a girl’s locker.
Hi. We know it’s been awhile but it’s us. We were just wondering if you’d like to talk again sometime, grab dinner or something. We’re all adults now, and because of that we no longer see the purpose in not talking and stuff. We hope after all these years we can sit and take the opportunity to get to know each other again. We’d like to share with you who we’ve become, our achievements, careers, interests (we could start with our shared enjoyment of cooking, maybe), but we don’t want to reignite the past. We were both hurt; we have different stories; we recognize that and want to move on. Let us know if you can.
-Kat, Connor, and Angus”
Our response came five days and three hours later. Kat forwarded it to Angus and me and then called us so we could read it at the same time. It would have been cute, had the message not been what it was.
You suggest “grab[bing] dinner or something” like we’re long lost roommates, or old lovers who drifted apart. I remind you that is not the relationship: I am your father. You say you “no longer see the purpose in not talking and stuff” but it was you all who were uncommunicative. I do not know what kind of claims your mother has made about me over the years, but this ignorance rendered me powerless, forced to give up trying to contact you.
Very probably, you all continue to dislike me. I assure you that you will not like me more now. In case it has been unclear, I will not be trying to win your love by making small talk about the latest actor or pop-star, or whatever it is you all talk about over dinner these days. I don’t know where you get this miraculous idea that we can get to know each other again. Maybe you miss me a bit. This seems unlikely. Maybe you want some magic closeness from cracking weak jokes over a dinner table. Your email reads like a business proposal: a meeting, but only if we avoid all things serious and meaningful. That is called negotiation without pre-conditions. Under current circumstances, I feel no inclination to share recipes, so let’s hold off on that.
“He’s such bullshit!” Kat said. Her voice was uneven. I pictured her lying in the hammock on her porch, wearing her hair in a lumpy bun, rocking and crying. I forced the image out of my head. That was the good thing about talking on the phone: not having to picture things.
“Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” Angus said.
“I don’t know—I am and I’m not. But that doesn’t make it not bullshit.”
We silently agreed he was bullshit.
“So, where do we go from here?” I asked.
“Nowhere—I’m done,” Angus said.
“Half of me wants to write him back telling him he’s bullshit,” Kat said. “But I still feel like we should give him another chance to, you know, let his guard down.”
“But after that we’ll agree to stop caring,” I said. And by “we” I really meant Kat. I wasn’t worried about Angus; he had a knack for indifference. Probably genetic. It was Kat who was taking it the hardest. And I was too busy worrying about Kat to care about Dad. “Less for ourselves than for our consciences,” I insisted. “But just one more shot. And we’ll present him a time-frame or something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fairytale style: like, when the clock strikes midnight, he’s dead to us,” Angus said.
“Not like that, more like—”
“We can tell him we’ll be in Newark for a day or so, and then leave it up to him what he does with it,” Kat said.
“I’m not going all the way to Newark,” Angus said.
“Don’t be irrational.”
“You’re irrational. You expect me to buy a plane ticket for him?”
So that’s how it all happened: our weekend predicated on hope. The three of us cramped up in a suite at the Days Inn with Kat’s Gmail set on auto-refresh because even then, even a week after sending him notice that we’d “happen to be in the area” (we couldn’t think of a better pretext), after boarding our flights, checking into the room, bickering about who’d share the king bed and who’d sleep in the rollaway (even though I always ended up in the rollaway) and after talking until our jaws went slack, we still had no word from our father.
* * *
The receptionist at the Days Inn wore red cat’s eye glasses and what appeared to be false teeth. They were oversized and over-white. Her nametag dubbed her “Pixie.”
“Dam gorgeous day, iddn’t it?” Pixie said. I realized then I had no idea what kind of day it was, so I looked outside. The sky was completely white.
“Kind of like you’re stuck in a snowglobe,” she said.
“I know what you mean,” I said, and I wasn’t lying. She was right. It was the kind of sky that gave you the feeling you were nowhere in particular, or in a photograph of your childhood town.
“This is my most favorite weather,” she said.
“I have a suite under ‘Clay’,” I said.
“Ah.” She flipped through a book of sorts; everything was still done by hand. “Honey, your party already checked in. Room 201B.” She walked me all the way to my room before handing me the key; it must’ve been a slow day.
The suite was perfectly square, with a nick in one corner where the bathroom was. The wallpaper was off-white with mauve and olive vines, and the king bed—which took up most of the room—had floral comforters. That’s where Angus and Kat sat, playing boggle. Angus had on a blazer and jeans and was kicking his legs like a child; Kat sat Indian-style in a long, maroon skirt. Angus held out a paper bag of something.
“Beef empanadas,” he said, chewing. “Who knew there was a Latin section of Newark?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“You guys are useless. You’re not hungry; Kat’s a vegetarian.”
“I couldn’t eat right now anyway,” Kat said. “This whole week’s had me on edge.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, even though I ate three bags of pretzels on the plane. It was something I said too often.
“I missed you guys,” I said, and then fell back-first on the rollaway.
The three of us crowded around the minibar, deciding whether we should buy the two-dollar candies, and how we imagined presenting ourselves to our father.
“It would be fun to play fucked up,” Kat said, picking up a bag of Sour Patch Kids. “You know, dreaded hair and yellow teeth from smoking and vomiting. Ferret hair all over my sweater.”
“Yeah, that,” Angus said.
“Okay I’m throwing down a dollar for these,” Kat said, holding the bag and tossing in a crumpled dollar from her wallet.
“Look messed up to show Dad what a lousy father he was, kind of thing?” I asked.
“Yeah. But then again, that would be like saying ‘you damaged us’ and I don’t want to convey that,” Kat said. She started opening the Sour Patch Kids.
“No. Almond Joy,” I said.
“But they come two to a pack.”
“And we don’t want to do that ‘you can have two-thirds of a candy bar’ thing Dad used to do with us,” Angus said.
“Or any candy under 200 calories.”
“As if the extra third would really fatten us up.”
“I still hate that fraction,” Kat whispered.
So I threw down a dollar for the Sour Patch Kids. Angus didn’t. I wasn’t going to hold him to it, though. I bit the head off a green one.
“That’s why I was thinking of going super clean-cut,” I said. “Wearing polished shoes and talking in that dull, low NPR voice I’ve acquired. But then again, it would be kind of fun to play fucked up.”
“So in the end, both sides of us will struggle and we’ll turn out looking average,” Angus said.
That was what bothered me most: looking average in the end. I didn’t even care what, but something should be said for growing up with a missing father.
Suddenly, the lights went out. Sunlight entered the room through half-open blinds, so I could only see cross-sections of everything. Kat scuffed over to the blinds and pulled the string, turning the striped room solid gray.
Outside it was snowing, hard.
“Fuck,” Kat said.
“We’ll live without power.”
“No. Not us. The laptop—the email.” She fell back onto the bed where it had been charging. “He better respond to us in…three hours and thirty nine minutes before the computer dies.”
“Maybe you should tell him that,” Angus said.
“No. Too desperate,” I said.
“This whole trip is desperate,” Angus whispered under his breath, but loud enough for Kat and me to hear.
“Sorry I give a shit,” Kat said. We all just sort of fell silent. Our nerves were tired. The sun would be setting soon.
8:09. Angus started banging his head against his pillow. “Don’t you ever get meat cravings?” He asked Kat, between thumps.
“All the time,” She said.
“So why won’t you just eat meat?”
“I do. Every day,” She said. Angus looked over at me with an expression only twins could understand.
“I just don’t eat animal meat.” Kat continued. “Lots of things are meat that aren’t animals. People don’t realize that. Fruits have meat and nuts have meat. Eggplants are like, pure meat. So are mushrooms. I’ve eaten some mushrooms that are meatier than steaks I’ve had.”
“Little meatballs, sprouting out of the ground,” I said.
“Meatloaves. Tiny umbrella-shaped meatloaves.”
Then we heard a loud thud. Kat scuttled over to the window. “Guys!” she said. “Look! That tree outside looks like a squashed paintbrush.”
And for the rest of the day we’d hear a crash from outside every now and then, and we’d all duck our heads involuntarily, and Angus or I would call out “what was that?” and Kat would scoot over to the window and say “Power line!” or “Red Maple!” until it seemed that one by one, all trees and lamps and lines in the city were falling down.
It didn’t add up. I’d seen storms much bigger that did much less. And now, just a few inches of snow and everything suddenly collapses. The city seemed flimsy, like a movie set or a dream.
It had gotten dark. The only light we had left was the bluish glow from the laptop. I asked the time. 9:16. One hour twenty-three minutes had passed. Still no email. Two hours and sixteen minutes to go. Nobody felt like mentioning it.
“Can you still imitate Gala?” Kat asked.
Gala was our Dad’s Russian girlfriend—a woman in her fifties with short black hair and a thick nose, who sometimes wore a tight black shirt that said “sexy” across the chest in rhinestones. She had a black cat, which she prided on being symmetrical. My dad found her on J-Date, though she wasn’t Jewish. The bulk of their relationship consisted of watching TV and cooking beef stroganoff at noontime, which smelled so strongly that Angus, Kat and I would retreat to attic for air, only making trips down with held breath. We were dramatic at times.
Sometimes we wondered what kept Gala around; gold-digging was the obvious answer, but she’d have to know she was digging into concrete. Our dad was so cheap he’d only flush the toilet every second time. Finding a place to park meant searching for the meter with money inside. Holiday-shopping was out of the question; the last Christmas we stayed with him he gift-wrapped a horseradish and left it in the fridge for Gala to find. “She said she needed one.” He said, when asked. None of us knew if they were still together.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Can you try?”
“Say what she said on her J-Date profile,” Angus said. It was a line we used to laugh at as kids. I squeezed my vocal cords to match her squeaky voice: “My name is Gala, people call me Duck. I always say the key to a life is a smile, aerobics, and romance.”
“Or was it ‘a key to life’,” I said. Kat shurugged.
“Poor woman,” Angus said. “She’ll get none of that from Dad.”
“I kind of always felt sad for her,” I said. Kat nodded, yawning. Then she fell back onto the bed, hitting her torso and arms onto the mattress in two discrete thumps. Angus followed suit. I stayed sitting. At least another hour went by without talking.
“I like this,” I finally said.
“Like what?” Kat said.
“The way we can all sit together and not talk, because everything we could possibly say is already explained.”
“It’s better when you say it like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“As opposed to just not talking anymore because we’ve grown apart, which I feel like is partially my fault since I’m always traveling for my job but I can’t help it, or because Angus is tied up with his liquor store, and you’re off doing…whatever it is you do these days.”
“Working on a PSA,” I said. “For not texting and driving.”
“What’s it gonna be like?” Angus asked.
“Not sure yet, but I had this idea to show people’s last texts before they crashed and died, like: Tammy lost her life typing ‘lollerskates’ to Amy, who didn’t get the message until after Tammy’s skull hit the dashboard and fractured in thirty-four places.”
“I prefer ‘effective.’”
“Any mail yet?” Angus asked.
Angus laughed. “We have two minutes to walk out the door.”
“Don’t,” Kat said, laughing anyway. It was another thing our Dad used to say. Before school in the morning he would stand by the door and announce the time every minute, followed by how many minutes we had left to “walk out the door.” “It’s 7:10—7:11—7:12. You have three minutes—two minutes—one minute to walk out the door.” He’d say, in complete monotone. It got inside your head.
I yawned. “Maybe we should just sleep. Funny how you get tired so much earlier when there’s no power.”
And without taking my contacts out or brushing my teeth, I crawled into my bed. I could feel the springs inside the rollaway press against my back, and when I turned, they screeched.
Then Kat whispered “Shit.”
“Another tree down?” I asked.
“No. Not that. An email.”
“Yeah come here.” I got out of bed, covers and all. I wore them like a cloak. Looking at the laptop hurt my eyes, so I had to squint to read what it said.
I’ll be at the post office briefly at approx. 10:30 a.m. tomorrow. I have a package to mail. You can see me then if you’d like.
“Is he fucking serious?” Kat said, throwing a pillow across the room. “He doesn’t even want us to go. I don’t want to go. I hate him so much.”
“Let’s not go then,” Angus said.
“I didn’t come all this way to not go,” Kat said.
“I’ll go. So Kat can sleep again,” I said.
“I’ll go,” Angus said.
We lay on our backs again. I looked at the bumps in the ceiling, trying to figure out what I felt. I expected to feel more. If not relief then anxiety, or curiosity at the least, but nothing inside me shifted. Regardless of whether the next day went well or not, I felt pretty sure I’d carry on the same.
“Do you think he’ll even like us?” Kat asked.
“No,” Angus said.
“Sure he will,” I said, not at all convinced. “After all Kat’s getting married, and Angus—Clay Liquors is doing pretty well—”
“—does he like those sorts of things?” Angus asked.
“What does he even like?” Kat said. We all stopped to think for a bit. I racked my brain for memories of conversations with him. There weren’t many. In the car he’d drill us with multiplication tables. At restaurants he approximated the caloric content of our food. When he wanted to be playful, he’d point to trees and make us estimate the number of leaves. Start by counting the major branches, multiply that by the average number of twigs per branch, and that by the number of leaf clusters per twig, leaves per cluster…
“Estimations,” I said.
“The Scientific American.”
“Remember what he used to say to us when he gave us lunch money in the in the mornings?” Angus said. “He’d look at the wad of bills and say ‘Take care of my babies.’”
“Oh yeah, he did say that,” I said. “Anything else?”
We all fell asleep before adding another item to the list.
The next moment I woke up to Angus hovering over me. He had gotten up early to shave. I was barely able to pry myself off the bed for a shower. Kat slept through until the last minute; she said it took her until nearly six to sleep.
I’m not the type of person to remember clothing, but I can still recall what we looked like that morning. Angus wore a black blazer, white shirt, and a purple tie, half-Windsor. I dressed in black corduroys and a blue-plaid shirt. Kat wore a thick argyle sweater—her fiancée’s—on top of the same skirt from the day before. I remember thinking how together, as a tableau, we averaged each other out.
Sometime during the night the storm must have stopped. A tree had toppled into a power line and hung suspended over the street, and fallen branches lined the roads. But the snow was already melting, the wind had come to a standstill, and the day was overwhelmingly mild, so stepping into the air for the first time in almost twenty-four hours felt not like going outside at all, but more like walking into a larger room.
We got into Kat’s car, a black two-door Honda civic with a gold pinstripe. It used to be the family car, but she kept it after graduating college. Kat drove, Angus sat passenger, and I climbed in the back—the seating arrangement unchanged since rides to high school.
We parked in the back of the post-office. It was a brick and wooden building with heavy doors. Inside, the air was slightly warmer, noticeably deader and completely dry. The interior was all brown—hardwood floors with tan walls and imitation wooden paneling. There was a blue mailbox in the corner, and a shelf, chest height, with chained pens. The time was 10:37. None of us wanted to be early.
We spotted our dad standing in the opposite corner of the room by the scale. He was wearing a light yellow coat, placing stamps onto a brown, oblong box. His hair had gone white, but was still overgrown and scraggly like I remembered. His moustache was gone. Otherwise, he was exactly the same. He stood the same way—with his shoulders sloped and his neck drooping slightly. I remembered his brown shoes, the oversized glasses that magnified his eyes, and the nose pads yellowed with age.
“Dad,” I said. I waited as he stuck four more stamps to the box. Then he turned around. His eyes held no hint of recognition.
He approached without smiling. Angus extended his hand. They shook hands.
“How have you been?” Kat asked.
“What’d you expect; I’d be a supermodel?” His eyes scanned the room, and then settled on the package he was holding. He was doing his best to look disinterested. Or he was.
“Is Gala still around?” Angus asked.
“She’s in Russia right now.”
“I’m engaged?” Kat said, but really asked.
“I see.” He never cared much for marriage. We grew up hearing it was just a contract. He started pulling at his eyebrow.
“Why did you come here?” he finally said. “I was just starting to feel indifferent to you.”
I watched the second-hand on the clock beyond his head. Forty-eight seconds went by. Forty-eight seconds feels like forever when you’re not speaking.
“Well,” I said, “You should go back to doing whatever it is you have to do.”
“We’ll get in touch later?” Kat asked.
“It was nice seeing you.” I said.
“Bye,” Angus said.
There were no handshakes. He wandered over to the mailbox and dropped the package in. He was struggling to zip his coat when we walked out the back entrance. We stopped in the space between the double doors. The outside seemed imposing.
None of us spoke for a while. We just stood and scuffed our feet and watched our breath fill the air. We didn’t need to talk; we all felt the same thing. It became clear to us just then that we had outnumbered him—not just in the post office, but throughout our childhoods—and it suddenly felt unfair. I suppose in his mind that’s what it had been about this whole time: simple mathematics. We were three; he was one. An inequality which, in his eyes, cast him in the role of victim, made us to blame, and left him powerless to fix the ever-growing dissonance. It didn’t matter that we were just kids or that he was the parent: numbers didn’t know any of that.
But in the end, in terms of adding and subtracting our gains and losses, the three of us realized we had the numbers on our side. That’s how each of us felt standing in the post office; it’s how we went home feeling, and that’s how—though it took us until then to discover it—we had been raised to feel.