It was hot and I’m a big man; by the time I got to the correct door, the sweat had darkened my shirt at the very places where I am biggest. I wasn’t going to turn back now. I knew that if I stopped to change my shirt to look more presentable my thoughts would catch up to me and I would never ring that door bell.
So, I rang it and stood on the step airing my shirt by pulling it away from my body. Joy came to the door. At least I thought it was Joy, looking as she did when I first met her in college thirty years ago. She spoke with that same flutey voice.
“Daddy,” said the woman in the doorway, a confusion of ages: looking like a woman, but talking like a child. The sun touched her dark hair and transformed it into milk chocolate and I knew she was my daughter, Natalie.
She swung the screen door open, and went to give me a hug; but then she saw my shirt and pulled back at the last minute. We performed one of those ceremonial hugs in which both participants lean far and touch shoulders while keeping their bodies at a safe distance.
“Mom, its Dad,” she yelled and said to me, “Come in out of the heat.”
I came in, but sweated all the more while waiting for Joy to appear.
“Are you packed and ready to go?” I said to Natalie. “I’d like to hit the road.” And get away from here.
Joy appeared, looking like Natalie, but older: the shine faded out of her hair and the candidness abraded from her face.
“Oh, but Friday Night Lights is on. It’s my favorite show, and it’s the season finale.”
Joy and I shared a look of distress, but we would stay together for the evening. We would give to Natalie, for the sake of her TV show, what we couldn’t give to her for the sake of her life.
“Have you eaten?” said Joy. “We just finished dinner, but we have lots of leftovers I can heat up.”
I’m a big man. I have always just eaten, but I can always eat some more.
“I’m Frank,” said a deferential man who looked nothing like the self-satisfied Republican I imagined when I studied his neighbor’s truck. “How was your trip?”
How was my trip? Let’s see. On my trip I reiterated, over and over again, the most gut wrenching experience of my life: losing my wife and kids. And you have them now. I fell back in love with my ex-wife, your present wife, remembering our early days. I studied every bridge between here and Back East for its capacity to facilitate my suicide. I met an African god that hangs out at the crossroads and gets you in touch with the spirit world. I found where the wild things are: not in some nature conservancy, but just underfoot and within. I watched a man die, drowning in front of me, then, an hour later, saw him come back up and wave goodbye. I totaled my car while craning my head looking for Sandra Bullock to come out of her house to get the mail. I admitted I was powerless over almost dying and needed a regular fix of death just to feel alive. I cleaned out my car, which is a bigger event than it sounds, and discovered the infinite in the smallest things.
How could I begin to explain how my trip was to this man who was just being polite and didn’t really want to know? I replied with the answer that you give when you don’t want to say.
“Fine, thank you,” I said.
“Won’t you have a seat?” said he.
I looked around for a seat. Like I said, I’m a big man. I may not have mentioned that these, my ex-wife, her new husband, and my daughter are all small people. When Joy and I were together I was not quite so big, but I was still big enough. We had furniture that both of us could sit on; big furniture that made her tinier in comparison. Now, with her new family she had furniture her size and I felt like Gulliver with the Lilliputians. I could not sit on the armchairs without spreading the arms from the chairs. The kitchen chairs would collapse under my weight. Even the sofa, which was wide enough, was so low it would necessitate a crane to get me up. Frank kicked an ottoman over and I sat down, my ass spilling over the sides as if I were a mushroom.
Joy brought dinner on a TV table and for many uncomfortable minutes, the trim family sat and watched the fat, sweaty man eat.
At last Natalie’s TV show came on. Natalie helpfully summarized the characters as they came on. (Readers who have taped the finale and have not yet seen it, may want to read this after they do.)
“That’s Julie, she just dropped out of college after having an affair with a married GA and that’s her ex-boyfriend, Matt, who went off to Chicago to study in Art school. Julie had just visited Matt when she was avoiding going back to her college.”
We watched as Matt presented a ring to Julie and they became engaged. Natalie began to weep and left to wash her face.
“She’s really into her show,” I said.
I thought Frank said, “You have no idea”; except it sounded more like a question, “You have no idea?” than a statement. I couldn’t respond because, well, I had no idea.
Natalie returned and eagerly resumed her description.
For a few minutes this was nice, being part of a family again and sitting around the TV. The trouble is that I can’t have a good feeling like this without regrets coming along and messing them up by saying, you could have had this all along. But still, a good feeling with a side of regrets is still better than no good feeling at all. Then Natalie ruined everything with her description:
“That’s Coach Taylor and his wife Tammi. Tammi got a job offer from a school inPhiladelphiaand the two of them have been fighting over whether to move there or not. Coach Taylor wants to stay in Texas, but Tammi says it’s her turn, she’s moved constantly over the last eighteen years following him around. I think she’ll go without him if he doesn’t agree.”
Then she added, “I would.”
We three elders in the room tried very hard to avoid eye contact with each other while Natalie innocently went on about theTaylors. My daughter seemed to have no knowledge that she was describing her own family’s history and the excruciating dilemma of two of the people in the room. Why did she think her parents split up? What was she told? I wasn’t sure whether I should weep in loss or yell in anger. Therefore I sat frozen, with an equally frozen ex-wife.
A commercial came on; the time when we might have talked about this awkwardness.
Frank spoke up.
“Boy, it’s been hot,” he said.
We all enthusiastically agreed.