My flight was unexceptional, as was my anxiety. For that, I had a Xanax and a string of deep, slow, yoga breaths. I tried but failed to sleep in my cramped seat. Turning away from the bulging, wheezing man in the seat next to me, I stared through the window at the river-beribboned coast of Virginia passing some 30,000 feet beneath me, empty of thought, numb of feeling. It is a gift not given to all, I've come to realize, to be able to ignore the press of daily life and live cocooned in the present moment. I would deal with my parents when I landed, and I would get back to Nina and New York after that; but for now, even though I couldn't relax, I could at least put all that out of my mind. To be able to forget, to cease to hope or fear: it is a certain sort of freedom.
The sky was brilliant and thin. The plane flew unopposed by headwinds, landing early. Even so, my father was already at the small airport, sitting off by himself and staring into the distance. He looked right at me but didn't seem to recognize me. His hair was now serenely white. He seemed smaller, beaten, almost a stranger. An unexpected old man. For some reason this caught me by surprise, though it shouldn't have; he was now breaching his seventies.
Had I really not seen him since the wedding? These affairs were always fraught with their small slights and insults, but people—families—supposedly got over them. Somehow we hadn't. The years and the excuses had piled up: a slipped disc, a bout of flu, an unexpected crisis at work, social obligations. Nine-eleven had merited merely a couple of worried phone calls. Pretty soon a decade had passed. I had left my parents, and with them my past, behind.
My father looked uncomfortable in a checked flannel shirt tucked half-way into his high-waisted jeans, though he still wore the dress black loafers I was accustomed to seeing him wear in the pulpit. In his lap he cradled a steel thermos the size of a small artillery shell. He seemed to be looking right at me but made no sign of recognition. It reminded me of being a child, trying to hide in the wooden pews as his eyes would seemingly search me out and land right on mine when he came to a salient point in his sermon, a point probably aimed at me for some indiscretion I had committed during the week. I nodded to him and waved. He squinted in my direction then creaked to his feet and attempted a smile as I reached the top of the ramp. He extended his right hand, a move he had perfected over a lifetime of Sundays. I took it then pulled him toward me. He stumbled into my embrace, not sure, I suspect, what to do with the canister in his free hand. I braced against his weight. After he regained his balance, I clapped him on the back almost apologetically. He heaved a surprised sigh in my ear as if I had squeezed the breath from his lungs. Several business types huffed around us as we hugged by the door.
He said he'd been at the terminal for several hours maybe, having forgotten what time Abby'd told him my plane was to land. He hadn't slept much the night before, but, then again, he hardly ever slept much these days.
The parking lot was oddly quiet, unlike the LaGuardias and JFKs and Newarks to which I was so used. Empty spots everywhere. Still, he had parked off a great distance from the terminal doors. Poised, I suspected, for ease of exit.
"Here, I'll drive," I said when we finally reached his car, a Taurus of dulled paint and uncertain age.
He conceded the keys. "Don't you have baggage?"
"I've got a change of underwear in my briefcase. I have to fly back early in the morning." I said. "I've got a conference in federal court tomorrow afternoon. Couldn't get out of it."
He stared straight ahead. "You didn't have to come," he said. I wasn't sure it was quite what he meant.
"I know, Dad. It's been too long. I'm just sorry it had to be under these...circumstances."
"Well, you always knew what you wanted."
I didn't know what else to say to this stranger, my father. He was never an ironist, but it wasn't until he said this that I realized just how wrong he was. Maybe that's the way I came across to them in my drivenness. It wasn't the way I felt. I only wanted to get away. If there was anyone that description fit, it had to be Nina. It was what first drew me to her.
I drove the back way from the airport, a route he showed me. "I try to avoid the expressway," he said. It took us on country roads that rolled out like ribbons past terraced pastures of tall browning grasses, past creaky white-plank farmhouses and shuttered gas stations, past sheds and open barns of rotting timbers and rusted tin roofs, past bulldozed subdivision and condominium sites and new, hastily-built red-brick strip malls and office parks. What stands of trees remained blazed in brilliant autumn hues—ginko yellow, maple red, pine green—as the silver light of the low sun leached a long season's life from their limbs.
I gave him broad, up-beat outlines of my life in New York. Nina. My job. Not lies, really. Just not the whole truth. He seemed to listen, but didn't speak much. Then again, he never did.
My parents lived in a plat of sixties-era split-level tract houses set back from the main strip of fast-food franchises and chain stores by a narrow road that wound across a creek and through a corridor of flood-plain woods. I seem to recall a rafter of wild turkeys had roved these woods at one time; you often saw them picking their way along the roadside early in the mornings or late afternoons. The birds seemed to have disappeared. Of course, this was November.
And this was my mother: "She isn't talking much, Son. She can't seem to fight her way through the medication. The morphine and whatnot. It's smothering her mind. When she wants to say something she has to plan ahead and stop her drip," my father said as we turned onto his short street. "She can't speak unless she's in great pain."
I looked over at him. His face fell in heavy folds from his sun-freckled skull as though he had lost the will to keep it from sagging. There was a spot, a whitish scar just above what was left of his hairline. It looked like he'd had something removed, a melanoma perhaps. His eyes, small dark coals set in bruised circles, no longer sparkled; his puffy eyelids were threatening to close over them. His hair, contrary, wispy and white, refused to lie down, threatened to fly off. Grew, unkempt, from his ears. His nostrils. "How's...how's..." he had a pained look on his face.
"Nina?" I'd just been talking about her.
"She's fine, Dad. Like I said, Saturday is the opening night of this piece she's producing. Lots of last-minute details. She just couldn't pull herself away."
He wandered off into a silent space.
"You look tired. This thing with Mom seems to be taking its toll on you."
"She doesn't have long, Son. She'll be glad you came."