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A Brief History of His Time

ISSUE:  Summer 2007

When my father was sixteen, he drove off a cliff. He took three classmates with him: his best friend, who was a fellow member of the football team, and two girls. Two of his passengers died. My father, in the driver’s seat, survived almost without a scratch.

*  *  *  *  

When I was a little girl, my father affixed an upraised pad of paper to his truck dashboard. To and from my school, as we waited in the traffic he drew pictures to answer my many questions. Once he tried to explain black holes by sketching a picture of a boy with a tennis ball. Imagine throwing a ball upwards from earth, he said. Gravity pulls it down again. Light is so fast that gravity does not pull it back down, like it does a ball. Light escapes. In a black hole, gravity is much stronger. If light passes over the horizon, it will never escape again.

What happens once you are inside? I asked him. This was the pinpoint of my fascination, the edge to which I tiptoed and then fell back, shivering.

My father traced circular lines in heavy ink. You see everything and everyone clearly from your side of the horizon, he said. But no one can see you.

*  *  *  *  

I was in high school when my mother and I discovered an unlabeled box in our garage. Inside were over thirty picture frames in shades of silver and gold, a paper image of an anonymous family under each smooth sheet of glass. The frames had never been used.

My father had degrees in engineering, psychology, and business from three different universities, but he rarely held a job. Once he insisted upon hanging his diplomas and certificates on our basement walls. My parents argued when my father bought his first handful of picture frames; my mother felt they were too expensive. She never saw the other thirty.

My mother and I carried the heavy box inside. For months it lay, split open, in the corner of her room. Eventually we wrapped the frames in tissue paper to distribute to family for Christmas. We never told the recipients where we found their gifts.

Nor did my mother and I speak of the night when she, too tired to cook, reheated a Tupperware container of homemade pasta sauce. The sauce was one of my father’s famous dishes. He had placed it in the freezer a few weeks before he killed himself.

*  *  *  *  

My father loved the ocean. He grew up in Los Angeles when his was the only street in the neighborhood, a few tract homes set behind an apple orchard. He and his older brother crawled under the reeds of the local river; the yellow stalks formed tunnels over their heads. My grandfather worked for the Water Department, engineering dams that curved rivers toward the deserts in the south.

After I was born, we moved from California. On visits to Los Angeles, my father took me to the beach. Waves pressed me into the sand and rushed into my mouth, so I could not breathe. By then, the river was a cement wash. When it rained, green water trickled into the L.A. River.

My father smoked two packs a day. When he quit, he placed a small speaker under his pillow. A woman spoke of a soft, smooth beach, her voice drifting over a background of seagulls and ocean waves. Sometimes I settled my ear on his pillow and listened to the seagulls in the distance.

I drove past a woman who was smoking in her car today, my father said. I felt so happy I wasn’t her. My father did not say anything when he began smoking again. He left the house for his cigarettes, and we pretended not to notice.

*  *  *  *  

My parents were shunned by the parents of little girls who should have been my friends. These were the days before househusbands; most mothers were soccer moms with college degrees in theology or English. My mother was a business executive. The only other women in her company worked for her. What sort of husband was a woman like her to have? Normal families have someone at home doing all the work, my mother says. That was your father.

When he had been unemployed for ten years, my mother took my father to an outsourcing firm, where experts helped him compile his résumé. He rented a plush office with a glass door and spent his afternoons sitting at a desk and looking at sheets of paper in his briefcase. My father declined every interview the firm found for him. I don’t want to, he said. I can’t.

My father went to see a psychiatrist. The doctor asked to meet my mother, but she refused. This has nothing to do with me, she said. When she eventually accompanied my father to one of his sessions, the psychiatrist asked my mother why she wasn’t upset that her husband was unemployed. My mother turned to face the analyst. I don’t need to be Mrs. Doctor Somebody, she told him. Unlike your wife.

Before his marriage, my father worked for a few years as a mechanical engineer. He felt so anxious that he could not concentrate; he frequently left the office building for long walks, or to smoke a cigarette. He was anal-retentive, a perfectionist. His co-workers called him Little Hitler.

Each day during his lunch break, my father drove somewhere, parked, and slept for half an hour in his truck. I wonder how strange the world must have appeared to him as he awoke. I wonder if he knew, then, how little he belonged, how smoothly the world proceeded without him.

*  *  *  *  

When I was twelve, we moved back to California, to San Diego. From our condo, I walked to the adjacent empty lot fluffed with fresh dirt in preparation for a new development. I kicked a deflated volleyball and looked at the horizon. Hot air balloons scattered across the sky, shimmering in the heat. I watched them from the empty lot, and then returned home. I didn’t go outside to play after that, and the lot was soon covered in houses. Cement sealed off the earth. Culs-de-sacs whispered of the features they had obliterated; Woodland Hills, Poppy Seed Spring. When the wind was right, balloons filled the sky like boiling eyeballs. From above, the city would look like a corpse, dried beneath the desert sun, stretching a lonely bone hand into the brush hills.

*  *  *  *  

I went to a sleepaway camp when I was thirteen. My father wrote me three-page typed letters on colored printer paper. One arrived each day. The cat misses you, he wrote: She meows for you. I brushed her this afternoon. He told me what he ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

My father wrote how one evening, as he and my mother walked in the suburb, braids of blue smoke illuminated the sky. He found the sight beautiful. The next day, the US Army issued a press release. The braids were debris from a test rocket. Not harmful to humans.

I returned home from camp with a face peeling from wind chap. Dirt was embedded in my crumbling skin, turning my cheeks turmeric yellow. My mother sat me on the counter in her master bathroom and scrubbed my face for an hour. In the evening, my parents bought a grocery store cake and we sat in the backyard next to the hollow decorative boulders. Your father missed you so much that we watched the camp promotional video, my mother said, and imagined you there, on the lake, sailing, gliding past on water skis.

He placed a card in the mailbox, addressed and stamped. He hoped that I wouldn’t realize the card was from him until I opened it. He was disappointed when I recognized his handwriting on the envelope.

On the card, a cat and dog sat together peacefully, watching a soft, distant rainbow. I missed you when you were away at camp, he wrote. Let’s have a fun summer together.

I mumbled a thank-you. He killed himself three weeks later.

*  *  *  *  

You two were like two peas in a pod, my mother tells me. He was more than most fathers.

I trace my father in my face. I hold my wide jaw between my thumb and forefinger, press the heels of my palms into deep-set eye sockets. My mother’s face is a soft yellow, as narrow as her hands.

My father gutted and rebuilt every house we ever lived in. He sketched their skeletons on long sheets of graph paper. Crystalline lines traced projected interiors, each room measured to the final millimeter. I thought of their structures as the insides of whales. To get to the bathrooms, I tiptoed on the ribs, avoiding empty spaces. I returned from school to find that staircases had shifted in my absence, opened back doors to discover missing floors. I finished my homework stomach-down in the dust, with saws murmuring in the background.

My father never finished the last house he worked on: a Spanish-style residence on the tip of a cliff overlooking San Diego. My parents hoped to move in eventually. But it had an unstable foundation. The dimensions of the rooms changed from day to day. My father kept redrawing his plans; his sheets of graph paper were cloudy from eraser marks.

When my father disappeared, my mother and I drove to the construction site. I feared a beam had fallen on him; I imagined him unconscious and bleeding on the floor. But the house was empty. On the way home, I imagined every truck passing us on the freeway was his.

*  *  *  *  

My father rented movies for me whenever I stayed home sick, such as A Brief History of Time. Once, when I had strep throat, he rented movies about black holes; among them, a rusty science-fiction movie from the 1970s. In it, a spacecraft entered a black hole. The astronauts inside thinned as gravity stretched their feet from their heads. Then the space station emerged in another world where devils scampered in black flames.

My father could explain to me the properties of light; or capture with me the praying mantises, or wolf spiders, or box turtles, whatever crawled in our driveway. He taught me how to catch lightning bugs in jars to use as nightlights, how to punch small holes in lids of saran wrap.

When I was afraid of the dark, he always promised to come back and check on me after I fell asleep. A half hour after eight o’clock, he padded down the hallway in his slippers, to make sure no monster had eaten me in his absence.

His stomach was just round enough for me to place my head on, like a pillow.

*  *  *  *  

He called my mother from the parking lot of a hardware store. He was sitting in his truck, a gun beside him. Come to me, he said, I am afraid I will. She got him and together they drove home and broke the gun into pieces on the kitchen table. Then they drove from condo to condo and placed the black metal pieces, one after another, in trash bins. They distributed the fragments across the entire town, so that he would never be able to assemble them again.

He said he was nothing, my mother tells me. He said, everything Burke is, is because of you, Norah. My mother told him that I could not survive without him. She told him that I was his mirror, that I loved him. Yes, he said. Yes, I see. I see now.

I thought it was just his depression talking, my mother tells me. You know, like when you were in high school and saying that you didn’t deserve to live. No one makes any sense when they’re like that. It’s just nonsense.

*  *  *  *  

He left a note: Gone to grocery store. Shortly.

His body was found in the desert. A helicopter pilot spotted his truck against the sand. I hoped for an open-casket funeral, but his skin had melted in the heat.

I cried once. Pornographically, staring at my face in the mirror.

My mother found a piece of paper in our house on which he listed the pros and cons of suicide. Methodical, considered. Just like him. Her name was listed under pro: Norah Doesn’t Respect Me.

He promised he would call, she says. I told him, you just call my pager if you’re feeling bad, and I’ll come home right away. No matter where I am, I’ll come home. She pauses. You know, he was protecting you. He didn’t want you to have to come home and find his body.

*  *  *  *  

So how did he do it? This was the first and only question my friend asked me about him. I told her I did not know, which was the truth. And then I told her not to bother coming to the funeral. A few months after his death, I found the coroner’s report on the kitchen counter, beneath a pile of papers. Multiple lacerations to the wrists.

Now people rarely ask me about my father. I avoid bringing up the topic. Suicide is a word that kills all other words, a kind of plague. I provide a few anecdotes, with the necessary emotional inflections; I don’t want others to see how bored I am. What do you want to see? I imagine asking. When he died, I killed myself also. An unconscious motion, a reflex of biology, a shriveling of brain cells. I simply could not live without him.

David and Ethel Rosenthal used to live near our house. We would visit them and they would give me gifts; strange trinkets, musty books from their basement. I remember once my father asked them about life in Auschwitz and my mother kicked his ankle under the table. After my father’s death, David told my mother, I think of John often. Sometimes the world is too horrible for good people. At his wife’s funeral he pulled on my mother’s arm urgently, holding her back as they walked to the burial plot. I think of John often, he repeated. I liked John.

Together, David and my mother proceeded to Ethel’s tombstone. The rabbi told everyone in the mourning party to find a seam in their clothing. Each person felt for a seam, tightened their palms, and tore.

*  *  *  *  

A psychiatrist once told me, Well, you know, he planned it. Don’t you think he knew? That he planned for that day? Which is why he chose not to go with you and your mother to lunch?

She spoke to me with clarity, as if regarding something I could not see.

*  *  *  *  

The last time I saw my father, I was screaming at my mother. I was thirteen, and ugly, and looked fat in my dress. It was lime green, with a stripe across the chest. We were supposed to go to lunch with friends.

My mother told me that my father was too tired to join us. But he followed me into the garage and crouched by my open car door, his brown hands with their thick sap veins resting for balance on the metal.

I know what it feels like to be sad, he said.

I slammed the car door in his face.

*  *  *  *  

If you believe you are watching someone approach the horizon of a black hole, you are the victim of an optical illusion. The person disappeared across the edge long ago. You see only the shimmer of his light from years before.


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Greg Bistline's picture
Greg Bistline · 6 years ago

These are the conversations I wish I had had with you and your dad. Thank you for the catharsis


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