The other night I get this voicemail from my dad out of the blue, I won’t transcribe the thing, but he wasn’t pleased with me. It ends like this: “You don’t have to be so mean. Call me back.”
It's the first I've heard from him in awhile. We don't talk that often. I suspect the message is in reference to something I’d written about him.
A morning call from him wakes me the next day, It's grey outside and misty-raining-light is streaming weak onto the wall. I remember our conversation starting like this: “HEY KID! WHATCHA DOIN WITH THAT WATERMELON? YOU HAVEN’T PAID FOR THAT!”
It's early, though, could have been more, “Hiya, Buzzy.” Double-beat pause. “Read something you wrote.”
After chirping on about weather and the upcoming nuptials of my brother, my suspicion is confirmed. He doesn’t get why I mentioned him in my piece about depression. Says he doesn’t quite understand what I was saying, what relevance the anecdote had. Says it reads like a hackneyed Woolf mimic.
Second thought, could have been more, "…sounds sort of like stream of consciousness."
In speaking to him, I feel the familiar trepidation I've always had in sharing my writing, the guarded residue and hard withholding I often struggle with when talking too much or too deep on certain topics. I dread the call from someone close early morning, asking why, asking how dare I.
So I try to keep to certain personal rules, possibly to the detriment of deeper story telling. Nothing too personal about old loves, nothing too harsh about family. Shout outs to mom. Change most names. I tell my roommate Harry these rules after mentioning something I left out in reference to a bad drunken encounter. For the sake of a story, he tells me, like, "get with it, kid," I need to get over it.
Dad clears his throat and asks me to explain my history with depression. He asks where I think it came from, if I think he had a hand in it, if that's why I mentioned him in the piece.
I sit up in bed, put the phone on my shoulder and let the drape near my window up. I notice someone in the open window diagonal from mine. Looks like they are beating a shoe against a wall, trying to clean off the sole. I stare until the phone line sounds out a too-thick quiet.
"Hel-lo?" he prompts, waiting for my answer.
I attempt to recount to him, choppy and slow, a few memories of childhood, how I remember what things were like growing up. I explain how at that age, the age I was when he and my mom turbulently divorced, kids soak up the emotional air with acute and vibrating intensity.
"You guys were my world. Everything you did was amplified," I say. "Your problems became my problems."
"I remember trying to keep our relationship separate from you kids."
Quietly, I cough. "I remember things differently."
He asks why I choose to write what I write about, what good does it do to share certain thoughts, personal experiences, personal history and tribulation? I get clogged in response and in my head come to recall a recent experience I had on the subway; I'm on my way back from work, a nearly empty car, and a teenage boy sitting across from me vomits in a clear and clean pile, right between his feet. He's gripping a plastic take-out bag and never lifts his head.
I lean to the man on my right, raise my brow and, speaking low through the side of my mouth, comment, “Well, that’s never good.” The man has a waxen face, pea-soup trench coat, beige fedora and, I kid you not, wire-rim glasses. Looks like the villain in Willy Wonka.
“Sick happens,” he says, folding and flipping the Times Business. “Better than keeping it inside.”
I don't tell this story to my father. Instead I stumble taut tongued through a watery half-history of feminist writing traditions and the importance of expressing life's challenges, that other people writing about their experiences has often helped me.
"Hmmm." He hums, changing the topic. "You know your mom wrote stories."
I nod like he can see. "Secluded with a shot glass of whiskey and unfiltered Lucky Strikes. Real Lady Hemingway on a mint green type-writer."
He says he figures that must be where I got this impulse to tell, that her writing was one of the things he liked most about her, that he wasn’t sure why she stopped. I recall, again in my head, how my mom said once, scoffing, what she liked most about dad was his resemblance to Gene Wilder.
"Speaking of whiskey," Dad asks, "you been drinking these days?"
"No," I say, "not in a year."
"You think that was a real problem?" He asks. I laugh a bit, imagine he's cracking open and salting the top of a cold beer.
"I think it was some type of problem," I say. "A way for me to avoid dealing with things I didn’t want to deal with. Fueled my anger. Helped me keep a lot of things buried pretty deep."
(Almost to the day last year, this hour, I was having a phone conversation that went something like this:
“Can’t make it today, Lorraine, I'm in New York. I got arrested.”
“Occupy Wall Street?”
Lorraine is silent before she asks, earnest, “You drink?”
Lorraine was my therapist. That's about where I was in openly discussing my problems. To think one year later I write about them.)
He juts in, like he hears my thinking, "You really like to write then, huh?"
"Uh, yeah," I say, "I suppose I do. Most of the time."
I don't tell him how fine a line of confidence I walk in my own limits, how often I feel like I stop short of saying it quite right, how I wonder if some things I write about are better left unwritten. I don’t tell him that at times I suspect I'm a strangely empty vessel who cannot feel but only see and hear, can only repeat back what I have seen and heard in words whose weight in truth or relevance I could never attempt to measure. How I suppose I should stop wanting to try.
As the length between his questions grows, as our voices finally relax enough to say goodbye, dad says he doesn’t get everything I write, why I write it, but he’ll keep reading. That he loves me, he’s proud of me.
I tell him I love him, too.
He pauses then, swallows, and when he speaks, I swear I hear, but will never be certain, the sound of his catching throat.
I wince to witness this weakness. I am touched by it.
“Does it help you to write this stuff?” His voice does shake.
“Yeah, Pop.” I say, breathing out, in certainty. “It does.”