I’m in my father’s living room, or rather the television room. Truth be told, there are several rooms on the ground floor of their Alexandria townhouse that contain couches and televisions. I’m in the farthest room from the kitchen, which is where his partner Fred is making dinner, and quite honestly I need a break from Fred and Fred’s opinions, which are strong and plenty and are often given in dramatic pronouncements in a voice that could, with minimal provocation, rise more and more shrilly into higher octaves for maximum effect. Fred, who had extolled the racial diversity of their church but says mildly offensive statements about certain neighborhoods. Who sat in the pew nodding sagely during the minister’s sermon, but who later, in the car, said “He’s great eye candy but he needs to find another job.”
“I thought he was okay,” I said.
“Ugh. God help him, he stumbles and fumbles over every sentence and you CANNOT follow a WORD he SAYS.” Fred’s screeching fills the car and for the second time he passes the turn-off and my father says, nearly inaudibly, “Fred, you were supposed to turn back there.” The opinions only strengthen with age, and the voice only gets shriller, such that I’ve begun wondering about his mental faculties. I don’t know why I always forget this about him, only to be reminded within the first ten minutes of our reunions.
I’ve gone for quiet relief into the farthest room, eyes scanning their bookshelves for escape, but I’ve seen all the videos and the shelves only contain travel books of every country they’ve visited over the years since I left for college; places I’ve never been. Above the books is a map of the world littered with push pins indicating every single accomplished destination. Their collection seems like one of Fred’s pronouncements; look at all the places we’ve been. But their external travels take them further from themselves, I tell myself, from the rumblings of their hearts. Yes, you’ve been everywhere, I think, but your insides are dry and fossilized. Fred knows everything already; there are no surprises left in the world for him, and my father is the quiet companion whose silence allows it all to continue, unchecked, unexamined. Or so I’ve come to believe.
“Are you okay?” he asked me last night, after we had returned home following a harrowing two-hour dinner experience in downtown D.C. which involved a forty-five minute car ride with Fred at the wheel. We had circled the same five streets endlessly, Fred convinced a parking meter would open up, unwilling to pay money for a spot in a garage, the tension rising with each turn and each missed stop light, Fred slowing for a woman in a crosswalk but spitting “Bitch” at the windshield as she passed unknowingly before us. He laughed at his joke and turned to me but I looked out the opposite window, biting my tongue till it bled.
“It’s not you,” I later told my father. “I just…I just find that I get tired when I spend a lot of time with Fred.” I’ve never ever said anything like this to him.
My father’s brow creases. “Has he done something?”
I shake my head. “No. He just, well, has a lot of really strong opinions.”
There is a flicker of humor in my father’s eyes. “Fred likes to say things to get a reaction. I’ve just learned to ignore him.”
In their living room I turn on their television and channel surf my way into a painless vacancy. My shoe-less feet curl in upon themselves: I stretch out the cramped arches, my feet sore from walking earlier for several hours through the streets of Georgetown with my father. Fred had stayed home, said he’d been to Georgetown more times than he cared to remember. I had felt such relief at his words.
The hours alone with my father were perfect in their own way; his quiet and mine walking together. He followed me into several stores as I hunted for a decent pair of sneakers. My steel-toed boots had set off the metal detectors at the airport and I wanted to avoid the strip search on my return flight. I settled for a trendy pair of Steve Madden’s, then I pulled him into Urban Outfitters.
“They have an interesting variety of products here,” he said.
I dug through a pile of Adidas t-shirts and turned to find him sitting in a lounge chair, waiting patiently, a middle-aged man surrounded by loud music, loud furniture, loud boys and girls. Later in Banana Republic he brought me over to a sweater display. “This is the only thing I really like in here,” he said, pointing to a black v-neck with white stripes, “but do you think it’s too young for me?”
I laughed at first but then stopped short. I saw him clearly then, a good, hesitant man in strange surroundings. I saw that I had grown bigger than him, in shape and size. I saw that I had been handling him gently, to avoid hurting him, and I saw that I would continue to do so. My heart broke a little and I told him, “No.”
Later when the sales boy at Diesel asked him “Is that a Members Only jacket?” I whirled and glared, sure that the trendoid was trying to pull an insult in sheep’s clothing over my father. I wanted to protect my father, I wanted to spit at the boy but the boy said he keeps seeing them in thrift stores and I watched him carefully, unsure if he was genuinely interested or dissing my Dad. I watched for the joke but then turned away, not wanting to know the answer. We left the store.
Back in their house now I need peace, solitude. I sit in the dark living room, pressing the remote’s UP button over and over. I don’t hear my father enter, only glimpse him from the corner of my eye; his hesitant, apologetic posture registering in me as a burning, cruel affront. Because the resentment is familiar, it finds its way back to me, again and again. What does he want now?
“Is there…” he says in his soft voice, the one I inherited from him, the thankless gift. I should tell him about speaking from the diaphragm. I have to turn down the volume to hear him. “Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” he asks. Fred is safely distant in the kitchen.
No, I think. I don’t want to talk about that, about my resentment, about the incident. I don’t want to talk about you and me. “Uh,” I say. “um…not really.” I pause as he stands there, waiting for my answer, and I know I should give in, I know we should talk. I offer a smile to cut the edge from my voice. “Well, maybe a couple of things.”