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In the box where I keep this story, the woman in the doorway of the hotel room was tall and blonde. She had swept-back bangs in the process of growing out. At 2 a.m., the Flagstaff air was crispy outside. Jacket-weather already. Winter was on deck with its frost threat. Besides the front desk staff I passed on the way to the room and this blonde woman who was in my way, I hadn’t seen another person since I’d arrived. Most people were done for the night. I stood in front of room 234 of a Courtyard by Marriot waiting to be validated.

I was 20-years-old, and believed in terrible things. I thought Savage Garden made some pretty good music. Folgers made some pretty good coffee. And Drew loved me. Love, like lust-love, like he needed me in the middle of the night because the middle of the night is when you truly realize what you want, like it was crazy but understandable how he’d always burned or bit his tongue and that’s why he couldn’t ever kiss me.

“Drew is sick,” this woman said.

Not sick-sick. Drunk-sick. Curled in a ball while his body expressed poison. The metamorphosis. Toxic to non-toxic.

“He called me,” I said in the key of I don’t know who I am, my voice rising in pitch.

Out of Focus

By Paula Younger

Memoir

Two years after my wedding I stood behind bulletproof glass searching evidence tables piled with pictures of smiling brides and grooms.  Jenny, the police officer assigned to photo viewing day, led me to the Misc. box, a cardboard beast overflowing with pictures and negatives.  She warned, “This might take a while.”  A blond woman flanked by her husband and her parents said, “Can you believe we have to do this?”  She rifled through boxes for a glimpse of the dress she had so carefully picked out, her husband’s smile, photos of friends and family.  I was looking for those things too.  But I was also looking for something else.  In that police basement I was searching for the last pictures ever taken of my mother and me.

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

 

Bagpipes

The sun is going down as Sergeant Valdez pulls up in the F150 and drops the gate. We offload the ammo and pack it in the back of the MRAP. Fifteen thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the Iraqis. I try to stack the boxes so they will have the least chance of toppling when the truck is in motion. Tomorrow we will drop off the ammo at the IA compound while out on patrol. I raise the back ramp, lock up the truck, and walk back to the CHU.

“Is everything okay?” Raneo asks as I drop my rifle in the corner.

“No, it isn’t.”

“What happened?”

“What happened? There is no purpose to life, and the Universe is an empty, meaningless wasteland. That’s what happened.”

I’m halfway through reading Cat’s Cradle for about the fourth or fifth time. This is more than likely the source of inspiration for my feigned tantrum, as opposed to any particular or immediate existential dilemma, along with my chronic compulsion to answer every question with a smart-assed remark or to befuddle people with my nonsensical grandiloquence.

“Where?” says Mies. They’re smiling now.

“Everywhere.”

* * *

The interior of Club Rodeo is a mixture of industrial warehouse and country barn. Sawdust on concrete slab, wood beams, murky lighting. A large dance floor takes up the majority of the room. In one corner, there is a small western-wear shop where one can purchase cowboy hats and boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and enormous belt buckles. This exact combination of attire, incidentally, is the uniform for roughly seventy-five percent of the clientele. Catherman hands me a Budweiser, and the two of us sit at the perimeter of the dance floor, behind a wood railing, and survey the crowd. I’m feeling distinctly out of place and underdressed in Oxford, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The music alternates from country to pop country to vanilla hip-hop. I finish my beer altogether too quickly and step back to the bar.

The bartendress is clad in Daisy Dukes and a plaid shirt knotted above the belly button. She has never heard of Jameson. I order two more Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniels. I drink both shots myself and return to Catherman with the beers. In my absence, four more people have materialized at our table. Gardner is evidently another member of our company; I am still too new to recognize every soldier in the unit. The others are Gardner’s girlfriend and two of her tagalong pals.

Catherman is easy at conversation. He has no trouble moderating small talk around the table, despite the oppressive twangy din. I rely on him to entertain while I thoughtfully measure the precise interval between sips that is necessary to appear pleasant and carefree. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rotate to the bar or restroom. Catherman disappears somewhere, and I start to panic a little. I try to engage one of the girls in conversation.

“So do you live in Killeen?” I yell in her ear.

“No. I’m from Temple,” she looks at me for some sign of recognition.

“I have no idea where that is.”

She suddenly becomes very interested in her drink and turns away. I pretend to be fascinated by the spectacle on the dance floor. About two-dozen people have begun to dance in unison, some convulsive mutation of a square dance and a Broadway musical that is completely foreign to me.

Eventually, Catherman reappears with the third girl, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He leans in.

“I just got a handjob in the bathroom,” he says.

“Seriously?”

He nods, glancing at girl number three.

Four or five beers later, I drive us back to the barracks and pass out.

It’s taking a considerable amount of effort to fight my natural anti-social impulses and go out drinking every week with the younger guys. My body does not recover as quickly as it did when I was in college. Hangovers are a two-day affair. I suspect I am not as much fun to be around. I feel boring, like I am sucking the cheer out of the room, radiating bad vibes. And any desire to chase women has abandoned me.

The next Saturday, I wake up hung over around thirteen hundred. This time, thankfully, I had the wherewithal to take a cab home. I throw on some clothes and shuffle down to Specialist Lindsey’s room. He comes to the door groggy and disheveled.

“Dude, I left my car at Ernie’s last night. Can you take me to go get it?”

“Yeah. Hang on a minute.” He can’t really turn me down, as I did him the same favor last week.

We’re in the car ten minutes later, on our way to Harker Heights. Lindsey is a chatterbox, so I let him talk and I stare out the window and try to suppress my migraine.

“You want to go to Houston tonight?” he says.

“I’m not sure I would survive. I’m still getting over last night.”

“Aw, come on. I’ll drive.”

“What’s in Houston?”

“These two girls.”

“Okay.”

“I’m trying to fuck one of them, and I need somebody to keep the other one busy.”

“Naturally.”

“They’re kind of big,” Lindsey says. “I’m not saying they’re fat, just curvy, you know?” He fumbles in his pocket and produces his phone, then, completely ignoring the road, scrolls through his photos.

“Here,” he says, handing me the phone. “That’s the one I’m trying to hook up with.”

A husky blonde is gazing up at me from Lindsey’s phone, smiling coyly. It’s a self-taken picture, probably captured for the sole purpose of luring Lindsey to Houston. I suppose she is pretty.

“Okay.”

Lindsey reaches over and taps a button on the phone. Another girl appears, this one with dark brown hair. Her pose, while not identical to the last, is definitely in the same vein. She is thick as well, though not unattractive.

“That’s her friend,” he says.

“I see.”

“She’ll definitely fuck you.”

“Okay.”

“She’s pretty cool, but you might have to put up with some drama.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know, man. She’s just drama sometimes. But she’s a lot of fun, when she’s not talking about her ex or whatever.”

“Okay.”

“So the plan is to get a hotel room and party. Maybe go out to some bars. You in?”

“I don’t know, dude.”

“Come on. I guarantee you get laid.”

“I’m just not feeling Houston tonight. I feel like shit.”

I can’t think of a good reason not to go. I’m racking my brain for a solid excuse, some previous commitment or obligation or something. But I’ve got nothing. I should say yes, but I’m filled with the urge to retreat to my room and order Chinese food.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Raincheck, though.”

“It’s cool. You think Catherman would want to roll?”

“Probably.”

Lindsey drops me off at Ernie’s Bar, and I drive back to the barracks with a guilty, nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something important. I dial Hunan Palace and fall asleep.

In August, my platoon sergeant informs me that I’ve been reassigned to headquarters. After seeing my test scores, the CO and First Sergeant have decided that I am needed in Supply. My protests are ignored. The XO assures me that it is a temporary situation, that I will only be there for a few months, and that I will continue to participate in training exercises. I do not believe him. I abandoned my home in California and my mind-numbing corporate existence to experience something out of the ordinary. I joined to become an elite paratrooper, and now I am a supply clerk in the armpit of Central Texas. If there is some mystical power at work in the cosmos, then it is surely having it’s way with me for cheap thrills.

I report to Sergeant Harris and try to make the best of things. There is a good deal of driving around post, from one warehouse or agency to another, picking up new equipment here, dropping off old equipment there. We fill out an infinite array of forms and collect signatures from various bigshots at battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. The upside to working in Supply is that there is a lot less pointless screaming and running around. The downside is that my soul is rapidly eroding into a festering ruin of dust and desiccation.

If I believed in a soul, that is.

It might be more accurate to say that all the pleasant chemicals at play in my nervous system are going sour, transforming into bile, while the unpleasant chemicals are experiencing a population boom.

Months go by. I continue to dismiss invitations to go out, to socialize, to interact with humanity, until eventually they stop coming. I withdraw. I spend my free time shut up in my room, making periodic food runs to Walmart, where I glare hate bullets at fat Texans and their gallon jugs of maple syrup.

This is me reacting poorly to adverse circumstances.

October arrives. My cousin is getting married in Avalon, New Jersey. Both parents have separately sent emails insisting I wear my Class A uniform to the ceremony. Reluctantly, I pack my uniform into a cheap garment bag and fly to Philadelphia. From there we drive to the shore. The morning of the wedding, I am standing in front of a hotel mirror, trying with difficulty to squeeze into my greens. I suck in the gut I’ve acquired over the last three months of neglect and manage to get the buttons fastened. I have to sit very straight in the pew to avoid discomfort, and I am all too conscious of the looks from other guests. Overt attention makes me uneasy. I am a fraud. I have done little to earn this uniform.

After the wedding, I change into my suit, which is unadorned and much looser in the waist. The reception is festive. I don’t dance. I linger on the patio, smoking, drinking, politely brushing off the mechanical admiration of family acquaintances. I haven’t done anything, I tell them. They express concern for my impending deployment. I tell them there is no danger, unless I am crushed by a pile of cardboard boxes. I drink more.

A small contingent of friends and family proceeds from the reception to a lounge bar down the shore. My father has pizza delivered to the bar, a feat of unmatched brilliance. I endure further awkward gratitude and continue to drown my fraudulence in Jameson. The crowd dwindles. I am swaying as I stand at the bar and sign my tab. The bartender is a weathered woman in her mid to late forties, a divorcee, I surmise, slender, dirty-blonde hair showing streaks of grey. In an embarrassing fit of delusion, I persuade myself that she is attempting to seduce me by intentionally withholding my credit card. I play along, waiting patiently at the bar and smiling moronically every time she looks my way, until we are the only two left in the bar.

“Something I can do for you, hon?” she finally asks.

“I believe you still have my card,” I say stupidly.

“No, I gave it back to you already.”

I reach in my front pocket and feel the slim sheet of plastic.

“Ah,” I say.

I stagger outside and across the street, berating myself unmercifully, a vile and abusive monologue exploding in my head, stumbling up the steps, and expire face down on the floral-patterned sofa in my father’s hotel room.

Back at Hood, I return to my comfortable rut. I drink whiskey alone in a half-assed attempt at self-indulgent martyrdom. But I fail to make a habit of it. I can’t even summon the discipline required to be an alcoholic. I begin to wonder if I might be experiencing depression—not bummed-out, sorry-for-myself depression, but actual medically legitimate, Prozac depression. The Internet tells me the symptoms include fatigue, sleep and appetite problems, loss of joy or interest in social or entertainment activities, and so on. I conclude that I am suffering from Dysthymia, an idea that persists for about an hour or two, until I throw it aside. This is not genuine. This is a sideshow concocted by my chemicals to distract me.

This is merely self pity.

* * *

Funerals have always made me uncomfortable. It is not the whispers or somber tone. Nor is it the tangible proximity of death. It may be the religion. All the talk of faith and transcendence sets me on edge. I am an atheist. I believe that consciousness, what some might perceive as the soul, is nothing more than a complex pattern of electrical signals exchanged between synapses in our brain. When our meat machinery ceases to function, those signals stop firing, and the lights go out. I wish I could believe in a higher form of existence, but there has never been anything to convince me of this. I suppose that is the essence of faith, to trust in something without the need for validation, but it is a quality I lack.

Apart from two grandparents and my father’s eldest sister, I have never lost any family members or close friends, though I’ve seen my share of funerals. There is something disingenuous about the whole procession. Though maybe this is simply my own cynical filter at work. Are we there for the departed? They are gone. They have no further concerns or suffering. Or are we there to quiet the fear in ourselves? To say, look at this: when you are gone, you will be remembered. People will say nice things about you and drop roses on the ground. When I die, I want no talk of God, or for friends or family to sanctify my behavior with idle praise. I hope they will say I tried my best and leave it at that. Have a drink, tell a story, and toss my ashes in the sea.

The memorial service for Sergeant Altamirano is held on September Twentieth at the COB Speicher MWR. Members of Delta Company and Green Platoon speak fondly of their fallen brother, and the chaplain gives a benediction. We stand at attention as the final roll is called. The honor guard fires three volleys, and a solitary trumpet sounds Taps. It is an appropriate and dignified ceremony.

In twos and threes we march forward silently, the entire battalion, to the constant strains of Amazing Grace, and salute the altar where they have placed his rifle and boots and helmet.

There is one thing I do like about funerals, and that is bagpipes. The world needs more bagpipes. Few other sounds carry such bittersweet resonance.

It is twenty hundred, and I am reclining on my bunk, trapped in a curious limbo between agitation and inertia. I should go to the gym to work off all this annoying useless energy. At the same time, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I compromise and step outside the CHU for a smoke. Mies is burning assorted papers in an ammo can, staring at the fire with his arms crossed.

“Want to sing Kumbaya?” he says.

“No.”

“You never want to do anything fun.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say, leaning up against the Hesco. “And I don’t know the words.”

We watch the flames for a few minutes. Then I drop my butt in the ammo can and go back inside.

 

Author’s note: The following are annotated highlights from the morning show playlist on WTMD 89.7 out of Towson, Maryland on the morning of Wed. April 13, 2011. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the DJ Erik Deatherage, who has unknowingly nursed me through many a difficult morning.

I was strolling down the street with my sister, tossing mini gummy bears into my laughing throat, when death paid me a brief visit. I was simultaneously strolling, laughing, talking, and swallowing, when a single mini gummy bear slid down my windpipe. No sooner had the little red bear made its confused dash for destiny than I coughed him right back up onto the pavement. I would say death flashed before my eyes that day, but in fact death is always before my eyes, like a retinal ghost at the corner of my vision. But in that instant, there unfolded a very specific picture of my death-by-gummy and all that would follow after.

I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of dying in a way that guarantees I will be a laughingstock to all future descendents, possible literary biographers, and collectors of arcane death-related trivia.

I hope it won’t sound morbid to say I often picture what the world will be like after I am dead. A tasteful service, a few well-spoken eulogists in basic black throwing around words like “insightful” and “lovely,” and I gently depart this good life.

In time, while my bones lie quietly mouldering in a suitably picturesque cemetery (I would prefer London’s Abney Park Cemetery, if anyone is taking notes), some graduate student desperate for an original thesis topic will unearth a thin collection of my essays and stories, long out of print, and so earn himself a PhD from a small but well-respected East Coast liberal arts college. For a decade or two, my name will serve as an extremely obscure reference to be bandied about academic halls by pretentious undergraduates suffering from secret feelings of crippling inadequacy, and then again forgotten. I will have a Wikipedia entry, but only a stub.

Or why not think bigger? Perhaps a few of my more quotable musings, torn from chronology and context, will find their way into a brightly bound gift book, where they will join crafters of epigrams like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde on the Barnes and Noble impulse purchase rack right by the cash register. Precocious and unattractive teens will aspire to emulate me, like that one month in high school when I dressed like Fran Lebowitz every day. There will be an automatic Summer Block quote generator on the internet but it won’t work that well.

Contrast then the death that appeared before me that day with my sister, my unruly epiglottis, and that fateful confection: I die from choking on a gummy bear. Instantly, the world forgets every single thing I have ever accomplished in my life up to that moment.

When you die by choking on a gummy bear, you are forever enshrined in memory as a clumsy, gluttonous, and luckless oaf. No matter that you graduated at the top of your medical school class, that you donated money to orphans, that you produced a delightful little one-man show to mixed reviews. No matter that you were thin and fit, a dedicated drinker of vivacious green spirulina concoctions and a regular fixture at charitable 10K races about town, where your financial generosity was matched only by your otherworldly lung capacity. No matter that you had never tasted a gummy bear before in your entire life: you are now officially the swollen-bellied slob who was so ravenous and ill-coordinated that they died while shoving gummy bear after gummy bear into their flapping maw, just like they probably did every other day of their life before Fate finally caught up to them and gave them the shameful ending they deserved.

101 Hilarious Ways to Die may well outsell The Wit and Wisdom of Summer Block at Barnes and Noble come some future holiday season, but that’s not how I plan on being remembered.

What I discovered in my attempt to select books for this month’s column is that there are more books for me to read than I have time. So, I’ve decided this month’s focus would be about the “little press”. To me every independent press is a champion in its own right, but there were a couple presses in particular that stood out for me this month. While these two selections are only two among many worthy titles, I really felt like these were outstanding. I like books of all shapes, sizes, styles and (okay, sorry non-fiction, you . . . not so much) I try to be as well rounded as possible however; I do tend towards shorter books when in a pinch for time. I’ve come to learn though, shorter books are equal if not more time consuming than a novel or short-story because they are replete with thought-provoking sentences, images and often, complex paragraphs of poetry. A shorter text requires a bit more commitment from my brain. I cannot flip the pages as easily, partially because I want so much to savor the words and sentences, so I read slowly (that and I seem to have horrible reading comprehension or ADHD) and thus, a fifty page book takes me almost as long as if it were two hundred and fifty. What does all this mean? Quite simply put: Good writing is good writing regardless of length.

My mother holds me in her arms under a tree – or so the story goes, I am too young to remember on my own – and explains that daddy is broken and has to go to heaven. In heaven he’ll be fixed, she says. If he comes back here, he’ll still be broken, that would be bad, and we wouldn’t want that, right? I guess I agree to keep daddy in heaven because that’s where he stays. I really wouldn’t want him to be broken. I mean, I don’t think I would. At least he’d be here though. No, I’m sure I wouldn’t. Not really.

He is buried. I don’t know where. Then he is gone. We leave town, move to New York City and soon everything is different.

I grow up and go to school. I go to camp and take dance lessons. I read books and play in the park. My mother remarries and we have a new family. Somewhere in between she writes a book about our loss called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart. It allows people to ask us questions and it allows us to give advice. We’ve moved on quite nicely, we are told. We agree. We are fine.

I don’t know when I realize there might be a tangible access to him, a grave. He is in New Jersey I learn, B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, to be exact, just over the river, near Newark. I wonder if I can see him from my balcony.

Visiting him never seems like an easy option. My mother is always full of excuses. The roads are confusing. We don’t have a car. Next year. Maybe.

Somehow, when I am old enough to drive, I round up a car and rally my mother and we are off. We may float over the Hudson for all I know. I have no memory of that day before standing in the rain in front of his grave.

It is very odd, almost creepy, to see your own name on a headstone. ZIENTS. There it is. I am not used to sharing my name with others. I am the only Zients in my immediate family since my mother remarried. It is one of the reasons I love going to dinner with my grandfather. “Ah, Mr. Zients, right this way. Your table is ready.” I love the sound of it. It makes me feel special to share his name, our special bond. But seeing our name like this makes me pause. I know that my father died, obviously. But there it is on a tombstone above some grass with his casket and remains of a suit below. He is all alone too. No one by his side. My grandmother is there, true, but she is just a little too far, a little too out of reach. To his left and to his right are empty plots. At least I know my grandfather will fill the space next to my grandmother. I do not know if I, or my remarried mother, will do the same for my father.

My mother has brought a candle that she and my father purchased together many years ago. My mother is the overly-sentimental-keeper-of-unnecessary-nostalgia type. I usually find this irksome, but right now I love her for it. We light the candle at the base of his grave, and my mother strolls away so I can meet my father.

“Hello,” I begin. “I just graduated college. A real big girl. I’m doing great.” I lie.

“Stanley, my stepfather, you know Mommie’s husband, well, he adopted me,” I explain, half expecting lightning and thunder to strike me down as I do. “Grandpa said it was okay. It’s a good thing, actually, but still, if it bothers you, I’m sorry.”

It begins to rain a little bit harder. I begin my goodbye, imagining, as I am prone to do, that I am not just talking to some wet grass off the New Jersey Turnpike and that he can actually hear me. As I do, the candle goes out. Damn rain I think to myself, ruining my moment. I turn to my mother and complain, “the candle went out.” She walks over to join me and it goes back on. Hand to God, it goes back on.

For a brief moment I am jealous that he chose to show himself as my mother approached. Was he talking to me or to her? Why couldn’t he have been clearer? I want to think it was to me, or even to us, but what if it was just to her. It did go back on when she walked over. Nothing changed as I stood there, except that it went out. He hates me. It’s quite clear. I am not important enough to overcome the rain. It’s true.

This is stupid. The candle went back on. It is magical actually. He was talking to us. Yes, he was talking to us. That is tremendous, really quite spectacular, a sign from above, if you think about it.

My mother and I hug and cry and declare it lovely. Lovely indeed. This is what we call beautiful we discuss, and we decide it is the most beautiful day ever in the history of ever. We leave the cemetery and head back to New York, and I feel worthy of being alive.

We drive, maybe in silence. I’m sure there are no words that would be right. No words to express what I now know, that my father up on the slant of the hill above my grandmother and the other to-be-filled spots is king of the cemetery. He reigns there, all powerful. And he’s watching out for me. I love that. I smile and feel comfortable (or at least as comfortable as I can) leaving him behind.

I drop my mother off, loving her just a little bit more and race to the East Side to pick up my friend Jennie. I had it perfectly planned before the day even started. I was going to spend the morning in New Jersey with my mother and would still have enough time to make it out to Long Island in the afternoon for Sam’s funeral. When I planned it, it almost seemed appropriate to do them both on the same day.

Jennie had called a couple of days earlier to tell me Sam had died.

Sam Mazlow was one of three brothers who owned Mazlow’s, the restaurant where Jennie and I had worked for several summers out on Fire Island. We’d started as busgirls and worked our way up, all the way to waitresses. Mazlow’s was our life for four months out of the year and now one of them had died.

“Of course, I’ll be there,” I explained as she told me about the service. I thought about our summers and the trouble we got into and the safe haven that Mazlow’s and their whole family served for us. I knew them well, even though I hadn’t worked there for a while. Paying my respects all the way out in Long Island, it was the least I could do. What a shame, really. He was too young. It’s really quite a shame. I made a note to bring my mother’s book.

I pick up Jennie and all her curly hair and head out of town for the second time that day. I want to tell her about the brush with the other side that I have just miraculously experienced in New Jersey. But it is a somber day and so is she, so I soften the story and just present the facts, leaving out all the grandness and glory. She is supportive and interested, but only as far as she can go. She could never fully understand. It was just between the three of us, a mother, a father and their daughter.

We drive, again in silence and my mind wanders, loving the concept of just the three of us – a mother, a father and their daughter. Mommie, Daddy and Me. I bathe in it for awhile because it is so foreign.

I don’t think anyone meant to dismiss me as a full-fledged family member, on either side. But that’s how it feels. I was too strong of a memory to be fully embraced by my father’s family and too weak of a presence at nine, when I met my new one, to demand my own niche. Even my grandfather, whom I adore, drunkenly referred to me in a toast at his 75th birthday party as a walking reminder of his dead son. It is not pleasant to think you trail grief from room to room at family functions. So I smile and mind my place and don’t make waves and hope it will adjust itself. But when the candle relit, I knew I was worth more than that. He was telling me he hadn’t dismissed me.

He should know I’ve never dismissed him. I wonder about him all the time. I picture him wooing my mother through the streets of Florence, Italy and finally proposing on the Ponte Vechio. I watch and rewatch his broadcasting videos and think about what else he could have accomplished. I know he would have been a huge, huge star. I check behind doors when I am home alone convinced there is someone there, a constant presence, a watchful eye that always makes me question my behavior before I am about to do something naughty.

I have imagined he hadn’t really died. It was all a ruse. He’d been wandering the streets with amnesia actually. And only, when the gods intervened, convinced I could handle it, and it was time for us to know each other properly, he’d walk back into my life and all would be explained. I’d take him by the hand and say, “It’s okay. I’m here.”

Or he’d pick me up from ballet one day before my mother had arrived and explain he was really a secret agent and the world had needed him and that was that and I needed to understand. I’d tell him I did. He’d say, “Good girl” and we’d grab my leg warmers and off through the back door on some adventures together.

I still see him in strangers on the street. I am constantly told people see him in me.

My head spins at the cosmic importance placed on the day, but as we head out of Queens I suddenly decide my father is an asshole, a real prick. Good riddance. Then I scramble for forgiveness and cry out to erase those thoughts from my stupid, stupid head.

What could he have possibly been thinking that day? Was it a hit on the head, a chemical imbalance or, waiting for me as well, an all encompassing “crazy” gene? Did my then four-year-old self flash before his eyes as he placed the noose around his neck? Did that image make him pause from what he was about to do for a moment, even just a second?

I spin recklessly out of control in my head as Jennie studies the map. Then the goddamn car begins to spittle and fiddle, and soon we are on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway. The car is smoking and it is still raining, and this isn’t how I planned it at all. And how the hell did the candle relight? And now, above everything else, we’re going to be late.

A nice man stops and helps us. He brings us to a mechanic who says he can fix it, easy. We wait and get donuts as he does. Jennie is silly. She must think something’s wrong. She reminds me to breathe.

We finally arrive at the memorial drenched and stressed, but otherwise intact. The Mazlows, Carl, Renny, little Renny, they all just keep coming. More family from all nooks and crannies, from everywhere. I spot Erica, Sam’s widow, who smiles as she greets everyone who comes her way. I stop my approach and quietly judge her. How can she possibly be smiling at a time like this? That isn’t proper. We mingle and make our hellos and then there’s Ryann, Sam’s daughter, who is beautiful, all brown big eyes who embodies all that’s wonderful about being seventeen. I offer her my years of survivor wisdom and take her address to send her my mother’s book, which I have stupidly forgotten.

“It’s hard,“ I tell her.But it will pass. Really, I swear. Look at me. I turned out just fine.“ I smile all knowingly.

We hug and she says thank you like I have just whispered a secret in her ear that her father is really just outside.

When I get home I am all too aware that I have lied to Ryann. Why would I lie to her? She’s so pretty. Did I even know I’d lied? No. I meant it. I did. But because of me, she now expects an easy road ahead. What a dreadful, awful person I am. But I didn’t know what to say. I had to say something. I had to. That’s my job. I’m good at it. Or at least I was. What will I do now? Will I run away? Keep crying? Call her up and tell her it really sucks, like a film that wraps around your entire being or a stench that never washes away? Will I pretend? Pretend I even know what’s wrong?

I am jealous of Ryann with her big sprawling family. At least she knew her father. Like those whiny girls in gym class who complained about their parents’ divorces and only getting to see their dads on weekends. I wanted to punch them in the face and scream, “At least you have a father, you stupid little things.“

I want to tell myself to shut up, but only crazy people do that. And then I get it. I’m right on schedule. Today’s the day, the day I’ve been dreading, but secretly knew would arrive. The day I become broken. Well isn’t that perfect. It is my destiny, obviously. My father went crazy, and, according to my mother did not show signs until his early twenties. Well, here we go. Dammit.

The wind rattles the cheap windows in my fourth floor walk up and the pink paint continues to peel. I light a cigarette, my new dreadful habit, and put on my overly appropriate new favorite song, Joan Osbourne’s Crazy Baby and collapse on my bed.

My bed, which I just shared with Alex, the bartender from work, whom I don’t even like. He’s kind of an asshole. But I was bored and declared it French night and he could keep up when I ordered en francais and that’s all it took and then we were here. There are studies that say girls without fathers tend to be either prudish or promiscuous. I had always leaned towards prudish, but recently, I don’t know why, with the likes of Alex, Steve, Barney, Robert, I am single-handedly trying to prove the prosmiscuous studies right. I’m disgusting.

I am a failure, a fraud from the “put together” life I’ve led.

I call my mother and quietly tell her I need help. I am grateful she does not judge and we agree to call a therapist in the morning. Anticipating my next worry, she assures me that she and Stanley will pay for it. And so it is done. I’ve staved it off for today anyway.

I smoke my Parliament Lights, unsure of what has just happened. The stereo wails and I sit and wait, aware of every sound. My hand shakes holding the cigarette, as I think about the simplicity of a candle and some rain and of him up on the hill alone. I search for a moment of calm inside my little apartment, because I know that crazy swirls in the wind right outside my door. And I’m pretty sure it’s looking for another way in.