My father died last summer, and now I have his car. He didn’t leave me his car, but I have it all the same. What he left me was his music—his guitars and his stereo and his records and his tambourine that I had already taken years ago and have always kept in my bedroom. But he didn’t leave me the car. The car just kind of came to me. It’s a twenty-year-old Mercedes station wagon with an out of service car phone in a black metal holster. It looks like it ought to have a Bush/Quayle ‘92 bumper sticker on the back, but I’ve been told that a Puerto Rican flag on the dashboard would really recontextualize everything.
Other things that I have given a home to since my father died are things that he and I sorted through over the last year. In the months before his death, I would sit on the floor of his bedroom, and he on his bed, and we would look through the things that he had carried, from place to place, over the past several decades.
-swizzle sticks from Max’s Kansas City
-his ex-girlfriend’s résumé c. 1977 (my father explained that she had written it on his typewriter and left him a copy; he did not, in fact, require a résumé in order to conduct a relationship)
-a faded poster for the movie Hell Ship Mutiny
-a McGovern/Shriver campaign button
-a floor-length, silver coat made of asbestos that he’d worn for Halloween one year as part of a costume called “Prisoner of Pollution” (it also involved painting his face green and wearing handcuffs)
-his father’s stamp collection, which includes stamps from countries that no longer exist because their names have changed or they’ve been broken into two or absorbed into something larger
-the short story he’d written in grad school that Kurt Vonnegut had liked
-a little white jewelry box labeled “Kristin’s first haircut” that was full of blonde curls
-a red bumper sticker that recommends we “Drink Milk”
-his telescope from when he was a boy
-dozens of copies of the August 1973 issue of Mexican revolutionary magazine Chiapas Revista that lists my father as a special correspondent
-assorted baseball and drug paraphernalia
There were many other things, and we sat in his bedroom and went through them, item by item, deciding what to keep and what to throw, what was forever and what could go. Figuring out how best to dispose of the asbestos coat was, to say the least, not carefully considered. I double-bagged it and put it down at the base of his driveway with the rest of the bulk pick-up.
On the days that turned into nights when I would help my father organize his life, I would fall asleep in my old bed, in my old room, the only room in the house that my father had not changed. It was, I’d always thought, a forever room. Many times, in high school, I would come home late at night and my father would be sitting in my room with the door closed, playing his guitar. I would get under the covers and fall asleep and he would sit at the edge of my bed singing “Wild Horses.” Those are the nights that made me believe in forever, that infinity is something that can be understood over the course of a four-minute song.
Now I have that guitar, and I’m teaching myself to play it. I sit at night on my couch, practicing my chords until my fingers redden, and I will them, I beg them, to bleed. But they haven’t yet. I’m nowhere near good enough to play like he did, but occasionally I play a few chords perfectly and I can feel him beside me, even though he is never going to be there again.
It was not the house I was young in, where he died, but it was, in its way, the house in which I grew up. And it was also the house he loved. It was the first place we lived that had two trees strong enough and close enough to hang a hammock. On clear nights, I could find my father in the backyard, and he would get up so that I could lie in the hammock and he would push me back and forth and name all the constellations in the sky.
There’s Cassiopeia, he would say. And Orion’s belt.
I would always point out the Big Dipper.
I would point to stars that he didn’t know and he would make up names.
That one up there? That’s LTK. It stands for Little Tiny Kristin. And it’s named after you.
And that one? Well, that’s actually an airplane. It’s more like an accidental star. I think its name is Larry.
Lying there in the dark, the air getting wet on my skin, feeling the earth move under my dangling hand, I would allow myself to get scared. I would allow myself to think about the moving earth opening up under me or the trees that reached up over me splitting down their centers in a white flash of light from above, changing everything in an instant. And in those moments, those moments when I could feel myself cracking open, I would reach out for my father’s hand, his fingers stronger than any oak tree, and I would hold him tight. The ground was still below us and the heavens still hung above us and I would think to myself that it would be okay when I died because I would be up in the stars and the stars go on forever. There were always more.
It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that there was no promise of more. The only promise kept is the one that says never. I will never see my father again. I will never feel his hand on my head. I will never hear him say hello on the other end of my phone, or call my name from across the room, or say I love you as he pushes me back and forth in the rope hammock slung between two trees in his backyard. Never.
Now, in the presence of never, I live with more. I live with the stamp collection and the telescope and the faded movie poster. I live with Peter Lorre magnets and old records. I live with a dog that I never liked but that my father loved. A dog that cries when I leave the room because she was there when he died and she knows what never means.
I live with an old Mercedes station wagon with an out of service car phone. I didn’t ask for it; it came to me. And I drive it.
This past summer, about a month after I got the car, when it was August and the sky was burned yellow, I got into an accident. I switched lanes without looking and was hit from behind by a rapidly approaching Ford, slammed across Hamilton Avenue under the overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The rear windows shattered and glass went everywhere, a million fallen stars embedded in the butterscotch leather. I was pulled from the car even though I could move just fine. And the thing that I said over and over, to the guy who hit me, to the guy who brought me water, to the cop whose job it was to file the accident report, to the mechanic who worked at the repair shop where I drove the car against everyone’s advice, the thing that I said was: It’s probably ruined. I probably won’t be able to fix this. It’s gone.
The last time I saw my father was on a sunny morning. It was right after my birthday. I was born on Father’s Day. Before I entered his house, the dog came running across the yard, a streak of gray against the grass, and jumped up into my arms and I held her and told my brother that I would take her home. My father was sitting in his chair in his living room and his head was tilted back. His nose was running, and I could hear him breathing, I swear I could hear him breathing. I held the dog and she held me back and I looked at my brother and said Don’t you see? He’s not gone. He’s right there.
I said that even though as I got closer and reached out to touch his face and stroke his hair, soft as a rabbit’s and dark as a star-streaked sky, almost all of my senses screamed at me that he was gone. But I trusted my hearing, I trusted that the sounds I heard, music to my ears, were the sounds of life. I soon realized, however, that what I heard, what I trusted, wasn’t the sound of his breath. No air was going in, and what came out of his mouth now had nothing to do with life. I touched him and his skin was cold and chilled me in a way that I was grateful for later, because it let me know that I was still warm. There was a hole punched in the wall over my father’s head because my brother, who had always thought he could save anyone, had realized that there was nothing he could do to save our father; and in light of that, nothing to do except tear down the walls. My brother had arrived first and became the first to know that not everything can be fixed. I didn’t want to let go of my father that day but I had to and when I did my brother reached out for me and I cried and I cried, feeling stuck in that sunny morning and stuck in that house and stuck with all those things. None of them things that I wanted.
My brother drove me back home that night and we decided that I should keep the car because I could use it. It was only a month later that I split it in half, just another thing that was now gone.
It turned out, though, that my father had a lot of insurance on the car and that the repair shop had just the right parts for a twenty-year-old Mercedes. A miracle, the mechanic said. I hesitated, but then agreed. The cop who wrote the report said that I was blameless, even though I’m almost never blameless, and the guy who hit me had no damage to his car, so everything got fixed and now the car looks new again.
I know why this is not a bad thing. I know that it’s good to have things that remind us of the people we can no longer see. I know that when people see our things, they also see us. I know that I didn’t really want to enter the land of never on the morning that I switched lanes without really looking. I didn’t look behind me because behind me was empty, and I know that nothing can come out of oblivion. Sometimes I think that if I had looked and seen the Ford barreling down on me, I would have hit him head on and shown, under that yellow sky, just how precise my driving really is. Other times I know that I still want more. That I am not ready for never.
There are also still times when my brother asks me what I need—what I need from the store or what I need for Christmas—and I try to think of something. But then I open my mouth and no sound comes out. The problem is that I already live among things. I cannot escape the fact that all around me are things, proofs of life and proofs of love, but none of them can do what I want, which is to go back to a time when I didn’t have to think of never again and again.
All I want is to know that it isn’t our things that are forever, but rather we who are forever. That there will be a time and a place—and maybe that place is on a star, far, far away—that I will see my father again.
But this is a lot to ask of my brother. It can’t be bought at the grocery store. It can’t be given as a Christmas gift. And so I open my mouth and ask for a bottle of perfume and fold myself up like a fist in the corner of my couch, feeling as far away from the stars as I have ever felt before.