Monday
Jun112012

The Mere Weight
of Words

By Carissa Halston


 

Aqueous Books
June 2012
978-0984739950


 

It was June when I woke one morning to find I had accepted my new face. I no longer checked for improvement, didn't hope for any miraculous reversal; my condition had become rote. Sensing my ease, my mother suggested that I visit my father. I hadn't seen him since returning from the east coast. The idea that he might believe I was still living in New York excited me in its covertness.

"I think you should go," Mom told me. "Especially in light of your last visit with him."

"I'd really rather not."

She had broached other topics with me—potential graduate school options, career goals, any path that would lead me out of my self-perpetuating rut—but she had lost, retreated for fear of pushing too hard. I would not be so lucky on this front.

"You need to consider his feelings."

"Why? It's not as if he's ever returned the favor. I think you of all people would understand that." Her features absorbed and reflected the sting of my words. I looked at my lap as if she'd scolded my bad behavior, but her silence was far worse. How fiendish spite allows us to be. This was vitriol meant for him, but my aim was poorly focused. "I'm sorry," I said at last.

"No need," she said, surrendering as if she'd deserved such a slight. Why couldn't I have inherited her humility? Why did I always revert to sticks and stones? "I just thought—"

"It's okay, Mom." I shook my head, unable to bear her apology over my rashness. "I'll go."

She looked only at my good eye, a measured practice I would watch her perfect, and a relieved smile broke across her face. Ever the peacemaker. Always considering the best of our intentions.

 

My father's house conspicuously hid among several others within a gated "community" where the common thread was his neighbors' desire to avoid each other as steadfastly as they ignored the gawking passers-by. Rumors blazed about which house belonged to whom, none of which could be verified because their grounds and pools and possibly even their homes went unused. Collectively, they symbolized the basis of what a model neighborhood could have been: in theory, a circle of well-maintained homes, in practice, no more than houses.

But what houses they were. Panels and doors that gleamed like incisors, their accents so bright, they ignited at noon, making each sill and knob glimmer with the wealth of the sun. Fastidiously kept lawns filled the spaces between driveways and walkways and paths used as borders that whispered not, "Keep off," so much as, "Keep away." These warnings were not for intruders, but for neighbors next door.

"This is mine. That is yours."

It was a case of the grass never being greener.

I approached the intercom to request entry into my father's home. Having not yet purchased a car, I'd arrived on foot, meaning they had either seen me coming from a mile away or mistaken me for a member of the masses who arrived unannounced and unbidden. While I may have been viewed as unwelcome, my father had been expecting me.

"What do you think of the place?" he asked once I'd sat down, offering only my left side to his critical eye. I'd barely glanced around on my way in. My recollection of the neighborhood and his house materialized only after I'd taken the time to replay our exchange during the silent years that followed.

"It's nice," I faltered, "and big." It was large, though not egregiously so. It would have suited a family.

"Yes," he beamed proudly. "Lots of space to work."

"Hmm," I envied workspace, envied work. "How's all that going?" I asked, busying my idle hands and thoughts with a loose string at the hem of my skirt.

"Very well. Going into pre-production on a new project next month. Casting, location booking, all the exciting preliminaries."

"Great."

"And you?" he said, suddenly interested. "What are your plans?"

My response lacked every sort of undertone. "I haven't really got any plans at the moment."

I expected him to lunge at me, to launch a verbal attack decrying my indecisiveness. Perhaps he knew how fully equipped I was to fight back; perhaps he could sense how ready I was to accuse him of having me and my mother and our support and everything else for so many years. It could have been that he knew I considered my indecision hereditary because he sidestepped the entire argument in three words.

"And how's school?" Spoken as if he held no opinion regarding my future at all. It then occurred to me then that my mother had likely warned him about my "condition." This assumption emboldened me, made me care less about his opinions.

"I'm done with school," I said plainly.

"You quit?"

"I graduated." He seemed relieved until I mentioned, "A year ago." His features reeled then; he'd missed a milestone. Instantly, he was on his feet, on his toes.

"Congratulations," he said. I stood as well, half expecting him to shake my hand, half wanting to delay his full view of my face.

"Thank you," I said, unsure of where to look to counter his unpredictable panic.

"Are you leaving?" he asked, a reaction to my standing. He inched closer to my right side and I retreated.

"No, I—" Glancing for the exits and finding none nearby, I hurried verbally forward. "You had stood, so I thought—"

My sinuses lined themselves with fluid; my tear ducts released their reserves. Without any notice, I hastily clawed at my face, apologized, then searched my bag for a tissue. Dabbing at my lids and cheeks, I looked up to find my father had left the room and returned with a pitcher of water.

"Here," he offered a glass to me. "Stop." He meant the rushed cleansing of my face. I took a series of deep breaths, then held my hands together to cease their shaking.

I watched as he studied my features, as he assessed the after compared to his memorized before. Had I full command of my eyes, I would have looked down; instead I turned my face away.

"What?" he said, his concentration broken. "What's wrong?"

"This isn't—" What could I say? This isn't what I came here to do? This isn't how I pictured our next visit to be? Would it have made any difference? I felt like I'd always been on display for him. Like he'd always been analyzing the rawest parts of me. "This isn't fun for me, Dad."

"This?" he repeated. "Don't worry about it. This is nothing. This is manageable. We can fix this." This. Had he actually acknowledged our relationship as broken? Would we walk the proper path to mend it? "I'll get you the best doctors."

No, not this, but, "This."

I recoiled from him. "Thank you, but no."

"What?" The very word was incredulity.

"I said, 'No.'" He stared at me, no longer studying my misshapen features, but looking only at my eyes, flummoxed by the anger he saw there.

"Why not?"

"I would think it was obvious, but I've been through enough."

"You haven't told me anything about what you've been through," he said. "How am I supposed to know?"

"You didn't even ask me what happened. I assume Mom told you. Besides, I've never had to tell you anything. You've always formed your own opinions about what I should or shouldn't do."

"I'd say you and I are past that stage."

I released a crooked laugh. "You would." I attempted to sigh, but it emerged as a half-hearted sob. "I should go."

He stepped forward, almost blocking my path. "You just got here!"

"Yes, that's true," was all I could think to say.

"Don't go," he said. "Let me help you. It doesn't matter, what's happened, whatever it was. We could have it fixed." I balked. "No one would have to know."

"Everyone knows," I released a yell that had been building for years; I almost couldn't follow it with lesser, gentler sounds. "But even—even if they didn't, I would know."

Whether that explanation had been enough, my father didn't say. I suppose it wouldn't have mattered even if he had. We'd both stopped listening to each other years prior.

 

In the yellowed light of my faintest memories, I see my mother and father walking. But already, my current impression of them seeps into the past—I refer to them separately when they were actually one. One unit, one word, one idea: parents.

My mother was waiting for me, replete with hopeful expression, when I got home. "He knew before he even saw me," I said.

During these walks that I just barely remember, my parents converse.

"He had time to decide exactly what he wanted to say. To rehearse it," I said.

Sounds exist, but their speech is beyond my understanding.

"I was terrified," I told her, "of what he would think. Of how to tell him."

How odd to imagine a time before letters, sentences, text, definitions.

"But I didn't have to tell him. Because he already knew."

A time before context, implicatures, and weighty silences.

My mother said nothing. I said nothing in return.

Their sounds were phonemes, part of a system I couldn't comprehend at the time, and though I think I understand it now, I grapple with the universality of meaning. Not between speakers of many tongues, but between speakers of a single language. If it can't cure misunderstanding, why is the system in place at all?

If, when I say, "I don't want to see my father," that is not construed as, "I don't want my father having information about my life," then why do we spend so much time trying to communicate?

Language is necessary. If there were no words—no speech—we would create a new lexicon of symbols. Perhaps one of teeth gnashing or dancing or maybe we'd have a highly evolved telepathy beyond humanity's current capacity for thought. Something would be there for us to learn and manipulate and we would falter or excel because we need it just as badly as we need to be understood. It is our system to try or be tried by and although it sometimes leads to disputes and quarrels, disagreements over what should and can and must or must not be said, language heals more often than it hinders.

I tried to be pragmatic about my parents, tried to put their behavior in context. Maybe I expected too much. After all, my father does lie for a living. His every word is suspect. And my mother—is a mother. She did it to help me, to protect me, to try to save me the hurt. Yet I hurt nonetheless. Possibly more.

I continued to live with her for the six months that followed my visit to my father. During that time, she and I spoke intermittently—we still do—but nothing of significance.