Waiting For Tanya
– Fiction by Aaron Clark & Painting by Edward Cazares –
I knew she was arriving that day. There were six long, terraced steps leading from the porch down to the small parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Each one required me to take three strides, then, to cross, but there was no rail and often, when the yard was freshly mown, I would walk outside the concrete boundaries of the stairs, leaving worn tracks of discolored grass, trampled by tiny footprints, to the right and left of the walkway. That morning, there was dew glittering on the clover-strewn lawn, and I stayed on the concrete and sat on the bottommost terrace, closest to the road. I hugged my knees to my chest and waited.
Across the street, beyond an algae-drowned catchment pond whose patchy, sinister green surface seemed to swallow any of the weak morning light foolish enough to approach it, large academic buildings climbed up a terraced hill in blocky modern tiers. I remember the tableau with shocking clarity—steam hissing off defrosting rooftops; marshy goat paths winding around the water; dingy office trailers tucked almost out of sight on the other side of a small creek; imposing pines, backlit by the rising sun, that separated our house from the intramural fields on the other side of the hilltop behind—but at that time the large majority of the campus was still under construction. There must be blatant discrepancies between how it actually was and the memory that so vividly assailed me when, years later, I came back to the site of that first home, as closely as I could approximate it, with a woman I loved and have since lost, for reasons that elude me still. Our family’s small brick home and the Parks’ were gone, as were the stairs and sloping lawn, replaced by multilevel student housing. A fountain circulated the water around the now-clear pond, and the goat paths had long since been formalized into smooth, rust-colored sidewalks. The strange collage of false recollections and present reality was disorienting. Abigail and I walked on a brisk November afternoon to the spot where I had sat, as closely as I could approximate it, and I tried to explain how I had waited there, gargoyle-like, nearly ten hours for my aunt Tanya.
I woke early to the smell of my father making breakfast, it being a Saturday. It could have been waffles, preferred by my mother, or pancakes, my sister’s choice. Occasionally, we had coffee cake, which my father loved best, or, rarer still, crêpes, which were my own favorite. The menu for these weekly spreads rotated according to an obscure calendar known only to my father. I was not to learn it until many years later, but to my dismay, our family tradition of a weekend breakfast treat was like opening one present only—inescapably a new pair of pajamas, to be worn the following day for pictures—on Christmas Eve, in that it was by no means unique. Although for most meals he ceded control of the laminated kitchen to my mother, for whom cooking and serving food was not only a talent, but indeed a great joy, and rarely a burden, on Saturdays it was always my father who donned an apron. I can recall very few instances of variance in this fact, generally when he was out of town for one reason or another, and the occasions that stand out are remarkable primarily for the inferiority of the meal, though my mother used the same recipe to create an identical product.
He began preparing breakfast, which he referred to as ‘undertaking his solemn duty,’ before the sun rose, and it required many years of stolen, piecemeal observations, all of which felt like intrusions, to understand the process in full. In a corner cabinet under the particleboard countertop there was a two-tiered Lazy Susan. Squatting, balanced on flexed toes, knees creaking in protest and one hand on the floor to ensure he did not tip forward, he turned the trays slowly, taking inventory. Until I was much older, he maintained the practice, even then long out of fashion, of wearing a bathrobe in the house in the mornings. Dark blue, sash loosely tied over tee shirt and plaid pajama pants, its threadbare tails fanned out onto the unwaxed wooden floors, covering his house shoes. Abigail remarked that much of this was beginning to sound familiar, and I smiled.
He placed several large, dusty containers in a neat row beside an electric griddle. These containers—made of military grade molded plastic and covered with inflexible baby blue lids that I once, in later years, actually broke a butter knife trying to pry open, but that he snapped off with apparent nonchalance—were filled with all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, and so on. Later, when material circumstances allowed tastes to change, these ingredients were replaced by organic, gluten-free, ethically sourced alternatives, but they remained stored in those blast-impervious vessels. There were, also, smaller tins of baking soda and baking powder and a dark little bottle of vanilla extract substitute. Iodized salt in a navy and white Morton’s cylinder. From the refrigerator, depending on which meal he planned to prepare: eggs, buttermilk, Canadian bacon, blueberries, pecans, Cool-Whip. Stainless steel measuring instruments, the clanging of which he muted with his hands, ridged with mysterious callouses despite years of exclusively intellectual labor. All arrayed with the greatest care beside that modern gnostic gospel, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
He rose before dawn to make the batter, and to be alone. Not then knowing the latter, and waking, as I said, earlier than usual, I walked into the kitchen rubbing my eyes and sat at the table. He acknowledged my presence, trying to conceal his annoyance by asking how I had slept, and whether I had had any dreams, and I said nothing, although I had had the vividest of dreams: the first instance, as closely as I can now determine, of a recurring nighttime scene that pursued me for many years afterward, the details of which I cannot remember, although I can still recollect, I told Abigail, the sensation of dread that accompanied its aftermath.
I smelled roasting walnuts. He asked whether I would like coffee. I nodded. The special way? I confirmed with another nod, saying in my piping little voice, Bitte, as he sometimes did when my mother offered him a second helping at dinner. The ‘special way’ was one part coffee to about 6 parts milk and sugar. He had already made a full pot, and it was, I thought, this that woke me.
In the poverty that plagued us in those early years, my father suffered few concessions to our moderate, almost spartan lifestyle. Books, of which I never felt a scarcity, and which served at once as furniture, decoration, entertainment, and education. Shoes—my mother’s argument, to the logic of which he bowed somewhat grudgingly, was that ‘You only have one pair of feet, and once you wear those out you can’t buy new ones.’ And coffee: always whole bean, medium roast, ground the instant before brewing. The grinder he used in those days—which was still in regular use in the apartment Abigail and I then shared—was already nearly 20 years old, and spectacularly noisy. Though he tried to muffle the din by shielding it under his hunched torso, it sometimes woke the household. If he was in a whimsical frame of mind, which, it might have surprised those who only knew him as the stern face behind a lectern to learn, was often, he would shake the grinder up and down and around like Tom Cruise in Cocktail to accompany some internal song as the whirling blades, nearly dull from use, pounded, rather than chopped or sliced, the beans into a coarse powder.
He took his coffee black, and with no little pride. Not only could I hardly stomach the bitter taste at that age, but beyond that, I understood that my own adulterated mixture repelled him. I took some pleasure in this small departure from his expectations and the scorn, which he tried to hide, that it aroused in him: an effective counterweight to the pride of sharing one of his great joys with me. He set my cup down, filled with cloudy, barely brown liquid, cooled by the milk to almost room temperature. I stirred it with the handle of a spoon, taking care not to let it clatter against the rim.
He turned away, scarcely concealing a sneer, and measured one and a half cups of flour, leveling the top with the edge of a butter knife so that the excess fell back into the container, then poured it into the already whisked butter and sugar and egg. He stirred the batter by hand, although we owned a KitchenAid—a wedding present from my mother’s oldest sister. When the batter was complete, after stirring in baking powder and milk and a pinch of salt, he tipped it into a greased square glass baking pan, spread brown sugar and walnuts and cinnamon and melted butter onto the top, and slid it into the oven.
I left my cup on the table, scarcely touched, took out the small step-stool, and set it under the sink so I could reach. After I licked the leftover batter and streusel from the mixing bowls and whisks and spatulas, savoring the gritty texture of coarse sugar in the smooth beige paste, I scrubbed them and the other dirtied implements under warm water before passing them to my father, who wielded a drying rag with fearful efficiency. The clean soapy scent mingled, almost unpleasantly, with the heady aromas of cinnamon and coffee fumes. He opened the oven door and tested the dish, dipping a toothpick in and out and inspecting it, explaining as he did so that if bits of cake clung to the wood, it would need more time in the oven. He demonstrated that the same test could be performed with the tines of a fork, and handed the perfectly clean utensil to me to run under the water as well. He cut the cake into equal squares but did not serve it, covering the dish with foil and telling me we would wait to eat until my mother joined us. I felt famished, appetite whetted by the raw batter and saccharine coffee, and I protested.
He flared up in response to my petulant complaint, telling me what a spoiled little boy I was in a hissed undertone. When gripped by emotion, his idiom closely mimicked that of his mother, whose somewhat affected grandmotherly gentleness was belied by a terrifying puritanical sternness. My father rarely spoke in anger, and when he did, it was unpredictable and alarming, although he rarely resorted to physical violence except in that peculiar, petrifying, level-headed state that succeeds rage. Something, perhaps, in the combination of my intrusion, the coffee dilution, and the stress accompanying Tanya’s impending arrival—our first out of town visitor since we had relocated—or perhaps something totally unrelated to any of those factors, overrode his normal protestant reserve. The idiosyncratic combination of his morning attire and strangely worded admonition was somehow more frightening than if he had screamed. Biting his lip and breathing hard through his nose, he pointed out of the kitchen, arm trembling as though he were exercising great restraint in not using it to throw me out by the scruff of the neck, telling me as I went to keep quiet, and not to wake my mother or sister. I scurried from the room, dashing away tears, fearing that they would provoke him further. I simultaneously hoped I would encounter my mother, yearning for the comfort I knew she would offer me—even then, I despised myself for craving it—and prayed that she would still be sleeping.
I heard him pacing in the kitchen, trying to master himself. I crept down the cramped hallway and was almost to my parents’ bedroom, which I would have to pass by in order to reach the room I shared with my sister, when I heard floorboards creak. Without thinking, I turned quickly left and ducked behind the couch to hide, where I would be out of my mother’s line of sight if she went straight to the kitchen. I heard her ask my father if I was already awake, and before he answered, I slipped out the front door, closing it behind me as quietly as I could.
Once out of the house, I lingered on the small porch, half-hoping she would hear my exit. When she did not come running after me, I pulled on the sneakers I had left there the night before. I went slowly down the stairs in the crisp morning air, thankful that last year’s pajamas, though now showing three inches of ankle, had been of a warm flannel variety. My panicked flight had temporarily driven hunger from my mind, though I knew it would return. Fear and stubbornness, in combination with something else, resolved me, nonetheless, not to return to the house to beg humbly for my breakfast.
I thought of visiting my next door neighbors, the Parks, whose twin children, Ben and Sun-Mi, were my friends, though a year older; I considered also walking to the large house at the end of the cul-de-sac, the provost’s residence, more like a palace than a house in my eyes, where my closest companion, Olivia Lemons, lived. I felt a closeness to her that could not be explained by our parents’ insistent teasing about budding romance, nor by the fact that we shared a birthday, nor even by our shared interest in books. I simply confided everything in her, in the curious way children sometimes do. She was the only person my age besides myself who would begin school the next year already knowing how to read thanks, in my case, to parents anachronistically committed to the project of reading, and on her part, to genuine precocity. And although she would leave our town soon after the end of first grade, I thought often of her in years to come, though I do not know where she might be now. But that morning, I chose not to visit either household. Although both families had made it clear many times since our arrival that I was welcome at any time, I felt that they were probably just being polite. I knew also, somehow, that I should not leave the line of sight of my mother or father, who might be observing me from the window—not merely because I wished not to cause distress by wandering off, but because my passive presence would elicit attention on my own terms. I wanted to be seen, not searched for; wanted comfort, not frantic concern. So I sat on the bottom stair, very near, I told Abigail, where we are sitting now, not knowing at first exactly to what purpose. I would not run away, would not go back inside, would not seek out the company of my neighbors or friends. But slowly, over the course of perhaps ten minutes or perhaps an hour, I realized that I was not merely stoop perching: I was waiting for Tanya.
In the days since my aunt had promised me on the phone that she would be making the journey, I had talked of little else. My mother found my eagerness to see her sister endearing, and, later, irritating. I called her back several times, disregarding the long-distance charges my parents would incur, to extract assurances that no last-minute changes could prevent her arrival, which she tolerantly gave. Though facts and observations return to me with fearful clarity, I can only speculate about the reasons for my excitement, in the way that anyone who seeks to plot the topography of a child’s inner life must resort to guesswork and conjecture, even if one was once that child. Perhaps it was simply the fact that we had had no visitors to our remote Appalachian outpost; perhaps it was because I already felt a special affinity for this aunt who in later years would prove a steadfast and understanding friend to me despite the enigma of her own life. The shattered scale bars and hazy hatches that stand as placeholders in my approximated cartography of those early days are simultaneously a source of frustration and limitless possibility.
In any event, I knew she was arriving later that day, and the prospect filled me with excitement. Perhaps it had not been the muffled buzz of a coffee grinder but my anticipation that woke me so early. According to my mother, who, like my father, generally disapproved of sleeping in, not to say indolence, Tanya was a notoriously late riser. Moreover, she had little sense of punctuality. As my grandmother never tired of saying, Tanya was ‘on her own time,’ a line I always thought was meant as a compliment, but later came to learn was merely a pithy way of hinting that she was not mindful of others—a baseless characterization then and now. All of this I knew. Nevertheless, I was either distracted by the sting of my father’s dismissal or I felt that her promises to me personally would outweigh any delays habit or inconvenience might pose, and I structured the pace of my wait under the assumption that she would leave Georgia as early as possible.
I based this assumption on the travel habits of my parents. We often drove long distances, and regardless of destination, the methodology was relentlessly regular. Their philosophy—one that I have over the course of many years and journeys since, tried to abandon or disregard, but to which I have always returned, by some combination of an irresistible compulsion and a grudging acknowledgement of its logic and practicality—was simple: pack suitcases and sandwiches the night before, wake before dawn on the day of, make a carafe of coffee, and drive through the morning, stopping only for gas or emergencies, arriving at our destination with time left in the day to spend with family, at the beach, or wherever we happened to be going. It was practical in those days not only because of traffic avoided and the perceived increased time at the destination (often offset by the need to catch up on sleep once arrived), but because rising so early promised at least three hours during which my sister and I would be asleep. If my aunt followed the trail left by my own experience, I reasoned, she would have departed, perhaps not quite as early as I had risen that morning, but not long after.
I knew, intimately, the road she would have to take. We had not then lived long in Virginia, less than a year, but in those days, gas was cheap and my mother homesick and underemployed, I said to Abigail. Remind you of anyone? she asked me, smiling. Neither I nor my sister was yet in school, and my grandparents had not grown used to the anxiety caused by the separation of some 400 miles from their daughter and grandchildren. We had already driven the route to and from Georgia so often that I could have taken the wheel myself and given my poor mother a break, if I could have reached the pedals. I recall now her tired eyes glued to the road, chin resting on the steering wheel, periodically pinching the back of her hand or slapping herself lightly on the cheek to stay awake. Or perhaps I only know that’s how it must have been, from my subsequent experience driving those same roads in the gloomy predawn. Before the completion of a new highway some ten years later that would compress the distance considerably, the trip was almost exactly six hours, calculating for no more than two stops. My sister and I could watch The Sound of Music on a portable DVD player twice all the way through: to this day I can replay the entire film in my head without missing a note. I imagined Tanya’s progress, gauging the time to be roughly 0800. She must some time ago have crossed the Savannah River, delineating the Georgia-South Carolina border, and be close to Traveller’s Rest.
This left approximately four hours. I considered the road in front of her, pictured the littered vinyl interior of her Dodge Neon, could see the cue card printed off the then-primitive Internet and taped to the dashboard, and the route marked in yellow highlighter on a broadsheet atlas of the southeastern United States thrown carelessly on the passenger seat as a backup. I clearly visualized the brief stint of interstate between Greenville and Asheville, so dull you almost craved the stimulation of the often treacherous crossing of Sam’s Gap, and the final stretch from Johnson City to W., winding inexorably deeper into the mountains. These discrete and familiar segments made the prospect of my waiting seem not only manageable, but imperative: I became convinced that if I waited, astrally tracking her progress, it would alleviate the loneliness of such a solitary journey and, somehow, hasten her arrival.
Despite this newfound sense of purpose, I was hungry, as well as injured and bewildered that I was still uncomforted—even unnoticed—in my flight and subsequent solitary vigil. I was not hiding: in fact, I made sure I was seated in clear view of anyone who might look out of a front-facing window, but if they saw me—my mother, father, or sister—they did not rush to console me, despite my blatant attempts to look dejected. As the first son, and indeed first grandchild on either side of my family, I was unaccustomed to receiving anything less than nearly suffocating solicitude. The experience of being allowed to sulk was novel and unpleasant, and one that I responded to first with self-pity, and later with a sense of persecution, and a concomitant resolution to punish.
When I came with Abigail to the transformed site of my childhood home, I was surprised by the shortfall of memories that returned to me. I expected a torrent of experiences to come surging back as we approached. It was part of why I insisted we visit the place together, though I knew the house had been demolished long ago. I was desperate in those days to make myself understood. Perhaps I simply craved the thrill of divulgence, the intimacy that flows in the wake of an unasked-for confidence. I recall, writing now, a host of incidents associated with that house that I wish I had shared instead: the part I played in my sister’s broken arm; the slapstick loss of my admittedly wobbly front tooth, when my grandfather, ignoring my mother’s protestations, literally tied it with a piece of floss to a doorknob and slammed the door; a pain- and fear-wracked night I spent in the hospital, my leg swollen to twice its normal size around the necrotic site of a brown recluse’s bite. I had already squandered the car ride of more than seven hours to reach my parents’ current home, where I brought her with me to celebrate Thanksgiving that year. I spent nearly the entire drive trying to sketch my family members with fragments of incoherent, disjointed biography; drafting with fact rather than painting with anecdote. Stories such as these were as much a part of our family’s shared mythology as they were discrete events in my personal history. They were told and retold with laughter or solemnity, as the situation called for, digested and transfigured into narratives that ultimately had little resemblance to fact, but became critical to our family’s understanding of those early years in our town. I wanted to pull Abigail into that confidence, for her to be an insider to the ways we wove that place into our fabric. Though it is impossible now to know, perhaps relating these stories on that day, in that place, would have changed the shape of things to come.
Instead, I told her of how I sat there, obscurely miserable, and pictured the tall, straight pines that lined either side of Highway 25 and the flickering sunlight that pierced them; the jagged patterns they cast, hypnotic and nauseating; flattened vectors of morning light racing over the hood of my aunt’s car and through the passenger windows as she sped north. Three hours to go if she did not stop for lunch. The possibility did not occur to me until much later, perhaps around the time that my mother finally came to ask if I was sure I wasn’t going to have any breakfast, that something might delay my aunt’s arrival. I did not respond, merely looked at her, and in later years I wondered, as I told Abigail, if my father hadn’t advised her not to comfort me, not to cater to the caprices of a child, because she did not press the issue as she might normally have done. She didn’t even ask what I was doing, merely told me that I could reheat the coffee cake in the microwave later, if I was hungry, and to remember to cover it with a damp paper towel. It might have been obvious that I was waiting for Tanya, or it might simply have been unremarkable that I was sitting outside on such a lovely morning. Or, though it didn’t occur to me at the time, she may have had other things on her mind—for example, she has always been a fastidious cleaner, especially when anticipating guests, and I had been duly aware of the hum of a vacuum cleaner inside for several minutes before she approached me—and if I were out from underfoot, whatever my reasons, her life may have been a little easier.
She went back inside after kissing my head, then covered in sandy curls that have since darkened, in that heartbreakingly tender way unique to mothers. I sat still until I heard the screen door close and I cried, then, quietly but with great emotion. Although I had no real way of measuring time, other than a vague awareness of the progression of the weak sun’s low southern arc, I was quite certain that the three hours I had allotted my aunt must have elapsed. It was well after lunch, and my hunger had passed, then returned, and passed again. I was aware of it, and disregarded it. My younger sister, after tottering precariously down the lawn to ask me to play hide and seek, had first thrown a tantrum when I ignored her, then pled with me at least to answer her. It simultaneously wrenched at my heart to see her in tears at something for which she was in no way responsible nor could be expected to understand—it would be years before I understood it myself—and gave me a perverse pleasure to see the effect my withheld attention could exact. Ben also came and went, confused by my silence but unable to exact an explanation, and so agreed with my sister and Sun-Mi to play without me. Not long after, I watched Olivia walking from her house—she was tall then, much taller than me, and I could see her coming from a long way off—with dread, knowing that she too would ask me to play and that, if I were to remain true to my obscure resolution, which I intended to do, I could not make an exception, even to the person to whom I realized I actually wanted most to speak. I hoped my sister or Ben would intercept her before she reached me, but she came steadily on. She asked if I wanted to read with her, having been to the library with her mother earlier in the day, and though it made my wretchedness even more acute, I did not respond to her invitation, either. Unlike my sister, she did not plead with me, merely sat for a while trying to follow my gaze into nothingness, then shrugged before turning to go. Her indifference was subtly devastating, and I realized that I wanted to divulge everything to her—my father’s unkindness, my aunt’s faithlessness, my desire, which I could not then have put into words, to passively inflict an opposite and greater punishment on them through my absence; not only to wound, but to solicit attention and pity (all of which, incidentally, I had achieved with such success that I would go on unconsciously to return to this pattern again and again throughout my life)—but by the time I made up my mind to call out after her, she had gone.
Finally, I said to Abigail, the sun began to sink, and the temperature dropped. The hunger which I had ignored returned with a stubbornness that this time would not so easily pass. I had spent all day waiting for Tanya, and still she had not arrived. My capacity to imagine tragedy was and remains underdeveloped, so instead of fiery accidents I pictured as the primary inhibitors to her arrival banal inconveniences such as traffic, empty gas tanks, or flat tires. Eventually, even accounting for a late departure, multiple stops, and any mechanical problem she might have encountered, I was forced to contemplate the most plausible and painful possibility: that she had forgotten or broken her promises.
By this point, naturally, responding to both my sister’s cries and acting on her own concern, my mother had come to try and engage me several more times, responding to my silence first with exasperation, then indifference, and finally distress. The tears in her eyes as she demanded I say something further reinforced in my mind the efficacy of my aggressive dumbness, even if the original target of this tactic had barely even registered its use. She asked if I was angry with my sister; if I was waiting for Tanya; if my father had upset me; was I feeling sick? Chancellor Lemons—a title and name whose juxtaposition in my youth elicited smiles even from audiences of very serious people, and which he used to puncture the atmosphere of otherwise stultifying academic gatherings—she said, had called, saying that Olivia was also concerned. Upon learning that Olivia had not in fact been as indifferent as I feared, I was internally intrigued, but made no outward sign. She sighed. Even if, as I wanted to do, bursting as I was with words, I had asked, she could not have given me any information about Tanya’s progress, this being long before the era when cell phone distribution penetrated beyond the upper classes. All the same, I took some comfort from the absence of worry she displayed about her sister’s belated arrival.
My father, I explained when Abigail asked, had left the house soon after me that morning. In those early years of teaching, weekends were hardly a time to rest: there was a recently-completed dissertation to be edited and shopped for publication, lesson plans to develop, papers to grade, and more. He walked every day, even on Sundays—a fact which we were forbidden to mention in his own parents’ presence—to his office in the dilapidated history building, against the demolition of which he fought valiantly. Even in our first days in W., before he had the means to enable his acquisitive bibliophilic drives, the uninsulated, single-windowed room might generously have been called cozy; in the years since, stuffed with sagging, overflowing aluminum bookshelves, it would become positively claustrophobic. But a short time after, presumably, he and my mother and sister sat down to the coffee cake—the warm aroma of which I’m sorry to say I could smell, or imagined I could smell, from where I sat alone—he strode past my despondent, slumped form at the bottom of the drive, not acknowledging me, toting a battered leather bag around the edge of the pond. I watched his slender form climb the stairs on the hill opposite to his office, and all the while I waited for Tanya, I said to Abigail, I was scanning the building, hoping to see his face in the window gazing back at me. As the last atmospheric buzz of light was fading, I saw the heavy emergency exit door—which to my knowledge never, despite its urgent signage, activated an alarm—swing open and my father walk out. He stood there, silhouetted by the fluorescent glow specific to stairwells, and I imagined that he looked at me, though I must have been quite invisible. With his long, loping strides he descended the hill and I watched his rapid progress with apprehension. As he approached me, I was paralyzed by a mixture of defiance and longing, but felt my resolve growing weaker as he came closer.
He set down the bag and took a seat beside me, removing his long overcoat. For a time he said nothing, merely sat. He might have been imagining the campus as it would become in later years, or silently reviewing the day’s work, or wondering what was for dinner. He began to hum, and then to whistle. He was a virtuosic whistler, climbing octaves effortlessly into nearly inaudible registers, seeming somehow to maintain harmony and melody simultaneously, at equal ease with Bach or Bill Evans. He could bring tears to your eyes, not merely with the beauty of the music he created, but with the painful, piercing tones he could produce if he suddenly put his fingers between his teeth and turned the whistle on you like a weapon, or a siren. But the tune he chose that evening was soft, familiar, and complex. Finally, when I thought my heart would break from the music and the strain, he stopped abruptly and said, “You must be cold.” I nodded and he draped the coat over my shoulders. “Have you been waiting for your aunt?”
I shrugged, and suddenly my silence seemed less important. “She said she would be here today.” I thought I would cry again, saying the words, any words, out loud, but I did not.
“She may still show up,” he said, and put his arm around me. He was tender only on exceptionally rare occasions, but when he was, he refused to taint or obscure the gesture with bluff posturing or masculine camaraderie.
I leaned into his body and spoke, half-hoping he wouldn’t be able to understand. “I’m sorry.”
He did not ask “What for?” or say, “There’s nothing to be sorry for,” or “I’m sorry, too,” or “You should apologize to your mother and sister, not me.” In fact, he did not say anything at all for a moment. Then he stood, pulling me up with him. “Next Saturday,” he said, “I think I have crepes on the calendar. I’m sure I could use your help making them.” I nodded. “If you’re awake early again,” he added, and picked up his bag, and we walked back up the stairs, his coat so clownishly long it dragged on the concrete behind me.
“Did Tanya ever make it?” Abigail asked me as we sat together. The sun was hidden behind a steely curtain of clouds that smelled like snow, and the wind had picked up. She shivered despite wearing my leather jacket, which was in fact my father’s, and nearly as oversized on her as his coat had been on me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Not that day. I’ve tried to remember, but I can’t be sure.”
“But you seem to recall everything else so clearly.” She seemed indignant. “Surely if you waited all that time, you’d remember if she actually showed up.”
“It wasn’t the only time that sort of thing happened,” I admitted. “In fact, I’m not even sure it was the first time. That would certainly explain why my mother wasn’t overly distraught or even surprised by my behavior.”
“I thought you said she was your first visitor here.”
“I think that was the first time, but I really don’t know. The memory is as clear as a bell, but that might just be because it was repeated over and over again. I waited for Tanya, I waited for my grandparents, I waited for my father’s friend Dean and my mother’s maid of honor Helen. It feels like staring down at layers of trace paper stacked on top of each other, all with the same drawing, but on slightly different scales or in different colors.”
She seemed to consider this for a moment, then said, “Was it always in response to some unkindness? Or perceived injustice?”
“The waiting? Or the silence?”
“The waiting, I suppose,” she said, “though I think the point you were trying to make is that the two aren’t distinct.”
“When you go quiet now,” she continued, “and you do go quiet—it’s usually your way of reversing the consequences for something you did. You won’t explain, and it’s not always an immediate response, but you sulk, or,” she added diplomatically, “retreat into yourself, or whatever. And you let someone get so worried about you, worried that they might have done something, that they lose track of whatever your original transgression was. And suddenly I’m the one saying sorry, when you were the one who tickled me when I told you to stop until I lost my temper, or forgot to put gas in the car, or left the door open so the cat got out.”
I raised an eyebrow, and she said, “Though these days I don’t guess you have the time to wait on a stoop all day.”
“The time or the premise,” I said, and tried to fight the impulse to ‘go quiet,’ as she had put it, in response to her comments. “I think at base, I wanted attention. Not,” I hastened to add, “that I didn’t, or don’t, get enough of it without that type of display. But if someone else was coming to visit, then the day was about them. I think that even then I knew that my ability to stake out a spot in front of the house and wait all day without saying a word at such a young age was remarkable, and maybe a little uncanny. It was bound to transfer the anticipation of their arrival to worry over me.”
She shook her head. “I guess this should all be a little concerning.” She put her arm through mine and burrowed into my shoulder; it had started to snow, and we were walking back to the car, listing nearly 45 degrees into the now howling wind. “But really it’s kind of sweet.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Sweet, I mean,” she explained, “that you wanted to share it. With me. You were practically sweating with the effort of recollection, of trying to get to the bottom of it.” I opened the passenger door for her, then ran around to the driver’s seat and started the ignition.
“And I guess it was interesting to watch you realize in real time that you still sometimes behave the way you did in this memory, or composite memory, however you want to frame it, and to decide not to try to conceal it. But try to understand it by twisting the threads into some more coherent shape. Or at least more recognizable.”
“And it was sweet that you wanted to help me see it, too, even if you were scared that it was ugly.” She paused. “I guess what I mean is that it’s sweet that you didn’t realize this about yourself before. And that you thought since you didn’t realize, I didn’t know either. And that it was a risk to tell me, because I might not love you anymore if I knew. That it wasn’t obvious, and that I hadn’t already seen it and loved you anyway. And sweet that you still told me.” She warmed her hands in front of the vent.
I put the car into reverse and my arm around the back of her seat as I backed out of the drive where we had parked. I took her hand and we drove back the way we came. “I’m still not sure if sweet is the word, although I’m certainly glad it hasn’t driven you fleeing in the opposite direction,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, but when we got here, it seemed important, especially since the landscape is so different, and some patterns of behavior remain unchanged. But now that I’ve got most of it off my chest, especially since it seems it was totally unnecessary to begin with, I’ve lost the thread a bit. Where was I?”
“I think you wrapped it up about as neatly as you could have. But there is one thing that did concern me, or at least piqued my interest,” she said.
“You implied that your father, in a fit of misplaced guilt, taught you everything he knew about making pancakes.”
“That was crepes. The pancakes I had to learn just by watching over the years.”
“In either case, I have to say I’m disappointed that you haven’t demonstrated this ability for me. I expect you to remedy that at the earliest possible convenience.”
“He’s still the master,” I said, smiling. “I suspect he’ll try to impress us tomorrow morning, since it’ll be a Saturday. But when we get back home-home, I’ll be happy to give it a try for you.”
“I can hardly wait,” she said.
Aaron Clark is an urban planner and creative writer—not necessarily in that order—based in Norfolk, VA. He studied English at the College of Charleston, and owes tremendous debts to W.G. Sebald, for memory; Virginia Woolf, for consciousness; and P.G. Wodehouse, for joy. He enjoys riding bikes and spending time with his cats, Seymour (pictured) and Sylvia.
Edward Cazares is a Brooklyn born, first generation Mexican artist, who works to infuse his art with both cultures and heritage. His primary focus is to convey emotion through a myriad of colors, which is the only constant in his work. “I never plan a piece, I just allow my raw state to reflect in the work. Not everything I’ve created is perfect but each piece I create has a huge part of me.” Follow him on Instagram @edmonster