I am just a kid. I’m at the swap meet with my dad on Saturday afternoon, in the carpeted ballroom of the chain hotel behind a 24 Hour Fitness and the freeway onramp. He wears a charcoal suit and shoes with buckles. He has the shadow of a beard and a broad forehead, hard green eyes, a loud speaking voice.
“Stay close,” he says as we walk in. He has his fountain pens in his leather pouch.
“I know,” I say.
Every first weekend in February, he comes to the swap meet, an event that takes place in the flat, dry suburb of Los Angeles where we live. The whole thing is only a fifteen minute drive from our house, a few miles up Rosecrans Avenue and a right on Sepulveda.
It’s my dad’s hobby, collecting pens. An expensive passion that my mom doesn’t like. But my dad has his eccentricities, and he likes to show off. Our job this weekend is to stay out of her way.
Inside, the room is cold and quiet. Everyone is old. White heads as far as the eye can see. Buying and selling pens is a retiree’s hobby. I know this. Booths are set up along the walls and in straight lines across the center of the room. On each table, sellers have set up their product in cases that open flat like photo albums. Long and pointed and arranged in their rows, the pens give off a cool, expensive charm. They look incredibly archaic to me. I touch them all, dragging my fingers along the smooth caps that shine, iridescent like beetles.
My dad walks purposefully from booth to booth. I trail behind. He’s more of a collector than a seller. That’s what he tells me. As we walk, he stops often to look at the fountain pens, signs his name on thick test pads with a Mont Blanc, an Ancora, a Parker, a Lamy.
I have decided that I like the fountain pens best too. I have memorized the logos stamped onto the end of the caps so that I can spot them easily on their tables. It impresses my dad when I point them out. But he doesn’t let me test them, and he knows best. I don’t know how to use them, he tells me. It’s all about the pressure of the hand, the thickness of the nib.
We walk around more. The air smells like coffee and bleach. I keep an eye out for anyone my age and wonder what people are wondering about me. I push my shoulders back and lengthen my neck. I suck in my stomach. I can tell these people don’t have the wherewithal to judge me as the sophisticated girl I am.
There are stalls of ballpoints and rollerballs. I don’t care about those. My dad visits a couple booths to glance briefly at them, holds up a rollerball as he puts on his glasses. This one is heavy in his hand.
“I really only use fountain pens.” He gestures to the seller, flashing his pen roll. “I’ve got quite the collection.” This rollerball is awkward, too big. I can’t imagine using something like that at school. My dad places it back in its elastic holder. “Now the fountain pen, that’s an art,” he says to the man. “It’s all about the pressure, the nib.”
I watch the man’s smile tighten. He has a long, white beard, piercings in either ear, a flat newsboy cap on his bald head. As we walk away, my dad says, “now that’s a look,” and strokes a fake beard, touches the top of his head.
Then we’re walking toward the Pelikan booth. These are my dad’s favorite fountain pens—according to him, they’re the nicest, the smoothest. Nibs made in-house. Water-based ink. I remember. I watch as he starts testing them, picking them up, turning them around. They’re all silver-nibbed, brass barrels coated in smooth matte fiberglass of burgundy, navy, black.
My dad is asking the booth owner a question when I spot one in its leather case, a moss green Pelikan marked with black accents and a shining, golden nib, a thin band across the edge of the cap. The nib itself is so beautiful, gleaming like nothing I’ve ever seen, the bird logo stamped on its surface. The whole thing is loaded with a cerulean cartridge, the man tells me. “Did you want to test it out?”
I imagine the pen in my hand and I can feel my neck flush. I let out a nervous laugh, air pushing sharply out my nose, and I can see how my name would appear in thick strokes of blue across the pages of my composition book. Heat in my face, I wipe my top lip and before I can nod, my dad sharply tells him that no, I don’t. I am quiet and the man turns away to help another customer.
These few seconds feel like nothing that had ever happened to me, an irrational desire so strong that I feel sweat along my rib cage. A sort of longing I haven’t yet experienced.
I turn away slowly, reluctantly follow my dad as he starts wandering down the graying, carpeted aisles. I am not in the habit of asking for things.
There’s always next weekend, I think to myself all Sunday. The pen show is a two-weekend affair. Maybe you can go back to that booth, you’ll be able to find it, I tell myself. You’ll drag him there, he’ll get the message. It wouldn’t be bad to go back, no. I am happy at the swap meet. Happier than when I’m at school or at home. That’s what the weekends feel like to me, conspiratorial. In on some secret.
I envision myself in math period with the pen. My pen. Green and heavy in my hand. I picture Mr. Rush calling on me to solve for X, and I do the problem perfectly. I lift up my notebook to the rest of the class and there’s the answer, in bleeding, blue ink. The pen tucked behind my ear. I try to imagine what it’d be like to be noticed beyond the bland ways I usually am. Like when I have to raise my hand in the middle of class and ask to go to the bathroom. There is little happiness in this imagining. Just a secret, hopeful kind of feeling.
At dinner, I want to watch TV, but my mom makes me turn it off. She made salmon, and it smells bad—bitter, somehow. I take a bite and make a face and almost say something, but then my dad is saying the rice is too salty and makes a performance out of pushing his chair back and walking to the refrigerator to take out the container of leftover pasta.
He puts his rice in the dog’s bowl. I eat my rice and the salmon and I don’t say anything. At the table, my dad opens his computer and checks his emails and tells me to go to the basement to get some papers from the printer. I nod and watch my mom chew and stare at the wall. “Careful,” she says. “There might be a few bones.”
Later, feeling unsatisfied, I go into the kitchen, the air thick with the smell of soap and honey. My mom is putting dishes in the dishwasher, a blank look on her face, sweaty bangs stuck to her forehead. She bends down to move a bowl, her blonde hair covering her face, and for a second I don’t recognize her. I try to access some thought about what her life was like before I was born—a blonde girl riding her bike, laughing loudly with her sister—and I wonder if she’s ever wanted anything beyond this. I think this in a sudden, absurd flash.
Then I start telling her about the homework I have to do this week, and if I finish it all, will I be able to go back to the swap meet next weekend. It feels like years from now, next weekend. But I know that one day, it’ll be Saturday again.
“And we’re not doing anything on Saturday,” I say hollowly. “I mean, right?” I’m not bold enough to tell her about the pen, how it looked tucked neatly into its little leather case. That I’m worried it’ll sell between now and then.
“Maybe, if you finish your homework,” she agrees, shutting the dishwasher. “Would it kill him to help us clean up?” She works her lips with her teeth and trains her watery, red-rimmed eyes on me. I have no idea how to respond to this.
“Yeah,” I mumble mostly to myself, “there was some pretty cool stuff there.”
At school, I sit in the back of the classroom because that is where my nametag is. Mr. Pagel is telling us something about the pioneers, and I listen to a short lesson about the Gold Rush. No one can see me, and so I spend the hour drawing circles all over the left page of my notebook. They start in the middle and spread outwards. Next to me, Michael scratches out vocabulary from the whiteboard into his notebook with a mechanical pencil. The lead keeps breaking. I feel sad for him. Mr. Pagel says something condescending about the Middle Passage, then tells a group of boys to stop talking, listen. Who cares? I feel sad for all of them. Don’t they realize they’re being treated like children? I am briefly overcome with rage. I continue dedicating myself to drawing circles, pressing down hard into the paper. Then my hand begins to cramp and I raise it and ask to go to the bathroom.
I make sure I don’t see any feet underneath the stalls, then stand at the sink. I adjust my center part and tuck my hair behind my ears, draw in my cheeks. I can tell they’re too round, that I look younger than my age.
I squint and try to see my mom’s face in the mirror, then turn sideways and suck in my stomach, re-tuck my polo into the plaid skirt. I think the uniform makes me look older. I re-stick a band-aid at my elbow.
Back in Mr. Pagel’s class, I crumple my page of circles and try to pay attention. I feel empty, like a scooped out melon. I stare at the back of Clayton’s head, his blond hair resting at his shoulders, and try to feel something. Then I see that his mother has written his initials, CS, in crooked handwriting on the flipped up tag of his polo shirt. Only five more nights to Saturday.
I’m doing homework at the dining room table. My dad is in his office, finishing up work. I can hear him tapping on his laptop. He says that typing is a soulless endeavor, but sometimes it has to be done. I wander in and see him, bent down towards his screen. I ask to look at his pens, eye the drawer where he keeps his leather pouch.
“Do you think you’re going to get another on Saturday?” I say. I don’t want to say the word “buy.” My parents argue about money.
He says, “We’ll see.” He turns his chair and faces me. “Something like this might be good for you at some point.” He takes out his black fountain pen and lets it rest between his fingers. “I had one of these when I was about your age.”
He hands me the case. I feel a welling in my chest. I kneel on the carpet and unroll the pouch. There are things I want to say then, sweet things, agreeable things, things like that. My dad doesn’t let me take any of the pens out, but I can look. There are nine total, all fountain pens. I can see my reflection in their golden clips. The nicest is the Mont Blanc. A wedding present. And he has a Pelikan too. But it’s nothing compared to my pen. I imagine it, smooth and green, shining like a blade in its case.
My mom is in the bedroom watching the news. She says that she thinks the anchor is good-looking. She’s always telling me things like this that she probably shouldn’t say in front of kids. Like at the dinner table when she yelled at my dad and told him that he is the parent, and I am the kid. That he is always forgetting to be the dad.
I sit next to her on the bed and we don’t say anything, and then after a few minutes she turns off the TV. She says she is going for a walk.
“You can tell your father. I’ll make you some pasta when I come back. I’m meeting Nadine for dinner tonight.”
I nod, she thinks I forgot that she already saw Nadine for dinner twice this week. I picture the frozen tortellini floating to the surface of the pot, dough taut and glistening. A series of circles like the ones on my paper.
I’m at the grocery story with my mom on Thursday afternoon. I am thinking about my green pen. I follow behind my mom as she fills the cart—a quart of milk, a bag of lettuce, a net of tangerines. She tells me not to drag my feet, no lollygagging. At the register, she’ll let me choose a piece of chocolate.
Then we turn a corner and she sees Michael. He is carrying a basket with a loaf of bread and a carton of eggs, some tomatoes. Michael is the photographer at the ballet studio. He takes pictures of us during the recitals.
The store’s music feels suddenly very loud. I can see that he’s looking at my mom, who is searching through her purse for something. A lipstick. It all seems suddenly so obvious. She pulls it from an inside pocket, hangs the smooth bullet between her fingers.
“This is Michael,” my mom says. She pushes me forward.
I say, “Hi. I know.”
She says, “What? Yes, of course. From the studio.” Her neck reddens.
I look at Michael, his inky hair is spiked up with gel at the front. I imagine raking my hand through it, the product crunching between my fingers. Then I imagine my mom doing the same. My armpits feel damp and I turn away, start walking quickly down the aisles. I drag my hands along the cereal boxes and bags of flour and then lower along the plastic-covered price tags. I close my eyes and pretend they’re all pens. Caps beneath my fingers.
I turn another corner, and then I see my mom. She’s already at the register, taking things out of the cart. She smiles as if nothing has happened. As if she knows something she isn’t going to tell me.
Finally, it’s Friday. I’m home from school, sitting in my room doing multiplication tables and eating the peanut butter and apples my mom has cut up. I can’t pay attention. I hear the garage open and I know that my dad is home. I close my textbook and walk downstairs and into the living room as he slams the front door. I take a breath and prepare to make a plea. He puts down his jacket and briefcase and doesn’t say anything. Just brushes past me and walks up to the bedroom.
My mom is lying on the couch, curled in on herself like a leaf in winter, her show playing on the screen. Empty glasses are stacked on the coffee table next to her pile of dog-eared magazines. She looks up and smiles, not exactly at me. A sweet, unfocused smile.
My dad comes downstairs. I am worried that he’s mad because he doesn’t say anything and my mom continues lying on the couch. But he tells me that tomorrow we’re going back to the swap meet. There’s a pen he wants to take a look at. My mom lets out some sort of chortle. But I’m excited. Then my mom says that she’ll come too. My body feels so jammed with good luck that it hurts. I know then that this is the answer to what we need.
It’s Saturday. The morning air is still and heavy. It makes me think of metal, or the ocean. We enter the carpeted ballroom of the chain hotel. The air conditioning blasts us in the face. My dad leads the way. As we start wandering the aisles, my mom says, “I didn’t realize this was such a thing.” There is a sad tone in her voice, and it occurs to me for the first time that maybe she is doing this for him. We walk together quietly, looking at the sellers and their pens. I feel indescribably happy—like when I hear my favorite song playing at the grocery store. My chest tightens each time we turn a corner and approach a booth that looks familiar.
It appears before us suddenly. My dad goes up to the seller, shakes his hand, says, “Hey, man. I brought the family.”
I hang back, watching them. The banner drooping off the edge of the table spells out FATBOY in big felt letters. How embarrassing. My dad urges me over, introduces me to John.
“This is my daughter, we’re interested in getting her a pen.” John looks at me, his simple face smiling like a full moon. I move my own face to approximate some sign of pleasantness.
John says something about how this is an exciting moment. I don’t like his voice. His voice doesn’t fit, it isn’t the voice I expect. Then John lays several of his pens out in front of me, and my dad starts holding them up. Each ballpoint is as thick as a flute, in bright, colored metal of purple, red, blue, green. They look like candy, lying there.
I try to speak but words congeal at the back of my throat. The finger grip on these pens is made up of three wide lines of thick black rubber, the nib tiny compared to the pen’s squat body. Around the wide barrels, engraved and shining, are rows of flames, growing up from the grip and into the pens’ ends. Like a Hot Wheel.
At the FATBOY booth I’m stuck. They want me to choose a pen and so I finally do, pointing to the red one. John holds it up and tells my dad the price, and I back away so that I can’t hear. I stare at John and his white eyebrows, his firm jaw and thick, pale skin.
“That’s a good one,” my mom says, walking towards me. “You’ll be able to use it at school.”
“Maybe,” I say. I feel like I have been hit in the stomach with a bag of cement. My mom approaches my dad at the booth.
I look out at them, their backs turned away from each other. My mom’s phone rings, and she picks it up and starts talking with someone, wanders off. Their brief alliance feels suddenly empty. Fake. I’ve been misunderstood. We buy the pen.
At home, I carry the FATBOY with me into my bedroom and close the door. I remove it from its smooth plastic bag and lay it on my desk. I can hear my mom watching TV downstairs on the couch. I know my dad is in his office doing work. As I take the pen out of its cloth pouch, I feel my hope slipping away.