Your son is five. One morning as the sun inches over the mountains and injects the grey clouds with shots of pink and gold, you drive him to school. You rub your gloved hands together to keep the cold at bay, and as you turn onto Union Street, you press the stereo knob on and hear the all-too-familiar twang of a guitar solo. It’s the first song from the first album. For a split second, you freeze, trapped between the urge to press the knob off and the sense of pleasure that auto-fires when endorphins are sparked by recognition. But you turn your head toward the backseat, where your son looks absently out the window, over his right shoulder, and sucks on a piece of jam toast, and say,
“Hey kiddo. Your Papa is on the radio.”
Your lips sneak into a small upward curl, your eyes take on a slight squint as you think, how far I’ve come, that I’m not doubled over, crumpling. Then your face will drain as this reality settles on you, how you pictured such moments in the past, how your present is the future you envisioned then–driving with your son, his father’s voice beaming into the car–how maybe you’d both sing along or you’d sing along and he would think it was funny or weird. How different this moment is, how estranged you feel from the past.
Another two weeks pass. You drive your son to his grandparents on his dad’s side, out of the city, past its industrial fringes to their house in the country. As you ramp onto I-5, shift from 4th to 5th gear, another old song from the first album, the song that made you cry almost every time you heard it, the song you could never, not even through repetition, make yourself numb to.
The singing starts before the music:
Don’t waste your love on me, because tonight I’ll be a ghost. Don’t hold me in your heart, because tonight I’ll be a ghost….
Heart skips, flood surges. You want to slam on the brakes. Crash your car. Anything. Stop it. But there it is: the memory.
The two of you were sitting together in your sun-filled bedroom. The light is harsh, so it must be late afternoon, when the sun drops and the west side of the house bakes. He confides in you that, sometimes, he thinks about just driving and driving and never coming back. At first you think he means suicide, but he means like leaving. You picture his depression as a vintage postcard, an artifact he might have sent you from a place long ago that arrived after his return – your shared white car pointed away, driving along a tanned and dusty road, faded fields to either side, lonely blue of mountains in the distance, the red of the rounded taillights of the ’67 Ford Falcon. Then a different memory: same room, softer light, lamplight. He has to paint a nude self-portrait for an art class, doesn’t know which is worse – having to look at himself naked or showing it to others. You say you wish he could see himself the way you see him. So you both take off your clothes and he kisses you and you’re both laughing and from below, with him above, you snap a dozen photos. Barrel chest spanned by tattooed wings, oblong mole near the armpit and a soft tuft of hair wound out through the crease. Bowl haircut hanging down, loose. In his version of the portrait, he paints a picture of your cat in the background, the cat who, the year after you married, you both held as he was put to sleep. He hung the painting in the bedroom, across from the spot on the bed where you laughed and took the photographs, the aquamarine background a mirror of the walls, capturing a moment inside a moment inside the room.
When he leaves, when he decides he no longer wants to be a husband, he leaves the painting.
From the front seat you hear your son hum along to the sound of his father’s voice.