“Nothing is important,” Arnold used to say, after we had drunk all the wine and most of the whiskey in his tiny Heidelberg flat. He was living at last without censorship, filling his needs with Deutschmarks rather than filling out forms, answering to a new kind of tyranny. “Nothing is important,” he would say, tilting his chair and pushing tangled blond hair from his face. He could always argue me into agreeing.
Maybe that’s the solution to despair, I think, decades later, waking to news of another mass shooting and more or less political outrage. But I have a child now, and to me, he is important. I wonder if Arnold has adjusted his philosophy since becoming a parent. Last night amid rapid gunfire, a fifty-four-year-old threw himself over his adult children, attempting to shield them with his own body. “I’m older, I’ve lived a good life,” he said. I am certain he would have done the same at any age.
My classmate says he doesn’t eat meat, not because he is Hindu, but because he grew up seeing goats sacrificed for Eid, throats slit and blood running while they pranced their death dance. His squeamishness strikes me as arrogance, but I admit: I, too, hate the moment of death, when the eyes of a creature — fish or deer or goat — widen in panic as it senses its life escaping like air from a balloon.
“Why come here now, after twenty years?” my mother asks. I have skirted questions about why I stayed away.
My father prickles. “You probably heard I was sick,” he says, “you probably think I’m going to die or something. I don’t want that. I don’t need that.” Words flow forth like a dam break, and he calls me “a waste to society.” I remind him he once asked me to write his stories, and his eyes pivot into the past. “I don’t think about those things now — that was a long time ago,” he says.
Looking at my father, faded and failing, I wonder if I came for him or his stories, and which I will miss more. I believe in stories. They help us make sense of the senseless.
In the afternoon sun my son slumps in my arms a long moment, his head hung lifeless on my chest. It starts like a cuddle but lasts, until I ask what he is doing. “Pretending to be dead,” he whispers, “so the wasps won’t sting me.”
“I will protect you,” I say, but I know wasps are capricious and cruel, difficult to dodge. I think again about the fifty-four-year-old, his paunchy, middle-aged body splayed over fully- grown children. How we try to protect ourselves and our loves, and how we fail.