There are exactly three people I should pick up the phone and call. First, the repair guy, because the sink has been leaking for over a month and the blue cotton mat is drenched, and I’m pretty sure the guy at the convenience store thinks I’m defective because I keep buying jumbo packs of menstrual pads to soak up the water. Second, my advisor, just so she’ll stop leaving messages on my phone asking me when I’m going to come down to her office and fill out those withdrawal forms. A yellow copy for her, a white copy for the school, and a pink copy for me, my rainbow of incompetence. Third, well, I lost his number, but I’m sure he’s landing at the airport soon.
I glance around my kitchen with its chipped linoleum countertop cluttered with empty coffee cups, unwashed dishes, and cans of cat food. My super likes to drop off a container of tuna when he buys a pack with an extra sample. It would be a sweet gesture if I actually owned a cat. I try not to think about what it means if he just assumes that I have one.
I tip toe around the checkerboard of sopping wet Kotex guarding my kitchen tile, hop onto the reasonably dry counter, and peek my head inside the fridge. Eight day old Lean Cuisine and half a pack of Twizzlers isn’t going to cut it. That’s if he’s even hungry. The flight here can’t take more than two hours, three tops. Still, I should at least make one phone call today, so I stretch my unpainted toes across my matchbox of a kitchen and grab the ancient dial telephone off the wall. The line is busy, but I wait several minutes for someone to talk to.
“Hello, pick up or delivery?”
“Hi, this is Marla Davies.”
“Yeah, you want pick up or delivery?”
I look at my watch, wondering how long it will be before he gathers his luggage and manages to find a cab. The watch’s Velcro strap keeps rubbing against the bone that sticks out of my wrist, leaving a red mark against my otherwise ghostly complexion. I scratch it against my thigh and grumble.
“Um, probably delivery.”
“Three hundred west one hundred and-“
I hear a muffled shout and the phone line crackles. There are a few seconds of silence and then a familiar voice rushes into my ear.
“Marla? This you?”
It’s Larry, the owner’s son. Thank god.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Oh, hey girl. Didn’t you just order yesterday?”
Shit. I forgot he works practically every day of the week.
“Girl, you need to learn cooking, okay? You can’t eat no Chinese rice noodle everyday.”
His accent confounds me, a bizarre mix of Brooklyn thug and Vietnamese, but he has soft brown eyes that stare directly into my watery blue ones, a gesture that continually makes my palms sweat. I twist the phone cord around and around my finger.
“My dad’s coming into town today,” I offer.
“And you no want to cook for him?”
“I … no.”
He sighs. “Okay, what you want? The regular?”
“One or two order of crab rangoon?”
I think for a second. Three might seem excessive, but I can easily eat two on my own. I wonder if he even likes Chinese food.
“Just one this time.” I’m trying to seem modest and I’m not sure why. “And can I also get an order of sweet and sour chicken and chicken fried rice?”
I figure the blandest things on the menu are a safe bet. I can’t imagine he was eating a lot of Szechuan pork or Moo Gu Gai Pan in Big Flats, Wisconsin.
“Okay, so one order crab rangoon, one order veggie lo mein, one spring roll, one order shrimp chop suey, one order sweet and sour chicken, and one order chicken fried rice. You want fortune cookie?”
“It couldn’t hurt.”
“Okay, I bring in half an hour. Thirty six dollars.”
“No, wait-” He hangs up before I can beg him to find someone else to deliver to me. I haven’t showered yet and I’m pretty sure there’s a sty forming in my left eye socket. Instead, I place the receiver back in its cradle and lean my forehead against the naked white walls, breathing. One, two, three. Twenty-two breathes a minute. Thirty minutes. Six hundred-sixty breathes until food’s here. I wonder how long I get to breathe before he’s here too.
My dad always asked me to help him count things. I sat on his bed one Wednesday afternoon while he sorted his socks: dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light, light. I maintained a mental tally of each for him until every single pair was categorized. He kept stacking his collared shirts on his dresser, then moving them over to the chaise lounge in the corner, and back to the dresser, looking like an indecisive squirrel uncertain where to stash his food for the winter. My toes were freezing so I kept tying to sneak a pair of his white gym socks onto my feet, but he would always see me and snatch them back, neatly folding and tucking them into his suitcase’s various pockets.
“Can I fit in it?” I’d asked, bored of watching him curl his ties into the exact same thickness over and over again.
“What?” he asked, distracted by the imperfect proportions of his toiletry case to the corner of his smallest compartment.
I pointed to the suitcase, now empty as he began refolding everything for the third time into color-coded stacks on the opposite side of the bed. After a few seconds, he turned around and looked back and forth, analyzing, sizing up my six year old proportions to his two foot, eight inch luggage. Unsatisfied, he held up his hands in a rectangle, aiming them first at me and then at the case, back and forth.
“Dad … ”
“But Dad … ”
“Hmm … ” He shifted around the bed, still concentrating on the suitcase, leaning closer and testing the flexibility of its edges. I yawned.
Suddenly, he whipped around, a grin stretching between the borders of his neatly trimmed moustache, and grabbed my still frigid feet, hoisting me into the air so that I dangled in his grasp like a freshly caught mackerel. I was too surprised to move, until he began tickling my toes and I screamed, gasping for breath as the blood rushed to my head.
“Just how long are you young lady?”
“ST-STOP! DAD! N-NO! HA! PLEASE! I-I CAN’T … ”
“Not until we determine your cubic mass.”
I squirmed and yelped until he tucked me into the soft folds of his carry-on, reaching over and covering me with the front flap so that just my head poked out from the zippered edge.
“Close,” he said, smiling at me and stretching his arms to either end of the bag like a human measuring tape.
“Can I come with you?” I asked.
He looked at me intently, his blue eyes a mirror image of my own, before standing in a crackle of aging bones and leather loafers.
He offered me his hand. I crossed my arms, pouting as he walked back to the bed and resumed folding slacks. I fiddled with the empty ID case looped around the handle strap for a few moments before crawling out of the bag and laying face down on the white shag carpet. It smelled like clean linen and shoe polish and I found I could bury my fingers into the thick, wooly strings until my entire hand disappeared. I wiggled them up and down, creating waves in the woven sea, then turned over to practice my backstroke.
“You can still come to my meet at St. Vincent’s this weekend, right? I get to do the butterfly in the 500 meter and 200 meter this time.”
My dad kept packing.
The last time I counted there were three hundred twenty-six hairs on my legs. That was last Thursday, the day my father told me he had lost his job in an economy that forces me to pay twelve dollars for a pack of razor blades, so I have since stopped shaving and now he’s coming to live with me because he cannot afford his mortgage payment. This is the extent of our relationship to date, being unable to pay for things that make us feel human. I don’t count our annual telephone call on President’s Day, as it doesn’t quite make up for an eighteen-year gap in communication. But this new furry existence isn’t all bad; it’s going to be a real money-saver in the winter when I don’t have to turn on the heat, or even wear pants for that matter because I have cultivated a pair of sweaters for my bony legs. Except now he’ll be here, and I doubt his leg hair growth is as extensive, or fastidious, as mine, nor do I want him to see me walking around half naked.
My mother never managed to keep her clothes on either, which is why he left us the Thursday before my swim meet and why she started spiking her morning coffee with a quarter cup of gin. Once, she gave me her thermos instead of mine, which was typically filled with orange or apple juice, and received a phone call from my elementary school principal as to why her daughter appeared to be intoxicated in the middle of her multiplication lesson. I’ve since
grown quite fond of gin, which is safe to say, the cusp of our relationship. She calls every now and then from a pay phone in San Jose, asking me whether or not I’m married yet, can she borrow some money, and annoyingly enough, if I’ve finished school.
“No,” I say, not bothering to take the time to reply to all her questions individually. The answer is the same for all three.
That is why I find myself home in my studio apartment on another Thursday afternoon, staring up at the cracked popcorn ceiling, wondering whether or not my dad has brought more than one piece of luggage, because it won’t fit anywhere except maybe on top of the refrigerator and wishing I had ordered that second bag of crab rangoon.
There’s a knock at the door, one two three four five, accented with a little flourish at the end. I’m pretty sure Larry plays drums in some kind of metal band on the weekends since he sometimes attaches a flier to his shows on the brown paper bag full of food, but I’m always embarrassed to ask him. I quickly look around for a ponytail holder, fully aware that my hair looks like a bird’s nest after sleeping on it for twelve hours, before spying a twist tie on the bag of stale bagels lying on my countertop. I grab it and step around my three piles of laundry, one for clean, one for dirty, and one for dirty but I can still wear it in public without getting stares, and open the door.
Larry is standing there wearing the restaurant’s T-shirt uniform and a pair of gray jeans with an inconveniently placed hole near the top that makes me need to lick the roof of my mouth.
He smiles at me and holds out the greasy sack of food.
“Hey,” I stammer, fumbling in my pajama pockets for spare cash and coins.
“How much did you say it was?” I ask to stall, although I remember perfectly, to the decimal, the amount of every individual dish including tax.
“Thirty six seventy one, but I knock off the change for you.”
“Oh,” I say, blushing like a complete fucking idiot. I quickly add up the contents, hand him a mess of dollars, and he pockets it without looking at the bills.
“You doin’ alright? You sounded kinda funny on the phone.”
He maintains the most eye contact of anyone I know, even though I’m wearing ratty plaid sweatpants and have a bagel tie holding back my three-day old hair from my unwashed face.
“Uh, yeah,” I groan, retreating back into my apartment, “it’s just … ” I smack my elbow on the corner of my doorframe and almost drop the bag. He catches it with his large, well-trained hands and steps over the threshold of my door to set the bag safely on the coffee table. Before he turns back around, I hurriedly kick my stacks of clothing and towels behind the futon, but he’s too quick and catches me.
“What you doin’?”
“Huh?” I reply, rubbing my hand over the wounded elbow.
“What you got back there, a cat?” He tries to peer over my shoulder.
“Why does every guy just assume I have a cat?”
“Nothing, my super … Never mind. But, um, thanks for the food and stuff … ”
I can’t stop glancing down at that hole in his jeans.
“No problem. You know, you should come out to one of the shows. We play over at Black Cherry every couple weeks. It’s a good time. You twenty-one right?”
What a charming, considerate gentleman.
“Um, yeah, I’m twenty-one,” I manage, leaving out three years or so.
“Cool, me too, so I should, like, buy you a shot or something. Or beer, maybe?”
I wonder if I could fit my finger through that hole without it ripping.
“Sure, yeah, that would be, uh … that would be nice,” I say, although I’ll probably never muster the courage to go.
“Aight, well, I got your number, so I can just … maybe call you sometime … on a weekend?” he asks, his eyes dropping to the floorboards for the first time since I opened the door. It’s so unusual I bend forward to try and catch their warm gaze, stub my toe on the edge of the coffee table and nearly tackle him.
We both freeze and slowly pivot towards the open door. My father pokes his head awkwardly through the frame, studying me as a twenty-one-year-old Asian delivery boy with unbelievable biceps lifts me from his chest back onto my shaking, hairy legs.
“I, um … Am I interrupting anything?” he whispers. One hand grasps a battered leather satchel with an olive trench coat draped over the handle while the other cradles his camel-colored newsboy cap. Of all things, I definitely did not inherit his fashion sense, or propensity for dry cleaning.
Larry quickly drops his hands from my waist and grasps the top of his head with awkward fervor. The silence is punctured only by the soft crackle of the paper bag filled with cooling rice and calculations so panicked in my mind I swear they are echoing outside of my skull. Both men eye the other cautiously as the younger of the two softly backs toward the wall, shooting me a shy, furtive glance, as the elder melts into the doorframe to let him pass. More
silence. I can practically detect his own mental addition and subtraction. One daughter minus one father plus one mysterious boy equals a negative space for living. I raise my hand and wave, as if he were much farther than the three yards separating us.
“Hi.” I offer.
“Hello Marla,” he replies stiffly. My hand recoils and I scratch at the Velcro strap on my wrist once more, relishing its certainty. We watch the other’s identical blue stare, and I step back to allow him a wide berth to fully enter the cramped room. He sets his suitcase on my dusty carpet and I can see it’s the same one he once curled me up inside, and although my gangly frame would no longer fit, I suddenly feel the urge to fold in half and hide inside it. Instead, I make a sweeping gesture of about fourteen inches to survey my apartment.
“Well … this is it. I, uh, I have some sheets for the futon, but I haven’t washed them yet.”
“That’s okay,” he says. “I brought my own.”
He unzips his luggage and withdraws a set of ironed sheets and drapes them delicately over the metal edges of my second-hand couch, testing its firmness with his lined and spotted hands. I can’t remember if my parents’ bed was soft or hard. They never allowed me to jump on it, except the time they left for a night to see an opera and my baby sitter was too stoned to realize I had snuck into their bedroom and bounced for hours like an Olympic-caliber gymnast. I
fell asleep right there, and when they came home and found me my dad carried me back to my room instead of letting me stay in bed with them.
“Alright,” I whisper, glancing back down at his suitcase. It seems smaller than before, and the old nametag has been replaced with a newer, nylon one. It doesn’t match, which makes me wonder who gave it to him and just how little they know about him. I try and imagine if that’s why he didn’t want to stay with them instead.
He cracks his knuckles, a habit I’ve never seen before, and sinks slowly onto the lumpy cushions with surprising evenness. The ratio of gray to brown hair has not changed much, but there is a growing patch of skin near his crown that reminds me of my former multivariable calculus professor. He covered it with a knit beanie that was too hip for his age, and I’m curious if that is why my dad has now taken to wearing hats as well.
“So … ” he begins, allowing his voice to fall several notes. I wait. The faucet drips and sputters in the background, one two three four. The velocity has changed from twenty minutes ago. He clears his throat, making me lose count and I rub my fingers against my temples in agitation.
“How was the flight?” I ask with my eyes pinched shut, willing my brain to focus on something, anything, except the number of drops per minute and my father’s halting speech.
“There was a child behind my seat,” he replies.
“Did it kick you?”
“Was it screaming, or something?” I press.
“No, it was fairly quiet.”
“Okay.” I sigh, recalling his penchant for open-ended peculiarities. “Are you thirsty? I have coffee, and uh … maybe tea.”
“Caffeine sucks the water from your system, Marla.”
“So you’re not thirsty?”
“Not at the moment, no.”
“Fine. I ordered food too,” I say, motioning towards the bag resting on the coffee table between his place on the couch and my unwavering spot by the kitchen counter.
“What, that?” he asks, pointing to it.
“Yeah, it’s Chinese. I got it delivered right before you showed up. It’s good.”
I turn and open a cabinet door before he can respond and grab two plastic plates from the uneven stacks inside. There’s the slightest layer of dust coating them, so I discreetly blow off the offending particles. They flutter toward the floor and I freeze, having forgotten to herd the pools of water away from view of the living room. On cue, he asks, “Why is your kitchen floor flooded?”
“I … I uh, spilled some mop water from when I was uh … cleaning the bathroom. I didn’t get time to dry it before … before uh …”
“Before your friend arrived?”
“My friend?” I ask, puzzled.
“The young man from earlier,” he says with subtle curiosity.
“Oh, you mean Larry?”
“Is that his name?”
“Larry is just … he just … brings me food sometimes.” This all squeaks out of my mouth in a rush and I can’t help but stare at the ceiling as my face flushes with color.
“You two seemed very close,” he quips while leaning over to inspect the ratio of dirt to fiber in my tattered carpet.
“If by close you mean he feeds me on occasion, then yes, we’re quite close.” I say, annoyed by the sudden interrogation.
“Would you like a dust buster?”
He snatches his hands back from the cusp of the floor and rubs them back and forth across his trousers as if he was unaware of his own presence.
We must look like quite the pair, sitting here unsure of where to drape our bodies over useless items that mean hardly anything to me and much less to him. I should ask about his job prospects, how long he is planning to stay, whether or not he finally got that right molar capped. I should be bothered by our lack of physical contact and reach over to touch his arm, as if to say, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay, you’ll see.” I should be that kind of daughter. He should be reassuring me of his gratitude, telling me that he had no other friends to turn to, that he’s sorry he left so long ago. He should comment on my shorter hair, or my fortunate lack of adult acne, or my stack of discarded textbooks holding up my thrift store lamp in the corner. He should be that kind of father.
Instead, we sit here like two people across from each other on the subway who met at a party, drank too many rounds of tequila, and started peeing in closets together, and now they have seventy-two blocks to try and avoid eye contact. Even they would probably have more to talk about than us at the moment. I shut my eyes, hoping that when they open one of us will have moved closer to the other, that one of us shows that we can be brave. They lift, and here we are, still unwilling and unmoving. So I take the low road and rip open the top of the heaving bag of food and scoop out various white containers, arranging them in three locations on the coffee table so he knows which is his, which is mine, and what we’re expected to share.
“Do you want chopsticks?” I ask, kneeling down so my shoulders are nearly level with the top of his knees across the table. He is busy sniffing the different boxes, trying in vain to figure out which of them has the least trace of spice or offending sauce. I try again.
“Dad?” His head snaps to attention and I see it register in his eyes as quickly as it does in my ears that neither of us has heard that word in quite some time.
“Did, uh … did you want chopsticks?”
Surprisingly, he nods, and I clamber to my feet to find two sets somewhere in the silverware drawer by my still leaking sink. The tracks briefly stick and grind together and I’m startled by the sudden noise, having been accustomed to this nearly soundless state for several minutes. Luckily, my chopstick collection is expansive and I quickly locate two matching pairs, shut the drawer with my hip, and turn around to see my dad with his face practically buried in one of my containers.
“What is this?” he asks, nose to nose with a couple of water chestnuts.
“It’s shrimp chop suey.” I reply.
“It smells incredible,” he says, and my mouth drops several inches.
“Yes, it smells just like the late night Chinese we used to eat back in undergrad when we were too busy studying to cook.”
I smile. “Too busy studying? You sure? How much did you drink before you started studying and craving egg rolls?”
He doesn’t answer, but I swear I see a faint grin spread across his face before he reaches over to grab two chopsticks from the edge of the table.
Of course in reality he doesn’t actually say this, and I don’t move onto the couch as he scoots over so I can sit beside him. We don’t continue talking about his wild college days or his heretofore-unknown propensity for oriental cuisine. We don’t do any of these things. He just hands me the container of seafood, and I pass him the Styrofoam box of fried bits of chicken with bland sauce and we begin eating in silence like any other incompatible human beings.
I watch him fumble with the foreign utensils for several moments out of the corner of my eye before one flies out of his hand and lands on the edge of my Statistics notebook. Droplets of red liquid splatter across the carpet and sink deep into its depths like they are aware of their offense. I scramble over to catch the rest before they create more stains, but my father beats me, already a handkerchief in his hand, dabbing at the little red blotches. I grab a rag from the top of the microwave and halfheartedly join him.
“It’s no big deal,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” he pleads, raising his hands in apology and knocking over my remaining pile of textbooks onto the small crimson puddles.
“Shit,” I mutter and grab a book to start wiping it off before it’s permanently stained. He does the same, glancing curiously at its spine before cleaning the hardcover backing.
“Is this yours?’” he asks.
“Mm hmm,” I mumble, trying very hard to appear in deep concentration as I scrub a particularly obstinate spot.
“I didn’t know you were in school,” he ventures.
“I’m … not … anymore.”
I deflate slightly, and time trickles by.
“Was it for mathematics?”
I figure this was obvious by the staggering amount of calculus, geometry, and differential equations textbooks currently surrounding us, so I don’t mind answering.
I can see it growing there behind his eyes, the acknowledgment, the curiosity, the smallest glimmer of pride. But slowly, his forehead sprouts deep creases of concern.
“Did you drop out?”
“I don’t really like to talk about it,” I reply with well-rehearsed speed.
“Okay. But …” I await his comment with a thousand deflections at the ready. “Well, I guess it’s none of my business.”
I begin wiping down a second book, and for several moments I can feel his eyes gaping into what he must see as my disappointment of a brain. I scramble to change the subject.
“So how is Chrissy doing?” I ask, fully aware that he hasn’t mentioned his one-time girlfriend in over two years.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, what about Don, that guy from your office?”
“He moved to Florida.”
“Oh … well … I hear the tuna is really great down there.”
“Fish can harbor a lot of bacteria.”
“Oh,” I say, fighting back an eye-roll. Instead, I concentrate on wiping down my algorithm book. He cranes his neck, mouthing the title under his breath before I toss it back on the pile and start to stand.
“I was always a decent student at math,” he offers, “ I wouldn’t be surprised if you got some of that from me. Your mother too. She had a good knack for algebra.”
He pauses and I wait expectantly, returning to my seat on the floor.
“It’s never too late to go back you know.”
Heat rises in my cheeks and my lips are poised for a fierce response.
“I’m sure you were extraordinary.”
It hits me like an unexpected punch to the gut. I suddenly can’t breathe, only think: How dare he? How dare he come into my house and tell me how extraordinary I could be when he never so much as saw me win a spelling bee. Now he’s looking at me with that empty stare, the one I perfected when my mother went off on a tirade about my dirty room, and I feel it all bubbling up inside me. I want to kick and scream and cry, “You don’t know anything! It was hard, I was tired,” a laundry list of excuses, every one masking the reality of my fear.
I want to somehow communicate the endless lines of numbers stretching out from wall to wall, my frustration at being slower, stupider than I should have been. I want to tell him that I couldn’t leave my apartment because I would obsess over the calculations in the angle of a window or the speed of a passing jogger. I want to explain that every integer reminded me of everything I couldn’t do, and that my mind would hold onto those numbers forever. Seven days
until the rent is outstanding. One month without a job. Four guys that never called me back. Five weeks since my friends stopped asking me to bars. Eighteen days that my faucet has been leaking. Three F’s. Six empty takeout boxes with fliers to a cute boy’s concert preserved on my countertop. Nine days since my father called to tell me he needed help when in reality, I need it so much more. But I can only sit here with my feet covered in sweet and sour sauce and my
temples burning and my mouth clamped shut.
He rises from his stance above the soiled carpet, folds his handkerchief and sets it parallel to the corner of my coffee table. That familiar gesture, an ancient quirk, crashes through and I have to hide my head between my knees, away from his stare, so he won’t see that I’m biting the insides of my cheeks until the membrane pops beneath my teeth. My labored breath sputters as he reaches between the web of my arms and elbows and cups both of my splotchy cheeks with his hands. They have that familiar smell of clean linen and bar soap and a thousand unsolved calculations. I can feel the wooly threads of carpet beneath my feet and the six year old inside me wants to swim and count and ask question after question. But for now, I just sink into his steady
hold and for a brief moment, my mind gives in and rests.
Photo by Robyn Lee