Not far from the house where my family lived when I was high school and college, there was a reservoir, in the center of the town. Often, on weekend nights, I would take my friends there, and we’d park on the dirt road that ran along side and climb up to the tiny observation deck – a concrete area just large enough for a group of three or four teenagers to lay out a picnic on an old beach blanket and lean back on our arms, faces lifted to the night sky.
One night, it must have been in late summer – it was warm and the sky stayed light long into the evening, three of us – N., S., and me – had come from some party, where N. had managed to sneak out a half bottle of Absolut Citron, which was, as I recall, the preferred spirit of the day, and we headed up to the reservoir to finish it. The light was blue, and we sat there in the stillness, heady and flushed with drink and youth.
It was then that S. told us about how sick she was. How her illness was progressing, accelerating. She didn’t know, exactly, what it would mean, but that she wanted us to know. We cried and held each other. In that unabashed fervor of our late teens, we declared our love for each other, told each other how beautiful we were, how we’d always be there for each other, no matter what. And in some ways, I think, we were.
At her funeral, barely ten years later, I stood in the back of the church, with N., and with S.’s husband. They had been married two years. We told him how much we had loved her. How much we knew she had loved him. How great they were, together. He was quiet, mostly, let us go on, but when he said, “She was just so easy to love,” we all broke down again, sobbing, holding each other up.
Even when my father lived with us, it was as though he was more imagined than real. I have a few images of him – standing hunched over the kitchen sink, too tall to stand comfortably; awkward in a suit at some family occasion, a pink striped dress shirt, a burgundy tie that does not sit flat on his chest; behind the counter at the Italian grocery store where he sometimes worked, a dingy apron tied around his waist.
It does not seem odd to me then that I have a memory of him, but I can no longer recall whether it is memory or imagination, or perhaps something that only happened in a dream. We are walking in the park near my childhood home. I am disappointed about something. He is comforting me, in his way. The air is cool. The leaves are starting to turn, although they are not yet in full color. He walks with the slight limp that would become more pronounced as the years went on. He favors his left leg, so we walk slowly.
There is a bridge over the narrow part of the river that runs through the park. We are standing on it, looking down. Just below the surface there is movement, but it is difficult to see too clearly.
He calls me his “bunny duck,” a name that I loved as a child, but I am now, in this memory, at an age where it makes me blush. I squirm at the utterance. Life is longer than you think, he says. You will get the things you want, but they may come looking different from what you expect.
I ask him what he means by that and he says: I know, it’s hard to understand. But you will, some day. You will see it all come to you, in time. Life is as long as it needs to be.
Just after my daughter was born, S. and N. visited me in Providence. It was August, Z. was just barely a month old. She was at that stage where she would sleep soundly for hours at a time, so we took her to the park, let her sleep there in my arms, while the three of us talked. S. had gotten married the year before. N. was still searching. We were all happy, in our way. Or at least, happy enough to laugh easily in the bright sun. To remember the things we had thought we wanted, and to list what we still thought possible. For me, a move back to New York. For S., a trip to Ireland. For N., to build a house in the Catskill Mountains.
Although I try to resist the impulse to cast a veil of sentimentality over the scene – sitting there, cross-legged on the ground in front of an old stone fountain, which had been dry for decades – it’s hard not to see a kind of untarnished simplicity in that moment, in that afternoon. In that long, sultry summer. It was the last time the three of us were together.
I have a recurring dream in which I am having a dinner party at my home. It starts out as a few people, but suddenly, becomes thirty or forty people, coming to the door, one after the other. I don’t have enough chairs. I haven’t made enough food. I am running around, panicky.
There is always a man – sometimes it is someone I know, have loved, but sometimes it is a stranger. Sometimes, it is my father. He is there, and he wanders around in the background, oddly familiar with my home, as I rush from task to task, trying to accommodate this growing crowd.
In the dream, nothing ends well. The walls of my house fall away. The guests argue over chairs. A child is crying. The man has disappeared. It is at this point that mercifully, I awaken.
My father used to tell me that when I was very little, he would carry me up on his shoulders when we walked down to the park. That he thought I would be scared the first time he lifted me up. You were so quiet, he said. I’d ask your mother did you look happy, were you frightened, and she said no, no, that you were just sitting up there, smiling. He’d say: I held your little hands in mine, and you never made a sound the whole way there. Or the whole way back. At some point, you must have gotten too big to carry that way. But I don’t remember when.