When I came in that day he was hanging up the kitchen telephone. I didn’t think anything of it but I felt plenty. I felt disappointed. I wished he was dead but that wasn’t new. He turned to me, looking positively shit-faced and close to puking or passing out and utterly resigned to either. This also wasn’t new.
But then he did something he had never done before. He asked me how my day was at school.
For a moment I had no idea what to tell him about a day in my seventh grade life. It was a short moment, though. That’s what killed him the most, I think. Because the whole thing took no time at all.
The day was unique, I explained.
My English teacher, unmatched in long-distance spitting, literally showered me and a student to my left with praise over a paper I wrote about The Scarlet Letter. It was an easy book to like, so I described it the way I would have described a movie that deserved to be more popular, how it managed to be different, thoughtful, frustrating in a cool, satisfying way. It completely worked which surprised me and made me see my fondness for reading as a secret strategy. Gym sucked, which shouldn’t have been the case given that I was excused from participating because I was still, technically, recovering from dialysis. I was fine really, but nobody was required to believe that. But it sucked to be excluded because most of the period was spent doing basketball layups and that was the only thing I excelled at. I wasn’t terrible at other sports but I raised no eyebrows either. And I wasn’t exactly a dynamo on the basketball court—nobody bragged about stealing the ball from me—but put me in front of the basket and nine times out of ten, that sucker went straight in. Then I would get to shoot again and again until I finally missed or the teacher would shout, “Enough!” and the next kid would be up. But no glory cheers, or jealous grunts, for me that day. Earth Science was brutal because of a pop quiz. Normally I did very well in the class, my test scores for the first half of the semester were all in the low nineties. But since last week the topic had been geology and unfortunately, my head was not full of rocks. But a girl I liked who sat next to me didn’t know I had sunk from my former pedestal of academic excellence under the weight of rock boredom. So every few seconds she stretched her neck out like some Puerto Rican llama and peaked at my answers. I made eye contact with her a few times and she smiled her best I’m an idiot I’m sorry smile and I was too chicken to give her a But today so am I smile so she probably flunked the test, or barely passed it, thinking she aced the thing. I can afford to fail one quiz but she’s been scraping by as it is. So that relationship is dead and buried under a pile of misnamed stones. Math class: this was an odd one. More test-inspired awkwardness. I’ve gotten perfect scores on the last three exams—his extra credit questions are giftwrapped—and he called me to the blackboard to solve what he thought was a difficult equation. “Test master, get up here!” he said, channeling Richard Dawson. I loved math, no guesswork. Everything had a formula, you either knew it or you didn’t. I wasn’t positive I knew this solution but I was fairly sure I’d figure it out once I was up there. But as soon as I started filling in the first half of the equation some kid in the hallway walks past and yells, “Take off the wig, fatty!” Now Mr. Guild is cool. He’s a nice guy with a good attitude and most of the students don’t have a problem with him. But he is fat, and bald, and his hairpiece looks like it was doused in gasoline, then lit, then stomped, then dipped in black ink, then blow-dried. He’s been asking for it wearing that mess, but it was still an awful scene to witness. The worst part was his reaction. He said, “That’s really brilliant, smart guy. Stephen Hawking—watch out!” But his back was to the door the whole time, like he was afraid to face where the guy had passed. Instead he just kind of stared into space for a few seconds with a worried look. Then something in his head must have clicked because he remembered that I was standing by the board. He blinked and said in a low voice, “You can sit down now.” So I did. We never got to the equation, he just erased it and moved on to the next lesson. I feel like I want to apologize to him for that prick, but I don’t even know what I’d say that he doesn’t already know. And then what if he gets too friendly with me afterward. He’s already got half the class hating me for being such a nerd, if he got any chummier with me I’d have to wrestle my way out of school every day.
My father sighed and made a clicking noise with his tongue. He asked me if that was it.
After school I saw the girl I liked, Gina, and she saw me. But she didn’t smile. She couldn’t know about the test so soon. And Earth Science was the only class I had with her. Maybe she sensed that I helped her to fail and that she was wrong to trust me. Women have an intuition about that stuff, don’t they?
I really didn’t expect my father to answer, since my mother had made it clear several times over the years that he knew absolutely nothing about women and even less about being a good husband.
As I predicted he didn’t answer my question. Instead, he unstrapped his belt from his pants and beat me with it.
Years later I got married. A few months after the wedding I took my wife, per her request, to meet my father who had retired and moved to the Midwest. He picked us up from the airport and drove us to his house. On the way there, after introductions and anecdotal histories were exchanged, there came a point where no one had said anything for a while.
So I asked him, “Would you like to hear how my day was at school?”
He cast me a sidelong glance and sighed deeply. “Why? Why do you do that?”
I looked ahead and shrugged my shoulders.
My dad looked in the rear-view mirror at my wife. “Did he tell you?”
She tried not to smile. “Yes. It’s funny, kind of.”
My father alternately nodded and shook his head. “You wouldn’t think it was funny at all if it was your kid. Bank on that.”
My wife raised her eyebrows in silent agreement. I smiled in my seat and waited to arrive, to eat a meal at my father’s table, to listen to his AA stories, to leave.
Years later I got divorced and my father got cancer. The former was entirely my fault.
My mother was long gone. Living with a retired bus driver whom none of us had met. She called every Christmas, sometimes on birthdays. She’d hated her life with us so we couldn’t blame her for keeping her distance. People disagreed. But people can’t know something unless they had been there, making eye contact, listening closely.
Like my father with me. That day.
The doctor explained it was stage 4, in his blood, in the stage of distant spread. He assured me the staff would continue to provide the best care possible through the end of his life and would see to it that he would be peaceful and dignified. I thanked him, convinced.
“It’s all bullshit,” my father groaned at the ceiling when we were alone. Then he looked at me. “You would shine here. Light up the sky like a damn meteor instead of teaching English to brats that already speak it.” He smirked and coughed for almost a minute straight. When he was done he said, “I know that’s not what you do. Goddamn bookworm. But trust me, the crap they peddle here, the stories they spin about what it’s supposed to do? You missed your calling, kiddo.”
Maybe he was right. Because everything I had told him that day years ago was a lie. I hadn’t been to school in six weeks.
The neighborhood I grew up in was a fucked-up neighborhood and my school was, by extension, a fucked-up school. It wasn’t the worst school in my district but it wasn’t any parent’s ideal choice.
On the other hand, I was an ideal student. Because I wasn’t an across-the-board genius—I dazzled some teachers and underwhelmed others—and I always appeared to be trying my best. In any fucked-up school that was the most a teacher could ask for and I was the gift that kept on giving, in sickness and in health. About a week after I’d resumed my classes I woke up extremely nauseous. I threw up within minutes and my parents told me to stay home. Later that day my friend Ephraim, who lived in my building, stopped by to borrow a video game. We were the only kids we knew who liked Sega better than Nintendo and we were always borrowing each other’s games. He went through my shelf, picked a game, Space Harrier, and was about to leave when he asked if I wanted the homework for Social Studies. It was one of four classes we shared; it was also the only class he wasn’t failing and felt comfortable discussing with me. I told him yes though I didn’t intend to do it. But I looked at it after dinner and saw it was just a chapter summary. My parents were quiet for a change, he must not have hated the dinner she’d unthawed or she must not have minded the five or six beers he’d washed it down with; whatever the reason, the apartment was silent. So I did the assignment and went to sleep. The next day on my way to school I saw Ephraim walking a block ahead of me. This wasn’t strange. But for the first time I realized that it was unfair. How he would usually get to school early, much earlier than me anyway, and yet he was failing almost all his classes. How he must never have wondered what’s the point. I wondered that all the time. I was wondering it as I watched him. It was the reason why, suddenly, I had to catch up to him. I had to give him something and I needed something—a favor. It had to do with my health problems, I said. He didn’t understand what was wrong with me but he knew it was probably getting worse. He never asked me anything more about it, whatever I told him was enough.
Later he became a drug dealer. A modestly successful one, I’d heard. I wished I could have told him how happy I was for him. His grades weren’t going to open any doors and his reliability and complete disinterest in knowing more than he had to know would be assets in very few enterprises. He would never ask what’s the point of anything and I truly hope he never does. It’s a shitty way to live.
For six weeks he brought me my assignments. I gave them to him in the morning and he handed them to my teachers with my apologies and hopes that I would be returning soon. I also gave him my doctor’s notes whose dates he would white out and change as needed, as well as money for the copy machine in the bodega across the street from our school. I told him to always fold the notes in half, twice, so they didn’t look so fresh. There were two exams in that time, one in Spanish and one in Math. I attended classes on those days and did well, or well enough, on both. I spent my days at the Whitestone Multiplex, paying for one movie and seeing two, sometimes three. Then I would walk to Castle Hill and play arcade games. Sega may have had better graphics than Nintendo but nothing beat coin-operated arcades back then.
Then one day I came home and my father was there. Because I was an ideal student, the school vice principal, at the behest of two of my teachers—I never knew which—called my home to learn more about my condition and when I would be returning. Surely there must have been some improvement after six weeks, or had things taken a turn for the worse?
I hated my father and I loved to inhabit other worlds only slightly different from my own. Normally I achieved the latter through books, but that day I found another way. He never understood that and never would, because for him like for too many others, there is no world but this one.
I still love to read. I still want to hate him but I also wonder what’s the point of that anymore.
I was about to leave when he did something I don’t remember him ever doing. In a fit of coughing he asked me how my day was at school—the one in which I had taught for years.
“Anything unique about it?”
Suddenly, tears welled in my eyes and I couldn’t breathe. He squinted and laughed, sadly.
“Relax, kiddo. It’s my own goddamn fault. If I’m not gonna like the answer, I shouldn’t ask the question, right?”
I wiped my eyes and half-smiled. I told him I’d see him soon, maybe in two weeks. He died four days later.
I visited my father’s grave once, about ten years ago. I thought I would say something to him—to it—like they do in the movies, but no words came. I never remarried so when I come home these days there’s nothing, no secret to confront or mystery to explain, no need to flex my mind, to invent. Sometimes I’m happy about this, sometimes the door swings open and I can’t move, as if the interior of my apartment stands on the far side of an abyss. Then it—the loneliness—fades and I walk in and close the door in relief. Because I remember that outside of the fucked-up school I’m retiring from this year, nobody has much reason to ask me a purposeful question anymore; nobody is waiting on my answer. So if I want, I can switch on my laptop and run the video game emulator a student had installed a month or so ago—an early retirement gift—and play Space Harrier and inhabit the old, too familiar world from before, where it was entirely natural to wonder what’s the point of any of this, even more natural to keep shooting aliens.