01/16/2013

In The Distance

by Ryan P. Kennedy

Some things I don’t like talking about, particularly things that lay me bare, like if I talk about them I’ll see something in myself that I’m trying to ignore. Other things I don’t like talking about because I don’t want to remember them. And talking about things is more than just remembering them. It’s like replaying the whole situation, which leads to a kind of trauma, which I think is my point here.

The office where this started is about a half mile from the building where I work. I walked it, despite it being a cold morning in early spring. The streets were filled with people, and I strolled through them, allowing them to be with me. When I walked in from the noise and dust, the receptionist looked up at me. It wasn’t a glance. It was a look. I told her who I was and at what time my appointment was scheduled. She seemed to be relieved that I spoke first. She hadn’t even finished her morning coffee yet. Yesterday was Tuesday. But she looked the way people do on Monday mornings.

“Follow me,” she said.

The hallway had little framed articles and plaques on the wall. There wasn’t much of interest there, but I did see flashes of my head in the glass panes as I followed the receptionist. She struck me as not being very submissive, unlike most other receptionists, and it didn’t bother me that I didn’t want her, despite her being a receptionist. Anyway, her movements were jerky and, overall, she seemed lazy. Beyond her in the distance I saw a large, closed door. It looked important, and I became anxious to be on the other side of it.

A week before my visit there I saw an advertisement that said, “Never again miss your son’s baseball game.” I guess it was an effective ad because I made an appointment on the spot.

My son is good at baseball, or so I’m told. The ad made me feel emotional, partly because when I brag about my son I don’t truly believe what I say because I’ve never seen him play. Everybody in my office knows this, I think, but they let me brag anyway. They feel very bad for me, but they also expect leadership, which is far more pressing.

The board doesn’t feel bad, though. They pay me well to give my life to the business, like a religious sacrifice, because we all know who our god is. Most importantly, they never ask any questions. However, my wife does sometimes. I try not to say anything. I don’t like explaining myself, especially to my wife and son. Sometimes, though, days go by and I feel them growing into people on the horizon I hardly recognize.

At the bottom of the advertisement I remember it also said, “World’s best dad? Now you can be.” I remember that had an effect on me, too, but I forgot about that effect until I went to their office.

The man on the other side of the door offered me a chair and sat across from me. He wore a suit that made him quite pleasant to look at. His eyes were clear and that made me think I was pleasant to look at, too.

To get things started he asked me my name and what I did for a living. I was the kind of person they went into business to serve, he said. He did a lot of talking. It all made sense. Then we crossed his office and looked out the window at the busy city street and tall buildings. “It would be great to grab a drink after work or maybe catch a ball game at the park. That’s what we do here. We let you appreciate life.” I concluded I wanted to appreciate life, and I said it out loud. He smiled and made a signal with his hand, and just then the receptionist wheeled in a dummy that looked exactly like the man standing next to me.

“This goes where I can’t,” he said, patting the dummy on the head. After a moment passed he gave me a speech about how important it is for parents to be at all of their children’s things, no matter how trivial. Just being there is half of parenting. I noticed right away that he was serious.

I asked how much business he does and he explained that most of the people who come to him are women who had lost a spouse to terminal illness or parents who had lost a child. It helps them cope with things. I wasn’t the same, he said, but I’m the kind of person he intended to help.

“It’ll look just like you,” he said. “You’ll be the perfect parent forever.”

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I probably love my wife, but her reaction to my idea made it hard for me to show it. Sometimes it’s like there’s a wolf circling our relationship, and at a moment’s notice everything could be torn to shreds. When I told her about Perfect Parenthood that night, it was one of those times. She said some things, but instead of considering them carefully I imagined what it would be like if she died. What I would do with her clothes, etc. Afterward I tried to forget I had ever thought that.

Her body language and how she twitched her nose made me sorry for what I said, which doesn’t mean I regret saying it, and I told her I was wrong for mentioning it. But my wife didn’t seem satisfied. So I tried harder and said that my head was in a bad spot and that I was trying to hold everything together, and then I lied about being desperate to make us a strong family unit, which isn’t really ever a worry because I don’t think anybody honestly knows what that even means. That seemed to help me a little. We hugged and said a few nice things about love.

On my way out of the room I was told there was an important game for my son tomorrow, something about a rival school with a fine record. I never was able to tell the high schools apart, so the details didn’t matter. My wife wasn’t happy when I said I would miss it.

“You go tell him right now why his father won’t be there,” she said, looking very angry. Talking to my son didn’t seem like too much of a punishment. Plus, I wanted to make things better between my wife and me, so I agreed like I fully understood her point of view.

His room is on the other side of our home, which keeps a lot of space between us anyway. He was looking at a schoolbook when I got there. I explained my situation and before I ended my speech he interrupted me by saying, “I know, dad.” To his benefit, my explanation was pretty simple, and I didn’t need to waste more time repeating it. He stared down at his work without once looking up. I had the idea to ask what he was studying but after a short silence, I backed out the door.

Lots of people say their father is their hero, no matter how bad things get, but for my son it might be too late. The fans who shout at the tops of their lungs when he pitches well don’t bother me. Meanwhile, I’ve never spared more than a peep for him. I’m not sure how to get excited about that stuff. It’s not like it’s beyond repair or anything, though I really don’t see it getting any worse from here. Besides, people at the office tell me he should be proud to have a father like me. I listen to them as carefully as possible, believing hard and nodding.

At that moment, I almost gave up on trying to save him, to convince him I am a hero, to make him look at me like the others do. But I didn’t give up. I called Perfect Parenthood instead.

The next morning I flew to our west coast office to tell half the staff their jobs were no longer available. I ordered breakfast after I landed, but my mind wandered and I forgot to ask for no cream in my coffee, so I dumped it out. When I got to the office I told the staff the news, but my mind wandered and I forgot whether or not I was here ten years ago for the grand opening of this office. I should have said some kinder things, but I was distracted. I don’t think it went well. When I checked in at my hotel, I had a slight headache and couldn’t watch any television as a result. Additionally, it made me cancel my dinner plans with the woman I had hired years ago to run the west coast office, so I missed out on dining at one of the best restaurants in the area.

After my flight home landed, I sat in the back of the car the company had waiting for me and told the driver how flying in first class isn’t what it used to be. The driver seemed to be very tired and didn’t respond, so I called home. My wife answered and it didn’t take long for her to tell me she was mad at me again. She asked me if I remember the time she knew she loved me and wanted to get married. But how could I remember that? I started to wonder where this was going and told her I wasn’t following her. After that her anger rose quickly, which caught me off guard and frightened me for some reason, but then she got to the point and said my son thought he saw me in the stands tonight and this made him very happy. I thanked her for telling me and this seemed to upset her more. A man came in the middle of the game and sat a dummy next to her and then took it away before the game ended. It looked just like me. I guess this troubled her greatly, and she wouldn’t hang up until I promised never to do that again. I agreed because I wanted to get off the phone. I yawned and hung up. The rest of the ride home was very quiet, which was fine because I think the city is nice to look at this late at night.

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The following week, though, I saw no reason to keep my promise. I worked hard the whole week, and there was a big thing with our lawyers, which required my constant attention. I knew I would miss an award ceremony at the high school where my son attended. My wife phoned the office several times. I ignored her calls to my cell, too. At one point, I needed to escape from work so I bought a ticket to see a movie, but I left the theater after twenty minutes because I wasn’t very interested in the plot. On my way back to the office, I called Perfect Parenthood. It was hard not to make my son happy again. The next day was Thursday and one of the lawyers, the one who seemed to be in charge, invited me to join him for dinner, which I accepted easily since he’s a smart, friendly man whose only flaw is chubbiness. The next night I got home late and nobody was home. I didn’t turn any of the lights on, hoping it would remain dark and silent forever.

On Saturday I called Perfect Parenthood to cover me for a third time. It wasn’t a big game, so I saw no reason for me to be there really.

My wife, however, saw it differently. I received a call from a man saying the dummy was delivered to the stands, but when he went to pick it up, it was gone, along with my wife. He thought my wife destroyed it, which meant I would be billed extra for the damages, but the man on the phone didn’t seem mad at me or anything. I asked if this happens often. He said no. I wasn’t sure what to think. Maybe it was funny or maybe my wife was the real problem here. Her behavior was not normal. I thought that made some sense, but then I thought it was ridiculous, too. We said our good-byes, and I thought the man was nice overall.

When I got home late that night nobody was home again. I walked down our dark hallway, past a black hole where I knew the kitchen was, and, finally up some stairs. In the darkness, I felt safe, but at the same time I felt like I was exploring a cave, because of how neutral everything was. I now wish this feeling had stretched on forever.

That’s when I realized my wife was sleeping in the bedroom, and I knew I would have to talk a lot about love to make everything better between us. I didn’t want to argue or stay up late because I was tired, but I turned on the bedroom light anyway. The brightness seemed to be more of an intruder on the scene than I was. From across the room I saw the whole of my wife’s body, which was naked and, for a brief moment, not as young as I remembered it. Beneath her was the dummy. And there was a second where nothing seemed to matter, like everything was okay, but then I felt a flash of heat under my skin.

I don’t know what kind of look I had on my face, but my wife looked scared. She jerked and fell to the floor, holding her hands up to the light. I felt hot, and the heat pressed in on my chest. I wanted to turn around and leave the room. And I would have, too, had I known what I was doing. Instead I moved closer to my wife, who was now lying on her back, pushing against the light with her hands. I wanted her to put her hands down, so I pushed them down with my foot, and something made me keep doing it. It wasn’t an urge. It was something within me that was automatic, like my heartbeat or hunger.

“I just want to be with you,” she shouted, swatting at my shoe. “I miss you,” she said, and repeated it again and again, as my foot went up and then down again and again. She shouted a few things that don’t really matter. It lasted all of about ten seconds before my body went back to normal.

But my life didn’t go back to normal. Ten seconds before that I was a husband and a father and a businessman, and then I was not. My wife isn’t dead or even badly hurt, but she doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. That’s what makes it all funny. Nobody else shared that thought though, not my son or my job or the policewoman who arrived shortly after it happened.

Some things happen quickly and then you’re not the person you were just a moment ago. Years of being somebody and then it’s gone after a few seconds. That’s how fragile we are. That’s why all of it doesn’t really matter.

I wanted to talk about this because I want to remember who I was and why I’m no longer that person. I’m looking hard for what I lost, but it never seemed to be there in the first place. Like the time my son was learning how to swim. We were staying out by the ocean, and in the late morning I let him swim by himself in the water, while I stood on the hot sand. The beach was empty and the glare off the water hurt my eyes. He swam far out, until I could only see the black dot of his head. For a moment he plunged under and was totally gone. I stared out at the water, which went as far as I could see into the horizon. There was nothing out there but water. My son was completely gone. I wasn’t worried. He just ceased to exist. I was okay with it all, like everything was perfect, but then he splashed through the surface and was back again. I’m trying, but I’m having a hard time going back to being okay with it all.

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Ryan P. Kennedy lives in Chicago with a wife. His writing has appeared in Curbside Splendor, New Plains Review, and a few other places.

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