We used to go to church together, my mother and I. Every Sunday morning she would shake me awake with her left hand, her coffee in her right. “Come of, Jules.” She would say, “It’s only two hours out of your life.” It’s her redemption, I think.
She dropped out of college when she was pregnant with me to marry my father. They didn’t get along. My father defined himself as some sort of tortured artist. He takes photos. They look something like what you find in a high school art room: Thousands of people glance at it in passing but do not care enough to look again. My father says that’s the problem with art these days: There has to be a deeper meaning.
He would take pictures of my mother when she was mad at him and call it “raw emotion.” He only photographed her when they were fighting in tones I assumed were supposed to be hushed and after I fell asleep.
It was the morning after we had come back from visiting my aunt’s house when finally fought in front of me. I was eleven. My aunt had been yelling at my father about something I wasn’t supposed to hear and I’m pretty sure she was just trying to help him. Either way it ended -more or less- with my father slamming the door behind him and my mother apologizing to my aunt in words I weren’t supposed to know about back then. A few days later my parent’s split up for good.
The idea of working backwards from known information excites my mother. I never understood this when I was little because Christianity is based off of an uncertainty. My mother never taught me how to pray. Whenever the pastor told the congregation to everyone would get on their knees and I would just mimic them. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say to God if I didn’t really believe in him to begin with.
No one in the church ever prays out loud. Instead they clasp their hands and tilt their heads down and imagine the words. Now, I think I understand. My mother never learned how to pray either. No one ever teaches you what God really wants to hear. So somewhere along the way prayer got mixed up with complaint, or want, or “Listen, you’re a great guy and all, but there’s still some stuff you can do better.” Maybe God just isn’t the sort to appease people with answers.
Either way, my mother still prayed. I’m not sure what she asks God, but I don’t think it ever worked because she still works in an office, and my father still left, and she still gets down on her knees every night so God can hear her better.
My father sends me birthday cards. They always come late in the mail because he lives in New York now and he keeps forgetting to send them until a couple days after the actual date of my birth. He is a forgetful man. Sometimes it’s his keys and sometimes it’s his family. He doesn’t mean to forget things, not really. So my mother just says, “Quit taking it personally.” I still do, just without telling her; and she still cries when she thinks I’m asleep, just without telling me. So I guess we’re even.
The last time I saw my father was when I had just begun middle school. He came to tell me that he was moving to New York because he got a job taking photographs for this magazine that people read in front of their coworkers to seem cultured. I didn’t say anything to him, but he hugged me. And that was the end of whatever I had dreamed up in my head about him: he was no longer someone I was obligated to love unconditionally anymore; forgive, maybe. But not love.
Lately, I have not been holding my words inside of me. Instead, they come out at the wrong time and are misheard or misinterpreted. My mother says this makes me seem spiteful, and I’m okay with that because I’d rather seem like something, not be it. My mother doesn’t seem spiteful, but she is. I’m pretty sure she has it worse than me.
A lot of people have it worse than me. This is true, but not helpful. My mother has used it in countless arguments against my complaints. Whether it be food I don’t want to eat, or the fact that these days I haven’t been sleeping she just says that someone else has a life that sucks more than yours does. I think the implied ending of that statement is get over it. But just because someone else has it worse than I do, doesn’t make things any better for me. Not that I expect everything to get better.
I learned how to be a pessimist from my mother. It was unintentional. She spent all her time waiting for something good to happen to her. She talks to the pastor a lot about this and he keeps saying God has a plan for her. It’s his job, to seek out good things. As if good things are always waiting to be noticed.
My father called on a Sunday morning because he knew my mother would be at church. I had stopped going by the time I was fifteen because my mother was sick of me questioning the bible’s authenticity. His voice was stronger than I remembered, more confident. “Jules,” he said when I picked up, a sigh escaping as if maybe I had taken up my mother’s ways entirely and decided he was, in fact, a no-good-bastard-who-better-hope-he-never-calls-again. “How are you?” He questions. This was the only question my father knew how to ask me. Even when I was little and he picked me up from school he would utter those same three words in the same tone of voice as if my answer would someday change into something he could hold onto, carry with him as if it meant something more than the it’s automatic quality.
“I’m fine,” I say.
“Listen,” he says, and his voice falters like it used to when he fought with mom and didn’t know how to prove himself right, “I have a favor to ask.” My father had never asked me for anything. He asked my mother, and his mother, but never me. Sometimes he needed money. When this was the case my mother would spend all of dinner listing the reasons why she shouldn’t give him anything or pick up the phone again. Then she would give it to him anyways and spend all of the next dinner regretting it.
Maybe he was right to wonder if I was becoming my mother. I had started pressing crescents into the back of my hands with my fingernails when I was worried, I put chapstick on my lips more than I needed to because I hated it when they cracked, and I couldn’t figure out exactly how to say “no” to someone even if I wanted to. I guess if you sit in front of someone at a dinner table for long enough you pick up their habits.
“What?” I asked. He sighed, long and breathy like he wanted to make sure I knew this was hard for him.
“I want you to come to my wedding.”
The ceremony was nice, and too long. His wife seemed to pretty and nice to be real and she talked to me like she knew me. Afterwards I kissed my father on the cheek, flew back to Wisconsin and unlocked the door to an empty house.
Later I would learn that my mother wouldn’t come back. Later I would cry because I knew my mother did not have the audacity to visit me again after she had done this. Later I would call her absence an excuse to file my love for her away and press blunt fingernails into my skin and pretend it was surreal enough that I couldn’t feel it.
But then I walked into the house, turned on the news, and fell asleep on the couch. Nothing hurts like knowing there was a time before you can say you have a history with.
My father came to pick me up a week after my mother left. The phone conversation I had with him was long and uneventful. There wasn’t any surprise in his voice when we talked. He just said he would pay for my plane ticket and I could move in with him.
I don’t remember walking through the airport. Somehow I had gotten from the airport to the gate to the plane and now I was sitting between an old lady and middle aged man. I slept on the way over and my father and his new wife were waiting at the airport. We exchanged friendly greetings in voices that were anything but. My father carried my bag even though I asked him not to.
The taxi we rode in was number 8335 and We ask that you do not smoke; direct complaints and compliments to the number below. We didn’t speak besides my fathers cautious pointing at the buildings I should know about. There was too much traffic for our silence to be pleasant. The cab driver honked loudly snapping me out of some trance I hadn’t even noticed falling into. “What are you waiting for?” He says in a matter-of-fact manner. As if he knew something pedestrians didn’t. “Your grandmother? She’s dead, moved on, you should too.” And just like that, we were laughing.