Coping Mechanisms: An Autobiography
You wonder how many times you'll have to do this. For the rest of your life, you know. But how many times? The vents rattle. Your engine breathes its stale breath into your face. Outside, snow falls.
"Just hurry up and get here." His words snap like pop rocks.
You glance at the clock. 8:26. "I told you, I'm right down the street."
"Just hurry up," He yells. After a pause, "Is it snowing yet?"
"Well, be careful."
"Yes Dad." You stab at the red button on your cell phone, missing the days you could slam receivers. A cop car sits at an intersection. Its nose sticks out into traffic. You inch past, acting guilty for nothing. The radio drones. You yawn over the hum of your engine.
The car eases around a turn. A brick school building waits to collapse on the corner. The bottom windows are all smashed out. They look like broken teeth. The building is dark, but the outside lights burn through the snow, mimicking activity. They are weak protection against trespassers. Next door leans a tiny white shack, a chipped "Mercado" sign hangs over a boarded up door. More broken windows. By what rights can they call this a city?
You miss your city. A real city, with restaurants and bars and buses and twenty-four hour whatevers. Here everything closes by ten o'clock. You remember a time when the electricity of this place used to get your bones humming. Out in your suburban back yard, above the tree line and quiet roof tops, you could see the foggy orange bubble. You knew what was waiting here. Neon shop signs, dotted lines of street lamps, every window of an apartment building blazing. There was so much living that couldn't wait till tomorrow. It spilled into the sky, a puddle of light. The back of your legs used to itch to be out in it.
But you know better now. It was just a sleight of hand, a parlor trick. You pass a convenience store with one car in the parking lot. Snow covers the sign. You don't miss being here.
You turn down your father's road and sidle your car up against the curb. All the lights in his trailer are on. You cut the engine. The wind whistles along the edges of the little tin foil house.
You sit a minute longer, scanning the radio for something good. Something you can take with you. The snow glows like cheap gold against the artificial light. You shake your head. You should go farther, somewhere there's no snow, somewhere the cities stretch on forever, and people build endlessly, unconcerned about things like ground thaw. Where roads roll out into the ocean. A city like that would eat this one like Pac Man. One large chomp.
The wind is rowdy. It tries to shove you around as you get out of the car. Your head turtles down into your shoulders as you struggle up the concrete walkway. The phone in your pocket spasms to life. "Christ, I'm right outside!" you yell. The wind catches your voice and sweeps it away. You slip the phone out of your pocket and check the clock on the LCD screen. 8:30 pm. Still early. If this doesn't take too long, you could be back in New Haven by 10:00.
You skid and shuffle to the rubber welcome mat. The screen door blows open, and you pound on the metal one beneath. "Just a minute!" he growls from the other side. You tuck your lips inside your mouth, trying to warm whatever you can. His signature heavy footfalls pound toward you.
He yanks open the door. "All I'm getting is fucking blue screen," he grumbles. He turns and stalks back to the TV, leaving you to shut the door. His couches slouch towards each other in conversation. An empty box sits on one, its plastic packaging guts strewn around. You follow him to where his television set sits on top of a large crate. A tower of magazines trips you and you stumble into a pile of books. He kneels in front of the TV, unaware that you are Godzillaing your way around. He leans forward slightly, his hands on his thighs. The vivid blue light reflects in his glasses as he peers over his frames, reading the buttons of his new DVD player for probably the thousandth time.
In the silence, his heart clicks. Soft, like the click of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. It keeps a steady beat, a souvenir from heart surgery not that long ago. You imagine it thumping inside of his chest, echoing around his ribs, the pulsing pink muscle giving seismic shudders, a thick red scar running down it like a fault line.
"I did exactly what you told me to do. The fucking red power light is on, the fucking TV is on, I put the CD in the tray, and nothing happened."
"DVD." You shrug off your heavy coat, tossing it aside. It lands in a pile of newspapers.
"It's a DVD, not a CD. A CD is what you listen to." You crouch down beside him.
"What-ever." He groans. He clutches the thin pamphlet of instructions in one hand. With the other, he machine-guns his finger at the play button.
"Dad, quit it! You're only going to break it."
"It's already fucking broken."
You sigh. "Probably not. You probably just knocked something out." You reach across him, checking the plugs in the front of the TV. "Could you move?" You try to elbow him out of the way.
"Fine." He throws down the instructions. Rocking back on his heels, he stands. "All I wanted to do was watch a fucking movie. Why can't anything in life ever be simple? Why does everything have to be such a major fucking chore!" He stamps over to the yellow fridge. You squeeze your eyes shut, imagining a sky line only broken by a bay.
"Get out of here," you hear him say. Cat, his overweight tabby, winds figure-eights around his calves, rubbing against the denim of his jeans. He nudges her away with his foot. She runs around to the other side of the door, her hanging belly swinging back and forth. She waits patiently for him to open the fridge. You hear plastic rustle as he roots around. "You want some salami?" he offers.
"No, I'm good." You swivel the sleek, silver DVD player around to check the connections. "You shouldn't have any either," you add. "It's not good for you."
"It's not going to kill me tonight," he grumbles.
You push at the plugs sticking out of the player. The video wire wiggles loose. No surprise. You reconnect it and spin the player back the right way. The FBI warning blossoms on the screen as the movie begins.
Your father's head pokes out over the fridge door. "How'd you do that?"
"I was right. You knocked out one of the plugs back here. All you had to do was reconnect it." You lean back against the couch, tired. If he had only listened to you over the phone. If he hadn't dragged you out here, you would be on your way home. But instead he got hassled and impatient.
You think about the Nikon camera he bought you. Neither of you could figure out how to rewind the film. He swore the whole trip to the store, yelling loud enough that people stared at red lights. Then he just gave a goofy smile when the young guy behind the counter explained all you needed to do was press a button on the bottom.
You let your head fall against the couch. Fat Cat comes up and rubs her cheek against your hand. You buff her forehead with your thumb.
Your father ambles over, peering at the TV curiously. After a moment, he says, "I knew that." He lets out a loud, barking laugh. "Oh, I'm hopeless."
"You really are, Old Man." You pick up the movie cover, glancing at the back description. "What are you trying to watch, anyway?"
He plops a paper towel full of red grapes on the seat of the couch. "Oh, just some World War II thing," he says casually, as if seconds ago he wasn't about to chuck the whole thing out the window. He kneels on the floor, gesturing to the grapes.
You pick one and pop it into your mouth. "Is there really anything left you don't know about World War II?"
He grins. "I'm going to find out." The opening music sounds, full of sad horns. Gray fighter planes cut across the screen. Your father munches on his grapes, eyes following every move. You can hear him last year, or the year before, or next year, saying, "As soon as I get to see my grandkids, I'm going to take a ride in a plane." It began with, "As soon as you kids are out of the house," and then changed to, "as soon as you kids are out of college." Planes flew over the county fairs every year as people lined up for rides. Annually he stopped in his tracks and you watched them together, arcing across the sky. You would shake his arm.
"Why don't you go now? It's perfectly safe."
He'd smile a little and scuff your head, like you were still seven. Like you didn't understand.
"So what are you doing now? Are you going out with your friends?" he asks.
You shake your head again. "No. I think I'm going to drive home."
Your father winces. "Oh, no."
"It's already dark out."
"Dad, don't start with me."
"And it's snowing and it's all ice. Your car's not that good anyway. Just because I paid $250 for you to get snow tires doesn't mean you can drive that thing like it's an SUV."
You imagine lines of black expressway stretched out, gleaming and black like electrician's tape, the sun radiating off it in waves. Everything in waves. Waves of palm trees waving as you blow by them. A thousand miles away, he would have to listen to you on the phone. There would be no coming over to check it out. He would have to deal. Aloud, you make your voice firm. "Dad, I am going home. I'm not old like you; I can drive at night just fine. I don't want to stay here."
"That's what you think, but you know why they call it black ice? Because you can't see it. Besides, it's not just you I worry about. It's all those other assholes out there on the road."
You wonder if there's anything he doesn't worry about. You remember your grandmother telling you once, "He was such an odd boy. All the other kids would be out playing, and he'd come in, close all the blinds in his room, turn on all the lights and read books. He said he didn't like people being able to look in." When you and your brother were kids, he wouldn't let you use public restrooms. You weren't allowed in past your chest when you swam. He didn't know how to swim and couldn't save you. When your parents were still married, they went to visit your mother's family in New York City. She told you, "He just about shit himself on the subway."
He shrugs and looks away. "You're barely here at all anymore."
Your eyes widen and the register of your voice rises. "I come back every week!"
"Yeah, but you stay one night at your mother's. Stay tonight, go back to New Haven in the morning when you can see something."
You throw up your hands. "I'm twenty-three, for God's sake. I have my own apartment, I have my own life! I hate to tell you this, but I go out driving in the icy dark all the time." You want to run around kicking over all his stacks of books, throwing sheets and sheets of newspaper around the room, in his face. How can he do this to you? He can't even let you have this little bit of space.
You know it's a pipe dream. The city on the bay. How could you up and leave? Who would he call eight times a day? Who would help him plan hiking trips that would never happen? Who would he drive with at night, when he couldn't see well in the dark? And who would be there by the phone when that call comes, that inevitable call. That he's collapsed at work, or fallen asleep at the wheel, or gotten one of his migraines, sat down on a park bench and didn't get up. Your mother left him. Your brother left for college. Who else is there? There is only you.
You look at your father popping handfuls of grapes into his mouth, his attention divided between your conversation and the documentary rolling on in the background. How did he end up so alone? You imagine him spending hours in Barnes & Noble, his beaten up baseball cap turned backward. His thin gray hair poking out from the sides, glasses pushed up to his forehead while he squints at a magazine. You can see him going for pizza and coming home to this dirty trailer, full of books and newspapers and cat hair.
He would call you anyway. You know that. If you moved, he would call California or Alaska or Istanbul nine times a day, just like he calls your brother at his college. He would leave the same messages on your voice mail. "Just calling to see what you're up to." And when you called him back, he would say quietly, "I miss you." He would never ask you directly to come home. Never ask you to change your life. But it would be there in his voice. And you, afraid of all the things your brother isn't, would come home.
But you'll be damned if he keeps you here in this backwoods town masquerading as something bigger. "Dad, I'm going." You get to your feet and reach for your coat. He stands up as well.
"Just drive carefully."
You shoulder your coat. "I always do."
He reaches out to give you a hug. You rest your head against his chest. You can hear his heart clicking, calm for the moment beneath his gray sweatshirt. Your venom fades. You think about all the fathers that don't care. The ones that divorce mothers and run away to jobs or other women. Fathers that put miles between themselves and their kids. You think of all the other fathers he could be. You squeeze him tight. He kisses the top of your head. "Give me a call when you get there, let me know you're safe."
"Okay." He walks you to the door. You shuffle your way back to your car.
"Love you," he calls to your back.
"Love you too." You wave. You climb into the car. It grumbles to life. Cold air blows out now and you cup your hands around your mouth, waiting for it to warm. Your father stands in the doorway, the weak yellow light of the living room at his back, casting him into a tall, dark shadow. He waits patiently to see you go. He waves again.
You wave back. You know you'll call even before you get home tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, because someday that heart of his, that tap dancing heart, will miss a step. And you'll be free to do whatever you want. And you'll be miserable. Absolutely and completely lost.
Meghan Chvirko graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a BA in Creative Writing. She likes long walks on the beach, sunsets, and seeing her own work in print. She lives in New Haven with her cats (and is not as lonely as that sounds).