The last time I really touched my father’s body was the summer I turned seven. I remember the beach and the lake, the twisted gray trees that tangled the stony beach like old women, and a watery scent like moss. My father wore red swim trunks that contrasted brightly against his pale skin; submerged in the silty, yellowish lake water they were a beacon to our eyes.
My little sister and I would climb his back and vault around, splashing and slipping into his lap to leap like a dolphin, a seal, an otter—something wet and wiggling and happy—and return again.
His skin was cool and slick and he smelled clean and lakey. He’d smile with his whole face, teeth, even, though his life until then was spent with an uneven, crooked grin he later fixed with surgery. Even now, he rarely showed his teeth when mugging for the camera. I remember his returning from the hospital with a mouth full of metal, his jaw broken and wired shut. My mom and her parents were there. They stood in the back, somewhere just outside the memory.
There were balloons, small ones that they’d blown up at the dinner table and tied-off, taping them to the wood paneling. My mom had drawn a sign that said, “Welcome Home, Papa Bear!” and she’s drawn a bear wearing a bowtie and a hat with a flower on it. The bear looked dapper and a little cross-eyed.
My dad had to eat through a straw for three months: vanilla milkshakes with raw eggs mixed in for protein, soup, un-solidified Jell-O. Remembering him now, he didn’t seem to lose any weight, but I knew he was having some problems because he transformed quietly from the huggy dad I knew into a shadowman who hid in his room listening to relaxation tapes. Once, I made the mistake of taping over one of these sessions with my imaginary radio-talk-show babble. He attacked me on the floor and yanked my arm, hurling me onto my bed where I bounced from the wall to the covers like a perfect free-throw bank-shot. Surprised by the speed and ease with which he was able to discard me, I bawled immediately, red-faced and terrified. He left the room and closed the door behind him.
The winter before his breakdown, I remember crossing the lake, not knowing for sure if it was frozen. We held a large, cane-like branch between the four of us. Beneath my small feet, the glass surface of ice was blue-green and dark with cold below. He told us to hold the branch between us because it would keep us together, and I remember thinking that we would all die. I imagined the ice cracking to swallow us, our small arms thrashing without purchase as our winter coats and pants drug us down to the silent bottom, and perhaps, months later, another family would see us trapped beneath the ice, our porcelain eyes staring at them from the other side of life. I’d seen enough television to know how it all went down.
But we didn’t fall through the ice. We skated across, our winterpink faces the only pulse of color against the whiteout, and we stepped from the hard ice onto fallen, snow-tangled yellow grasses, then off and up into the spiny woods on the other side. It is all I remember of the day, and I know the memories are false, or perhaps, I dreamed them, because I can see the four of us: clutching at the stick like a precarious circus act, our red and blue hats and coats against the blank ice and swirling grasses in a view that captures us all from above.
Another summer: playing in a corn field, the waxy leaves like stiff paper across my bare arms and legs. The scuffed whispery sounds of the broad stalks, the loamy dirt smell of the field and the sun hot on my head. I am alone between the plants that tower over me and young—five or six. I remember I rode my bike, crossed the street on my own, and pedaled my small legs hard across the railroad tracks, down the last street in the neighborhood where the dazzling new cement dumped into a green field. I remember grape gum stuffed sour into my cheek, the wind against my legs, bare feet on the pedals, and skinned knees picked over with half-scabs and mosquito bites.
The next year we moved east across a couple states and wide, gray rivers. My sister and I chanted M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i as many times as we could when we crossed it. The warm air in the car whipped our hair into our mouths and we sang songs learned at school or made games out of the passing, new landscape. It was different from where we’d been before. It closed up around me and I felt like I couldn’t stand up straight. I squinted. The light didn’t move across the sky in gymnastic dapples. My laugh didn’t carry as far and the rain didn’t smell as sweet. People spoke more quickly with words I didn’t know, and they treated each other with less expansiveness.
My father was different, too. He worked a different job and smelled different when he came home. I rarely saw him. His presence became blurry, a little far away, and forced by some other type of gravity. He began to feel intrusive, like someone else’s dad getting too close for no reason. Forever after, he just seemed sad.
Instead of a house, we moved to an apartment. Rather than playing in the woods, we rode our bikes in a dentist office parking lot. School was the same, except the other kids didn’t like me, and after school, instead of swimming and running in the woods, my sister and I were confined to an after school program where a cranky librarian made us sit in hard chairs. Nobody smiled. We lived near another lake, but the people there didn’t swim in it, and when it rained, the lake flooded muddy with dark, twisted sticks, fishing line, and the occasional discarded red and white bobber.