On a hot August evening in 2008, I got into my car and pulled out of our driveway. I ran into my dad, on his way back from a dinner, on my way out. He rolled down his window, so I rolled down mine.
“Hey cutie, where you headed?” he asked, happy as I’d ever seen him.
“To see The Dark Knight, again,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I should be back sometime around 1 a.m.” He smiled.
“All right, have fun. I’ll see you soon!”
I drove out to West Omaha and sat through the three hour movie for the second time because it was my friend’s last night in town before we all headed back to college. Some other friends of ours snuck in whiskey and cokes and probably ruined the movie for the rest of the theater, yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at strangers. I drove home hours later, tired and annoyed at my friends’ behavior, and went straight to bed. A small part of me registered that my dad’s car wasn’t in the garage but I didn’t think anything of it. It was past midnight on a weekday. How did I not think anything of it?
My brother’s voice broke into my dreams around 2 a.m.
“What?” I managed, remembering a time when he woke me up because of a noise downstairs and we tiptoed down, barely breathing, hearts thumping audibly, only to find a pair of shoes rattling around in the dryer.
“Dad’s car is gone.”
“Where do you think he is?”
“Joe, I’m sure it’s fine. Go to sleep.”
I wonder if my brother was able to go back to sleep as easily as I was. If he sat awake in his bed for hours, waiting for the flash of headlights to move across his wall, for the sound of the garage door opening, anything to reassure him that everything was in fact fine.
I didn’t work the next day, a rarity for me that summer, so I had scheduled my car for a much-needed check up. I yelled bye to my mom and skipped down the stairs to the garage, where I ran into my dad. In a suit. Just coming home.
“Hey!” I said. “Just getting home?” Halfway through the sentence I realized I was confused. The end of it faltered.
He didn’t tell me there. He pulled me into the formal living room, the one we only used on holidays. The one where he chatted with important people who were over for dinner, or where he once had to break the news to a good friend and coworker that they were letting him go.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” he started. It felt like someone cracked a cold bottle of liquid over my head, the ice trickling into my veins.
The night before, after running into me in the driveway and parking his car in the garage, my dad walked into our house. He sat down on the couch with my mom, and they started to watch a DVR’ed episode of ER. I don’t know if he waited for a commercial break, or if there was a particularly dramatic moment that triggered him. A surgery gone wrong, an especially gruesome car accident victim. What I do know is that at some point my father turned to my mother and said, simply, “I’m in love with another woman,” like he was commenting on the weather. “Oh and I heard it might hail tonight.”
We were raised to be quiet children. We didn’t cry on planes, we didn’t fight on road trips. If we got cranky, if Joe crossed into Ryan’s space, if one of them said something mean to me, one look from my dad was all it took.
Ryan and Joe have always been better at silence than me. Maybe it’s a Y chromosome thing, maybe it’s deeper than genetics. They can have entire conversations across the dinner table that no one notices but me. It’s like a language that I understand but can’t speak. Sometimes when I voice my thoughts out loud I can feel their frustration, and there is an audible effort behind their short answers. Maybe if there had been one more of us, or one less, I would have had a language, too. Instead I spent my whole life figuring out theirs instead of making up my own.
I spent most of the day he told me in my room, with the pink wallpaper and horse posters that hadn’t changed since elementary school. Eventually Joe came in and sat at the end of my bed. Ryan appeared in the doorway, not all the way in but not all the way out. I couldn’t remember the last time they’d both been in my room. It was there, with the late August sun coming through my window and the cat purring in my lap, that my brothers and I learned to speak.
The day after he moved out we sat in his empty office, silently marveling at the things he took and the things he left behind. On the shelves above his desk were pictures of their wedding. That one was obvious. Next to it was a picture of Ryan in first grade, his front tooth missing from his wide smile. That one was harder. The electric piano remained, as did the couch he slept on his last night at home. On the couch was a pillow Joe got him for Father’s Day that read, “A Son Always Looks Up To His Father,” meant to be a joke as Joe stood three inches taller than my dad. In the corner by the window was the globe I loved to play with when I was younger. I would take the globe off the shelf and spin it to see where my finger would land; I would run my fingers over the mountain ranges, raised like scars across the Earth’s surface. I never spoke first, because I knew his office was a quiet place, but sometimes he did, pointing out Yugoslavia and telling me it didn’t exist anymore, asking if I could find where we lived.
He only left one book behind, a big blue book with black and white pictures simply titled Dog Book. My brothers and I used to go through the breeds, arguing over which was the best one. We memorized the page of our dog, a Gordon Setter, and were glad to see it looked exactly like Jake.
A bell tinkled from underneath the desk. Sadie, our fat orange cat who hadn’t shown an ounce of excess energy in years, batted an old toy out into the middle of the room. She chased it across the floor like a kitten, caught it and stood on her hind legs, batting it in the air between her paws, her blubbery extra skin flopping wildly. We watched her for a while before Joe started to laugh, and then we all laughed until we couldn’t breath, laughed until we cried.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Christophe