What I Will Remember When You Are Gone
By Joe Baumann
We were eating dinner, a brick of meatloaf my mother had overcooked to the texture of a rubber mat, when the phone rang. My father swallowed and, pointing his knife at me, said, “David, would you get that?”
They were decent people, my parents. They said yes when telemarketers asked if they had a moment to answer a few questions. They bought four-year subscriptions to Field and Stream, chalky candy bars, and tubs of dry cookie dough when kids came around during fundraising season. They invited Jehovah’s Witnesses inside for iced tea when they rang the doorbell, even though we didn’t go to church. They answered the phone, even during dinner.
Or, they told me to answer the phone during dinner.
I swiveled into the kitchen and plucked up the cordless after the second ring. “Hello?”
“Hi,” a woman said. “Is Dennis Steubben available?”
“Just a second. May I ask who’s calling?”
“Are you Mr. Steubben?”
“I’m his son.”
“David?” my father called from the dining room. “Who is it?”
I carried the phone in, held it out to him.
He frowned and took it, scooting back in his chair. I sat down and whisked a forkful of mashed potatoes from my plate. My mother couldn’t cook meat to save her life, but she made better side dishes than any mom I knew. She whipped her potatoes with black garlic and egg yolks.
I watched my father’s face. He was tan from days overseeing roofing and siding jobs as a general contractor, but as the woman spoke, his pallor went from gold to anemic gray. My mother paused in her efforts to squelch the last spurts from the ketchup bottle and stared at him while he grunted out “Oh” and “I see.”
I set down my fork. My father’s face was twitching everywhere: at the edge of his lips, the corners of his eyes, his totem-like temples, his sharp as stone Adam’s apple.
“He what?” he said. His entire face went still. I looked at my mother, worried he was having a stroke. She was chewing, slowly, staring at him.
He eventually hung up, setting the phone face down on the table cloth, and continued eating, sawing at his meatloaf. My mother and I both watched him.
“Well?” I said after he’d gnawed his way through three bites.
“Well what was that?”
“Oh. Nothing for you to worry about. Please pass the ketchup.”
“It didn’t sound like nothing to worry about. And I think Mom killed the ketchup.”
“David. Mind your own business.”
I looked to my mother for backup.
“It was a bit strange listening in on your end,” she said, plucking her wine glass by the stem and swirling the Bordeaux. Another thing she was good at was pairing wines with her inedible meats. She even let me have small half-glasses, which I knocked back in big gulps while my parents weren’t looking and pilfered the bottle for refills. They were staring at each other, so I snagged the bottle by its throat and refilled my glass, careful as always not to let the liquid go more than halfway up; as long as I kept my helpings midget-sized, my parents pretended they weren’t letting their seventeen-year-old get plastered.
My mother drained her glass, smacked her lips and leaned an elbow on the table to prop her chin on her palm. She was beautiful, modelesque in body and face, all sharp cheekbones and points at the chin and nose. Unimposing nostrils, a smooth forehead free of wrinkles even on the cusp of forty-five. I knew, when she stared at my father with that imploring look that mixed flirtation with demand, that he would spill the beans.
“A guy I went to high school with has pancreatic cancer.”
“Oh, jeez,” she said, straightening up like she’d been yanked back by a fishing line.
“Tim Berryman. I remember him. There were only twenty-two people in my graduating class, which makes that easy.”
“I’m so sorry,” my mother said.
“His doctor called. He wants to see me. Before he, you know.”
“He’s advanced stage. Apparently it’s hard to see the symptoms early enough to do much of anything besides palliative care.”
“Are you gonna go?” I said.
They looked at me like they’d forgotten that I was there. My father’s jaw was tight as a zipper, my mother’s face vacuum-sealed.
“Sorry I asked,” I said, holding up my fork like a white flag.
Parents know certain things about their homes: where the thermostat is, when it’s time to change the furnace filter, how to access the crawl space, whether the stove is gas or electric, how to lock the garage door, what to do if the basement floods or the walls are infested with termites. Kids, though, they know other stuff. I learned when I was eight which floorboards squelched under my feet, which stairs would wheedle out noise if I stepped on them in the wrong spot. I would wait, tucked in bed, until I heard the television in the living room spaz on and I’d spy on my parents, having long perfected the art of opening my bedroom door at just the right speed so the hinges didn’t groan. I tiptoed down the stairs to watch them from behind the banister. The first time I didn’t venture past the highest step from which I could see the tops of their heads, crooked together so their temples pressed against one another like toasting rocks glasses. On subsequent treks I became bolder, settling myself one step further down until I’d made it all the way to the first floor. Then I managed to waggle on my hands and knees and crouch behind the sofa and listen as they talked about things they didn’t want me to hear.
I’d mostly used my stealth for evil as I grew older, sneaking in well after my curfew, my parents trusting that I was always safe and sound at home by one in the morning. I knew how to slip my housekey in the front lock and get inside without making any noise, and I’d figured out how to turn on the water in the upstairs hall bathroom when taking out my contacts so the pipes didn’t groan enough to wake them. I’d long stopped my sojourns down into the living room; I was old enough not to care about my parents’ secrets, having reached at an age where they barely kept them anymore, anyway.
But the night of the phone call I waited until I heard the pluck of the television warming on, the screen engulfing the dark living room in its bioluminescent light, shading everything like the deep bowels of the Shedd aquarium as my parents watched reruns of Get Smart and Newhart. Dinner had ended with an abrupt snap, my father unceremoniously rising, his plate still half-full. He dumped his uneaten food in the trash can and rinsed his plate in the sink. My mother said nothing when I stared at her for answers, and my father sealed himself up in the home office next to my bedroom for several hours.
Feeling like a fleet dancer, I skirted around the landmines of squeaky boards and stairs, then knelt as I reached the bottom of the steps. My parents’ heads were tilted toward the television. Twice I teetered in my crouch and nearly crashed against the hardwood floor, giving up the ghost. But I managed to nestle myself behind my parents, my sock feet barely whispering across the floorboards.
My mother and father sat through two commercial breaks without a word, and I started to get bored, wondering if I’d been wrong. I was so sure something was awry, that whatever in the phone call had shaken my father would come up, too bilious and powerful for him to keep to himself. He was a sharer, quick to spill stories of frustrating clients or mishaps on the job, particularly those that cost him time or money. He once told a story about moldy tar paper four times in three days.
During the third commercial break, my father muted the television. I held my breath, willing the pulsing discomfort stretching into my bent, loaded knees to vanish.
My father sighed. The leather of the couch squealed as he adjusted his weight.
“Tim didn’t just want me to visit,” he said.
“Oh?” my mother said.
“He, well, um.” I could practically see my father unhook himself from my mother to rub his eyes. “God, this is insane. He wants to kiss me.”
Blood rang in my ears. I was sure my parents could hear the throng of my heart as it pounded.
“Apparently he’s been in love with me or something for the last thirty years.”
“It’s his dying wish.”
“Hell of a wish.”
“What do I do?”
“Honey,” my mother said. “I can’t decide for you. That’s—well, that’s a big thing.”
“I know,” he said. Then he unmuted the TV, the room filling with manufactured laughter.
My father left two days later, taking an early flight on Saturday morning. He was gone before I woke up; I’d snuck in late from a party, my head swimming with Popov vodka, and so I didn’t see what he looked like as he left. I tried to imagine my father, manliest of manly men, who wore hard hats and steel-toed boots and tool belts weighed down by hammers and stud finders and levels five days a week, floating through the sky to go kiss another man.
I searched my mother’s face as she served me a trio of over-easy eggs. She was humming, too loud, and smiling at me, ruffling my hair every time she left the dining room table, her way of telling me that she knew I’d been drinking the night before. She liked to make me miserable with her lunatic joy on mornings when I oozed alcohol from my pores, her wordless punishment delivered without yelling or a grounding.
She finally slid into the seat across from me, a cup of bitter-smelling coffee in her hand, the steaming odor making my stomach gurgle.
“So Dad went,” I said between bites of eggs, another dish my mother excelled at.
“He did,” she said, her smile wavering just so.
“Just tonight. He’ll be back tomorrow.”
“He didn’t want to overstay his welcome. There are probably a lot of people who want to see Tim. Before he—”
“‘Goes.’ That’s a nice way to put it.”
“Dies. Is gone.”
“Croaks. Bites it.”
I tried to nap on the couch while college football blasted on ESPN. My mother worked in the back garden, tending to her banana peppers and salvia plants, plucking cherry tomatoes from the vine she’d potted with an inverted soda bottle in the soil to get the water down deep to the roots. I kept getting woken up by the soaring sounds of the crowd during big plays, interceptions and long touchdown passes dragging me from my light snooze. Although I could have muted the television, I needed the sound. If it was too quiet, I thought of my father, his low words murmured to my mother: “He wants to kiss me.”
I shared a lot of things with my parents. Every afternoon when she came bustling in from work, tossing her purse on the cedar stand next to the front door, my mother would shout for me and force me to sit through an afternoon snack of packaged fudge cookies and a glass of skim milk. I would regale her with the tale of my day, winding through every single class period. She hung on stories from Algebra II and American History, laughed at the absurdities of my Spanish teacher who, bored by our inability to conjugate pluperfect verbs, popped Bridget Jones’ Diary—in English—into the television mounted above her desk and shut off the lights.
But what I did not share with my mother was that, like Tim Berryman, I had my own boys I wanted to kiss. Girls, too, which somehow made things worse and soupy and miserable. I was popular enough, had gone on dates with girls in the upper strata of the high school totem pole; I was invited to wild parties and greeted with guffawed excitement by the basketball players and the brooding dramatists alike, who all somehow managed to co-exist in a kind of utopic balance that never exists in film and television. There were outsiders, but I was hardly one of them.
And yet when I saw the varsity swimmers and tennis players hooking arms around one of the field hockey girls or the piccolo player from the marching band, curling their bodies together under muscled shoulders and tanned forearms, I felt a loosening in my gut. I would drown my shattered, blackened delusions in spiky, tart Koolaid mixed with burning vodka or rum someone pilfered from their parents’ liquor cabinet. Then I’d find myself moaning on the couch the next day while my mother watered the hydrangeas and my father flew off to fulfill a dying man’s wish that was painfully close to my own.
Sunday was clogged with rain, the sky a seasick green all morning. My father’s flight was supposed to land at two in the afternoon, but the storms and the threat of a tornado delayed it until nearly dinnertime, so while my mother assaulted and maimed chicken breasts, my father took a cab home. I sat upstairs in my room pretending to finish a chemistry lab report while I stared out into the drizzle. When the cab finally pulled up, I jotted down one more equation and stood, head dizzy from sitting for so long.
Dinner was quiet. My father sawed at chunks of charred chicken, dragging his knife along the tight, tough poultry and dipping it generously in my mother’s home-made hollandaise sauce. He speared salty asparagus and took long, agonizing chews before swallowing loudly. I stared at him, trying to see what, if anything, had changed. His face betrayed nothing. His jaw worked as it always had, mouth pursed with the same tight care. His fingers held his utensils with the usual attentive grip, hands taut and muscled from years of construction work.
My parents split a bottle of white wine, which they took into the living room after we cleared our plates in the sink, the garbage disposal gargling with a gleeful churning as our half-eaten chicken was slucked down its maw. I sat down with them while they watched the news on ABC. I kept waiting for my father to mute the television, refill his glass from the gurgly bottle of Chateau Saint Cyrgues he’d set on the floor, and tell us what happened. At each commercial break he would fiddle with the remote—my heart fluttering, throat spackled with collected saliva—but he would channel surf, pausing on a rerun of Law and Order or whatever game show NBC was trying out that week. My mother didn’t press him, instead twirling her wine glass and asking for periodic refills. “Just another nip. That’s enough,” she said over and over until the bottle was gone.
I trudged up to bed but couldn’t sleep. I kept imagining my father leaning over a hospital bed, Tim Berryman buried underneath IVs and respirators and the obnoxious bleep-bleep of a heart monitor. He would moisten his lips with his tongue, Tim blinking up with longing at my father, who would be shifty-eyed and nervous, rocking his weight back and forth before going in for the kiss.
And the kiss. It played through my head, different every time. A quick peck. A tight, uncomfortable smooch. Or a tender, long meeting, my father’s jaw relaxing as he felt Tim’s hot breath in his mouth. Maybe they were alone, the sky dark, a drizzle of rain cresting across a single black window. Or Tim’s family, a wretched wife, two terrified kids, were sitting in harsh cubic chairs, staring. Might have been daylight, early Sunday morning, my father’s mouth bitter from coffee and powdered eggs from his hotel’s continental breakfast.
I slipped down the steps, expecting my father to finally break open when he and my mother were alone, but they stayed quiet, and I was nearly caught when my mother, yawning, plucked up the remote midway through an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show and announced she was tired, her voice buggy with drink. I had to hustle like a cat, bounding with silent speed up the stairs as my parents unfurled themselves from the couch, my mother babbling about how she’d had a titch too much wine.
A week went by, and my father said nothing. I kept looking for signs of transformation, some melty, buttery thing in his chest that would collapse, his body gooping up like a caterpillar on the way to becoming a butterfly. He had to be different. Something had to wrench out of its old alignment and into something new. But he called out his same greeting when he came home from work, he chewed my mother’s scorched meals with the same kinky ribbit of his jaw. He offered to play catch with me in the early evening under the crepe myrtle in the backyard just like always, and his body was still the solid golem it had always been, his comments about my form and arm speed the same exhorted compliments. He threw no harder or softer than before.
On a Tuesday, when my mother made tacos, ground chuck turned into pebbles that my father and I buried in shredded cheese and heaps of lime-tart pico de gallo and creamy guacamole, I was munching on a tortilla chip when the phone rang. As usual, my father gestured for me to answer.
I recognized the voice of the doctor immediately. A tail of cold curled through my stomach.
“Just a second,” I said.
When I told my father it was the hospital, he stopped chewing, and, finally, after nearly two weeks, I saw the crack: as he reached for the phone his hand was stunningly still, but I could see the tension in every finger, the work he was putting in to keep his palm flat. His eyes gave him away, glazed and hazy.
He held the cordless an inch from his ear, as if it was a hot iron. When he said hello, it came out in a garbled tangle. My mother, still gnawing on a taco, swallowed and laid a hand on his forearm.
My father said nothing as the oncologist spoke, her voice a buzzy murmur on the other end.
“Thank you,” he said finally. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Then he picked up his taco, meat spilling out, and took a bite. He said nothing, but I could tell: Tim Berryman, the only man my father ever kissed, was dead.
It took me many years to tell my parents that though I liked women, I also wanted to date men. We sat down for lunch and I showed them photos of Denis. We were nestled outside at a restaurant, guarded from pedestrians and leashed dogs by a wrought-iron fence, drinking mojitos from a pitcher in which floated sprigs of mint and chunks of sliced lime. My mother had been recently diagnosed with lymphoma and wasn’t supposed to drink but neither my father nor I would ever tell her no. She wore oversized sunglasses that winked sunlight off their chunky polished frames.
We had never talked about my father’s trip to visit Tim Berryman, and the story had echoed into a wisp of memory. I had spent the weeks after Tim’s death wondering and waiting for my father to spill the beans, but I never had the gumption to ask outright. I continued to let my imagination ramble through the moment, creating an entire cinematic montage of my father’s nervous flight across the country, his trundle into the hospital, the anxious steps as he approached the room. The kiss itself, of course, and the aftermath. The way he would have stood next to the bed, unsure of what to do. How relaxed and satisfied Tim would have been. What my father would have felt in his hotel room that night, pressing his fingertips to his lips until he fell asleep. What he would have imagined as he looked out the oculus of his airplane window and what went through his head as he stepped up to our front door.
Deciding what he would say to us. Settling, finally, on saying nothing at all.
When I showed the photographs of Denis and me to my parents, they nodded and drank from their mojitos, the first round of which had been served to us in tall pilsner glasses with long, translucent straws. I watched the cloudy liquid travel up into their lips. My mother swished her drink around in her mouth.
“He’s quite pretty, David,” she said.
My father nodded. He was still the same ageless wonder, skin tan, hair thick, but his face was crowded with more wrinkles, like everything had loosened just so, and he frowned more, especially when he was talking to my mother about her treatments. She’d lost weight, gone gray in her face and hair. She no longer wore lipstick.
“He treats you okay?” my father said, leaning back and folding his arms so they ballooned out across his chest. The green vein in his left bicep wriggled like an eel.
“Of course,” I said, mimicking his stature, exaggerating a frown. My father laughed.
Even then, I tried to stare into him, through the creases at the edges of his eyes, the lines in his chin, the slight trip in his neck. Was he remembering his kiss with Tim Berryman? When he relaxed and let out his chuckle, was the sensation of Tim’s lips flashing against his skin? I thought of Denis, his strong tennis player’s hands, the way his legs curled against mine when we slept.
My mother died less than a year after that, a series of grape-sized lumps spreading through her groin, her armpits, finally her lungs and stomach. She was dopey on morphine at the end, any words she tried to say clogged into a glommy garbage of noise. My father sat by her side, holding a veiny hand needled with an IV. Denis and I visited the night before she passed away, and she mumbled something to each of us, indistinct, burbling and scratchy against her dry throat like a record whose needle had gone rogue. My father stared, never taking his eyes off her.
I was asleep when she died, so I don’t know what she or my father did or said in her final moments. I like to think she experienced a spike of vitality, a surge of life shooting through her, allowing her to sit up, grip my father’s hand, and tell him she loved him. To say to him whatever final proclamation would give him enough peace to face the world alone.
As with Tim Berryman, I did not ask him what took place in those final, private moments. At the funeral, I sat between my father and Denis. They both looked forward, chins stony and strong, staring toward my mother’s open casket. I looked at my father, trying to read the stoic lines on his face, wondering what was written there. What was kept, what had changed, what had been erased.