My parents needed a new car, in large part because I needed their old one. An embarrassing truth: their youngest daughter, age fifty-three, has been at the receiving end of hand-me-down Volvo station wagons since 1987.
My father poured us each a drink, then told me about the drive home from the dealer. He said he was a wreck, watching my mother in his rear view mirror, following him so she wouldn’t get lost, he in the new Volvo, she in her precious Prius, both of them hugging the fast lane at fifty-five miles an hour, the traffic whizzing by their little caravan.
I assumed my father was afraid for my mom to drive on her own, but he waved away that idea. “She’s fine,” he said. “I just can’t stand being without her.” He set his empty glass on the coffee table. “I should have been there beside her. That’s where I belong.”
I must have put my arm around him, or murmured something about how I understood how he felt, but this would have been a lie. I have no idea what such devotion feels like, the kind that stretches sixty-five years, through four kids, eleven graduations, two weddings, three cancers, one grandchild, and countless new cars, including ten Volvos.
This new wagon will be the last.
A basketball game is on. C.’s team is playing. Her new crush is a 6’8” star center with blond braids and tattooed arms, a young gay woman known as much for her drama off the court as on. C. even signed up on Twitter and friended the woman on Facebook so she could follow her paramour’s every move.
C. looks at me, standing in the doorway to the den. “What do you want for dinner?” I ask, but she only blinks. The crowd in the stands roars—I’ve made C. miss seeing her girl drop a three-pointer—and her gaze drifts back to the television, my cue to move along. “Whatever you decide is fine,” she says. “They’re up by six,” she adds, a weak attempt to include me, to share in her obsession, a fantasy ménage a trois comprised of scores and stats and tweets.
What annoys me most is I was the one who introduced them. I’d heard the woman interviewed on NPR. She’d written a book, a memoir about being bullied as a kid for her height and athletic prowess, a gangly, boyish girl who reigned over the neighborhood basketball courts. The next thing I know, C. has bought her book. It sits on the nightstand. Her picture on the cover taunts me each morning when I make the bed; her chiseled face glances over her tattooed shoulder, watching me smooth the sheets and fluff the pillows.
I decide to make chicken with feta and figs to impress C., a new recipe that seems more difficult than it actually is. I hammer the chicken breasts with a rolling pin; the pounding makes enough of a racket to stir C. from the sofa to investigate, the first real interest she’s paid all day. I serve the chicken on a bed of basmati rice, the fig compote nestled beside it—a close match to the recipe’s photo. Knives are not necessary; the chicken has already been beaten into submission. Warm feta melts over the top, a savory layer to complement the sweet figs.
I wait until C. takes a few bites before asking how she likes the chicken. “Good,” she says evenly.
I set down my fork. “That’s it?”
Another game is about to start. “I haven’t finished yet,” she says. There’s a mild irritation in her voice, a signal I recognize. Once again, I’ve pressed her too soon, asked her for more than she can give.
My father is still handsome, like Steve McQueen but clumsier, with dark bruises on his forearms and calves. At night he trips over the dog on the way to the bathroom or rolls off the bed, somehow stabbing his bare hip on the corner of the nightstand (he still sleeps naked, regardless of the season).
My mother sleeps through his midnight stumbles. The next day, he’ll roll up his sleeve or pull up his pant leg for her to inspect the new purple bloom. She will rub the sore spot gently, then kiss it twice to make it go away. A few hours—or minutes—later, when she’s forgotten the story about how he caught his big toe on the ottoman, she’ll spy the bruise and ask what happened. He will take a deep breath before he tells her again, more slowly this time (as though this will solve the problem), embellishing the moment he landed face first, missing the T.V. stand by mere inches. When he’s done, he’ll sit on the edge of the bed, like a weary king awaiting his queen’s healing kisses.
The bruises take weeks to disappear. To be on the safe side, my father consults a professional. “It’s just age,” the doctor tells my father. “Eighty-five years can make you thin-skinned, more vulnerable to ordinary bumps and scrapes.”
Years ago, after my divorce, a friend of mine, a veteran of a forty-year marriage, told me a relationship only lasts if both people are able to grow together. I nodded along as though I knew what he meant. As he spoke, I was picturing the avocado tree at my parents’ house. My father turned the tree into a science experiment years ago, grafting Hass budwood onto the mature Pinkerton, a hardy variety with a promising future cut short by the popular, easy-to-peel Hass. He knew how to nurture their differences—he’d had plenty of practice. My parents worked hard on their marriage, an amalgam of my father’s stubborn logic and my mother’s quick temper.
Now, the two avocados share the same root system, bearing their fruit on separate limbs—Pinkerton on the east side, Hass on the west. When I go out to pick a bagful, I’m torn between the unknown Pinkerton, which demands a patient paring knife to free its flesh, and the ubiquitous Hass, the star of every grocery store mailer, a fruit that, once split, can be eaten with a spoon, like an oyster on the half-shell.
I’ve been scarred by too many promising varieties: older men, younger men, men my own age or height or religion; and then women, who seemed more familiar and decipherable. These partners were the scions I wrapped onto my limbs in hopes the grafts would take and we could grow together, like the Pinkerton and the Hass.
C. has come the closest to taking. Over the last ten years, we’ve born some lovely fruit. But there are a few withered branches we’ve become too comfortable ignoring.
I enter the house unannounced. No one, not even the dog, notices when the back door slams closed behind me. My parents are sitting on the living room sofa, side-by-side, their backs to the view of the valley at sunset, the pink moment at the end of a long summer day. The television and the stereo are off: no PBS Newshour blaring, no Rachmaninoff concerto rattling the old windows. The house is silent as my parents sit together, glasses empty on the coffee table, and I feel like an intruder, interrupting a moment I may not want to witness. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re simply absorbing the quiet, content to be sitting close.
Such intimacy is not unusual. For sixty-five years they’ve pawed one another, hands heavy on shoulders and knees, or cupped around each other’s face as they kissed, an audible Mmm and smack that used to embarrass me. Now, I’m envious. I long for the weight of hands on my thigh, my hip, the back of my neck.
I wedge myself between my mother’s feet and tap the tops of my shoulders, a test to see whether she will trade her husband’s touch for the chance to touch her daughter, the product of her flesh and blood. My husband always comes first, my mother would say, but my children never come second. I’d puzzle over her math, apply algebraic logic to the family equation, make x and y = ∞, in sickness and in health, for as long as we all shall live.
She sighs, takes hold of my shoulders and begins to knead circles. My father gets up to refill their glasses and asks me if I want a drink. I say yes, please, satisfied with the attention I’m still able to command.
This sort of intimacy turns C. into a wriggling toddler. She releases from hugs before I am ready and readjusts our hand-holding at the movies. She complains if my foot grazes her knee, her calf, her hip or when my arm weighs too heavily over her broad shoulders. She outweighs me by forty-five pounds, yet I am too imposing, too cloying, too needy.
We’ve divided our home into hers and hers. I take the inside: the cooking and the laundry; the grocery shopping and the runs to Target for cleaning supplies; the arrangement of all domestic help; the changing of sheets, towels, sponges, garbage; and the disposal of spoiled milk, old leftovers, expired cereal, and brown bananas that sit in a wide bowl on the counter, largely ignored by both of us until I cave to the stench. C. takes the outside: the garage with its workbench and cupboards; the trips to Home Depot and Lowes; the garden, what there is of it, though she has grand plans for raised vegetable beds and a small deck; and the rain gutters, clogged with leaves from the enormous ash tree out front.
Rarely do our realms overlap, though sometimes C. helps me fold the sheets or the unwieldy king-sized duvet cover. I might do some weeding or lay a soaker hose around the ash tree and let it run all night.
Sixty-five years is a high bar, too high for the four of us kids to clear, though I admit my brother, David, the black sheep of our family, has the best shot at the mark—his singular triumph, an annoying truth. (I sound bitter because I am.) I used to want the kind of marriage my parents have had, a preternatural closeness, a coupling nurtured by their desperate need for one another, a need that now, midway into their 80’s, shadows every minute of their days.
I’ve learned to settle for less.
And I’m not alone. My cousins confess they had always wished their parents were like mine. They call my father “cool” and my mother “adorable.” They recount small details they’ve spied, details I know well: the way my father pulls my mother close and kisses her, rewarding her for a tender word she’s spoken or for telling some small joke only he understands; the way my mother teases my father about his hair (he still has plenty) and the tracks his comb leaves through the thick, gray waves.
There’s more to this teasing, a game I’ve often caught my parents play. I stretch out on their bed to wait for them to get ready for breakfast. I peek around the newspaper and watch them as they stand together at the bathroom’s twin sinks. My father shaves while my mother searches through the bottles that crowd her side of the marble counter, uncertain what each lotion is for and when she should apply it, even though I’ve labeled them with numbers and a bold AM or PM, written on scraps of masking tape. After my father makes those tracks with a wet comb, my mother moves closer and points to the clusters of wavy furrows. She pretends they’re ski runs and begins to name them after the places my parents used to ski, back when they didn’t worry about high altitude and its effect on their oxygen levels.
“There’s Vail,” she says, pointing just above his left ear. “And Park City, here in the back.” When she gets to the high, sweeping wave over his forehead, my father has to help her: Aspen? Snowmass? The Bugaboos in Canada? “No, no,” she says, irritated with herself. It takes him a few minutes to piece together her clues—“It’s in Europe. You know. Where they have all the chocolate.” When he gives her the answer—“Switzerland”—her face relaxes. “That’s it!” she shouts, and goes back to her sink again, but she’s forgotten where she left off. She picks up a bottle marked #3 and studies it a moment before applying the eye cream to her flushed cheeks.
My father calls me from the grocery store. “I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but your mother is killing me.” They’ve had an ambitious day, too ambitious for my mother; he shuttled her through the bank and the post office before their appointments to get their hair cut. Then, after lunch, he took her grocery shopping. The crowded aisles make my mother dizzy. She wanders through the produce section, clutching her list, her anchor in a sea of too many choices. In the time it takes her to select some zucchini, my father has the cart filled.
I drive up to spend the weekend with them. My father and I sit in the living room while my mother is in the bathroom, doing her hair. The noisy blow dryer gives us a rare moment alone. I tell him maybe it’s time for me to move back home. The greatest weight always falls on the caretaker. My worry—and his—is that caring for my mother will take him down, too.
He interrupts me. “Absolutely not,” he says. “Besides, your mother will have a fit when she finds out.” I tell him I don’t think she’ll notice; that’s when he breaks down. He goes to the bar and pours us each a drink—the cocktail hour arrives earlier for us these days. I start to apologize, but he interrupts me again. “You’re right. It’s just so hard to watch.”
“We could start with a few days a week,” I say. “Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.”
He shakes his head. “You have your own life. The weekends are your only time with C.”
The Weimaraner sits up in his dog bed and stares at me. He wants to be under the covers, curled beside me, a transgression C. will not tolerate. She orders the Weimeraner to lay down; I fight the urge to explain the differences between lay and lie. Instead, I echo her command—“Lie down!”—the subtle correction aimed more at C. than the dog. But he keeps staring at me, as though he’s weighing my sincerity. When C. barks at him again, he lowers his haunches with a groan. We both know who’s the boss.
C. blames my inconsistency. When she’s out of town for work, the Weimaraner has free range of the king-size bed. I lift the duvet and he settles in against my chest, an invitation to spoon with him. C. says if he could slip inside my skin, he would, which secretly delights me. She doesn’t understand how I endure his clinging, the way he follows me through the house, restless until I land on the sofa or the bed with a book, the signal for him to make his move: he climbs up and folds his long legs under him like an origami crane, and before I’ve noticed, his head is tucked under my elbow.
C.’s dog, the clever Corgi, is independent like her owner. She roams the house as she wishes, rarely swayed by whatever room I happen to occupy. At night she gets on the bed with the help of a small ottoman purchased for this single purpose. She tromps across the pillows, choosing a spot close to C., but never touching. Soon the two of them are snoring, and I peek over the mattress at the Weimaraner, who has surrendered to the place relegated to him. I tuck one of my pillows under his head to cushion the unfairness.
They say our dogs resemble us, that we pick them based on their nature and appearance. According to one psychologist who has studied the relationship between dogs and their owners, “We go for dogs that are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner who is a bit like us.” His analogy disturbs me. When I met C., I was drawn to her differences, a strategy I felt certain would prove more successful than the ones I’d employed in the past. Now, ten years later, I wonder if I was fooling myself, if I should have picked a partner the way I picked a dog, based on how long she can tolerate my arms wrapped around her, or whether she’ll kiss me for no apparent reason beyond the daily care and feeding I provide.
I reach down in the dark and feel for the Weimaraner. This is how I fall asleep, stroking the animal with a love so unconscious, so deep.
Lori White’s recent essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown, Pithead Chapel, Switchback, and The Boiler. Her story, “Gambling One Ridge Away” won first place in the 2013 Press 53 Open Award for Flash Fiction. She teaches English composition at Los Angeles Pierce College and Oxnard College.