To My Father

Dear Dad,

Tonight you pissed me off. Tonight you took a swing at me. Tonight I stormed out of the house.

I got in my car, I revved the engine until it roared, I swerved out of the driveway. My tires spit pebbles at your house.  Just like I spit at you.

I drove and drove and drove, racing around curves, accelerating into bends, leaping over hills. I smacked the steering wheel with the palm of my hand until my skin turned blotchy and red; I punched the dashboard until my knuckles were raw and bruised. I screamed until my voice was a raspy whisper.

You pissed me off.

The truth is, Dad, I love you. I know you love me. But you know how to make me angry, how to make my blood boil, my skin heat, my fists ball, my scalp itch with rage. You’d say that you know how to press my buttons because you installed them. You’d be right.

But, tonight, Dad, it went too far. I said terrible things to you, things a son should never say to his father. I called you a mean bastard, I called you a horrible father, a worthless man, a shell of a human being. I said I hated you, that I never loved you, that I never wanted to see you again.

I didn’t mean it.

I do want to see you again.

But on one of those bends, after one of those hills and before another one of those curves, I lost control. My car spun and spun, and I could see the trees whipping past my window. It seemed like the outside was moving in front of me, like a movie on a screen. Inside, all was still. I didn’t touch the wheel, I didn’t press my foot on the brake or the gas. I let my life spin out in front of me, I watched it pass me by. I sat, unbuckled in my seat, motionless. Paralyzed by the movement. Calm and at peace.

Then the car hit a tree. I never heard the crunching of the metal, the screaming of the carriage as it bent in half, the tinkling of the broken windshield. I never felt my body fly through the rectangular opening beyond the wheel, land on the rocks, behind the bushes and behind the large oak tree. I never saw the leaves floating down to caress my battered body, to soothe away the aches and pains.

But I saw you.

I saw your face when the officer came to the door. The confusion, the fear, the grief in your eyes when he told you about the accident. I saw the tears that streamed down your crumpled face. I saw your fists bunch as they had earlier, but instead of hitting me, you hit the wall, over and over again until your ripped hand went clean through the wood paneling. I saw you fall to the floor, land on your knees, shake and yell at the god you said you never believed in – especially after the war. And I saw you curl into a ball, my senior portrait in its plastic gold frame, tucked under your arms.

You slept.

I died.

I’m sorry, Dad. For everything. I love you. I’m waiting.

Scott

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Birthday Wish

She stood at the counter, a cigarette smoldering between her garish red lips. In her hand she wielded a plastic spatula, sweeping it across the chocolate cake’s crumbly exterior. She paced herself, pausing only to lick bits of vanilla frosting from her fingers. The cigarette never left her mouth.

He was going to come today, she was sure of it. She’d baked this lovely cake for the occasion, though she couldn’t remember how old he was turning. But it was the thought that counted, right?

Reaching for the paper bag, she pulled out a container of sprinkles. The spatula fell to the floor, leaving a smear of white on the yellowing linoleum tile. She stepped cleanly onto it, her threadbare slippers stamping the floor with sticky circles.

As she wrestled with the lid to the sprinkles, her leopard-print acrylic nails scraping the plastic, her kitchen phone began trilling. Cursing, she slammed the unopened sprinkles on the counter.

“What?”

“Mom? Is that you?”

“ ‘Course it’s me, who did you think you were calling?”

Her son paused.

“Listen, Mom, I can’t make it today.”

“What do you mean you can’t make it?”

“I’m telling you, I can’t make it. Thanks for the invite, but Sharon invited me to dinner out at the club.”

“Well, shit. Aren’t you special.”

“Sorry, Mom. Maybe next time.”

“You bet your ass next time! After all I’ve done for you: giving birth, providing you with love and care and special treatment.”

“Love and care? Please, Mom, let’s not get into this.”

“Into what? Your ungratefulness?”

“Ok, Mom, fine. Here’s a question: how old am I today?”

She paused, unsure of her footing. Guilt had always been her weapon of choice, at least against others. Against herself, she had an arsenal: opiates, pills, a nice box of wine.

“That’s what I thought. Bye, Mom.”

The phone clicked in her ear. She cradled it in her hand, waiting until the silence gave way to a jarring beep.

With what might have been a sigh of regret, she turned back to the counter, took a deep drag on the cigarette. She blew out the smoke and tapped out the ash onto the cake.

“Happy fucking birthday, Mark.”

She walked through the dingy apartment, past the faded birthday decorations, the wilting balloons, the newspaper-wrapped presents tied with limp ribbons, and into her bedroom. She curled up on the bed, grabbed Mark’s baby blanket, the one she had never thrown away, and rubbed it against her cheek. And she rocked herself to sleep.

Her Greatest Love

The marble sink felt cool and comforting beneath her clammy hands. She lowered her head, dropping her chin to her chest, and took three deep breaths. When her rapidly beating heart began to slow, she looked up into the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair, which she had gotten up so early to curl, was as limp as day-old noodles, she thought. Her blue eyes were heavily mascaraed, her lips bright pink, but the purple circles under her eyes couldn’t be completely concealed. In a word, she looked tired. It was absolutely not what she’d been going for that morning.

She’d woken up at 5 a.m., humming to herself as she rolled out of bed and slipped on her faded purple terry cloth bathrobe. She’d sung in the shower that morning. She’d even turned on the radio, tuning into the Top 40 – songs that were a welcome change from “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” – while she did her hair and makeup.

But again, putting all of her effort into something had turned out like crap.

“Come on, Betsy. What is your problem? You knew he was going to show up today.”

Disgusted with herself for dolling up like some kind of high schooler on a first date, Betsy turned on the tap with a vicious turn of the wrist. She cupped her hands under the ice-cold water, then slapped the water across her face. The mascara dribbled down her cheeks, leaving tracks of black, and her eyes were red from the assault.

Betsy sniffed once, then turned the water off. She dried her face on a handful of paper towels.

“Ok, Betsy, just make the best of the situation. So he showed up to his son’s first birthday party with a bimbo. You’ve been separated for months now. He’s filed for divorce. It. Is. Over. Don’t let him hurt your feelings any longer. You do not love him anymore, and you know it.”

Betsy knew it. It was just hard to believe that she could put so much love and work and consideration into something, and that something would run off and have an affair with his coworker. What a cliché. And Betsy had felt like such a fool.

She smoothed down her skirt, and rebuttoned the top of her new cardigan she’d bought on sale for $19.99. It had been a good find. She gave herself one last look in the mirror, disgusted with her own self-pity and lack of confidence. Reminding herself to be a fierce and independent woman – after all, weren’t those today’s divorcée buzzwords? – she wrenched open the door of the bathroom, her temporary sanctuary.

And when she walked out into the bright room, crammed with balloons and shiny gifts and flashing cameras, Betsy found she didn’t focus on her ex, or his girlfriend with the growing belly – yes, that kind of belly. No, Betsy only had eyes for one male in the room, and he was missing his left front tooth and had a cowlick that couldn’t be tamed.

“Mommy, I’ve been waiting for you. Grandma says you should help me blow out the candles.”