When my dad has his coughing fits, Mom says she wishes she could reach her hand down into his throat and grab whatever is “stuck in there.” In response, my dad lets out a big laugh, punctuated somewhere in the middle with a loud, clipped roar that he summons from deep within his belly. COUGH.
Mom says that once, she made him see a doctor about his cough; she wanted him to figure out what the hell was wrong with him. She doesn’t mention how extensive the doctor’s tests were, or if any tests were run any at all, but after three decades, my dad is still healthy as a horse.
“Dad is the tree in the forest,” I say to my mom. She laughs, and I mean for her to. But I also joke about my dad’s coughing through gritted teeth. Growing up, his hacking is a constant ringing in my ears.
A morning, trying to catch up on sleep after a late night of studying. HACK. An afternoon, reading while my mother is out running errands. COUGH. A night, lying in bed. Grinding my teeth into powder. The holes my mother endeavored to cover up with framed pictures earlier in the evening, burning into the backs of my eyelids.
My mother, in my parents’ bedroom, keeping the door open in an effort to simulate steadiness. My father, over the blaring of The Big Bang Theory. HACKCOUGHHACK. I fixate on the holes in my eyelids until I’m swallowed by sleep.
When it’s my turn to do the dishes, my girlfriend hooks her electric guitar up to its amplifier. Quiet hours approach. Over running water and the wailing of my girlfriend’s guitar, our upstairs neighbors stomp. I begin to taste powder.
My girlfriend and I walk down the sidewalk of our neighborhood’s busy street. She tells a joke; she erupts with wanton laughter. The powder settles on my tongue. The reverberations of my girlfriend’s laughter draw stares. They stop traffic. I’m sure that somewhere nearby, after a long battle with its immune system, a redwood loses a decaying branch.
Shhhhhh! I hiss. Then, immediately after, a strange, high-pitched squawk: my attempt at lightness. You’re gonna get us killed! I swallow the coating on my tongue, a mixture of saliva and bone.
That night, I dream I am outside of myself, watching my teeth fall from my mouth in shards.
Dad texts my mom:
Do you want to go to my office dinner in the city Saturday night? No pressure.
My mother, an animal not yet adapted to the dangers of her habitat:
Is it ok if I stay home?
I know my dad is home from work before I hear his keys in the front door.
A signal as he makes his way up the driveway. A warning before the sharper jingling of the keys reaches my ears. The sensation of hitting snooze on a pre-dawn alarm, but without the temporary respite of extended slumber. I’m a statue with a metal bar jammed down the length of my spine.
I pretend my computer has hijacked each of my senses. My dad plays along. His dress shoes hammer against the hardwood of the hallway as he walks past my open door. From my bedroom, I listen for any interaction between my parents as my dad changes out of his work clothes.
Minutes later, he walks back down the hall. He throws his dirty clothes in the hamper. The slamming of the laundry room door. COUGH. The blaring of the TV. HACK. Laughter. A sequence that loops, uninterrupted by dialogue, for the next five evenings.
My mother and I stay in our corners. I grit my teeth against the silence, trying to keep it from entering my insides, from inflating me until I explode.
Mid-summer, and my father weeps in the support group. Wedged between my brother and me, he gasps, “I—feel—so—guilty.” His sobs mirror his coughs: loud and sharp. SOB. All eyes are on us. I watch the floor. GASP. My molars are magnets that I struggle to keep apart. “Everyone keeps coming up to me, telling me how lucky I am to have such a supportive husband,” Mom says after our first day joining her at the program.
Mid-fall arrives. “I drank with every meal,” she says.
She says she doesn’t want to lie to me. “I wanted to take a picture of my dinner for Facebook. He nudged the wine glass out of the frame. He said, Let’s move this out of the way.”
I picture the calendar on my parents’ fridge, every ten days enthusiastically numbered in my father’s handwriting.
My mother’s progress.
When we fight, my ex-boyfriend throws a drink and narrowly misses me. He drags me out of his car. For two days, he only answers my texts to tell me I’m crazy. When we finally see each other, he weeps bitterly in the driver’s seat. He insists it is all because I am unrelentingly cold.
Cold hands, warm heart, my father tells me. He takes one of my child hands in his and kisses it. I apologize immediately for its iciness, but before I have a chance to withdraw it: Cold hands, warm heart. I wonder if my dad sees something my boyfriend doesn’t.
I fuck up.
The hospital keeps me over night. I have to pee with a security guard standing outside the open door to the toilet. When I get home, I lay on my bedroom floor, half-heartedly picking at the tape in the crook of my elbow and appraising the still-jagged peaks of my molars with my tongue. Dad walks past my room, this time, a ghost.
He doesn’t kiss my hand. I don’t fuck up again.
Christina Yoseph is an emerging writer whose essays and poems have been featured or are forthcoming in The Brown Orient, Entropy, and Nailed. She lives in California with her illustrator-musician girlfriend. You can find her work on www.christinayoseph.com.