I. First Moments on Your Dad’s Ship Docked in Portland, 1998
Dada crouches on the ship’s cabin floor, his cupped hand palm up. You toddle closer to him.
(He must seem a stranger to you. We last saw him six months ago, when you’d just learned to sit on your own. You took your first step weeks ago, yet here we are asking you to sprout sea legs.)
Dada extends his arm, but you back away. He raps his knuckles against the floor, stretches his fingers. The sudden scrabble of claws startles us both. You topple onto the gently rolling floor.
(I lie on your dad’s hard bed, wipe my tears on the pillowcase. What comes next? I haven’t thought beyond this point of our reunion. Since we married, so little has gone the way we’d hoped. Immigration. Unemployment that made us desperate enough that he took this job away from us. He and I pretending it’s okay. But how will I fill in the gaps of all he’s missed—your first tooth, first word, first step. Our first wedding anniversary.
The late August heat almost excuses my clammy skin. But evenings, air grows thick as a milkshake, and the coughing arrives in spasms. I won’t be able to mask the extent of my mysterious illness.
For now, he believes I’m recovering from the chronic pneumonia diagnosed months ago. I’ll have to confess about the fevers, the other doctors. The lack of definitive results. I’ve been harbouring the truth because his worry won’t help. And maybe I can’t bear to admit that I’m sick, yet the doctors won’t listen because I look strong and healthy. Even though my body insists otherwise.
Peering out the port hole, I wonder how your dad separates the expanse of sea from sky. Are his horizons clear-cut, or, like me, does he endlessly journey toward an abyss of grey-blue?)
You squat shyly next to Dada, watch him corral the little black crustaceans into a corner. As you reach for the scrambling crabs, they skitter against your fingers, and you squeal.
(Your shrill laughter masks the wheeze of crumpled newspaper rising from my chest. I inhale to suppress a cough and will my rattling lungs to settle. My exhale tastes of mildew.
I swallow my tears. Rise from my husband’s bed. For the next two days, I’ll simply be a twenty-three-year-old woman on vacation in Portland with her young son and husband. Pray the antibiotics will remedy the cough. Pretend the distance won’t gape like a reopened wound once our family splits apart again.)
You move closer to Dada. Let him place a crab in your palm.
III. Rethinking What I’ve Told You About Our trip to Portland, Summer 2020
Ater your evening shift, we sit under the balmy mid-summer sky, glasses of tart iced tea sweating between our palms. You’ve come to stay while you reorganize your life enough to start again.
We discuss the years you feel you’ve wasted, your lack of direction into the future. You can’t imagine that, at 23, your life is just beginning. In the slump of your shoulders, your furrowed brow, your need to make sense of a world that spins askew, I recognize the young woman I was in Portland at your age. My mind freezes on a still of her panic at the Greyhound station more often than you can imagine. She had no clue how to escape the mess of her life. Like you, she was old before her time. Always grappling with how best to proceed, trying to figure out the meaning of her life.
I shake her away, and say, “For me, it helps to leave bits of my past in parentheses.” I cup my hands around the imaginary sentence, then clench my right hand. “In one palm, I place the things I can’t bear to remember.” I ball up my other hand. “And then I get rid of whatever prevents me from moving forward.”
You ask, “Dude, how’d you always make such good decisions?”
My heart pinches against my ribs, but I chuckle, cock an eyebrow and ask, “Are you talking about how I bought this house when I had no job? Or are you talking about my last marriage fiasco?”
You shake your head, raise your voice. “Why can’t you see how successful you are?” You wave at the yard, the house. “You had nothing at my age, and now you have all of this. I can’t even figure out where to start.” Your eyes reflect the stars. More softly, you say, “Everything always works out for you.”
I want to cradle your bulk in my arms, but I wipe the tears forming at the corners of my eyes because you hate to see me cry. Part of me is glad you don’t understand that I’m still searching for solid ground. In convincing you that I’m standing sturdy, I’ve almost convinced myself.
Later, I can’t sleep. Instead, I analyze the details of memories I’ve chosen to keep between parentheses. Some bits I’ve hidden to protect you from the truth. Others hold the scabs of my missteps intact, save me from the pain of remembering full truths—the reasons why my marriages failed, how I managed to survive when the odds were stacked against us—so I can forge on rather than dwell in the past. Yet, perhaps these withheld lessons could ease your struggles and remind me that I always triumph in the end.
Next time we talk about Portland, I’ll open both palms, disclose the portions of our journey that cause my heart to thrash against my ribs. I’ll allow my hands to tremble when I reveal that version of me, a young woman your age, cancer blooming in my chest, a toddler on my hip, stranded in Seattle with no backup plan and wanting nothing more than to lie down on the grungy floor and cry herself to sleep. I’ll take your hand, admit to us both that even if your dad hadn’t shown up, the sick young me would have managed to keep us safe. I’ll keep filling in the parts I’ve erased from our journey so you can eventually find your own way home.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Barren Magazine and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s prose in Atlas and Alice, Bending Genres, The Citron Review and other fine journals. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.