A short story by Philip Wilson
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It’s the same dream, always. Or rather a memory of strung-together moments from our last day together. I think of it as a living story—the last living piece of you that I have left—and it exists only in my head. I’ve been keeping it alive with my attention. The last time I held you, I was passing you into your mother’s arms, asleep. She was upset with me for bringing you back later than we’d agreed. Though you never once complained when this happened and that was, selfishly, permission enough for me.
In the memory, I take you to the cinema to see the latest superhero fare in which the fate of the world somehow correlates to the security of some North American metropolis. Disaster is avoided by reversing time. You’re at the stage of being lured into the mega-culture of American products and entertainment, like all the kids your age.
I remember worrying about damage to your identity and individuality. But I’ve since realised that both of us were on tracks laid by other hands. You could no more fight the attractions of easy pop culture than I could fight my anxieties about them. We all suffer this amnesiac hypocrisy, forgetting our own infatuation with things alien to our parents. Though, one ghoulish advantage of loss is that it spared me from reckoning with your eventual discovery of sex, alcohol, and political opinions that would fossilise me.
You laugh and cheer at the film just enough times to make the trip worthwhile. You’re entranced by the action, and I’m entranced by the peaks and valleys of light that the flickering screen projects onto your face, still so new-seeming even in its sixth year. I’m reading your expression in that insufferable parental way that constantly scans for any hint of gloom when I’m struck by the immediate knowledge that you are growing up. Your eyebrows occasionally knit together after you giggle at something in the film, as though you’re torn between amusement at the hero’s antics and bafflement as to his motives. You’re questioning the narrative.
It would have been my life’s pleasure to watch that part of you develop, to see what else you would question with time. I don’t think you ever noticed me observing you. But then again, I have countless memories of my own father in which he is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s being watched. Did you have similar memories of me? It was irrational to worry about your identity. It has relentlessly threatened to drown me ever since you left. You’re everywhere; in the photographs, games, and clothes that you left behind, of course, but also in the world at large. Only yesterday, I caught a sense of you in the expression of a small boy, forehead furrowed with frustration at his mother’s insistence that he hold her hand before crossing the road. The sight of it dismantled me, renewed my grief for your own individual style of irritation whenever I took your hand.
After the film, we go to an imported restaurant franchise for dinner. The menu has pictures, so you order your own food—a pizza and milkshake combination with some patriotic name that doesn’t refer to our own country.
The daylight had already been waning when we came upon the restaurant, but you had been smiling when you asked to go in, and it was so difficult to be the reason for you losing your smile. It always annoyed your mother, my inability to say no to you, because it meant she had to be the bad cop. You probably would have taken advantage of my weakness when you were older, but our time together had become so packaged after the separation that the value of your happiness was skewed out of proportion. If you were upset when I took you back to your mother, it would maybe spoil your evening, but it would rob me of my appetite for a week. I only wanted to make happy memories. In fact, I worry I wasn’t a fully present father in those last two years of your life, always trying to make you laugh so that I could happily reminisce later. I was more like a photographer, building up copies of moments that I could reflect on when we were apart. It burns me up to think you might have found me distant or uninterested when we were with one another.
But memory has brought me back to you now. We’ve left the restaurant and we’re on the bus to your mother’s apartment. Raindrops are beading on the windows, and you’ve fallen asleep beside me. Your head is down, chin tucked toward your chest and arms crossed in the way that old men will fall asleep in armchairs.
I used to find it amusing to see you innocently fall into the patterns of the elderly before your time. Now it just feels like tragic cruelty, and I find myself wishing your head was resting against my arm instead. Then, in a blink, it is. The scene has changed. A half-remembered fact comes to me in that hallucinatory style of reality intruding upon a dream: I recall reading that the mind often editorialises memories. Sometimes it even creates new ones. Your breath now tickling my arm is a new detail to the old story.
When the bus reaches our stop, I put you on my back and hold your dangling wrists like two straps around my neck. You stir long enough to get the gist of what’s happening and then thaw back into the fluidity of sleep. I wonder if this brief awakening is actually your last lucid moment, a sleepy awareness of transition from one place to another—like a rehearsal for what will happen to you later this same night. As I carry you through the dark, wet streets, your breath whistles along the side of my face, carrying the faint, unpleasant reminder of the pizza and milkshake. The childishness of the meal choice makes it an odour I’ll later miss. My heart is hammering, which is another new detail, contrasting the gentle beats that carry through your wrists. Perhaps it’s excitement that quickens my pulse, the hope of a new possibility: if the story can be edited, then why stick to the predetermined route? Why return you to your mother’s apartment at all, to the bed that you’ll never wake from? I could carry you to a safe corner of my subconscious, somewhere we can be together until I’m drawn back to waking life. Then, as quickly as the idea forms, it wilts. There’s a fragility here, a sense that the scene can crumble if pushed too far, and something, call it storyteller’s intuition, tells me no clever tricks can rewrite the immutable plot of your story. It’s a tale with its ending already composed and my role in it is fundamental. I brought you home on this night, unknowingly delivered you to your fate. My grip tightens on your wrists, reaffirming your presence. If I’m to lose you again, then I want to at least be nearby this time, when your sleep deepens, and you slip away silently.
Your mother’s street reveals more changes made on our behalf. She isn’t there. She had stood out from the darkness on the real night, pacing in a faded white housecoat that I had bought for her in another life. Her face had been lit by the spectral glow of a phone held to her ear, likely leaving one of many concerned voicemails for me. It really wasn’t fair on her, my pettiness. I rarely checked my phone while you were with me. I barely even asked you about the new home she had made for you. It was cowardice: I couldn’t stomach hearing about rooms I’d never join you in, toys I’d never see you play with, a bed I’d never tuck you into. I couldn’t endure your happiness when it was contingent upon me not being there. Selfishness again.
Tonight, though, the front steps of the building are vacant. And when I reach for the handle of the lobby door, it yields—another minor edit for which I’m grateful. No need to disturb your mother with the intercom. I took countless moments like this for granted when you were here. The sinewy stuff between big events like birthday parties and sports days: walks to school, car journeys, waiting rooms. Each of them peaceful, unfancy opportunities to know you better. Now I have the bonus of these extra minutes in your quiet company, riding the elevator to your mother’s floor.
When I step out from the elevator, the hallway is drenched in melancholy pre-dusk light. The kind that only ever seems to spill from other rooms through partly open doors to cast umber shapes on the floor. It’s the colour of change or passage, a fleeting point between the obvious yellows of a summer afternoon and the nuanced, choral pink of early evening.
The light is wrong, of course. It was a rain soaked night when we entered the building. I’ve fluttered around your last day like a bee after pollen, alighting on select moments and ignoring their chronology, but the absence of time’s influence is much more pronounced in this hallway. The light isn’t hurrying through its spectrum, darkening toward night. It seems fixed on this magic hour, pouring in thickly through western windows, as though I could stand beneath it and feel the torrent running over me. Sunbeams make a spectacle of dust motes whirling and dancing to an atmospheric rhythm too delicate to detect. Anything touched by the light is heightened: the hallway’s shabby table and its vase of artificial flowers suggest a wild meadow; the worn carpet might be a mesmerising tapestry with whole other worlds in the tufts of its pile; the door to your mother’s apartment could be that very doorway through which the light is meant to spill. It’s like we’re in the wings of a theatre.
I raise my leg just enough to take the first step toward the nearest sunbeam, and onwards to the door. Yet it takes far longer than it should—the notion of time is, again, struck dumb. The motion of my step is like a filmstrip slowed down and scaled up to be scrutinised frame by frame. It takes an hour, at the least, to reach that first pool of raw light; a laborious process which finally submerges me in warmth like nothing I have ever felt or dreamt. It toasts the blood coursing through your wrists. Without having to look, I know that the sunbeam is bringing your sandy tufts of hair into fierce relief, that it’s creating dramatic chiaroscuros between the ribs of your little superhero sports socks. The rays of early summer’s late afternoons always did make an artwork of you.
And I know, also, that I don’t mean to wake up from the dream this time. Every breath of this air has been a protest against a lifetime of bleary mornings that tore me from dreams. Each prolonged step is a renouncement of the argument that one should not dwell or indulge too heavily in memory and nostalgia—a life spent looking backwards is, supposedly, a waste. But what better way is there to preserve an expired life than to remember it and dream of it? I’ve carried these fragments of you ever since you left. This story of your last day is written in my memories only, and when I die, it will die with me. So, I mean to stay here, where I’m supposed to be; with you. I mean to carry you to that door as I always should have done. When we get there, I’ll finally put you down. And if you’ll let me, I’ll walk you over the threshold into your home.
But from here to there might take us an eternity. Not nearly long enough.
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