He was a man, yes. It wasn't much, but being a man he could still count for something. When everything else had failed, when memory was gone and the money was used up, when he was alone at the end, watching death pool in from the corners of rooms, he could still count on the inherent spectacle of manliness -- the intrinsic value of XY chromosomes coursing through the hidden nooks of nuclei and tissue. He had nothing and still felt his breath had a spiritual significance, as if before birth he'd won the only lottery that mattered.
My mother would ask him about money. She would ask and he would dismiss her because money was the realm of men and being a woman she could never understand it -- it itself being gendered, the spending of money becoming this egregious sexual act. She would fuss over finances in secret, sorting through bills between laundry, cooking (all that housework that mattered so much for its segregation), while my father sat in his living room. He'd sit there for hours with the TV off, the radio off, cutting out all the little distractions of modern life. Just sit there and stare out into the middle of a quiet nothing while my mother cleaned and cooked and sorted finances in silent subterfuge.
My mother would call us in for dinner.
She'd call and he'd sit there for a long time pretending not to hear. He enjoyed making her wait. It matched his dance of genders that so preoccupied him -- the beleaguered housewife, the angry father.
Yes, he liked that. He liked the dance.
Then at the table, my mother at one end and my father at the other, me lost somewhere in the middle, lost in this sea of meat and two veg and orange juice. She'd ask him about his work. She'd ask and he'd smile and enjoy her asking. It matched a classical male fantasy -- let him exist as an image, with the doting and clueless wife, the strapping son, the stable, no-nonsense office job, something financial. (It still amazes me that he worked for the bank with such a bad head for numbers.) He'd answer her with his prepared speech of the day, complain about work-ethic, the disregard of decency, words spieling out to no one, words just sounds reverberating in the air, and my mother would smile politely, smile with theatrical grace, and return to her meat and two veg.
Meat and two veg. An honest meal. Traditional. Established.
You can imagine what wonders we might have eaten if he wasn't about; what delicacies lost in the name of image.
Near the tail end of dinner, after the turning point when the meat was gone and all that was left was the worst of the vegetables, my father would turn to me. He'd turn to me and ask, 'What makes a man?' And he'd phrase it in a way that implied a definite answer, that spoke to some sacred duty. What makes a man? The words had a tone and a weight, and he'd look at me as if I understood, as if he was imparting something important. It was the only mantra that ever occupied him. What makes a man? He'd stare waiting for some response, some truth maybe, or at least some conversation, some outcome to arise from this weird minimum of fatherly care.
I hated answering him; to answer would be to validate his world. I'd be obtuse, difficult, say strange or contradictory things. Enrage him. It made me feel good. It gave the universe order, implied a fairness to an underlying structure. You could feel powerful in fighting a monster, a real monster -- at least until you realised you were just playing into another part of his world, that everything you did was a conformation of an entertained suspicion. Still, in those moments it felt right, required, an inevitability of interacting systems.
And then he would always yell. He'd yell and I'd yell back and I'd fail to say all these words hidden inside me. He'd yell and my mother would stare down at the half-eaten food. We were ungrateful and soft and complacent. His face would become tight and his eyes bulbous and he'd scream in a way that sterilised thought, made things inert and cold. Everything would build into harsh noise. Everything would be loud and mean and he'd storm away, away into his living room, away from the ungrateful and the stupid and the young. After dinner everything in the house would be dead.
I suppose that set the stage for the coming years.
There was a pattern to our lives. My mother or I would perform some perceived slight, some deep wrongdoing that went against his church of manhood, and then he'd berate us, shriek and break things and speak of better houses filled with better people. Everyone would become very quiet and very afraid and you'd wait for it to be over, for him to return to his room and his silent nothing, wait for him to stare out and ignore the world. After he'd sometimes apologise to my mother -- she was, after all, a woman and so could never fully to be to blame -- but for me it was different. I had the same blood as he did; I was a legacy, had value from the sheer chance of my birth, and for me to disrespect him was a humiliation. It went against his kind. It took a long time for me to learn this, to learn the rhythm of his faith, but when I did I used it. I used it to hurt. Everything I've ever done has been to cause him pain.
It became important to destroy his image; to hurt him through his convictions. An idea, I suppose, always breeds its opposite, and maybe a father by his nature has to create someone who will oppose him. I didn't play sports because I knew that's what he wanted of me. I ignored girls and took foodtech out of spite. I sliced tomatoes and peppers and baked lasagnes in a visceral hatred. I made a point of making béchamel at home. I asked for recipe books for Christmas.
I became a vegetarian.
There was something so gleeful about defanging his manhood. I wanted to strip away everything, all potential principles, leave him with nothing.
I took up crochet and yoga. I babysat, cultivated an interest in fashion. I cooked.
I cooked and received recipe books and made béchamel in the kitchen.
My father noticed, I think. I think he knew what I was doing. His comments became harsher; he drank more and he retreated more often to his living room. When he threw things they were almost aimed. He made a point of going to football games, and when at home he'd chant in front of the television, sending reverberations that shook the house. Little prayers of bygone times. It became a weird sort of war, with weapons of sports memorabilia, pink shirts, and I was never sure if my mother knew the extent to which it dominated and distorted our lives. At dinner there'd be an extra emphasis on the question, 'What makes a man?' as if it was pointed now, an attack, the mark of a man clinging to some thought constantly shifting and turning out of his grasp. The more I cooked and cleaned and sewed the further he fell into his realm, his new habits, becoming unstable, maybe. Becoming a man unstuck in time.
I remember him coming home from the bank demoted. My mother was in the kitchen, and then there was the sound of a presence entering the house, soft and creeping, and then he was there, already on his chair and staring, and it took my mother a long time to get him to speak.
The problem was computers, the modern thing -- a voodoo of ones and zeroes that spoke of darker horrors to come. He told my mother that his job didn't need him anymore, that they'd kept him on because they liked him; because they, too, were ultimately suspicious of change. You have to be fearful of new things, I suppose, once you reach a certain age. It seems the appropriate thing for the old to do.
He didn't leave his chair that night and he didn't ask me any questions. It took him a week before he said much of anything, then another week for him to become himself. At the table I watched and wondered at him. He was supposed to have a secretary next year, something he'd boast about sometimes; a young thing, he'd call her. I wondered if that's what really bothered him, never having the power or opportunity to fulfil that most carnal of clichés.
Thanks to the demotion we needed money. I left school and started working at the restaurant and my mother got a job cleaning. Suddenly to my father we were a family to be noticed. You could see it in the way he moved across a room, feeling all these eyes -- these supposed terrible eyes -- watching. We were a break in a pattern, an outlier that suggested a coming trend, and he was outraged by it. It was in the way he'd look at my mother, look with this anger that spoke to something dark and deep, how he'd barely speak to her after her shifts -- as if he were ashamed, as if in silence he could somehow distance himself from us. I liked to play with this when I could -- to shove this new world into his face. I'd mention my mother's cleaning, or some item I knew we could no longer afford. I wanted to rile him and somehow show my mother what he was, but she never saw. Or if she did she pretended she didn't. Still, I enjoyed it; it felt good, a break in his gendered dance that spoke of brighter things to come.
The restaurant was a land of long hours. I learned the sounds of it: the steam and heat, barked orders, the bustle of living things. I washed dishes and built upwards. It was a different place, existing on top of other things, surveying, almost wholly devoid of a material essence. Being there you didn't have to exist as a thing; you were a part. You were essential, and you were essential precisely because you were such a small piece in such a great machine. I went there to annoy my father, but I stayed so I could be part of it. There is something holy about becoming a part -- if I could ever understand my father it would have to do with that, with playing your part in the world.
I'd come home sweaty after midnight with the house turned black. Quiet and empty. And my father would be waiting in his living room. I'd come in sweating and tired and he'd be waiting.
I never quite learned why he'd be there, that's one thing. There was no why, really, just the waiting.
He'd sit there and I'd be sweaty and there'd be something, something about the hour maybe, or something about the circumstance. Here we would fight. Everything boiled over and became something else and we would really fight. I'd say something hoping it would be hurtful and he'd yell back in a breathy whisper not to wake my mother. He'd allude to disappointments and fleeting, perishable things. There'd be anger and resentment, a confusion that spoke of a widening divide, the shifting and moulding of a world. There'd be that same question, 'What makes a man?' There'd be scotch on his breath. Everything of this time is tinged in the smell of scotch.
It was a weird thing though -- I began to relish those nights. The days were all subtext, silent rage, passive-aggression. Coming home from the restaurant everything was clean, pure in the way only confrontational things can be. We were inmates given momentary respite from the prisons of our own making. A scream -- even a silent scream -- was better than the days sitting opposite him at the table, thanking my mother while he fulfilled his stupid little dance. It was nice to hurt. There's something really excruciatingly beautiful sometimes about causing pain.
One night I'd worked later than usual and when I got home he was already asleep on his chair, whole body an effigy to something old-world and ancient. Where I stood I could see his receding hairline, his chest rising and falling, the way his glass of scotch hung loose in a hand growing old and spotted. It was dark and it seemed then that everything was broken. It's funny -- everything my father had ever done spoke of stasis, of an unflinching and unchanging thing. He tried to live comfortably in the static, to chain himself to the rock of himself. He was supposed to be rigid, a law of physics that stood outside of time. But staring down then there was something different -- the first sign of new movement, nature taking control, things falling apart. It was the first time I remember my father being small, having that first semblance of smallness (that metaphysical smallness) that accompanies the aging process. I remember staring at him.
When he stirred he looked up at me with a momentary confusion, the brain no longer quick enough to match the waking eyes. He almost said something and I almost reacted. We almost fought and maybe it would have been good if we had -- maybe that could have preserved a stasis that he so longed for. But I was tired and he was old and we both climbed the stairs in silence, one after the other, and I think things changed after that. They changed in the way that things unfurl in time.
He was slowly falling into that final pit where his manhood couldn't save him. The place where strength fails you, where the penis (in a beautiful metaphor for the defanging of age) shrivels and goes cold. Loses its red rage.
He stopped being there when I came home; all you could find was the aftertaste of tobacco lingering in the air. The ghost of the father. We still had our daytime wars, of course -- the cleaning and cooking, the pink shirts and the football chants and the eternal and endless question -- but it was mostly perfunctory, held together by inertia and a mutual fear of change. I'd won and we both knew and now the world was brightening for me as it darkened for him. My mother even began singing when she washed dishes. That was something I noticed -- her happiness being the inverse function of his aging, a reverse exponential to his body abandoning him. It was glimmer that spoke of a life outside of the dance of housewife and woman, and I think that was what did it, what slowed him and made him pathetic, made it so I didn't even have the heart to gloat. He hated me for that, for taking pity, and maybe he was right to; maybe, in the end, that's what destroyed him more than anything.
As soon as I had enough money I left. I stayed in the city but I moved inward to its heart: the centre where all the young people go.
My mother filed for divorce maybe six months after.
When I picked her up I asked him what makes a man. I asked what he could possibly have that made him a man.
We didn't see him for a long time. My mother moved in with me and I showed her the city where everything was loud and new. I took her to a bar and she drank and laughed and smiled. We never talked about my father; we didn't talk and we didn't visit. That home had become a dead place anyway.
What he did during that time -- the time of my mother's rebirth -- I don't know. I know he retired after a while. (I believe he was asked to leave.) I know he had a poor pension and lost the house and moved somewhere small and damp and squalid. I know as time moved on he lost that place too, ended up in a retirement community at the edge of the city, a filthy place in the boundary between the urban and the land -- it was the same year that my mother met someone worth loving. Those are the main things, everything else is hazy. It's hazy if he spoke much to anyone. It's hazy what he thought about or how he spent his days. It's hazy why, much later, I decided to see him again, why I went back or bothered at all. There's this strange idea that the world should follow an internal logic which is understandable, that there's a structure, pure and bright, underlying the fabric of our lives. I don't know.
I remember I visited him in the spring.
Maybe, like dogs, people grow to become the things that own them. The nurse led me to his room on the second floor, past the sick patients and the white walls and the subtle smells. He was finishing his food when I arrived, a gristled pork joint peppered with mash and peas, and the nurse took his plate as she left. His clothes hung off papery bespeckled skin that matched his chair, the walls, the floor. I wondered if maybe people grow to become the room they'll die in.
He sat on his chair, the final metamorphoses of a particular strategy of existence, looking, I suppose, the near spitting image of that night (the night he became old), except distorted slightly, like the flickering static you used to find between TV channels. We stared down at each other and he asked me, said, 'What do you want?' And I replied, 'Mum's doing well. She seems happy.' The room smelled damp and there were peeled Day-Glo stickers from juice bottles half stuck to the coffee table.
There was a distance between us. There was the thought that behind those webbed words was a meaning lost through language.
I wondered why I had come. It seemed as if time had stretched between us, not following a linear trajectory but instead straining to its limits, pushing outward in both directions; and only silence, that fearful acknowledgement, could prevent its snap. The years crowded between us. They expanded and contorted; I wondered how you could ever fill so many years inside one lifetime. The quiet stretched and stretched and things seemed slow and pointless and I thought about leaving -- I feigned leaving, wanting him to react, maybe, to force something. And as I moved to go he spoke, slowly, his words coming viscous and dripping, 'Thank you for coming,' he said. 'The world isn't too kind to old things.' It was the first prayer I'd ever heard my father say.
He was so small.
The hush turned to noise then. He had a lot of questions and I answered as best I could. I wondered if that was why I was here -- as a receptacle, a conveyor of a lost life. I told him simple details about my mother, quiet unimportant things. He asked if she ever thought about him and I lied. There seemed something truly evil about telling the truth. I told him that I was sorry he was in here, and I said that my mother missed him. He seemed happy and he smiled. All his gestures hurt. He said, 'This is the sort of place people die these days. They can't give anything honest to a man anymore.' I didn't know how to react to that, how to react to anything, really, save for taking the pain somewhat. It felt important to hold it, to in some way extract it and feel it, let it fester under the skin. Maybe that's the point of sons -- they help absorb the pain. There was a sense of chained connections between generations, all the hate and bile turning inward and then transferred to the next, then the next. The profound interiority of hate. He kept speaking, of his life and my life, everything that happened and not, but it became harder to hear the words. Something had grown within me, something ponderous and angry and ancient, and he was appearing a horrible reflection of ... something. And then just the pointless sound of words on words on words. And I thought if maybe this is how he wins: by becoming a thing so pathetic your only choice is to direct the hate inward. I thought of long forgotten dances, of the meaning evoked from submission to a power beyond comprehension.
I stayed a while but I don't know what else was said. After a while everything became a blur of sounds. I know he was happy to see me, grateful; I know he loved and that he felt remorse even though he couldn't say it. I don't think he knew me well enough -- knew anyone well enough -- to sense my agitation. I'd decided I wouldn't see him again, decided it almost immediately, and that decision weighed on the afternoon. As he spoke I tried to decide whether that decision was selfish, whether he was a man worthy of such consideration. And then there was that same tug of time again, the same elongating of years, until he felt it too, began stumbling through his breaths, both of us sensing the break. I didn't look back when I left and I don't remember what I said to him. I've tried and failed not to think of him again, and I don't know whether this is right or wrong.
What makes a man?
What makes a man?