I left work at five on the nose, stumbled through the afternoon rush hour crowds, and crossed the threshold of my apartment with a relief completely out of proportion to the act. But I had one more commitment for the day, and cancelling or postponing it was out of the question. My father was coming for dinner.
My father was my only family, and the only person to whom I had any social responsibilities. Relationships didn’t come easily to either of us, but we maintained ours out of some combination of love, fear, and obligation, forged in a shared history of loss.
My mother was long gone, dead a month before I turned four; my memories of her are restricted to hazy vignettes, significant in their insignificance. My mother peeling an orange, removing it from its skin in one twist of the knife, separating the wedges and placing them on a small yellow plate, watching me the whole time. My mother playing a wooden flute as I sat on her lap, grabbing at the tube as she attempted to brace me with an elbow. My mother sitting on the carpet in front of me, gazing at something I couldn’t see as I stacked alphabet blocks into unstable towers. My mother crying.
Every now and again my father would contribute to this odd assortment of recollections one of his own. I knew that my toddler self was an unreliable witness to my mother’s life, but even still, it always seemed like my father was talking about someone else, someone who had never sung so hollowly to me, someone who had never become as invested in my bedtime stories as my three-year-old self had been. My father’s stories all came unbidden; when, years ago, I asked about my mother explicitly, he would fix me with a gaze so pained that I always lowered mine immediately. My mentions of his late wife left him dazed and unfocused for hours on end, and soon I stopped asking about her entirely. When he did spontaneously talk of my mother – and I never knew when he would – I would still and listen, afraid to speak, sometimes afraid to breathe, for fear of disturbing whatever fragile space was sympathetic to this gift.
I do not know what I got from her, other than some physical features roughened by my father’s DNA. And I can only guess the extent to which the personality traits I shared with my father were genetically wired, as opposed to simply being the inevitable result of having shared a home with only him. As I got older I often wondered what had attracted the late-in-life only child of Russian Jewish refugees to an Irish Catholic woman nearly fifteen years his junior, and vice versa. Over time I filled in the blanks, perhaps accurately and perhaps not: my father seemed out of place wherever he went, and it was not difficult to surmise that the same was true of the seventh of seven children and the youngest by a decade: a Canadian born and raised in a family that had likely never fully left the old country behind.
We were a compatible pair, both of us given to long stretches of solitude; I inferred early that my father, who still loved my mother deeply, did not have it in him to seek another wife. This neither pleased nor upset me, any more than it pleased or upset me that I needed to eat food or breathe oxygen to live; it was merely a fact of his character and of our shared existence.
My father was an attentive parent if not a particularly natural one; he clung obsessively to various routines, as though by inscribing the events of his life into compartments, he could coax the universe into order. Every change took on great importance until something convinced him that everything fit, everything was as it should be. He had overlooked changes in my mother some twenty-five years earlier, and had never forgiven himself.
We had our own routine. We alternated hosting one another for dinner, me at my Vancouver apartment and him in my childhood home in Maple Ridge, ending the evening with a game of gin rummy. That was the only one of his routines that made any demands on me, and it had never been disrupted.
The Friday after I returned from Calgary was my turn to host my father and cook. My place was a mess – I lived in squalor thirteen days out of fourteen, and cleaned like a madwoman before my father came over – and I hadn’t put any thought into dinner. And so after work I swung by the grocery store, picked up some noodles, mushrooms, cheese, and tomato sauce. In the lobby of my apartment, I made small talk with Louise, our building manager, who was sweeping the floor, and returned to my kitchen to assemble a serviceable if uninspired lasagna while an old record of my mother’s – I hadn’t bothered to check which - played in the background. While dinner baked, I took a quick inventory of my living space: even more chaotic than usual with exactly forty-five minutes until my father’s arrival. I took out the garbage, swept the floor, cleaned some grime out of the bathroom sink and off the inner rim of the toilet, and dumped some wayward papers onto the desk in my bedroom. I scoped out the fridge: two cans of beer remained on the top shelf. I cracked one open and downed it quickly, figuring I’d earned it, much as I’d earned the six I’d consumed earlier that week, and stashed the remaining one in my sock drawer. At twenty-nine, I knew I shouldn’t have to defend my choice to drink every now and again – granted, more these past few weeks than in previous ones – but I knew that the presence of beer in my apartment would induce nothing short of terror in my father. There was no point in arguing.
The buzzer sounded. I shoved the empty beer can in the sock drawer next to its full neighbour, brushed my teeth, and turned off the record player. A minute later my father was at the door, wearing a pair of corduroy pants that didn’t quite fit, and, underneath a stained coat, a faded sweater that he’d owned for as long as I could remember. Same as every other week. A calm settled over me almost instantly. I’d have ascribed it to the booze, but the beers I’d consumed earlier that week hadn’t had nearly the same effect. Maybe I relied on routine more than I knew.
“Smells good,” my father said by way of greeting. I took his coat and he ambled over to the table. I carried two plates of lasagna to him, and came back a moment later with two glasses of water. He sat, waiting for me to speak. I deferred for a few minutes as we ate. After a week of dealing with Roger, the silence was balm.
“Long week,” I said finally. “How was yours?”
He chewed, making a circling motion with his fork. “I finished a paper,” he answered. “Submitted it the other day for review. Almost done the one with the young fellow from Edmonton, and I think my postdoc has come up with some publishable results. Kevin Richardson is retiring this June.”
I nodded. These were all part of the same thought. “How old is Kevin?” I asked.
“Fifty-eight,” answered my father. “He skis every weekend and has plans to bike across Italy with his wife this summer.”
I nodded again. My father was almost seventy. He didn’t ski and he didn’t bike. He had his work and he had me.
We ate in comfortable silence for the next few minutes. “You were away this week.”
“Calgary,” I confirmed.
“You have a client there, right?”
I nodded. “Not for much longer; they’re opening an office in Vancouver and then everything will be local.”
“And you were there how long again?”
“Four days,” I said slowly, looking up. I had told him all this before. My father hadn’t forgotten, nor was he making conversation. My father didn’t make conversation.
“Seems like a long trip.” He was looking directly at me now.
“Felt even longer,” I said, finally seeing where the questions were headed. Chalk it up to exhaustion. On a good day I’d have been able to head this off at the pass.
“You couldn’t do this remotely?”
I shrugged, warming up. “Some people like the personal touch.” I didn’t mention that the client itself seemed fairly indifferent on that subject. “Also, they’re not very computer literate, so they need a lot of hands-on support.”
My father nodded, accepting this half-truth. “Is this going to become a regular thing?”
“Hopefully not,” I said, and then, knowing better than to commit to an uncertain outcome, “I might have to go a couple more times. Right now they don’t even have a fixed date for their move.”
My father went back to his lasagna. I felt vaguely uneasy, as I always do when I need to put in an effort to convince my father that I’m all right. He seldom challenged me outright, but he always seemed vaguely out of sync with his surroundings, a symptom variously of deep concentration or tiredness or concern or suspicion. It unsettled me that in almost three decades with him, I still could never quite tell.
We finished the lasagna and I scooped some leftover instant pudding that still smelled safe into separate cups. I pulled out the well-worn deck of cards, a pencil, and a sheet of paper from the drawer, and shuffled the cards as my father set up the scoresheet.
I dealt the first round, and as I assessed my hand, my father chatted idly about the school term, which was ending for him, and what the following fall held. I had nothing to contribute, and drew the first card from the pile, a two, and exchanged an orphaned jack for it. My father’s pile of discards seemed haphazard, though as usual his expression revealed nothing. I lost the first round by a hair. As my father recorded our scores, I sifted through the deck: “First one that would have done me any good was eighth from the bottom. There’s no justice.”
“You dealt,” he reminded me.
“But you shuffled.”
“Tell you what,” I offered, as one or the other of us had so many times before. “This time I’ll shuffle, and you cut and deal. We’ll see where the real advantage is.”
He chuckled, and I handed him the shuffled deck, which he made a big show of deciding where to cut. Five minutes later, I had won the second round. “See?” I said. “It’s all in who deals.”
He shook his head. “You’re leading by four points. How do you explain that?”
We continued for another eight hands, and tallied the score. He’d won six out of ten, but he played more conservatively than I did and his wins were smaller, and I edged him out by three points.
“Not bad,” he said. “But I insist on dealing first next week.”
“If you cook.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“I have to if I want to develop databases in this town.”
He smiled again, the folds under his eyes crinkling. I gathered his overcoat and saw him to the door. “I’ll pick you up at the station at a quarter after six next Friday?”
“Just like every week.”
He nodded, no longer smiling. “Then I’ll see you next week,” he said, and turned to leave. Then, halfway out the door, he stopped, and turned around. “You take care of yourself.”