My eyes wandered across the landscape that I had known since childhood. The field I once wandered across. The tree I in a pathetic attempt tried to climb. In the meantime, the village also produced beautiful memories.
What did that say about my life? There were good times back in the village. Easier. No worries. To say that I obviously did not understand what it meant to grow up was not far-fetched. I always found it hard to give things up when I wasn’t forced to. Admitting I had a problem wouldn’t do anyone any good. I make my journey in circles, and I don’t like to let go, because I love with all my heart and I didn’t want that anymore, two possibilities still presented themselves to me. I didn’t want to deal with either of them. I just wanted to get back to her in the bar. Admire your eyes again for 10 minutes. She wasn’t there anymore. But I was here. Mature enough to understand and alone in this taxi. The driver stopped. I gave him two hundred, said goodbye and opened the garden door to the one-story red brick house. Ever since I got back, I’ve lived here in the house, I grew up in and I hated every second of it.
I opened the front door. The stench of rotting food greeted me. I just drove off and had stayed for too long. My operation of the chandelier light switch in the entrance hall did not let anything happen. The power must have gone out during my absence. I took the matches from the drawer of the anteroom box, lit them and carefully took a few steps into the darkness of the cellar.
The fuse box was at the opposite side of the landing, past old cardboard boxes. In the faint light I slowly squeezed myself through the created notch, while I took care not to throw one over. They were stacked on top of each other and filled with my father’s old things. Martina help me pack them up. I didn’t want to throw them away, but I couldn’t look at them either. When he had died, I had simply thrown his possessions into the crates and had planned to look through them if I felt like it. That is what I said to her. I didn’t feel like it. By now I knew they would probably never be opened.
When I stood in front of the fuse box, I opened it. I pushed the switch up, and a radio went off.
I got scared, stumbled back. My hands beat through the air in the hope of enclosing something else to prevent my fall. In vain.
I landed on a cardboard box. It buckled under my weight and her contents drilled into my back. I screamed, rolled to my side and held the spot from which the pain emanated. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. I wasn’t bleeding. No wound. It was just pain.
I tilted my head and saw through a crack, one my fall had left in the box. A letter hung out, addressed to me.
I was still lying on the ground, wondering if I should dare to open my father’s remains. The old man had probably tried to write to me before, in the years I was away. He didn’t know my address, so he had it stashed here in the hope that I would search his things after his death. He always had to have the last word.
I fought with myself. I didn’t want to know how my father felt. I didn’t want to hear reasons, apologies or excuses. My father didn’t deserve it. But a part of me, a little back room in my head, felt what should be described as nothing but curiosity for the pain. Be it because I wanted to feel something, whether it would be hatred or remorse.
I stretched my arms beside me and lifted myself up.
I knelt next to the box and ripped it open for good. The box was filled with photos of my childhood. But I didn’t pay any attention to them. I took the letter straight out. My name was on it, nothing else. No address, no stamp. Only my name, written in black with imprecise lines, as if he had trembled when he wrote it.
I opened it.
My beloved Nathaniel,
these words are not easy for me to say. I don’t know if they’ll ever reach you.
I don’t know if you’re okay or if you’re even alive. I pray that you will be spared, that an angel will watch over you and one day brings you back to me.
You left because of me who made you feel how much I miss her. It wasn’t always easy for me and your mother. We got married young and we had problems. We argued a lot, but I loved her. I blamed you. But I should have realized sooner that I lost her, got you for it.
I loved you and I did nothing without thinking what’s best for you and your future. I have tried to teach you discipline, to show you what real life is like in this world and to prepare you for the challenges it will pose to you.
But I wasn’t a good father. Not lovingly. Not understanding. I was blind, and I didn’t see it. I write these words in remorse. They will outlast me for a long time and bring you closer to my point of view, so that you may at some point find the will to forgive me.
So, the last lines of this letter should not be a plea or a begging, a compulsion or about grief.
I love you.
I hope you can forgive me.
When I had finished reading it, I put it aside. I took the envelope in my hand, turned it over and two photos fell out.
My father and mother were pictured on one of them. They picnicked in front of a tree not far from the small town. Both sat together on a blanket, red, decorated with a floral pattern, embroidered with golden thread in the edges. My father kept it. On the rooftop, the blanket was hidden in a corner of a closet.
When I discovered them as a little boy and asked my father where it came from, he cried. It was one of the few moments when he was emotional. He hadn’t told me, he just sat there, no comment, in tears. I hadn’t reacted. Just watching until he finally stopped and sent me out to do some work. I had given him no comfort.
But now I knew the answer and felt sorry that I once asked. My mother had crafted it for them and my father hid it because he couldn’t see it.
I didn’t know many photos from before my childhood. My father had often leafed through the photo albums in his worst hours. The less he cried, the less he was seen happy. But when he turned the sides, you could always see the corners of his mouth going up and something awoke in his eyes. The same as in the photo. He held his hands wrapped around her, a joy in his eyes that I had never seen before. The old man was broken about her. Buried his happiness with her. It all looked too familiar.
My mother was pregnant in the picture. It was taken just before I was born. I wish I’d known her longer. My father never said a word about her when I was old enough to talk about it. He had avoided my questions about her and when I had had the courage to insist on an answer, he remained silent. Or worse punished me for asking in a disobedient tone.
I understood him now. I understood all the hatred he had for this world. Why he turned to God, I understood now. God is for the senseless hopeless…and there is value in that. I put the photo aside and when I looked at the others, I knew I was like him.
He was my father.
In the photo…there I was. My seventeenth birthday. Martina sat next to me and I smiled at her. It was young Martina, her, the girl who once made me think of happiness. I had the same smile as my father. The smile of a man who had everything he thought he wanted in this world. I put the photo with the letter back in the envelope.
His last move out of the grave. I hadn’t escaped him, I thought, I never could have. A pinch stirred in my stomach. A tug that pulled my guts down. I felt sick and I ran up to the bathroom, the envelope still in my hand. My fingers were cramped as I tried to hold it back. I pushed open the door. The handle crashed against the wall.
In front of the toilet, I dropped and threw up. I enjoyed it. A moment when everything morbid came out of my body at once. The trembling stopped, and it was only about the vomit and the act of vomiting. Like the stomach acid crawled up my esophagus together with the consumed meal to mix in the white porcelain with the clear water in a disgusting yellow liquid with bits. That was expressive avant-garde art.
After choking up stomach juice for the fifth time, I sat up briefly and leaned against the wall with my back next to the toilet. I buried my face in my hands. Sweat dripped from my forehead to the tiles of the bathroom floor. Steps. A reverberation from the living room. I looked up. The world seemed brighter. The colors are more intense. The fog had dissipated. I didn’t recognize anything. A red couch and a little boy jumping on it.
With the drugs, I’d also wrecked my brain.
“Come here at once” the voice of a man. Deep, but playful.
With a smile on my face, I announced “catch me” as I jumped up and down. The man came closer. The boy’s eyes followed him attentively.
He entered the picture, only saw the neckline, because the door allowed me to look at the scene.
The boy faked out on the left, then on the right, but before the movement could take place, he had grabbed him. He picked him up and dropped it on the couch. His hands wrapped around him to stop the fall. The boy screamed when he landed on the pillow. The man pulled his arm back. Takes a swing at him. “No, no” begged the boy.
But the man didn’t hear. His arm swung fast. He stopped abruptly. His fist opened, and with it, he tickled him and they both laughed.
“Enough fooling around, Junior” the man said “Go wash your hands while I set the table with your mother”
He nodded a second, said “Okay”.
The boy paid no attention to me. He pushed himself a stool, stood on it and turned the tap on. The tide is a waterfall. A hiss broke the silence in the room. My eyes were tired. My eyelids falling. I looked at the boy for a moment, wishing I didn’t see him. My opened and closed my eyes a few times, hoped to think of something different, but he didn’t go away.
Okay, I said, leaned back and let myself drift on the sound waves of the water, hoping I could flush myself down the drain. The sound changed as the boy held his hands under the running tap. Then the boy stopped, the tune became whole again and I opened my eyes to see the boy rubbing soap between his palms and under his nails. The bubbles encapsulated dirt, displacing it from chewed remains of keratin. Some things probably don’t change even in the imagination.
The boy whistled a tune as the water touched his skin. She was quiet. He didn’t whistle any good. Again and again, he would sit out. I closed my eyes. What a beautiful moment to give in to exhaustion, I thought. But the whistling stopped, and our eyes met now.
“Who are you?” the boy asked me. Fear was in his words. I didn’t want him to be afraid, so I smiled, but talking to myself was too weird. The boy didn’t say anything either, didn’t scream for his parents. No wonder in his face. As if he knew and asked out of courtesy. Just afraid that I was suddenly sitting here. His eyes were looking at me. From the worn-out socks to my tired look.
“Is everything okay with you?” the boy asked me.
“Not for a long time, I think this is just the highlight”
The boy looked at his hands. He washed the rest of the soap off his hands. He didn’t say a word until he turned the tap off again.
“My mom used to say that life only goes downhill to come back up sometimes”
“Yeah, but doesn’t that imply you’re just going up to make it go downhill again?”
The boy looked at me, started to speak, but no sound left his lips. I didn’t know if the boy understood what I was saying. It wasn’t necessary to say either.
“Where are you? Junior! Dinner’s ready!”
Then the man entered the room. His father was standing in the doorway. Shocked, he looked at me. “Go to your mother, boy” he ordered, and the boy followed his orders up.
“Sorry” I leaned back, “For a moment I’d forgotten I was talking to myself there”
“What are you doing here? This is not a place you should be”
He looked younger. I recognized him from my childhood, but his features, his gaze, that man was not my father.
“Do you think I wanted to be here? You think I want to see my father’s version of loving his family? See what I couldn’t have?”
“Yes, you do”
I laughed. Of course, he was right. I couldn’t argue with myself. In my head, it was always the things I couldn’t have that counted for me.
She was there. My mother was there. My father was there.
“You shouldn’t see it. It never could have been. You can’t change the past just as you can’t change her life”
“To hear that from you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I loved your mother, but I’m not your father. I never lost her.”
“No, you didn’t”
Compassion. I felt it when the silence came. He didn’t know what to say anymore. None of his words would change anything, but this man, who was not my father, my father wanted to find her.
“I don’t know your father…”
“You don’t know him because I never really knew him”
“Yes. But I know you’re asking yourself the same questions I would. Perhaps he has learned that you must be strong to face this life and had tried to give this strength, pass it on to you?
“Maybe I don’t want to, though? Life taught me – not him, he just showed me indifferent consistency and hoped it would be enough”.
“What am I supposed to tell you that you don’t already know? It’s your choice. It was always your choice. I told you to forget. If not for the sake of forgetting, then to be stronger than him”
“I just never wanted to be like you…”
The man remained silent. I looked up at the ceiling of the bathroom. The man was my father, he wasn’t a good one, but maybe he could have been.
“Go back to your family. I’ll be fine”
The man looked at me. He nodded, turned around and left the room.
I closed my eyes again.
“Forgotten”, I repeated to myself. What a weird fucking concept.
A story came to my mind. A 14-year-old boy in love with a girl he barely knew. When I took my courage together and told her how I felt, I cried for two days. My father noticed. One of the few moments when my father was my father.
“Fire cleanses the soul” he had said when he put a piece of paper, a pencil, and matches in my hand. He grinned at me. I opened my eyes. I got up and took the letter in my hand.
I went out into the garden. We hadn’t had a lawnmower since my father started beating his son, I wasn’t the boy anymore, but I knew where the fuel was hidden.
With the canister and a ton, I came out of the shed.
I’ll put it in the middle. I shed the gas. The floor was covered with a layer. I got dizzy. The smell crept up my nose. The steam went into my head. I took a deep breath. It couldn’t get any worse.
I prepared a chair for myself to see the spectacle better.
Friction ignited the flame and the envelope emptied in my hands. I was about to throw them in.
I clasped the photos with my fingers. I looked at my father in the eye. His smile was like mine. I felt no more nausea, no more regrets. I felt the connection, but it didn’t disgust me.
I threw it in. The flames embraced the Polaroid. It arched under the heat. The colors faded. The faces disappeared. Ash remained.
I pulled out the widower’s gift. The remaining half of the photo the flames captured it. I felt loved, but no regrets for her. I wanted to be connected but felt nothing but emptiness.
The 14-year-old Nathaniel could destroy, for he had nothing worth preserving. My present self, however, knew that there were things that should be preserved. She’s just a memory. A warm thought that warms my life in the cold days. She was just the last flame to warm me in the cold. How can I suffocate her? I pulled the photo out of the flames.
I turned it off before her face disappeared. I looked at it again. I smiled. I didn’t deserve you. I threw the photo into the flames.
With less thought, I held our picture together in flames and burned Martina away. I was the only one left to see. I looked myself in the eye. I felt the hatred out of remorse. I felt no connection, and it disgusted me. My face arched under the heat. My blue eyes were turning grey. I broke off the photo, vanished in the flames. But I couldn’t throw the whole picture into the fire.
Your eyes, those things that make me see myself dead.
I wanted to forget. I didn’t want to think about her anymore. I’ll stop letting them nest in my head and poison my thoughts with the past. No more hull, no more vessel to keep.
I took another good look at the photo. I knew now what I was doing was right. I didn’t throw it in the fire. I pressed it against me with both arms, leaned back and stared at the ceiling.
She was black. The smoke had collected. Just time to separate me from forgetting. I leaned back by the chair and started to relax. With a smile on my face, I closed my eyes.
I knocked over the barrel and the floor caught fire. The smoke reached me now. I tried not to inhale, but I felt the tickle already. I suppressed the urge to cough.
As a cynic, no one should die. Now that I’m gone, everything has to get better. For me, it was, because I just wanted to sleep and finally I could find some rest.
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