Message in a Bottle

The last time I saw my father was a Thursday.

It was so hot (warmer than any fall day has a right to be) that the air felt like steam, and I remember that I had on a T-shirt. Not just any T-shirt, either, but one with a cartoon hot dog on the front, the words “What’s Up, Dog?” emblazoned across the chest in comic sans. I looked like a child. I felt like a child, as I always did in my father’s presence. He was an all-consuming energy, bigger than Elvis, bigger than Queen Elizabeth, bigger than God. He ate up the space around him and sucked in the air. He made me feel small, demure—a shadow at his side, nipping at his heels.

Had I spent more time with him throughout my childhood, maybe I would’ve gotten used to that feeling. As it was, I could count the number of times I’d seen him on one hand. I’d never become comfortable with that sensation of smallness, of shadowiness—like I wasn’t a person at all but a mirage, his dark reflection. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the way he looked at me, so calculating, as if trying to discern whether I was worth his time, whether the image of him I mirrored back was one that he liked. He was always comparing me to him. Sometimes he’d say as much—that awful, thunderous rumble of “when I was your age . . .” spilling from his mouth, which was never followed by the charming anecdote I craved—and sometimes he’d say nothing but look at me, just look at me, and it was enough for me to sense the internal debate going on in his head. Because I was not him, yet I was, and the contradiction maddened him. It maddened me, too. Of course, I never said so.

I don’t know what I thought our last visit together would be like. But my dad was an old dad, graying and balding even before I was born. I knew from a young age that he was mortal, that the time he had left was finite. He wasn’t sick but he was old, which I considered a far more terminal diagnosis. So I kept it in the back of my brain, always, that every word I said to him could be the last he’d hear. It wasn’t so hard to make those words count, either, since we had so few. Our correspondence was mostly through letters—he’d send me postcards of his travels, as if they somehow excused his absence: “I know I’m not with you, but look at how beautiful London is!” That sort of thing. It was implicit, at least, buried somewhere in his sloping scrawl. I can remember tracing my fingers over his writing, those cursive characters I could barely understand. I thought that by touching his writing, I would almost be touching him. That I could feel him, somehow. Experience him. But all I felt was cold, smooth paper.

There was a time that I thought my father was exciting and brilliant and worthy of adoration. I excused his shortcomings—and there were many—and waved away his absences. As my birthdays came and went, and holidays flew by, and he remained distant, I told myself it didn’t matter. But after a certain point, you begin to wonder. It starts out small—little things, jabbing at you from the back of your brain. Why isn’t he here? Will he ever meet my teachers? Does he want to see me blow out the candles? The thoughts spiral into something more, growing from curiosity to resentment. But you’ll tell yourself you’re fine, he’s fine, it’s fine. Then one day, when you’re sixteen or seventeen maybe, you’ll see a father coaching his daughter’s soccer game and you’ll start to cry, and you won’t even know why. It sneaks up on you. Reaches up with a skeleton hand and chokes you until you can’t breathe, until the world starts to spin. It caught me so off-guard—this anger and sadness I had unknowingly been nursing my entire life—that I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. I remember running home and tearing open my closet to the box where I kept his postcards, ripping up each and every one. I watched the shredded pieces fall onto the carpet like snowflakes and for a moment, I felt good, satisfied with the destruction I caused. But the emptiness came back eventually. It always does.

I think I’d suspected, in a foggy and far-off sort of way, that the last time I saw him would be a big event. That I’d pour my feelings out in a messy confession and demand to be heard; that he’d listen, rapt, and offer up some apology, something trite and far too short, but enough for me to feel he’d been listening. That’s all you really need sometimes—to have someone listen. My father had never been good at that. His eyes would wander around the room as I spoke, restless, bored to tears by my young, immature self. Sometimes he’d stare off into space, which I took particular offense to—as if the empty air was more interesting than anything I had to say. He couldn’t pretend to be invested when he wasn’t. And he was rarely invested in much of anything. He flitted through life without ever planting roots, always traveling, searching for something—some nameless, unknowable thing. It was his Sisyphean pursuit.

He left when my mother was pregnant with me. He wrote her a note that said he was tired, he was second-guessing whether he wanted to be a father, he needed to go, that he wished her the best but it just “wouldn’t work.” He included a wad of bills—enough for an abortion. My mother, with her loose lips and glass of brandy and that halo of bitterness forever wrapped around her head, told me this story when I was nine—far too young to hear it. I remember that her words hit me in such a way that I swear I felt a pop and a collapse of something deep within me, as if she’d stabbed a knife into a soufflé. Maybe that’s when my resentment toward my father first took hold. I don’t know. I don’t know when I started seeing him differently, when he went from that noble adventurer into something dark and cold. He always treated me like I was the mirage—the imposter who wore his same eyes and affected his same mannerisms, the inescapable reflection—but he was the one who was much-envisioned yet never really there, even when he was.

I had thought the last time I saw him, I would, for starters, know it was the last time—at least on some instinctive level, a primal, familial way. But I felt nothing. There was no charge in the air, nothing that made this visit feel any different from the others. I was stiff, I was unsure of myself. I tripped over my words and used “um” too often. There were swatches of time where we sat still, in total silence, neither of us knowing how to shatter the tension. Neither of us knowing what words would fill the gaping cavern stuck between us.

There was a walk around town, a trip to a café, then we stood outside a movie theater for five minutes as we deliberated on whether or not we should see something.

“That one got good reviews,” I said, pointing to the marquee.

“I don’t like the director,” he answered.

More silence. I swayed from foot to foot. The heat was getting to me—I could feel the back of my neck moistening. I just wanted this—our date, our visit, our long-overdue daddy/daughter bonding time, whatever you want to call it—to be over. I wished the time away. Maybe that’s what it was—maybe I did it to him, tempted the fates. I wanted to get away from him, to escape him, so they struck him off the face of the earth. They showed me. It was a poorly-phrased wish to a genie, a wish I can never take back. Sometimes I don’t know if I would take it back, even if I could. Sometimes I think maybe he’s gone for a reason.

My father was unfixable. He wandered until the day he died: he passed away in Sweden, in a hotel, midway through typing up some piece of writing on his laptop. He was surrounded by no friends, no family. When the news reached me, I didn’t feel unbearably sad. I didn’t feel crushed by a wave of regret, of all the words that went unsaid. I just sat down, and I thought to myself, “Huh.” Just that—“huh.” Like the death of my dad was a piece of unremarkable celebrity gossip. I wanted it to hurt. I wanted there to be pain, to be relief, to be frustration—something. I wanted to feel what I had felt when I’d seen that girl being coached by her dad as she played soccer. I wanted to feel what I’d felt when I ran home and ripped up his postcards, as I’d watch them turned to snow. I wanted something: an explosion, a primal scream, an eruption of tears. But I felt numbness. I felt distance.

He put that distance between us. He worked hard to build it up all those years, keeping his visits with me short and rare, his postcards perfunctory. He kept his eyes off me even when I was speaking to him; he kept himself guarded. It was what he chose. And I had worked hard to move on with my life, to not think of him. I had worked so hard, fought for so long, to let go of the rage I carried and the hurt I held. I did that for me, and for him. And now he was dead, and all I could think was, “Huh.”

During that last visit—the one I didn’t know was our last, the one where I wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon hot dog, the visit where I felt like a little girl again—the conversation was stilted and infrequent. We made chitchat. He talked about his travels in a bored monotone. I talked about college in much the same way. And we stared at each other as if looking at strangers. I realized later that there had been opportunities—in that visit and the others, and in all our written correspondence—where he’d said things I could’ve seized on. Things I could’ve responded to differently, sly messaging I should’ve noticed but didn’t, at least not until years had gone by and the words had long since evaporated. It seemed like our entire relationship was built on messages in bottles, thrown out to sea in the futile hopes that we would be heard, that we’d get the response we wanted but weren’t brave enough to demand. But our bottles went unnoticed. They’re still out there somewhere, bobbing around in the sea he crafted with his godly hands—my father, this big presence, this almighty being. I was a contradiction in that I was too much like him and not enough; he was a contradiction in that he was both real and fantasy. He was a god and a man, supreme enough to create me and leave me all in one fluid motion, yet mortal enough to die in a hotel in Sweden, midway through a piece of writing.

He never found what he was chasing. That elusive, unknown thing that he left me for all those years ago. Maybe he resented me because I reminded him of his failed mission. Maybe he looked at me and thought of the money he’d given my mother, that note he’d written in a moment of panic. Maybe he wished she’d have taken his advice and gotten the abortion. That was his genie wish, the one he couldn’t take back, the one that I still catch myself thinking about, on my gloomier days. Maybe it haunted him as much as it does me.

I never said goodbye to my father. He never apologized to me. Our last moments together were uneventful, uninteresting—we stood outside that movie theater until he finally looked at me and said he should get going, that his plane would leave early the next morning. I said sure, fine, that made sense. We both paused, considering a hug but thinking better of it. His lips ticked up in a quick little smirk. “I’ll send you a postcard from Sweden,” he told me. I nodded. And just like that, he walked away—gone forever, in a blink. He didn’t look back. He never did.