January 24, 2020

“Don’t Look Back” by Victoria Shannon

It was a bit fuzzy around the edges. Memory is like that, fading in and out of focus like the shadows of leaves shifting in a breeze.

Or maybe it was just the peach martinis. Maddie was trying to remember what it was like growing up with a father who lurched from one plaything to another.

An hour before, she had learned that Dad’s biopsy was malignant. Rafa had rushed to meet her at the Green Parrot on his way home from work. He held her tightly at the bar when he came in, but she sucked back her tears, still taking it in.

They were deep into their drinks when Rafa asked what her father was really like. His eyes were round and searching under his tweed cap. In their year together, Rafa had never met her father, who lived a thousand miles east.

“Oh, you know, he’s just a big kid,” Maddie said, swirling her glass. “He took up oil painting for a while. And flying. Photography – he set up a darkroom under the stairs in the basement. Last year, he started skiing.”

She knew as the words came out of her mouth that Rafa would think how unlike her dad he was. Rafa hadn’t done much of anything. A master’s in art history had taken him only as far as an Ann Arbor print shop. It wasn’t exactly the kind of job that had put stars in his eyes in school. But he didn’t complain. Rafa never complained.

“I swear, his whole adult life has been a second childhood,” Maddie added.

“Yeah, but were you close to him? As a kid, I mean,” Rafa said, his head tilted at her.

She smiled. For Rafa, it was always about how you felt.

“I don’t know. Sometimes,” she said. “He used to call me Middoo. I thought it was cute.”

Maddie closed her eyes and reached back. Were they close when she was a child?

“I have a weird memory,” she said suddenly. “I haven’t thought about this for years. I guess I must have been 8 or 9. I would wake up in the middle of the night and he would be in bed with me.”

“Oh my God!” Rafa said, reaching for her.

“No, I think it was okay,” she frowned, trying to remember.

Rafa’s eyebrows were still up, nearly touching his cap.

“How the hell could it be okay? What in God’s name was he doing there?”

She sank back. That was a good question.

*

It is winter. She hears the furnace kick on. Her eyes are wide open in the dark, confused. He is lying there, half of his body over hers. The covers are down by her knees.

“Now don’t say anything.”

He must know she is awake, hears her breathing fast. She says nothing. His hands move around. She tries to hold her breath. He keeps going.

She hears a distant voice.

“I’m just saying good night,” he calls into the hallway. He mumbles something to Maddie. She can’t make it out. With obvious reluctance, he sits up, straightens her pajamas.

“Now don’t say anything,” he whispers again at the doorway.

His thin silhouette is a snapshot in the hall light and he is gone.

*

“That bastard!” Rafa brought her back.

“No, no, it wasn’t like that,” she scowled.

“Yeah? How could it not be?”

“This is silly, Rafa. I was there. Don’t you think I’d know?”

“You didn’t even remember until just now.”

“I was a kid, for crying out loud. I don’t remember everything that happened – neither do you.” She folded her arms. “Christ. It was just a memory, a fragment from the past. It floated up out of nowhere. Jesus, Rafa, my father’s got cancer – that’s what started this. I’m sorry I even mentioned it.”

“Okay, okay, me too.” He threaded his arm around her glass to reach her. She just tightened her hands around her elbows.

“Oh, come on, Maddie,” he pleaded.

“Rafa.”

Maddie wondered for a moment how that happened. One minute, her mind was searching, the next a vanquished vision took over.

She shook her head and pushed it away. She had a different problem to deal with. Before Mom called with the gut-wrenching report on Dad, she had already decided her talk with Rafa would be tonight. It had to be now. How could the evening get any more morbid? And besides, she was afraid to wait.

“Maddie-paddie…” he was cooing.

“No, seriously. There’s something else.” Maddie leaned forward, her arms still crossed but now resting on the cold metal zinc of the bar.

“Really. We need to talk,” she said earnestly. “About us.” She took a breath. “It’s not working.”

“God almighty. Not that!” Rafa pushed his hair back with his cap. “Maddie! Are you serious?”

She nodded. “I just can’t do it, Rafa. I need some space to live in.” It poured out: He wanted too much from her, he was suffocating her, no, it wasn’t another guy, but they didn’t have the same feelings, blah-blah-blah. Halfway through, she realized she sounded like someone else’s social media stream.

Rafa’s arms were locked across his chest now. His eyes flickered in disbelief and hurt, and she suddenly felt awful for him. Maybe if they just cooled off for a while. Maybe if he wasn’t such a constant presence. Maybe some time and distance –

No. She just wasn’t in love with him. After a year, she knew. That’s what settled it in her head over the last couple of weeks as she worked it through. At the gym, in bed staring at the ceiling, distracted at work, searching for a way to make it come out all right.

Poor Rafa. He didn’t understand. She was doing this for him. To free him, to let him find someone who would adore him in a way that he deserved.

“You know I’m good for you, Maddie,” he was saying. But his tone had changed from shocked to mournful. He was giving in.

She wouldn’t stay for another drink. She wanted to get out of there. It was their place, their hangout, but there was no “their” anymore.

Rafa shook his head as they wrapped up in scarves and coats. “I’m so sorry about your dad. But I have to say I’m sorrier about us.”

“Just let it go, Rafa.”

They stood in the parking lot with arms strapped around each other against the Michigan cold for a long time. It was a bitter wind. Snow hadn’t yet come to brighten the long nights and short days.

Maddie drove home on auto-pilot.

Dad.

Rafa.

Dad.

Rafa.

She was grateful Rafa hadn’t gotten ugly on her. But of course Rafa didn’t fight. When the manager of the diner kicked them out late one night for dancing in the aisle and knocking over a busboy’s tray, Rafa just got sweeter.

“The next dance is for you,” he told the manager. Giggling into her hand, Maddie had been able to elbow him out the door.

“Are you all right?” he asked her as they stumbled into the parking lot.

“Me? Me??” She laughed out loud. “Yes, of course! You’re the one getting us in trouble!”

All charm and concern, Rafa was her shield from the storms of the world, she thought. How can I let that go?

Her father’s cancer moved fast, and they started chemo on the tumor. Maddie wanted to fly home, but her mother and younger sister said no, they were on it, not to worry. They had set up a bed downstairs, got a wheelchair. Mom even bought a new car with heated seats and superior suspension because their old one was too rough on his weakening bones. So Maddie waited until Christmas.

When she arrived for the holidays, Maddie and her sister cried and moped in the entryway. But they turned on a dime and plastered on smiles when their mother wheeled in Dad.

Maddie saw immediately that his crystal blue eyes had lost their sparkle. The wheelchair swallowed him up. He tried to be cheerful, but it hurt for him to talk, his throat was so dry. She could see pain on his drawn face.

Christmas dinner turned out to be festive and enchanting, anyway. Everyone came into it with dread, and Maddie felt especially sorry for her sister’s fiancé, there for his first big holiday with them. She couldn’t pinpoint who cut through the nervous air – she suspected it was her mother, because that’s what mothers do – but everyone gradually exhaled.

There were jokes about losing hair that wasn’t there to lose, about not getting out much, about early retirement, ha-ha. But no one mentioned the c-word. The laughter, the razzing, the wine-fueled silliness – there was no explaining how it gelled, but it did. It was a warm evening, in a household that didn’t do warm easily.

Maddie kissed her father good night, barely touching his cheek, and gently rubbed his thin shoulder. She searched for her brilliant father in his bulging eyes. She thought for a second that he tried to make them shine for her, to say something with them. But then he seemed a million miles away.

“Good night,” she finally said. “See you in the morning.”

“Good night,” he returned wanly.

*

She is 12 years old. “It’s a school night,” she hears her mother call from the kitchen. “Kiss us good night and get to bed.”

She goes in to give Mom a peck and finds Dad in the basement, putting up a new percussion set, and gives him the same. He sets his beer aside, grabs her shoulder, and moves her closer.

“That wasn’t a kiss,” he says. “Come on, do it right, Middoo.”

She rolls her eyes and pulls back, but his grasp holds her. Suddenly, his lips are on hers and she tastes saliva. His tongue pushes into her mouth.

This time, she yanks away with force.

“God, Dad!” She is horrified, and wants her expression to show it.

“What?” he says.

She runs upstairs without looking back. It is months before she speaks to him again, or even makes eye contact. Dad doesn’t seem to care. Mom is mystified.

*

After Maddie got back to Ann Arbor, she got only one phone call from Rafa, more of a whimper than a grovel. The call was short, and she was curt. But she missed him. His company, his cheerfulness, his protectiveness. The way he tipped his cap to passersby and made strangers smile at them on the street, the funny gossip he told about Old Masters, the way he sheltered her from the rain.

The men in her life since college were all soft, kind, decent, like Rafa. They seemed to be just as attracted to her tough layers as she was to their simpleness. It mostly worked, though she couldn’t say for sure that she had ever been in love.

Rafa was going to be fine, Maddie told herself. Not right away – he was lost, he always said, without a partner. But his warmth and light would draw someone else soon enough, the way they did Maddie. She stayed resolved.

Two weeks later, she was staring at the clock in her office, waiting for a meeting to start.

Rafa burst in the door, panting.

“What are you doing here?” She spun around the table. “What happened? You look terrible.” He cast about for a chair and wiped his face with his cap.

“Maddie, I… I… I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have,” he stuttered out. “I got crazy. I’m so sorry.”

He frightened her. She had never seen him out of control, never any more wrought than yelling at a soccer match on TV.

“Sit down, Rafa. What the hell? What’s going on? Sorry for what?”

He had an accident? Someone was pregnant? Something about money? Her mind raced with scenarios. None of them fit.

He circled the room, his left hand knotted around his cap. She looked at the clock again. Screw the meeting.

“Jesus, Rafa, just sit down.”

He finally did. She took the other chair, pulled it almost close enough to touch him. He rubbed his eyes, leaned his head back, and exhaled audibly.

“Okay, okay, I’m all right.”

He still had the cap in a death grip.

“You know that night at the bar,” he started, breathing hard again. “When you told me about your father?”

Maddie nodded. “The night we broke up,” she said. For a second, she was in the parking lot, the wind and Rafa’s arms surrounding her.

“I was really angry,” he said. “I loved you, Maddie. I do love you. That night was all wrong.”

No, it wasn’t, but okay. She waited.

“I don’t know. It just sort of all built up.” He shook the cap out with a crack. “I got it in my head that your father was to blame – what he did to you. That he must have been horrible. That it was his fault you couldn’t be close to me, you wouldn’t stay with me.”

What? She tried to make sense of it.

“So I wrote him this letter, and I told him that. I told him it was disgusting, and damaging, what he did. I wanted him to know, to feel bad. You can’t blame me. What you told me, about him in bed with you – that was fucked up. And so I mailed it yesterday.”

What?!

“You didn’t,” she gasped.

He nodded. “I shouldn’t have. I knew as soon as I let it go. I was up all night, trying to figure out what to do. I’m really, really sorry.”

“You did?” she asked tremulously.

“I realized I had to tell you. Look, I can’t fix it, but at least you know. It was stupid. It was foolish. I don’t know what possessed me.”

She threw her chair back. “Christ, Rafa, you’re an idiot. My father is dying of cancer. How could you?”

“I’m telling you, I don’t know. Forgive me.” He was standing now, too. “Please.”

“Get out of here,” she said under her breath, then raised her voice: “Get out!”

Maddie snapped several pencils in half at her desk that week waiting for the letter to land back home. Every time the phone rang, she trembled, terrified that it might be her father, or, worse, her mother. More than anything she had ever feared, it was a stupid, stupid, stupid piece of paper.

Mom finally did call. Dad was entering hospice care.

“No!” Maddie yelled at her. “No! Not yet! Not now!” She hung up, covered her ears, and kicked the wall.

She flew home the next day and drove straight to the hospice center. She stopped at the door to Dad’s room, just looking. He was out of it, his breathing a struggle. He mumbled something incomprehensible. She watched her mother at his bedside, scrutinizing her for a sign that she knew something she shouldn’t. It took Mom a minute to focus on Maddie when she came in.

“Your sister took a break to get dinner,” she said softly, holding Dad’s hand and stroking his pole-thin arm. “She’ll be back later.”

Maddie saw nothing of her father in that shell in the bed. She and her mother had little to say. After an hour waiting for her sister, she said a silent farewell and left.

The front porch light was on when she pulled in the driveway, but the house was dark. During summers in high school, she and Dad would sit on lawn chairs under the porch awning during thunderstorms, peering through the gap in the pine trees for flashes of lightning. They both loved a mighty storm.

“What are you thinking about?” he’d ask.

She never, ever knew how to answer that. Her mind was always a swirl of anger and resentment. How do you pick out one strand of bitterness among many and put words to it?

“Nothing,” she always answered.

She sulked all the way through college, where she earned a reputation as fierce and fearless. It was only lately that she felt some of the rough edges fall away. Rafa had a lot to do with that.

Please, please let me find the letter.

She shouldered the front door open and turned on every light in the empty house. The object of her torment was buried in the bills and fliers scattered on the dining room table, where it had obviously sat for days. Like the bills, the letter was unopened.

Maddie collapsed into a chair and sobbed, overcome by childlike spasms and hiccups.

*

The New Year’s Eve party is in full swing in their basement, the music pulsing and the neighbors getting loose.

With a silly smile, Dad gives each of the sisters a dance, dipping and bowing with his straw hat and cane, and they laugh as they show him their high school moves.

After the ball drops, the teenagers are ordered to bed. On the steps, Maddie turns and peeks through the railing. Mom pushes Dad away, and he moves to dance with someone else.

In her bedroom, she hears his heavy march up the stairs. The door squeaks open into the dark. She holds her breath. He comes in and sits on the bed.

He’s not there long. When he leaves, she waits until she’s sure his footsteps have receded back down toward the party.

Quietly, she comes out from under the bed, waves the dust balls from her face, and slips under the covers.

*

The night she returned to Michigan after the funeral, Maddie burned the envelope whole, still sealed, in her fireplace.

With a whiff of sulfur faint in the air, she opened a bottle of wine, knowing she would drink it until it was empty. Even now, she didn’t have her appetite back.

She stood before the terrace door in the dark, not quite focusing on the patches of lights across the river. The Ann Arbor sky was starless, clouds settling in ahead of tomorrow’s snowstorm, the first blizzard of the year.

Maddie turned back to the shadowy room and carefully poured another glass. She sipped it lying in bed, wrapped in the dark. The snow would be good, she thought. A bright, fresh coating on everything.

###

About the Author: Victoria Shannon has worked as a journalist in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Paris, France, and now writes and edits from the Hudson River Valley of New York State.

Victoria Shannon Author Photo

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