We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.
One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination. Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon—places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.
Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.
We quarrel sometimes, and sometimes we weep. The road always stretches endlessly ahead and behind us, so that we are out of time as well as out of place. We go to Muir Woods in northern California, so shrouded in blue fog that the road is lost; and we drive down the Natchez Trace into deep, green Mississippi summer. The trees bear blossoms as big as my head; their ivory petals drift to the ground and cover our tracks.
Separated from family and from the flow of time, from work and from school; standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns into purple dusk—these nowheres and notimes are the only home we have.
My mother's parents raise me. I live in their house until I'm seventeen. In it, my father's name is never spoken, his existence not acknowledged.
"Where's you're dad?" other children ask. "I don't know," I answer.
"Why?" they ask, but I don't know what to say to that either.
He and my mother divorce when I am six months old. I stay with her and her parents; he leaves.
My father is an absence, a hole like one of those my grandmother cuts out of family photographs. Rather than discard the entire picture of an event that includes someone she dislikes, she snips the offender out with untidy haste, using her manicure scissors.
I sit on the foot of her bed and watch her edit the family albums, a task she undertakes with the kind of grim determination that can only have been inspired by a fight with my mother. Often, she cuts out only the heads and leaves the anonymous bodies behind as a reminder of her displeasure, and her ruthlessness. No one is safe from her censorship; from the albums she excises unflattering images of herself as well.
The few snapshots my mother has of my father she keeps hidden. If I ask to look at one, she might show it to me. In every photograph, he is a tiny figure in a suit and glasses; the only person in the frame, still, he is never in its center or its foreground, he seems as incidental as a bystander. I can't make out his features.
The closed door to my grandparents' bedroom is visible from the entrance to our house. When a young man arrives to pick my mother up for a date, when my grandmother hears my mother greet him and go to get her coat, she begins to scream from behind her closed bedroom door. My grandmother has a talent for screaming. Her screams are not human. They tear through the veil of ordinary life—the life that moments before surrounded the unsuspecting young man in the foyer—and in rushes every black, bleak, and barbarous thing: animals with legs caught in traps, surgery in the days that precede anesthesia, the shriek of a scalded infant, the cry of a young woman raped in the woods, the long howl of the werewolf who catches her scent, who finds and devours what's left of her.
I am four, and when I hear my grandmother scream I fall to my knees and crawl to safety, either under a table or, if I can get that far, into the linen closet or the wood bin.
My mother sleeps. For as long as she lives with us, in her parent's house, she sleeps whenever she can. She sleeps very late every day, as much as six or seven hours past the time when I get up for breakfast. I stand beside her bed as she sleeps.
Wake up. Wake up. I think the thought so loudly inside my head that it seems as if she will have to rise, she can't remain insensible to my imploring her—my wanting her—as fervently as I do. I never understand that she has fled into sleep, that she seeks comfort in sleep, that sleep is where she hides. I know only that I can't bear to let her do it.
Her eyes closed and hidden behind her satin sleep mask, her face as flat and white as the mask is flat and black: this terrifies me. Sleep makes my mother's face itself into a mask, one mask under another. She draws each breath so shallowly it seems as if she must be dying, that she might never wake.
I go into her bathroom and run the water from the taps. I flush the toilet, pick up her hairbrush and set it down hard on the counter, drop a shoe, close a door. I make any noise I can that might rouse my mother but that can't be judged as a direct and purposeful assault on the fortress of her sleeping. Because for as long as my mother refuses consciousness, she refuses consciousness of me: I do not exist. As I stand watching her sleep I feel the world open behind me like a chasm. I know I can't step even an inch back from her bed without plummeting.
If I dare, I reach forward and gently touch the smooth sheen of her black mask. It looks illicit, almost perverse, bordered by a narrow ruffle of black lace, the kind I already associate with the underwear she puts on before a date. Outside, I hear birds, awake as I have been for hours; their calls sound shrill and pitiless.
If I wake her, she doesn't talk to me. She talks around her room as if enraged, a wild and astonished look on her face. I make myself small; I back into the corner by the door, and often she doesn't seem to know I'm there. She takes a cigarette from the pack left on her writing desk, and then she stands before the French doors that lead from her bedroom to the garden. As she smokes, she stares out, her back toward me, and the light comes through the glass and outlines her body under the thin white gown. Smoke rises from her mouth, her hand. It rises slowly, dizzily, swaying back and forth like a snake charmer's flute.
Her eyes, when they turn at last toward me, are like two empty mirrors. I can't find myself in them.
Though she dates other men and even accepts their engagement rings, my mother remains romantically fixated, albeit mostly from a distance, on my father. Her gaze is so firmly held by this absent, invisible man, that as a child I think I see him in my grandparents' house. Having looked carefully at those tiny images in a dark suit, I see a specter of a similar man, usually at dusk, standing among the living-room's shadows, or slipping down the hall to the bedrooms.
"What does he look like?" asks a friend of the family, a woman afflicted with fits of clairvoyance, and whose eyeglasses swing out on a necklace of blue glass beads when she bends down to talk to me. "Tell me," she says, compelled by my grandmother's report that I've seen a ghost in our house.
"He doesn't have a face," I whisper.
"Guardian angel!" she cries.
"In a suit?" says my grandmother. "Surely angels don't wear suits."
The ghost frightens me. He doesn't speak or gesture. He never follows when I run from the dark rooms in which I think I see him. But he provokes me in his silence, the way he seems, without eyes, to stare. I grow afraid of the dark, and at bedtime I require night-lights, Ovaltine, my grandfather's singing over and over the talismanic "K-K-K-Katie," and a magic row of eleven stuffed bears set along the wall by my bed. Still, I wake screaming.
Perhaps my father really is there in spirit: standing in our house, waiting, pacing among tables and chairs in the living room we never use. For me he is. As his second wife will tell me years later, she takes as her husband a man who is not entirely present to her, who is always looking back over his shoulder at my mother and at me.
"When I married your father," she will say, "I knew he would always be in love with her. I knew that your mother was a part of him, inseparable from the person I fell in love with."
A "man of God" is how someone describes my father to me. I don't remember who. Not my mother. I'm young enough that I take the words to mean he has magical properties and that he is good, better than other people.
He sends long letters to my mother, and sometimes, folded in with them, are little ones for me. In them, my father describes his work as a minister. He takes Christian youth groups into the slums, where they rebuild people's homes. They paint the walls white and bring blankets, food, and toys for children who have no toys. I have everything a child could possibly want, my father tells me. He hopes I'll have the opportunity to experience some poor people, because otherwise how will I learn to be grateful?
A letter dated two days after my fifth birthday inquires if I had fun. Did I have a party? On that day, my father was in a home where people don't have money to celebrate birthdays. He met a child there, a little boy who looked like an angel and who was very smart but had crossed eyes. My father is seeing what he can do to have his vision corrected.
Ashamed that I don't persevere bravely in a slum, and ashamed of my clear vision, I begin to cross my eyes experimentally.
"They'll get stuck like that if you don't stop," my grandmother warns, and she tells me that if the direction of the wind changes while I do it, they'll remain crossed forever, I might as well be blind.
At Thanksgiving, my mother arranges for an edifying way for the two of us to celebrate the holiday. From a social service agency she gets the name of a needy family who is willing for us to come and prepare dinner for them. In the home we visit, several children share a room half the size of mine at my grandparents'. When I add flour to the gravy too quickly and pour nutmeg on the floor, my mother isn't angry as she would be at home. She doesn't yell or snatch anything out of my hands.
The meal we cook is consumed in silence. The children eat quickly and furtively; my throat constricts, knowing as I do that the visit has been prompted not by generosity, but by my father's desire that I have an appreciation of what it is I have to be thankful for.
I don't remember writing to my father, but I must have, because after my mother dies I'll find letters from him among her papers, and in them observations about how well I am learning to print and to spell. One faded, penciled note, dated February 20 of the year I turned three, thanks her for sending a Valentine inscribed to "Daddy." I've never known whether our daughter knows anything of me, he writes. Does she? Would it be possible for me to see her for a few hours?
I'm six when my mother moves out and leaves me. She is gone, but her room remains just as it was. I pull down the coverlet and see that fresh sheets are on her bed, and in her closet hang the dresses she didn't like well enough to take with her. Dresses of all colors: red, blue, pink, green. I stand among them. I duck under the skirt of one and let it fall around me like a yellow tent, a tent the color of the sun and smelling of flowers. I push my face into the smooth fabric, a hundred times more lovely than any other thing in this house. If a dress like this was not worth taking, how could I have hoped to be?
I look in the drawers and see where she keeps her spare nightgown, and I lie carefully on her bed with my head on her pillow. When I get up, I smooth the covers back in place. I make sure that if she returns she won't know I've been there.
She's moved to a nearby apartment, although to protect herself from my predatory grandmother she never tells us what street she lives on, nor does she give us her phone number. She sees me often, but she comes and goes at her own discretion: she does not want to be summoned by fevers or nightmares or loose teeth. It's the first of my mother's attempts since the divorce to make an independent life for herself, a life that does not seem possible to her unless motherhood is left behind.
My father and I don't exchange letters again until I'm a freshman in college and have, for the first time in my life, an address separate from that of the rest of my family. At school, there's no one other than the postmaster to witness who might send me mail, or how often.
The letters my father writes me are stiff, formal, unimaginative. They betray little of the man himself, but propound tedious theories of education and aesthetics. As with the letters he sent when I was small, their purpose is to instruct. When I read them, standing in the drafty corridor outside my post-office box, I am consumed by frustration. Can anyone really talk and think this way? Is he erudite, or is he what my grandmother would call a "crashing bore"?
Following my father's example, I write careful, pinched responses that require drafts and redrafts, the final copies folded carefully in thirds and sealed in spotless white envelopes.