PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
It was Christmas Day, so the streets were empty, save for the homeless. I’ve heard that the homeless population in Portland is pretty tremendous. I don’t know. Maybe I’m thinking about Seattle. I don’t think about Portland too much, anymore.
I lived there so briefly, that I hesitate to say “I lived there.” I was using up all my accumulated vacation time from work, so maybe it was more of a long vacation, but without the hotels and sunscreen. Maybe it was more like a long, long dream.
Rosa and I started at the Pearl District, where my dad’s apartment was. He didn’t know it was Christmas, or if he did, he didn’t care anymore. When do we stop caring about Christmas? I don’t think it’s when we stop believing in Santa Claus, but I think it comes soon after that. Or maybe we stop caring every year, right as we open the very last present and realize it’s all over.
There were no presents that year. It wasn’t like my dad could get up and go to the mall to buy anything. Rosa suggested that she do the shopping for him. She thought it would be “healthy” to spend one last Christmas together. It’s the exact word she used. Healthy. She’s Spanish Catholic, and I think Christmas is still really important to her. I told her no, that whatever I gave him would eventually end up in a Goodwill or in the back of my car, where I was keeping all the boxes of his stuff. I never drove the car anywhere during that time, even though I had paid a guy too much money to take it up to Portland for me. It just sat on the curb, the windows obscured by cardboard labeled “SHIRTS”, “SILVERWARE”, “PHOTO ALBUMS.” All the forgotten facets of a person’s life.
I began packing as soon as I arrived in Portland. By Christmas, he was living only with the essentials, the way maids in the spare room do. Ironically, Rosa, who was living there, had more stuff than he did. I think he had a bed, a calendar, a few pairs of pajamas, and his medicine. We threw that out eventually, too.
So he was sleeping when Rosa and I put on our peacoats and crept out the door. We walked, and I asked her how her family was back in Spain, and she said that they lived in Toronto. We didn’t talk about my dad. I let her describe the flan she would normally make on Christmas Eve, and she said that maybe she would try and make one, but she never did, she didn’t have time, or she forgot.
We walked all the way to where the Willamette River meets downtown. There were a few other people out by this time, and two old ladies thought I was a man and told me I was very handsome. Neither of us corrected them.
Slowly, as we continued, I began to see myself more and more as a young man. My legs grew longer with each step. My hair was tied up, and I imagined that it was cropped at that same length. The flannel shirt I was wearing under my coat already felt masculine to me. I looked over to Rosa, and she became my friend, my girlfriend, my wife, anything but my father’s nurse, which was too complicated of a relationship to explain to anyone on the street.
Whenever we passed anyone after that, I knew that they too would mistake me for a man. I was a man. I looked at my reflection in shop windows and saw my gait had changed, had grown sturdier, less anxious. I dug my hands into my pockets the way men do.
We hit the boardwalk. All the boats were docked for the winter, bobbing up and down. The wind had grown sharp; with each gust it felt like needles were driving into my skin. It’s OK, I told myself, You can take this. You are a man now.
I looked out over the horizon at the steel bridge that leads to the airport, and wondered when I would be going across that bridge again.
Underneath us, the water lapped lightly at the wooden piers. I walked to the edge. I noticed it quickly after that, the way your eyes will always latch onto things that are terribly, terribly wrong. It was a dead gray shark, lying belly-up, hitting the wood and sloshing around in the water. It was about the size of a puppy. I pointed it out to Rosa.
“Of course it died. This is freshwater. Sharks aren’t meant for freshwater.”
I looked at the shark again and suddenly felt blue.
I asked, “How did it get out here?”
There are certain things I always think of when I’m trying to make myself cry. Crying doesn’t come easy to me, the way it does to babies or to people who have lived fervently.
The shark is one of them. But I didn’t cry in the moment. What I felt were the beginnings of crying: the tightness in the throat, the overwhelming feeling that everything carries meaning and that meaning is always lonely. But it passed without incident.
I also think of being twelve years old and walking with my father. I remember that I was twelve because it was a few days after my twelfth birthday, which I had spent at my mom’s house. I remember him taking me to the grocery store, and passing the bakery in the back with the cheap, frosted cakes, and he didn’t look at them at all. We walked home with our grocery bags. He dug a penny out of his pocket, an actual penny and said, “Penny for your thoughts?” He didn’t say it in a funny way, he said it like he actually wanted to know what was inside of me. And I said no.
He appeared confused at first, because it technically wasn’t a logical reply to his question. But I shook my head for emphasis, as if I contained something utterly precious, and he slipped the penny back into his pocket.
I decided I was going to dismiss Rosa about a week after Christmas.
I did it in the evening. I had planned this specifically so she could pack that night and move out the next day. When I entered her room, she had this white cream smeared all over her face, and she looked up from the bed, surprised. I never went into her room.
“Sorry,” I said, even though I hadn’t barged in on her doing something embarrassing. There was something intimate about seeing someone taking care of themselves.
She didn’t say anything.
“Look, I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. For us.” I looked to the bedside table, which had a flickering candle on it. I realized she was clutching something in her hand. “Sorry,” I repeated.
“I was praying,” she clarified.
“Yeah. I can come back later. Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine.” She put down what I now saw was a rosary and shook her hair out a little.
“OK. Um. So you’ve been great. With taking care of him, I mean.” There was a dinner plate peeking out from underneath her pillow. It gleamed in the candlelight. “Uh. I just think that, maybe we don’t need you anymore.”
Her eyes followed mine to the plate, which I was still looking at. I hadn’t fired her, I had fired the plate. “Hmm…” she hummed, looking back up at me.
“It’s just. I mean. As you know, he’s not doing great.”
“So you think,” she began, her accent sounding thicker than normal for some reason. She spoke slowly and seriously, as if I was the foreigner. “You think that you can take care of him?”
I wanted her to leave very badly at that moment. Or maybe I wanted her to stay and I wanted to pull her hair, or hit her. I had never been in a fight before and I realized then how disappointing that was. Sometimes I had dreams in which I tried to fight people, but whenever I would draw my arm back, it would move slowly, as if trapped in tar. When my hand connected, it felt so weak, like an infant’s. It would probably be the same in real life. I’m not very strong.
“I think you should leave.”
“Your father is very sick-”
“Yeah. I know.”
She didn’t move, understanding.
In the end, he left before the doctor came to administer the shot. I was avoiding him all that day, keeping myself in the kitchen or the hallway.
I confess that I wasn’t in the room when he died. When he took and gave his last breath, I mean. The process of dying has always confused me. I mean, he was dying all those weeks. That’s what I told people when they asked. But the reality is, it can happen in the span of time it takes to boil a kettle of water.
I hope he made a big show of it, though he probably didn’t. If he had, I probably would have heard.
I imagine that he knew, like all animals do. I imagine he tried to bring the blanket closer to himself but his hands could not obey him anymore. Then he began to dream. In this dream, he raises his head (only not really because nothing works anymore) to the sky he hasn’t seen in weeks. His last thought is nothing profound, nothing about me or anyone else. He thinks about how the paint on the ceiling is almost completely chipped away.
I often dream of my father.
In the dreams I never forget he is dead, but he is there nonetheless. He always seems unaware of the fact that he has left. I will be washing dishes and he will walk into the kitchen. I’ll see him on the train. He keeps on coming back to life.
In one of the dreams, he and I are sitting on opposite ends of a very long dining table. He feels far away but I can still see his old, round face staring back at me. When I recognize it as his, I know it is a dream, and that he will die all over again.
He opens his hand and there is something inside but I can not see what. He flicks it onto the table, in the middle. The penny spins, a blur of copper. It doesn’t stop spinning. It makes the warbling sound of metal against wood and goes around and around again, never collapsing on any one side.
I begin to cry; with each warble comes the unanswered question. Penny for your thoughts? Penny for your thoughts?
His face crinkles with guilt and the table sinks down through the floor, my father sinking with it.