Johannes Lichtman‘s writing has been published by The Oxford American, American Short Fiction, The Rumpus, The Millions, HTMLGIANT, and others. He teaches courses on artistic appropriation and experimental literature at UNC-Wilmington, blogs about books at Bling Theory, and tweets at @JLThePlagiarist.
Like a Couch
Prologue: My father calls to tell me he’s learning how to parent.
“You’re having a kid?” I ask.
“I already have a kid,” he says.
“Since you were born.”
“But I’m twenty-three.”
“Well I’m not learning to parent you.”
“Who are you learning to parent?”
He sighs. “I’m not technically learning how to parent anyone. I’m going to write a book on parenting.”
Monday: My father wants me to fly out to L.A. to work on the book with him. This is a terrible idea, but since he asked me when my brain was all tangled up in Vicodin, I am now sitting on an airplane bound for LAX. The plane lurches for the dozenth time since takeoff and I let out an involuntary gasp. I alternate between wishing I was back in Austin and wishing not to die in a fiery heap. (In my imagination, the plane would somehow hit the ground without my losing consciousness, but then catch on fire, leaving me helplessly struggling against the ten-thousand-degree skin-cauterizing metal latch of the emergency door. Thus, fiery heap.)
By the time we land, I feel dried out and slow. My father is waiting for me at the arrivals. He watches me come down the escalator, hugs me, looks up at my tallness—unchanged since he last saw me—lets out a whoop!, and calls me Big Guy. He takes my suitcase off the carousel.
On the car ride home I feel groggy and cold and kind of hummy, like I’m in a giant air-conditioner. My father tells me that he has recently given the Obama campaign ten thousand dollars, and he expresses disappointment that they have, as of yet, not responded to the campaign-management-strategy-plan he e-mailed them.
“I could help them,” he says, “if they would just get their heads out of their asses and let me.”
Thirty minutes later we swirl up Mulholland onto narrow, tree-shaded streets. My father shows me his new house: two bedrooms with a rooftop deck looking out over West Hollywood. It’s nothing like a house he would design—no spiraling curves, no walls of glass. Maybe that’s the point. Last year his partners bought him out; now he’s professionally retired.
He leads me up the stairs to the deck, putting first one foot then the other on each step. We reach the top and he opens his arms to the city.
“Eh?” he says, panting a little.
“Nice,” I say.
We sit down at a square wooden table, and I ask him what he’s been up to these days. He says he’s been studying. He tells me you can stave off Alzheimer’s by constantly learning new things. He says it’s when you stop learning that your neurons die, and when your neurons die, you begin to forget.
“I’m sixty-seven, and I’m learning new things every day,” he says.
“Smartass.” He reaches over and pokes me in the side with one of his massive fingers. He’s short and bald, but has these saltshaker fingers that are perfect for sharp jabs. He used to tickle me with them when I was little and it hurt like a motherfucker.
He explains that it’s the learning-new-things-to-prevent-Alzheimer’s theory that led him to the idea of writing a parenting book. He’s already bought a dozen books for research, trolled parenting message boards in search of common problems, and reviewed family photo albums and old Christmas videotapes. He’s compiling notes.
Twelve years ago, I thought my father was getting Alzheimer’s. He would forget simple things—when he was supposed to pick me up from school, what movies we had seen together, what number came after the six on his license plate. So he got a brain scan. Nothing wrong. He went to a shrink. Nothing wrong. Finally, he saw an acupuncturist. An old Chinese man filled him with sticks, and then he remembered again. The acupuncturist also fixed my father’s tennis elbow, which was strange—not that he fixed it, but that my father had tennis elbow—since my father had never once in his life played tennis.
Even since then, my father and I tend to remember things differently. Occasionally this feels alienating and infuriating. Most of the time I just tell myself he has Alzheimer’s.
At about eight in the evening I stretch my arms over my head, yawn, thank my father for dinner, blame the jetlag, retreat to the guestroom, fish a couple Vicodin out of my bag, and fall onto the bed. A big, white square of softness. Soon I feel sort of floaty, and I think about gravity and its relevance, or lack thereof. Gravity. Gra-vi-ty. I repeat the word aloud until it becomes its own artifice, a series of sounds without meaning.
Tuesday: I wake up around noon feeling supercharged. I think about the things I’m going to do: the degree I’m going to finish, the job I’m going to get, the new girlfriend I’m going to meet. I stare at the ceiling and take joy in the sight. I get out of bed and all the joy spills out. I hate my feet. I hate the floor.
My father makes us corned beef sandwiches for lunch.
“It’s great to have you here,” he says, and it feels like he means it.
I would love nothing more than to return to bed, pop some Vicodin and sleep forever, but my dealer was almost dry before I left, so I have to ration my high over the course of the week. I do want to help my father; if only I could forget about the absurdity of his project for long enough to do so.
I take a breath and ask him what he’s learned about parenting so far. He chews his sandwich while balancing a toothpick between his teeth, a feat that never fails to impress me.
He says, “When the kids are little, you have to look them in the eye.”
“Look them in the eye?”
“Yeah. So they understand that you’re talking to them, not down at them.”
“That’s what you’ve learned so far? Look your kid in the eye?”
“If only we knew sooner.”
At night I take a few more pills and think about how, if I had hands like giant couch cushions, I could lift my father up and look him in the eye when I talked to him. He would rest in the cushiony meat of my palms, and he would understand that I wasn’t talking down to him—even if I was. At least he would be comfortable.
He hasn’t asked me about Lena, which I find a little strange. He called me right afterwards, when I was quite high, and I told him that my girlfriend had been in a car crash and was now dead.
“What happened?” he said.
I hung up, not knowing how to explain it any more clearly.
Wednesday: “When a baby cries, it’s not always because he’s sad,” my dad tells me. We’re sitting on his porch drinking wine, looking out at the diaphanous smog that covers West Hollywood. “It’s just his only way of communicating.”
He shrugs. “Important.” The wrinkles on his face empty into his eyes.
“I would think the child is communicating sadness sometimes.”
“Maybe,” he says. “You cried a lot as a child.”
“How would you know?” I ask.
“I was there.”
Crying is supposed to be cathartic, but I think it may just be self-indulgent and destructive. It can’t be healthy to break down. You never say, I’m glad my car broke down. He feels a lot better now.
I read this article about crying that said most studies about the healing powers of crying can’t be trusted because they reflect what people remember about their crying spells, rather than what they experience as they cry. Of course people will sometimes feel better after crying, just as they feel better after vomiting from drinking too much, but that doesn’t necessarily make the crying, or the puking, healthy. I don’t cry much. When I do, it’s about things that didn’t actually happen. I imagine the death of my parents so I can be sad about a canceled dinner or an unreturned phone call.
Thursday: “What would you say is the most vivid memory of your childhood?” my dad says. We’re on the deck, eating a dinner of sweet potatoes and steak. A yellow legal pad sits next to his plate.
“What did you want to be when you were a kid?” I ask.
“Big,” he says. He chews his food with one side of his mouth, a toothpick with the other.
“You know”—he looks up—“I guess I just wanted to be right.”
His toothpick falls out. He sweeps it off the table. I pretend not to notice.
“Did you ever want to be a parent?”
“Of course I did,” he says. “Are you kidding? You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It’s nice to hear.
“Remember that time you asked me if you were going to be big?” he says.
“You must have been ten or eleven. You said, Dad, am I ever going to be big? And I said, Sure, Metts. Of course you’ll be big.” He laughs. “I had no idea. You could have ended up short like me. But what was I supposed to say?”
I don’t remember my father telling me I was going to be big when I was eleven. I don’t remember him telling me much of anything, except that we were going to end up on the street and there was nothing we could do to stop it. I remember his firm going under following the death of his business partner. I remember how he totally failed to understand that I didn’t care about his money—if he could buy me clothes or baseball cards—but that I was absolutely terrified of the person he turned into when he didn’t have money. It was as if he thought everybody was going to leave him, so he had better alienate them first. If I told him he had made a great dinner, he said he wasn’t really concerned with things like that at the moment. If I said I’d gotten an A on a test, he would sigh and say it was nice that at least someone was succeeding.
Around the time the money disappeared, my mother started having terrible back pain and headaches. She staggered around the house in a bathrobe with a cold cloth on her forehead, slowly scanning the room before deciding where to sit as if navigating a dream. She started seeing her chiropractor every day. Then she moved to France with her chiropractor.
One night I pretended to sleep while he stole a box of baseball cards off my dresser. (But he had bought them for me in the first place, so it wasn’t really stealing.) I figured out the next morning that the cards were worth a little over two thousand dollars if you went by the Beckett—maybe half that if you sold them to the local shop. A couple days later my dad asked me where my baseball cards were, and when I told him I couldn’t find them, he yelled at me for losing something so expensive.
Friday: “So what do you do during the day?” my dad asks me over breakfast.
I think for a moment. “I read a lot, I guess. A lot of reading for school,” I say, though I stopped going to class a few months ago. “I work a lot at the restaurant. I’m waiting tables now—”
“I was just wondering,” he says. “I realized I don’t know what it’s like to be you at all.”
“No one does,” I say. I hope he’ll ask me what I mean, and I’ll tell him that this is not a self-indulgent statement about how misunderstood I am, but rather the saddest fact of life: that we’re completely incapable of understanding what it’s like to be another person. My father, miraculously, will agree—will nod and say, Yes, that’s what I’ve thought for years but I’ve never been able to articulate it. I’ll be so excited that I won’t realize until later that in these moments he and I have begun to understand one another, and that my whole theory about loneliness is wrong, because he and I actually get each other, and have been totally connected this whole time without realizing it. My dad will see the irony right off the bat because he’s so fucking smart, but he won’t say anything about it, because he doesn’t want to ruin the moment. At that moment, being together will be more important than being smart.
“Metts,” he says. He looks me in the eye. “Would you characterize your childhood as more structured or free?”
That night I make dinner—mac and cheese with ham and tomatoes. My father and I sit at the table, lay paper towels on our laps.
“Dig in,” I say.
“Shouldn’t we wait for your mother?” my dad says.
I laugh. I grab my fork and aim it at the bowl. But he’s not moving.
“No, you’re right,” he says. “She’s probably fucking with her hair again. What’s the point of spending half an hour in front of the mirror to get ready for the people you see every goddamned day?”
I take a bite and nod. It takes all of two seconds to realize that this feeling, this tangible pain I’ve been seeking for as long as I can remember, is not nearly as great as I expected.
Lena visits me in bed that night. I ask her why she left, but she doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants to get coffee. It’s hot and dry and still, the way Texas gets in July, and we gaze out on South Congress, letting the sun open our pores. She tells me that the novel, as a form, is useless.
“It’s too concerned with plot and with making the reader feel comfortable to reflect life in any meaningful way.”
I reach out to touch her, but she pulls away.
“Life isn’t plotted,” she says. “It’s episodic. One event doesn’t lead to the next. It just happens. It’s disjointed and unexpected and terrifying and beautiful.”
All I can think about is how the sweat peeks out between her nose and eyes in perfectly round droplets, like sequins across her skin.
Saturday: I’m out of pills, which is impossible.
“Something is off,” I say to my father. “Something is wrong.”
He turns off the sink, stops doing the dishes. “What’s wrong?”
I lean back and a hard surface catches me. The cabinet. “I don’t know, but it’s wrong. Nothing is real,” I say.
He reaches over and squeezes my arm. “Feels real to me.”
I lie in bed, feeling an intense disconnection from my body. I want to be further away from myself. I don’t want there to be a difference between emotional truth and physical reality; but I know that there is a difference. Even if I imagined Lena’s death vividly, that doesn’t mean her physical body died in a car crash. It doesn’t mean that she didn’t arrive at her destination, that she didn’t just leave me. She’s still alive somewhere: drinking PBRs in Brooklyn, hanging flannels on a clothesline in Nebraska, fucking some hipster in Nashville. Part of me wants her dead; part of me wants her to live forever, just in case.
Sunday: This morning, desperate for relief, I search the house for painkillers. I quietly open drawers and cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms, but find nothing. I retreat to the guest bathroom, dejected, ready to give up and take a shower. There I find a bottle of codeine syrup with my father’s name on it. It’s just sitting on the counter.
So he knows. For a moment I’m ashamed at my transparency. But then I’m just happy.
It’s evening, and I’m on the deck, drinking wine, letting the warm breeze fill me. I like how the syrup itself feels exactly like the feeling it gives you: thick and warm. My father walks out of the house.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” he says.
“You should make your children understand that you care about their lives.”
I imagine him taking out a notepad to help me sketch a life plan, like he did when I was eighteen and couldn’t pick a major. What do you want to be? Think about the times when you’re happiest—what were you doing?
“What?” I ask.
“You should make your kids understand”—he takes a seat—“that you care about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, and what they’re dreaming of. And you should make them understand that you support them.”
“Are you, you know—is that going in the book?”
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Okay.” I want to give him something for the book.
“It’s a shame you never got to meet your grandfather,” he says.
“Why? You hated him.”
“I didn’t hate him.”
“You’ve told me on numerous occasions that you hated him.”
“Well. Maybe. You and he are similar in some ways. It might have been instructive.”
My father inhales, gathering fuel for his words. “He internalized things, like you. Whenever you talked to him you got the impression he was having a much deeper conversation in his head than he was with you. He was a morphine addict. Occupational hazard. Treat patients all day every day, you have to find some way to cope. But he was very dedicated to his work. He loved it. And I think you’ll be dedicated to your work, too. I know you will, once you find it.” He pauses. “What do you want to be?”
I’m still trying to swallow the morphine addict part. “Like in life?”
“Yes. Like in life.”
I tap my toe on the deck. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to be. It’s a hard question.”
“It’s an important question.”
I look out at the view. There’s a thin white haze floating over the city. LA looks stoned. “Maybe a couch,” I say.
He nods, as if this makes sense. “May I ask what happened to that girl you were seeing?” He’s staring at me. His eyes are slow and intense.
“You know. The girl you were seeing.”
I take a drink. “Lena.”
“That’s right. I’m so bad with names.”
“I told you what happened.”
“Yeah. I told you.”
He scratches his chin. He swallows. “Do you want to tell me again?”
I run my finger along the rim of the glass. I want to throw the glass, but I don’t. “She left.”
My father exhales through his nose, then shakes his head. He scratches his face loudly and looks up. “That’s rough, Metts.” He stops. “But I say good riddance. You’re a catch. A real catch. You were too good for her anyway.”
I nod. I want to say, How would you know? I want to scream that he never even met her. I want to explain that there is no one too good for her.
“Thanks,” I say.
I clench my jaw and breathe. My father glances at me, then back out at the city. He leans back, sighs, and thinks about what he has learned today.