The sky is awake. I guess it never really sleeps, but this is one of those countless times that I am following its daily routine.
Leaves of all colours – blazing russet, garish gold, violent green and the brittle shades of brown, all gently flutter in the wind, dancing with each other absentmindedly and swirling about so gracefully that it almost makes me oblivious to what’s going on - almost.
They gather like an ebbing tide at the foot of my aging Chucks. Street lamps fade, shrouded by the mist that coils around them like a serpent and slithers through the empty streets, predatorily hunting the night. I sit like a crumpled spider on a dilapidated, forlorn bench that freezes my spine into tiny ice cubes. The gone to rust bars are huge teeth, jutting out in an ugly way.
Frosty air drags across my cheeks that blossom with bruises, setting them on fire and making my nose so cold it would fall off soon, but not that I particularly care and my lack of thought for the type of clothing I’m wearing confirms this. An itchy sweater that used to be my favourite clings to my skin uncomfortably. The sleeves are far too long and contain various cigarette burns in them mostly made by myself and I don’t even remember where the rest came from, probably planted here by the dude that used to own this thing.
My Chucks are drenched from the passing rain, caked with mud and my jeans look like they’ve practically skydived through a cloud.
You could say I like the little joys of life, but really I drown in the swarm of thoughts and memories that I have inside my head. Alright, maybe I do like the small pleasures. I guess I’m an old romantic or whatever you want to call it. I like to think of it as drifting. I tend to do that a lot. One moment I’m here and then I completely tune out of conversations, only to resurge again as if from beneath the ocean, clueless. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not stupid. I guess I just like to keep to myself.
I slurp the dregs of my coffee from a polystyrene cup, closing my eyes in satisfaction and letting the caffeine kick in. It’s pretty much the worst coffee that I’ve ever tasted, but only petrol stations are open at this hour. You might think it’s a bit of a risk for a person who smokes more than a train to drink black coffee like this, but hey, life’s too short to get caught up in these things. I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life – there’s plenty of that already, trust me.
‘Negativity’ is the diplomatic way of putting it.
I pull out squashed tobacco and my packet of Rizlas from the depths of my jacket and then I leisurely start to roll. After rummaging in my pocket, I find a filter and place it on the left hand side of the tobacco and roll it neatly into place. I trail my tongue along the sugary glue and fold it down perfectly. I pat myself down for my Red Clipper lighter – red’s my favourite colour – praying to baby Jesus that I have one. Finally, I fish it out from the back of my soggy jeans. Lighting up the death stick, I take three long drags and exhale with relief, letting the smoke purr inside my lungs.
Don’t go nagging me about my habits either, because I have enough of that too. I’m used to the denunciations of the older generation and like I said, drifting is my method of escape. Every time a mother or some elderly granddad spots me, they eye me up like crazy and shuffle up merely to start futile conversations with me about my age, the health risks, the damage I’m doing, that I should stop and on it goes. Truthfully I don’t care; neither does my family, so they should keep their greasy noses out of my business.
On this bridge my father spoke to me seven years ago and today, I finally get to see him. I’m a bit early, but I couldn’t stand being the house with the woman who doesn’t deserve the title of a mother. A bitter taste fills my mouth and I clench my jaw so tightly that my teeth could shatter as if they were made from glass. I take another long drag from my rollie, crimson hands shaking with frost-bite and my lips chapped. I fiddle with some rock under my feet and then out of impatience, I kick it across the bridge so it catapults into the water with a loud plonk.
“What did that rock ever do to you?” a raucous, tentative voice comes from my left. At first, I think that it’s another man or woman coming to nag me about staying up at this hour or smoking, but when I feel a note of familiarity in it, my heart hiccups.
I blink in a bovine manner, frozen with shock. I really don’t know what is supposed to happen. I had my expectations so ridiculously high up, because for the past month I’ve been replaying this scene in my head. I would imagine how we’d both laugh and cry and share a smoke, but the first thing he does is nag me about some stupid rock; the irony of reality.
I slouch even more, taking a gladiatorial stance to show my indifference to his presence. My face wears a mask of icy dignity and I stare into nowhere, smoke curling around my nose. I don’t want to act like this, I really don’t. I wish I could drop smile at him and forgive him, but my ego is always in control. I don’t even look up to see what he looks like now.
I nod curtly, and with a go-to-hell tone, I acknowledge him, “Father.”
He chuckles nervously, trying to keep a light-hearted air. I feel him plop down on the iced bench beside me, “Don’t be so formal Marc, I’m your dad not your school principal.”
I turn to see his shameless face. He is an aging gargoyle, skeletal and wasted; his face reminds me of cliffs battered by sea waves for thousands of years, his cheeks are robust and his thinning hair is hoary grey. Yet, in the midst of his corroded face, his eyes are so full of a childish hope, a promise waiting to be fulfilled. That blue that I have inherited shines in the mist like two huge gleaming orbs, making him look like a young boy.
“Ah, curse it,” he slaps his knee suddenly, his mighty voice booming, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. You could at least try to pretend in front of me that you don’t smoke, even though you reek a hundred miles away. Is that coffee I smell too?”
I bite down my tongue to stop myself from saying foul things. The silence weighs down on me like a grenade about to detonate. I take another drag form my rollie, seething.
“Well...ah, so how - how are you? Cecilia?” he cracks a smile, painfully plastered there just for me – or for his own encouragement. I take complacency in this remark.
A cruel, shallow laugh escapes me, “Oh, I’m on top of the bloody world, daddy, don’t you worry. Only going up on this rollercoaster with mom and only up,”
He swallows, nonplussed, “Marc, don’t act like this. I don’t remember you being so aggressive. What’s gotten into you? “
I cut him of ruthlessly “I’m so sorry daddy that I disappointed you. Maybe you should have been there to stop me from following your bad habits,” my voice is dripping with acid. I feel a slight sense of guilt rise up, but it’s too small compared to the anger within me. I let myself unconditionally and recklessly derail our reunion. His eyes droop down in embarrassment, glassy and tired. His flaccid hands shake violently by his side, as he swallows with difficulty, searching for the right words to reassure me, to comfort me, but not the truth. It’s never the truth with parents.
“Marc…please - I don’t want out first meeting to go like this. I didn’t have a choice, I –“
“Bullshit! You had a choice, dad! Don’t you lie to me, because if you really loved me, then you would have taken me with you!” I yell at him. Why do I have to be such a pain in the ass? I’ve gone too far and it’s too late to turn around, make things right. He remains motionless, listening painfully to my uninhibited remarks. He sits hunched like some vulture.
I am up on my feet, throwing my cigarette to the ground and rubbing it in with the top of my boot rather viciously. My shouts echo like a gong across the park, bouncing off here and there, letting the wind carry them. I flinch when I replay what I said to him in my mind.
“Marc, sit down and have a bit of patience. Just because I wasn’t there it doesn’t lessen my affection for you, nor does it signal that you can talk to me as if I’m one of your friends or some teacher at school." Ah, the old parental note in the voice. I smile smugly and bask in this moment so that he sees all of my bad traits and qualities, just so he could feel like this was his fault that I’ve turned into what I am. I want him to curl up in remorse and see what a pathetic man I’ve become just like him.
Grudgingly, I fall back down on the bench, using all my force to rattle it. He sighs, looking into his clasped hands, “You’re just a cub. You don’t understand. I left because I had no choice. I couldn’t stay with your mother –“
“She’s not my mother. Don’t call her that.” I hiss, but he raises a hand and stares at me pointedly.
“Let me finish. I couldn’t stay with her, because I loved another woman. I know, it was selfish of me to leave you like that and I can imagine that this isn’t readily forgiven, but Marc, I was dying every day. She had me going up the wall. I had to leave, don’t you see?” he pleads.
I take a deep breath, “Dad, I don’t care about that. So, you fell in love with someone else, you couldn’t help it. But -”I laugh hysterically,” - why the hell did you leave me alone with her? Did you hate me that much?”
He looks at me wildly as if I said the most abominable thing , “Don’t talk about your mother that way. She is after all your family.” He doesn’t like to gossip, my father. He hasn’t changed one bit; always forgiving people for the wrong reasons, ready to compromise and sees the good in the most defiled person. His boundless compassion is a gift that I hadn’t found in any other person and such that I couldn’t acquire myself no matter how hard I tried.
“No,” I snap, bitterness gnawing through my heart, “She’s not. She never was and never will be. Do you know how many times I’ve seen her arrive home late at night, drunk and demand money off me for more drink? Do you call that being a good mother? Did you ever see her boyfriend hit me across the face, while she didn’t care? Well, have you?” I’m talking so fast that it takes me so much more effort to breathe simultaneously. My lungs must be the size of an iota of a grape, because they are on fire and wheezing as if I’m ninety. You’d think that breathing isn’t what they normally do.
Silence descends upon us once again, like a heavy blanket – too heavy. I make myself a very haphazard rollie, shaking with anger and light it up. My hands tremble spastically like a car motor vibrating. My dad sighs deeply and plucks it out of my hand. I begin to protest, but he takes three drags and hands it back to me, “I guess we keep our old habits,” he winks in a half-hearted way, “Tell me, then. What’s wrong, son?”
I flinch at the last word: it’s rareness in my life is laughable.
I stare at him pointedly, “You should have realised by now that you ruined my whole life, not because you left, but because you left without me.” I take another drag. Smoke slithers like a waterfall out of my lips when I speak, “I thought you didn’t want me. I thought you hated me and that I wasn’t good enough for you so that’s why you left me. I had no one to tell me otherwise, except a mother who constantly reminded me that I was also a disappointment to her. Ever since you left, I’ve wanted to find you, but I guess you did a pretty damn good job at staying away.”
I don’t shout, but my voice is lethal enough. It acts as a dagger, jabbing and jabbing away at my dad for all those lost years, useless and wasted. Finally, he understands how hurt I am, but there’s a disadvantage. He starts to think the same thing I realised moments ago: we are strangers. It’s a sad thing for a child and a parent to become, but it’s true. We know nothing of each other. My father has missed out on the most important time in my life and I have missed out on his. There is no way of compensating it.
He covers his face, shaking his head furiously, “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry,” he cries over and over like a chant, rocking back and forth as if in a trance or on the verge of collapse. The words seem aimed at comforting himself more so than to reassure me.
Drizzling rain falls around us and I look up at the sky, his sobs echoing and banging off my heart. A vortex of iron grey clouds chase and hound each other across the titanic canopy of stars. The mist is so thick that we are merely two figures on a bridge, engulfed inside a timeless void of the years that recede back into their shadows, sinister and haunting, until I forget each and every one of them.
I stub out my rollie on the wet railing, blowing out the last of the smoke from my mouth. I place a hand on the shoulder of my father and his head snaps up, tears glistening down his ragged cheeks. I smile at him to let him know that I forgive him and it’s that easy. I feel so overwhelmed with relief that it’s as if I’ve taken a fresh breath of air. He embraces me in a spine-breaking hug so fast that I feel the wind knocked out of my corroded lungs.
“Dad,” I whisper ever so quietly, letting the wind curl the words around its icy tongue and swirl them away beyond the ceaseless barrier of the river. As we sit there together, I can’t help but feel the warmth of his embrace spreading through every part of me, comforting and soothing – something better than tobacco smoke.