Toward Your Better Selves
Joe P. Squance
You are not your father’s daughter. You are not your mother’s either. These are people you barely recognize. These are people you’ve never even met.
Your father is sitting at the dining room table doing your taxes. He has a row of multicolored pills lined up in front of him and every thirty minutes he swallows one with a gulp of iced tea. He is three feet shorter than he was in August, seven months ago, when you declared yourself a failure and moved back in with him and your mother. His hairy arms stretch like honeysuckle vines through the princess sleeves of one of your old t-shirts, and his skin has developed a rosaceous purple stain where his beard used to grow.
Your mother is in the kitchen slicing vegetables and looking unhappy. She wipes sweat from her forehead with the handle of her knife and exhales dramatically so that the two of you will look up and acknowledge her, which you do. Your father smiles and returns to his work, looking down his nose through his bifocals at one of the forms you have filled halfway out. His hair is in pigtails and he looks absurd.
He is transitioning. He told you this as you arrived with all of your stuff, standing in the driveway, holding a box filled with your stupid, worthless movies and CDs. “You’re what? You’re doing what?”
“Transitioning,” he said again. He was smiling very broadly. He had already lost four inches of height, he said. He was wearing rainbow tights and a long cable-knit sweater. He performed a small curtsy. You shifted the box in your arms and looked around to see who might be watching.
“Transitioning to what?” you asked.
Your mother hadn’t mentioned it. She doesn’t talk much about it. She is undergoing her own transformation into someone who is pious: she attends mass three times a week; she speaks very little and mostly just scowls and sighs; she has forsworn makeup, music, and flavorful food. These last things she describes as a form of humble living, but you feel pretty sure they’re meant more as a form of punishment for your father and the bewildering choices he has made. She refuses to leave him, says that it goes against her faith. Your father, for his part, says he is still very much in love.
“Christine,” he says to you. “What on Earth have you done here?” He’s holding a pen that’s filled with some kind of gelatinous fluid and a cloud of glitter, and he scratches his mustache with it. You asked him once, early on, why he kept it—the mustache. Because, he’d said, he self-identifies as a person with a mustache. Your mother, who had been silently knitting, got up and left the room and thirty seconds later vomited robustly in the hallway bathroom.
Your father has been rummaging through some of the old clothes you had worn as a teenager, these clothes that hang in your closet and lay folded in your dresser drawers, and that seem to belong to some other person. When you’re bored—which is often, and right now—you pull a shirt off of its hanger, shake the dust out of it, and hold it up to your body. You smell it, hoping something will be released from the loose molecules of the fabric—the smell of a stolen cigarette, maybe, smoked in an open convertible on the last day of school, or the faint trace of Dr. Pepper, or the chalky smell of Wild Berry incense rubbed into your back by Danny Bloom’s bedroom carpet. You want very badly to smell something, for that something to trigger a meaningful sense memory, for that memory to send you reeling, but all you ever smell is a shirt that hasn’t been worn for many years—a betrayal every time. You put all of your shirts in a garbage bag and put the garbage bag outside of the room that your parents still share. The door is closed. Something is going on in there that sounds a lot like sex and you do not know how to feel.
That night you go to Muchos Nachos for margaritas with Brenda, your friend from high school. At eight o’clock the place is abuzz with chubbier versions of people you used to know and dislike and have already learned to avoid. Brenda’s late and you finish a plate of sopapillas by yourself, but she finally arrives looking motherly and smelling like raspberry potpourri and she gets efficiently drunk on a single margarita. The two of you do a shot of straight tequila and then another and then order beers and all of it—the booze, the stink of Mexican restaurant, the puffy faces in the stygian lights—swirls around inside of you like bullion and poison in a witch’s cauldron and you feel absolutely wonderful. Brenda is talking and talking but all you can think about is her shirt, her slacks, her flats, her miniature button-down sweater. How coordinated. How well thought out. And then it’s time for her to leave you and she does. It’s nine thirty-three.
The following night, after dinner, you leave your father with your taxes at the dining room table and go with your mother to her church service. Your father has plenty to sort out, and he reminds you of it regularly. You’ve not had a very good year; it shames you to watch him pick through the wreckage.
Your mother has grown quieter than you remember her being, but in the car she comes alive. She asks you harmless questions that you don’t mind answering. She turns on the radio for you and fiddles constantly with the volume. Her smiles are tight but, you think, genuine.
The service is sparsely attended—it’s Wednesday night. You see no one that you recognize. There’s no Latin, no communion. You expect your mother to put on a dramatic performance but she simply sits and listens. She tilts her head one way and then the other. When the service is over she wipes her hands on her pants and asks if you’re ready to go.
Afterwards, the two of you go for ice cream. You share a hot caramel sundae. You expect now to be the time when things are made clear, when your mother explains to you everything you’ve been wanting to understand, and not about her either, not about your father and his weird personal crisis, but about you, and about where things went wrong, and what her expectations are for you and all the ways in which you’ve upended them and disappointed her, and you expect her to tell you how sad she is, how utterly alone she’s been in all of this, how abandoned she feels, how hurt, but instead she licks clean her plastic spoon and she taps it on her front tooth and she sets it down on her napkin and she doesn’t say a word.
You wake up in the morning and it’s ten forty-five. The house around you operates like a silent machine. You lie in your bed with your hand over your eyes and in the precious seconds that it takes for your dreaminess to burn away you let yourself believe that things are going to change today, and you let yourself resolve to become your better self, and then you watch it all dissolve into the heat and light of the inevitable day.
Your father is still at it at the dining room table with your taxes and his pills. He’s wearing some kind of bathing suit and dangling his bare legs above the floor. Your mother is making lunch and talking silently to nobody. You sit across the table from your father, wearing a pair of his old pajama bottoms and a concert t-shirt from a band called Poco that you’ve never heard him listening to. He looks at you as if he’s trying to figure out how the two of you know each other, and then goes back to his work. Your mother butters bread aggressively. Outside, it’s the first really beautiful day of the year.
“I’ve nearly got you straightened out,” your father says to you now. He’s got all of your papers organized into tidy piles.
Your mother sets down two plates of grilled cheese sandwiches and potato chips and then sits down at the table with a selection of raw vegetables, which she eats joylessly. The sandwiches have been halved into triangles; your father eats one in a single bite and makes a big show of his chewing. He stuffs a pill into the other half and down it goes. He does not touch the chips. “Thank you, Smooches,” he says to your mother. She closes her eyes and takes a cleansing breath in through her nose before standing up and leaving the room. You wonder what kind of penance she subjects herself to behind closed doors, and if that’s the sound you heard coming from her bedroom the other night. You wonder if it’s genuine. You wonder if it helps.
Your father is finished. He takes off his reading glasses and you get a good look at his rheumy eyes. He taps your papers into order and shows you where to sign and slides it all towards you and then he is gone. From somewhere deep in the house you can hear him whistling. You start to flip through your tax forms but quickly realize that it’s not really something that you feel like doing. You don’t know what you feel like doing. You don’t feel like doing anything. Your father has left one pill in his place; you pick it up and swallow it.
Through the window in the dining room, you see him outside. He drags a sprinkler into the middle of your yard and turns it on and you see how tiny he has become. You recognize his swimsuit as one you wore when you were nine or ten—a red one-piece with pink dots and a ruffled collar. It fits him perfectly. He walks in a circle around the sprinkler and then takes a running jump and bursts through the spray. His skin is golden in the sunshine. He looks positively radiant.
About the Author: Joe P. Squance is a writer, editor, and teacher in Oxford, Ohio. He is the recipient of a 2016 Award for Individual Excellence from the Ohio Arts Council. His stories have appeared in Everyday Fiction, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Axolotl, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon, Runner's World Online, Organic Life Magazine, Serious Eats, and The RS 500. Find him on Twitter.