My first ever memory is lying in bed with my mother on a winter morning. She’s trying to get back to sleep but I’m wiggling around her, holding my stretched palm an inch above her nose and mouth, to make sure she’s breathing. I’m at an age when their death is a constant worry. I beg for hours, late into the night, to be allowed out of my cot and into the grownup bed, where I then restlessly spend the night alternatively pinching them to check that they’re still alive.
On the morning in question, my mother’s breathing is regular, abnormally hot in the barely heated bedroom. The widows have frozen overnight, and filter the morning light into a milky mass the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before. I must be around four. There’s a poster on the wall opposite the bed, a blonde blue eyed toddler reaching for the hand of an invisible grownup. My eyes are neither green nor brown. They’re nothing like my mother’s or my father’s, in fact, which is probably why random grownups sometimes stoop to my level to ask, in squeaky voices they never use among themselves: “Whose baby girl are you, huh?”
Somewhere deep in the heart of the apartment, my father is getting ready for work. Drawers open and shut, water flows down the drain towards the river and that lovely, magical place where all sick goldfish go to get better. I listen to the sounds of his morning rituals, finding comfort in the fact that he’s alive too, well enough to slam doors and clink spoons in coffee cups, and that I’m not alone in the world like that poor blonde poster child.
He walks in and kisses us goodbye. His lips make brief, soundless contact with the top of her sleepy head, then loudly smooch my eyebrow, the tip of my nose and my bandaid wrapped pinky finger. He smells like something, something other than the smells I’m used to, and I breathe it all in and file it somewhere in the spacious place my memory still is back then, to bring back and inhale at a later time, voluntarily or less so, with joy or sorrow.
“Ciao”, he says, and I realise I’ve never heard the word before, that it might just be another name they’ve got for me, they always seem to be calling me something new, baby, bear, dumpling, pumpkin and another million snacks I can’t possibly keep track of.
“Ciao”, I say back for some reason, and he leaves soundlessly shutting the door behind him, while I whisper a short prayer to myself that he doesn’t die in a car crash on his way to and from the office.
My father and I never really talked. He never knew my friends’ names or my favourite ice cream flavour. He never took me camping, never told me stories of his childhood, never said anything of his dreams for me. He worked long hours, seven days a week, ever since I can remember, and ever since I can remember I’ve been praying for his safe return at night, exhausted and not really in the mood to hear about my day, but there, close enough to hold on to if I lost my balance.
He drove me and a classmate to a Cambridge exam once, and when we got back from the four hours long road trip, after we’d dropped my friend off and it was just the two of us in the car, he looked at me gravely in the rear view mirror and said:
– You laugh a lot.
– I’m happy, I guess.
– Sometimes happy is not the safest thing to be.
I was sixteen, there was nothing in the world I was afraid of. Except for my father.
He turned me into this independent, somewhat on the manly side, guy magnet. I can talk boxing, football, handball, tennis, Formula 1, I know how to paint a ceiling, use a fire extinguisher and dress a wound. The day I was born, he planted an apple tree in my grandparents’ yard, then another one a couple of years later on my sister’s birthday, and every year since we’ve been picking the apples together, loading them into his truck and lining them on wooden, dusty shelves in our cellar, an inch in between unlike the pile of random apples you see in supermarkets, because, he says, those people know absolutely nothing about proper fruit care.
When I decided I’d be moving to London, we had our one and only fight, a terrible affair we’ve yet to recover from.
We seldom really talked before, but after that we stopped talking altogether, and every time we met we ended up slamming doors, fists against table tops and words to be later regretted into each other’s chests.
He retired this year and spends most of his time at home these days, painting and repainting ceilings and fences, planting and replanting trees and hedges. I can’t help feeling relieved. He’s safe. Thirty years of secret prayers have kept him far from danger, and I’ve still got a father to lean on, even if it takes me half a day to get to him these days, and he never says I laugh too much anymore.
It was his birthday this week.
I’d been worrying about the phone call for days in advance, rehearsing three or four safe phrases in my mind, imagining that infinite moment when neither of us had anything else to say, and we’d just wait for a saving something, a natural disaster of biblical proportions to erase everything in sight and deliver us from discomfort. And then I called.
He was rebuilding our back yard fence. We talked about Belgium vs United States, about how this World Cup is so unlike the ones before it. About our young girl who’d made it into the Wimbledon semifinals, and how she for some reason reminded him of me. He was worried I worked too much, worried too much, while I should just try and be happy, and I laughed, thinking about how happy had suddenly become, fifteen more years into our life together, the safest thing to be.
I put down the phone and stood for a while in the middle of the hallway, no stable furniture to lean on. There was dust in the air. Stupid filthy city, I’d only just dusted yesterday. Stupid filthy humans, shedding skin flakes everywhere for the rest of us to breathe in. Nothing really leaves your lungs, you know. You end up carrying it all around, dirt, other people’s skin cells, smoke, everywhere, until you die.
I coughed. Up until recently, they were my favourite thing in the world, coughs. I’d hide everything behind a cough. Anger, embarrassment, tears. Everything used to tear me up, it must have been hormonal or something. My baby making imprinted body trying to make its baby making cravings heard. Could I have involuntarily coughed my way out of it, the baby making dream, I wonder. Because nowadays I rarely ever shed a tear.
Instead, I just laugh a little sometimes, when no one’s looking. I love my father. I understand love.