A Spiderweb Look

It hadn’t always been that way with her father, Caroline thought, lying back on her single bed, its wooden headboard pushed against the wall. A windowless room, no shadows to speak of. An ache at the corner of her mouth. She’d spread each page of Rachmaninoff’s preludes over the sheets. Learning by osmosis, her first music teacher, Miss Finn, had called it. Years later, when she was too tired or wound to read music, that’s what she did. A whirling mind. A mouth full of hunger, an acid reek. The pages snapped under her head, small pale flags.

It hadn’t always been this way. She swiveled, crackling pages under her hair, and remembered those years of her childhood, years her father had given her everything she’d dreamed of, and more: toy ponies at her birthday, pink and orange plastic, with braidable hair. Cotton candy at the Coney Island fair, wet licks of sugar that dropped into the back of her throat, then disappeared. Even trips to Fire Island, to watch the crash of sunset waves and the old men digging for coins and the teenagers tossing Frisbees, bodies fresh and terribly muscular. He had given them everything a child could desire, every bright thing a child could name, and back then, she had called those bright things love.

Motherless, she and Gail could have been seen as forlorn, pathetic even. One afternoon, in the early years, she’d heard their teachers whispering in the lunchroom, as she sat with her sandwich—limp lettuce and ham—that their father was doing his best, but it’s hard, you know. It was hard: she’d never thought of it that way. Hard to raise them. And yet he’d done his best, or at least had tried. Nights, he’d stayed up till nine doing crossword puzzles, joking at Gail’s attempts to do them diagonally. Each Sunday afternoon, he’d taken them to concerts, and giggled when Caroline had leaned back in her hardback seat, awed, and said the music was stunning. The concert hadn’t started, he’d said: that sound was of violins being tuned. One night, during a bad storm, he’d brought them into the basement, packed with cardboard boxes and old bicycles, and called the thunder a gentle monster. Lightning had hit so close, the boxes had illuminated, and she’d startled, terrified that the monster had set them on fire. And even then, her father had taken her arm gently and told her not to worry. Nothing to fear.

And yet, even in those early years, their lives had started to sour. Nothing major at first: only one evening, after her tenth birthday, once the daylight hours had thinned, her father had shut the curtains early, with a pull of his wrist, then tied the cord to the frame. We don’t need anyone seeing in, he’d said, in a way that had struck her as careful, overprotective, but nothing more. By her next birthday, he’d started to soundproof their apartment, he said because the girls were practicing piano, and he didn’t want the neighbors to be annoyed. We don’t want anyone earing, he’d said, one night over dinner. They spoke more softly after that. Caroline imagined their voices like ghost-birds, floating through walls. Soon, workers arrived to strip the walls, cover them with pink sheetrock, then repaint. The effect was of the same room, only smaller. Because no real damage had been done, and because Caroline did play with fervor—Miss Finn’s words—and neighbors could be difficult—she hadn’t complained.

And yet, he’d taken them to school every day exactly on time, and combed their hair, and had chaperoned their field trips to the New York Public Library and the Bronx Zoo, one of the only fathers, and wore his pinstripe suit and silver cufflinks and laughed as he sat beside them on the bus, playing word games as they tunneled up the Cross Bronx Expressway. When Caroline was learning to write, he’d built a system of pneumatic tubes to let the girls shoot letters to each other, so in the evenings, after dinner, the air had been filled with the whooshing sounds of little bits of paper sailing up in transparent tubes up the kitchen walls and the bathroom and down the baseboards, from one room into the next.

Yes, there had been those times, and yet, at holidays, they’d never seen relatives, not their father’s or their mother’s either, although apparently there was an aunt out in Long Island and a cousin in Queens, and two great-uncles living in Madison, New Jersey, a place Caroline had never seen, but imagined as a city of green grasses and perfectly manicured streets. Her father had mentioned these relatives, and yet, when she’d asked, those relatives were always too busy, or had their own parties to go to, and didn’t want to invite their black sheep relatives. Caroline had found the explanations hollow, but not wanting to upset her father, hadn’t said anything. Those times, there had been her school-friends, who’d clambered around in the freezing winters, carting in cookies baked in perfect reindeer shapes, and gingerbread houses with the exact right amount of frosting and small pink dots of candy along the walls, and with their hair braided in pigtails, because their mothers had had the time.

She and Gail had tagged after those girls with envy, but also triumph, because they’d had no mother but had managed anyway. It was hard with no mother, only a ghost of a face, but they’d tried. At age eight, long before she had the dexterity for it, Gail had started learning to knit. In the evenings, she’d sat hunched over in a big white chair, clicking needles together, cable stitch after stitch, producing a blanket with holes at both ends. It was hard with no mother, only those needles in the evening keeping them calm, and they’d stayed up late at night burning toast, and slapping butter on it, and cinnamon, and munching away as they’d watched shows in the kitchen: whatever was on, mostly cartoons.

For years, she’d pretended it wasn’t, but it was hard with no mother, no one to skip rope with or go out bra shopping or talk about the small, sweet secrets of life: the lines the girls drew in blood on their best friends’ elbows, as a sign of trust. The times they’d kissed boys in the schoolyard behind the play structure, laughing as they switched off in pairs. The birthdays they’d celebrated, flooding their rooms with candles and leaning their heads out the window, then shouting out, with cardboard megaphones, their number of years. It was hard with no arms to fold into, on the nights coughs took them over, and they had only their father drily taking their temperature. Harder still when they started growing breasts and stared at their chests in the shower and saw the space between the freckles expanding, like small dots in a shifting field. And hardest of all when they’d been flooded with rushes of warmth and had no one to tell—that simple summer day licking pistachio ice cream, marveling at its grassy green—that evening running cross streets in Central Park, hearing the clock over the bridge bang out music, and the brass band underneath play in contrast, in stark cacophony—those Central Park crickets chirping with a grinding music, all of New York City coiled in their sounds—to have heard all this, to have loved it, and to have no outlet—to have kept hidden the joys and loves and tenderness of girls—all those were small sorrows, compared to some, and yet, piled together, those small sorrows almost broke them.

And yet, somehow, in the face of those sorrows, they’d done it—had made lives for themselves, a single life really, and lived that life hungrily, with the fact of survival held between them, like a heavy stone, and sucked down crumbs and washed them down with water, and washed the water down with air, and tried to hide their longing, and their waiting, and who they’d hoped to be, who they hoped they’d grow into, and who they actually were.

But then years had passed, and their father had started coming home from work stone-faced, with a stumbling walk and a spider-web look. At dinnertime, he’d said less and less. A gradual descent: one day, he’d tried to ask how their days had gone, and had fumbled on which day it was, Wednesday or Friday. Anyone could have made a mistake like that. But months later, in the midst of a steamy summer—they’d been outside, picnicking on bread and strawberries—her father drew in one breath, and then another, and something in his face had looked broken, and his mouth moved in silence, and Caroline realized he was searching for her name.

“My daughter,” he said, in a voice drained of air, “my daughter.”

At the time, she hadn’t said questioned him. Only later that night, lying on their bed’s lower bunk, had she worked up the courage to ask, “You think he doesn’t know who we are?” Gail’s response had stayed with her all these years: “You,” Gail had said, leaning down from the upper bunk, teeth bared. “Doesn’t know who you are, okay?”

Caroline had let that go, not wanting to lose the thread that tethered her sister to her, even if that meant taking the blame. For her part, Gail had never commented on their father’s troubles again, even as days flipped to months and then to years.

At first, Caroline had startled at the muddled look on her father’s face—as if he were constantly trying to solve some equation—and then it had started haunting her. She dreamed of his face grown pale and wide as a whale, his mouth craned wide, shouting, and his body turned blue-black, collapsed in waves. As she’d gotten older—ten years old, twelve, the age when her friends went to movies and painted their fingernails—she’d started staying home, taking care of him, or trying to. Each night, she’d cleaned up the dishes he’d stuck in the cabinets, full of crumbs, having forgotten to put them in the washer. She’d started cleaning up his messy piles of paper in his study, sorting in alphabetical order, then by month and year. In the mornings, before he’d left for work, she’d sat with him, as he spilled milk into cereal bowls, and reminded him to run a comb through his hair. One morning, he’d nodded at her, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, and said, “Oh, you think it’s that bad, do you? All right, then.”

He’d sighed, but did take a comb out. She’d felt triumph in his having done it. He looked presentable, fatherly even, although the acrid, sleepless smell of him remained.

For years, she’d associated that smell with her father, and had thought, in a magical way, that no one else noticed. Even Gail had washed the clothes her father had tossed on the floor and hadn’t complained.

But then had come that winter night, in late January, when her father returned home after midnight, with a wired, indefinite look on his face, and had taken his work papers, a whole pile, out of his briefcase, and one by one, while she was watching, brought them to the fireplace at the back of the living room and fed each to the fire. The pages, in the dim light of the fire, seemed to freeze for a second, then fill with a waterlogged weight, and finally, with the crackle of all dying things, to collapse.

“Fired,” he’d said, and the word had come at her like a rumor, with a whistle at the end. She’d nodded, and he’d nodded back, because there was nothing else to be said, and balled up the last page in his hand, then, before she could stop him, threw it in.

Afterward, they’d sat in silence, watching the fire, as it turned first monstrous, gold and gleaming, then summery and strange, then fierce and burning: in terror, maybe, or maybe only with a certain empathy. As soon as her father’s eyes had shut, Caroline had made a beeline for her bedroom. She’d curled up in a blue blanket with a pack of Saltines, with two books buried under the sheets, then turned the pages, trembling. The whole rest of the evening had passed that way, in a silence that seemed all-consuming. After a while, her father had turned the television on. From under the warmth of the blanket, she’d listened to the light quarrels of the women’s voices and the louder quarrels of the men’s, had rubbed her fingers raw on the blanket edge.

Her father, she sensed, would never mention that fire again. Over the years, looking back, he never had. But she’d held onto that flash of memory.

At least there had been two of them: Caroline and her sister, two girls to lavish attention and grief on in turns. Two to clean up bottles and pass notes under each other’s doors when their father’s anger had twisted into shouting, and then when he’d slammed books down so hard the spines detached from their pages. But two didn’t mean perfect safety. One evening, when she was ten, her school friends—Sabrina, Aileen, Grace—had visited, and her father had shouted, in front of them, that he hadn’t authorized anyone in the house—that was how he’d put it, authorized—and shouted that they’d have to leave. If she’d been stronger, she would have lashed out, gone to the park and jumped rope with them anyway, or started smoking, or whatever the bad girls did—but she wasn’t that strong. If anything, she was repentant. She’d let the girls run out crying, and then, with a humility she couldn’t believe, she’d apologized. And later, when boys had come, as they inevitably did, asking for movie or dinner dates, she’d refused.

And then, the final straw: Gail had moved out this past September, after having lived at home for all four years of college, and two years after that, leaving behind a collection of half-used perfumes, unplayed piano music, and scuffed ballet shoes. She’d found a boyfriend, incredibly, and that boyfriend had asked her to marry him. Like a summer wind, she’d swept out, saying sorry, and then, prompted probably by that same boyfriend, a twenty-five-year-old engineering student from San Antonio, had refused to visit or talk to Caroline or her father.

For days, Caroline had eaten dinner in her room, then gone to bed early, preparing herself for what was to come. She could already sense her future in the whites of her father’s eyes, in the way he slammed the door harder those days, and in the ways the tax man came, in the thirty days leading up to April, and headed downstairs, to her father’s office, and her father followed, and the men’s voices vibrated the walls long into the night.

And, no matter how she twisted it, she was right. Soon enough, her father would stop coming to dinner, stop fixing his tie at breakfast, stop clearing his throat when he walked in a room. He’d stop pretending to pay attention when she talked, and look instead over her shoulder, at the ceiling fan whirring overhead, or at a crack in the baseboard. He would stop even taking a bite of the food she’d made and would sit staring as if his plate were filled with rocks.

The night she’d tried to move out, slinging her duffel bag over her shoulder, her dozen boxes lined up against the stairs—she’d finally gotten accepted to Julliard—she’d gone to give him a final kiss on the cheek. She held a pile of sheet music in her hands, all the Liszt she’d need to memorize. She could still recall him sitting at the kitchen table, his head buried in a book. His eyes flickered up when he saw her. He was only, she realized, pretending to read. For a moment, he swooped his hands up, as if he was willing to let her leave, willing for the dynamics between them to change. Then he pressed his hands down, flush against the table, like two small wings.

“If you leave me, I’ll die,” he said. “It’s that simple. The scales will unbalance. You see how I’ve already been slipping away.”

“I see.” She swallowed hard. Her tongue filled her throat. “But I’ll visit.”

“There won’t be anyone to visit.”

“Or could can come and visit me.”

“Not the same.” He paused, let his head hit the table. “The day you leave is the day I leave this earth. You’re the last one I have. The last thing. I swear.”

A blister on her upper lip. She folded the pages of Liszt in half. A concerto, Years of Pilgrimage: Switzerland, Italy. She had left out the third movement, for the time being. She could imagine herself playing each note of each piece, letting them coalesce above her, in some grand concert hall. She could imagine the music’s weight rising above her, filling her head, her chest, her stomach, letting her breathe. And the clapping, all the clapping, that would come after, and the flowers, and the men in dark suits who would bow.

“I need to leave,” she said, but felt herself folding as she spoke, and felt the music contained in the pages trailing off, dragging deep inside her, into her breastbone, the space between her shoulders, beneath her spine. She could feel the music leaving the outer world and becoming entirely inner, entirely self-contained.

And, worst of all, or best of all, she could feel herself following that music, refusing to leave for Julliard, or, in later months, even for the grocery story. She would make the music private, like inner speech, telling herself that privacy was sufficient—better even than following the ego’s urge for praise, for getting out in the world. She would learn notes by osmosis, by lying on top of the music, letting the pages pillow behind her. She’d play without a piano, play in her head. She wouldn’t let him die. She’d let her music stutter him alive. She’d remain inside for the duration, with his apartment’s four walls: a good girl, yes, a girl without urges, a girl who hid her breasts, her heat, her fire. She’d cook for him, leaving the salt out the way her mother would have, dotting the dinner plates with pepper, with Queen Anne’s lace. She would age, and hide her aging face, slack enough makeup on to have her wrinkles turn to rivers, and the rivers turn dry. She’d stay, for the next five decades—until the day of her father’s death, and the wake after—the best kind of girl she knew. The only dedicated one. The only child.  

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