Stories

Portraits

On the day my mother died, I was hiking through the villages of Nepal, stopping only occasionally to view the magnificent range of the Himalayas, with Mount Everest looming in the distance. I didn’t learn of her death until a few weeks afterward, when I landed in Thailand and checked in with my brother Theo, who was studying pre-med back in Pennsylvania.

I hadn’t been in touch with my family since I departed rather abruptly fifteen months ago. I’d been on the road with my backpack since then, living sparsely out of hostels, stretching my stolen college funds as far as I could.

That day in the Bangkok airport, when Theo explained about the heart attack, and how she’d collapsed in the parking lot of the SaveMart after loading groceries into the car, I felt as though the world had been knocked off its axis.

As we spoke, I watched some Thai kids, a school group, waiting at the terminal to board a plane. One boy in the group wore a surgical mask in an attempt to keep the avian or swine flu at bay. I watched that boy as I spoke to my brother, and I remember thinking I was that boy in my youth.

My mother had tried to protect me in such a way, often saying, “it’s for your own safety.” She pinned me down, nagged me, constricted me. She kept me from breathing the fresh air. After the phone call, I sat in the terminal and placed my face in my hands. I felt as though an emotional quarantine had been lifted.

After catching my breath, I thought of my father, speculating on how he might be taking care of himself. There had been a seismic shift on the other side of the world. The idea of my father as a widower seemed quite odd. My mother had been the dominant force, making the weekend arrangements, planning the vacations, raising the kids. My father seemed to float around as if oblivious, as though he was in a perpetual state of disbelief about his own existence.

When I was a kid, my father deferred to my mother if I asked about getting a car ride somewhere. I was the younger of two boys, my brother Theo being three years older, and my parents operated on a meager budget in those early years, packing peanut butter and jellies in our school bags. We were the family that wore hand me downs, went camping for vacation, and took day trips to the beach instead of paying for a weekly rental.

Occasionally my mother would decide the family should go out to dinner. This happened maybe twice a year, and we would be excited to hop into the wood-paneled station wagon and head down to Packers, a family burger joint off the main highway just over the Delaware state line. After seating us at our table, which was lined with brown paper, the waitress would place a basket of peanuts on the table, and we’d shell them ourselves as my mother studied the menu. We ordered large root beer floats, which came with swirly red straws. My dad drank draft beer, which they served in large frosted mugs.

For years, my mother had been on my father about getting a new job. She wanted him to earn more money. They didn’t hold these conversations in front of us, but we overheard their arguments in the kitchen or at nights in their bedroom.

After one of these arguments, my mother needled my father at the dinner table. She was serving the meatloaf, when she let it slip. “I saw Mrs. Griffin at the supermarket today, and she was telling me about her new car.” My mom passed me the green beans and said, “I heard the Sullivans are flying to Disney World on their Easter break this year.” My father sat there, spooning the instant mashed potatoes onto his plate and pretending he hadn’t heard her. The subject of money hung in the air like the smell of cooked cabbage. Theo and I glanced across the table in silence, and then raced to finish our meal before the other so we could be excused first.

When I was in high school, my father took a new job as a foreman at a different mill, and he often missed dinner, working late into the night. At times, he’d work double shifts or Saturdays. My mother repeatedly made comments about the sacrifice he was making so we could attend college.

I had to think for a bit before calling my father. I wasn’t sure what to say. I’d taken my college funds and blown them, and was now getting low on money. I would need to head home soon. My money was only going to last another three or four weeks. I thought I might tell him I was catching a flight to Philadelphia in the near future, and if he would have me, I would like to come home.

We talked about mom and the funeral. I must have told him four or five times how sorry I was. It was a generic apology, an open apology that dissipated as it traveled over continents through time. My apology was open for his interpretation, I let him construe it to mean as he wished. I was sorry about mom and I was sorry for leaving home, sorry for stealing my college money, for not being in touch, for not being a good son.

Through the phone, my old man seemed tired, but there was not the sadness I had imagined. He told me he was getting along fine; he assured me that neighbors and friends were taking good care of him. He talked about how he was invited over to dinner so often that some nights he had to decline so he could relax at home.

He said he missed me. He asked me where I’d been, what I’d seen. I was surprised when he suggested flying over to visit. He asked where I was planning to travel next. I was thinking of going to Amsterdam.

“I’d like to book a flight. Could I meet you there?” And then he paused, “Is that okay with you?”

I had to think for a moment, because I was planning on getting into some trouble there. I was hoping to have some fun before I returned to the States and started putting my life in order. I decided this reconciliation was more important.

“Is there someplace else you’d rather meet?” I asked. “We could go to Paris or Frankfurt?”

“No. I’d like to go to Amsterdam.”

When I was eight, my parents had meticulously planned out a summer vacation where we were to drive across the country in our station wagon. They’d rented a pop-up camper for the summer and my father had arranged to take four weeks off from work.

With great anticipation, my father discussed details each night at the dinner table. My mother forked roast beef onto our plates while my father vividly described the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, or the Golden Gate Bridge. He explained about the geyser, Old Faithful, and how she erupted every hour. He quizzed us about the faces on Mount Rushmore.

On the morning we set out on our cross-country trip, Theo and I loaded our backpacks with comic books and games. My brother had a Walkman, and a little box containing homemade cassette tapes with songs from Aerosmith, Kiss and Led Zeppelin that he’d recorded off the radio.

We loaded the car and my father double-checked the hitch for the trailer before he slowly pulled out of the driveway. Our neighbor, Mrs. Kirby, had agreed to watch our cat Checkers for the month. Mrs. Kirby came over for the key right before we left, and she waved to us as we pulled out of the driveway.

We were excited about the trip ahead, and I remember holding an Archie comic in my hand when, at the end of our street, my dad turned the first corner and a blue Camaro crossed into our lane and smashed into our front left fender.

My mother wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and she bashed her head into the dashboard. We were so tightly settled in the back, we weren’t hurt, just stunned. My father had been wearing his seat belt and was not injured, though he erupted with an unimaginable fury that led me to believe he was having a stroke.

The car was not drivable. A teenager jumped out of the Camaro and examined the damage on both cars. My father looked at our car and then laid into this teen, flailing his arms and cursing as the kid backed away in self-defense.

A neighbor who lived in the corner house must have heard the crash. She ran down her driveway, saw the two crumpled fenders and the commotion, and called the police. My mother didn’t move. She said her neck hurt and they called an ambulance for her.

My dad told Theo and me to get out on the passenger side and sit over in the grass. The teen walked over about fifteen feet away and sat down with his head in his hands. Theo and I just stared.

The police showed up first, followed by the ambulance and then a tow truck. The tow truck driver had my dad unhitch the camper. The men had to push the camper off the road, but it was heavy, and they couldn’t push it over the slope. My father called over to the teen, and the kid slowly rose and together they rocked the camper until it cleared the bump and they pushed the camper safely into the grass.

Our car was towed back to our house, and my dad instructed Theo and me to unload our bags quickly so the car could be towed to the shop. Of course, Mrs. Kirby saw us from her window. She walked over to see what had happened, and my father had to explain the whole situation.

Mrs. Kirby stayed with us while my father went to the hospital. That night after a dinner of chicken potpie and a vegetable medley, which Mrs. Kirby made for us, my dad pulled up with my mom in the passenger seat. She wore a neck brace. My father explained she’d strained her neck and would need to rest for a few weeks.

For the next month, we played at home while our car was in the shop. My father tinkered in the garden, grumbling to himself for the first two weeks, and then he returned to work early, saving his other two weeks of vacation.

He never talked about making the trip out west again though. Once, I remember Theo asked him if we could go the following summer, and he muttered something under his breath.

When I met my father at the airport in Amsterdam, he appeared taller than I recalled. He walked off the plane, looking tired but with a smile and he hugged me tightly. For the first time since I was a little kid, I hugged him back.

I asked him about his flight, about the food. I told him we’d take the subway into the city and that we’d share a room. As we walked through the termi-nal to get his bags, he looked around with a sense of wonder.

My father had researched Amsterdam. When I asked what he wanted to see, he replied, “I would like to see the Anne Frank House. I would like to visit the Van Gogh Museum.”

After the car accident, my mother seemed to drift away slowly. Theo and I saw her descending into a state of mental anguish but we were too young to understand.

One afternoon, I heard Theo somehow drawing our mother’s wrath down in the kitchen. She berated him because the trashcan was full. I shook my head, thankful for being in the safety of our shared bedroom. After a few minutes, Theo lumbered up the steps and stormed in, slamming the door behind him. “She’s like fuckin’ Old Faithful!” He flopped face first into his pillow.

I laughed, lightly at first, but as I thought over our missed trip and my mother’s subsequent and deepening eruptions, I began to cry, so I whispered aloud the words to myself, “fuckin’ Old Faithful,” and the laugh returned harder this time, until my stomach muscles hurt and mixed tears streamed down my face.

Theo picked up his head from the pillow and looked over at me with a wicked grin. “Old Faithful, eh?” He laughed as well.

From that day on, I tiptoed around like a ninja. If my mother was in the room, I stepped gingerly, as if the space between us was littered with egg shells. Our house grew eerily silent as we retreated to our own quiet spaces, my brother and I bonding behind closed doors.

The first night of my father’s visit, we wandered through the streets and over the canals. My father loved the architecture, the red tile roofs, and the shapes of the gables, the stone old world feeling. After a bit, we stumbled into an old pub. We ate a heartening warm meal and drank a few pints of Heineken. He asked about my travels; I described Nepal, Morocco, Thailand and Spain. As we talked, I realized I’d seen parts of the world where he would never venture.

Throughout the meal, I began to see my father not as his quiet aloof self, but as someone who had made certain choices based on his circumstances. I believe for the first time I saw signs he was treating me not just as a son, but as a young man who had done some exceptional things, visited extraordinary places, even though it was on money essentially stolen from him and my mother. Yet he did not seem upset.

On the way back to our hotel, we became lost. There were so many canals, and the beautiful old buildings in the night looked so similar that we lost our sense of direction. We found ourselves turning and walking down streets only to find they ended abruptly, or curved back into a street we’d already traversed. We’d both felt a bit loose from the drinks and found our roundabout lost ways a bit amusing.

At one point we walked to a railing and peered across a canal. In the distance we could see our hotel, and we looked up and down for a bridge that would take us home. The night air was crisp, but enjoyable, and we didn’t talk much, except to discuss a route back, and then my dad said aloud, “It’s nice to wander.”

My father often piled my brother and me in the car and took us for a drive; for ice cream, or to the local ball field. He’d pitch us baseballs and we’d take turns hitting and fielding. We’d leave my mother to get her “quiet time,” as he called it, to rest on her own. At the time, I believed he was doing this in the best interest of our mother. Only later did I realize he was escaping the house himself.

For a while, my father left work early on Wednesdays and they attended some type of counseling. My brother and I let ourselves in on these days and we found the idea of coming home to a quiet house a relief. We’d raid the cabinets for snacks, or make bologna sandwiches. We’d eat in the family room with an open bag of chips sitting between us on the couch while watching reruns of the Partridge Family and the Brady Bunch.

After about the sixth week of Wednesdays, my mother came home from a session in a rather agitated state. She was screaming at my father “that it was all bullshit,” and that she was done with it, it was a waste of her time. Later that afternoon, I walked into our kitchen and caught my mother and father in an embrace. He was leaning against the counter and she was hugging him in silence, and it was clear this was not a romantic encounter as much as it was an embrace given in grief, as if something, somewhere had died.

In the morning, my father and I walked through the drizzle to 263 Prinsengracht to visit the Anne Frank House. A tour group arrived just ahead of us, and we stood in line and watched the Dutch shuffle by on their way to work, until we inched our way into the revered museum.

Once inside, my father marveled at the bookcase that had hidden the entrance to their hiding space. When I ducked to go through the opening, my father reached out and touched my shoulder. “Let’s give the tour group a few moments to move ahead,” he suggested.

After a few minutes, we walked quietly through the dingy, confined rooms in the annex. “Eight people lived in this space for two years,” my father said. We peered over the mementos of this girl’s life. We read how the Frank and van Pels families struggled to retain their sanity and their dignity in this dusky, restrictive space. I felt as though I was stepping on holy ground. At one point, I caught my father wiping tears from his eyes.

That night, we walked across the city for dinner and then stopped at a pub for a few drinks. My father and I sat on the side of the bar. Sitting perpendicular to us was a man and a woman whom I presumed were a couple. The man was about my father’s age, but heavier. He had a pock marked face and a dour attitude. The woman appeared to be in her forties, and she was eager to engage us in conversation when she learned we were Americans.

The woman asked a stream of questions about America. She had a cousin who lived in New Jersey, and she asked if we knew her. The woman explained she herself had never been to America, in fact she had not been outside of Europe, but one day she would go. The man by her side appeared to be miserable, as if we had undermined his night’s plans with this woman.

My father didn’t seem to notice though, and he appeared delighted with the conversation. He was happy to talk about America, to ask questions about Amsterdam, about the history of Holland. He told her how moved he was at the Anne Frank House, how he loved the streets, the canals and the architecture. I sat watching my animated father discuss world history, composers and politics. These were topics I’d never heard my father discuss in detail be-fore.

After a few pints, I sensed my father was growing tired. I was feeling a bit drunk myself and we had a long trek back to the hotel. I leaned into my father and suggested we head back. When I announced this to the woman, she appeared shocked and disappointed. She said she had such a lovely night with us, and asked if she could give us a hug and we politely accepted.

The woman leaned into my father, and he outstretched his arms and hugged her firmly. She whis-pered something into his ear and then she kissed him tenderly on the cheek.She then smiled at me as if she were sizing me up. We hugged and she kissed me as well. The man on the bar stool watched us with disdain.

We walked through the door and the cool air felt refreshing as we moved down the sidewalk. My father had a lively step and I wasn’t sure if his buoyant mood stemmed from the drinks or the conversation.

We walked down Warmoesstraat on our way to the hotel, and then cut down a side street through the red light district. The winding cobblestone alley was busy with tourists. The old gothic buildings leaned at odd angles, as if drawing us in. On the corner, a small group of men stood clustered, laughing and smoking cigarettes. Young couples held hands as they strolled along, occasionally stopping to peer into the lit windows that displayed prostitutes.

My dad slowed and stared up at a woman dancing slowly behind the glass. She was pleasant looking, with soft curves and gyrating hips beneath soft blue lingerie. She gave my father a soulful smile.

“Are you interested?” I asked, just as a joke.

My father paused. He didn’t say anything. He just looked for a few moments in contemplation.

“No,” he finally whispered, “Let’s go.”

We walked back to the hotel in silence.

In the hotel room that night, I lay in bed restless and unable to sleep. My dad snored soundly in the bed next to me. Each time I closed my eyes, I recalled a part of my journey I had not shared with my father. Her name was Alicia and I met her in Tangiers, as I was heading for the morning ferry to Barcelona. She was from Australia, with red hair, green eyes and freckles. She was slim, strong and beautiful.

I first noticed her haggling with a street vendor over a piece of jewelry. She was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, carrying her large red backpack. At first, the dialogue appeared amiable, but then the Moroccan vendor raised his voice and pointed at her. Other Moroccan men circled in to harass her. One man reached out and poked her, and she swatted back.

I scrambled over and acted as though I was her boyfriend and quickly pulled her away by the hand toward the ferry station. We drank coffee and talked as we crossed the sea. Small hoop earrings cascaded down her left ear, and she had a Sanskrit tattoo on her pale inner forearm. When we arrived in Barcelona, a young boy tugged on my sleeve and asked if we needed a place to stay. We followed the boy to a small row house, where his mother appeared on the front stoop. She was a short, stocky woman and she wore a gold crucifix around her neck. The woman spoke English slightly better than we spoke Spanish, and after a few moments of haggling and miscommunication, we negotiated a fairly cheap rate. The woman then thought for a moment, as if reconsidering, and asked if we were married. I lied and told her we were on our honeymoon.

The boy led us up the narrow stairs into his own bedroom, which had two single beds tucked into a tight space. The walls were lined with posters of the Barcelona Football Club. I looked out the window into the back alley, then dropped my backpack and plopped onto a bed. Someone had affixed stickers of glow in the dark stars to the ceiling, and I wondered if they were aligned in any specific constellation.

That night, after roaming through the city and drinking Sangria, Alicia and I returned a bit drunk and stumbled up the stairs. After the lights were off, Alicia slipped in under my covers and we made love under the soft illumination of the stars.

We stayed in Barcelona for two nights before hopping the train to Madrid, and then we took a bus to Lisbon. We stayed in a youth hostel there, and we walked hand in hand through the historic district. I remember the stone walls of the castle perched above us, capturing the final rays of the fading sun. As we walked, Alicia started projecting ahead, asking not just where we should travel next, but also alluding that we might return to the States together. We walked quietly for a bit, stopping at an overlook where we could see the sweeping Tagus River. I was not sure how to respond, and as we walked along, the mournful strings of Fado music drifted out to the street and a melancholy overwhelmed me. The next morning as she slept, I packed quietly so as not to wake her, and headed to the train station. I purchased a single fare to Pamplona.

My father and I drank café au lait and ate croissants before walking to the Van Gogh Museum. As we purchased our entry, a woman at the front desk traced out the proper route, stressing the importance of seeing Van Gogh’s work in chronological order. In broken English, she preached enthusiastically, “Before your eyes, you will see how he flourished as a painter!”

My father and I walked into the expansive space, and I felt a seed of excitement. We started at Van Gogh’s earliest works, which depicted poor peasant scenes and were painted in dark browns and earth tones. One painting showed peasants crowded around a small wooden table in a dimly lit cottage, pouring coffee and talking somberly as a woman peeled potatoes.

Out of all his paintings, the portraits are what I remember most vividly. These works were labeled simply “Portrait of a Man,” or “Portrait of a Woman.” In some, the peasants or bookkeepers were painted in profile, but in several portraits the soulful eyes stared right back into mine.

As we progressed through to his final years in France, the paintings grew more vibrant. Bright shades of yellows mixed in with vivid greens. The gardens and wheat fields grew colorful and playful, almond blossoms and irises mixed in with the land-scapes. I found myself overwhelmed by the breadth of his work. The struggle he revealed through his subjects resonated deeply and left me in a reflective state.

After touring the museum, we strolled through the city and found ourselves walking by one of the cafes. My father turned and suggested we go inside.

He caught me off guard. “Dad…” I wasn’t sure what he knew.

He looked at me. “I understand…” he said. “Do you have any other plans today?”

“Ah, no,” I replied.

We walked inside the small coffee shop to the smell of weed mixing with the aroma of coffee. Behind the bar, a young woman with a nose ring and auburn hair smiled and asked what we’d like.

With steaming coffee mugs and a joint, we pulled up chairs to a table by the window. My father sat down and held the joint, rolling it around in his fingers. He noticed me staring and he smiled.

“Do you want to show me how to do it?”

“No, you go ahead,” I insisted.

He sparked the lighter and lit the joint. He breathed in and held it, while passing the torch over to me. He exhaled as I inhaled.

“This has been a nice vacation,” he said as he looked out the window.

“I’m glad you are here.” I handed the burning joint back to him.

We didn’t say anymore. We smoked the joint until it was burning my fingers. I sat back in my seat, sipping coffee and enjoying the company.

At one point, I turned and looked at my father. I studied his face, his graying hair and his short taut nose. His eyes were fixated on the scene outside. He could have been a subject of Van Gogh’s, for he appeared content with his sadness.

Through the window, we watched the Dutch living their lives. Businessmen in suits, women with briefcases, mothers holding the hands of their children. They walked by, oblivious to us, a father and son, lost and stoned in Amsterdam. Across the street, the historic homes were framed with bright red tile roofs against a translucent blue sky.