by Andrea Scrima
Like cans with expired shelf lives, stored away at the bottom of a box of old books, I happened upon my father’s journals after moving to a smaller apartment with my son. I took them into my hands, hesitated, then placed them gently aside. The next morning I began to leaf through this strange shorthand of lived life written in a “Top Scholar” composition notebook, two World Book Encyclopedia “Today” calendars, five “Monthly Planning Books” (Made in Taiwan), a “Weekly Date Keeper,” and a bound Shancheng book (Made in the People’s Republic of China) I had given him two months after his first heart attack on Father’s Day 1981, with the date 6/21 later penciled in next to my signature. I sat down at my desk and turned the page to the year 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson had declared his “War on Poverty,” Red China had exploded its first atomic bomb, and my father drove across the newly opened Verrazano Narrows Bridge for the first time, clocking in 16.65 miles in 29 minutes on the way to Brooklyn and 17 miles in 28 minutes on the way back. 14 inches of snow fell on January 13th, closing down the city schools for several days and creating enough turbulence over western Maryland to crash a B-52 carrying two 24-megaton nuclear bombs, which were found miraculously intact in the snow amidst the wreckage. One of the crew who had parachuted out of the plane but later died of exposure had exhibited behavior typical to stages two and three of hypothermia called “terminal burrowing,” in which a person becomes confused and incoherent and will either dig themselves into leaves or loose earth or crawl into small spaces such as closets and cupboards—a phenomenon triggered by an autonomous process of the brain stem also known as the “hide-and-die syndrome.”
Unlike the calendars and journals, the red and black Shancheng book was an abridged transcription. As I pictured my father entering what he’d judged to be the most important events of the years 1960 through 1976, I couldn’t help but mourn everything he’d left out. He’d tried to come to terms with his past and had deleted the parts that were painful or that we weren’t supposed to know; in the end, this curious chronicle of coincidence, of day-to-day life and world political events was all he’d distilled from his life, but there were once original diaries from these years, thumb-worn from the accrual of days as the present counted out its staccato drip into the past like a steady leak, filled not with the smooth stream of transcription, but with a hand that wavered from page to page, written in states of mind in continuous flux, like the weather. All that remained now was an edited version, a laconic concatenation of the momentous and mundane that takes up roughly two-thirds of the 100-page notebook, leaving the rest blank except for three isolated entries on page 3: “28-foot extension ladder”; “furnace filler size 24½ x 16 inches”; and “1964 gasoline 40¢ per gallon.”
Water sputtered from the small espresso pot, and as I turned off the gas, I saw a pale brown drop splat onto the white enamel with tiny octopus-like tentacles splashing out around it. Intersecting this was a fine brown line tracing a blobby shape, a record of yesterday’s drop, its faint sedimentary contour preserved post-evaporation. Today’s splat was still in motion; its edges crept slowly outwards, and as its liquid mass drew near yesterday’s boundaries, it underwent a tiny, jiggly leap of molecular cohesion as one fluid tentacle nestled up against the filigree ridge of the residual line—one day seeking to merge with the previous day, to take the same shape as yesterday, one day seeking to align itself with the flow of time.
Sometimes I dreamed in terms of painting; there would be a canvas with a section that needed redoing. It would be something about the underlying layers that hadn’t quite worked in a technical sense; I needed to redraw them—cadmium red lines in broad curves that overlapped in geometric patterns—and then paint over them such that the pigments would gradually bleed through and stain the surface from below. At the same time, I sensed that I would be performing a falsification, a correction after the fact, because the fact was, the lines hadn’t penetrated to the surface as intended, and no amount of restoration would change this, would correct the way things had unfolded in real time. I could pretend that it was so, but I would always know that it was not. My life had wandered off in a series of wrong directions, and there was no way to reverse this.
Winter arrived, and when the snow fell, I became transfixed by the edges of things as the snow melted and froze again and covered what had been there before. There was an archaeology of layers: first an inch or two, inscribed with footprints and paw prints and bicycle tire tracks, and then a partial thaw as the dry white powder turned translucent and glistened and the crisp articulation—finely chiseled soles of running shoes, the parallel lines of a baby stroller—blunted and turned blurry. And then everything froze overnight and the edges between snow and slush, crisscrossed with the fragmentary traces of all these intersecting tracks, grew rigid, and over the next few days, the dirt of the street and passing traffic sprayed a brownish glaze over the sidewalk’s slippery surface until one bright morning I found it covered again by a new layer of snow. It was like painting, or like seeing things in terms of the painting process. And when noon approached and the temperature rose, one, two degrees above freezing, it was enough to blend the brownish underlayer into the pristine white, giving rise to a slick creamy color that gleamed in the slant of the late afternoon sunlight and reflected the silhouettes of passersby.
I’d almost forgotten how to do that: to let my mind loosen, free itself of purpose and expectation. It was like watching a painting make itself as form and color shifted and converged, gave rise to shapes whose curved contours rose up and culminated in sharp crests; shapes that swirled around and came to a jagged halt and then crept along surreptitiously, like shadows. When I carried the sweep of a line across the canvas, plowed the brush through a layer of thick, wet color, I felt the excess paint swell up and collapse to either side in two long, blobby waves the meaning of which was immediate and essential and impossible to articulate in words. It had to do with edges, with how things touch one another—it was like lips, like skins, membranes vibrating with connection and communion. It was a dreamlike state, but then came a wave of darker, desperate thoughts that frightened me. What were these sounds, these smells; who were these people standing nearby? It was like a nakedness of being, a state so permeable that I wasn’t sure where my own self began.
On the day my father would have turned eighty-six, Micha and I were traveling in the south of Germany; I’d gone out alone to take a walk in the snow-covered fields nearby. Today is your birthday, I thought, and tomorrow is mine, the whole Christmas week once belonged to us, and nearly no one knows this anymore. Ahead of me was a vast expanse of white; in the distance, through the crystalline fog, frost-covered firs shimmered spookily, like overexposed photographs. As I approached a patch of woods, the path grew steeper and eventually opened onto a wide clearing bordering another row of frozen fields. How odd it suddenly seemed to be alive, my blood pumping through my veins, my breath a small white puff in the cold air and not a single footprint in the snow before me, not the faintest trace of a sound apart from my own breathing. And in this silence, my senses suddenly acute, I became aware that the connection between my visual faculties and my cognitive understanding of the sensory impulses they were sending to my brain was as tenuous as a thread, and that this transmission could become severed at any moment, one that might not be as clearly etched in the here and now as the present one, but creep up quietly from behind.
Later, looking back to the winter afternoon when I finally understood that I had to leave Micha, it felt like watching someone mouth the words to an important message I was still struggling to understand. I recalled the stark sensation of snow and cold air and the filigree specter of distant trees in the fog; I remembered trudging back to the room we were staying in and telling Micha I was taking Max back to Berlin on an earlier train. I remembered ascending the steps of the station and seeing that it was 14:16, more than enough time to make the 14:33 Intercity Express to Berlin. I remembered arriving home, switching on the kitchen radio, and learning of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan earlier in the day and the swelling wave of violence that had followed; I remembered poring through the news reports online. The election rally, her heavily guarded return to the bulletproof car she’d been parading in, her regal, smiling appearance through the sunroof as she waved to her frenzied supporters—who only a few hours later would be showering rose petals over her rudimentary wooden coffin—all this had occurred while I was walking through a wintry Bavarian landscape trying to conjure up my father’s living image from somewhere inside me. A hospital in Rawalpindi had confirmed her death at 18:16 local time, and I went online to check what I already, instinctively, knew: that there was a four-hour difference between Berlin and Islamabad, that I had glanced at the clock in the railway station the very moment her death was announced to the public, and that this was nothing more than a simple concurrence of utterly unrelated events, because there was no connection whatsoever between Bhutto’s return home from an eight-year exile to lead her People’s Party in the impending January elections and the fact that my father would have turned eighty-sixthat day, had he lived; no connection to the fact that I suddenly knew I had to leave Micha. No connection, except that both of these events are marked in my calendar on the same day, along with my arrival time at Südkreuz Station, much in the manner in which my father might have made note of the coincidence—and that each of us was in some way her father’s daughter.
Excerpted from the final draft of a new novel.