By Anna Marie
They looked down at midtown Philadelphia. The winter wind was wafting its way around buildings, kissing the cheeks of passersby with frozen lips. Yet despite the chill, drones were shuffling off to work, parents bidding farewell to their school-bound children, and life was, otherwise, marching on.
She couldn’t make sense of his looks and his sideways glances. He was a master of complex signals. Either that or she was oblivious to the obvious. The corners of his mouth would flutter up occasionally as if for no reason at all. His eyes would squint together, narrowing down to tiny little slits. Now and again, he’d rub his fingertips over his temples. He stood there with her, holding her hand, knowing it wouldn’t be for long.
He turned and looked at her, his hazel eyes vacant.
“What is it?” she finally managed.
“I…uh…its nothing,” he hesitated, “I’m just going to … miss this… is all.”
The guilt in those words hung in the air. He knew how clumsy it must have sounded. Yet, when he looked down at her, she was smiling. He used to debate with her about the gap between her teeth. “Gives me character!” she would proclaim and he would always scoff, thinking she looked like a rodeo clown. Now, in retrospect, he realized it made her a tad bit more endearing, more human.
“Ok, I need to take a seat here,” he yawned, “Losing steam.”
He dropped back into the chair and closed his eyes immediately. His lower back ached and his chest throbbed. She sat on the windowsill and peered at him. A tattoo of the initials “BA” was branded on his collarbone. There was so much about him that she wasn’t aware of…or was just too afraid to question. Was it fair to her that he was such a mystery? There are some things that she ought to know…right? These questions sped through her mind as she looked off at him.
“So…of all places…how’d you end up back here in Philly?” she mustered.
His eyes slowed opened, one by one. He smirked, “Work.”
“I thought you stopped working when Billy was born?”
“Nope,” he chuckled, “I love to work.”
“Figures that love would lead us here.”
She looked down again at the street. She hated the city. It was so cold and unforgiving. She couldn’t understand how he loved it so.
He began coughing into his hands. It was then that she realized even his hands had some tattoos on them. An initial here, a star there, even a cluster of words. She wanted to read them, to ask the questions, but she withered back against the window. She tightened her sweater around her, the draft inching its way in. From somewhere within her, she gathered the courage to ask.
“So when’d you get all these tattoos? They mean anything?”
“Heh of course they do. Most of them I got after being discharged from the Army. Some of them while overseas,” he hesitated, “What? Don’t have any of your own?”
“Nah, I always wanted my body to stay …sorta pure, ya know?”
He smiled and unconsciously rolled his eyes. “If something matters enough to me, I want to share it. And honestly, to me, it has nothing to do with purity or whateva. I really don’t give a fuck if people don’t like em or think I’m dirty for having them. I got them for me.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“I know. Sometimes, we just say what we think. You’ll learn that.” He coughed again, this time he looked like it hurt.
“Why don’t you get up into bed?” she asked, caution in her voice.
He fought the desire to reject the idea. He knew she was only being helpful and at this stage, it was probably a good idea. She extended her hand to help him out of the wheelchair and into the bed. For such a big brute, he was a limp noodle in her hands.
“See now. That’s better,” she said as he eased into bed.
She plopped down into the chair at the foot of the bed. She flicked on the television. Nothing was on television at this hour but infomercials for kitchen gadgets. She turned the television off and looked back at him. His eyes were closed.
After a brief hesitation, “Lizzy, I think we need to talk about something. This is strange for me to talk about but I’ll try.”
“Uh…ok? Go ahead. I’m all ears.”
“Your mother and I … I loved her, I really did. She was the light of my life. She made very day worth living,” he paused, “And Billy was one of the best things that ever happened to me. An excellent son who I think was just like me.
“When I lost them in the accident, I kind of … ceased being. I’ve lost all direction….or at least what little direction I had,” he hesitated, “Basically…I am already dead… on the inside. There is nothing left. There hasn’t been anything alive in me for years.”
“Lizzy, please. You don’t understand. I’m ready to be with them. I’ve been ready for years,” he hesitated and took in a deep breath, “Truthfully, when I look at you, all I see is them. I’ve avoided seeing you for years upon years strictly for that fact that I see your mother in you. I was always working to avoid being around you. I moved constantly to hide from you. For this, I am sorry. I know it must seem mean but…it’s just the sight of you would make me get all weepy inside.”
“Darling…go home. My final moments on this earth will be spent in this hospital bed, thinking of your mother and your brother. Your work here is done.”
She sat, mouth open in awe. Sitting before her was her father. Her flesh and blood. The same man she has always known or maybe the same man she had never truly known. Nothing, not even cancer, could change him. Why was she surprised by his actions? He consciously avoided her for years. Why was she surprised by his clear dissatisfaction with her? She had tried, until he was on his deathbed, to persuade him to love her, to notice her…and failed. Was there any sense in trying to reason with him, she wondered.
A few moments of silence passed.
She grabbed her things and walked out of the room. She made her way out of the hospital into the bright January sunlight. The winds had subsided temporarily and the sky was a brilliant blue over Philadelphia. She forced a smile and marched on with life.