When Mother forbade me from going into her office, I was, of course, determined to go in there. I should have respected her privacy. I didn’t have the excuse of being a curious, nosy seven year-old anymore. I was married, thirty-two, and had a child of my own. But I was going through a bad divorce and I was living with her for the first time in over a decade, and I didn’t like the idea of not being allowed to go somewhere in the place that I once called home so naturally.
Mother and Father had moved into the house in the 60s, before I was born, and they never left. After I was five or so, Father stopped leaving for good. He was too heavy to go out much past the garden when I was a toddler, and by the time I was skipped up into first grade, he was only able to stand for a few minutes at a time and poke his head out the kitchen window to wave at me. I loved him for it, at the time. It took me a few years before I really understood how shameful it was to have a father who stayed inside all the time. I was proud of him, then, because I could boast of how often he played with me.
Our games were simple ones. I hid, and shouted out for me, moving from one easy chair to another, heaving and puffing. His sweat smelled of talcum powder. He was fastidiously clean. He was shy of his big underarm stains, even though I knew them so well that I used to put my forehead under them in the summer, when I was hot, and cool myself off. I would giggle and he would blush. He loved me, I think, even though he died before he ever really told me so. He didn’t talk very much. Most of his communication was accomplished through his eyes, which crinkled at the sides like his his favorite potato chip brand.
Mother talked too much, and when he died, she let him out of the house only long enough to be cremated. Then he was back, and she carried him around in a jar with her. She talked to him, and to me, sometimes getting us confused. It made me angry at him. I didn’t like being confused with a pewter jar full of dust. I peeked inside once, even though she told me not to, so I knew that he wasn’t in there really, despite what she always said.
Now, at thirty-two, I knew better. She hadn’t lied to me. I just hadn’t understood that my father wasn’t sitting in that jar like a genie in a bottle. A comforting thought, especially because the environment would have suited him – he wouldn’t have to move very much at all – but one that at my age I knew was stupid. I should have trusted her this time when she told me not to go into the study. I should have learned from past mistakes. I should have realized that I’d only be disappointed.
I waited until she went to her quilting class. She never carried Father around with her anymore. She’d bought a lot of new clothes and gone back to work when I started high school. She was better. That’s what she always said. Better. Like Father had made her sick. Maybe he did.
I made sure that Jonah was sleeping. Ever since leaving his father, he’d been sleeping badly, prone to nightmares. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get as much custody over him as I wanted, because I knew that he loved his dad and that it would be cruel to him – not to his dad – to separate them completely. I couldn’t hurt Jonah, even though I wanted to knife his father with a set of scalpels.
Opening the door to the study, I already knew that I was making a mistake. It wasn’t dramatic. It was anticlimactic. I really should have expected it when Mother had “thrown” Father’s favorite chair away, the last of the old possessions in the house, a few years ago. Of course, there it was, right there. I leaned on the door frame and sighed, disappointed. I was expecting a family of bears, or maybe some secret lover hidden away there. But a chair? An old chair.
The worst bit of it all was trying to figure out why Mother needed to hide from me that she’d ever loved Father. I didn’t understand it. I closed the door, decided never to ask, and ran to Jonah who had started crying, waking up out of a nightmare.