Fiction: Retroactive Continuity

The only clean sweater was at the bottom of her suitcase, of course. Sarah stood in her jeans and bra, throwing clothes onto the bed. Outside, the rain picked up, falling hard into the swimming pool. The heightened rhythm sounded suddenly like the spatter of her father’s fingertips against the computer keyboard all through her childhood, dappling the screen with words from mid-afternoon until evening, when she fetched him for dinner. Sarah stood for a moment, listening, and felt a surge of anger and resentment: All the furniture in her old room had been replaced, but she still had the memories that tied her to her father’s house. She was partly here, a guest in the guest bedroom, and partly still thirteen years old and at home.

Downstairs the caroling stopped as her father switched the radio off. He walked heavily to the foot of the staircase. “Sarah, come on. Get down here.”

She sighed petulantly. “I’m coming,” she called, running the brush through her hair a few more times and checking her makeup. Too much mascara on the left side. She paused, thinned her lips and headed downstairs.

“Sarah, I said to be ready at 6:15.”
“I’m like a minute late.”

“It’s more than a minute — Look,” he said, taking a breath. “I just really want this to be a good night, sweetie.” The last word sounded stiff, like new shoes, a little too glossy. “It’s important to me.”

Sarah turned to get her jacket. “I know.”

They didn’t talk in the car; they never had. The car was for driving in. Her father braked too hard, stifling curses at the other drivers. Sarah looked out the streaming windows.

Madeleine was already at the restaurant when they arrived, waiting on a narrow wooden bench. She jumped up when she saw them. “Hi there!” she said brightly, bobbing her head a little. “Sarah?”

She didn’t look at all like what Sarah had expected. Sarah hadn’t admitted it, but she’d expected a younger and prettier version of her mother. Instead, Madeleine was rangy and plain, with streaky blonde hair and wire-framed glasses that made her eyes look small. She did all the conversational work during dinner. She asked what Sarah was studying; she passed on a movie recommendation from a coworker; she described an elaborate Christmas display she’d seen on the way to El Arroyo.

Didn’t eat much — she ordered only a cup of clam chowder and a salad, and left most of the salad. Sarah and her father both ordered the grilled halibut, and both finished it. He looked over at Sarah’s plate, where she was using a sourdough roll to pick up the last of the buttery sauce. “Good job, honey,” he said.

Sarah laughed. “Dad — I’m twenty. And my weight is exactly normal, I don’t know if you’d noticed. I’ve been a member of the Clean Plate Club for years. Okay?”

He grinned and lifted his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay! Do you ladies want dessert?”

“Oh, no,” Madeleine began, but Sarah cut her off.

“I want the chocolate volcano.” Her father smiled. “And coffee.”

“You drink coffee now?” he asked.

“Honey,” Madeleine said, trying out a conspiratorial smile on Sarah, “all college students drink coffee.” Sarah glanced away, hunting for their waiter.

Over Sarah’s black coffee and Madeleine’s cappuccino, Sarah remembered something. “Dad?”

“Hm?”

“Have you seen a black lacquered box, about this big, with red trim?”

“No…”

“It should be somewhere in my old room, maybe in the closet or somewhere, and I can’t find it.”

He frowned. “I don’t remember anything like that. But I don’t go in there, you know, a whole lot. Is it important?”

“The box had my netsuke squid in it, the one Tommy Okada gave me.”

He looked totally confused. “Your what?”

“My netsuke squid. From the gift shop at the Long Beach Aquarium — you remember. He took me there when we were in eighth grade — it was right before we broke up — you must remember this, I was talking about it for weeks because they had that traveling exhibit on the giant squid. Architeuthis?”

Madeleine smiled. Sarah’s father thought. “Yeah. I remember that you liked squid.” He turned to Madeleine. “She went right from the horse phase to the squid phase! Wanted to be a marine biologist. We got her all these books.” He bent a proud, reminiscent gaze on his daughter. But she was still frowning.

“But you don’t remember the netsuke squid? I was so worried about it, because it was so expensive, and I’d already decided to break up with him when he bought it. I remember, I was agonizing about it to mom for days, and she finally said it wasn’t rude to keep it because I shouldn’t think boys could use expensive gifts to buy the right to date me.”

“What’s a netsuke squid?” Madeleine asked.

“Netsuke is like, they’re little carvings, mostly ivory,” Sarah explained in a distracted voice. “Look, Dad, you’re sure you haven’t seen it? It’s like this long, with lots of, like, curlicues on the tentacles, an ivory thing.”

He started. “Wait, that thing? Honey, that isn’t ivory. It’s plastic.”

What? No — ”

“You must be thinking of something else, honey. Tommy Okada didn’t get you that. I bought it for you when we went to the Aquarium when you were in sixth grade.”

“No — ” She could feel her face heating, as Madeleine’s expression became more amused. “No, look — ”

“Are you sure you’re not thinking of something else? Because I know I bought you a plastic squid, fake ivory, just like what you’re describing. Remember, it was when — ” looking back at Madeleine — “This was so typical. Joanna had agreed to take Sarah to the Aquarium. We’d had this all planned — you were so excited, because they’d brought the squid all the way from Washington, D.C. And then at the last minute Joanna says something came up for work. She always — you know, I could drop everything, because I was just a writer, I didn’t have an important office job and a boss and ‘adult responsibilities,’ so her schedule always came first.” He glared into his water glass, and then looked back up at Madeleine. “And then, of course, I never did anything with Sarah, supposedly.”

“Dad, I’m right here,” Sarah snapped.

“Look — this is just the facts.”

“My squid.”

“Right — honey, I gave you that squid.”

“No, I could’ve sworn that — ”

“We can look for it when we get home. Okay?”

“…Okay — but it’s real ivory. A real ivory squid. I remember this.”

He raised his eyebrows, and met an answering look from Madeleine. Sarah glared at them both. “We’ll look for it when we get home,” he said, to keep the peace.

* * * * *

She spent most of her visit either in her old room, huddled under an unfamiliar comforter reading, sleeping or trying to sleep, or else driving disconsolately around the places she’d known when she had lived there. They hadn’t found the squid. They had looked — Gabe and Sarah — but she’d been embarrassed, thinking he was hoping to prove her wrong, and so she had called off the search. They ate at separate and random hours. Sometimes she padded into the kitchen past midnight to find him scrambling eggs, buttering toast, and brewing coffee; she would put together dinners that required her to get in his way as little as possible.

The day before her flight back to Chicago, she realized she hadn’t been out to the beach. “Dad,” she called up to the study, “I’m taking the car out to the pier. Okay?”

He appeared at the top of the stairs, in a baggy UCI T-shirt and khaki shorts. His legs had gotten thin, stringy. An old scar showed through the thick pale hairs on his right shin. “Gonna walk on the beach? It’s a beautiful day for it.”

“Yeah.”

“See the sunset.” He paused, then started down the stairs. “I’ll come with you.” He gave her a quick and wary glance. “If that’s okay.”

“…Okay.”

She got to the car first, so she took the driver’s seat. He looked surprised, and almost protested, but then just got in on the other side. She looked straight ahead as she drove. She noticed that he was watching her. Irritated and feeling childish, she made a show of carefully checking her mirrors and braking gently at every stop sign.

She parked by the pier, and they walked down the ramp to the water, not talking. He took off his loafers before stepping onto the beach. She kept her shoes on, walking clumsily as her sandals started to shovel up the loose gray sand.

Closer to the water, the beach was darker, small black seashells bedded in tight-packed tarry sand. Her father stepped into the ocean first, looking down to make sure he didn’t step on broken glass or the sharp edge of a shell. She followed after him, and let the gritty water swirl around her ankles.

They walked a little further into the ocean, and she could feel the waves starting to tug more urgently at her feet. She remembered how it had always seemed as though the beach were receding, not the waves.

They came to one of the places where the water ran in sharply-carved channels through the sand, striations kinked like seaweed or a woman’s hair. “Is it always the same pattern, or do the waves change it every time they come up the beach?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He scrubbed his foot over the thin, blackened channels, and the water pooled, then sank into the sand. They waited for the next wave, but the tide was going out, and the water no longer reached the place where he had stepped.

They headed away from the pier, walking mostly in the shallows of the ocean. They went up the beach, onto the looser sand, to avoid a huge gang of seagulls. “Look out!” he said, and Sarah yelped, jumping back — she’d almost stepped onto a dead fish.

“Ugh!”

“I’ve never seen that before, I don’t think — a fish out on the beach. We saw a dead seagull that one time.”

“And the dead jellyfish,” she said.

“Right.”

“Look how fast the sun’s going down.” It had already half-sunk into the black palm trees and office buildings of Long Beach.

“Do you remember that Dr. Seuss thing I used to say to you? When you were really little?”

“Which one?”

He struggled through the almost-forgotten verse. “‘How did it get so late so soon?/November’s come before it’s June./Uh… It’s night before it’s afternoon,/My goodness, how the time has floon./How did it get so late so soon?’”

She laughed. “I remember. I really liked that.” Her easy smile thinned, and she looked away, out to sea with a childish and accusing grimace, then let it go, shaking her head and looking down at the sand. After a short while Sarah turned to look back. “They’ve lit the pier up,” she said.

“You ready to head back?”

“…Yeah. I think so.”

“Buy you a hot dog when we get to the pier.”

“Okay. Cool.”

* * * * *

The next day, he drove her to the airport. He tried not to fuss or ask questions or annoy her, and he didn’t say she should come back soon because he didn’t know how she would take it. Then he drove back to the house and tried to get some work done.

In the late afternoon the clouds came in, and he had to turn on the lamp in the study. Rain started to fall into the swimming pool. He’d have to clean it the next day — or that night, if the rain picked up again.

He was more restless than hungry, but he went down to the kitchen and started to pull together a desultory meal. Chopped chicken, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, rice in a bag. While the rice was boiling, he poured a glass of wine and drank it as he stirred the meat and vegetables with a chopstick. He had a full set of wine glasses, but only used one, since Madeleine didn’t drink.

Over dinner he tried to read, but soon put the book down. Sarah had left one of her old Garfield collections on the kitchen table, and he flipped idly through that for a while. Then he dumped the plate and fork in the sink and paced out to the living room. His radio station was still playing carols; he wondered when they’d give up. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and started to drift.

He remembered the house the way it had been. Sarah would be upstairs, doing some hidden childhood thing. The house would smell like her afternoon snack, cheese toasted on a bagel with a glass of milk. He made it for her most days, only forgetting when he was deep into the muscle of a story. She never complained. Her weekly allowance of ten library books would be stacked neatly on the end table. Ten fantasy and science fiction books — all those spunky female protagonists and misplaced princes — next to his junk thrillers and Joanna’s “adult literary mainstream.” The genre he wrote in, and despised.

(Sarah read that stuff too, now. When he was driving her home from the airport he’d asked her what she was reading, and she’d shown him, and it had been another soggy introspective novel about coming of age at 34. He’d asked her what she thought of it, but she had hedged, unwilling to admit to an opinion. Probably wise. He’d sniped endlessly at Joanna’s tastes.)

In his daydream house, Joanna would be home. She’d have stretched herself out on the couch in the living room, her forearm over her eyes, smearing her makeup. She would have kicked her shoes over the arm of the chair, and her mouth would be open, just a little.

It would be easy to make her happy. He could bring her a glass of wine, or make a dinner more elaborate than a quick fry-up or reheated pasta sauce. He could bring her a hot, damp washcloth for her face, or offer to rub her neck.

Stop it, he told himself. Maudlin. Also unrealistic: He wasn’t letting this gauzy memory include how tiring she’d been, and how tiresome she had made him. He hadn’t liked who he was when he was with her.

He wasn’t, though, entirely convinced that his current self was an improvement. Seeing Sarah had brought out all the old guilt, the feeling of failure, the constant wondering: What does she think of me? Is she despising me? Sarah had developed certain ways of thinning her lips, or disagreeably agreeing to something, that were Joanna’s hand-me-downs — strange, since she’d never done what Joanna told her. She had screamed at Joanna more often than she had at him.

He was even more restless now than he had been before he ate. He left the radio on as he went upstairs, into the guest bedroom — Sarah’s old room — to look again for the plastic squid. The sheets were still rumpled and unwashed; the room smelled more or less as it had when she’d lived there. The shuttered, papery smell was almost gone.

He opened her closet door and peered around, feeling lost. He ran his hand along each shelf, and pushed her old shoes and rolled-up posters out of the way so he could inspect the closet floor. He found a sticker album and a shoebox full of cassette tapes.

Most of her furniture was gone, but he had kept a white ironwork chair; he felt around beneath its flowered cushion. He’d thrown away her bookshelf — decorated with stickers and obscure slogans — but he ran his hands along each shelf of its sleek black replacement, just in case. He reached up and swept his hand over the top of the bookcase. He almost knocked down an art portfolio balanced on top of a stack of paperbacks; he grabbed at it with both hands and it stabilized, but something else fell behind the bookcase with a small and muffled thump.

He swore, and squeezed himself painfully into the space between the nightstand and the wall, so he could reach whatever had fallen. He had to scrabble with his fingers before he could grab hold of the thing and drag it out into the light.

It was the black lacquered box. “Huh,” he said. He hesitated. He suddenly wondered if there would be a real ivory squid inside — an inexplicable rebuke. But he popped open the clasp, and inside, among a jumble of necklaces and cheap silver rings, was the small plastic toy.

He plucked it out of the box and held it in his hand. It was light, and very obviously plastic. The mold was crude, the tentacles and suckers ill-defined, and there was a sharp seam along one side that bit against the pad of his thumb. It was big enough to have a MADE IN CHINA seal on its underside. He set it down on one of the bookshelves, but it wobbled too much on its base, and fell over.

Still — it was the squid he had given her. This cheap little thing had pleased her so much because they ordinarily never let her go to the gift shops in museums — she tended to whine and dawdle — and because it was almost like the real netsuke squid that had been part of the traveling exhibit. It bewildered him that she had remembered it so differently. He wanted to mail it to her, or, better yet, to call her and announce that he’d found it; but now he wondered whether it would be a disappointment. She didn’t want this squid. She wanted the one she remembered. The one that had nothing to do with him.

He stood in his daughter’s abandoned bedroom, holding the plastic squid. He gave a muttering sigh, rustled a little as he shifted from foot to foot, and finally headed back down to the carols in the living room. He felt old and tired, hollowed out. He fell asleep on the couch, waking in the morning, exhausted and aching from his jaw to the base of his spine.

* * * * *

It took months before Chicago was warm enough for Sarah to wear the jacket she’d brought back from California. It was a beautiful old thing — sleek velvety gray — a jacket she thought Oscar Wilde or Marlene Dietrich might have worn. She’d bought it in eighth grade, even though it had been much too big for her. It fit well enough now, though her wrists showed past the cuffs.

She’d bought it secondhand, and the inside lining was frayed. Coins were always dropping from the pockets into the hems. She put the jacket on over a sweater, and patted the hems to see if anything had gotten lost. She felt a small, hard lump against her back.

She took off the jacket again. Muttering, she worked her fingers into the lining and shook the jacket awkwardly until the thing fell against her fingertips. She fished it out through the pocket.

It was the netsuke squid: heavy and hard, the colors shifting subtly on the expensive ivory curves and planes. The tentacles were finely-detailed curlicues, flowing out from the smooth rounded head. The ivory was the color of sea foam, then the yellowing color of newspapers, then the graying color of bone.

Sarah stared at it. “I knew it!” But it unsettled her more, finding the netsuke squid, than if she’d simply lost it for good. Because she couldn’t think why her father had remembered it so differently. If he’d wanted to remember it as a gift he’d given her, that made some sense, but why would he remember it as cheap plastic?

She thought for a moment about calling him, just to point out that she’d found it. But she knew it would be gloating, and she didn’t want to be ugly. (“Sarah, don’t be ugly,” her mother had said whenever she whined or pitched tantrums.) She set the little figurine on her bookshelf, and stepped out the door.

–Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.She blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.

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