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What will it be like to meet your dead father?
They said he was my father, but I couldn’t be sure. They guided him down the hospital ramp to the open air, then released him into my custody. He’s not my father, I said. They said, Of course he’s your father, the surgery went smoothly, he has all his memories, of course it’s him.
When we were alone, I looked this person in the eyes and said, Who are you? He didn’t reply. Instead he stared at the gum baked into the sidewalk. I pointed at a bird darting by. What’s that? I asked. Finch, he guessed correctly. And that tree? A sequoia. Where did we go on my eighteenth birthday? I asked. Kyoto, he said. There was a fondness in his expression, a keen attention to that memory. His skin was the color of rotten cream.
On my tenth birthday, when the chocolate cake he ordered was replaced with vanilla, I sobbed. I canceled the party, sent my friends home. What is this mood? he said. You’re not yourself, you’re ten years old, you can’t be crying about cake. Between tears, I told him I’d been waiting weeks for that cake. How silly, he said.
A few years later, my first kiss undid me. I stumbled home with a flushed chest, thrilled by the banging of my heart. We sat at the kitchen table. He poured me a glass of water. You’re not yourself, he said. You’ve got to study, exams are tomorrow, romance can be exciting, but — He didn’t finish the sentence.
We walked away from the hospital. He spent an inordinate amount of time watching his legs. Occasionally, he winced, as if the neural pathways he was rebuilding, from foot to leg to spine to brain, were too narrow to admit this tonnage of perception. You’re in pain, I said. It’s nothing, he said.
I pointed out some old haunts of ours: the library, the patisserie, the bookstore. He claimed to remember them all. What was my favorite pastry as a child? I asked. Mille feuille, he said. Are you happy I came? I said. It was good of you, he said. The trip had taken me seven hours, but all he could manage was it was good of you.
We stopped for a coffee. I sat across from him. The sun revealed the tessellation in his skin. He couldn’t drink coffee, of course, so he sat there quietly, waiting for me to finish mine, marveling at his fabricated fingerprints.
When did you first know you loved me? I asked. His face, ageless, sparkling, regarded me cautiously. As soon as I met you, he said. That’s a facile answer, I said. He nodded and said, They told me in the hospital that it would take a while for the people in my life to accept me, to believe that I had returned. You haven’t returned, I said, not even a little.
We walked down 4th St. to the beach. His movements became more fluid. My favorite part of Kyoto, he said, was the gardens. In one of them, you held my hand and told me thank you for the birthday trip. You said you loved me. That never happened, I said. We never went to any gardens. After the second day in Kyoto, you got an intestinal bug and didn’t leave the hotel. What did they do to your mind in there? Why are you hallucinating?
The waves rolled in. He didn’t look at me. I could tell that he wanted to cry, although his body wouldn’t allow a tear to form.
It did happen, he replied. Yet he sounded unsure. The blizzard of sensory data, the beach, the mountains, the sun-spangled water, made him too weak to discern the truth. We did go to those gardens, he said, and you told me you loved me. No, I said. My voice was even and free. No, I repeated, and this sentimentality of yours worries me. I came here to help, not to watch you cry or reinvent our relationship for your benefit. If this is how you’re going to be, I told him, I’ll fly home tomorrow. This is embarrassing. You’re not yourself.