Monday night, we talked for over two hours. Just months ago, such conversation lengths were rote. Now, it seems the height of unlikeliness. I had to make myself available to you, which is a process. Mostly because of your absence, I rarely turn my ringer on anymore. I miss many calls this way, although many calls these days are just from hapless telemarketers and well-intentioned family who either inquire after you in ways I don’t wish to answer or take pains to avoid the simple utterance of your name.
I still remember rather vividly when a cursory glance at my call log would turn up no fewer than four mentions of you per day. You called so much, before, I used to screen you. You called so much, before, you used to complain about how little I answered.
I know now, what you felt.
This began on Sunday. I dreamt of you, somehow. This was rare during the near-decade we were together, but now you strut around my dreams at least twice a month, like you’re poised to take them over. I imagine my subconscious is angry; I’ve incurred its wrath on account of this child and her promised disruption of our circadian rhythms. This girl is a pebble impeding our cogs and, as punishment, my psyche has taken your side.
When I woke, I began to call you, like a zombie motivated by some force beyond my own will. These were blank-minded calls. I didn’t know what I’d say if you answered; I never do now. All our communiques are curt and carved hollow, the phone calls particularly brutal.
It’d been weeks since I’d dialed your number; the last time, you emptied a clip of one-word answers and, absorbing the slugs, I said I had to go. That day, I learned the perils of calling unprepared, and yet here I was again, dialing without aim.
We hadn’t really spoken, not with our true voices, in months.
You didn’t answer the first time. Or the second. Or the third.
On the fourth, I left you a message: Call back, please, I bleated like a broken automaton.
So that night, I wrote you one of my text-tirades, only this time, I avoided all expletives and focused on evenness of tone. I told you, as I have before, that these attempts to correspond are not for my health or your annoyance; they’re for the girl. I told you I’ve far less tolerance for suffering ambiguity; I needed clearness and closure. I needed you to deny her or deign to know details about her; this silence solves little, helps nothing, and prolonging it is an undeserved cruelty.
As I slept Sunday, I felt expectation slip out of me. You didn’t appear in my dream; my subconscious was merciful. It convinced me the words I’d written you had tumbled to your wayside and landed atop a burgeoning pile, with all the others.
After all, hadn’t I stated these same sentiments, with far superior eloquence, just weeks before? “You’ve become a closed fist, rather than an open palm,” I’d mused, “I wish I were angrier about it. I’d be less sad, less worried about the possibility of her growing up fatherless or with an antagonistic stepfather or with a general distrust of men. Like I did.” I ended that letter with familiar lament: “I hate the futility of wishing.”
All that garnered was voicemail. I got your note, you stated, also like an automaton, only after shoddy repair.
Then, in the morning, I saw that you’d called after midnight and, later, you texted to ask if I could talk.
No, I punched back, happy to have reason to reject you for once. I’m busy.
Then the girl began to flip and I felt guilty. I remembered the words I’d read her, days before, in The Lorax.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
I sighed and touched the warm, convex skin under which our daughter fluttered and recalled the things I’d told her, about the very last truffula seed and the stark grey of sky, the wizened old Once-ler and the wide-eyed boy left to rebuild the world, alone.
I am teaching her to care. How could I tell her how easy it’s been for you not to?
My hopes for her drain my grudge against you, even though it’s fairly foolish to grant you so many immunities, foolish to absorb your willful ignorance, foolish to coax you toward us in this painful, patient way, and foolish to believe the remnants of the you I used to know will disallow you to push this pregnancy to the recesses of your mind forever.
But it was this foolishness that allowed for the phone call Monday night, the first in a series of months that didn’t involve barely veiled resentment or audible tears or voices raised octaves in anger.
I listened, as you told me you “hadn’t had your phone for a few days.”
And I listened, when you said you’d been angry at yourself—and angry at me—for a while now. Angry, you said, that you’d “put me in this position.” Angry, you said, that you’d made decisions which cast you as The Bad Guy.
I listened, as you repeated with earnestness and urgency, the significance of the choices you’re making, to live in California and to continue pursuing unreliable work in the field for which you’ve been trained.
I said that I understood, parroting a line we’d bandied about in these kinds of conversations before: LA is the film capital of the world.
You couldn’t see me shrugging; I was glad.
I could hear the resignation in every small confession:
I haven’t called because I thought we’d only argue, and you should be keeping calm now.
I haven’t called because I’m unclear on what you want me to say.
I haven’t called because I really don’t know what kind of support you’re looking for.
I bit back the urge to indict you with the obvious, “You never asked.” Instead, we talked about less complicated things: the first-name I’ve chosen, the patterns of her movement, the freakishly full-grown-looking size of her hands and feet.
You whispered, at one point, I’m still having a hard time with this whole situation.
And, for once, I didn’t yell back, “How you think I feel?”
I didn’t tell you, like I wanted, how annoyed I am when you ask what I want from you. I didn’t tell you how irritating it is to have to first imagine then describe how a grown man should respond to the impending arrival of his firstborn.
I didn’t ask for the things I desire, though you insisted that you wanted to know.
That seemed too large a weight for one phone call to carry.
These types of wants are ineffable.
I want the warmth of your hand and the weight of your tenor on my torso when the girl kicks at night. I want you to talk to her and read to her and sing to her, like I do. Tell her you’ll be waiting when she gets here. Tell her that you’re glad that she’s your daughter.
I want tea when I’m too tired to make it, reassurance that I look lovely when I feel like livestock, equal distribution of worry and burden. I want daily discussion of fears and hourly infusions of courage.
I want you to plan visits without being prompted. I want you there to hold her at the hospital.
I want you to think of your daughter as more than a dollar sign.
I shouldn’t have to ask these things. But I suppose, before she gets here, I will.
The ditches of my own wayside are filled with mislaid pride. This baby has nudged me toward compassion and ebbed all my filmy deposits of contempt. She makes me remember the best of you, even though your recent self has been your worst.
She reminds me that the wounds I’ve licked aren’t the only ones that matter. This interweave of incidents has left you battered, too.
We all deserve better than we’ve been to one another.
Now we need to mend ourselves and, for her sake, move forward.