It’s a bright clear morning because the sky is smiling, but you don’t feel like smiling. It’s cold again, and the bills are stacked high on your greasy desk, and it’s been a long time since your last cup of coffee. Yesterday you broke the picture of a grinning Francesca, today you burned the pizza, and tomorrow you know you’ll miss the bus. Well, tomorrow you might not be alive to miss the bus.
And the mail’s full again. You curse, and then stop. She always giggled when you cursed. When you left you were sure she cursed again and again, in her soft wispery voice and gap-toothed mouth. Cursing, cursing, throwing theories and arguments about, but you were already sure in your mind why you left, and so you did. You hated the pain, and so you left. Pain should be kept to yourself, you think, and anyway she was just a kid and it’s not fair to share pain with a kid.
Pain. Sure. If that’s what you want to call it. Dying doesn’t hurt, you think. At least not this kind. It’s been a few months since you came home from the yearly checkup with a heavier burden to carry around, a few months since you made your decision, a few months since you left. You left for her.
You take out the handful of mail and smudge it with your greasy fingertips. Water, electricity, IRS—rats again. You laugh as you realize you’ve been cursing rats this whole time, not shit as usual. She must have worn you down with her quirked eyebrows and softly disappointed gap-toothed smile.
Then you stop. It’s a little yellow envelope, just larger than your palm. It’s wrinkled, like someone spilled water over it and then dried it haphazardly. The name—oh, it’s your name—is written in pink marker in large wobbly letters. Spelled out, paused, and then resumed as if she’d had to look up and ask how to spell your name.
Your hands are shaking. You start to rip through the thin paper and then stop. No, you shouldn’t. Bad memories, and besides, she might beg you to come back, and of course you would, and then it’s back to square one again, right? No, you can’t have that. You push the envelope back into the mail slot and start to walk away. Then you turn and shove it, as if you were hiding something, into your pants pocket, and half-run to the station. Your backpack slides heavily around on your back, but you don’t slow.
You don’t miss the bus, but it’s close. You’re panting by the time you fall into a seat. You check your watch—9:13—and breathe slowly. The watch face is cracked; that was Francesca’s fault. You weren’t mad. Just surprised. She cried, because she thought you were angry. You weren’t and said so, and then she giggled.
You refocus on the papers across the aisle from you. They’re greasy, just like your fingers, and then you shudder. Quietly, like a spasm. Do you remember when she had her fits, her seizures, and you couldn’t do anything because you didn’t know what to do? You prepared all her life for those moments, and then they hit like lightning and you were frozen. Hands shaking.
Stop. No, don’t think about those things. You could have helped her, and didn’t. That’s okay.
Well, not really.
But you stop thinking as a buxom young woman boards, and you welcome a distraction. You look at the back of her head as she sits and try to think of the future. Dates, kissing, roses. Not the past. Hana left and so did romance.
You jerk your eyes back to the ads across from you. Your hands are shaking again and you pull them out of your pockets and stare at them. They’re pale and shiny and tired-looking. As if they had a mind of their own, they crawl down to your pockets again and pull out the letter.
Your name again. You sigh. And shudder. The buxom lady gets off when the bus yanks to a stop and you don’t look up. A baby cries in the back, and an exhausted voice shushes it. You tear across the top of the envelope—remember how she’d always laugh and say you opened envelopes like a bear did?—and squint hard and focus on folding the envelope again and shoving it into your backpack.
On the first fold of the letter, a heart is drawn with a shaky hand in bloodred marker. It’s ugly, and yet you smile. It’s color. The only color you like nowadays is the tomato sauce on pizza. Anything else gets tossed out the window. Color reminds you too much of her honey skin and amber eyes and charcoal hair—rats, stop it!
You unfold it.
I love you sososososososo much
and I wanted to say it’s my birthday tomorrow please come
You sigh and rub your eyes. Damn. You forgot her birthday. What kind of father are you? A lousy one, that’s what, says a voice inside you. And it hurts because the voice sounds like Francesca’s voice.
But—but—you would only hurt her if you came. You left for a reason. You remind yourself of that. The bus creaks to a stop and you get out and look at the sky. It looks like it’s about to weep. It does. It starts crying as you walk, head bowed, down the street.
I love you sososososososo much
Stop thinking, you tell yourself. Just stop it. Rats.
You walked out. It’s over. A stupid letter can’t bring it back. You left for a reason. The loneliness of an impending death was too much for two people. It would have been cruel, downright cruel, to ask your little girl to shoulder half that. Now, you ask the pizza and the greasy papers and the crying sky to shoulder half the loneliness. Half of death. They’re experienced, at least, at seeing loneliness, sky especially.
You look up and think that maybe the sky is crying for you.
It’s not fair—that’s it, that’s the argument angle you were needing. It’s not fair to ask Francesca to watch her dad die. Not fair. Better that Hana tells her later. Better. That’s it.
You enter your office building and ride the elevator up. The elevator smells like a plumber. It smells like the river. Stagnant and green and forgiving. You hold your nose. You exit and go down the stained carpet hallway to your office. You sit down. You read the letter again. Her birthday. Rats. You pin the letter up on the wall and turn your computer on and get ready to die.