The orange sun peeked from behind the empty hills and found two sets of furrowed brows. On the driver seat, Michael lowered the sun visor, and his frown dissolved. On the passenger seat, his son did the same, and his frown didn’t move. Kevin’s eyes were lost beyond the hills, his arms crossed, his hands fiddling with the cord of the headphones.
“I hate this time of day,” Michael said.
There was no response from the passenger seat.
The orange hangover sun was flooding the dashboard. The hills came and went lazily on the horizon. They said hi and goodbye and kept going, slowly, on an infinite dance up and down, like sound waves.
Michael sipped from a large coffee to go and pushed the oversized cup back into the small cup holder, struggling to make it fit.
“The sunrise, I mean,” he tried again.
Kevin kept his eyes on the hills. The car was silent except for the droning of the wheels. Michael prayed for the radio to come back to life. He should have fixed it months ago but he never really listened to the radio. He enjoyed having the silence as his passenger. There had been enough opportunities to get the radio fixed, but they had come and gone, and it was still broken. Now he realized this had been a mistake.
He pushed the buttons on the radio, hoping it would magically start playing a song or the news. God, he hated the radio news, but even that would be better than this silence, better than the hum of the tires on the road, singing the most tedious song in the history of humanity. White noise, static from the dead radio. The screaming sound of having nothing to say.
“Why?” Kevin asked.
Kevin sighed. “Why do you hate the sunrise?”
“Oh,” Michael gathered his thoughts and answered. “Bad memories.”
The humming kept strong, the blaring of nothingness. He could hear the granularity of the asphalt in the sound, feel the silence vibrating in his chest.
“From when I was just a bit older than you are,” he said. “I used to go out. To parties, that is. In my twenties. And get drunk.”
A new patch of asphalt came in the distance and found the wheels with a different texture of sound, as bland as the one before.
“The time to end a fun night is before sunrise,” Michael said. “If you started drinking the night before and you’re still drinking the next morning, you’re doing it wrong. When the hot sun touches your face in the morning, it’s like you’re getting licked by a dog that’s just licked itself. It’s warm and disgusting. You feel like trash. You’re thirsty, and you’re hungry, and you just want to go to bed and sleep in your clothes, which are all sticky from people bumping on you all night and spilling beer.”
He sipped the coffee while the hills came and went. Hi, they said over the static of the silent radio. Then, goodbye. And the dull humming proceeded.
“God, getting drunk sucks.”
“Michael, that’s lame.” Kevin’s frown was directed at his father now. The furrowed brows were the same Michael could see on his bathroom mirror every morning.
“This little rant of yours is a lame attempt at keeping me away from drinking,” Kevin said.
“Wha- No! Not at all.”
“Right.” A smirk and back to the frown.
The drab droning kept unaltered except for the changes of the asphalt. A different shade of white noise here and there, a new radio station playing a new song, as monotonous and hypnotic as the one before.
“I mean, you shouldn’t drink,” Michael said. “Well, you can. You’re going to college. God knows you will. I’m just saying, don’t drink too much. It’s bad. At least in my experience.”
Kevin’s eyes were on the horizon again, riding the empty sound waves of the traveling hills. Hi. Goodbye. Up and down.
Michael took another sip from the coffee, another struggle to make the cup fit.
“Well, do you even drink?”
“I’m seventeen,” Kevin said.
Kevin raised the sun visor. The sun had already thanked the hills for letting it crash on their couch and was now on its journey through the vivid blue sky. Michael raised his sun visor as well.
“And what about that old friend of yours? Do you go out with him?”
“I don’t go out. I spend most of my free time on the computer.”
“Yeah, but do you talk to him?”
“That friend of yours,” Michael said. “The one from school.”
“There were at least two hundred kids at my school.”
“Jesus, seriously? I mean the small kid. The one with the glasses. I think his name was Timmy.”
“You mean Tommy,” Kevin said. “Michael, that was in third grade.”
The static sang its dull song in Michael’s ears. “Third grade. Right.”
He tried another sip but there was no more coffee in the wrinkled cup.
“Hey,” Michael said, “do you remember grandpa's and grandma’s lake house? We used to go there when you were young.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“It’s only a half-an-hour drive from your college. We should go there sometime and hang out. I still go there every couple of weeks or so, to take a look if everything is in order. The place is kind of abandoned since your grandpa died. So I go up there, clean up, and just hang out for a while, drink a beer with my feet in the lake. It’s peaceful. Silent. It’s nice.”
Michael waited but there was no answer from Kevin. There was just the never-ending droning of the wheels.
“Do you remember the swing on the yard?” he insisted. “It’s still there. God, you used to love that swing! You kept asking me to push you higher and higher and I would do it and you’d never get afraid. Your mom was so pissed! She would say I wasn’t careful with you, that I was a bad… father.”
“So you go to the lake house every couple of weeks and just hang out?”
“So how come you never come to visit?”
Michael’s heart was as wrinkled as his coffee cup, pressed against the tight walls of his chest. There was a surge of pain and nausea, but he kept his eyes fixed on the road and his face as blank as the song in the silent radio.
Kevin’s eyes were lost on the hills again, and Michael’s mind was drowning in the sound of the dull sound.
“You didn’t have to do this, you know?” Kevin said.
“Give me a ride. You didn’t have to.”
“Yeah, well, your mom had a shift at the hospital.”
“I know,” Kevin said, his eyes had now left the hills and were on the screen of his phone, his right hand flipping through a list of songs while the left hand untangled his headphones. “But Bob could’ve taken me.”
Another moment of deafening silence. Another sip from the empty cup. Another shade of white noise.
“Yeah, no,” Michael said. “I wanted to. When was the last time we’ve spent time together?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said, putting on his headphones. “I don’t remember.”
Michael looked at the horizon, at the up and down of the hills. “Right.” Hi. Goodbye. “I don’t remember either.”
The hills came and went, and then there were only plains of cornfields. And then buildings, and a town, and another. But there was no silence.
“Do you need a hand with that?”
“No, I got it.”
Kevin took the microwave from the trunk. He was carrying a backpack, and another bag was strapped across his chest. Michael closed the trunk of the car and pulled up the handle of the wheeled suitcase. They walked to the brick residence hall and he biped the car in the distance.
“Let me get that for you,” Michael said, rushing for the glass door.
“No need to.” Kevin pushed the door with his back.
He let the door go and Michael held it with his foot.
They walked to the stairs, their steps echoing through the empty hall.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
They crawled upstairs, one step at a time. Kevin leading the way, Michael following, on and on up the endless staircase.
“Do you know where it is?” Michael asked when they got to the second floor.
“Yeah, it should be at the end of this hallway.”
“And you’ve got the key?”
Michael followed Kevin through the hallway, the doors all closed, the walls empty, the fluorescent lights buzzing above their heads, a lonely window in the end wall.
Kevin stopped in front of the last door and shifted the microwave on his arms.
“Could you knock, please?”
Michael settled the suitcase on the floor and raised his hand, but before he touched the door, it flung open. A kid with a headset on was standing inside.
“May I help you?” the boy asked.
Michael stared blankly.
“Hey, Li,” Kevin said. “It’s me. Help me put this microwave somewhere.”
He shouldered his way past Michael and into the room and rushed for a table to put the microwave.
“Oh, hey, K.G.,” Li said, “you’re finally here!”
Michael stood outside for a second and then stepped into the room, rolling the suitcase.
“Where do you want me to…” He trailed off, his voice drowned by Li’s and Kevin’s greetings.
“It’s nice to finally see you in person, bro,” Kevin told Li while they hugged.
Michael looked around. Two beds, one empty, the other one with an open laptop. A small clothes cabinet, a lonely, worn-out desk with the microwave, a minifridge, a window overlooking the parking lot. On the wall above Li’s bed, there was a poster of what Michael assumed to be either a video-game or a movie.
The phone rang in his pocket.
“Hey, it’s your mom,” Michael said. “She probably wants to know if we got here in one piece. I’m gonna take this outside.”
He left the suitcase where it was and stepped into the hallway, taking the phone to his ear.
“Are you there yet?” the voice on the phone asked.
“Well, hi to you too.”
Inside the room, Li and Kevin were talking, and Michael’s ear turned the volume down on Linda.
“We gotta find a place to plug that microwave,” Li said. “And who’s that guy? Your uncle?”
“Nah, that’s Michael. He’s my absent father, trying to compensate for his absence I guess.”
Michael’s eyes died in a stare as blank as the walls in the hallway. The only sound in his ears was his heart pumping, and in between pumps, the buzz of the fluorescent lights. The dead radio was still playing the white noise song, but it had been thrown underwater, the static distorted into a low frequency. His chest hurt with every beat of his heart and so did his ears, and he couldn’t turn that damn radio off.
From far away came a voice on the radio.
“Hello? Michael, are you there? Michael, answer me! Hello?”
He blinked a hundred times and shook his head.
“Yeah, yeah. Yes! I’m here.”
He walked to the stairs. He needed air.
“What happened?” Linda asked.
“Sorry, I zoned out for a second. What was the question?”
He could hear her rolling her eyes in the brief silence of the phone.
“Are you there yet? Did you get there fine?”
“Yes. We’re here.” He tried pushing the glass door a couple of times before pulling it open. “He’s settling in, his roommate is already there.”
“Oh, he mentioned Li would be there,” Linda said. “Good.”
“You already knew his roommate?”
“Well, they’ve been talking online for a couple of weeks now.”
“Right,” Michael said while he kicked a pebble in the parking lot. “Linda, listen. Don’t take this the wrong way, but did you tell him bad things about me through all these years?”
“What? Michael, why would I? Of course not! What are you talking about?”
“It’s just… that kid hates me.”
Her sigh on the phone carried an emotion he didn’t want to take, but it was the only one she had to offer.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Michael. I truly am. But you didn’t exactly help all these years.”
“I know,” he said, “but I’m trying to help now and he won’t let me.”
“I was talking about helping yourself.”
“Right,” he kicked another pebble.
“He is a grown man now, he doesn’t need your help. He doesn’t need a father now.”
“Yeah. No, I know.”
For a second there was nothing but silence and a cool breeze caressed Michael’s face.
“But maybe he could have a friend?” he said.
“Are you sure you didn’t forget anything?” Michael asked Kevin from inside the car, Li was standing at the glass door of the residence hall.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Kevin answered. “Thanks for the ride, Michael.”
“Don’t mention it. I…” He fumbled for words but nothing came.
The setting sun hit Kevin’s face the same way it had in the morning and he furrowed his brows to look at Michael. Everything was silent, and Michael’s crumpled up heart was hurting inside his tiny chest.
“Listen, son. I… I know I haven’t been around much and the only thing I can tell you now is I’m sorry. I can’t go back in time. I can’t go back to when you were that kid I was pushing on the swing on the lake house. I can’t go back to the birthdays I missed, to the hospital when you broke your arm, to Disneyland when you met Pluto, to when you found out you had been accepted in college. I can’t pretend I’ve been a part of your life, and I have no excuses. I used to have them, I used to have a bunch of them. At first, it was weird because of the divorce. And then I moved out of town. And then there was Bob, and I missed a birthday because of that. And then I missed another and another, and it would be just too awkward to show up there out of the blue.
“Life, it’s weird. It’s like a highway in some ways. You get an exit and if you miss it you sometimes have to drive for miles to get another one. And until you get to the next one you’re asking yourself ‘Why the hell didn’t I take the last one?’ And you hate yourself for not having taken it. And you have to keep driving and driving and asking and hating.
“But I finally took the exit, and I’m here now. Because I kept driving and driving and at some point, I noticed I was driving by myself. My mistakes were my only passengers. I don’t want it to be this way anymore. I want to have a son! And you’re really unlucky because I do have a son, and it’s you. But it’s a son who doesn’t even know me. A son who doesn’t feel comfortable enough to call me dad. A son who hates me.”
The lazy breeze swept the parking lot while a small tear washed Michael’s eyes.
“That hurts,” his voice cracked. “That hurts so much, you have no idea. I want to change that. So, if you ever feel like having a beer with your old man, give me a call. I mean, you can’t drink but… you know. We can go to the lake house, you can bring Li with you. We can… go fishing. I’d have to talk to Li’s parents and I don’t even know if there are fish in that lake but, I mean… just call me. Ok?”
Kevin’s frown had a twinge of sadness now.
“Geez, Michael,” he said, “What am I supposed to say?”
“I know, it was too much to drop on you. I’m sorry. I just had to take it out of my chest. So, just… you know.”
He extended his arm and touched his son’s. Kevin awkwardly grabbed his father’s hand and Michael pressed it. A hug for hands. He enjoyed it for a second before bringing his hand back inside the car and turning on the engine.
“Take care, son.”
“Yeah, don’t worry.”
“Bye, Li,” Michael shouted.
“Bye, Mr. G,” Li waved back.
Michael sat with a beer on the small dock of the lake house, his feet in the water, the big white moon reflecting off the lake. The crickets and the frogs were screaming in a constant buzz and the sound danced on the ripples of the lake. He took a sip from the beer and looked at his feet.
His phone rang.
“Hey, Michael,” Kevin said.
“Hey! Did you forget something in the car?”
“No, no. It’s just… I was thinking about what you’ve said, about having a beer with you. Li is very interested.”
“So, you know,” Kevin continued, “if you wanna pick us up next weekend, I think it could be fun.”
“Yeah, sure buddy! I’m not sure about that beer though. And I’d have to talk to Li’s parents.”
“Yeah, no problem. I think it could be fun anyway,” Kevin said.
“Sure thing. I’ll pick you boys up next weekend.”
“Cool! Thanks… dad. Bye.”
Michael held the phone in his hand and kept looking at it for a few seconds with the stupidest smile. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and drank from the beer.
There was not a single sound in the entire world, only the deepest of silences hovering over the moon-kissed lake. Michael floated on that sweet song.