I look at the barren, snow-covered field in front of me; the garden, the backyard all look grim and lifeless. Clouds close in all around the house, gray giants swarming and expanding until becoming one mass overlay. The sky grumbles. Sharp teardrops fall at a rapid pace, piercing the snow, causing a series of exit wounds.
The garden, by the end of the shower, will look ugly, partly dissipated and battered. The trees will have less frost on them, and the grass just might be visible, fighting for its place between the surviving snow and the newly formed puddles of mud.
I can smell the scent of flowers coming from the kitchen. Dad’s stirring a pot of hot water, pouring a bit of vinegar and salt into the mixture. I watch his calloused and spotted hands twist and rip the poppies from their stems, their petals fall to the boiling pot. The colors swirl, the flowers bleed their essence into the water until everything is just one uniform tone of red.
Dad doesn’t speak to me; he simply removes the pot from the fire, covers it with a dishrag, and leaves it to sit on the kitchen counter.
In the beginning, it was learning French, then after a few months of constant repetition and essentially dominating the language, he went on to making homemade bread. His hands cracked and dried up after kneading so much dough and playing around with hefty amounts of flour. Now, it’s making paint, steeping the last of the flower petals from the garden overnight, and straining the life out of them for the simple purpose of having natural colors to paint sheets of watercolor paper.
I get it. Dad needs a hobby; he needs something to keep him sane, a routine. He doesn’t talk much, but he drives me crazy. He refuses to leave the house; he avoids stepping outside to even get the paper.
“Just wear a mask, Dad,” I say.
“A mask isn’t a solution. I’m not going to risk it, Arnit,” he usually replies.
Dad’s a robot; he’s always been rational, made up of automated responses. It’s still a shock to me that someone as systematic as him ended up getting laid-off. Mom, a month after Dad's termination, flew out to her parents. My grandparents are elderly, have a greater risk, and most certainly required her help. But, sometimes, I wonder if she decided to leave, even if temporarily, because she was impatient and knew she would never be able to tolerate Dad at home, every day, for several months. I don’t blame Mom for going, but I wish she had stayed; her presence would have made all of this more bearable.
I walk up to the counter, lift the dishrag slightly, see the petals extruding their pigments, and lacing the water with color. I look at Dad, cleaning down the stove with a soft sponge. He doesn’t hum or whistle while working; he just does the task, looks at the object in front of him, deciphers what needs to be done, and acts. I know my father doesn’t easily show his emotions. He talks when necessary, doesn’t enjoy hugging, and prefers to keep to himself. Yet, I know he bleeds like the flowers; pours himself into the world, even if discreetly.
I can feel the lush grass tickling the soles of my feet, scratching the top of my ankles with their gentle blades. It’s still morning, the cold dew chills, and then numbs my toes. There’s something about the limbo between winter and spring, the flow of the season before finally stabilizing. It’s cold but not uncomfortable. The sun is visible for lengthier periods, but the temperature is only slightly warmer.
I hear a snap and look to the garden. I see a deer, the first visitor I have seen in a very long time. Dad doesn’t allow anyone over, claiming that it’s unsanitary and irresponsible, and though an animal that lives in the woods can be pretty dirty, I still dare to bring myself closer to it. The deer doesn't mind my presence; it looks to the sides, to me, reflects my body through its black eyes. Its snout crinkles as if static is running through its nose, and white air flares out from its nostrils.
“Arnit, what are you doing?” Dad yells from the window. “Get away from that thing!”
The deer gets startled, turns itself rapidly, and prances off into the woods. I catch sight of its white tail being swallowed by the darkness between the greenery.
I turn to my father. “What in the hell did you do that for?” I say, walking back home.
“You were literally a couple feet away from a deer! What were you thinking? Did you want it to bite you, kick you like a donkey, pierce you with its horns?”
“Dad, it was a deer; it’s not a big deal.”
“They’re still dangerous, Arnit,” he claims. “Animals are unpredictable; they’re wild, and on top of that…”
“Unsanitary,” I jump in. “That’s what you were going to say, am I right?”
“Exactly. So you understand what I’m saying, good.” He continues, “I swear, Arnit, sometimes you really drive me up the wall.”
I can’t hold back my words. “I drive you up the wall?” I mock. “Why do you think I went outside? I’m sick and tired of being stuck in this place, of keeping myself behind these walls.”
“No, Dad! You want to know what’s wrong with me? I want to know what the hell is wrong with you?”
I can see my father’s face, his linear expression that bears an almost indifferent response. He’s processing my words, taking into account everything I’ve said. I’m waiting for it, the explosion, the rampage, the burst of tears, the sound of his feet stomping, and the bang of his bedroom door being shut. Instead, he scratches the back of his head, takes in a single breath.
“Next time, when you go outside, just put on a mask and make sure you’re wearing shoes.”
I scream at him, push him aside like a bully. “What the hell is wrong with you!” I say while thundering down the hall into my room.
The ceiling fan above the bed reminds me of a helicopter; when it spins, it’s a clock; I sometimes pretend it’s even a time machine. I look at the time on my cell; it’s still early in the evening. I hear the cabinets opening, the pans being placed on the stove, the chopping of the knife on the cutting board. Dad is either making dinner or brewing more flowers.
My phone vibrates; it’s Mom, making a video call.
“Hi, sweetie?” she greets me. “How are you?”
I can see the flashing light from the television tube in the background. My grandparents are sitting on the living room sofa behind her. Both of them signal me from afar, my grandma blows me a kiss, and I just wave hello.
“Everything’s fine, Mom,” I answer.
“Really?” she doubts. “I talked to Dad; he said you guys had a little argument.”
“By argument, did he mean that I lost my temper and he did nothing?”
“No, Mom. Dad’s driving me nuts. He’s…he’s…”
“He’s special,” she jumps in. “Your father is smart. He’s organized, he cooks, cleans, helps around the house.”
“I know, but,” I stall my words.
“Your father is difficult sometimes, I get it. He’s a bit closed off from the world; he isn’t the kind to fiddle and doesn't use all his words.”
“Mom, he hardly talks. He just keeps to himself, does some senseless chores.”
“Well, he needs a distraction,” she claims. “Sweetie, have you ever thought how all of this is making someone like your father feel? How hard it is for him to accept change?”
I can’t think of any response to offer her.
“Your father went from working every day, from leaving the house at exactly the same time and arriving home just before sunset.” She continues, “He had a job, you had school, no one had to be careful of anything, in a sense, he was in bliss.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t mean he has to act all weird.”
“And when have you known your father to not act himself?” she asks. “You know how he is; you also know that he loves you.”
“I know, and I love him too, but…”
“It’s complicated,” she interjects. “He was never easy, trust me.”
“How did you do it, Mom?” I ask. “How did you end up putting up with it for so long, with the routine, his wandering eyes, his reactions? You know he isn’t perfect, that his mind works differently than everyone else.”
“And what's the problem with that?” she returns. “When I met your father, I wasn’t sure I could love him, and there you are, looking straight at me, the prime result of it all, Arnit.”
I can feel my chest tighten, it's difficult for me to swallow.
“We’re not just a routine to him, sweetie. If anything, we’re what he feels the most for.”
“Mom?” I call her. “When are you coming home? It’s been months already. You left here before winter, and now it’s spring.”
“Didn’t Dad tell you?”
“What? What happened?”
“I can’t go home right now.” I feel her words take a stab at me. “Grandma and Grandpa got sick a few months ago. They’re still suffering from the side effects, so I’m going to stay here a bit longer.”
“How are they? Will you be back before the end of the season?”
“Every day is a battle, but they’re getting stronger,” she claims. “Hopefully, I’ll be back soon.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“Are you going to talk to your father?”
Her stare perpetuates across the screen. I nod.
“Alright then. Love you too,” she giggles before ending the video call.
I get up from the bed, leave the wrinkles on the sheets behind. I look at the pictures pinned to the board by my bedside. My father, holding me in his lap with his eyes, looking up as if staring at the clouds. In all the pictures, his face is stagnant, his vacant eyes directly at the camera or looking somewhere out in space. My mother is smiling in every shot, showing off the pearls in her mouth. She genuinely looks happy.
All the family photos contain the same mood. There’s only one picture different from the bunch. My father seems to be towering over me, his eyes looking up, his posture straight like an oak. It’s a side profile shot that I took when I was six. We were outside, watching the sunset. My mother was sitting on the ground, her hands around my hips and a Polaroid in my hands. I snapped a single shot that blinded my father; his lips in the image are slightly curved in a state of content.
I open the door to my bedroom, walk to the kitchen at a turtle’s pace. I see my father hunched over the marble counter with a roller.
“Oui, I’m thinking about making some pizza,” he comments. “I know it’s your favorite, and since we can’t go out, we might as well stay in.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to blow up. It’s just that…”
“Times are tough.” He continues, “It can’t be easy having to spend so much time with me either, I bet.”
I rub my eyes in an attempt to push back my tears. “I miss Mom.”
“I know, son. Me too.”
“Things just aren’t the same,” I comment.
“Well, things don’t always have to be the same,” he says.
“Can you repeat that? You know, just one more time for the record?”
I chuckle and Dad doesn't. He continues rolling out the dough, but something tells me that he understood the comment, that the joke was well received. He just isn’t used to laughing.
I reach my hand out, “Come on,” I say.
He walks to me without taking my hand. He goes for a dish rag and wipes it around his floured palms and fingers while following me out the kitchen.
“Maybe I should get my mask,” he ponders out loud.
“It’s fine, Dad; it’s only us.”
I step onto the grass, the cold air whips the back of my neck. Dad takes a step forward, another step, and then another. We stroll down to the middle of the field. The dark clouds have receded, the snow has turned to puddles, forming portals of life scattered across the lawn.
Dad and I look at the setting sun. Tones of orange and pink streak across the sky; like a bleeding flower or a healing exit wound. I see my father’s frozen expression, and I toss some of my weight onto his shoulder. His lips curve just a bit. My father never was the kind of man to laugh, but at least I know that he can smile.