All That She is Not
On Sunday morning, Natalie drives to her father’s house wishing she drank two cups of coffee instead of one. It is fifteen years after her parents divorced and Natalie still finds it unfair that her mother is the only one who, after all of the court meetings and paperwork, lost all obligations to see her father. Children, Natalie believes, should be able to separate their lives just as equally. The road and stop lights slosh in her eyes. She cannot keep them in focus. She regrets her whole outfit as well. The cotton turtleneck is tight and itchy around her neck, and the sky no longer promises rain so, instead of prepared, she feels weighed down by her rain boots. A film of grease sweeps her head. As she drives, Natalie tucks pieces of hair behind her ears, feeling irritated that she washed it yesterday. Bitterly, she rubs her oily fingertips together. And the shade on her lips is all wrong. The dark purple shrinks her eyes down to whiny little dots. She wants to wipe it off, but all the napkins in her car contain snot or remnants of pink smoothie.
She arrives at half eleven. Piles of leaves have sprouted along the curb like bushes and cars are lined on both sides of the street. People are bustling into the church next door. Natalie waits for a father and son to cross before pulling into the driveway. She watches the father guide his son along a concrete pathway that hugs her father’s house. Does this bother her father, she wonders. Why don’t they use the main path up to the church like everybody else?
Natalie opens the car door, drops her left foot, and leans all of her weight on it. She cranes her neck to see, through the branches of a pine tree, if her father has seen her arrive. The screen door is resting on his back as he wiggles the key from the door knob. Natalie notices his hair right away. It is thinner and consists of more wiry grey than before. She also sees a bald spot forming.
Slowly, as if he only has one chance to do it right, her father pulls the seat belt over his torso. Natalie holds her breath until it clicks. Then she puts her brother’s dorm building into Google Maps, but the name is not recognized. Instead, she types in Lela’s Garden, a small Arabic restaurant between two liquor stores. Navigating to the closest restaurant, Natalie thinks, is the next best option. Plus, that’s where she and her brother agreed would be a good place to take their father.
“So who’s the protagonist?” asks Natalie’s dad as she merges onto the interstate. Pink and purple clouds have stretched thinly over the tops of Detroit’s tallest office buildings, hotels, and theaters.
“In what?” asks Natalie.
“In the book you’re reading, who is the protagonist?”
“A girl.” For a second, Natalie looks down at her lap. There are clumps of lint and cat hair nestled on top of her polyester pants. The sight of it is depressing.
“And how about the antagonist, huh? You know these are good terms for a college student to know.”
“Dad, I’m a English major. Of course I know these terms.”
“Then who’s the antagonist?”
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t read that far.” Natalie unclenches her jaw and tries to relax. She tries to pretend that she is very far away from him, in bed with a philosophy major smoking cigarettes. She turns the radio up. Norah Jones is covering Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers. Norah’s voice is healing. Listening to it feels like putting your hair up into a ponytail and feeling, almost immediately, that life can be pleasant after all. Natalie feels the rage in her lungs go stale. It isn’t replenished with anything, it just stays there. Stale and unwavering rage.
“Listen to this song,” says her dad. He turns the radio off and holds up his phone. Natalie’s jaw clenches once again. Her teeth grind. Her grip on the steering wheel tightens.
“It’s Jane Arden. She has a nice voice, and she’s beautiful.”
“I was listening to that song,” Natalie says, struggling to sound peaceful. She turns the radio back on and increases the volume, but Norah has already finished. An acoustic cover of some Van Morrison song is on. Her father turns the radio off again.
“Stop doing that!” Natalie barks. Suddenly, the dryness of her lips becomes apparent. She rubs them together, whining a little.
“Stop whining and listen to this song.” Once again, her dad holds up his phone and Jane Arden’s voice vibrates through the thin, rectangular speaker. All the muscles and blood and life in Natalie’s face sink. To be alone right now is all her body can handle.
David is waiting on a bench in front of his dorm building when they arrive. It is a mild morning. He is wearing a forest green hoodie and grey, wrinkled sweatpants. From a distance, he looks similar to one of Natalie’s ex-boyfriends. The brown hair with waves of different sizes. The height. The severe paleness. David is in better shape though. In a recent phone call, David told Natalie that he uses the campus gym three times a week. He has also cut back on sugar and took up yoga. In high school, Natalie’s friends liked to point out the similarities between her brother and her boyfriends. Some would tell her that it was a bit weird how closely “her type” resembled David. It was all in good fun though, Natalie knew it. Plus her brother is gay so no matter how severe the joking became it could never really be true. Sometimes, Natalie even added to their humor, telling them about her really hot cousin and how she wouldn’t be completely opposed to hooking up with him. These conversations usually happened at night with lots of alcohol in their systems. They would all laugh really hard, slapping each other’s legs and falling over. Then one night, a friend slurred, “And ya know what? People say women go for men who remind them of their dads.” Natalie stopped laughing. A look of sour evil swept her face. “No one says that,” Natalie said. “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” After that night, the jokes about David seemed to fade away like a sunburn on pale skin.
“How was the drive?” David asks. Natalie doesn’t answer. It was only a twenty-five minute drive, she thinks, how bad could it have been. She doesn’t like it when questions, or any conversational sounds, seem to fill space. Why is silence so overrated? Her father answers him.
“Where should we eat?” David asks. “Lela’s Garden like we planned?”
“Yeah it’s right down the street,” Natalie replies. “Plus parking will be easy.”
“Parking will be easy anywhere on a Sunday,” their father says. “Anyway, I don’t feel like hummus and garlic sauce for breakfast.”
“It’s 12:30,” Natalie says. “I thought we were getting lunch.”
“I was thinking something like eggs and hashbrowns.”
After moving David into his dorm that August, Natalie and her mother went to a little breakfast place called Brooklyn Street Local to relax and decompress after a laborious morning of carrying overstuffed laundry baskets and heavy textbooks. Natalie ordered the zucchini french toast with lemon glaze and a cappuccino. Her mom had a mushroom omelette and a glass of raw beet juice. The wait for two people was about forty minutes. But that was a warm Saturday morning. Natalie put the restaurant into her phone. The map tells her to turn around. She starts driving away from the dorm. The little gets smaller and more industrial looking as they move away.
“Do you know what an allegory is?” her dad asks. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
“What do you mean ‘it’s okay if I don’t?’”
“Well do you?”
“Uh, I think so.”
“David,” he says, “What’s an allegory?”
“Uh, it’s something in literature.”
Putting his phone near his mouth, their father says, “definition of allegory in literature.” The words formed into the Google search bar. He begins scrolling through the results. This makes Natalie upset. Yes, she has heard the term before. She remembers being taught it in English classes back in middle school. Obviously it was a literary term. Adding ‘in literature’ to the end was redundant.
“Allegory. A representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms…Have you ever read an allegory Natalie?”
“I’m sure I have,” she says flatly. Her words are like an abandoned glass of Pellegrino water.
“I’m just trying to help. If you know what these terms mean you’ll read a lot better.”
“You’re assuming that I don’t know them, dad. I know what a protagonist is, that’s a basic term.”
“Good. Keep it up.” Natalie thinks her father sounds cynical. A hotness, like a rash or fever, touches her skin. I’m the English major, she thinks. He’s never even been to college.
Since the sixth grade, Natalie realized that her father likes to copy her. In the beginning of every school year, Natalie hid the lists of assigned reading. She hated thinking that he might have a similar connection with a character or experience something transformative and awakening. Books made Natalie feel independent, like she had grasped something solid and empowering. So when her father started checking out titles from her reading list at the library, Natalie felt threatened. Sometimes, after reading a chapter in bed, little Natalie would tuck the book far beneath her pillow, hoping that the library’s copy was unavailable and that her father was planning to use hers once she fell asleep. Imitations like this carried into her young adult life. When she went to church on Sundays, he joined her. When she stopped going, so did he.
The parking lot is crowded. Graffiti covers the back of the white building in shapes and outlines of fruit. Brooklyn Street Local stretches the wall in dark block letters.
The outdoor seating area has two picnic tables, four round glass tables, and a few flimsy looking wooden tables. Each one is occupied and cluttered with plates. Natalie feels her temples throb. She lets out an audible sign that causes some of the customers to look up from their plates. The doorway is jammed with people. Stepping up, Natalie hears a woman say the wait time is thirty-five to forty minutes. She turns to Davis and her father and regurgitates the estimated wait.
“Should we put our name down?” David asks.
“Hell no. We’re not waiting.” Natalie starts back to the car.
“I’m sorry Natalie,” her dad says. “How would we know there’s a wait.”
Back in the car, Natalie rolls down the car’s front windows. They are facing the service drive with a highway below. Tall buildings stand around the highway like school children marveling at the city they have just constructed out of blocks and Legos.
“I did some work in that hotel,” her father says, pointing to a shiny building. “Pulling carpet out of some rooms and replacing tiles in bathrooms. It’s crazy to watch the highway traffic from the top floor.” She ignores him.
“Where should we go now?” The words plop out of her mouth. David shifts in the back.
“We could go to Coney Island,” David suggests. Natalie searches for the nearest Coney Island on her phone.
“It’s closed, David.”
“There’s a diner right by my dorm.”
“But we already drove all this way. Let’s just find something around here.” Natalie looks at her phone. In her peripheral vision, she sees her dad looking out the window, watching a mother fold up a stroller.
“Can you look for a place too? This is only because you didn’t want hummus and garlic.” Natalie’s father exhales and places the palm of his hand on his forehead. He crosses his legs. For a moment, Natalie thinks she sees tears running down his cheeks.
“So this is my fault. I messed up the plans.”
“Well David and I wanted to go to Lela’s.”
“Why didn’t we just wait here? Shit, it’s already been fifteen minutes.” His voice is loud now, and booming. Natalie forgot about how obnoxious it is to watch him assert authority. Her eyes roll behind her sunglasses.
Aside from the directions on Google Maps, the car is silent. Natalie feels sad. She begins thinking about how she spoiled their visit with David. She tries to think of the last time all three of them were together and the more she struggles to think of it, the more she grows angry with herself. She thinks about her father’s loneliness. She remembers how sad it makes her to imagine him on Christmas night, watching movies and drinking cocoa by himself. That’s why she had gone to his house on Christmas last year: to curb his loneliness and her guilt.
“There’s nowhere to park.”
“Go there,” says her father, pointing to a hardware store parking lot.
“That’s private parking. Look at the sign.” Natalie drives slowly, examining the street for a spot to parallel park.
“Can I go here?”
“Well where the hell should I go?” A spot reveals itself and Natalie swings the car along the curb.
Inside, the restaurant smells like cleaning supplies and burnt waffles. David leads them to a booth farthest from the front door.
“Did they say to seat ourselves?” Natalie asks with concern pulsing in her throat.
“It’s fine,” her dad says. Natalie unzips her raincoat. She feels her pants skimming the inside perimeter of the rain boots. Both David and her father are alternating the menu between front and back. The booth is sticky and moist. Beneath her butt there is a thick patch of duct tape. Feeling an urge to cry, Natalie goes to the restroom. When she comes back a short legged woman with a frizzy black ponytail is taking their order. Natalie positions her butt in the center of the duct tape and pulls the rubber boots in with her.
“Two eggs. Scrambled. A side of bacon. And rye toast. And coffee. Please.”
“Do you want hashbrowns sir?”
“Hashbrowns, yes.” That was uncharacteristically decisive of her father, Natalie observes. Usually with him, ordering food is a painful stream of uncertainty. A poorly crafted overture of uhs and ums that last longer than a Sunday symphony. The waitress collects the menus. When Natalie looks at David, she sees that he is sitting with his legs scrunched beneath him like a lopsided mermaid.
“Why do you sit like that?” she asks.
“Like that!” Natalie pushes his legs. “Just sit normally.” In one abrupt and aggressive motion, David releases his legs.
“Happy?” Natalie doesn’t respond. She looks around the restaurant, searching the faces of other customers for something to make her feel happy.
“You’re such a bitch,” David whispers.
“Hey! Stop that!” Their father’s voice is loud and embarrassing. He looks alive as if he were merely a hologram before. His hands grip the table. He booms again. Natalie and David look at him in disbelief.
“Stop yelling,” she pleads.
“That’s the difference between us Natalie: I don’t care! I’ll scream as much as I want!” Natalie winces as his voice penetrates the squares of butter and jam. She tries to remember a time when eating out with her father wasn’t pathetic. A time when he just let the sugar packets stay pressed together in their ceramic dish. A time when he didn’t stack or pile or reorganize the table’s contents. With his hands, he covers his face. He leans far back in the booth. His breathing latches onto a spastic, almost worrisome syncopation.
When the food arrives, Natalie can’t move; shame and nakedness have paralyzed her limbs. David eats and so does her father. Other than that it is silent. Like the moment after a spill, the air has flattened. Natalie wishes something would spill, putting movement into the moment. She considers tipping over her water cup. She thinks about going to the bathroom again, but the sour presence of her father’s tears keep her situated on the wrinkled patch of duct tape.
“Eat,” demands her father. “You got a fork. Eat.” Natalie stabs a beet with her fork.
“What’s the score say?” He squints his eyes at the television over the bar. Natalie reads the football score to him.
There is a black man sitting at the bar. A soggy newspaper is spread out before him. He is drinking his third cup of coffee. “Don’t think they can do it man,” the man says. Natalie’s dad scoffs.
“Not with this coach.” The two men talk for a while, passing quick witted comments back and forth like a leather bound football.
The campus is quiet beneath Detroit’s grey sky. When a squirrel runs by, David points to it saying how suburban squirrels are much more docile; the squirrels here will approach you like a stray cat. David shows them the student center, the undergraduate library and the art studio. Before entering each building, their father cups his hands around the glass windows, searching, it seems, for some reason to enter. Just as David and Natalie’s patience evaporates, he removes his hands.
As they walk, Natalie forgets about her rain boots. She becomes enveloped with the breeze on her cheeks and the changing color of leaves. She thinks about the clinical advantage of autumn. How leaves can be an indicator for depression. That’s what her mother has always said. It was autumn, and for the first time, I felt nothing. Feeling her focus drift outside of herself, Natalie hopes it will stay there. The only thing worse than paying too much attention to yourself is realizing just how fragile the feeling of relief and peace is before it all floods back into your system.
David and Natalie walk shoulder to shoulder with their father lagging behind. He looks curiously at the statues, reads the inscriptions thoroughly. He lingers in their shadows like an awkward relic from their childhood. They pass a man straddling a marble bench surrounded by novels.
“Shhhh,” their father says from behind. “He’s being peaceful.” Natalie rolls her eyes. The restaurant was peaceful too, she thinks.
“Where are your classes?”
“Mostly in that building.” David points to a block of Gothic inspired concrete.
“It’s ugly,” Natalie says.
“No, it’s hideous.”
“I bet, come Monday morning, the sidewalk isn’t this quiet,” says their dad. David and Natalie turn around.
“I bet on a Monday morning it’s like New York City,” he continues. Natalie tries picturing her father as a young college student wearing corduroys and collegiate hoodies and wearing a canvas tote bag. She wonders if he would even make it to class or if he would get distracted by the statues. She wonders if a young college girl might have admired his curiosity in the form and material. They would spread out a large blanket in front of his favorite statue. Then, leaning further and further back, he would sink into the cloth covered grass, and slowly exhale.
“Do you know what an allegory is?” She might be confused at first. Maybe even irritated. But ultimately, Natalie imagines that this woman, this figure of all that she is not, would accept her father. She would know what an allegory is. She would be well versed in all the different styles and forms of literature from Plath to Tolstoy. Hemingway to Austen.
“Do you know what an allegory is?” Lying down, resting her head beside his and closing the distance between them, she would look up into the sky and say, “No, but please, enlighten me.”
Before concluding his tour, David leads them to a manmade pond with a black gate along the perimeter. Within the water are marble foundations designed by an Italian architect back in the 70s. The foundations are meant for people to stand on. Natalie and her father follow David onto the marble pathway. Natalie looks into the water at her reflection. The sizes and shapes of the foundations vary. David, with his hands deep in his pockets, is standing on a circular one. Natalie joins him. Their father follows the path to a rectangular foundation. He puts his hands on his hips and exhales loudly. He begins to turn his body in a 360, taking in all the academia that surrounds him. Natalie watches him. She has an impulse to throw her arms around him and never let go, but she is here and he is there. They exist on different planes, they have different foundations. She thinks about how easy it would be to join him, just a short walk down the pathway over cool, shallow waters. She doesn’t move. She remains at David’s side, observing her father from afar. She imagines the woman, the being of all that she is not, following the pathway up to him, wrapping her arms around his torso and listening to how this, right here, is an allegory.