From "My Father, Dancing"
My father and I used to dance together in the kitchen before dinner. I grew up with the kitchen radio always on, tuned to a local R&B station. The habit got started with the dogs; my mother said the music kept them company when we were all away for the day. When I was small enough still to like being picked up, I shimmied in my father's arms while he performed an improvised two-step. Later I squirmed out of his grasp and made up my own steps, ducking out of the way of pots as my mother moved from refrigerator to sink to stove.
When I was old enough to be sneaked into bars -- "She's with me," my father would tell the bouncer with a sly grin -- we continued dancing to the sounds of stompy live bands. At these bars, dancing was serious business. We sat at a table, each with a bottle of beer in one hand, the fingers of the other tapping out a rhythm, the bony crack of our thumbs on the edge of the table giving an accent sharp as a cymbal crash. And then we were up, pushing our chairs back, no words exchanged, but both responding to some tightening of rhythm or deepening in the bass line. That moment reminded me of the way our dogs on the beach would suddenly begin to run down the sand at a breakneck clip, running toward something that seemed to be attached by an invisible string to a part of them not yet bred out.
I relied on this silent method we had of communicating, so I didn't know how to talk to my father when he was lying in a hospital bed, slowly dying of cancer. I hung over him like an insect caught in a spider's web, thrashing uselessly. I watched for the tiniest movement, a gesture, a raising of his eyebrows, anything that would tellme about what I meant to him.
On those dance floors over the years, we told each other more about ourselves than in any conversation. I mimicked my father's movements, and when I had gotten it right, I felt suddenly that I had been dropped into his body for a moment and knew his pleasure at pushing out on the floor a rhythm that brought the music inside of him. I used these occasions to test him too. As my body grew and pushed out in new places, I wriggled these parts and tried on different movements, the way I would try on new clothes. He was my first male audience, and I used him as a mirror to understand what I looked like to the world. His eyes told me what worked and what was too much, until I settled into a rhythm that suited me. It seemed natural that I should learn these lessons from him. Once my father told me that he wanted to be the first man to break my heart, because then he could ensure that at least it would be done gently. I thought about this during one of the many hours I spent sitting next to his hospital bed holding his hand. As I waited for some sign that he was aware of me, I thought it had boiled down to this: all I wanted from him was a simple squeeze of his fingers. As I waited and did not receive any sign, I realized that he was breaking my heart and it wasn't done gently at all.
My mother would watch our dancing at these bars from the table. Usually a woman friend would have joined her, and they would talk, their mouths lifted to each other's ears, hands cupped to their faces like they were telling secrets. My mother liked to dance too, and at times, when I was younger, I wondered if she was jealous. But now I could see that she must have liked to watch us, her husband and the daughter they had made, proving out there on the dance floor the success of their lives together.
Sometimes in the hospital my father and I talked. Or, rather, he talked. He told stories about when he was young, women he dated before he met my mother, friends he had who were, I knew, now dead. As he spoke, he stared slightly below and to the left of the television set. Once I moved behind him so I could match my line of sight with his. Maybe, I thought, the sunlight coming in from the large windows was catching this patch of white wall and giving it a suggestive sheen. But it just looked blank to me. It seemed he was seeing his life projected onto this wall and was giving it voice. I listened for my name and, when I didn't hear it, told myself that he just hadn't gotten to me yet. Once in a while he turned toward me and asked if it was time to go yet. I misunderstood the first time and tried to reassure him with what would become my mother's and my refrain, "I'm right here. I love you."
"Oh, stop with your bromides!" he answered. "I'm a busy man. Get the car and let's go. Let's go! Let's go!"
I quickly learned to lie and say that we were leaving any minute. He would forget after a while or go back to telling stories about his life.
One day, while I was riding the bus to the hospital, a blind man sat in the seat across from me. I noticed him at first because of his sunglasses, which were French and very expensive, and which I had coveted in a shop earlier in the summer. Then I noticed his stick and wondered if someone had helped him pick out the glasses. As we rode, he rubbed his foot up against the pole separating his seat from the seats next to him and also stroked it furtively with the back of his hand, from knee to shoulder height. The other riders stared out the window or read or focused blankly on the space in front of them. It struck me that the blind man was trying to make sense of the world around him. As I watched him, I thought about sitting with my father in the hospital, about how I continued to bump up against the fact of him lying there, through my conversations with the nurses about his temperature, his platelet count, and how the night had gone; through the hospital food that we ordered for him, though he couldn't eat it, and which I ate. When his friends came to visit, I waited for them to turn back from the window as they wiped the tears from their eyes. I struggled to see the shape of what would happen as it loomed, invisible, in front of me.