Mike Marshall Wilson
Right now you are about to turn fifty. You are the same age as your dad was when you stopped talking to him. You still haven’t said anything to him, even after all these years. This, you have realized, is because you are both essentially the same. Neither of you will pick up the phone or even send a greeting card; neither of you will concede anything. I am sorry to report this.
This is the first thought that occurs to you as you sit here and write all this out. You wonder why this thought is the first to come to mind. Later today you will go for a jog and try to think of why exactly this is, but you have never been very good at figuring yourself out, so you are not hopeful for an insight. Time has not made you much more self aware or more introspective in any significant way. Actually, you have become much more adept at lying to yourself.
Actually, you have become much more adept at lying to yourself.
You are writing this to yourself because you have recently come across an old photograph and it has made you nostalgic. In this photograph you are with your entire family. You are nearly twenty-five years younger here. Both of your children are in the scene, though they are not in the picture entirely. Your oldest son is below the frame. He is flopping on the ground; his feet are all that show in the picture here, poking up into the bottom of the frame as though he is falling. He is throwing a fit over something you are surprised to remember. He holds your gaze below your seat just before you will look up at the camera, which is held by your father, and the flash is going to catch you by surprise. Your other son also appears in the frame with only a part of his body: his arm. He has run over to scold his older brother— hard to believe they are separated by only two years—and his hand, forearm, elbow and bicep appear in the frame because he is going to swing these mechanisms down hard on his brother. He has seen you do this once or twice.* He will scream at his brother that he is “too old to throw fits” because he has heard you scream this. You will wait too long before you grab your son off of your other son and tell him that “We do not hit.” You will also say, “That’s a no-no,” and then you will say, “Time for timeout?” Your father will document this with a couple more photographs, though the one your are looking at right now is the only one of the exact incident that has survived the trip through the last twenty-five years.
You came across this picture by accident today. You were clearing the basement of some boxes stuffed with old bills and receipts and credit card offers. These were documents you once intended to shred so as to prevent identity theft, but you have never run a single one through the shredder. You don’t even own a paper shredder.
Today you were down there looking for something (I won’t tell you what, it would ruin the surprise) and you saw all those boxes and decided that today was the day. You were going to burn them in the fireplace even if it took all evening. This photo was one of three others you found in the box. They were clipped together, and scribbled across the backs of all three was the place and date: Pensacola—1987. When you saw them you right away remembered something you used to think to yourself: you used to wish so badly back then that you could violate the laws of time and place and paradoxes to have a conversation with yourself from a few decades down the line. You wished that a gray haired and gimpy version of yourself would saunter up to your porch one day and knock on the door and tell you that he was here from the future. You imagined that he’d say something about neutrinos and quantum foam and the fact that you read too much science-fiction as a kid. Then he’d ask if you wanted to go have a cup of coffee.
They were clipped together, and scribbled across the backs of all three was the place and date: Pensacola—1987.
This was a strange thing to wish, Mike, but you still find yourself wishing it, even nearing fifty. I think all the time that I’d like to have a conversation with my 70-year-old self. It would be nice to know that I lived that long, for one. Cancer runs in the family. I don’t have to tell you this. In this photo your mother is about to die from it. She was only three years older than I am now. It was what she told you about your father just before she died that compelled you to quit speaking to him. I won’t tell you what she said, but you’d better fucking prepare yourself for it.
Back then you wanted to talk to me because of your anxiety. You were anxious about everything. And you still are. But there is a new medication now. You take it twice a day. It alleviates the head pains and chest pains and keeps you from metaphysically peeing your pants when your mind gets carried away with something. It helps you act like a “grown ass man,” which is something your wife used to say to you all the time. You never liked when she said that to you. “That’s something the blacks say,” you said to her back then. “So?” she said. “White people can’t say it? Are you a racist now, too?” No, you weren’t, and aren’t, but it did bother you that she accused you of that. You even went so far as to date a black woman after your wife left. You are still obsessive about proving things to others. You still hope to one day grow out of this, even nearing fifty.
Back then you pre-suffered all the time. (“Pre-suffer” is a term that will be trendy in the next few years. You will start using this term soon and will never stop. It is every bit as annoying as the 1980’s term “validate my feelings,” the one your wife uses all the time.) You spent a lot of time thinking about what life would be like if something happened to one of your sons or if your marriage fell apart or if you lost your job or if you died. You wanted to know that you’d make it through these next decades without any of those things happening. You wanted to hear me say that none of your worst fears came true. Then you wanted details. You wanted a year by year account of the happenings in your life so that you could be ready for them and so that you could enjoy them. “Why would you want to live out the next thirty years like you were participating in a re-run? Like an old I Love Lucy episode?” you imagined me saying to you. I would never say this to you, by the way.
“Yes,” you thought you’d say. “That’s exactly what I want. More than anything.”
In the photograph you are about to pull your sons apart. I’ve written that already but it is worth a reminder. You will send them each into “time out” and this will not bother them. It’s because they know that in thirty seconds you will become distracted and they will go back to doing whatever they want.
This is how you are with them during the rest of their childhood: distracted. But I’ll defend you on that one. You had a lot of things that went against your ability to focus on them. They took advantage of this, especially as teenagers, and when they are adults they will admit this to you. “I know you did,” you will say to them in response, “and I didn’t appreciate it. I did my best. I wish you guys would have been more independent and wouldn’t have tried to push and poke at me all the time. You made things really hard for me.” You have said this last thing to too many people and it has always made you sound wimpy. They were just trying to get your attention any way they could back then. They didn’t say this but all three of you knew it. You should work on accepting the apologies of other people over the years, Mike. Apologies to you will be few and infrequent, and you should try to develop the ability to embrace those moments and make others feel better instead of like shit. Passive aggressiveness has always been a predominant trait in you. You don’t like this part of yourself. But even today it remains a large inhibitor to your social interactions.
You will look up after this photo is taken. Your father will smile and say that you don’t have enough photos of your family. He tells you he is going to keep a camera with him whenever he is around you guys. He says you’ll thank him later on; he says you will be glad he has frozen a few moments in time for you. “You could have picked a better moment than that,” you say. He will take several more photos of you as this particular day wears on. He will be the one who stares through the lens and captures one of the most consequential moments of your entire life. Your wife will walk up to you in an hour or so—your sons will have run off after something—and your dad will snap the photo of the moment just before your wife tells you she is having an affair.
But don’t worry. Your wife has done you both a favor here. The divorce will give you the chance to meet some really amazing women, one of whom will want to marry you more than anything, though you will flat out refuse. Her name is Anna. You’ll tell her you aren’t going through that again, that you have tried matrimony and it hadn’t worked. “Marriage just isn’t for me,” you’ll say. “The most important thing in my life now is my boys.” These are both lies, and both of you will know it the second it sprays from your mouth. Anna stays with you an entire year after that, hoping you’ll change your mind. One day you will get home from work and she’ll have her things packed neatly into a few suitcases. It looks like she is going on a trip instead of leaving you.
Anna was the right one. She said this to you just before she walked out. “If you’d have met me first we would have been happy together,” she said. It took you a long time to realize she was right. But once you realized she was right it was too late. Way too late. Even now, as I sit here penning this letter to you, her voice comes charging at me from the ether with these words I wish I could do something about.
Your wife telling you about the affair won’t hurt as bad as it will hurt when Anna leaves, not even close, though until you meet Anna you will be convinced that your wife leaving was the worst thing ever. But the years will peel away and show you that your marriage ending was one of the better things that could have happened to you; you will find that there are shockingly few regrets concerning this matter. It took you a long time to realize it, but you two really were horrible for each other. You both got along best back then when you were both drunk. This should have been a clue.
But the years will peel away and show you that your marriage ending was one of the better things that could have happened to you.
The only regret you still have about your wife leaving is that you will wish you would have held it together better that afternoon after she told you. It was your reaction to her news that proved most controversial after the fact, not the news itself.
You kept it in for about twenty minutes after she told you. Then you had what clinicians call a nervous breakdown. Your dad called it “going apeshit crazy berserk.” Right in front of the boys, too. She would admit, months later, that she chose the time and venue to tell you like that so as to avoid a scene. She would admit she miscalculated your ability for restraint. She would even apologize to you. “It was a chicken shit thing to do,” she’d say.
All you did was nod when she whispered it to you. You clasped your hands across your chest like you were a corpse propped upright, and you stared off at your boys. They were running away from their grandpa’s camera while he was taking a photograph of them as they ran out into the open. You’d hold things together until the steaks came off the grill and you all sat down to eat. You’d even make it through a few bites of the meal. Then. . . well, I am not sure if I should tell you all the things you did and said in front of those boys as you fell apart. I’m not sure you could help things be rendered any differently even if you knew. In fact, I think if I told you the details beforehand then it might actually make things worse and not better. That is not the point of this letter.
What you remember most about that afternoon is what you were seeing at the exact moment your wife whispered into your ear. Your dad stood in front of you after getting the shot of your wife and you; then he would swivel toward the boys. He would hold the viewfinder to his eye, ready to snap a picture of them as they were running from him. He was waiting for just the right timing, as was your wife. Your dad got down on one knee. So did she. In retrospect, it almost seemed coordinated. He snapped the frame. You heard the shutter go and then you felt your wife’s lips against your ear, thinking at first she was bending down to kiss you. Your father would present this picture of the boys to you a few days later. He had no idea that he’d captured them in the exact moment your wife began to tell you something you didn’t know about her. In the photo your boys are running fast. Each has the opposite leg lifted in the air, like one is a mirror of the other, and the wind lifts their shirts like bedsheets on a clothesline. Their hair, long and curly back then, reaches away from their scalps towards you. Ahead of them is the vast plane of sawgrass and bay trees. Way ahead is the gulf. They seem to be floating out into this void. It is one of the few times in your life that you will see what they see, exactly as they see it.
* You hate footnotes. You hate them bad. But you feel compelled to use one here because this image has brought to mind the time when they were teenagers and had a fight with each other at school. You were told many different versions of this fight by their friends, coaches and teachers. . . some of the details you believed and some you didn’t. It was supposedly over a girl, or so they both claimed. The only loyalty they showed each other for a long time was this solidarity about their motive for beating the shit out of each other. The football coach told you he’d never seen such brutality when your older son began hitting your younger son with a cafeteria tray. “Blood was everywhere,” he said. “It was like a scene from Terminator.” The blood had come from a head wound and had made the whole thing look like a crime scene, but the cut would only end up requiring ten stitches. This fight had not been over a girl. It had been over you. You know why.
Mike Marshall Wilson has had fiction appear in The Allegheny Review, The Cleveland Review, and on The Coffin Factory’s O-Bits blog. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife and three children.