A Very Short Story
My girlfriend just turned twenty-one, because apparently I like dating girls who are fifteen years younger than me. Because why? Because boo-yah, that’s why. Anyway, so she just became street legal, and so is no longer Hustler-style “Barely Legal,” I guess. So it was time to buy her that first “real” drink in a bar. But I can’t drink anymore, because alcoholism on my part.
Still, I took my girlfriend to the horrendous bar that I go to. We’ll call my girlfriend “Julia” because that’s a nice name, and also, as it happens, her name. I still go to bars, because I like to do work in bars. …In Pennsylvania, we have some odd law that says that you can smoke in bars, but only in shitty ones. Seriously, there seems to be no defining principle to the law other than this; I can’t figure it out, it has nothing to do with food service or lack thereof, zoning, or anything else. Anyway, you can smoke in shitty bars here, and I have devoted my life to the cause of non-non-smoking, because I will freak out and SCREAM if I can’t smoke. Also I can’t write if I can’t smoke.
…And now, I spend 98% of my life wanting a cigarette, but not being able to smoke anywhere. And now I’m moving to Canada — I’ll be moving there in a couple of months — and it’s even worse there I think with the non-smoking, plus it’s really cold outside if you have to sneak outside for a cig. Anyway. This has nothing to do with my story. Except for the fact that I learned about the Canada thing that afternoon; the afternoon of the day where I was buying my girlfriend her first drink.
So I bought my girlfriend her first drink. I did not mention the Canada thing. I watched the bartender behind the bar. The bartender at the local bar in the town of _______, Pennsylvania has a limp. It kills me. She walks around using a cane. She can barely walk and her job is walking up and down a bar all day. It’s the worst possible job for her. Olympic Sprinter would be worse, true, but it’s a bad job for her. It’s the kind of bar where you go and you’ll see a guy drinking and smoking with a huge oxygen tank next to him, because he’s old and dying of drinking and smoking. It’s that kind of bar.
Anyway, I go there and I drink non-alcoholic beers or sodas and I smoke and write essays, as discussed. And I stare at the bar and I marvel. Teenagers on drugs, old people dying with oxygen tanks, the one guy who falls asleep while drinking because he’s homeless and has nowhere to sleep. This, this is my country. And these, these are my people. I love them but I’m slightly ready to move to Canada soon.
The bartender had chased my girlfriend out of the bar once before, because my girlfriend goes to a posh college in Connecticut and is posh-looking (which translates here as “not utter white-trash”) and thus attracted attention to herself and got carded and thrown out. Now, we went up to the bar to present her ID, for her first legal drink.
The bartender gave me a knowing leer after she read my girlfriend’s age. “21!” she said, with the knowing leer. “She’s very mature for her age!” I yelled, because it was loud in the bar. “They all say that!” she said. Indeed.
My girlfriend got a beer — a Rolling Rock, a terrible choice for a first drink, by the way. Rolling Rock? Whatever. Then I decided to be funny, which is why it’s brutal to date me. I am always trying to be funny, I am always testing out material for essays, like I’m on stage. Because why? Because tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre, that’s why. Because the whole world exists to end up in a book. That’s why. Also because I did not want to tell my girlfriend that I was moving to Canada, which might likely lead to a break-up. So I was stalling.
I was stalling, trying to be funny — and I’m old, old for my girlfriend, at least, so as my girlfriend sat down I said to her, “Well, old salt, now you’re sitting down and taking my place at the bar. Guess I’m getting older. Soon, I’ll be dead…” Then I stopped.
Then I realized what I was doing. I was doing my dad. “OMG!” I said, because I started saying “OMG” ironically, then forgot that I was doing it ironically, and now I do it all the time. “OMG. My dad…” I had to tell my girlfriend that night that I was moving to Canada, which I had just learned that afternoon, but I was afraid to do that. “My dad,” I said.
My father is an architect. He is a very cautious person. Before I knew him, in blurry sepia or Kodachrome photographs, he was not a cautious person. He was a hippie. He got thrown in jail for supporting civil rights. He did LSD, mescaline, peyote. He was an alcoholic. He dodged the draft. He dropped out of school to go to Canada, then realized halfway through that doing that was a terrible idea. He lived in a commune. He helped send medical supplies to the Vietcong. In response to this, the FBI sent FBI agents to his dad’s door. His father was not pleased.
But that was all before I ever met him. These days, my father is a very cautious person. He drives below the speed limit. He’s an architect. Part of his job is designing stable houses, making sure that houses don’t collapse on people. He uses a T-square. He does calculations in his head. He puts his pants on one leg at a time.
This is already not a very short story. I am not good at the art of compression. Okay. Once and only once, I made the mistake of bringing a girlfriend back to my father’s house. We were in grad school; I told her it would be fun. I meant “fun” in sort of a kitschy way, I guess. Like how going to, say, a museum devoted to the history of the bottle cap, with exhibits of bottle caps behind glass, like how that’s not exactly fun fun, but is sort ironically “fun” and is the sort of thing that you do if you’re in a certain mindset. Visiting my family is sort of like that.
I brought the girlfriend home. Apparently, no one had ever “stayed over” with a person that they were having sex with at my dad’s house before. I was unaware of this. This was a mini-scandal that was happening in the background that I was unaware of; blissfully unaware of. It’s like how if someone farts when the Queen Mother is visiting Australia and her attendants are scandalized but the Queen Mother is 105 years old and deaf with no sense of smell, but all this stuff is happening in the background, like the farter being taken outside and shot, but meanwhile, she’s blissfully unaware. It was like that. I was like the Queen Mother in this scenario. What is it with me and the weird metaphors today?
Anyway, panicked phone calls were being made and hurried backroom conferences were being held. This resulted in the startling announcement that the sleeping conditions were being suddenly upgraded for my girlfriend and me that night! We would get to sleep at a nearby nice hotel! What? My girlfriend and I were in a state of maximum confusion during all of this. I blame my psychotic step-mom for all of it, but that’s another story.
So our visit was slightly cut short, but before it was, my girlfriend — Carrie, I’ll just call her Carrie, because that’s her name — went outside and started to climb the large oak tree in our backyard, the one we had nailed our hammock to. Carrie was adventurous and bold; she owned a motorcycle. It had never, in my entire life, occurred to me to climb that tree. I stood there by the door, watching. What a charming girlfriend that I had! What a charming if slightly recherché thing to do, climbing a tree like that! I watched her clamber up the various branches.
Then my dad came out screeching.
“You’ve got to get down from there!” he said.
He repeated that sort of request, sort of demand until my girlfriend started to climb down. “It’s a soft oak!” he said. This sounded very science-y. Soft oak. Oh, of course! It’s a soft oak. Dangerous. Soft. Soft branches. That’s why we had never climbed it before. Later on I looked this up and there is of course no such thing as a “soft oak.”
She got out of the tree. “Sorry but it’s very dangerous,” my dad said. As she got out of the tree and stopped having fun — moment, ruined — my entire life flashed through my eyes and I realized why I was a pussy who was terrible at sports and neurotic and afraid of everything. I was a pussy because of course I was. Soft oak.
This is not, however, the story that I told my current girlfriend — this is back at the bar, her name is Julia, remember? — this is not the story that I told Julia after I bought her a Rolling Rock. Instead I told her the story of the time that my father took me to the school bus for the first time. ”Soon I’ll be dead…” I said, and then I remembered the story.
It was a beautiful day at the end of August. My father took me to ride the school bus for the first time by myself. I was five. In the years before this, they had driven me to school. Bees were buzzing, leaves were falling, etc. The late-summer sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
My father was standing with me at the end of our driveway, either smoking a cigarette or tapping his foot impatiently — he does both of those things a lot, and they’re both kind of the same thing, in a way.
My father is not much of a talker — I have an essay coming up later on about the longest conversation that I ever had with him. It lasted about three and a half minutes. He tends to leave the room and start messing around with a piece of wood or a computer or a drafting table. You’ll start talking to him and he’ll leave the room. It took me decades to realize that he did this because he’s shy. For years I thought he did it because he was mean. This is in fact why I became a writer. Because I would go on car rides with him — he’d have to drive me to high school, a hour-long drive — and he couldn’t leave the room, he was stuck there in the car, so he just wouldn’t respond when I spoke to him. This made me think that I was incredibly boring, so I put more and more effort into polishing my anecdotes, being interesting and funny. It didn’t work on my dad, but I still do it, which is how I became a writer.
My dad was forced to talk that day, though — or at least felt compelled to talk. It was a big day, a big event. A seminal event. Riding the bus to school for the first time. Thus far in my life, I had mastered shoe-tying. Now I would have to master this.
My dad cleared his throat. He started trying to be funny but no one in my family is very good at being funny. I really had to start from scratch with the funny thing. Generations of Millers have been unfunny. We were English and prissy and not funny and then we came to America where we were promptly also not funny. Sometimes we are drunken or very sarcastic, or often both, but that is not the same as being funny.
“So, son,” he said, in a “jovial” tone of voice. “Today you’re standing here, getting ready for your first bus ride. Now you’re getting older. You’re just a kid now, but soon you’ll be in middle school — and then in high school, then you’ll be getting your first car, a convertible, maybe, and I’ll be out here in the yard, raking leaves, an old man with gray hair. And then you’ll drive past the house in your convertible, with all your new high school friends, and I’ll yell to you, ‘Oliver, Oliver, it’s me, your dad! Hey!’ but you won’t hear me. You’ll drive on by. And then you’ll leave.”
This is a lot to lay on a five-year-old all at once. Granted, my dad was trying to be funny — failing, but still trying. Still, it’s pretty much the entire horrible life-cycle laid out in a couple of sentences. Youth, aging, old age, transience, death. I guess my father meant “leave for college” when he said “leave” at the end, but in my addled brain I thought he meant leave him forever and then he’d die.
Anyway, my reaction was not good. “DADDY, NO!” I screamed. “I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU.” I burst into tears. We cancelled the bus thing for that day. He took me to school. So much for speechifying. By the way — by the by, I guess — I never learned to drive a car on my own until I was 23 years old. I blame my dad’s speech for this.
…And that was the story that I told my girlfriend at the bar. I hadn’t told her about Canada. Maybe I wouldn’t tell her about Canada yet, or at all. My girlfriend; I always have a girlfriend, because I am co-dependent. I always have a girlfriend. And I never dump them. I just annoy them passive-aggressively until they end up dumping me. It’s a very passive-aggressive decision on my part. And I do it, because… I do it because I won’t be the one to say goodbye like that. I will not leave people behind like that. I will not leave people behind. …And sometimes, I think the story with my dad explains everything that has ever happened to me.
“Sometimes,” I said to my girlfriend, “I think the story with my dad explains everything that has ever happened to me.” Then she drank her beer and I drank my fake beer and we both sat there for a while.
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