By: Mileva Anastasiadou
That night, we shared our last dinner as a family. Since then, I’ve shared many meals with my mother, yet the family seemed incomplete, as my father was not among us. I can understand his reasons now that I’m at the age he was back then. At that moment though, it was impossible for me to comprehend what made him decide to leave us.
That night, after washing the dishes and cleaning the table, as we did after every meal, after making sure there was not a crumb left on the table, he suggested we took a walk. We had a habit of never leaving crumbs or dishes unwashed, nor did we ever leave any kind of unfinished business, without trying to sort it out at once, so I immediately suspected that his request involved much more than an innocent walk. I pretended to be tired but father insisted. I was certain then. One more issue was to be resolved at once, even before we went to bed.
After a stop for an ice cream, we reached his favorite corner at the beach, where we used to play football in the past, or he pretended to chase me while I was running fast on my bicycle, until the bicycle broke down, or perhaps I grew too old for it. He started talking as soon as I unwrapped my little treasure, as if he wanted to make the most of the time I’d remain snowblind, so that he could confess things he didn’t really want me to hear.
I wasn’t paying attention as he rambled on. His words sounded gibberish, although perhaps they weren’t, if I had been careful enough to notice them. As soon as I finished with the ice cream, I listened more carefully.
It took me a long time to realize that pieces of yourself which you don’t pay enough attention to, never allow you to disregard them for long. You may have the intention of disregarding them forever, but they won’t let you. They will always do something to remind you of their existence. Do you understand?” he asked in agony.
I didn’t, because there were no pieces of myself devoid of my attention yet. I remembered our old house. The house we used to live in, with many rooms, most of which were kept locked by my mother, as we had no need of them. That big house, a legacy of my grand mother, never fit as, despite its size. When we moved to the small city apartment, of which I quickly discovered every hidden corner, where no secrets were hidden, as there was no room for them to hide, I immediately felt comfortable. That’s how I explained my father’s words, and growing up, I realized I wasn’t too far from the truth. Unexplored areas don’t let you rest, and they hurt even more if they are a part of you.
It was an unexplored continent, within and without, that my father had decided to explore and he was doing his best to make me understand. In two days, he would travel to Australia, where he had found a good job, with good money, necessary for my upcoming studies, as he claimed.
“I don’t need studies. I’d rather you stayed,” I told him reluctantly. I wasn’t sure what it would take to change his mind, yet there I stood determined to have my best shot. Later on, I found out that my parents had already separated in the summer. That all this had been predetermined. Dad would leave to find a job elsewhere, since he couldn’t find a job here. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped my lips, still wet from the ice cream. At that moment, while he was wiping my lips, thousand of pictures crossed my mind, from our old walks on the beach that had ended long ago, but this was of no importance to my childish mind, because they could still be repeated. If I let him go, all those walks would belong to the past. Forever.
“We have been given plenty of time on this planet. You have all the time ahead of you, but my time’s coming to an end,” he said, taking what was left of the ice cream to throw it in the garbage. Did he really feel he had thrown his time in the garbage, spending it with me? Was that the reason he wanted to leave?
“Don’t say that,” I told him. “A car might come at this very moment we’re talking and it might hit me and you might live much longer than me.” I don’t know how this idea came to my mind. These are not the words you expect to hear from a thirteen year old boy. On the other hand, only a thirteen year old kid might talk like that, without fear, unable to realize the graveness of the sentence. Death, at this age, is already a certainty, yet such a distant certainty, that it becomes insignificant. My father was confused. Panic quickly took the place of confusion. He held me tightly, as if he exerted all of his strength, in an attempt to push the thought away.
“I don’t even want to think of the possibility. Some years have been given to us and we should do the best we can with them.”
I didn’t speak. I wanted to enjoy the hug, as if it’d be our last hug, because it probably would in my childish mind, despite my father’s reassurance that he would come home frequently to see me.
For as long as this hug lasted, or perhaps because it lasted more than usual, I was getting angry. I didn’t know why yet. I’m still not sure why I was getting angry, while my father was holding me. I could have been angry earlier or later, when he introduced me to the woman with whom he would live in that faraway land he was getting ready to travel to. Yet I got angry during our last hug and I remained angry and frozen until that unbearable feeling jumped off me like lava. I might have realized his decision was final and came to face the possibility of a conscious choice, one of those choices that change your life to the point of no return. Would I let him go? Did I really have a choice at all? It took me years to solve the riddle, to untangle the knot. Choices, my attitude towards them, the possibility of being trapped in one of the roads chosen, acceptance of the inevitable, formed as ideas in my unsuspecting mind and denoted the beginning of the end of innocence.
She appeared suddenly a few minutes later, when my dad waved at her. She approached reluctantly and smiled. She hugged me and held me tight as if she had known me since forever. She craved for my acceptance. I could see it in her eyes along with the fear she tried to hide. She feared my reaction. She was afraid that a part of my father would stay behind because of me. That I’d be the unexplored room that would haunt her happiness.
I didn’t have the courage to escape the hug, which felt like a noose around my neck, rather than an expression of affection. As she stood in front of me, looking tenderly my way, with a stare that grew more and more intense, facing my frozen, expressionless face, which she mistook for an indication of acceptance, my anger eagerly searched for a way out. Nobody expected my reaction. Neither did I. Up until that moment, I had been a quiet, predictable young boy, who had never surprised any one.
At that moment, I was certain that none of this was my father’s decision. My father would never willingly leave me. What bothered me most was that he presented his leaving as his choice. He was the person that would justify the choices of others by presenting them as his own. There is always a choice, I wanted to scream to him. We are not totally free, yet choice still exists, even when we feel trapped. Sadly enough, he didn’t choose me. Or so I thought at the time.
I suddenly started running with all of my might. They ran after me and for a while, it was like old times. I rode my bicycle and he pretended to come after me, but at the last moment, when I wanted to obey his order and stop, to let him catch me, when I craved to let go in his arms, I watched her approach puffing and I saw hatred in her eyes, which she tried to disguise as agony, yet I was young enough to tell them two apart. I didn’t even look back. I kept on running with the strength of a thirteen year old child that can’t be exhausted from running, but only from feelings he can’t handle. I would keep on running until the end of time, until my body forsakes me, before my father does, until all goes blank, until darkness prevails. That morning, just when the sun began rising in the horizon, all lights went out and darkness did prevail for long.
I heard the noise. It was the loudest noise I had heard in my life. I heard it for long in my ears, from the time I woke up, until I fell asleep again. I turned around and saw my father lying on the asphalt, not chasing me any more. The game abruptly stopped. No more time for him to explore the unexplored rooms. It was me who knocked them down.
It took me many years to see the light again. In the beginning pain cuts you like a knife, leaving you breathless, as if it slowly kills you. The pain mellows with time, and there come moments you don’t even feel it any more. From a moment on, you are used to it. You know it still exists inside, like a muffled hum you have to pay attention to hear. It’s almost silent, weakened, doesn’t eat your guts any more.
What my father meant that night, what he wanted me to understand, is that when you’re ten, twenty, or even thirty, you don’t give a damn if you cannot travel the world. You underestimate choice, because all choice is ahead of you. Because you have time to change your mind. By forty though, my father’s age when all this happened and mine right now, you begin to care.
All of us have some time on this planet, like my father said that night, only that time is not definite. We should honor our choices from the start, not from a point later on. The quiet, predictable young boy died that night, along with my father, and that was his last gift to me before he left for good.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work can be found in many journals and anthologies, such as the Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Midnight Circus, AntipodeanSF, Big Echo:Critical SF, Jellyfish Review and others. She has published two books in Greek and a chapbook in English (Once Upon a Dystopia by Cosmic Teapot Publishing).