How We Got Here

Issue 36 by Cory Essey

How We Got Here

We danced on my porch on the night I buried my dad. My feet were bare against the weathered wood, smooth under my skin. My dress, black and wrinkled, shifted in the cool night air and I remembered my father holding me up to the sky above his head. My arms outstretched, face toward the sun and flying, flying.

“It’s a wonderful world out there, my girl.”

He wasn’t himself when he died. He was small and weak, a man I barely recognized. It was impossible to imagine him gone, yet he had been disappearing in front of me for months. I pretended not to see it. I talked and laughed with him like I always had, ignoring when he wasn’t able to reply. The tubes and machines got in the way when I tried to hug him, his glassy eyes got in the way when he tried to recognize me. I kissed his forehead anyway. It was easier to pretend everything was the same rather than to accept the reality of my shifting existence, of the fact things were about to change in the worst way. I never claimed to be brave.

I went onto my toes to reach my arms around Evan’s neck. It felt good to hold onto someone whole. He had picked the song without saying a word. Placed his phone on the banister, folded his jacket neatly on the rocking chair, and offered his hand. The trumpets brought tears to my eyes and I took his hand and let him pull me toward him.

“Notice the small things, little one. The clouds, the trees. That’s the good stuff.”

Dad’s loud voice had boomed through the house. It echoed off the walls, especially when he laughed. But never more than when he sang. Off-key and usually with the wrong lyrics, his singing couldn’t be contained. It burst out of him, the joy unable to stay in his chest any longer, his arms above his head. I winced with the volume of it, but begged him to sing another. He always obliged his audience, the encore just as enthusiastic as the first performance. The kitchen was his favorite venue. The vaulted ceiling threw his voice back down to us, surrounded us. Spoons and cups became microphones and the counter was his piano. He sang and slid across the floor in his socks, and now he was in a box under six feet of earth.

How was I supposed to be ok?

Evan shifted his feet carefully to avoid my toes. We rotated in a quiet circle around a palpable sadness that was pressing on my chest. I stared at the fabric of his shirt and let my eyes unfocus.

Be happy, darling. Don’t be sad for me, ok? I know you will be for a while, with that heart of yours, but don’t be afraid to be happy again. That was the goal of my life, my girl. For you to be happy.”

I moved closer to Evan and pressed my cheek against his chest. I let my eyes close and listened to his thumping heart, the life inside of him that gave me hope for more days. Something to remind me that the sour taste of loss didn’t last forever.

When we were sixteen, Evan came to visit me for the first time. He didn’t call, didn’t ask, just stopped by. I was so happy, seeing his face at my door. Happy that he had thought of me, happy for the bravery of a sixteen-year-old boy to stop by a girl’s house just to say hello.

I hadn’t been embarrassed being in mismatched sweats in front of him that night in a time when I was embarrassed by everything. Evan brought a sweeping calm with him and he took me into the eye of it, too. He made me laugh and I didn’t worry if it was too loud. He sat close to me, and I didn’t mind leaning against him, didn’t mind that I liked the weight of him next to me. He talked about the future and it wasn’t scary, he made me excited to see what might come.

Dad took a picture of us that night that still sits in a frame in my house. We have an arm around each other’s shoulders and smiles on our faces. When I look at that picture now, I still feel that ease. That happiness when I opened the door. The feeling of possibility, the weightlessness of youth.

We sat on this very same porch that night at sixteen years old and talked about everything, about nothing, shoulder to shoulder in the cool night. We swung gently in sync on the old white swing that had sat on the porch since the beginning of time. I watched our feet, one small pair and one big, as they barely moved and yet propelled us back and forth, back and forth.

Evan was gentle in a time in a boy’s life when they were all locked in a constant and ever-changing competition with each other. He was comfortable where he stood, with people or by himself. An old soul was how my father had described him. He had said that people like Evan are special, the ones who know where they’re going and don’t mind where they’ve been. When Evan and I said goodbye that night, I told him that. He laughed and put his hands in his pockets.

“An old soul, huh? Well, if your dad says it, it’s probably true.”

I nodded my head and smiled. Dad never forced his opinion on anyone, but he also was never afraid to make it known. I admired that about him, that balance. My words swallowed me sometimes, my nerves failed. My dad and Evan both floated gracefully along, sure and upright, while I bobbed in their wake.

Evan looked at me for a moment longer, studied me in that way that made hiding anything from him impossible. I kept my eyes down, but I could still feel his on me.

“Len? You ok?”

“Course I am.” I looked back up at him and smiled when he did. “Of course I am.”

I had wondered if Evan would try to kiss me before he left that night. Maybe that had been his intention all along. Maybe it hadn’t been innocent after all. My heart hammered when the thought came to me, unsure of how I would respond. If I would know how to respond. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t mind figuring it out, that it would be an adventure that we could go on together, a chapter that could just belong to us. It would be easy; I knew that much. He could just lean over as we stood here, he could just come a little closer and our paths would veer to a completely new direction. We may have been kids, but some things were easy to imagine, some things held true no matter how much youth tried to twist them. I found myself wanting him to lean down, wonder how it would feel to change.

But he hadn’t. He hugged me tightly and told me to sleep well. An ancient soul, perhaps. When Evan’s taillights had faded away, my dad opened the front door for me. He smiled and gripped my shoulder quickly as I walked past and left him alone in the dark, staring into the empty yard.

“Count your blessings, Lena. The days and the nights. Can’t have one without the other.”

When I was twenty and home from college for the summer, Evan turned up again. I hadn’t seen him in months, hadn’t spoken to him except for a few quick phone calls at school. Our picture sat on the table next to my bed in my dorm. My roommate had asked me, naturally, if he was my boyfriend.

“No, nothing like that. He’s my friend from high school.”

“Your friend?” she said in a tone that made the word sound like the punchline to a bad joke. I nodded and felt my cheeks scorch. She rolled her eyes at me. “Whatever you say, Lena.”

When Evan came to the house, it was with a lawn mower and hedge trimmer. It was a beautiful day, all blue and sunshine, when his truck came banging up the drive. I stood when I heard the unmistakable sound, my book forgotten on the porch swing. He stopped at the bend in the driveway and waved wildly out of his open window. I made my way toward him, the sun hot on my face, my hand shielding my eyes.

“Evan? You lost?” I smiled in the brightness.

“Your dad said fifty bucks for the grass and hedges,” he called out as he cut the engine and opened the door. He had grown taller since I’d seen him last. His mop of dark hair was longer and it curled around his ears. He walked toward the tailgate and began unloading his truck, his dark eyes twinkling. “Couldn’t say no to that, could I?”

“Of course not,” I said, grabbing the handlebars of the lawnmower and helping him heave it out of the rusty truck bed and onto the grass. He gave me a little salute and a wink and went to work. When I made my way back to the house, I caught my dad’s eye. He held his mug in the air, a smile reaching his eyes that the sip of coffee couldn't quite hide.

When Evan’s work was done for the day, he made his way to the porch. I gave him something cold to drink and we sat on the steps. I stretched my legs along the length of the step, my back against the banister and he did the same on the step below me, his legs too long now to straighten. I smelled the earth on him, grass and heat. He brushed some clippings from his shirt and I noticed how large his hands were. There was no trace of the boy left in him. He said goodbye in that quiet way of his much later. The crickets were around us and I told him to come back soon. I wanted to reach for his hand, maybe to ask him to stay longer, but my arm never moved.

“You were just a baby, so small in my hands. Look at you now, smarter than I’d ever hope to be.”

The night was dark now and our small circle on the porch slowed. We were just swaying side to side and the exhaustion of the day was catching up to me.

“I’ll miss him,” Evan said quietly, “he was a good man. Good to me, always. Ever since we were kids and I was trying to date his daughter. He saw right through me, but he always let me come back and try again.”

I laughed quietly, glancing up at the clear night and remembering those easy days. Dad was gone and possibilities were closing their doors around me. He had been all I had left, my only tether to the past, to my family, to myself. My voice of reason, the echoing, booming voice. How could he leave me? I wasn’t ready.

I wasn’t ready for a slab of marble to be our only visits, for my memories to be our only conversations. I didn’t want to come into this house and be met with silence, or worse to think of another family living here. It was all wrong and I wasn’t ready.

My hands fell to Evan’s chest. I touched the buttons there and tried to remember when we grew up. The lemonade and grass stains were gone, replaced with black dresses and dead fathers. It made me disgustingly sad. We stood for a moment in the stillness, the distant murmur of the people in the house behind us the only other sound after the song finally finished, the finality of the day threatening to overcome me.

“Will you dance with me?”

He had asked me that when we were seventeen, dressed in a suit out in the wet grass in front of the porch. His hair was neater than I had seen it before. A yellow daisy was pinned to his lapel.

“What? Here?” I had asked, laughing and looking around as though a dance floor might materialize in front of us.

“Right here, Len. Come on.” He held out a hand and bent himself into a small bow. I shook my head and clasped his hand, the bottom of my jeans soaking in the dew as my bare feet moved between his.

“Didn’t you have enough dancing tonight?”

“Nope,” he answered quickly. “Catherine is a lousy dancer, as much as she thinks otherwise.” He paused a moment, looked down at me. “We would have had fun, you and me. None of the stupid prom stuff, just dancing. Laughing. You should have said yes.”

I shook my head and he spun me around dramatically.

“You know how I feel about dances.”

He wrapped an arm around my waist.

“I sure do, Len.”

“I lost your mom too soon. Loving people is a privilege. Make sure they know, Lena.”

The night was silent around us now. I couldn’t hear the voices inside anymore. It pressed around me, this quiet. I hated it. The song played on in my head in my dad’s voice and I closed my eyes tightly when I heard it.

“I’m not sure I can do this without him,” I whispered. A horrible tightness in my chest made me wish the day could finally end, that I could hide in my childhood bed upstairs and pretend the blankets were still protection, that my pillows would still hide me from the world outside. From the monsters.

“You can,” Evan whispered back and took my shoulders in his hands, “of course you can. He would want you to – I don’t have to tell you that.”

I nodded but wasn’t sure he saw me. The night was getting darker.

“Thank you,” I said honestly, “you always seem to appear when I need you.”

Evan smiled at that and he looked like the sixteen-year-old who had loped up these porch steps with an ease that belonged to a much older man.

“I’ll always be around.”

The front door opened then, spilling light onto the porch and casting our shadows invisible. I wiped the tears from my eyes, embarrassed to let them fall in front of any more strangers. Evan and I both turned toward the light and the woman with dark red hair who stood framed in the doorway.

“Evan? Are you ready?”

I stepped back from him and turned toward Catherine. The light haloed around her and she smiled at us, her hand dangling on the doorknob. She already had her coat on.

“Thank you both so much for coming,” I said, walking to her, embracing her. Her hair smelled sweet, fruity, and for some reason it brought tears to my eyes again.

“Of course we would come, Lena. We loved your father so much, and we love you.” She looked down for a moment, then back to me. “It seems like we just saw him at the wedding, I can’t believe so much time has passed.”

I nodded my head and the door opened again.

“Daddy?”

“Out here, buddy,” Evan replied.

“Did you find any frogs?” The little boy bounded out the door and into his father’s arms, his red hair catching the dim light.

“Sorry bud, not a single one. They must be sleeping already.”

“You’ll have to come back again to look. They’re here, somewhere,” I said, nodding toward the wet grass, my hands clasped behind my back.

“Can we, Dad?”

“Of course we can.”

Catherine pressed a kiss to her son’s forehead and ran a hand through his hair. I wondered if he would always remember how that felt, that touch. I wanted to tell the little boy, to ask him to remember. I wanted to scream, to cry, to let him know it all ends. Instead I watched them and I smiled, never raised my arm, swallowed it all. She started down the steps, smiling once more at me and reaching out to squeeze my hand. I returned the pressure, wishing they could stay longer, wishing I could leave with them.

“Bye, Lena!” Jack called from his father’s arms as they started toward the stairs.

“Bye, Jack.”

Evan stopped at the chair and picked up his jacket. It rocked by itself for a moment. He held his small son in one arm and turned to face me, his face half-hidden in the darkness.

“Take care of yourself, Len.”

He watched me with those dark eyes and I took a deep breath. A moment to remember, and then one to forget.

“I promise,” I said, raising my hand in a small salute that made Jack laugh. Evan smiled at me, and finally turned to walk away. Catherine waited for them, smiling at her family as they made their way toward her. She said something to make Evan laugh. I leaned against the railing and raised my hand to wave goodbye, even though they were too far away to see it. Even though they weren’t looking.

As he walked, Evan lifted Jack high above his head and the boy stretched out his arms like a bird’s wings. I heard his delighted screams, watched him turn his face toward the moon, flying. Flying.

About the Author

Cory Essey

Cory Essey lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two children. Her work has previously been published on Two Sisters Writing and Publishing, as well as their upcoming anthology.