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Underwater, p.17

Underwater, page 17



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  He’s not here. He only exists if I let him.

  * * *

  It’s just before ten a.m. when I peel into the lower lot of Ben’s school. I don’t even check to make sure I’m parked between the lines. It seems like it should be time for recess, like kids should be hanging upside down from monkey bars or slurping up tubes of yogurt and juice boxes. But the campus is quiet and empty, and I worry that it’s because of my dad. Especially since there’s also a police car parked in front of the school. I know it’s bad. Not Aaron Tiratore bad, but still bad.

  I run up the concrete steps, past the handmade posters advertising Ben’s play four days from now, and through the front door of the office. I must be loud, because everyone turns to look at me at once—two police officers, one principal, one secretary, and both of my parents.

  I zero in until my mom and dad are all I see.

  My mom is frazzled and furious, her eyebrows and fists knitted tight as she shifts from foot to foot. My dad is slumped over and slender in a chair by the window, his wrists handcuffed behind his back. I haven’t seen him in over a year and a half, but the way he looks now is beyond anything I expected. He’s gaunt. He’s dirty. He has a ratty beard with food crumbs stuck in it. I can smell the stench of alcohol and filth on him from ten feet away. Seeing him makes my heart hurt for so many reasons.

  My mom turns to me, her eyes filling up with tears. “You came.”

  I well up. I can’t help it. Her words mean everything.

  “Where is he? Is he okay?” My eyes are everywhere, but I don’t see my brother, and all I can think is that something happened to him.

  “He’s in class,” my mom says. “He doesn’t even know.”

  “I don’t understand,” I say. “Why are the police here?”

  “Because your dad wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

  “I just want to see my son,” my dad says. It seems like a simple enough request from a father, but nobody in his right mind would consider sending a kid off with someone who looks like my dad right now.

  “You want to see Ben?” I ask him. My words are loud. “You actually want to see him? Since when have you had any interest in seeing any of us?” The noise of my voice carries through the tiny office, over the desk and through the slats of the ceiling fan, making the principal and my mom jump. “Christmas, birthdays, swim meets, awards ceremonies…” I tick them off until my voice quiets to a whisper. “And when all those kids at my school died, I could’ve died, too. But you come now. Why now?”

  “Because he’s my son. I needed to see him.”

  He only wants to see Ben. He doesn’t want to see me. As much as I lectured my mom about forgiving my dad, the truth of him not wanting to see me hurts. “He doesn’t even know you,” I say. “I’m the one who knows you.”

  Those words make my dad’s shoulders tense. My mom gapes at me. Maybe I’ve only focused on forgiving Aaron Tiratore. Because right here, right now, I don’t feel like I’ve forgiven my dad.

  “What? It’s true.”

  My mom nods slightly. She knows I’m right. “Morgan,” she says, “maybe it would be better for you to wait outside.” She looks pointedly at my dad. “She’s been through a lot. And your absence hasn’t helped.”

  “Oh, yeah. Here we go again. I’m always the bad guy,” my dad says.

  “Are you for real?” My mom tosses her purse to the floor, like she had to throw something, but that’s all she had. “You’re actually going to play the victim here?” She angles her body in front of him. “You know what? Your daughter, our daughter, who I’ve come to realize is smarter than you and me put together, thinks I should forgive you. She thinks forgiving you will help us move on. She’s a better person because she’s been able to forgive people who have done unforgivable things. I wish I were capable of such forgiveness, but I’m not. Because I will never, in a million years, forgive this.” She sweeps her hands in front of my dad in a gesture of disgust. “Showing up this way, making a scene at your son’s school? It’s unforgivable. Absolutely, positively unforgivable. You need help. I will never allow you to see Ben until you get it.”

  “Or me,” I say. “Not that you seem to care about that.”

  My dad lifts his head to look at me, and when he does it’s like I’m only a memory of something from a long time ago. It’s true that I know him and Ben doesn’t. But that’s the problem. That’s exactly why he doesn’t want to see me. I’m a reminder of him at his best. And that makes what he is now even worse. Of course he’d rather spend time with a trusting six-year-old who doesn’t entirely understand how messed up his dad is. I’m not like that. My dad knows I know how much he has changed. He slumps over in his chair. The hem of his jacket, dirt-stained and tattered, drapes past his knees, skimming the floor. His arms stretch behind him, the handcuffs biting into his wrists, as he erupts into huge, heaving sobs. He looks so weak. I don’t even know who he is as he shakes and sniffs in front of me. I don’t recognize a single thing about him.

  And then my mom cries, too, and I’m wondering if she wants to take back her words.

  Behind the desk, the principal straightens out her smart pink sweater set and the secretary stares off at her computer screen, presumably trying not to invade what feels like a private family moment.

  “Let’s go,” the taller police officer finally says, pulling my dad up by the elbow.

  “Wait!” My mom stops them at the door, gently reaching for my dad’s shoulder because she knows her touch might startle him. “Rich,” she says. “Please let them take you someplace where you can get help.”

  He looks down at her, eye to eye, searching for something. But his face switches to confused. Disoriented. Like he doesn’t remember who she is or how he got here.

  My mom and I follow the police and my dad out. The school bell rings and kids instantly spill out of classrooms, babbling loudly and swinging lunch boxes in their hands. I don’t know why they’re out here. I thought they were keeping everyone inside. I must’ve just had an idea in my head that the stillness of the campus meant the administration and the teachers were keeping our secrets. But they weren’t. And now, I look up and there’s Ben standing in front of us, watching the stairs. He shifts. He squints. His superhero lunch box dangles at his side.

  “Morgan,” he sputters, “is that Dad?”

  chapter thirty-eight

  My mom calls into work to say she has a family emergency and can’t return. Then she checks Ben out of school for the day. There’s no point in staying. She has to tell him things he might not be ready to hear but that need to be explained nonetheless. Because today my dad went too far. And now my mom has to tell Ben how sick his dad is and that he needs to get help from special doctors to get better. She has to tell Ben that no matter what, he should never go anywhere with our dad. I assume we’ll go straight home to talk then stare at the walls and each other, but Ben begs for ice-cream cones like an unexpected afternoon off from school equals an insta-vacation.

  “Think you can handle ice cream?” my mom asks me while Ben jumps up and down, pleading for me to say yes.

  I don’t know if I can handle it or not. The only way to know for sure is to go. That is what Brenda has taught me. That’s what I’ve been doing every day. Attempting and accomplishing things bit by bit.

  “I want to try,” I say.

  My mom squeezes my hand. “We’ll be right there with you.”

  She and Ben follow me home to drop off the Bel Air. Knowing they’re right behind me makes the drive back way less stressful than the drive to Ben’s school. We ditch my car and pile into hers, where I sit in the back with Ben. His shoulders are even with mine thanks to the added height from his car seat. But not driving makes me feel even more trapped. I can feel the sweat collecting along my hairline and the barfy grumblings of my stomach.

  “Windows,” I yelp, and my mom presses a button to roll down all four of them at once.

  The wind blows in my face. It’s enough to keep the nausea at b
ay, but I’m totally counting the blocks down as we go. Three more. Two more. One more. I haven’t seen this part of town in so long, but I know it as well as I know all of Ben’s lines in his play. I miss it. I miss being here. And I’m so relieved when we pull into a parking space and I plant my feet on the solid sidewalk again. Ben leads us to the shack at the end of the pier like he’s on autopilot. We get soft serve ice cream and not enough napkins—a huge mistake since the remnants of Ben’s chocolate cone get smeared across his face like war paint.

  We sit at the end of the pier and watch the ocean and the boats and every significant movement in our world at that moment. Tons of people are out even though it’s the middle of the day. There’s a false notion that people who live by the beach have money, but the reality is that burnt-out surf bums and dozing homeless people are also scattered among the moms dressed in designer sweatpants and thirtysomething entrepreneurs who make their own hours.

  Ben scrunches his face up as he watches a homeless guy shuffling from person to person on the pier, holding his stained pants up with one hand and asking for spare change with the other.

  “Does my dad do that?” Ben asks.

  “Probably, sometimes,” my mom says.


  And there’s the question we can’t completely answer. Still, my mom tries.

  “Because he needs help. Not just with money to buy food, but with a lot of other things, too. But he needs to figure out for himself that he needs help. Grandma and I can tell him, but he has to want to get it.”

  “So when he gets help, he’ll come back?” Ben asks.

  “It might not be that simple,” I say.

  “But what if I want him to get help so I can still love him?”

  “It’s okay to love him no matter what,” my mom says. “And it’s okay if you miss him and want him to get better, because Morgan and I want that, too.”

  Ben bites into the cone of his soft serve and chews thoughtfully. “Okay. That’s what I’ll do then.”

  * * *

  After eating, we head back. My mom swings Ben’s hand in hers, the wind whipping her bun loose so the shiny brown strands of her hair brush her shoulders. It’s just the three of us—the way it used to be when we’d spend warm evenings or sunny weekend mornings here like this. We make our way up the pier where we pass fishermen and moms pushing babbling toddlers in baby strollers. We pass runners wearing formfitting Lycra tank tops and neon shoes. We pass a girl who looks a little older than me hustling to the ice-cream shack, tying her bright pink apron around her waist while balancing her phone between her ear and her shoulder.

  And I have a memory then. Of days at the beach with my dad when I was just a little kid and it was only the two of us with a boogie board and a bottle of sunblock. He taught me how to swim in the ocean, navigate waves, and get out of rip currents. Ben wants my dad to get help so he can still love him while I’ve tried to pretend I don’t love my dad because of who he’s become. I don’t love this new version of him. I miss the old one. But that’s not the whole truth. Because my dad is going to be my dad forever. He’s going to be my dad whether he gets help or doesn’t. The truth is I will love him either way because he’s my dad. I will love what I remember. But loving isn’t the same as forgiving, and I still need to work on that.

  About halfway up the pier, Ben stops at a binocular stand that costs twenty-five cents. My mom fishes out her wallet to come up with a quarter for him. We sit down on the bench next to the stand to stare out at the horizon while Ben looks through the binoculars at some stand-up paddleboarders way off in the distance. It’s weird to say, but I already miss this moment. I’m longing for something before it’s even gone. It makes me want to do everything I can to keep having moments like this.

  * * *

  My mom’s phone rings as we’re heading back to the car. She answers. “It’s the police,” she tells me, and ducks behind a concrete column to talk.

  I pull Ben to the wide front window of a nearby bakery, where we watch a man in a hairnet roll out dough across the floured surface of a butcher-block table. He has a bunch of metal cookie cutters laid out next to him, and I ask Ben if he can tell what shapes they are. He squints and takes inventory.

  I look over at my mom. She’s fidgety, nodding her head, and clipping and unclipping the clasp on her purse.

  Ben looks up at me, ticking off all the shapes, and I nod with enthusiasm. “Good job,” I say. “I think you figured out all of them.”

  My mom is only on the phone for a few minutes, and she looks shell-shocked when she walks back over to us.

  “What is it? What happened?” I ask.

  “I don’t believe it. Your dad willingly checked into rehab. He actually did it.” Her eyes tear up, but they’re tears of relief. Of happiness. Of hope.

  I have them, too.

  Just a few minutes ago we were on the pier, escaping reality. Now reality is back. But it’s a good reality. It’s a promising one.

  chapter thirty-nine

  Evan insists that going to Ben’s play is our first date. So on Friday night, we drive in his car to make it more official. His music is good. The windows are down. The air is salty. I want to love the moment more than I do.

  But I can’t.

  Because the reality is that I’m about to do the thing I’ve been worried about ever since Ben told me he was in a play. I’m about to sit down with a bunch of strangers and pretend like it doesn’t bother me.

  “Pull over,” I say only three blocks past Paradise Manor.

  I scramble out of the car and sit down on the curb. I take deep breaths while the evening traffic rush comes and goes through several cycles of red, yellow, and green traffic lights in front of us. East and west. North and south. Evan sits, too, quietly watching the cars with me. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t tell me to get over it. He just lets me work through my moment. I appreciate that.

  It’s why I get back in the car.

  He holds my hand for the rest of the drive, squeezing it every once in a while to remind me I’ve got this. And then he holds my hand through the lobby, past the door, and down the aisle of the auditorium. He finds me an end seat in case I need to make a quick escape, then sits down to the left of me. He tosses his jacket on the seat next to him to save it for my mom, who had to come earlier to help Ben get ready backstage.

  And then we sit. And wait. And watch.

  I visualized every single second of this with Brenda, but it’s still different when I’m actually living it.

  Everyone except us has some form of recording device. Before anything has even started, parents are taping the audience filing in or snapping pictures of themselves holding up the program. I try to record a memory of the scene. I snap a visual of the chocolate-brown velvet curtain skirting the sides of the stage. It’s open wide enough to see the cute kid-painted forest scene that will be used as the backdrop for the play. There are white fluffy clouds and trees hanging low and dotted with lush green leaves and bluebirds. The sounds of flowing river water and forest animals echo through the sound system.

  As we sit, the auditorium gets more packed with people. Lightweight jackets are shed and hung over the backs of seats, and cell phones are whipped out for last-minute checks of e-mail and other pressing things. I take inventory of every face and emergency exit.

  “It’s nice to be out with you,” Evan says, squeezing my hand and distracting my brain. “In the world, I mean.”

  I squeeze back. “Thanks for bringing me.”

  “Come on, you know there’s nobody else I’d rather spend opening night of Pacific Primary’s kindergarten musical with than you.”

  I lean over to kiss him discreetly on the cheek. My kiss is innocent enough that someone might just think we’re friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. But then Evan pulls me closer and presses his mouth to mine with a little more passion. I squelch a laugh.

  “We’re at a play being put on by six-year-olds. Stop.”

kay. Sorry.” He pulls my hand back to his lips and kisses each of my knuckles. One, two, three, four, five.

  I recognize the principal when she walks down the aisle and up the steps at the side of the stage to stand in front of the microphone to thank us for coming. She’s wearing a sweater set similar to the one she wore on the day my dad showed up at Ben’s school. I wonder if she owns anything other than sweater sets. I try to picture her at the beach, and it’s impossible to imagine her in a bathing suit or eating ice cream or diving through a wave. Tonight’s cardigan has some gold zing on it, so it must be extra dressy for school plays or something. I only notice the zing because the spotlight is on her and it’s making the gold spray sparkles across the auditorium.

  She talks about the play and how impressive it is that kindergartners memorized all these lines and songs. She thanks Ben’s teacher and the parents who helped make costumes and are selling cookies in the lobby. She talks about a fund-raiser and a box tops contest. Everyone applauds because they’re supposed to.

  My mom scoots past my legs to take her seat. “Ben is so nervous. I hope he doesn’t barf onstage,” she says.

  “I hope I don’t barf right here.”

  She squeezes my shoulder, then sits down on the other side of Evan.

  The curtain closes and the lights dim until the curtain reopens. And then the overhead lights tint the stage with green and gold to make it look like a forest flecked with sunlight. Out comes Ben, alone, hop, hop, hopping. He’s so cute that it makes everyone in the audience titter with laughter. The green hood of his sweatshirt hangs low over his face, and his googly eyes roll all over the place.

  “One, two, three, four! Come explore the forest floor,” Ben calls, and a few more kids dressed as various forest animals skitter onto the stage.

  My grin is as wide as our row of seats. I could watch this forever.

  Until, behind me, there’s the sound of heavy footsteps. There’s a whispered “Excuse me” as a guy who looks close to my age settles into a seat across the aisle from me. He’s wearing a heavy coat even though it’s kind of hot in here, and he’s carrying a backpack even though it’s way past school hours. I’m almost positive I hear a metal clanging sound coming from his bag as he slowly slides it between his legs, settling it gently on the floor between his feet. It’s all a little too familiar. The rational part of me knows he’s doing things this way to be polite. To be quiet. To not interrupt the frog and the squirrel talking on the stage. But the part of me that gave Aaron Tiratore a ride to school bolts up from my chair, heart pounding and stomach churning, to race up the aisle of the auditorium. I know I’m loud and clunky because everyone in the audience turns to look at me as I go. I crash through the door to the lobby with a boom. The last thing I see before the door shuts behind me is Ben.

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