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What Else Could You Say, Really?

“Emily LeGrange was experiencing one of those moments where she had to admit she was doing pretty good.”

Published onNov 18, 2020
What Else Could You Say, Really?

Image by Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay 

Some people are granted only a few moments during which they can safely say, “I was really doing pretty good.” For these people, many of these moments are granted too early, and so cannot be remembered well enough, regardless of their qualities. They might, granted perfect recollection of all the moments of their life, think always back to infancy as a time full of favorite days. But few people have ever achieved this level of recall, and many of those who have done so report troubled childhoods empty of the necessary blankets (both physical and metaphorical) that would allow this to be possible.  On the other hand, some people’s moments of doing pretty good overall are given too late. Entire lives are spent not thinking such days of unobstructed goodness will come, only for their arrival to leave not enough time to remember them and state how good they were. An ancient being, by the standards of a human lifespan, might find total satisfaction in a day in their final winter when the sun shone a certain way across a certain wall, and all life’s questions became level, given the circumstances. But by that point, this person would have met everyone they were ever going to meet. And no one they see from that point on, until the hour of their death, will need to ask them about themselves. So there will be no opportunity for them to tell anyone about the light, or the way it fell or how it made them feel. They will receive visitors, sure. Their children and grandchildren will visit them with a regularity that they hope will be sufficient, but they will only talk about the weather or traffic or how so-and-so is doing now. These visitors will feel they know this elderly person well enough that a question as to the deep state of their being will seem unnecessary. This same person might be attended do by nurses. And though these nurses will visit them to care for their failing body, they might not ever think to ask for their patient to talk about themselves, really. So, in that final winter, no one will ask them why they thought that this light felt so special, or why it did so at this point in the span of a lifetime that would soon be ending. So there would be no chance for that person to say they had to admit they didn’t know why it felt so special. After so much time, they would have no chance to say that the words you used to describe yourself suddenly just became as simple as that. A little light shining in the right place. ​ 

         ​Which is all to say that, by Thanksgiving night in her twenty-eighth year, Emily LeGrange was experiencing one of those moments where she had to admit she was doing pretty good. She did, admittedly, have the need to tell her older sister and her parents that she was doing pretty good, which put an unspoken caveat to the quality of that pretty goodness. But there the goodness was, either way.  It had arrived in time for her to collect her nine month old baby daughter, her husband, and her brand new yellow sweater and arrive, for the first time in nine years, at her parent’s house for an official, big ticket holiday. Even a decade of Memorial Days could never meet the importance of a single, properly organized Thanksgiving. And she hadn’t been home for Memorial Day in years either. 

And so, with the Thanksgiving meal consumed, Emily sat now on her parent’s living room couch, posing for a holiday photograph. Emily’s husband, Jon, was standing a few feet in front of them. His back was pointed to the bay window that overlooked the front yard. His left hand held the cell phone with which he would take the first holiday photograph of Emily and her family in nine years. His right hand was making the universal gesture for ‘squeeze in a little bit’. Emily was holding her nine month old daughter, Arya, one hand beneath each armpit, the little girl’s feet pressing into her knees, though not quite with enough dexterity to stand. A moment earlier, Arya had been sitting on Emily’s knees, but the thought had occurred to the mother that it might be a good idea to put an arm beneath each of the baby’s armpits and hitch her up a little. This was a motion that had recently begun to make Arya smile, and Emily thought it might be a good pose to go with the Thanksgiving photograph her husband was about to take. Once the baby was properly amused, she would look forward. Her eyes would travel to the camera of her husband’s phone. She was planning on smiling.

​Two days earlier, Emily had arrived back in Ohio for her first Thanksgiving at home since she was nineteen years old. She lived then, at the time of that moment on the couch, in the city of Chicago. This city was big enough, both physically on the Earth and by reputation in people’s minds, at the time of that particular Thanksgiving, that Emily could say that she lived there. Whereas when people asked her where she was going for Thanksgiving that year, she had just said Ohio. She assumed they probably wouldn’t have heard of Warren County, or King’s Mills, or Lebanon, which were all names for places in Ohio near where her parents still lived and she was, no matter what she did, from. 

​Before looking forward, towards the lens of Jon’s camera, Emily had looked to her right. She was pressed between the stout left-most arm of the couch and her mother’s legs. Mom was already smiling. Emily’s older sister sat on the other side of her mother, engaged in some sort of mid-shift of her weight, looking forward but kind of grimacing in a way that made the eventual realization of what her mother would call ‘a nice Thanksgiving picture’ seem all the more out of reach. In looking to her right, Emily had caught the existing gaze of her father, who was already looking in her direction from his seat on the other side of her sister, pressed into the couch’s pleather antipode. She could not remember then the last time her eyes had met each other’s. Outside of a few times over the last twenty four hours, and on two separate visits home over the past year before her child had been born, Emily had not seen her father in nearly as many years as the nine that had added up since her last Thanksgiving home with the family. And so, that moment of their shared gaze had triggered in her all sorts of shared memories and private feelings the likes of which she typically preferred to avoid. 

In catching Emily’s eyes, her dad’s face had delivered the slightest of expressions, so close to the state of nonexistence that it could not be described physically. It was like when she said something to herself, in a register just above a whisper, only to question whether she had spoken at all. This final expression registered in Emily’s mind, however, and in the metaphorical place of feeling that she called, for lack of a better name, her heart. I’m going to look away now, this nearly nonexistent change in dad’s expression seemed to say. I’m going to look at the man holding the cell phone camera, your husband Jon, and I’m going to smile. And even though it will be the first family picture with you and mom and your sister I’ve been able to smile for in nine years, I don’t blame you for a single day you spent away from us. All that matters, that simple expression from her father seemed to say, was that you’re back, that your baby is healthy. 

​In that moment, Emily hoped that a subtle angling of the baby on her knees might indicate that the time of her troubles was over. It may have been mostly her fault, that nine year gap in between photos, but she was here to do something about that, and really, properly, make up for it. Dad, look at this baby, she hoped her eyes said. Look at my husband. I barely even bite my nails anymore. The bad times have passed. All those bad things were just parts of her past, locked rooms along closed roads, into which she would not pass again. The thought that they still existed out there sometimes terrified her, all those rooms and roads mounted at her back. But they held no greater bearing now on her life than the color of the sweater she wore (a shade of yellow that dad had said reminded him of the lemon flavor of his preferred brand of vitamin gummy bear) in the final intervals of time before she would look towards the camera lens on her husband’s phone and, if all went according to plan, smile.

She knew, both on the couch as the picture was about to be taken and during the years of time preceding it, what her father assumed about his influence on her life. That, perhaps if he had spoken differently to her, or spanked her as a child, or forced her to stay in concert band, that those times would have been avoided. That if they hadn’t sent her to Space Camp and dad had put off buying the new pickup for a few years, maybe they could have afforded to send Emily to boarding school. That maybe this would have prevented her from disappearing into Montana, and a phase of her experience of which they still knew almost nothing. She did not know on which exact days her father had sat in the garage in Ohio, debating with himself about driving west to find her, to kick down the door of whatever inpatient hospital or motor home or hotel room she had found herself in. But she knew that such days had occurred. And she also knew that on those days, she would not have been there to be found, and that her father was so far from her mind that his absence had little to do with her difficulties. He had never told her of what he had done on the nights that he missed her. But she had never told him that, even had he arrived at the right place on the right night, in the halo of some doorway astride the continental divide, his presence would have been so alien, from such a far off place, that it would have achieved nothing. He had been the one to find her once, on the day of her first depressive break. It was the day of her older sister’s fifteenth birthday party, when she had locked herself in the bathroom with a razor blade. She had written all of the birthday guests personalized notices as to her upcoming suicide. She had put the razor blade flat against her forehead, lain the tub, and looked up.  Emily, even now at the age of twenty eight, sitting in a yellow sweater with her own nine month old daughter on a couch preparing to smile beneath her father’s enormous wolf painting, was not sure what she would have done to herself with that razor if he hadn’t broken down the bathroom door. But just because he had saved her once didn’t mean he could have again.

The look on her father’s face had triggered in Emily a memory of eleven years earlier. In that memory, she was sitting in the passenger seat of his pickup, the old one, the one he had before he bought the one he still had. She was sitting there and looking to her left, also into the eyes of her father. He had driven her, on the day that contained the memory, to a gravel parking lot. He had parked in a spot looking down into a valley in which had been then recently constructed a complex of parking lots and office parks. He was, in that eleven year old moment, preparing to give her a piece of advice that he hoped would prevent her life from veering into the jagged track down which it would inevitably lead. And she was preparing to leave him, in one way and others, both regardless and because of the advice he would provide her.   

Sitting in her father’s truck on that day, Emily had known that the space above the office parks was significant in the story of her family. Dad was the kind of person who didn’t like to go to places that looked down over valleys, sit in his truck, and think. She had, long before that day above the office buildings, known how dad had once driven her mother there. She knew, from the stories her parents told, that her father had intended to propose to her mother, but that her mother had snatched the ring out of the glove box, planted it on her finger and proposed to him first. She knew that in those days, before the construction of the office parks, the valley below had been full of trees and creeks and piles of old tires. 

She had not known then how much importance her father would place on the speech he would deliver to her, or the guilt that he would experience as it proved so ineffective.  The knowledge of this guilt would take years of Sunday phone calls to arrive to her, not being fully formed until just before the autumn of her twenty eighth year, sitting on her parent’s couch, with her baby, in her yellow sweater, beneath the painting of the wolves. She would see the guilt in her father’s eyes as they met hers across their family's many knees, and know that he thought the jaggedness of her life was all his doing. And she, too, would remember the speech he had given her in his pickup in the parking lot overlooking the office buildings, about the concept of the wandering warriors called the Ronin. That speech had come to her nine weeks after a letter arrived from the University of Cincinnati announcing Emily’s acceptance into their school of the Arts and Humanities and eight weeks after Emily procured a bottle of Lithium pills and attempted to end her life on the back deck of the family's home. That moment, Nate and his youngest daughter, parked on a patch of gravel overlooking a series of newly erected office buildings, came nine months before that same daughter’s eventual relocation to Missouri to train in wildland firefighting and forestry. The speech about the ronin was the last major piece of life advice dad had given her and it would, that moment, persist in time for the next eleven years, occurring to Emily only as frequently as she found herself parked in trucks, looking down into sparsely populated valleys, and thinking, which occurred far more frequently than she would have thought likely. 

On the Thanksgiving of her twenty eighth year, as Emily’s eyes prepared to break from their contact with her father’s and locate the lens of the camera of her husband’s phone, as her mouth prepared to smile, she would know that her father was thinking of this, the jagged line she had furrowed with her life. She, too, would recall the memory of the day he told her that she was a ronin, and the weeks leading up to it, the highs and lows from which she had always veered, but knew she would veer no longer. She would remember how he had looked away from her, out across the office parks, and of what he had said, about the time of the wandering of the ronin. She still recalled the words she had spoken to him, indicating exactly how his words made her feel.  

​She had looked at him. And she had thought about a young man who had been in the psych hospital with her six weeks before then, a boy who rarely spoke. By the day she arrived, he had already been living there for six months and, on the day she left, there was no clear plan for his departure. From what she could gather, overhearing the discussions of various doctors and case managers, he was waiting for some sort of foster care to be identified, as there a problem with his birth family, and no one could take him. Unlike the first time she had been in the hospital when she was thirteen, and stayed there for two weeks with kids as young as eight years old, this time she had been there with teenagers. Some of them were depressed, like her, and stayed, like her, for as long as it took the doctor to figure out the right dosage of their medication. But other kids were there for getting into fights or stealing, and they got into fights and stole while they were there. But the boy who rarely spoke didn’t seem depressed. He didn’t get in fights. He never bothered anyone. The nurses adored him. The other kids were protective of him. Some days, when he was upset, he would sit in his room alone for very long periods of time, rocking back and forth. But once, after Emily had been there for a week, a new boy arrived on the unit. One day, he started picking on the boy who rarely spoke. He pushed him. And, without saying a word, the boy who rarely spoke punched the new boy in the face. The new boy’s nose started to bleed. The boy who rarely spoke walked away. One of the staff told them all that this happened, every now and then. That someone who didn’t know any better would think they could get the better of the boy who rarely spoke. But his mother had taught him how to box. It was said that no fights with him ever lasted longer than a single, definitive punch. And Emily had thought, sitting in the car next to her father, that the boy was a ronin in more ways than anyone she had ever met. But she only said this. 

“Dad, you have to wander to find something. How else would you find it?

​It might appear tragic, the fact that Emily had spoken these words of absolution to her father in that moment, when both of them looked away from each other and out across the valley full of office parks. The tragedy being that her father had forgotten this message, as quickly as the words had been spoken, that his daughter’s life, and her path upon it, had been set in motion long before then, and that words or speeches would have had no more effect upon it than last ditch rescue missions. But she too had forgotten the words he had spoken to her as he drove her home that night. He had said that the coolest part about the samurai was the way they made their swords, by folding layers of crude iron, one on top of another until they become the world’s finest steel. The cyclical return to the fire of the forge, over and over again until that which was misshapen and molten became honed and cool. He told her this blatant but unintentional metaphor of her life as he drove away from the tall place overlooking the office parks, to the low places, where people lived their lives, bought margarine, and received mail. That month, she began driving herself to her therapy appointments. That summer, she found information online about a forestry program in Missouri. That year it rained on Christmas, but she wasn’t home to see it.

Now there was just the memory of that day above the office parks, and the immediate heat pressing down upon Emily’s shoulders. At some point in the years she had been away, dad must have given up on his war against the thermostat. Or maybe it was the presence of a baby in the house. Earlier that night, she had even checked to make sure she wasn’t wrong, and there it had been, on the spot on the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, reading an unheard of 69 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was the first time Emily could recall feeling in any way stuffy in that house, though part of it may have had to do with the sweater. It was also possible, she conceded, that she just remembered it wrong. For as long as she had been away, the details had just kept accumulating, and it was impossible to remember them all. 

That moment, on the couch beneath the wolf painting, Emily’s eyes meeting her father’s, then began to lapse out of the present. She watched her father’s gaze soften, watched his neck turn forward. His face brightened. He smiled. She found herself looking across the laps of her mother and her sister, who were both now smiling as well, and into the fleshy edifice of the side of her father’s head. Jon’s right hand, visible out of the corner of Emily’s eye, curled itself into a pointing finger situation, the finger hovering over the space on the phone’s screen that, when tapped, would take the photograph. Even the baby was smiling.   

There were so many details in existence already by the time Emily watched her father’s eyes move away from hers, in that final few seconds before the photograph would be taken. She would feel them then, about to be delivered to her all at once, and she would shake that feeling off. It wouldn’t be fair, she would think, all those details at once. What a good way to drown yourself, emotionally speaking. Any rational person would balk at the idea of so deeply mining a single instant in the shared life of their family, on the couch, beneath the wolf painting, in their sweaters, on Thanksgiving, about to smile. Someone prone to racing thoughts, as Emily was, might feel led to inevitable elsewheres. If this moment is so indebted to so many inner details, then so must be every moment that came before it, and any moment that would follow. Moments really are something, this person might think. It all makes the very act of existence seem rather exhausting. Nothing would seem very beautiful at all. The best thing to do would be to look towards whatever camera was trained on you, even if you were the last one to do it. Make the baby laugh. Take another picture. A silly one this time. Sit next to your mother. Have the coffee.  

But this moment on the couch is where the observation point depletes. There is nothing else beyond it to be seen. No one can judge the smiles of the family’s faces. No one can say if Emily’s mother stood up to look at the phone in Jon’s hand, or if she demanded a new photograph be taken. Predictions as to the permanence of Emily and Jon’s marriage, either to the optimistic or the doubtful, cannot be corroborated. The only facts available are those that existed beforehand, and Emily’s final thought before she turned to smile. Emily had always wondered why, when her father told stories, he never went from point A to point B. Why, for example, a story about something from when he was young, and its impact on his life as an older man, would never just begin at the point where it started and travel forward, in a straight line toward the point where it ended. But there is nothing left, and time is depleted, and there is no energy remaining to say for sure if she saw, in this, the picture of some jagged course after which her father was in endless pursuit.  

There was little that could reliably take place within anybody’s given heart in the time it took for them to look away from their father, turn towards a camera held by their husband, tickle their baby, repress the urge to scratch the itch caused by their sweater against their neck, and smile. It might occur to them, in the hesitant instant that it took their eyes to refocus, that their father’s eyes had turned away first, though if this held some deeper meaning they would not have time to analyze it. 

          Emily and her father had each had tens of thousands of experiences that had changed their lives. But though they had many unshared moments, and differing memories and interpretations of the times they had shared with each other, their perspectives had become interwoven. Emily’s father cared greatly for his eldest daughter, but he was most closely bonded with Emily, even in the moments of their separation. Because of this, the boundary between their experiences was often blurred, and the differentiation between their views of the world often became difficult to assess. At the time of their lives represented in the moment before the taking of the photograph, they would remain ignorant of many of these intimacies, and only guesses can be made as to the reaction they might have had were they to discover some objective representation of their bond with each other. Perhaps Emily would apologize to her father and say that her battles with mental illness had nothing to do with him, nothing to do with any failure on his part. Perhaps Dad would blink back tears, like he always did when either of his daughters were concerned, and say that he had always just wanted to give her a life worth being healthy for. And she might say you did Dad, you did, stop it or I’ll cry too. And they might realize, with the full truth of their lives laid out before them, that neither of them could ever be ronin, for they roamed the world together. But this would never happen, for that objective guidance would only ever exist beyond the periphery of their lives, never quite visible in full. Even if it were possible, Emily would have objected to it. She might imagine a hypothetical watchman observing the events of her life and trying to make some sense of them.  But she would need them to understand that anything that purported to represent the sequence of her days, was ultimately curated by her. There were just certain events that no one, not even a perfectly omniscient god of eyes, would be allowed to know about. And they would have to understand, too, that this wasn’t reserved for the bad days in her life. There were wonderful days of which, unless she was speaking to the people she had lived them with, she would choose to never speak. Days spent with her sister would never be shared with her husband. Days spent with her husband would never be spoken of to anyone else but him.    

The Legranges might have, in the days leading up to their first Thanksgiving together in nearly ten years, experienced slivers of that truth, in dreams or moments they might refer to as Deja Vu. But those moments had all passed, their choreography mistaken for chaos, no single member of the family knowing the ways in which they rhymed the others. Emily knowing little for sure, but saying to herself, I’ll smile as soon as they do.

Adam Hofbauer's fiction has appeared most recently in Adelaide, Charge and The Eastern Iowa Review. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is an active member of the Backyard Writers Workshop. 

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