Bodies of Water
While we danced the hora, my father was dying. My mother, sister, and I were at a cousin’s wedding in California while my malignant tumor of a paternal figure took his last breaths. It was not, however, a tumor that killed him. It was decades of overeating and drinking vodka straight as if it were water. Sixty percent of an adult male’s body is made of water. I don’t think that’s all he was.
A few years before, his last breath began its long exhale. It was respiratory failure that killed him. Finally. Suddenly. Not so suddenly. There were multiple visits to the hospital and releases with doctors’ orders. But with his stubborn drunkenness, he refused to participate in his own healing. Refused to participate in his family’s healing, even though he was the blight of our nuclear core. The oxygen tank issued to him the previous year was rarely used. Maybe he just wanted to die.
I was the maid-of-honor. I have always loved weddings and here’s a look at this one: a) it was the wedding of my long admired older cousin; b) my grandmother was present and not yet suffering from the cruelties of old age; c) the rest of my family was there. They were the ones who provided me with some semblance of safe and functional support while I grew up in an abusive home; d) it was an incredibly beautiful and lux wedding at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The location was serene, posh, and filled with myriad fresh flowers that danced in the same wind that blew the bride’s veil into the air and blew smiles onto everyone’s faces.
Of course, I didn’t know my father’s death was certain while I danced and ate canapes and wedding cake. The prior week, on a vacation to Florida, he began muttering confused sentences. He was carted off from an ocean view room at my grandmother’s condo to JFK hospital further inland. I say “carted,” but I am sure the word “hauled” is more appropriate. His 300-pound body hefted by lithe emergency response men and women. Struggling under their weight, what did they think? He was naked, I know that much. My sister, who was present – and only fifteen – bore witness. His flopping male breasts and tremendous girth, his flaccid penis betraying the predator he was. Did they feel sorry for him? This fat man who struggled to breathe?
I ate John Dory; having opted for the fish entrée over the beef. Healthier. The food was plated with whorls of radishes like roses. Water was served with citrus spirals. I still have the menu, and sometimes I run my fingers over the letter-pressed words and remember the food.
The week before the wedding, I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Florida to visit with the sick man. Once inside the hospital, I grew nauseous and weak-kneed, something only a hospital has the power over me to do. I peeked into hospital rooms. Knobby elbows with wrinkly skin gesticulated to unseen visitors. The PA warbled for this doctor or that. Past the beeping and flashing central nurses’ station, we entered a room, a curtain was drawn with an efficient yank and metal track sound. To this day, I inexplicably still try to repeat this sound when opening my shower curtain.
There was my father. Sucks and hums and a dry acrid smell like morning breath and bananas hung over the room. His calloused fat toe stuck out of a sheet, but other than that, he was covered in what looked like a white tarp. He was not conscious. By the power of modern medical technology, he survived. But it was only his body for the moment. Was he aware? Did he hear me come in? Did he hear my thoughts saying “Die. Die. Die.” Did he hear my silent tears that were so small and filled with the hope that I’d have a father who would not terrorize? These were old tears, nothing worth spilling now. I wanted to tell him they were old. I’d long given up wishing him to be someone he wasn’t. My father’s eyes were closed, so with his thick muddy eyes, he could not see my shaking self. The one who was equally tormented by sadness and lit by vengeance.
I don’t remember if everyone else had left the room. I think so, for I felt alone in that white room. Just me and my abuser’s unmoving body. Having these bodies of ours, we are granted so much power.
I am known in my family for being the wedding dancer. Or just the dancer. I was and am always dancing. I am not particularly good, but even these days, fifteen years after that Four Seasons wedding, I can still wiggle low and come back up without touching the floor. At that wedding, donning sneakers after the fancy shoes came off, I wiggled and shuffled and spun. I kept moving. Elusive. Unable to be caught.
His toe was sticking out of the sheets and I squeezed it on my way out of the hospital room. It was very solid and cracked dry. It was the last time our bodies ever touched. The doctors didn’t tell us he would die. When my mother was unsure if she should leave for the wedding, they encouraged her to go. The living. The happiness. The family. Do it for that. He won’t know you were gone and he will still be here when you return in two days’ time.
She left. She and my grandmother and my sister and I boarded a plane for California to celebrate love. My father was left behind alone. He did it to himself, really.
He died by himself. The body he killed. The body that was present in 1977 at his own wedding to my mother was exhausted for all he put it through. Did they dance the hora? Did they eat mini crab cakes and filets and shove cake in each other’s faces? The last thing, the cake, I have seen a photo of, so I know it was true. Two twenty-somethings with their eyes a-glitter, feeding each other cake. Women in diaphanous seafoam colored bridesmaid dresses smiled in the background.
I think there was love there too. I think. But with the vintage soft photography, things are a little blurry.
The morning after the wedding, while I prepared to leave my house for the traditional post-wedding brunch, my phone rang. It was my aunt, the mother-of-the-bride. I need your help over here, Jenny. She used the name I went by when I was five and eight and twelve. At thirteen, I renamed myself “Jen,” no longer a child. No longer innocent. Can you come to the hotel early? I knew. I knew he had died and a bowling ball was set on my heart and then, within minutes, it was picked back up and taken off my chest and rolled down the alley.
I left for the hotel, allowed them to share the news that I’d already predicted. Over croissants and perfectly fluffy eggs, I was told my grandmother and mother had taken the first plane out that morning. To deal with things. The body, I knew. The heavy, damning body.
The bride and groom appeared and the room erupted into cheers.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @Writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com