My mother’s cancer had metastasized. It was 2003, and the summer was in full swing. High school kids who would normally be crowding the sidewalks after school were now basking in the East Village sunshine during the day. Brightly colored hair, baggy pants and silly t-shirts bounced off cranky residents, shoppers, and passersby. Sidewalk vendors, those that survived, sold anything and everything an adolescent might need. The continuous din of citizenry drowned out everything except the traffic on 3rd Avenue.
I was visiting for the first time since I had gone to Buffalo for college almost five years ago. I had expected to see big changes in the neighborhood. But it was the same as it ever was and completely different. My plan was to move to Montreal, another excruciating life change that I needed to force upon myself. The empty feeling inside my chest that I had my whole life was only growing bigger. I had to keep moving. The great wide north called to me. I had deferred my plan for a few days, long enough to see my mother’s face one last time.
I spoke to her from time to time during those college years but was otherwise estranged from my old life. I had left the city as soon as I could–a painful but necessary procedure. I could have gone to a school in California or somewhere out west but couldn’t reconcile my need to escape with being so far from my parents. They were all I had. In hindsight, moving upstate had not been the best decision. In my virtual solitude as a student, the darkness inside me and my unquenchable curiosity had unleashed eldritch horrors that I should have seen coming. Even now, as I write this, they haunt me. However, in light of those dark things that have come to pass, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Well, almost anything…
I was born and raised in the East Village but always felt like a stranger there. My parents owned the building at 13 St. Mark’s Place, which had been passed down to them from my grandparents. I lived there the entire 18 years since my birth, but I never felt like a part of the neighborhood. On top of that, my parents sent me to an uptown private school with the money they brought in from rent. So, my social interactions there were mostly limited to those with the kids in the building, and they always seemed to come and go. By the time I left for college, the building was full of hipsters, and the neighborhood I once knew was almost unrecognizable.
On the day I flew back to the city, I got out of the subway at 8th Street on the N train and walked across Astor Place to the corner of 3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s. It was a walk I had taken thousands of times. I felt like a ghost walking unseen by all but the few unlucky ones who maintained that vestigial ability to see into the beyond. I stood on the corner for a while and watched people walking past the building, completely oblivious to my surveillance. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but when I saw it, him, I knew and smiled. The smile didn’t last long. It disappeared once he got close enough for me to see the permanent dismal look on his face.
My father had given me everything he could, in some ways more than my mother. He had protected me, had taught me everything he knew and had loved me the way he knew how. He had always hoped I would stay in the city for college, as he had done. Over the years, the disappointments just piled up, and our relationship selfishly deteriorated past the point of no return. By the time I left for college, he had already begun to resent me and the choices I had made. My mother’s recent diagnosis of skin cancer had made that resentment worse.
My relationship with my father was the least of my concerns. I was only there to see my mother one last time. They said the cancer had become aggressive, attacking several major organs. It was just a matter of time, they said. When my father began to fumble with his keys, arms full of groceries, I finally went over to the building. I walked up to him, and the restrained look of excitement on his face almost overwhelmed me. As the shape of his face began to resume its downward drag, he let the door shut before us and placed one of the grocery bags on the floor. Then the unexpected happened. He put his free arm around me and buried his face in my neck. He squeezed me tightly, and memories of his strength came flooding back. It was only when I felt his tears wetting my neck that I realized he was crying.
“Dad…” I said, choking on the dryness in my throat. Before I knew it, he had placed the other bag on the floor and put both his arms around me.
“She’s gone…” he sobbed. He buried his face further into me, almost like he was trying to find a home there.
The emptiness in my chest began to fill with all manner of contortions. My thoughts ran wild, and I felt I was being plucked from this world. I whispered to my father. “Dad, I have to go.” I had planned to leave soon after seeing my mother, a plan that now seemed futile. I couldn’t spend those days alone with my father any more than I could have put an end to my insatiable curiosity.
“Just come in for a little while,” he said. He looked at me and touched my face as if he were recognizing someone else, someone I hadn’t been for ages, someone he still saw there. He wiped the tears that had silently descended my cheeks. In his face, I only saw regret, but I now know that it was my own.
I pushed him away gently, picking up the groceries and said, “Okay, dad. Just for a little while.”