The paper was yellowed from age. It was crackly. Crackly like the paper I used to paint with cold black coffee and make treasure maps out of. X marks the spot. But this page was different. It wasn’t a treasure map, but a bunch of words spread across the page in crooked lines. It had been typed. And it left a black ball of something that felt like confusion and fear and anger and sadness and something else I couldn't quite put my finger on, but tasted like regret, sitting on my chest. Weighing me down. Pushing against my ribcage and preventing anything but short shallow breathes.
I traced the lines across the page once more, seven of them in all, and raised my hand to my face examining the black ink that now filled the ridges of my fingerprint. I pressed my finger onto the page, rolling from side to side like they do in the movies and transferred a faint impression onto the yellow paper. I picked up my next finger and began tracing again, perhaps I’d do a whole set of fingerprints. Maybe I could rub the words from the page. I wonder if that would make them undo themselves. If I scrubbed away the sorry and the promise and the don’t follow me, would my father appear in the backyard? I pushed against the first sorry, rubbing until my finger burned and the word was a grey black smudge. I looked up from my seat at the table in my parents’ kitchen and into the backyard. I squinted, searching amongst the tomato plants and the beans and the carrots and the cauliflowers. But he didn’t appear.
My father didn’t plant his tomatoes out until after the last frost in September. I always wondered how he knew which frost would be the last. But I never asked him. Perhaps I was scared that his answer would reveal more than I was ready to know. They say children hide more from their parents than parents from their children. But I beg to differ. My father, lovely as he was, was an enigma. His smiles never seemed to make it all the way to his eyes. And I never asked why. Preferring instead to leave that question with the tomatoes and the frost. But now, all I really wanted was to ask. To ask every question that I’d told myself I didn’t really need an answer for.
I pushed the yellow piece of paper away, watching it slide across the table. I had worried about my father when my mother died. She had always been the stronger of the two. I asked her too many questions and she always gave me the answer she thought I needed. Her smiles always went to her eyes. My father had always been a big man, but he seemed to shrink when my mother died. I’d always thought he’d die first, and somehow I know he always thought that, too.
I watched the tomatoes shifting in the breeze. It was November, and they were thriving with the warm air and summer rain. Their green leaves almost seemed to sparkle in the sun. I wondered if this was my fault. Maybe if I hadn’t been so scared to ask him questions, maybe if I’d reached further than I was comfortable with, maybe I’d be watching him through the glass doors right now. Maybe the yellow piece of paper wouldn’t exist. But then, when someone is already dark, already heavy with clouds that you cannot see, how do you know if it’s raining on them?
I stood up, hearing the chair scrape against the tiled floor and picked up the yellow piece of paper, now a mess of square typed words, grey black smudges and faint fingerprints. I left the kitchen and walked up the long narrow hallway. The front of the house, closed off with doors and boxy windows, was in stark contrast to the back of the house, walled in glass as it was. And for the first time, I realised that the house matched my parents. My father belonged to the front, closed and dark. My mother the back, open and light and devoid of dark spaces. I reached the phone that sat on the dark timber sideboard halfway to the front door and picked it up. I’d never deliberately disobeyed my father, but I dialled the number that was as familiar to me as my own anyway. As I waited, I placed the yellow piece of paper on the sideboard and attempted to smooth it out.
I’m sorry to leave without a proper goodbye. But then, maybe this is not the final goodbye.
I made a promise to your Mother, that I would take her up the coast.
So she could feel the sand between her toes and taste the salty air in her mouth. She won’t feel the sand, or taste the air - or maybe she will. I don’t know what happens when you die.
So that’s what I am doing. That’s where I am. Don’t follow me. Please. I’m sorry.
I love you, I hope you know that. I’m sorry.
I traced my finger over the last line.
I love you, I hope you know that. I’m sorry.
I did know it. I hung up the phone. I’d never deliberately disobeyed my father. I wasn’t ready to start now.
I took a deep breath, sucking air into my lungs. Stretching my ribcage against the black ball of confusion and fear and anger and sadness and something that tasted like regret. As I exhaled, the tears came and it was like welcoming an old friend. I lowered myself to the floor, laying my head against the floorboards. I felt the tears run across my face, over my nose and down the side of my check. I watched them drip onto the floorboards and pool into tiny puddles. Sometimes it’s harder to be the one without the clouds, trying to predict when the rain will fall.