She is talking about her father again, and I don't mind listening. Her stories are usually more interesting than mine and I like her voice, the way it fills a place. We are in my car. I guess we're parking, if that's what you'd call it, although we aren't in the back seat and all of our clothes are intact. We are down at the Peninsula, off on the bay side next to a thin stretch of beach. I know about the spot from sailing. My father showed it to me once when I was younger and we used to take the boat out together. Across the bay I can see downtown, the lights of the bars and restaurants as bright as bonfires on the other side. Outside it is hot, with just a little bit of a breeze coming in off the water. We are the only two around.
She tells me again, how her father, when he was younger, had a wild streak in him. She tells me about the parties he threw, complete with gin baths and people jumping off the roof naked into the swimming pool and white lines from one side of the kitchen counter to the other. She has heard all this second hand from her father's friends. But after she was born, he finally got himself straightened out.
I don't know exactly what to think of her father. I've never met him because by the time me and her got things going she was already living on her own, working long hours, paying her own bills. And by then they didn't speak anymore. And I was getting the impression that that was basically where all of this was headed. Things had just fallen apart between the two of them.
She begins telling me about growing up again. Most of it I already know. He raised her alone. When she was four, her mother ran off to Florida with a welterweight boxer and so it was just her and her dad.
"Through all of it," she says, the skinned knees, her first period, the heartbreaks. It was just him and her and so they had this special relationship. "But the fighting was always there," she says, "We fought, but at least back then we still talked." She slides closer to me on the leather seat. She is wearing a tank top, and her skin, where it touches my arm, feels hot and angry, like just talking about her father heats her blood. I free my arm from where it is wedged between us and stretch it across her shoulders. In front of us the bay is as shiny black as an oil slick. The lights of the city shiver on its surface.
"He's unreasonable," she says, "You're lucky you've never had to meet him." I nod, but not too dramatically. She can still get defensive about him.
With all of the things she's told me, I probably shouldn't even want to meet him. According to her he's rash and bullheaded, can blow a fuse over the slightest thing. But still I'm curious. It's been a half a year, and I haven't met any of her family yet, not a cousin or a grandparent. I have already introduced her to all of mine.
"I should be enough for you on my own," she told me once when I asked her about it. My mother has a different opinion. She had done some asking around and found out where the girl lived, and that was enough for her.
"Her stock is below yours," my mother told me one night several weeks after we had begun dating. We had just finished eating dinner and were sitting in the living room. My father was reading the paper, but when my mother said that he lowered it and looked over.
"I'm sure she's a nice girl, and I know you don't want to admit it now, but you'll never survive it." She spoke so matter-of-factly, like I was trying to change something I had no control over and she already knew how it would all end.
"We're in love, and that should be enough," I said, realizing immediately how childish I sounded. My mother had looked at me in a sort of disappointed way.
"Take 'should be' to the bank and tell me what you get for it," she said.
Of course I'd never told her what my mother had said about her. And to her face my mother acted pleasantly uninterested, the same way she acted towards my friends whose last names she did not recognize. When I brought her along to dinners my mother would engage her in brief conversations before turning away, asking only those questions she knew would be answered quickly.
"Another thing about my father," she begins again, "Is that everything has to be taken to the extreme with him. He either loves you or he hates you, and sometimes one is as bad as the other." She stops and looks over at me. Her face is round and seems to give off a pale glow in the dark car. At night she always looks sad, even when I know she isn't.
"He never even laid eyes on me until I was three years old," she says. I have heard this before. She has told me he was in jail, during her birth, her first steps. She has told me her mother would not take her to visit him in prison. She has told me this much, but never goes any further. Like the people she knows whom I've never met, may never meet, the rest is just speculation for me. "I told you he was in jail."
I nod, stare ahead at the bay, pretend to absorb this information without any questions, hoping she'll go on. I'm afraid to prompt or push her in any way, afraid that if I do, she'll abandon it, leaving me guessing. And besides that, it is her story to tell. But I have already wondered for a long time.
I lift my arm off her shoulders and over her head. I reach for her hand and grip it. It is almost the end of August and soon I'll be leaving for school. Leaving her here, to work and live the way she's done since long before meeting me. She knows this but doesn't like to talk about it. I feel like this is the closest I've come to really knowing her. Across the water the city seems a thousand miles away. The distance makes me feel safe and I tell her so. "We're alone," I say, "Nothing can touch us here." And then with her hand warm and slick in mine and her head resting like a stone in the crook of my neck she tells her story.
"My father's brother, my Uncle Charlie, was his best friend growing up. They were only two years apart, so they played together, went to school together, everything. When my dad graduated from high school, Charlie was already working tool-and-die and so he got my dad a job at the same shop. It was all right for a while, paid okay, but what they really wanted was to get into business for themselves, and both of them had done some construction work in the past. So after saving for a while they found a run down building on East 14th and Parade and they bought it cheap. They both still had their regular jobs, but on nights and weekends, they would go over there and work on it together, fixing it up. It took them some time but finally they turned the place into three separate apartments. Nothing fancy, but nice enough to rent out. It was the first thing they had ever really owned, and my dad still gets proud when he talks about it. So eventually they started to rent them out, but you know that area. Lots of crime. Not many jobs. So of course they're getting stiffed on rent payments left and right. Tenants are staying for a few months, tearing the places apart partying, and then leaving. Finally it gets to the point where my dad and Charlie have to start hounding people to get them to pay their rent. But there's this one guy in particular. He hasn't paid rent since the first month, and he's almost never there so it's near impossible to even ask him about it. My dad and Uncle are counting on this rent; they only have the three units and they over-extended themselves when they were building them. They have bills and credit lines, and my dad's got my mother at home pregnant with me. Things are about as tight as they can get. So one Saturday my dad and Charlie are working on the outside of the building replacing some siding, and they see the guy pull up. He parks across the street and half stumbles out of the car like he's just getting home from drinking all night or something. Charlie is a little more laid back than my father, so he tells him to stay put and that he'll go talk to the guy and figure this out once and for all. So my dad keeps working and Charlie goes across the street to where the guy is. My dad can see them talking but he can't hear anything they're saying. It looks like they're arguing, but he can't tell for sure. Charlie says something else, and points at the building and the guy nods. Then Charlie starts walking back over to where my father is. He's got a big smile on his face like him and the guy have come to some agreement. My dad's just standing there watching, and he sees the guy reaching into the back seat for something. And then, as calm as if he were unloading groceries, he takes out a shotgun. My dad starts yelling and pointing, and Charlie turns around. But before he can do anything the guy shoots him in the stomach. Charlie gets knocked backwards on the pavement. Then the guy aims at my dad and shoots again. But he's too far. The shotgun's no good from there. So he drops it and starts running, runs right past the wide open door of his car. Doesn't even think to jump in and drive off. And my dad's seeing all of this happen. His first instinct is to chase the guy, and so he starts running after him. By now people have come out on their porches but my dad doesn't see any of it, all he can think about is the guy. He already had a head start when my dad started chasing him, but it doesn't matter, all that matters to my dad is catching up with him. They run for blocks, dodging cars, cutting across lawns, my dad gaining ground little by little. And the whole time he's been chasing the guy, he's been holding the hammer he was working with back at his building. He hasn't even thought to drop it. When he finally catches up with the guy he reaches out and grabs a handful of his shirt and the two of them go down on the pavement in a ball. And my dad ends up on top, and the next thing he knows he's swinging, hitting the man full force with the hammer. He's hitting the guy everywhere, his chest, his arms, his head, and he keeps hitting until finally the guy stops moving, stops kicking and squirming and screaming beneath him. Then my dad stands up, walks over to the curb, and sits down. And that's how he stayed, covered in blood, still holding the hammer, until the police got there and arrested him. Charlie died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but not the other guy. After all of that he lived, but it's not much of a life. He's at St. Jude's. He can't talk. He can't walk. For all practical purposes he's dead. And normally, for something like that, my father could have been put away for life. But under the circumstances the jury knew he'd pretty much gone insane for a while. So he spent a little over three years in jail. And he hardly ever talks about it, but when he does he says he knows he did the right thing because he loved Charlie."
She stops and looks at me. I know she expects to see shock, and even though I try, how can I hide it? I can see my reaction through hers. There is a faint glow of light coming through the windshield, and I can see her expression. It is part pain, part indignation, like I am unjustly condemning her for something her father did years ago. But I can't help it. I am shocked. I have had a long time to guess at crimes her father may have committed and nothing like this crossed my mind. For a long time we sit silently. She leans away from me and takes her hand back from where it sits in my open palm. I let her story play itself out in my mind, watch as her father commits his crime, and then waits for the police bloodied and tired. But there is something else that is bothering me. Another part of the story that will not settle.
"What about Charlie?" I ask.
She looks confused by this. "I told you. He died." There is resentment in her tone, as if she is angered by my asking about a man neither of us will ever meet.
"I know that. But why didn't your father stay with him, why didn't he go to him first?" When I ask her this I feel as though I'm stepping over some boundary, like I'm violating the trust she's shown in me by telling me this. But I can't help it. For some reason the question seems important. She pretends to look surprised, but she is smart and I know that these are questions she must have asked herself, although maybe she has not thought of them for a long time.
"I don't know," she says. "His first instinct was to chase the guy. He didn't even have time to think. It's easy to dissect it once it's over." Her voice is stern and I think about letting up, but I am angry. She defends her father like a child in a playground argument. I think about the things my mother said, and how I refuse to believe them, how I wouldn't just blindly defend someone because we shared the same blood.
"Maybe he thought Charlie was already dead." She is scrambling now, making excuses for a man she no longer talks to. And I'm not buying any of it.
"But wouldn't he at least check? Wouldn't he go over there and check?"
"You don't understand," she says. "I thought you would, but you don't." Her words are flat and deliberate. She can hurt me like this when she wants to. It is something she keeps hidden until it is needed, like a famous last name. I wonder how hard it is for her to resist doing, if it is a constant struggle. I suppose for this reason alone I am glad I don't hold the same power over her. But I feel that I do understand. I know that revenge only works for the living. And I think of how if it was me dying in the street I would have wanted someone next to me, someone to lie and tell me it would be okay, a familiar face to focus on instead of a wide open sky darkening at its edges.
The breeze that was blowing earlier has vanished and the inside of the car feels hot and crowded as if we've taken on passengers.
"I'm sorry," I say. "Let's forget it." And I want to. I want to forget the whole thing. I want to believe that we are not different from each other, that our ideas of love and forgiveness are the same. "I'm sorry," I tell her. The bay looks calm and I remember why we came here in the first place. "It's hot," I say. "Let's take a swim."
It has been a record hot summer and the water is as warm as the air. We hold hands and wade out in our underwear, skimming seaweed with our toes. Her bra and panties are beige, slightly darker than her flesh. She leans forward and stirs circles in the water with her fingers. A thin breeze skims the surface and I can feel the goose bumps as they rise up out of my skin. A couple years ago, on a dare, I swam all the way to a dock on the other side of the bay where I had some friends pick me up. It was three miles across and everyone had called me crazy, but I had done it anyway, to prove them wrong, to show them that I could. I stare out over the water and wonder if I could still make it. I can see the marina at the edge of the city, its sailboats draped in strings of bulbs.
The soft bottom gives beneath my feet and finally we are waist deep. The lights and shadows of the city form another city on the water's surface. Buildings ripple on the waves. We stand in the middle of the image, the water breaking against our stomachs. Looking at her I remember that we have already picked names for our unborn children, chosen the house we will live in. And I know that it is silly and naïve. It is all a long way off, but we have made plans together.
"Float with me," she says. I allow my legs to come up beneath me until I am weightless and resting on my back, the water like a mattress underneath. She is lying next to me and between us our hands are joined. For a while we float. The dark sky above us looks close enough to touch. And then suddenly I am picturing her father, staring up at the springy underside of a prison bunk. And I think of my own dad, sitting in his office taking phone calls. I imagine her Uncle Charlie dying alone, the asphalt softening below him, everything becoming unimportant so quickly. And I realize that in my entire life I've never even met anyone who's been robbed. I can feel her hand tighten in mine.
"Hold onto me," she says. We've floated further out. "Don't let go."
And so I squeeze her hand. I grip it hard until my own hand cramps and aches from the effort. And though she doesn't make a sound, I know that it must hurt her too.