Stranger Than Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction
I don’t know how to ride a bike.
When I was a kid, my dad always promised he’d teach me. One birthday, he bought me one and spent a whole day trying to do just that. But then I didn’t see him again for another three weeks; he had cancelled the next two consecutive Saturdays we were supposed to spend together. Something came up. He couldn’t make it. He promised we would pick up where we left off soon. He loved me. He apologized. I accepted.
The last time I heard from my Dad was early August 2015.
It had been two full years since I reconnected with him after nine years of estrangement. In the two years since my letter, we had not managed to substantially reconnect despite numerous attempts.
It would always go the same way:
My dad reached out by text.
I got excited — finally! Maybe this time we would actually reunite after all these years. I responded without hesitation. I proposed plans.
He complained they’d be a stretch for him.
I modified plans to make it easier for him, to guarantee our reunion.
He accepted and sent a few platitudes about loving each other and the importance of family.
A few hours passed, sometimes a whole night.
He texted again, this time to cancel. Something came up. He couldn’t make it. He promised there would be more opportunities to meet up again soon. He loved me. He apologized. I accepted.
I moved on, each and every time becoming more and more tired of the song-and-dance we performed in lieu of reestablishing a relationship. I lost hope. Life passed us by.
And then my dad reached out by text again.
This time, he was in Dedham on business. I had just gotten out of a performance of the first show in which I was cast after graduating college.
“Were you thinking dinner or a drink? I’m happy to pick a place for us to meet. Somewhere downtown. I think you’re a little less than an hour from the city,” I wrote him.
“So you’re gonna drag me into the belly of the beast… Downtown! Is there parking? We can have dinner or just drinks… Don’t matter to me, I just want to see you,” he responded. “Are you nervous to see me?”
“Yes, of course I am! It’s been a long time! I am going to look into something more convenient for both of us and let you know in the morning. Traffic after rush hour, coming back into the city, shouldn’t be bad. Is 8PM ok?”
“Mike, I’m your Dad and I love you. We need to be together and talk.”
“I appreciate that, Dad, thank you. I love you. Don’t worry, I’m looking forward! It’ll be great to talk.”
I picked a restaurant a bit west of the city, far from the belly of the beast to make sure his trip in was as convenient as possible.
I arrived early and drank a Bulleit Bourbon Manhattan at the bar to take the edge off.
Time stood still.
Finally, the bells on the door jingled and my dad walked in. The restaurant’s warm light reflected off of his Buddy Holly-style glasses so I couldn’t see his eyes as he approached me. He flashed his expensive pearly veneers at me — he had to get an entire set of new teeth long ago due to years of smoking and drinking. His large frame — six feet tall and nearly three hundred pounds — which I had so long found imposing and intimidating, seemed somehow smaller now. It was me, but bigger. What’s so intimidating about that, besides the threat of aging, decreased metabolism, and poor dietary habits?
I finished my drink and breathed a sigh of relief.
I matched his smile with my own.
“Well well well,” he bellowed, arms outstretched.
“Hi Dad,” I afforded him, warmly. I somehow dodged the sheer surreality of the moment that had finally come and landed in an embrace with my estranged father.
“Look at you!” He took me in, his adult son, eleven years after he had seen me last.
“Old and grey, your pappy’s getting old and grey, Mike.”
I laughed. “You look good, Dad. I like the glasses. Very Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello.”
“Slick, huh? I guess… vision goes, you know, just like everything else.”
He laughed. “Damn straight.”
The host approached and offered to seat us. We followed and tucked into a corner table at the back of the restaurant. Lit only by candles, it looked and felt like a dream.
“Let’s do the menu first before we dive in; otherwise, we’ll just start talking and never be ready to order,” I cautioned.
“My first-born son telling his father what to do; look how the tables have turned!”
We placed our order and dove in, headfirst, to all the time and all the life that had passed by without the other.
I told him how I attended performing arts high school and figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
“So you’re gonna remember this old windbag when you’re rich and famous, Mike? You gonna thank me when you win an award?”
I laughed for this richly validating new dream of his, “how could I not?”
“I’m sure you could think of a few reasons, Mike.”
I shook my head and we laughed around the shrinking absence no longer at the core of our relationship.
He shared with me details of his second divorce from my stepmother and how well he maintained his relationship with the children they had together — my half-brothers.
“You’d be proud of me, Mike,” he admitted, something like an apology.
“I am, Dad.”
I told him about my undergrad education, life in Boston, coming out, and the promising relationship I had recently begun.
“He’s — uh — he’s gotta be a good guy, then, I guess, Mike, if he’s lucky enough to land you,” he wrestled with awkward approval — and won.
“He is. Maybe you can meet him next time.”
“Jeez, Mike, next time. I haven’t screwed the pooch too much for that?”
“Not anymore, I guess — ”
“Cuz I know I really screwed the pooch. For a while there.”
I stared at him. We fell quiet for a moment.
Behind his thick new glasses, I could see the same brow-furrowed, hallowed-eye hurt I feared and felt responsible for as a child flicker with the flame that burned bright between us.
“I’m just glad we got together,” I offered.
He nodded, “I was really nervous.”
“That’s why you asked me if I was, I know. That’s how that works. And it’s fair, Dad.”
“But you turned out not so bad, huh?”
We laughed, and I shrugged, “you tell me, I guess.”
“Well, I can tell you’re still a wise ass, but — uh — you haven’t put me on trial or anything.”
I shook my head.
I reached under the collar of my button-down shirt and pulled out an army dogtag that hung from my neck around a thin chain of small metal beads.
“What’s that, Mike?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I can’t see it in the dark.”
I leaned over the flame.
“I get you this, yeah?”
“From the army surplus store, when I was a kid.”
“And you still wear it?”
“Huh. That’s funny, Mike.”
“Sweet of you. Whatever bloats your goat. Can I see it?”
I unhinged its clasp and passed it across the table.
“Mike Ciszewski,” he read. “My firstborn got my name.” I watched him study it over in his large, rough-looking hands. “Crazy to think the world could handle two Mike Ciszewskis running around, getting up to all sorts of crazy shenanigans, but get a load of us, huh?”
He handed it back. I grabbed onto his hand and squeezed tight.
Time stood still. The flame that flickered between us danced down its wick.
“You know, I had to let go of the boat, Mike?”
We released hands. He told me with surprising candor of the financial trouble that led him to sell his dream boat, which he had named My Three Sons after the popular 60s sitcom and, of course, his three boys.
“And you were the first, Mike. Always will be.”
I let out a deep sigh, as it felt we had actually really arrived at something that seemed for so long illusory and impossible, and blew the candle out.
The space we shared fell dim.
All I could see between us was the smoke that wisped and wound from the extinguished wick to the low ceiling above us. It separated us, devouring our surroundings — more and more smoke.
Our plates and glasses, forks and knives disappeared first.
Then, the table too.
The other tables and chars around us that had grown increasingly empty as our long dinner together unfolded were gone, too.
I looked up to find the ceiling had vanished.
The walls were slipping from sight little by little.
I couldn’t see him through the smoke or the dark. I could only hear a cough. I think it was a cough.
I couldn’t hear myself talk.
This never happened.
I woke the morning after he texted and grabbed my phone to send my dad the address of the restaurant I picked to make sure his trip in was as convenient as possible.
He had beat me to the punch. He sent a text that read, “Ugh… I can’t come to see you, Mike. I gotta leave right after a meeting and drive back tonight. The good news is I’ll be in Boston on a fairly regular basis and I’ll make sure things are a little better planned. On my part… Sorry.”
“Really sorry to hear that after everything. Hope to hear from you when you know you’ll be in town again. Be in touch and have a safe trip home,” I accepted.
I moved on, more tired of this predictable, routine song-and-dance we performed in lieu of reestablishing a relationship.
I lost hope. Life passed us by, and a little over a year later, my father passed on.
I lost him. I lost possibility that we would ever be together again. I lost, and it never happened.
For all my creativity and narrative prowess, for all my beautiful words and well-wrought sentences, it never will.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot rewrite the sad ending to our all-too-short story.
It’s hard to learn something like how to ride a bike when you can only practice, at the very most, and barring any interruptions in regularity, once a week for a few hours.
When I saw my dad again three weeks after my first bike-riding lesson, my new bike was way back in the garage, it was raining out, and I didn’t really want to learn anymore.
It felt like I had fallen one too many times before I even had the chance to ride.
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