Invalids. Girlfriends. Beer.
I needed a change of tempo. I painted my living room red. I also needed food. I bought a head of lettuce and poured some expired dressing on it until it covered every hint of green, then I ate it like a Red Delicious.
We were headed to eat lunch at a bleach-smelling building where people go to die. Gross. I wore suspenders and a blood red splattered t-shirt. Looking a fool. That’s the upside about visiting my dad, Brent: I can wear my strangest attire, and those dried-up invalids still fill my ego to just about spilling point, rambling on about my unique freckles or my shiny hair. If only they knew that the shine they found so lovely was the product of not showering for three days.
As we walked up to the door I could feel her hand trembling in mine—so unnecessary. Brent’s tattered brain won’t comprehend that he’s meeting his daughter’s lesbian lover; the only judgment he’ll be passing is on which flavor of licorice I hold in my hand. This will definitely be our entertainment for the week.
While we eat, I introduce Marianna to Brent, explaining that she is my girlfriend. His response isn’t far from what I expected. He touches Marianna’s rosy cheek, smiles, and releases a peculiar odor from his body. It is not quiet. Nervous, I force myself to remember this behavior is normal here at Hearthstone Living. Marianna looks uncertain. If only she could see the humor that lies within this soul snatcher, this safe zone, where people who are considered inappropriate in the outside world live as total superstars. Darryl from room 68, announcing that he just shit his pants and would now be heading to change his diaper, won her over. She flashed a Reese Witherspoon grin and roared. Thank God. I mean, who doesn’t laugh at an eighty year old man shitting his pants while eating pumpkin pie?
The realization that this was no ordinary meeting of the parents relaxed us all. Brent looked at me with his crooked smile and attempted a sly wink, making a face that looked as if he too would soon be leaving for a diaper change. His smile-wink combo reassured me that although he embraced no logic and wheeled around in a wheelchair with his self-proclaimed pee bottle at hand, he approved.
As we headed back to his room I stared at the puncture marks branded into his jaundiced skin. Loser. Growing plants in your steel-paneled barn and enjoying them with your military buddies was one thing, but sharing needles with the hoes down in room 46, that’s just trashy. Before I have the chance to play ‘god’ and judge every imperfect decision he’s made, Loretta wheels around the corner.
“Goodness gracious child, you done grown three feet since I last saw you,” she declares.
I can’t imagine that I’ve grown much within the last two weeks of seeing Loretta, but I go along with it anyway. I am surrounded by floating minds, after all.
“Loretta, Brenna has come here to tell me some big news.” Brent says.
He wheels himself closer to Marianna.
“This sexy lady right here is Brenna’s girlfriend, Maryanne.”
“Marianna, Brent. It’s Marianna. And she’s not…”
I stop. I cannot say she is not sexy. But Brent cannot say that she is. The lack of a filter in Brent’s mind has forced my lips to a seal. Marianna looks at me, on the verge of laughter.
To escape the scene, we continue on our way to Brent’s room. Brent clears his throat and says, “MariANNA. Did you happen to notice my room number?” She responds “no” with a knowing look. The words that were about to come out of his mouth were the basis of a classic Brent story. “Sixty-nine!” he blurts out like a little kid who has just finished his chores and waits for a prize. He proceeds to tell her how straining being in this “apartment,” as he called it, is on his sex life.
“I’m only forty-nine, and my girlfriends are usually younger than my kids, so as you can see this is a huge dilemma for me ’cause none of my children are older than me, at least that I know of.”
He looked at me to check his facts. I couldn’t help but think he was awfully choosy for an addict that gave up every good thing in his life to get himself here. He may be forty-nine, but when it comes to anything besides his chronological age, he’s just as old and decrepit as the rest of the hags in this place. I nodded as Marianna laughed and gave Brent the satisfaction he desired. What a damn trooper. Normally learning about your girlfriend’s father’s sex life wasn’t ideal, but somehow Brent made it exactly that. As embarrassed as I wanted to feel, I couldn’t deny that this shit was funny. Brent was funny. My girlfriend was funny. And life had a funny way of being funny.
As we enter room number 69 Brent seems to think we’ve entered his honeymoon suite in Hawaii as opposed to an assisted living home in Huntsville, Alabama.
“I would turn on the TV but I left the remote down at the beach,” he tells us. “It’s only a mile away, if you want to go get it. Actually, call your mom, I think she’s at the store; she could probably get it on her way back.”
I picture calling my mother, his first wife, and asking her to pick up her ex-husband’s remote from the beach they visited together over thirty years ago. Now that would be entertainment. I wink at Marianna to try and dissipate the uneasy look making its way across her face.
Brent falls asleep while guiding us through one of his picturesque delusions. He doesn’t snore. He doesn’t drool. He is quiet. Peaceful. I can imagine all too well what it would be like if Brent were dead. The extra cash that would sit in my pocket. The gas that would remain in my tank. I would plan him a nice funeral, build him a simple grave. Visit every once in a while. I can already see the pros of taking Marianna to the cemetery rather than the nursing home. As my mind delves deeper into the thought, I find myself trapped within my own delusion:
The air is hot. Dry heat. The kind where you feel like your head is in an oven that’s being awfully selfish with oxygen. Oxygen-stealing-oven-weather doesn’t stop me, though. When I get to the stone I set down the beers. As usual I pop one open and wait for the cool fizzled air to release, then proceed to add the others to the existing pile.
“Polygamy Porter today Brent. My favorite.” As I drink the beer I begin to wonder why some stinky worker who tidies up bone collecting places like this doesn’t pick up the beers. Does he really think a decaying hand is going to reach up and crack one open when the time is right? Do I think it is going to happen? Pathetic.
Marianna’s warm hands on my cold neck bring me back to reality. Imagining the interactions I’ll have with my dead dad is dumb; he is a man that refuses to give up no matter how pointless his life is. He does not die. There’s no point in waking him. My task here is done:he’s been told his only daughter is in love with another man’s daughter.
As we exit the doors of Hearthstone the humid air surrounds us like a swarm of gnats. I turn the key in the ignition, and Cascadeur blares through the speakers.
“I’m walker, walker, walker, walker…”
She sings the words. But she’s not walker. She is clarity. No longer is she my secret. No longer is Brent my secret. My invalid-revolving, lesbian-loving world is fully exposed. As we pass through the tie-dyed trees signifying the beginning of a new era, or maybe the end of another, she leans her tired head close to mine and confesses her appreciation for lunches where pants are shat in and gas is passed and it’s okay. Totally okay. Just as her eyes begin to close she looks at me and makes another confession. “Next time I’m going to burp the ABC’s.”
She wants there to be a next time.
As we near the door of my apartment the gold engraved D6 shines crookedly above the doorknob in the night sky. Home. She unlocks the door. The freshly painted walls welcome us. I walk to the kitchen. I don’t feel like cooking. I open the fridge and scratch out the expiration date on the dressing.