In the early morning, a wisp of a memory rises, a butterfly that finally alights with enviable delicacy on my shoulder. All day the butterfly rests, patient, exerting only the slightest pressure, a reminder of his presence. A gentleman, he seeks not to offend. Still, he thrums with life; he cannot help it.
Even so, it is late at night when I climb the ladder into my mind's attic and search among the dusty discards for the key that will unlock the larger part of the memory. In the dark I bump into the corners of boxes and the legs of chairs. The air up here is musty with age. I am frustrated. Just when I mean to give up the chase, my bare foot makes contact with something cold. I reach down and pick up a key.
When I unlock the memory, I wonder how I could ever have forgotten. Rome, the summer of 1974. I am closer to seven years old than to six. My father is a diplomat assigned to Rome, and he has summoned my brother and me all the way from New York. We are to stay with him for six weeks, despite my mother's insistence that we are too young to spend so much time away from her. He has dismissed her concerns as purely self-interested.
He does not understand children at all, does not get that to a very young person six weeks is unfathomably long. Was he not once a child?
Every night I cry myself asleep. Every morning I cry myself awake. I cry into my pillow so as not to make any noise, because I am embarrassed by my homesickness. While I act as if I want no one to discover me crying, I desperately want someone to discover me crying, and toward this end I play endless mind games with myself. To wit: If the clock turns to 7:34 in the next ten seconds, my father will enter my bedroom and ask me what's wrong. When the clock inevitably fails to turn to 7:34 within my specified timeframe, I change the timeframe to be more accommodating. Still he does not show up. I think that he is as afraid of me as I am of him.
Each morning a dozen pigeons coo on the ledge outside my window, a ledge that runs the length of the apartment. Rome is riddled with pigeons. (So many years later, all I can remember of the city is that it was overrun with these brazen birds with red beady eyes and gunmetal coats.) I lie in my bed and listen to their full, throaty gobbles and pull the sheet and blanket tight over my head. I am terrified that these birds are coming for me.
We last, my brother and I, six days in Rome. Unlike me, my brother has broadcast - loudly and often - his desire to go home. Never more thankful am I for my brother's essential charismatic nature. Never more clearly has he been my voice as well as his own.
My father is spitting angry, believing that somehow my mother has managed to engineer our early departure. In this he is mistaken. She has been spending time in Israel with her lover, and sacrificing that time, she will confide in me much, much later, is one of the hardest things she ever had to do.
Also one of the most generous things you ever did, I will add.
My father is now eighty-four years old. He writes to me. He tells me that he feels life loosing its grip on him just as he looses his grip on it. He is regretful, and regret has made him maudlin. He professes pride in my person, in my mothering. I find myself unmoved. He wonders whether he might soon see me and the boys.
I reply to his words, but at the same time I do not reply to them. I respond to what is at the surface and ignore the rest. I do not make plans to visit him.
It is too late for us. Do not tell me otherwise, because I know what too late feels like, and this is it. Still, I am chagrined, because I thought I could do better: pretend, for the sake of decency. I cannot abide how the elderly live in today's world. But my father, although elderly, is more father than elderly, and still more not-father than father.
Along with chagrin I recognize grief, grief over a relationship that should by rights have been mine.
There was a time, in Rome, in the summer of 1974, when it all might have changed. One knock at my bedroom door. One penetrating look at my plainly sad, plainly scared little face. But nothing changed, and today little remains but an outsized, misplaced fear of the poor, stupid, innocent pigeon.