Carpe Diem

by Tom Hathaway

Grandfather's heart attack took him from us suddenly, with no chance to say good-bye. Although death at seventy-eight can't be totally unexpected, it shocked our small family, and we gathered for his funeral somber with loss. I flew in from Phoenix, dad from Seattle, back to Vermont, where we'd both grown up and generations of our family had lived.

Dismal fall weather made this homecoming all the sadder. The hills were shrouded in chilly mist, and a lid of clouds held in the wood-smoke from freshly stoked fireplaces. The nostalgic scent took me back to my childhood.

Dad and I had both been close to grandpa. I had many memories of the three of us making snowmen together in winters and working in the garden together in summers. Even after dad and I had moved away, we still shared holidays together here at the farm.

The service at the funeral home was mercifully short. As we filed past the casket, I know that the lifeless, waxen figure lying in it wasn't my grandfather. Where had he gone? Disappeared ... and his body would soon be disappearing into the earth.

At the cemetery the grave was already gaping and ready, a maw of crumbling brown earth next to his wife's, who had preceded him by two years. The wind was blustery but the rain held off. The coffin was lowered on stout ropes. I felt I was slipping down into it myself.

Beside the grave stood two metal stands with brass bowls, one filled with earth, the other with rose petals. The Lutheran pastor said a few parting words, then dug into the bowl of dirt with a trowel and tossed the soil down onto the coffin. My father followed him, but instead of using the trowel, he just stuck his hand into the dirt, grabbed a bunch, and tossed it in. The gesture showed a wonderful strength, but his face was forlorn.

I couldn't bear to touch the dirt, so tossed in rose petals that fluttered down onto the polished wood.

Grandpa's many friends followed, adding their symbolic fill to the void that had swallowed him and would swallow us all.

As we left, men with shovels were waiting at a discreet distance to finish the job.

Before too many more years, I knew, there'd be a new hole in the family plot to hold dad, and then, a bit later, me. We'd all be side by side together, but it wouldn't really be us, just empty hulls.

I didn't find the ritual comforting. I missed my grandfather and wanted him back. I was afraid to die and afraid for dad to die. I was crying and cold, chilled to the bone from raw weather and the specter of mortality.

Back at the hotel, dad and I headed for the bar. It looked warm and inviting, and the dim light suited our mood. We drank mulled wine, wonderfully reviving with its heat and the scent of clove and oranges.

I wasn't hungry but I wanted to eat to prove I was alive. The thought of meat was repulsive, so I had Welsh rarebit. There was something soothing about the toast and melted cheese flavored with ale, pepper, and nutmeg, a meal for a very old person or a child, both of which I felt like now. Although white wine is traditional with cheese, we drank red, a Burgundy whose heaviness and sour-bitter undertone were somehow soothing.

With dessert we had sweet port, then brandy. We talked and laughed and cried about grandpa, dredging up memories and sharing them in order to preserve them.

As I looked at dad I kept thinking: You're going to die ... and then I'm going to die ... and then? Life seemed a brief, meaningless tumult of loss. Nothing stayed, nothing was left, everything slipped away and disappeared.

We were sharing a suite at the hotel — separate bedrooms with a bath joining them. At my door we gave each other a long, consoling hug and a kiss on the cheek.

When I was alone in my room, though, I panicked. The isolation made mortality all the more clear. I turned on the TV, hoping for distraction, but it was too hopelessly dumb. I thought about drinking some more but knew I'd be sick. I thought about killing myself but was afraid to die.

I took a hot bath, thinking that would relax me enough to sleep. I turned out the lights and got into bed but was afraid of the dark. I turned on the light in the closet and left the door open a crack. When I closed my eyes, I saw an open grave with dirt and flowers falling in. I opened them and watched neon lights reflected on the ceiling. I cried some more.

I thought about as a little girl crawling into my parents' bed after a nightmare and falling asleep amid their comfort, then waking up magically back in my own bed.

I got up. I made sure my nightgown was all the way buttoned. The door to dad's room was unlatched, and I tiptoed in. I hoped he didn't think I was a burglar. "I want to sleep with you, daddy."

He said nothing. I could hear his breathing. Was he asleep? He threw back the covers, and I slipped into his warm bed and snuggled up to him. We just held each other and cried. It wasn't sexual but profoundly comforting. We slept.

I woke up magically still in his bed. I was confused. Dad was nude. Had anything happened? I didn't think so ... but we'd had a lot to drink ... maybe I didn't remember. I was embarrassed ... and hungover.

Dad woke up. He was embarrassed too at being naked in bed with his daughter, but he didn't want to seem uptight so he said "Good morning" and hugged me. Then I scampered into the bathroom.

We met downstairs for breakfast, a bit self-conscious and tentative about last night. But as soon as we started talking, the tension dropped away and we had the most wonderful conversation over waffles, coffee, and Alka-Seltzer. We were still sad, but the night had brought us closer together, and now we were sharing our mourning and helping each other through it.

"Let's stay an extra day," dad said out of the blue.

Our eyes met in an unspeakable confusion of questionings and yearnings, but the contact was too intense, so they skittered away.

"OK," I said.

His eyes flashed back into mine. "Good."

I had a few flutters of hesitation. What would happen tonight? The possibilities were scary. We had sleepwalked into unexplored territory, an area of intimacy where we'd never been before. But we needed each other. Staying another night seemed the right thing to do.

It'll cost a fortune to switch the flights, I thought, my mind retreating into practicality to avoid thinking about tonight.

The family farm had been leased since grandpa had gone into the nursing home, but we walked around the old place. The tenant was growing feed corn, and the harvested fields were strewn with stalks mangled by the reaper. In the woodlot, leaves were falling, acorns were clattering to earth, and milkweed pods were spilling their fleece into the breeze. Clouds were massing into a leaden sky.

We browsed through the barn, and dad reminded me about the old mare I rode when I was seven. Then she was an elderly gray muzzle at the end of a distinguished career pulling a plow and occasionally a carriage. Grandpa had saddled her for me, helped me mount, and held my hand until I felt secure perched up there.

We talked to neighbors about grandpa. We watched geese flying south and squirrels gathering seeds for winter. We picked apples and pears in the overgrown orchard, but they were sour, the trees too old now to bear good fruit.

"They'd be good for compote," I said, wishing we lived here and I had a kitchen and spices and big pots and would cook for dad.

We were sad and tender with each other, but throughout the day an undertone of tension lurked in the spaces between us. That may have been one of the reasons we had drinks earlier than usual — sherry at four in the glassed-in conservatory of the hotel, watching rain pour down onto the adjoining golf course.

Regaining an appetite for solider food, I had trout almondine, and we split a bottle of German liebfraumilch. The wine's name, the milk of a delightful woman, stirred an image in my mind — I saw myself holding my breasts up for dad to kiss. Disturbed by this, I tossed off a quick glass to chase it away, but it didn't leave. I couldn't help imagining the wine coursing through me and flowing out my nipples and dad kissing them, smiling. Delighting him like this was a disturbing but exciting thought.

After dinner we didn't want to go back to the bar because it had become too smoky, so we settled in the lobby in two leather chairs by the fireplace and sipped brandy. I wanted to find out more from dad about grandpa, as a way of holding on the old man, to keep him from slipping away into the vague realm of ancestors. Our conversation went from there back into family genealogy and finally returned to the present, when it was getting late and we had planes to catch tomorrow.

We went upstairs and stopped in front of his door. "Want to come in for a drink?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

I had been asked that question many times, had asked it myself a few times, but never had it sounded so fraught with unspoken tension, promise, and desire.

"Sure."

We broke open the little bottles of Scotch in his minibar, polished them off, then drank mine, sitting together on the small, over-stuffed couch. Our words had become fewer now, and we stumbled into silences. A strain between us made us avoid each other's eyes.

I thought again of the funeral, grandpa's lifeless body being lowered into the ground. I could feel my father's leg warm against mine. He was alive, but he wouldn't always be. Neither would I.

I thought of Andrew Marvell's lines, "The grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace."

I wanted my father to embrace me. I snuggled up against him, and he put his arm around me. I felt totally protected and terrified at the same time.

"Well ... time for bed," he said.

What did that mean?

He didn't move. I understood: he was leaving it up to me to choose which bed. That seemed a little chicken. I wanted him to sweep me away. Neither of us wanted to take responsibility for that first move. Something else we had in common.

"What if I have another nightmare?" I asked.

"Do you think you might?" His voice was small and full of hope.

I nodded.

"Then you'd better sleep here."

I nodded.

Still wishing he'd kiss me, I stood up and mutely left the room. In a daze, trying not to think, I washed up and put in my diaphragm.

When I'd been packing for the trip I'd brought it along in the spirit of, Well, you never know. Then I hadn't been thinking of dad ... or had I, deep down?

I changed into my nightgown, and put on fresh makeup. Looking at myself in the mirror, I thought, You're going to make love to your father. It seemed both a simple fact and a complete impossibility.

I went back to his room. He had turned down the bed. Nothing happened last night, maybe nothing'll happen tonight either, I told myself and felt a wave of disappointment.

He went into the bathroom. I got into his bed. He came out in pajamas, very middle-aged. We couldn't meet each other's glances; silence lay heavy in the room.

He turned out the light and got in, his breath now quicker and deep in his throat. I could hear how much he wanted me. He moved right towards me and clasped me in his arms, drew me into him. I dived into the hollow of his shoulder as if trying to hide. I couldn't, though. Dad's hands were on me, first my back, then my breasts. He kissed my lips in a way he never had before, with a deep exploring urgency. As he pressed against me, I could feel how much he wanted me.

Panic sirens went off inside. Stop! This is wrong. You'll be killed!

Dad must've felt me tensing with resistance. He whispered in my ear, "I love you," in a tone of pleading sincerity that melted me.

I hugged him with all my might, trying to calm my fear. I kissed him ravenously.

Until then, I could've backed out — he was tender enough to let me go. But now there was no turning back.

He seized my breasts possessively, fondling and kissing them through the silk. The gown came off, and his mouth closed on one while his hand stroked the other. He was groaning, and tremors shook his body.

I felt triumph that he wanted me so much — the ultimate proof of being a desirable woman.

When dad touched my moist center, though, another wave of fear ran through me. This is incest ... death penalty!

The gentleness of his caress put my fears to rest and roused my own lust. I touched his hardness with trembling fingers, wanting it.

Dad was over me, on me, and my hands were on him. He was putting it in. I could see my father's flesh entering me, feel it prodding. Suddenly my openness seemed an empty grave and his body a corpse being lowered into it. I turned my face aside and bit my lip, quivering with dread.

As he spread my lips and filled me with his thickness, though, I knew this was the opposite of death. This was life — surging and powerful. It was our life, our only one. We had it now and needed to express it, to experience it fully. My father possessed me with his energy, driving it into me.

I reached down behind and touched his testes as they moved with his thrusts, those lobes of power that had made the seed that made me. At my touch he cried out and went wild, a glorious animal at the peak of his pleasure. As he rammed his seed into me, I orgasmed too, and we exploded together in burst of life force, defying the powers of death.

The grave would get us eventually, but for now we had its opposite — passion in the flesh. I felt more alive than ever before.

We fell asleep in each other's arms, father and daughter, lovers.

In the morning I felt dead. Guilt and remorse returned with the hangover. What had we done? We'd defied the gods. What would happen to us?

Dad saw I was awake and hugged me, kissed my cheek. "Thank you, my dear. I've wanted to do that with you for years. I never thought I'd get the chance."

So he'd wanted me all this time. I had to admit I'd wanted him too. So what could the harm be? We live such a short time, are surrounded by death and loss. What can be wrong in taking joy where we can find it? It had been wonderful.

I kissed his lips as we lay father and daughter naked in morning's bed. "I'm glad ... what we did."

We both knew we couldn't get on those planes this afternoon. What we'd started was too incredible to end just as it was beginning.

Some things had ended: grandpa's life had ended, and our conventional parent-child relationship had ended. We were lovers now, but still father and daughter. This was strange, weird, but the right way for us to affirm life.

We stayed a week. It meant major expenses and job hassles for both of us. Dad's a commercial real estate broker in Seattle. Taking a week off meant putting some important commissions at risk and over-burdening his partner in the firm. I teach English at a community college in Phoenix. I had to get substitutes for my classes and pay them out of my own salary, thanks to the crummy contract the instructors have with the district. But it was worth it.

Giving free reign to our buried passion, we explored every inch of each other's bodies, making love in all sorts of ways, letting our fantasies run wild.

It wasn't a blissful honeymoon romp, however. We were still in mourning for grandpa and still in shock over what we'd done. It was a serious, tender time, full of confusion but also elation.

Breaking such ancient rules turned out to be easy to do but hard to get used to. Incest was the ultimate Don't, and defying this became a heavy stress. We couldn't quite believe we could get away with it. Maybe everyone knew just from the way we looked at each other and walked along together. Maybe they would haul us away, tar and feather us, burn us on the town square. Maybe we would go insane. We had no idea what would happen. We cried as much as we laughed. Fear, sadness, lust, and happiness all mixed together, shared in an intimacy that I had never imagined could be so intense.

It couldn't last, though. We're still two separate people with very different lives. For one thing, he has a steady lady friend. They're not — at least he's not — planning on marriage (the years with mom and the cost of the divorce soured him on that institution), but they're a couple. I've got a Significant Other too.

In some important ways dad and I aren't even compatible. Our views on society are totally opposed. He's conservative, patriotic, a fan of big business and Republican presidents. I'm a flaming anarchist dedicated to overthrowing the corporate power structure that rules the US and increasingly the world. I'm in attac and he's in the American Legion. I got tear gassed and beaten by the cops during the Seattle riots, and he's buddies with the chief of police. I didn't even visit him when I was there, I was so mad at him.

He's my dad and I'm his daughter, and we love each other in all the usual and unusual ways, but we could never live together.

But we can't live totally separate either. Our week brought us incredibly close, and now we can really communicate. Having sex has done our relationship a world of good. We get along much better now.

We've arranged to get together every few months. In the winter when Seattle is drizzly and sunless, he'll come down here. In the summer when Phoenix is broiling, I'll go up there. In between we can meet in exotic places for romantic rendezvous. I'd love to make love to him on the beach at Maui.

For trips like that, I have to admit it's an advantage having a capitalist in the family.

Dad and I both agree our lives are better. Since nothing lasts anyway, all we can do is enjoy it while we have it.

© Tom Hathaway 2008

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Tom Hathaway is the author of TABOO: A MEMOIR, which is published by Dandelion Books and serialized on Sliptongue (click HERE).


 
     
     

 

 



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