Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Orion, and The Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.
Bathing in the Time of Fatherhood
Tub full of salts, a balm for knees more patchwork than flesh of late. Down the hall, the girl, all pink-cheeked and pillow shrouded, calls for me to snuggle her. Soon, people say, you’ll yearn for the days when your daughter called out for you to snuggle her. Poppycock and faulty memory, I say.
Back then she was a bail full of oddities, sent them tumbling from her mind. Someone says rabies, and she stays awake the night, thinking she’ll croak of it. Not unless it goes unnoticed, I say. And who could possibly miss you foaming at the mouth? Old Yeller, she says. I nod.
She asks vertiginous things, unscalable. But I hear the one question rattling inside them all, death, death, death. When? How? I congratulate her on making a friend so early in life of existential dread.
Awake at 2am to pee. Hello, It says. Let us talk of your imminent demise. No thanks, I answer, I’m just peeing. Soon enough, sleep eludes, and I’m wondering about the end of days, about all the small paper cuts and squandered hours in between.
I’ve always known I’ll die in one of two ways. The mind is such a capacious mess. Not quite the Oracle of Delphi, she says. What’s with the two ways? Close though, I admonish.
I’ve always known I’ll go under the wicked teeth and jagged talons of a bear, hulking down the mountain trail. Often, I dream of bears.
Barring that, the slow dip or fiery combustion of plane. Those last moments to consider what comprises, trinkets and rainy afternoons, lovers and dreams.
My legs afloating, I am weary of the hop scotching from school to home, the wrangling of dinners, the siren call of elusive deep sleep. I want to lie in the bath until the world ends, until everyone else has left the cave, noticed we have just been looking at shadows on a wall, and I can get some damn peace.
Time moves that raggedy scoundrel. Once, this ropy muscle was but a chubby little pollywog, swimming to me in blued pool, all pink and arm chub. I stretched my arms toward her, while her little legs beat like a propeller, floppy hat keeping non-existent sun off her bald little globe. Windmilling droplets, skyward, then on her eyelashes, cheeks, creating such a startling in her, blue eyes agog, as though she’s seen the ghost of a ghost.
I pull urchin to chest, her fat toes curl, and she slips into my embrace. My how I miss it. Why does no one tell you?
But now the water’s gone tepid, and it’s half past nine, book and guilt. The girl grown wild as untended ivy. And I too now, ripped asunder by the swift passage. I cannot cuddle you, I yell or yelled, depending on how you feel about the admixture of memory and time.
Now the day has been ground into nothing. Now the day is brittle sticks. Now the day is celery sticks and raisins, ice packs and dishes and dishes, and screen time allocations, and bedtime stories of companionable amphibians. But now it’s over, blessed evening, and I want to close as a flower closes, from the sunlight no longer in waves through window. The drill is this, I tell her. You sleep, and I read in peace!
She calls from the heaps of darkness. I am trying, I say, to make merry with my past life. Regrets, stay. Daughter, sleep.
We used to live together. Husband and wife and children. I used to gather them as sticks to fire and tell them stories in the bath, send puppets scurrying beneath spindly legs! Oh, what a delight or so I remember. Memory unfurling.
I fold the book down, words bundled for another day. She cries as rain patters and patterns the window. Rain doing as it may in May. I slip into her room, and she radiates. The story she tells is a dream or perhaps a story she heard in a dream. We sit in the heaps and radiance, father and daughter.
I grasp at the day. All dust, which needs to be swept together to make a meaning from the remains.
Will she ever sleep? Just then, a drifting, sudden.
I alone again. Black void of this strange decade. No port in sight. I wonder if I’ll ever see, I whisper to this dreaming girl, the swirling green light over the icy trees, the Milk in the galaxy.