In this fantasy, it’s Wimbledon and she’s trying to climb over the green wall into the bleachers to find me. Her dress is grass stained, her eyes are wet, her shoulders—always big and round and beautiful—move like gears as she reaches up into the crowd. A voice, McEnroe’s I think, is saying, We all know who she’s looking for.
In this fantasy, I can’t get through a wedding toast; her new wife is squeezing her hand as she cries because I am crying. I think we’re at the same place where my wife and I got married, but the lighting is better, softer, and there are more people so the tent doesn’t feel so big.
In this fantasy, she’s thirty and still living at home and we’ve all miraculously learned to both love and excel at gardening. Sometimes we have old friends over and they’re talking about how their kids are working at Goldman or in PR or for some clean water charity that sounds great but is the pet project of rich lunatic narcissists, and we feign interest. We do worry, my wife and I, but it’s a little background hum, and it always ends with the idea that nothing matters because the world is ending, hahaha, we might as well be together so there’s nothing to regret. We’re wine drunk every night, rarely hungover. The dog moves around our feet, forty years old now, slow and gassy but content. Every night, I still kiss her forehead before bed.
In this fantasy, she’s happy in the mornings when I get her; she never screams NOOOOOO, and slaps at my hands. I never look down at my hands, the offenders, the captors, then put them in my pockets so she might edge back closer to me.
In this fantasy, she’s a cellist, still patient enough to play along with my mediocre guitar work. I strum the rhythm, something super basic but nice—in my mind it’s not “Eleanor Rigby” but that sort of vibe and I can only think of “Eleanor Rigby” now—and she plays the melody low and smooth.
In this fantasy, I tell her I’m dying.
In this one, I never cut back the neighbor’s honeysuckle and it creeps toward us. I see weeks as minutes, growth and decay are perceptible as they happen, and the honeysuckle moves like my fingers on her back singing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” It smells so sweet, fully alive, but I can’t stop sneezing—unfair!—and I have to go inside. I close the door fast behind me so the bees don’t get in. There are so few of them left, but they still sting.In this fantasy, my wife dies on her way home from work, highway accident, and three hours later it’s bath time.
In this one, it rains for weeks and weeks. No one knows why. Eventually, we think it will be like this forever. We’re not looking at our phones—not in a conscious or coordinated way, it just… doesn’t occur to us, I guess—and we don’t know what’s going on anywhere else. She’s maybe ten or eleven, staring out at the garden. The indoor air is stale.
In this one, she falls asleep while I’m holding her, the first time ever; I’m too scared to look down at her but I feel her breathing change.
In this fantasy, she looks nothing like me and exactly like her mother.
In this one, she’s fluent in Italian, and her voice is the same as my wife’s because my wife sounds younger in Italian. There’s a storm coming, they’re watching from the deck, talking and I don’t understand them. Let’s go in, I say.
Her various speech impediments never leave, in this one—everything sounds like a W. There is no moment where we read some dumb, scolding book or pseudoscience Atlantic article that makes us go, she’s too old or how do we fix this or why did we let it get this bad? We decide that sounds only have meaning because we say so, evolution of language, she’s literally evolving language in front of us, it’s a privilege to watch, whatever whatever, and we mean it.
In this fantasy, I lose her in the crowd at the largest march I’ve ever seen—not in a scary way, just like I’m no longer needed; the top of her head is one of many, then it’s gone.
In this one, the ground trembles, and she looks to me with fear and confusion; I meet her with the same.
In this fantasy, it never snows for the rest of her childhood. There are days where it almost does, where the air starts to taste that way I remember from my own childhood, but then it warms just enough or the clouds break. When we talk about it, for her it’s like when my dad used to say movies cost a dime and I was like okay who cares but it did lodge in my memory and there was pleasure in imagining a world before me, totally foreign except that he was in it. Finally, she’s 18, she’s almost leaving home, and she sees snow out the window, just a gentle sputtering but still she’s amazed. My wife takes a picture of her face reacting, and for a moment it’s a picture only about joy.
In this one, I never get a vasectomy. We try again, and it’s just as hard as it was the first time. No tears, just long, thick periods of quiet, save for the hum of the TV. But she’s there, too, this time. She’s herself—a torrent of statements that are really questions. Her cheeks redden when she’s mad at us; we’re numb to most of it after a while, which makes her madder. It just never happens, years and years of nothing, until we stop trying. There’s no conversation about a clean end, only a resignation that feels natural, at least, and as she gets older she calls herself the miracle baby, which feels cute but also mean, like we had nothing to do with it.
In this fantasy, she’s a mechanic.
In this one, I am a person who can conceive of her adulthood, or anyone’s, without a job—career—as a definitional noun.
In this one, she never knows hunger or pure, crystalline fear. In this one, she does.
In this one, a boy whose parents own a car dealership, whose hair is sandy, face blunt, who displays no interior life worth empathizing with and who is ensconced in enough privilege that I can say his limitations are his own fault, hurts her. I become a different type of person, one I’ve often wanted to be, and I go off to hurt him. I find him on a beach for some reason, at night. The water adds a threat, swells crash even in a bay. I’m big and he’s big, too, but not like me. His friends are there and I’m alone. Still, he’s afraid, but I don’t hurt him. I almost do but then I hold back, and this makes him feel shame and allows me to feel less shame. Driving home, I listen to a slow, dreamy cover of a Springsteen song and feel young then old, sad then happier.
In this one, she’s trying to learn a dance routine for a talent show, and her concentration face is the same as it’s always been. Her door is open so I’m watching her, but she doesn’t look up to see me.
In this one, she reads the whole Harry Potter series with the kind of obsession that I once did, that my wife did, too. She reads through dinner, we have to coax her into turning off her bedroom light. JK Rowling has renounced every public comment she’s ever made, and anyway Twitter doesn’t exist anymore, so the whole experience is un-tortured.
In this one, she can do the monkey bars. She’s very, very proud.
In this one, my wife dies on her way home from work, highway accident, and three hours later it’s bath time. She sees a squirrel out the window over the bath, running along the gutter of a neighbor’s house. Squirrel, she says, but she pronounces it the way she does all Sq sounds, which is more like an F. I imitate the sound as she makes it, which is something we always do with so much of her language, because it sounds so much better when she says it, so like her, that we can’t bring ourselves to correct it, but my wife isn’t there to reciprocate or laugh. My voice bounces off the tile, then silence, and in that moment I have never felt more significant, more fully convinced of my own purpose, and after that thought the grief comes, the sudden, terrifying desire for my own death, and she says, without judgment or worry, just interest, daddy’s crying.
In this one, I’m a person willing to explore and articulate the outer edges of what I want. What feels good. I am bound tightly, whipped hard, and it’s not an awkward occasion or the beginning of something that devolves into giggles or fizzles out with my suffocated imagination. My wife is wearing a strap-on, and I’m kneeling on the bed feeling wonderfully small, a trapped, feral thing. I feel my throat seize a little, my hands are gripping at the sheets. She comes in to ask for a glass of water, sees us clearly—the ceiling light is on, undimmed—shrieks, and then laughs, and I’m like a sitcom dad but also not.
In this one, a lame one, I’m on Fresh Air, and after Terry introduces me I say, Thanks, Terry—first time, long time. And it lands! After the segment airs, she texts, lol for realll.
In this one, our home is loud and full of all the strangers who sleep in the park around the corner, prodded on summer days by EMTs for confirmation of life. Our doors are open, the fridge is full of water, she’s on the back porch wiping dirt off freshly plucked root vegetables, tying them in bunches with purple string because purple is still her favorite color. She is at ease in this, far past her parents’ mixture of fear and self-satisfaction; she merely, effortlessly, does.
In this one, the full-body agitation that she feels so fast, this vibration of panic and anger, just disappears. She doesn’t remember what it feels like; soon we don’t remember what it looks like on her. Her face wracked, the sound of her fingernails on eczematic skin when she instantly makes internal turmoil physical—I cannot bring up a memory of either. Or the way her body feels when she rushes forward for comfort, then tenses when she realizes she doesn’t want it, and my arms around her are useless, or really worse: unwanted. Neither of us remembers that.
In this one, we’re in a house I’ve never seen and watching on TV as the barrier wall around Manhattan bursts and it looks like a scene from that old Stallone movie with the tunnel. She says, At least Grammy and Grampy aren’t alive anymore, which is what I had been thinking, and I’m amazed that she’s old enough to say something like that.
In this one, I’m a boxer, my body is thick but hard. I know what my own blood tastes like. I know what it’s like to think I might have let things go too far, the thrill of it being over followed quickly by the need to do it again. There are stakes, though no specifics, but it feels like pain is for something, I’m sure of that.
She’s a poet, in this one. She is not literal. When she describes the world in front of her the words twist into something unrecognizable, better. It’s everything I ever wanted from language—freedom, which turns into joy—that I’ve never managed. I’m jealous of her, and that feels nice. I ask her how and she doesn’t have an answer, as it should be.
In this fantasy, she’s a teenager screaming at me, Your guilt is a useless emotion, and I’m half-standing from my chair screaming back, Do you have a more productive idea, genius? And she… does.
In this fantasy, I remember all the things that I’ve read that have meant something to me—perfect recall. It’s to the point where everyone is rolling their eyes at the dinner table, but there’s reassurance in it, a database of wisdom not my own, beyond my own, scrolling by, until something clicks. I don’t lose any of it, and that’s a form of nourishment, not a burden.In this fantasy, the redbud trees we planted are one hundred feet high.
In this one, they finally find a mate for the grey wolf at the zoo. We’re there on the day it’s introduced, and the way the two animals move around one another, the nerves and the hope, the humanness, by which I guess I mean vulnerability, of their gestures—even the children intuit to stop pushing and shut up and watch. The zoo is almost not immensely sad. At the gift shop, we get two stuffed wolves so they can keep each other company, rip off the tags with factoids of how few are left.
In this one, we own a vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island, all natural and all that, heat rising off our compost piles like something out of a comic book. My wife holds each little grape between her finger like it has a heartbeat, and we all wander the rows on long afternoons until we lose each other. We do this until the grapes are burned out, the vines brown; we really enjoyed it while it lasted.
She’s in a phase where she wants to give everything she has away, every bit of food we give her unless she’s so hungry she can’t help herself. We call her a good person, an angel—if more people were like her, well… We put captions like that on Instagram, delete them fast because yuck, get a little drunk when she’s in bed, tell each other it’s okay to be proud on a personal level, it’s not a political thing, as long as we don’t broadcast it like those fucking people with their debate team spawn, and then we have really good sex.
In this one, there’s a shooting in the park next to the ice cream truck; she hears it and the big kids are already screaming, so she looks at them and starts screaming, too. I grab her, lock my wrists behind her back, run away from the screams. Her chin bobbles on my shoulder.
In this one at the park, in one of those moments where one parent (a mom) hisses at another (a dad) to look up from his phone, it’s all happening out here, Kevin, right as a guttural protest is forming in his throat something legitimately miraculous happens. The ground opens up, we hear and feel the gears of the earth moving beneath us. Water explodes up, the pressure an ecstatic moan. Nobody says anything. Parched grass returns to life. I look up. The water falling feels like a memory I can’t quite place, from when I was too young to remember anything beyond feeling.
In this one, the redbud trees we planted are one hundred feet high; underneath, there are patches where no grass grows in the shape of our three bodies. Where we found shade.
Under the tree, we’re burying the dog, who in this fantasy she has loved, has touched gently, has found comfort in. There’s a burlap sack wrinkled around the lump of the body. She insists on being the one to place the sack into the dirt.
On a bay beach, she stands up out of the ocean and I watch her footprints in the sand up the beach to my wife sleeping on a towel. She presses all her wet weight down, and my wife protests, seriously at first, but then joking, and their legs are stacked like uneven kindling.
On an ocean beach in Italy where her mother’s family spent the summers, crabs are overheating on the beach, making a sound like a whistle, and she’s crying and crying. The sky used to be clear enough to see to Croatia on some days.
We’re walking to higher and higher elevation. She’s still young enough to be on my back. The dog is trying to keep up, but tiring. My wife says she can taste the difference in the air up here, it tastes like nothing but air, and she’s right. We stop to eat dried apricots on a smooth patch of granite, and I’ve looked up how old this granite is—395 million years. We’re quiet trying to think of an analogy to transform that number into something small enough that it becomes quotidian, and then gains meaning.
In this one, the house is dark; she’s asking what’s wrong.
A squirrel lies down on a branch on an August day, chest heaving, almost cute.
I can taste smoke—hold your breath, I say.
A whale breaches the water somewhere we’ve never been; she’s pointing.
Legs are stampeding; I’m holding her up above my shoulders.
The sky is tornado green.
My wife is making her funniest faces an on older, looser face. She’s older too, but she’s laughing until she has to hold her belly, like the very first times when she surprised herself with the sound.
She’s with her friends and I’m not there, but I can see it—in this fantasy, she’s on her own but we’re never in the dark, never abandoned. These friends are jumping off a cliff into brackish water; though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarry, this is a quarry. She goes last. No part of her body resists the jump. She doesn’t bother to brace herself as her feet break the water.