The Right Kind of Love, the Wrong Kind of Death
by Joe Baumann
The Right Kind of Love, the Wrong Kind of Death
by Joe Baumann
The Right Kind of Love, the Wrong Kind of Death
by Joe Baumann
The Right Kind of Love, the Wrong Kind of Death by Joe Baumann
The Right Kind of Love, the Wrong Kind of Death
by Joe Baumann
After my father died, my boyfriend regrew him in our fraternity house’s backyard, behind the toolshed where we kept the lawnmower and an inflatable waterslide we hauled out during freshman orientation week. My boyfriend used, as a seed, my father’s pocketknife, the only thing I’d taken with me after his funeral. I had bought it for him myself, a gift for his fortieth birthday. A few days before my father was ripe, my boyfriend hauled me outside. The sky blazed a bright tourmaline, the sun radiating warmth and invitation. I had been working on a Latin translation assignment and was annoyed by the interruption. When we reached the toolshed, I stopped and stared. I recognized my father, who was pinkish and rooted to the ground at the ankles, his slack legs slumped so his body leaned against the back of the shed. His eyes were pasted closed, his body smushy like he was made of putty that had melted. I recognized his forehead and the jut of his chin.
“He’ll be ready tomorrow,” my boyfriend said, rubbing my back.
I’d loved my father; I cried at his funeral. He was kind, if inaccessible, a high school English teacher who’d wanted to be a novelist but couldn’t ever find the mental fortitude to string together enough words in the right fashion. He’d preferred reading to playing catch, and he would blink at me with owlish unknowing when I talked about baseball players or tennis matches. The first time they were introduced, my father gobbled up my boyfriend in a back-slapping hug and asked him what his favorite book was.
My boyfriend told me that he’d turned the clock back on my father, so that he would be a prime-of-life dad, a pre-cancer dad, the dad who had swum laps each morning at six in our in-ground pool even when the water was stinging cold and breath-sucking, the one who insisted that half of our dinner plates always be loaded with cruciferous vegetables, the dad whose genes I could thank for my lean, strong torso but also my fears about dying young.
I had trouble sleeping that night, my boyfriend a warm sack of heat next to me. His knees burrowed into the backs of my legs, and his right hand slid along my hip. I was facing the windows overlooking campus. The buildings were dark blurs that I stared at until my eyes drooped. Every time I came close to sleep, though, I would be rocketed by the image of my father firming to completion in the backyard. I wondered if his voice would be his real voice or the one, wheezing and enflamed, that had plagued him in the final weeks of his life. I trusted what my boyfriend had said about him, even if I didn’t quite believe. Trust, belief: slivers of difference that I tried to swallow down as the night ticked by.
I turned off my alarm before the clock shrieked at me. Hazy morning light, washed-out Easter colors, seeped into my room. My boyfriend groaned and rolled toward the wall, burying his head under a pillow. When I stood, he sat up and blinked, shaking his head like a dog wriggling off water.
“Right,” he said. He blinked at me. “I forgot where I was, for a second. Weird, huh?”
I nodded as I pulled on my shoes. I didn’t bother with socks.
Outside, the grass was covered in a slick of dew. As we approached the shed, my stomach contorted. I took loud, shallow breaths, and my boyfriend grabbed my hand, kneading his thumb over the bones.
“Relax,” he said. His black hair shimmered like the depths of the ocean in the sunlight, which bounced off his cheekbones like he was being photographed by a professional. “I know what I’m doing.”
He had brought with him a bottle of water, a towel, and some clothes—his, not mine, because he was taller than me, like my father—which he had slung over his shoulder: a plain white t-shirt and a pair of black shorts. When we reached the shed, my boyfriend didn’t so much as hesitate as he turned the corner to where my father was growing, so I didn’t stop either.
I took in a sharp breath: what had been a pink lump that only vaguely resembled the shape of my dead dad the day before was now a perfect likeness. He was still slumped, and his eyes were closed, his body slippery with morning dew like the grass so that his skin—tan like it had been when he still played beach volleyball and went running without a shirt on—glistened like a cooked slab of beef. I stared at him, the familiar roll of his shoulders, the splatter of his hair. He was naked, and I couldn’t help but looking at his most intimate places, which I had only seen once in my life, when he failed to close his bedroom door when I was six and didn’t yet understand the concept of privacy.
“How do we, you know, wake him up?” I said.
My boyfriend pointed to the ground, where my father’s legs were buried up to the ankles.
“It’s like yanking out a root vegetable.”
“I’ve never yanked out a root vegetable.”
He rolled his eyes and, after handing me the towel and water and clothes, bent down in front of my father and started scooping dirt out of the way like a dog lazily digging a hole. I should have helped but I simply watched, first my boyfriend and the muscles of his back sliding and flexing beneath his t-shirt as he groped at the ground, then at my father who, as his feet slowly came unstuck from the earth, started to stand taller. His eyes rolled beneath their lids. As my boyfriend finished releasing his feet, my father’s arms unfurled themselves from around his body. I felt like I was watching a flower spool out its blooms in high speed.
“The towel,” my boyfriend said. He stood, wiping his hands. I held it out and he shook his head. “No, your dad.”
I started cleaning my father’s face. His lips were still slucked shut and I could hear him taking in raspy breaths through his nostrils; when I got close, I could see the gunk dribbling out of his nose. When the towel bashed against his forehead he leaned back and smacked into the fence separating our house from the property behind it.
“Careful,” my boyfriend said and took over. He cleaned my father up and got him into the shorts and t-shirt. He rubbed my father’s back as he helped him stand, my father’s knees wobbly, his first steps on the grass like the unsure trots of a small child or a foal. He paused when my father paused, bent close to whisper encouragements in his ear. My father hobbled like he was geriatric, and I remembered his wasted body, destroyed by medicine and his own rebelling cells, the way his mouth, cracked and dry, gaped like a fish’s as it yearned for water. His skin had been slucked tight, every vein a tunnel, every bone a mountain.
My boyfriend turned to look at me and raised an eyebrow in my direction to say, Well?
I caught up with them as he helped my father onto our back porch. When I took my father’s right arm, I felt a jolt at how warm he was.
My boyfriend saw the look on my face and said, “Well, he has been outside.”
We made our way to the back door, which I pushed open. When we guided my father inside, we stared up the steps.
“You up to this?” my boyfriend said.
I nodded. As we led my father upstairs, I felt my insides twist and tangle like sheets knotted by a heavy wind.
* * *
Everyone loved my father. In high school, he encouraged me to throw parties, and by the time I was sixteen, he was winking every time he mentioned that he’d bought several cases of beer on his last grocery run. As long as I didn’t let anyone leave who had drank even a single drop of alcohol, he looked the other way.
“It’s going to happen,” he’d say to me when I asked why he didn’t mind. “I just want it to happen safely.”
My friends adored him; he always tried to stay holed up in his bedroom or the second-floor office of our house, but my friends would go slinking up the stairs, beers sweating in their hands, and cajole him to join us. He would always resist, though minimally, and while he never sat down while we played Circle of Death or Fuck the Dealer, he stood in the periphery and laughed at our bad jokes—sharing, periodically, his own awful bits of comedy that my friends, inexplicably, found hilarious—drinking slowly and carefully from his own single can of Budweiser, his arms crossed over his chest as he observed our goings on. We often caught one another’s eye, and he would usually give me a tiny wink, the slightest tip of his can, and then bark out some silly insult at one of my friends. In the morning, I would wake to the smell of bacon and maple syrup, and after eating gargantuan, greasy breakfasts that settled my stomach, he would help me clean up the messes my friends left behind.
I never knew my mother, who passed away when I was an infant, the misty details always out of reach. I asked questions periodically when I was young, and in response my father would tug photo albums from a bookshelf in the living room and sit with me, poring through Polaroids tinged orange and purple. She was beautiful, my mother, with long, dark ringlets that curtained her face, which was pointed and shiny.
“She wanted to be an artist,” he said. He would clear his throat and add, “She was an artist.”
She’d been a painter, but my father only had two of her pieces: one that he kept in his bedroom, the last thing she finished, a Picasso-like visage of me as a baby, my eyes bright blue and shiny and both stuck to the right side of my head. The other was an abstraction, like a Jackson Pollock, sprays of yellow and green and blue. It hung over my bed.
“She never really knew what she wanted to be,” he said. “That held her back and also made her great. Sometimes I wish I’d kept more of her work, but then other times even the two we have are too hard to look at.”
By the time I was old enough to understand death, I also understood that asking about my mother hurt my father, and so I stopped. I didn’t feel the achy void of loss that people seemed to expect when I told them my mother was dead. How do you grieve an absence whose presence you’ve never really known? When people fawn-eyed at me with sympathy and pity, I felt a hard hunger rush through me, not for my mother to be alive but for whoever was pumping out their vacuous condolences to vanish.
When my boyfriend and I first met as college freshmen who had chosen to join the same fraternity and I told him about my mother, he didn’t look at me like I was drizzled in sorrow. He said, “That sucks. Wanna get drunk?”
“Because my mother died when I was a baby?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Because it’s Friday.”
* * *
My father came back to life fast. I worried that leaving him in my room while my boyfriend and I went to our classes would somehow damage him, that I’d return to find him curled up in a ball, aching for death. But when I came back after lunch, I found him performing jumping jacks on my throw rug, which he’d vacuumed. All of my dirty clothes, which had a tendency to congregate around rather than in my laundry basket, had been picked up. My bed was made. He’d even tidied my desk, notebooks stacked neatly, pens in their coffee mug.
His face was shiny, but the sludge of rebirth had been replaced with a crown of sweat. He dropped to the floor to do a set of pushups.
My boyfriend came trudging to my bedroom door.
“Is this normal?” I said.
He gave my father a once-over and smiled. “Is it?”
“My father was tidy, but he never cleaned my bedroom, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well,” my boyfriend said, laying his arm over my shoulders, heavy and hot like a boa constrictor, “this is his room now, too, isn’t it?”
After my father died, I went home for a week, given unction by all of my professors to skip out on quizzes and homework, to take tests late and turn in papers a week after they were due. Neither of my parents had siblings, and my grandparents had passed away when I was a child. My father had loads of friends, and they crowded into the house and fluttered about during the reception, handling the food and drinks and bereavement cards and flower arrangements, so many that my eyes started watering and I had to sneak out onto the back porch. One of my father’s good friends was an attorney, and he found me after most people had slunk home and I’d had too much merlot to still see straight and to fully understand what he was saying, which was that he’d been happy to sort out the estate business, all the mountains of paperwork that appear out of nowhere when someone dies. I nodded and let him see himself out. My boyfriend stayed with me for two days, ostensibly to help me sort through some of my father’s things, but all I could do was lie in my bed. That’s where my boyfriend stayed, rubbing my shoulders and back, nudging his fingers against my hips. He tried, one time, to nuzzle at my throat, but when I didn’t move, he understood it wasn’t the time or place.
Place, I thought then and now while I watched my father move so he could do some sit-ups. Watching my father wending through my personal space made me feel dizzy. I looked at my boyfriend.
“What do we do with him?”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
I set my teeth. For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that my father could speak; he’d been silent as we trudged him into the house, and I imagined it would take him days, weeks even, to master speech again, so I hadn’t bothered.
“Hey, Dad,” I said.
He was mid-crunch, and he held his position, back hovering at a forty-five-degree angle. He smiled and waved like a giddy child and then collapsed onto his back, massaging his abs with his hands.
A group of guys spent every Friday afternoon playing beer pong in our fraternity house foyer, and people would wander in and out, watching and drinking from their own cases of beer once their classes were over. My boyfriend thought maybe my father should come. We took him downstairs, where he received handshakes and hugs and slaps on the back from everyone who came through the house. When one of the guys standing at the table received a series of angry texts from his girlfriend, he invited my father to take his place.
“Is that a good idea?” I said.
“I don’t see why not,” my boyfriend said as my father, who’d been slouched in a folding chair near the action, stood. When he plucked up one of the ping pong balls, he looked at it, slick and white, like it was a foreign object. But then he squared his shoulders to the cups on the other side of the table, his weight on his back foot, and lunged just so like a basketball player shooting a free throw, and sent the ball plunking with a light pillow of noise into the freshly-poured beer at the top of his opponents’ triangle. Everyone hooted in approval.
I woke on Saturday morning in my boyfriend’s bed, sunlight beating through his window in hard, wide strips because he’d accidentally knocked down the Venetian blinds a few weeks ago when he was drunk. We’d left my father in my bed. He’d played three games of beer pong, winning them all, before shaking his head and backing away from the table, ignoring the desperate wishes of my friends. My boyfriend had gotten to him first, helping him back up the stairs while I trailed behind.
I yawned and stretched; all of my muscles were stiff, my joints like twisted bark. My foot slid against my boyfriend’s leg and he groaned. I looked over at him and nearly shrieked.
My boyfriend was athletic, lithe and tan and smooth-skinned, his midsection bumpy with muscle, his arms striated. I liked to run my hands over them and feel what twitched beneath. But the sun streaking over his body revealed something gone sour and aged, his body wrinkled and laden with white fuzz like a peach left to rot. He blinked awake. My boyfriend’s face was also fleshy and slack, wrinkles drooping along his eyelids and mouth; his throat was wattled, the skin bunched.
“What happened to you?” I said.
He groaned and sat up, breathing hard. “I was worried about this,” he said.
“What is this?”
He let out a sigh and his body shuddered. A roll of skin and fat that hadn’t been there doubled over his belly button. His pubic hair had gone gray and white and wiry. Something squelched in my stomach.
“The price I had to pay.”
“Oh god,” I said, understanding immediately. “This is insane. You shouldn’t have done this.”
“Because I don’t want you to be like this.”
He patted my back twice. “Let’s find your dad. Or maybe you could. I’m a bit stiff.”
I found my father on my bedroom floor, stretched out in downward dog, using my throw rug as a yoga mat. He lifted his head at an unnatural angle, like something out of an exorcism movie, and raised one hand from the floor to wave at me. His body’s contortion made me feel ill.
“Can you say something, please?” I said.
His voice was rich with honey and warmth, a deep shock. Familiar and exact.
I watched my father turn the downward dog pose into a handstand. His arms barely shook and his legs stayed straight. Then he dipped down, an inverted pushup focusing on his shoulders. Effortless.
“When did you learn to do that?” I said.
He let his body topple downward, feet landing with solid strength. He unfurled himself and smiled at me. “Just now.”
My father’s face was smooth and bright, like last night’s beers had been slurps from the fountain of youth.
I left him to his stretching and a fresh set of air squats. In his room, my boyfriend was still in his bed, but sitting up, taking in deep breaths. I sat down on the bed.
“Why’d you do this?”
“You were wrecked.”
I ground the heels of my palms against my eyes. “I was grieving.”
He set a hand on my back. His fingers were leathery and cold. I sat up straight.
“It was horrible to see you that way.”
“Well, it’s horrible to see you like this.”
“I had to get this way eventually.”
“Not for, like, forty years.”
He smiled at me. “Did you ever imagine you’d see me like this?”
“I don’t know how to answer that.”
“Answer it honestly.”
“Sometimes, maybe. Yes. But not like this. You should have told me what it would cost.”
“But then you wouldn’t have done it. You wouldn’t have let me.”
We both knew this was true. I pictured my father, jocular and lithe, doing burpees or triceps dips on my bedroom floor.
“As much as I missed my father, I didn’t miss him enough for this.” I looked at my boyfriend, his frazzled, grayed temples, the wither of his arms, the new bulge to his stomach. His jaw was covered in a patchy fuzz, discolored like mange. “You look really bad.”
My boyfriend laughed. “I know.”
“Are you still you?”
He tapped his skull. “Still sharp up here.” He waved at his body. “If not here.”
I leaned my head against the wall and let out a long breath. “What do we do? How do we fix it?”
“You want me to fix it?”
“You’re sure? Your dad.”
“I know,” I said. I couldn’t decide if my heart was beating fast out of relief or fear or sorrow. “I know.”
* * *
We waited until nightfall because some guys who lived off-campus were throwing a kegger and no one would be around the fraternity house. My boyfriend suggested my father and I have a meal alone, so we went to the one decent pizza place in town and built our own pie, ordering half a dozen of my father’s favorite toppings: Canadian bacon, sausage, pepperoni, double green pepper, feta cheese. When the pizza arrived, the dough was barely able to keep the thing together it was so belabored by meats and veggies. I watched him eat three slices until I took one for myself. His mouth was ringed with grease. He slurped from his soda, served in a gargantuan red cup.
I tried to smile at him.
“Don’t be sad,” he said through a mouthful of cheese. “We got so much extra time.”
I leaned back and felt a cold wash on my neck.
He smiled. “I know that I can’t stay. It’s alright.” He leaned forward and patted my hand. “This has been nice, hasn’t it?”
He tried to pay the check when we were finished but I pointed out that my boyfriend had not resurrected his credit cards or any cash, so I forked over a wad of bills to a girl I knew vaguely from a few parties. She waved goodbye to us through the window as we walked back toward campus while she was wiping down our table.
We didn’t say much until we arrived at the house. My boyfriend, as if pre-planned, was waiting on the back deck, his body slumped against the rail. He was breathing hard, like he’d run miles. His clothes barely fit him.
“He doesn’t look so good,” my father said. He tossed an arm over my shoulder and it was only when he made contact with my body that I realized I was shaking. My dad looked at me. “It’s okay, you know.”
We each took my boyfriend under one arm.
“Where are we going?” I said.
“You know,” my father said, but he pointed to the shed anyway.
A crater of displaced dirt and grass was carved out where my father had sprouted from the ground. Still entangled, the three of us stared down at it in silence, as though we were paying our respects at a memorial. Then my father, with delicate ease, leaned my boyfriend’s heft against me. He slid his feet out of the old pair of my sneakers he’d been wearing and peeled off a pair of my socks, tucking each into one of the shoes, which he placed together on the grass as though sliding them into a spot in a closet. Then he started removing his clothing—my boyfriend’s clothing—and I winced at the sight of his naked back.
“Is this necessary?” I said.
“Yes,” my father said.
“Yes,” my boyfriend said.
“How come?” I said.
“It just is,” they said at the same time.
I watched my father slide his feet into the earth, shocked at the ease and willingness with which he planted himself in the ground. Bent over, he packed the loose soil up around his ankles. My boyfriend squeezed his arm around my neck and I looked at him. His lips were dry and cracked. I could see how his eyes were asking for forgiveness. I pressed my hand against his side, which felt like a half-melted candle.
My father stood up straight, and I tried not to look at him.
“Now what?” I said.
He was holding his pocketknife by the blade, the red sheath pointed at me. I wasn’t surprised that he’d had it this whole time.
“You take this,” he said.
“And now you need to cut me.”
He drew an invisible line across his throat.
“No. Are you kidding?”
He shook his head.
“This is wrong,” I said. I looked at my boyfriend. This had, after all, been his idea. He’d dragged my father back to life without asking me if I wanted that, and it was thus his fault I was standing here, my father’s knife in my hand, expected to drag it across his throat and spill his blood into the grass.
“You can’t ask this of me,” I said.
“Of course not,” my boyfriend said, and held out his hand, palm up.
None of us spoke. My father stared at me. I stared at my boyfriend’s palm. He looked down at my father’s feet. We were a gruesome triangle.
I gave him the knife.
“I can’t watch whatever is going to happen here,” I said. I looked at my father. “I’m sorry.”
“No apologies,” he said.
We didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t tell him that I loved him. The words hung in the air, invisible and silent. Right before my father died, he’d sent me back to school, demanding that I not ruin my education on his behalf. He’d promised that he’d be around long enough for me to get in a final goodbye, but that didn’t turn out to be true; his doctor called, told me that I should get on the road as soon as possible, but the three-hour drive to St. Louis turned out to be too long. I’d thought, immediately after, that getting to speak to him one last time would have made everything okay, his death filing itself away into the history of things that had happened to me. That if I’d had one last moment to speak what I felt, everything would have been fine. And now I felt stupid and queasy and angry and incapable of doing anything except turning my back on him and my boyfriend and walking across the grass and the porch and through the door and up the stairs and down the hall and into my bedroom, where I waited. I took a deep breath. The air was tinged with the smell of my father, wisps of his sweat still in the air. When I laid down on my bed, I could feel him there, the weight of his body on the mattress. But I could also smell my boyfriend’s skin, the tart of his underarms, an aroma of cool, wet rocks.
I heard footsteps approaching, could feel a body hovering in the doorway. My eyes were closed, and I wasn’t quite ready to open them up. I pictured what might have happened in the yard, and for the briefest moment I wasn’t sure who I hoped had killed whom. My heart yearned in conflicting directions, and everything in my stomach was blended and confused. Like a boat on choppy waters I bucked and swayed, until I finally opened my eyes and welcomed the future in.