Susan L. Lin
That Morning, in the Unforeseen Future
When they found his car early that morning, it was much too late. Years later, when I find photographs of his blue Impala—tucked away underneath her bed—I will try to picture it in flames.
In the local paper, his death is reduced to a few square inches of text. My father isn’t even given a name. He is described as “a man in his mid-twenties.” They don’t mention the books. Maybe there was nothing left for them to find.
He leaves a surprise behind for my mother’s next birthday, a silver butterfly pendant, its edges outlined in sapphires. She doesn’t find it right away. After my father’s death, she cannot bring herself to touch his belongings, instead leaving them where they were that morning when he left for work.
He might be sitting at his desk right now, reading that same newspaper with a new headline: Man Found Dead in Mysterious Car Fire. He always opened the metropolitan section last, scanning the photographs in the obits for children’s faces. Sometimes when the elderly died, their families sent in an old childhood photo as a memory of the deceased’s eternal youth. But most of the time the photos were of children when they had died too young, when there weren’t any other pictures to choose from.
“I know every death is tragic on some level, you know, for someone at least,” my father would often say, “but it kills me every time, having to reading these.”
My mother had an easy answer for that. “Then don’t.” He would watch her as she came in and set a cup of coffee down on his desk, taking the paper away from him.
“Come on, Art, you’re going to be late.”
“It’s just—” and this one time, months before I was born, he didn’t reach for the paper again like he usually did, “—you read these eulogies all the time and they just blur together in your memory. It’s easy to forget that they're all different kids.” He paused. She knew that he was looking at her stomach, which was just beginning to show. Her own eyes were trained on his desk. He had a bad habit of leaving pens uncapped, losing the lids completely in a pile of papers, underneath the table, at the bottom of his bag. “Different kids,” he repeated. “Different parents, different families.”
“It won’t happen to our baby,” she said, reaching over his shoulder to recap a black pen. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Every parent thinks that.” He turned in his chair and looked up at her face, placing both his hands on her stomach, like a protective wall around me. “How can you say it for sure?”
“Because.” Her hands circled his wrists. “I won’t let it. Okay?”
She can’t see what isn’t there yet—the two new ink pens he leaves, uncapped, on his desk that morning in the unforeseen future, where they bleed onto the pages of an open book. The spots grow larger and larger; one red and one blue until they meet in the middle and keep growing into each other, an ugly purple.
She can’t see herself standing in front of her students in ninth grade English, letting the news spill out onto her desk, onto the papers she had to grade. They had seen photographs of him maybe, framed on her desk at school, but they’d never met him. They most definitely didn’t know him. He was a complete stranger to them, and maybe that’s why she felt she could let her guard down.
In the future, I’ll wonder about that moment. I’ll wonder whether it was a story someone told me, whether it happened to someone else I read about in the paper, whether it happened to anyone at all, or whether it was just another event in this Rubik’s cube world I’d constructed: turning one set of actions in one direction, another set the opposite way, rearranging every face until I arrived at a pattern of colors I found attractive, knowing the ultimate goal was to match the squares to each other but never quite getting there. I’ll wonder if any of the students in my mother’s class walked out the door that day, changed in some way. The speech she gave was the kind thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds were often unaffected by; in normal circumstances, some may even have rolled their eyes.
“This morning, I stood in the kitchen staring at a plate of scrambled eggs and tomatoes and holding our baby to my chest, and I wondered if I should tell you what happened over the summer or just let it go. He was so young—talented, really talented. Don’t ever think that you’ll have forever.” Her hands hung awkwardly at her sides afterwards, not quite touching the fabric of her skirt. The fingers of both hands were bent toward her palms in half-fists. A pause, and then: “Now, what are we doing today? Ah, yes.” She creased open a copy of The Iliad. “I hope you all did your summer reading over the break.”
Almost a year later, she's finally wiping down the bookshelves along the back wall of his study when she finds his gift: a small red box, hidden in a hole cut out of the center of an encyclopedia.
I sleep on my baby pillow at night. My head rests against those words, the ones that were written there on the day of my birth. It already seems like a lifetime ago:
This Certifies that Lyssa Wheeler was born to Arthur and Rebecca Wheeler at Briggs Hospital at 3:12 AM on Wednesday, the 23rd day of May. Weight at Birth: 6 pounds, 8 ounces. Length: 19 inches. Attending Physician: Dr. Brown.
These are the earliest pieces of information that shape my life, at least according to some. They are the objective facts, the undeniable truths.
In fifteen years, a friend of mine will tell me that all vivid memories before age five are fabrications over time; they can’t be real. AP Psychology. He’s an overachiever, unlike me.
“It’s not my fault you can’t remember your own goddamn childhood.”
I always counter unwelcome comments this way, even after I realize some people are offended by it. He is one of them. We won’t stay friends for long.
I know this is real:
My mother sits at the kitchen table with her back to me. Green nightgown, hem gauzy at her knees. From my place on the kitchen floor, I can feel the pattern etched into the linoleum—a series of diamond shapes connected to each other by perpendicular lines that reach from corner to corner, forming a grid across the whole room.
I see something fall, drops that reflect the light like liquid mirrors. Silence when they meet the floor. I prefer noise to quiet, in the form of wails. As I understand it later, my eyes disappear and skin wrinkles at the outer corners; my face flushes a deep pink. You can probably hear me three blocks away.
Like Lyssa, I have a baby pillow from the hospital where I was born. Most souvenirs, I value for their ability to trigger memories that might otherwise be forgotten. This one is slightly different because it originated from a moment in time that I was of course too young remember. To me this simple object somehow represents and recalls all the years of my life that have come and gone since that day. Ironically, it holds more memories than most anything else I own.
Susan L. Lin hails from southeast Texas and holds an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco, California. "That Morning, in the Unforeseen Future" is an excerpt from her novella Goodbye to the Ocean, which was a semifinalist in the 2012 Gold Line Press chapbook competition. She blogs intermittently at http://susanllin.wordpress.com.