Escape Velocity

I lift one of his arms. Another. I weigh them carefully on my palms and notice the muscles of his upper body have begun to atrophy. His skin puckered, greying in my grip. I remember it differently. Taut. As he moves fungal puffs of air rise from beneath the wadding.

‘Easy.’ He says it rasping through gritted teeth. ‘That hurts.’

‘Sorry.’ I mean it. I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened, he shouldn’t have to go through this. I prepare to push his arms through the sleeves of his cardigan. My old two-tone blue cardigan: he has nothing so sensible in his wardrobe. It hangs on his body like a curse. I take hold of his still discoloured fingers and feed them into the sleeves slowly, like rethreading a drawstring, rucking the fabric as I go. When it is done I zip up the front. His chest says ‘OK’ and in a way, he is. He leans back into the seat and exhales.

‘Jesus.’

I wanted to kiss him on the head, on the hair, like I would have done until a few years ago. I hover in front of him uncertain, half bent at the hips. Rocking. In moments like this I am aware that I am becoming increasingly mawkish, a stupid old man, balanced uncertainly in the umbra of changes wrought by his mighty and fickle adolescence. He looks up at me, twists his head, blows his lopsided fringe out of his eyes.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘What then?’

‘Really, it’s nothing.’

How can I tell him that this youth, this vitality, is everything? That right now it is the closest thing he has to escape velocity. In contrast my life, my work, has made me into the threadbare rabbit before him, hunched on life’s roadside, watching for mercy.

I strap his arms over his chest like I have every day since the call. Three weeks, a month almost. I had been at work and unwilling to leave my report. It’s about Benedict, they said. An accident. I stood up at my desk, clenching and unclenching my fingers. Ben? Oh god.

I choose to ruffle instead of kiss his hair, only slightly more acceptable to a fifteen year old. It’s OK. He was OK. This fact alone has the power to bring me to my knees in private moments. He flinches. I have my hand on his head still.

‘Dad.’

‘Sorry.’ I turn away and gather my things. I clean up then, washing my hands in the sink. While my back is turned I can hear him struggling to get up. I don’t turn, knowing that this routine humiliation is carving deep lines. Indelible lines. Barriers that threaten to separate permanently. My own struggle is to make space for him. To risk it all. I have to allow him to define where the lines fall. He has to do things for himself; redemptive things. My eyes are shut tight, willing him upright. I hear myself intoning a story from the morning news. I open my eyes. In the mirror, in my peripheral vision, I see him place his face against the tiles and use his bony shoulder and forehead to lever himself like a caterpillar off of the toilet and walk himself tall. His trousers, his shorts, with elasticated waistbands that he has taught himself to roughly position without the use of his arms have today succumbed to gravity and are pooled around his feet. He looks at them and squints. I see his strong footballer’s quadriceps tighten. His knees bending slightly. I can hear the voice in his head screaming at his unresponsive clothing to arise.

As usual he doesn’t know whether to turn his back or front from me. He turns sideways at an angle. His eyes staring, his head no longer hanging. I take this as a good sign. But it could just as well be bad. I wonder what is happening to us. This intimacy, though domestic and complicit, is imposed. It can’t last. Five more weeks and the casts will be removed. He has multiple fractures in the radii and ulnae, and in the humeri of his arms from the force of the impact. If all goes well he should be able to use them as normal. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t offer to help. I didn’t want to. But he is fifteen – an awkward age – and didn’t want his mother to see him naked. If I am truthful I was afraid. Still talking, I stoop and pick up his shorts tugging them upwards into place a little too quickly. Then his trousers. I can’t, won’t, do the minor adjustments. It’s a question of comfort. It would be too uncomfortable for us both. He looks at the ceiling. His jaw is clenched, lips pursed. His nostrils flare in anger. He is angry at himself, or at the situation. I don’t notice for both of us. I open the door and hang back so he can leave without me. I hear him pad down the corridor to his room. I hear the creak of his bed as he sits on the edge, the rapid hollow thuds as he kicks the stuffing from his relocated punchbag. I go the other way, to the kitchen, and knock up some sandwiches. I eat alone. When he’s ready, he joins me. His insteps, I see, are reddened. I look up from my paperwork, he has something to say.

‘Thanks.’

I take off my bifocal glasses and sweep them in front of me. ‘You’ll do it for me when I’m a stinking cripple?’ He smirks at that, then meets my eye for the first time in three weeks. In his eyes I recognise a flurry of fearful knowledge that suggests a first acceptance of mortality. Perhaps he understands too, if only dimly, that we only ever escape life’s pull through other people.

‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I will.’


34 Responses to “Escape Velocity”

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  • Sam Says:

    Wow! Such a powerful story. I’m very impressed.

    “It hangs on his body like a curse…hunched on life’s roadside…I don’t notice for both of us”

    Such wonderful imagery.

  • marc nash Says:

    Some wonderful lines just dripping in emotion here:

    “hunched on life’s roadside, watching for mercy.”

    “This intimacy, though domestic and complicit, is imposed.” A meditation of masculinity in youth and middle age. Simply wonderful last paragraph too.

    Superb

    marc nash

  • Marisa Birns Says:

    Beautiful lines in this story.

    Threadbare rabbit waiting along the roadside for mercy from passing traffic. Great image.

    Excellent.

  • Linda Says:

    Beautiful. A father’s grief so amazingly protrayed. I’, crying as I type this… Peace, Linda

  • mazzz_in_Leeds Says:

    What a piece. I was there with them both, feeling both their pain.

    Excellent, excellent prose

  • David G Shrock Says:

    As usual, beautiful work. This one is thoughtful and respectful drifting at a nice pace throughout.

  • uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by skycycler: Just posted: ‘Escape Velocity’, my #fridayflash http://bit.ly/55gn81

  • shannon esposito Says:

    Had to wait until my eyes cleared so I could see to type this. So moving, it brought up all kinds of fears for me as a parent, as a mortal. Both are acting with as much courage and grace as they can muster, which is even more heartbreaking. With great love comes great sorrow. Life in a nutshell. Wonderful piece.

  • Laura Eno Says:

    Powerful. Such a hard age to have to glimpse mortality. Great pacing. You captured the awkwardness well.

  • karen from mentor Says:

    “Then his trousers. I can’t, won’t, do the minor adjustments.”

    The things that one can do for a child one can’t do for a teen. Not without either unfeeling efficient brusqueness or unembarrassed matter of factness being in play for both of them. The shift toward that seems to be coming with the last lines. Also the understanding that whatever needs to be given can be given. And more importantly…received. So touching. So many phrases to love here. Great writing.

  • Grégoire Says:

    we only ever escape life’s pull through other people

    best line i’ve read all day. thanks for this.

  • Saffy Says:

    Intense, sad, charged and hopeful – an interesting perspective.

  • Melissa Says:

    Wow. I have tears in my eyes. So tender, poignant. Powerful, detailed emotional and physical description.

  • Carrie Clevenger Says:

    Even though he was miserable, it was balanced out. He’ll have the casts off soon (left me wondering about what happened) and his body is healing. The father’s age however is a progressive condition. Meaningful. I like the rushed paragraph in short-burst sentences to get across the abrupt awkwardness between the two of them.

    I love your blog design as well. I feel comfortable here.

  • ~Tim Says:

    There’s just so much to like about this piece, but especially that you chose to end it on such a positive note. Great work!

  • GP Ching Says:

    I was so relieved when I found out he had something that was fixable. At the beginning I thought it might be ALS. I became so attached to your character I actually breathed a sigh of relief! Great work!!

  • peggy Says:

    I like the way this story unfolded. At first, I thought the characters were very different than father and son. The father character is so strong! Touching story.

  • DJ Kirkby Says:

    How is it that you are not famous already? Your stories make me feel like I can’t breath deeply. Get yourself an agent! I suggest you start with subbing to Carole Blake. Email me.

  • Jen Says:

    Oh my goodness. Mesmerised at the first words and sobbing by the end. This is just heartbreakingly good writing, strong but simultaneously delicate. Am in awe.

  • Lou Says:

    This is beautifully written. So full of acceptance and grace. I will be back to read more of your work.

  • Anne Tyler Lord Says:

    Wow, this is so touching, such a sensitive moment with profound realizations of mortality and how we all share it.

    Painful, uncertain, challenging moments like this define relationships, and you have described it beautifully.

  • S.E.Ingraham Says:

    This has so much painful honesty told with such integrity; every word pulled me in and further along. As a parent I ached along with the father but loved the telling all the same. Your imagery is flawless, and the ending left me with both hope and resignation. A truly wonderful piece and the best one I’ve read in quite some time.

  • Michelle Says:

    gosh, you really told this story well, so touching. – just amazing.

  • Amy Says:

    A wonderful piece, beautifully written. Very touching and emotional. Superb!

  • Josie Says:

    That’s a deeply touching story…the courage and willingness to connect despite (because of?) vulnerability. Thanks.

  • Tony Noland Says:

    I was disoriented at first, as I think I was supposed to be. The slow build worked well, and you gave us a good finish. Nice.

  • Mark Kerstetter Says:

    Beautiful. I love the use of words like “fungal puffs”, “rucking the fabric”, “blows his lopsided fringe out of his eyes”, even “knock up some sandwiches”. But these skills are put to such good use. There’s a lot to admire here.

  • rilecheeks Says:

    Great story… I could see both sides of the story and really picture the scene.

  • Deanna Schrayer Says:

    You are simply an incredible author. To capture so much emotion in such a short space is no easy feat, but you make it seem so natural. The empathy, on both their parts, just pours from this piece. One of the best stories I’ve read in quite some time. Bravo!

  • Laurita Says:

    Simply the best I’ve read this week.
    “It hangs on his body like a curse.” – It’s this phraseology that makes your work such a pleasure to read.

  • Dana Says:

    Really lovely, and I think this was the one with the strongest prose that I’ve read this week.

  • michael j. solender Says:

    beautiful warm and written with a wonderful touch

  • Cascade Lily Says:

    At first I thought we were headed to zombieland with the ‘fungal puffs’, but after getting past that further into the story I realised what you were writing about. A parent’s almost-worst nightmare well told.

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