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Sidewalk Prowler, Grass in the Cracks

from My Life's Work by Ben Seretan

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At a confused time in both of our lives my father and I walked across the expansive parking lot outside the Orange County Fairgrounds and, casually, he told me to make sure to use condoms when I started having sex. He said I could ask him about it if I needed to, that he could even give me some or I could find them myself. I was 14 and still religious and it would be another three and a half years until I acquainted myself with prophylactics (and even then, they were not going to be found in his sock drawer. I went to Condom Revolution on Newport Blvd where an extremely sweet employee helped me pick out a brown paper bag selection of different brands). I don't think I've ever been so embarrassed in my entire life than I was in that parking lot, I wanted the asphalt to swallow me whole, red cheeks and all. My dad and I had been seeing less of each other - after months of occupying the same house following my parents' decision to get a divorce, my mom, my sister, and I had finally moved out into an apartment in another city. It was April 1st when we moved - I remember halfway hoping it had all been a big joke. Which by my count now means that we spent roughly six months living as a family following the divorce getting going. What did we do for Thanksgiving? What did we do for Christmas? I can't recall. Where did my parents sleep? I remember when my mom told me it was happening, that first conversation - I was eating reheated french fries out of a bowl with a mess of mustard and ketchup on top. A disgusting after school snack, cold in all the wrong places, but the kitchen in that house had recently been torn out after the discovery of black mold in the rear reaches of the cabinets. The whole thing had to be destroyed and we had neither oven nor sink nor cabinets to use. How appropriate, I can't help but note now, that the hearth of the home being gutted coincided with the separation. The house itself broken, etc. My dad continued to live in the kitchen-less 3.5 bedroom and, when I'd come over in the early days of the separation, he'd come up with all these novel ways to prepare food on the propane barbecue in the backyard. I have a distinct memory of helping him make pasta primavera on the barbecue, a dish that he recalled eating when studying abroad in Italy in the 70s, a dish that he sought out a recipe for because I had recently become a vegetarian. I didn't appreciate it at the time - besides the basic ingratitude of being a teenager there was a lot going on, I had a social life for the first time and I took a bus up to San Francisco to protest the Iraq War and I'd ride along with the cool vegan seniors to go get tacos on the beach after school, etc. I just didn't see it, how much preparation he must have put into thinking about how to feed me, how to structure his time with me. He must have gone to the grocery store and picked out the summer squash, squeezing this one and that, feeling their give. He made sure he had enough tin foil, he bought a box of pasta. Maybe he turned on the grill a couple of times just to make sure it still worked. He put sheets on the bed in my sister's old room - why did I stay in my sister's old room and not my own? I can't recall. He once took me to see a screening of "Seven Samurai" at the Orange County Museum of Art, another time he took me to the university down the street from our new apartment to see an Almodovar film, but I can't remember which one. He was spending time checking listings. On the one hand, perhaps it's a comment on the nature of our relationship (and American father-son relationships in general) that we needed some kind of activity to base our time together around, something to keep the conversation going. On the other hand I am incredibly moved now by his efforts to consider me and do things for me, his son that, through the loss of a marriage of 25 years, he would never live in a house with again. He must have been just as embarrassed as I was when we had that conversation, maybe more so, but he pushed through. Naturally things changed with time - eventually the kitchen was restored to its usable state and, once my dad got back into dating, I stopped spending weekends there, having had one extremely uncomfortable morning where I met my father's date from the night before in said restored kitchen and, on a couple of occasions, being left completely alone in the house I grew up in which, in addition to being empty of people besides myself, was largely devoid of furniture or decoration. I was too young to drive and felt a spooky, shadows-burnt-on-the-wall-following-a-nuclear-blast vibe from the darkened house and I did my best to fall asleep. I stopped spending weekends there. Many years later my dad and I went on a hike through the mossy woods of southeast Alaska. There was a waterfall I wanted to show my dad and my brother, an icy and uproarious wall of water that made me feel a new and deep invigoration. My dad's been in good shape his whole life - avid swimmer, a lifeguard as a teenager - but he kept slipping on the logs and planks that made up the path. He ended up walking in-between us, my brother behind and me up ahead, so we could provide a shoulder for him to grab. Finally I asked him what was going on, were his shoes okay? And he said Ben I'm just getting old, the balance goes.

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from My Life's Work, released August 30, 2018

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Ben Seretan Troy, New York

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