In this “Love, Recorded,” Matt returns from 11 days away from his daughter and discovers that he has changed as much as she has. How to readjust?
When we meet again, my daughter, here is what you can do now. You say, “Uh oh,” when you fall, or drop something. You can copy individual words without meaning. You run. You move faster and more recklessly than ever. You stare at me from behind your mom. You act like you don’t know me.
I was up in Vermont to wait tables at a writing conference. This was how they let me pay my way. For 11 days, I was surrounded by writers. Structure and time were important, but only to the imagination. Characters were everywhere.
Two days before I leave, Cathreen decides we should buy bookcases. We are overflowing with books. Mine are in boxes, books purchased over the last 10 years. Our daughter’s (about the same quantity) have been binge-bought over 13 months.
I rent a Zipcar and we drive out to IKEA. IKEA is devious, a store with only one exit/entrance. Once, I got lost in an IKEA for hours. I had friends who became enemies, in between finding and losing each other. When we got out, I had grown a beard.
The line leading up the parking lot is 30 minutes long. I try to warn my wife about me and IKEA. By the time we get everything back in the car, my wrists ache, I am drenched in sweat, the baby has thrown at least one tantrum, our dinner is coffee and cinnamon buns.
While I was on the mountain in VT, I thought of my daughter often. There was no reception anywhere, except where you least expected it. You would search and search for somewhere to call your wife, and then in the middle of a conversation with your favorite writer, suddenly you have service and a wife who thinks you never try to call.
About two-thirds into the trip, I went swimming with my phone. I brought it along to check the time. I got distracted by talk of leaches–we saw one inching through the water, thin and starving, not yet black and thick with blood.
I had to borrow a phone. I had to borrow a computer. I lived a borrowed life for 11 days and then I came back to my own life, lent out for too long, overdue, unshelved.
I spend the day before leaving building the bookcases, knotting up the cords in my forearms. I’m having trouble looking forward to VT. At one point, I look down and I am bleeding from four different places, including a massive scrape down my leg. As if to punish myself for leaving my wife and baby. “Maybe this is the last of our bad luck,” Cathreen says. “And then we will have good luck.”
At 2 in the morning, the baby finally asleep, I take off my ring to give Cathreen a massage. I leave it on the windowsill, a little farther away than usual, because I am afraid of my luck and the air vent below. I try hard to relax my wife to my leaving. Afterward, I pick the ring back up and it drops to the floor and rolls into the air vent.
This is the one thing that could make us flip the lights on a sleeping baby. I want to cry. But there it is, still, sitting on the metal flap inside that adjusts the direction of the air flow. Cathreen takes over. I don’t know whether to stay out of it or to be in charge of my fate. A minute later, I hear a clang. I do everything I can think of then, pulling off the metal and reaching in as far as I can, picturing the ends of my fingers snapped off by a rat. Who knows what lives in your air vents. Marriage promises and rodents, like a scene out of The Princess Bride.
“This is a sign,” Cathreen says. “You are going to cheat on me there.”
A half hour later, I find her ring, which had been missing for months, on a shelf in the shower, like God is trying to tell us something but we can only hear the punchline.
The mountain beat me up. After three days of three hours sleep, bussing breakfast and lunch, then waiting on writers for dinner, my lip split. It started like a knife wound, the sharp edge of exhaustion. Then it expanded, turned colors. My body moved away from healing, toward coffee. We took Emergen-C with each meal. We had bizarro-world solutions as we got sick: instead of sleep, party; instead of relax, meet strangers; hydrate with eight cups of joe.
I got self-conscious, running my tongue over my lip until it probably looked like I wanted to eat everyone. I got self-conscious about being self-conscious. I wanted to eat up everything.
When I get back to Boston, I know there is no rest for the—wicked? weary? My wife has not had “vacation,” has had to raise a toddler. She deserves a break. I walk in and my baby doesn’t know me. My baby doesn’t understand writers and writing conferences. And I don’t understand how much time has passed. It seems like forever, a forever in which my daughter has learned to be more dangerous and more cute and forget me. A forever in which I have forgotten how to live in the real world.
Before, I had a routine. I knew how to be a father. Then suddenly I was a writer in a world of only writers, the strangest and rarest thing. How difficult it is to readjust now. I keep holding the baby close to my nose, trying to let her scent bring me back.