It took me a long time to learn how to smile. I was never a child who could light up on command, who could give the photographer that open-mouthed beam, the kid face scrunched up like an accordion. That kind of giddy joy didn’t interest me. I wanted to smile like an adult—understated and careful, like I knew what was going on and had decided to smile anyway.
So I practiced. I’d stand in front of the mirror trying on smiles like hats. The wide, teeth-bared grin that made my cheeks hurt. The tight-lipped Mona Lisa sliver. Sometimes I’d combine the two: my lips pressed into each other, I’d stretch my mouth until my cheeks stuck out farther than my ears. But no one likes a closed-mouth smile. I once tried a half-fake smile (which was also a half-real frown), reasoning that a little genuine was better than none at all. Here, one corner of my mouth tipped down toward my chin while the other curled upward so slightly it might have been a shadow. It was a neat trick, but it was no smile. None of those efforts made me look happy. They made me look like I was trying too hard. In that way, they were all genuine.
I practiced my smiles at my father’s house. My bedroom there looked like the room of a very lucky little girl: four-poster mahogany bed with a white comforter that puffed up like a marshmallow and not one pillow but four, a matching nightstand, and even a mahogany vanity with brass knobs and a mirror as tall as I was. It felt like a set and I used it primarily as a rehearsal space. It was at my mother’s house that I really lived, with my clutter and my toys and my couch.
Neither of my parents wanted the living room couch when they separated. When my father moved out, he furnished his new home with a burgundy leather couch that would have been ideal for a psychiatrist’s office. At six, I called it the shrink couch. My mother, on the other hand, bought a dainty cushionless settee. It evoked Edith Wharton and was about as comfortable as a park bench. I inherited their compromise, this long white couch ill-advised for most adults but which I kept in pristine condition. I also commandeered their glass coffee table and requested a large gold “A” and a doorbell for the hallway outside my bedroom, but my mother had to draw the line somewhere.
I wanted the perfect smile for my life at my mother’s house, but until I got it I practiced only in front of the vanity at my father’s. I practiced after school and in the l’heure entre chien et loup—the hour of sunset when it’s just light enough to make out figures, but too dark to differentiate between dogs and wolves. I stole that phrase from my dad.
I started practicing my smile before kindergarten when I had no idea that my future held thirteen years of class photos. Picture day, at least at my elementary school, brought the pressure: outfits were chosen, faces were scrubbed, and hair was combed. After all, this was the picture on which you—and your mother—would be judged. The picture that would be tucked into holiday cards and wallets, that would end up in photo albums and on mantels, dressers, and nightstands.
I wore a dress with pink flowers for my first picture day. It looked like old-lady sofa upholstery and had one of those lacy bibs that were so popular in the early 1990s. I had been proud of the dress when my mother zipped me into it that morning. But at recess Joe Pesci—yes, that really was his name—ripped the lacy bib during an especially ruthless game of tag. I burst into tears and ran to my kindergarten teacher.
“It won’t show in the photo,” she said, “but your tears will.”
Which only made me cry harder.
At Sacred Heart we got our pictures taken in the slippery-floored gymnasium beneath barred windows. The photographer set up his hot lights and black spindly equipment under one basketball hoop, and we lined up by grade under the other. When it was my turn, I sat down on the little stool in front of the foggy blue Olan Mills backdrop. The lace on the front of my dress was hanging by a floral thread, and it flapped in the breeze of the photographer’s portable fan. My eyes were still red, and I needed to blow my nose, but I did my best to look happy. The photographer took a few snapshots, stopped. His head appeared from behind the camera. “Can’t you smile?” he asked.
My teacher was wrong. When the photos arrived in the mail, it was clear that my dress was torn. The lace was intact and appropriately flouncy on one side, but it drooped in the middle of my chest, sagging lower and lower, until it fell down across my arm like a loose bandage. On the plus side, it distracted from my uneven haircut, which my mother later claimed must have been a trick of photography—just the illusion of a terrible bob. Between the dress and the hair, though, I doubt anyone ever noticed that instead of smiling, I’d just opened my mouth, showcasing the gap between my two front teeth.
* * *
I LOOK LIKE my father. I’ve got his eyes—open wide and blank, firm, unreadable, they offer an unidentifiable challenge to no one in particular. I’ve got his knock-knees, French nose, baby-sized ears, and heart-shaped lips. More often than not, my father would smile with his lips pressed together. I always knew that beneath them was a cutting remark.
My mother told me once that I walk like him.
“I walk like I drive,” I replied.
“So did your father,” she said. “Too fast.”
It was true. We did everything too fast. We moved swiftly: gaze ahead, focused on our destination, determined to reach it without delay. A dark bar, the playground, or somebody’s arms—it didn’t matter. Things were done and people were seen, because they were on the list. School, work, driving, kissing, job, wife, boyfriend, child, college. This is how we lived, my father and I. We checked things off like our lives were one long grocery list: dozen eggs, carton of milk, first kiss, avocados, learn to drive, get married, Fig Newtons.
I got to New York City as fast as I could. At seven, I told my mother I was moving there shortly and that she could visit. It took me a little longer but not much. I made it at eighteen. I came for college, but once here, my degree felt like it was taking too long. So I graduated in three years and checked my undergraduate education off my list.
And now I was a twenty-three-year-old graduate student living in New York City trying to be a writer but mostly just faking it. It was March, but dark and cold like January. I was in my living room, which I had styled to resemble an urban American bachelor pad from the late 1940s. I had a boxy charcoal sofa and a set of bubble tumblers I’d swiped from a Fashion’s Night Out party I hadn’t even been invited to. It was a room I imagined Philip Marlowe would have liked, if he’d given a damn about decorating. I sat in it now holding a plastic cassette case. Its label was yellow and peeling, like something left over. Something forgotten. But it wasn’t. Not once had I forgotten it. On the label, in my father’s handwriting, were the words A DAY IN THE LIFE OF LOUIS LOUSTALOT. The letters were unmistakably his—square blocks in black ink. Each letter looked like a building and when strung together into words and sentences the effect was that of a city skyline on the page. The day in question was a day in 1973 when my father was twenty-one and studying in Stockholm. The tape was a Christmas gift to his family in Bakersfield, California. It was his first Christmas away from home. The forty-five-minute recording was my father’s way of being there.
There’s no reason for me to have kept the case. I had the tape digitized. It was a file on my iTunes. I didn’t even own a tape player anymore. But when I decided to listen to the recording, I got out the cassette. I popped it open and looked at the tape. I kept returning to it. Searching. Wanting to understand.
I rarely listened to my father. My iTunes and iPod synchronized automatically, so that my father’s voice was also on my iPod, and the last time I played this recording was an accident. It had been almost a year before. I was at the gym, and it was late, after two A.M., which is when I usually go. The desk attendant is pleasantly somnolent, my favorite elliptical machine is always free, and I like the stillness.
The tiny cleaning woman in a blue polo, the one with dark, deep-set eyes and a long flat braid, moved apace between the machines as I went back and forth, back and forth on the elliptical. My iPod was on shuffle. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” ended, and the scratchy static of the old tape came on. My dad. I didn’t miss a step on the machine. Just kept going, nowhere. Moving in place. I hit “skip” and listened to an Eminem song instead.
But that March night, I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted to remember a time when my father could speak to me. I wanted to remember a time when he spoke to me so often I thought I could afford to tune him out.
I sat on the windowsill, which required a bit of a leap and a twist to get up onto. There was nothing graceful about getting up on that windowsill, and in fact, I banged my knee doing so. The dull pain lingered in such a way that I knew I would have a bruise in the morning. I bruise like bananas, easily. It was raining hard; I wished it wasn’t. The rain felt cheesy, like a dark and stormy night.
But I knew rain. I grew up with it: winter in the Sacramento Valley means rain. In elementary school, my classmates and I prayed for rain days when the Valley streets would flood. A real rain day didn’t happen very often, but when it did the streets disappeared—replaced by a river rushing over curbs and around corners and filling the neighborhood with the singular smell of wet sidewalk. My friends and I ran out into the middle of the street not worrying about traffic because cars couldn’t swim. We stomped around in rubber boots not because they kept our feet dry (they didn’t) but because they made our feet bigger and stronger and created more powerful waves. We didn’t care about getting soaked. It tickled us. Our hair stuck to our necks, our shirts to our chests—the water made us thicker, more substantial.
My father hated the rain. He hated the cold. In his dreams, he was a San Diego man.
I pressed “play.” The familiar static, then music. I always forgot about the music. It was an upbeat song heavy with guitar—something you might dance to—but the recording was poor, and I couldn’t decipher the lyrics. A minute later, the music cut out and my father’s nasal voice filled my tiny living room. He was putting on an ironic voice, one that reminded me of Garrison Keillor. Though, of course, in 1973 the only people who had heard Garrison Keillor lived in Minnesota. My father sounded young, painfully young. He was twenty-one. Just two years younger than I was now. More than thirty years between us. But the way I heard him, he sounded as though he was right beside me, whispering in my ear. Only he didn’t sound like the twenty-something boys I knew—the ones who leaned in so close they left warm traces of beer on my earlobe. Because it was impossible to listen to my father’s voice at twenty-one and not know the things ahead. To not know the way his story ended.
Welcome to the Days of Our Lives. Today we’re going to do a Day in the Life of Louis Loustalot. I know you’ll all enjoy that … You’re about to experience the ultimate in boredom. Not only do you get to watch homemade slides, but you get to listen to me at the same time. And I bet you thought you could get rid of me. (Chuckles) Teach you to think that. Somehow I have the confidence to know that you won’t turn it off no matter how boring it is because it was made by me. (Chuckles) … Every time you hear this sound (a bell rings) that will mean to change slides just like in good old grammar school. Okay, let us begin. The first slide …
I didn’t recognize the voice on the recording; I never did. I believed it was my father because I had been told it was, and it must have been, but this voice was light, carefree, and teasing.
He talked about the outside of his apartment in Stockholm; he lived on the “crappy side of the building where it was drab.” Every morning he did laps around a track next door and, after, he relaxed in a sauna in the woods. The next slide was the King’s Villa, or rather, a shadow of the King’s Villa, the grounds of which were open to the public when the king was not in residence. I listened to my father explain that he liked his photographs of the King’s Villa too much to send, so though he was describing the villa on the tape, the family would have to wait to see actual pictures of it until he came home.
The bell rang, a new slide. He rattled off descriptions of the bottles on his nightstand: sherry, dry vermouth, and scotch. The socialist government, he said, was responsible for the exorbitant booze prices in Sweden at the time. My father bought his liquor on weekend trips to other countries. I wondered about those other countries. Where did he go? With whom?
Another bell. His friend Frederick, a Swede “who knows something about everything.” Another bell. He described his bathroom, which he claimed was well designed and far more efficient than American bathrooms. That’s it, there, right there; a glimpse of the architect my father would become. The showerhead, he explained, can be removed from its hook on the wall and you can “position the nozzle to use it any way you want, sounds sorta dirty, doesn’t it?” I picture his parents rolling their eyes as their living room fills with their son’s voice. Another bell. The way he said “picture” sounded like “pitcher.” Another bell. His friend Jane, “a far-out girl who talks too fast.” Another bell. His kitchen had ten drawers. Another bell. Nikola: “We were sorta hot and heavy for a while but that’s sorta died down.”
At the tape’s end, my father was in a room with his friends. Frederick. Jane. Nikola. Hans. Carol. Others. They sang: “Merry Christmas to you, Merry Christmas to you, Merry Christmas, Louis’s family, Merry Christmas to you.” They clapped and cheered, and the tape cut off. I wondered what I always wondered: Where were these people now? What were their memories of him?
A voice was missing from the tape. Daniel. He had been my father’s roommate at UC Berkeley. They had traveled together in Europe on my father’s Christmas break from school in Stockholm. Daniel must have arrived after my father made the tape, because there is no mention of him. I suspect they were more than roommates. I suspect that he was my father’s first love.
* * *
MY FATHER RAN away to Sweden. But first he ran away to college. He wanted to go to UC Berkeley, but his parents told him absolutely not. It was 1970. They read the newspaper. They knew about that Berkeley: the Free Speech Movement, the Anti-War Movement with its Vietnam Day March and Stop the Draft Week, the Hare Krishnas, the psychedelic newspapers peddled on campus for loose change, the men who never found the time to visit a barber, and the women who couldn’t hold on to their bras. So my father went to UC Irvine. But he was too close to Bakersfield, and he could still feel the weight of home on his shoulders. He begged his parents to let him transfer until they were tired of listening and agreed to pay for his sophomore year at Berkeley. After that it was Stockholm for his junior year abroad. Stockholm was even more freethinking than Berkeley and even farther away. But it wasn’t just that. Part of Stockholm’s appeal for my father was that it was so random a choice, so unexpected. No one else he knew dreamt of Stockholm. They talked about San Francisco mostly. New York, maybe. London, maybe. But not some city in Sweden. Stockholm was all his. He would find acceptance there. He would get a reprieve from the people who didn’t know him or his family’s name, which was plastered all over Bakersfield thanks to his father’s career in law enforcement.
In Stockholm, he could be whoever and whatever he wanted.
These are the truths I pieced together as a child who eavesdropped and a teenager who asked questions. Eavesdropping came first, of course, and it was easy. When my adults gathered, I would wait until my mom, my aunts, or my grandparents had forgotten I was there and let slip some comment. I’d stash away whatever they’d dropped with the rest of my collection. At night, in bed, I’d spread the facts out in my mind and try to make them fit together until I finally fell asleep. But they amounted to little. Most of the youths in the 1960s and ’70s were looking to get away from their parents, not unlike every generation. So I came back to the tape, which was warmer and kinder than my father often was in the flesh. It was the most personal thing of his that I had.
* * *
MY GRANDMOTHER PRESENTED the tape to me the summer I was sixteen, five years after my father’s death. We were standing in her driveway in Pismo Beach, California, where my grandparents had moved when they left Bakersfield. The day was clear and bright, but the sunshine was cool, the way it often is near the ocean. Up north, in the Valley, sunny days mean airless heat and sweat stains on your bicycle seat. But in Pismo it was rarely warm.
My grandmother’s posture, as always, was textbook. Her hair, thick like cotton, silvery like a prize, caught the sunlight. Her eyes looked right through me, and she held something I could not identify.
“You should have this … I think,” she said.
She handed me the tape. I believed immediately it was important. I wanted it to be important.
My grandmother turned away from me and walked up the steps to the back door. I got in the car and put the case in the glove compartment. My grandmother looked down, her hands gripping the railing. She watched me back out. I raised my arm and waved. In return, she held up her palm, unmoving. Giving me the tape, I knew, had been hard for her. Not because she wanted to keep it. I suspect she had listened to it only once, when it had arrived in the mail some twenty-eight years earlier. Hard because giving me this tape, giving me my father’s voice, was the closest she and I had ever come to talking about him.
I kept the tape for months before I listened to it. I put it in a folder marked DAD’S VOICE and locked it in my filing cabinet where I kept homework assignments, summer job applications, and flyers for the improvisational troupe in which I was a founding member. The cabinet held everything that meant anything to me.
I spent weeks thinking about that tape. I thought about it while kissing boys on moonlit porches and translating Latin passages poorly. I thought about it waiting for green lights and spreading wasabi on sushi at Mikuni’s. But I left it alone. I pretended not to see it when I retrieved my chemistry notes from the filing cabinet. I wanted the tape to reveal the secret of this man who meant so much to me, but of whom I knew so little. But what if it didn’t? What if I was disappointed? Once I listened to it, it would be over. I’d know or still not know. I was tired of disappointment. I wasn’t ready to stop hoping that the tape would illuminate my father, make me understand him and see him, finally, whole.
I wanted to ask my mother if she knew what was on the tape, but I was nervous about bringing it up with her. My mother has always told me exactly what she thinks—by her facial expressions, her words, a hand gesture, or all three. I needed to know if she thought the tape mattered. So I asked.
“It’s him. Describing a bunch of pictures he took in Sweden. He sent it home with a box of slides. They were supposed to play the tape and look at the slides.”
“Did they?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Are you going to listen to it?” my mother asked.
I shrugged again.
“I knew a girl in college who never opened her law school admissions letter. She just couldn’t do it.”
“She never opened it?” I asked.
“Not as far as I know.”
* * *
AVOIDING THE TAPE was exhausting. When I made my bed, when I listened to the radio, when I watched TV, when I stood in my closet trying to decide what to wear, when I talked on the phone, I was aware of the tape behind me locked away in the dark. I felt like it was watching me. Finally, after school, alone in my mother’s house, I unlocked the cabinet.
I sat as far as possible from the stereo. My back pressed hard against the wall my mother and I had painted a deep, rich burgundy. I turned on the overhead light as well as every lamp. Then I listened. I listened to the whole thing. And somehow, by the time my father’s voice said goodbye, I found myself across the room lying on my stomach next to the stereo. My ear was pressed to the hardwood floor, and I felt my father’s voice in my arms, in my fingertips, in my legs, in my toes, in my heart. For forty-five minutes he had been in the room with me. We had been together, just the two of us, only this time he was healthy. Not sick. Only this time he was alive. Not dead. I could see clearly the twinkle that must have been in his eye when he recorded the tape—his eyes had always sparkled when he was being playful. There was no bitterness, none of the inappropriate indignation I had witnessed in him.
My cheeks were wet. I remained on the floor, listening to the whirl of the tape automatically rewinding, going back to the beginning. I wished I could rewind so easily. I wondered what it was like to have the type of childhood in which you believed your parents were invincible and only slowly, at your own pace, chipped away at the knowledge that they, too, were vulnerable and fallible.
Copyright © 2013 by Victoria Loustalot