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The Language of Secretsby Dianne Dixon
822 Lima Street, Summer 2005
As Justin was bringing the car to a stop in front of the house on Lima Street, Amy reached for his hand. He pulled away--making a quick, unnecessary adjustment to his shirt colloar. He didn't want her to know he was trembing.
This complicated place in which he'd spent his childhood looked deceptively serene. Like an old-fashioned summer house where wood floors are polished to a warm glow by small bare feet, rooms are filled with cool breezes, and the jigsaw puzzles inevitably have missing pieces. Justin's memory was a lot like one of those puzzles. It, too, had missing pieces--blank spaces where important parts of his past should have been. It was bizarre. It was the truth. And he could no longer ignore it.
"Do you want me to come?" Amy asked. "Or to wait?"
He wanted both. He wanted neither. What he said was, "I want it to be tomorrow. Or an hour from now. I just want for this to be over."
Justin had ceased dealing with this house more than a decade ago, but in all the discarded years, he'd never forgotten its details: the perfumed sugar smell of his mother's closet, the indentation on the wood frame of his bedroom window that resembled the smiling face of a clown, the fish shapes in the sea green tiles on the bathroom wall.
And he remembered his family: his mother, Caroline--her low, clear voice, and the songs she'd taught him to sing; his sisters, Lissa and Julie, and his feeling of terrified delight when they would push him higher and higher in the swings in the park across the street. And Justin remembered watching his father run, and he remembered how fast he could move--faster than any little boy could ever follow.
What Justin no longer recalled was why he had let so much time pass without ever returning to his home or contacting the people who lived there. In college and in the ten years following, when he'd been rising swiftly through the ranks of hotel management, he had always come up with the same superficial answer when asked about his family--nothing more substantial than that they lived in California and that he was fond of them but not close with them. This is what he'd told Amy in the course of their whirlwind courtship, and it was what had been told to her parents when they had been given the news of Justin and Amy's marriage.
It was a story Justin had repeated countless times. With each recitation, he knew he was deliberately choosing to let go of his past. But he didn't know why.
"Justin, this place is amazing." Amy's voice seemed to be floating toward him from a great distance. "It looks like some old-fashioned, really remote vacation home and yet here it is, less than twenty minutes away from Los Angeles."
At the sound of a small, fussy cough, Amy turned her attention away from the house. She leaned over and quickly reached into the backseat--for Zack. He was waking up from his nap, squirming and eager to be free of his car seat.
There was something in Amy's swift, fluid movement that made Justin think of the first time he'd ever seen her. In London. Crossing the lobby of the hotel in a peach-colored dress. Her legs had been bare, and lightly tanned. Justin had immediately wondered what it would be like to rest his face between those lightly tanned bare legs; how the heat of it might feel, how the color of it might be the same peachy hue as her dress, and how the taste of it might be the taste of honey.
Now, as this odd trembling fear was moving through him, Justin wanted nothing more than to rest his head in Amy's lap, simply for the warmth and comfort of it. But instead, he got out of the car. He walked away from his waiting wife and baby and went toward the strange place in which he had accomplished his growing up.
As he climbed the front steps, he caught sight of his own reflection in one of the wide windows that flanked the door. He glimpsed what appeared to be a shadow of himself, gazing out from inside the house, and he had the sensation that time was shifting into an undulant half speed, slowing and collapsing inward. His crossing of the wide wicker-furnished porch felt surreal.
He hesitated for a minute, thinking about the fast-moving kaleidoscope of events that had unexpectedly led him back to Lima Street: Amy coming to London to attend a wedding in the hotel he was managing; falling in love with her the moment he saw her and getting married in a rush; conceiving Zack on their wedding night; the job offer from a Santa Monica hotel that came on the day Zack turned six months old; and then a few weeks later, only eight days ago, landing at the Los Angeles airport and hearing Amy say: "Justin, the first thing you need to do, now that you're back in California, is get in touch with your parents and your sisters. It's important. For Zack. I want him to know his family."
If it had been left to Justin, it would have taken him much longer, perhaps a lifetime, to return to this place.
When he rested his hand on the bell beside the front door, he heard the lock click almost immediately and the door was swung open by an Asian teenager. The sight of this girl in her skimpy T-shirt, tight jeans and red baseball cap, seemingly so at ease in his parents' doorway, confused him. He cleared his throat to steady his voice before he spoke. "Mr. Fisher or his wife, are either one of them at home?" The blank way the girl was looking at him made him feel off balance, as if he needed to explain himself. "I'm their son," he said.
"Sorry, there's nobody named Fisher here." The girl shrugged and closed the door.
Justin had never conceived of his mother, or the rest of his family, not being in this house. The idea that they were gone left him stunned.
It was several minutes before he turned away from the closed door. He was almost at the sidewalk when the door opened again and the girl called out to him: "Wait! My mom says the people we bought the house from . . . their father, the old man who lived here, he was named Fisher. She says she has the address of the place he went. After he left here."
And with that, the destination for Justin's awkward homecoming was no longer the house on Lima Street.
The convalescent hospital was a squat cinder-block building, pungent with the smells of antiseptic and floor wax and decay, bustling with nurses in bright uniforms, repellent with the furtive, indecorous enterprise of courting death.
The moment Justin had walked through the front doors, his skin had begun to crawl. He was relieved that he'd taken Amy and Zack home before coming here.
He'd been standing at the receptionist's window for several minutes. She was oblivious to him, prattling away on the phone. There was a large snow dome on the counter near her elbow. Justin picked it up and then deliberately let it drop. It landed with a shattering bang.
The receptionist looked up; the surprise in her eyes was immediately replaced by something self-conscious, flirtatious. It was a look Justin often noticed in the eyes of women when they first saw him. He'd been a teenager when he had initially become aware of it, but he hadn't paid much attention. He'd been moving too fast.
He had exploded out of high school. Within twenty-four hours of graduation, he had arrived in Boston, checked in at the university admissions office, signed the papers confirming his scholarship, rented half a room in a sweltering apartment alive with rats and reggae, and begun a part-time job as a bellboy in a boutique hotel.
Justin had dark hair and green eyes; he was six-foot-two, lean, wide-shouldered, with the body of a swimmer and the hint of a dimple when he smiled. Back in Boston, his looks had elicited the same response from the hotel's female guests as the one he was receiving now. The hospital receptionist was blushing as she was saying: "Can I help you?"
"Robert Fisher," Justin told her. "I'm his son. I want to see him."
The receptionist glanced away just long enough to scroll through the information on her computer screen. When she looked back, she was flustered. "You know what . . . I think you're gonna need to talk to the administrator. I'll page her. You can wait in her office." She pointed toward the end of a long corridor. The walls were blank, the color of snow, and running the length of them was a series of open doorways, their edges painted glossy black and bordered in yellow-gold. The passageway resembled an austere art gallery lined with massive gilt-edged picture frames.
Justin moved past the reception desk, into the corridor. On the other side of one of the open doorways was an old woman lying on a high, narrow bed. Stick-thin, blue-white. A comatose remnant ravaged by the passing of her own existence. The sight of her made Justin shudder.
He looked away. Through another of the doorways he glimpsed an old man. Large and powerfully built. An individual who might once have commanded troops or welded the steel of suspension bridges but who was now a relic perched on the edge of a hospital bed. Fast asleep. His legs splaying, his hospital gown opening. The last of his dignity slipping away.
Justin felt as if he were suffocating. The girl in the red baseball cap must have been mistaken. There was no way his father could be in this pile of human wreckage. Justin could remember seeing him with Julie and Lissa, watching him pick them up and swoop them into the air effortlessly. A man so vital and strong couldn't be in a place like this. This was a holding tank for death.
In a few rapid strides, Justin was at the end of the corridor and through the door of the administrator's office. It was small and untidy--and, to Justin's relief, unoccupied. He needed to be alone. He needed, literally, to catch his breath.
He was panicky. He suddenly knew he wasn't ready for this. There were too many missing pieces--too much incomplete information. He had no idea where his mother was, and he couldn't even muster a clear recollection of his father's face.
Within minutes the cramped, stuffy office was closing in on him like a cage.
He stood up and grabbed his keys from his pocket. But just as he was preparing to leave, the hospital administrator walked through the door. She was a featureless woman, dressed in shades of beige. "Sorry to have kept you waiting," she said. "I understand you're Mr. Fisher's son?"
This woman's sudden appearance had ended any hope of escape; Justin was trapped.
"We weren't aware that Mr. Fisher had a son." The administrator was looking down at her hands, studying them with an odd intensity. Then she said: "Your father passed away. Two weeks ago. He had a second, very severe stroke. Your family didn't inform you?"
The room seemed to shift and ride dangerously high to one side, like a boat hit by a rogue wave. There was a long silence. Then Justin heard his own voice and was startled by how calm and matter-of-fact it sounded. "I've been away," he said. "Up until last week, I was living in London. I haven't seen my family in a long time."
"How awful that you had to come home to this kind of news." The administrator was taking something from a shelf near her desk. She gave Justin a look of genuine sympathy as she said: "We've been holding a few of your father's things. I was about to put them in the mail."
She handed Justin a small box. Taped to the front of it was a carefully lettered shipping label.
The nursing home's doors closed behind him and Justin was once again in the parking lot. Two hospital workers, a man and a pretty girl, were leisurely loading a gurney--with its bagged and zippered occupant--into the back of a mortuary van. They were smiling and chatting. With a quick move, the girl peeled off one of her latex gloves and slingshotted it toward a nearby trash can; it sailed in like weighted silk. She did a little victory dance: "You owe me a Starbucks." She laughed, and her companion gave her a high five. Less than an hour had passed since Justin had first arrived in this parking lot. Time enough for a father to be lost and a cup of coffee to be won; for a world to be shattered and for the world to remain untouched.
Instead of going to his car, Justin sat on a bench and watched the mortuary van drive away. Long after it had gone, he continued to sit, holding the small, carefully labeled box in his lap. Several cars came and went, then a delivery truck and a fat man on a Harley. Two old women in an ancient lurching Cadillac. A gawky kid with a skateboard and a gaggle of girls eating ice-cream cones wandered along the sidewalk. A squirrel corkscrewed back and forth on a power line, emitting frantic chattering screams. And Justin simply sat.
He was letting it in, again and again: the fact that his father was dead. He knew he should be inundated with memories, consumed with sorrow. But there was no flood of memory, no sadness. There was only a sense of dread--a chilling knowledge that the splintered door to some long-buried chamber was quietly being forced open.
From the Hardcover edition.
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