A FATHER ’S KISS

I
Your father’s on! Every Monday night
my mother called me downstairs
to sit before the television for Marketing on the Move!
How many boys’ dads were trumpeted onto a stage,
had their own theme music?
My father put at ease the most prickly CEO,
got the Federal Reserve Board chairman to chuckle,
the president of General Motors and the UA W leader to swap
stories. By show’s end,
the Russian ambassador was showing pictures of his children
to my dad. My father smiled at us
from inside the box.
He waved goodbye to thousands of homes.
Like God, my father was often away
doing business in another part of the world.
Like the sun, he traveled
to foreign places: Lisbon, Vienna, Istanbul, Cairo, Nairobi.
I said the names of the cities over and over.
That’s how I learned geography.
I pressed against my father’s door
for a glimpse of him, his exhaustion heroic
like a warrior’s.
In the morning, when he was gone again,
I’d slip into his room,
try on his boxer shorts, test his razor,
reach under the covers and feel the hollow
his body had left behind.

II
On his rare days home, my father liked to undress
and lie down on the roof porch,
his arms open wide,
his legs spread
as if making an x, a target, a location
for the sun to concentrate all its energies:
on the groin,
the swarthy member nestled there on its flung-down sac
as if it were the seat of the soul
and my father were drawing light to it,
all the light he could.
What if I’d moved as quietly as the light did,
eased out my window,
across the roof? What if I’d knelt beside my father,
run my hands across his exposed ribs,
his long legs? I wanted to be as intimate
as the light had been. Trace his thin calves,
his ankles’ spidery veins,
even his tired feet
cocked to the side. Like someone blind,
I wanted to read
the line of my father’s jaw,
the story of his mouth.

III
The summer I turned fifteen,
my father, naked except for his slippers,
began to appear at my bedroom door,
pushing it open
as if he had news that couldn’t wait
till he was dressed. He’d stand next to my bed
and stay till
I glanced up. Time to get out of bed,
he’d say,
then pad off as if that was all he’d wanted
to tell me. All day, I’d hate myself
for even having thought of
looking, lifting
with my fingertips
his penis, its drooping head
like a flower I was simply tilting back to the light.

IV
In the dark of his side of the car,
my father would start to say something,
then stop. I’d hear him
drawing in deep breaths, like those a diver takes
just before going under.
I wasn’t going to make anything easy for this man,
comfortable with everyone
but his son. What did he expect?
That I’d feel a tug on the line
and pull him up?
Rescue him? I was used to wishing him
dead. After years of distance between us,
resentment was safer
than hope for a young man,
rage more respectable
than confusion. I held to it.
It was the one sure principle of my life.

V
What if my father and I had headed off together,
just the two of us,
on a trip that’d last
so long it would finally exhaust all our silences
and we’d begin talking
so much it’d become natural
for me to rest my hand on his arm to press a point home,
punch his shoulder when he made a bad joke,
nudge him when he started to get sleepy?
Maybe I’d lift my hand to his face,
graze the stubble of his cheek
as if I were still a child who understood nothing
except by touch.
Maybe I’d lie down, nestle my head in his lap,
curl my arm around his thigh.
It is always then I imagine my father swerving,
the car skidding, no guardrail
able to stop us. Flung out of the car,
we stagger onto a field of snow
only to find under us a mirror
breaking, a whole lake
crumbling beneath our feet.
Here is where the fantasy always leads. It is dark.
We are alone, far from shore,
sinking through the ice,
arms flailing,
going down, both of us crying out
like brothers trying to save each other,
borne under by each other’s weight,
drowning in each other’s arms.

VI
Let go, I beg
and uncurl my father’s fingers. He won’t
drop his hand from the rail on his bed.
Help me, I ask, and he does — finally —
let me roll him to the side,
loosen the tape of his briefs, loosen also
with warm (but not too
warm) water the dried fecal matter,
wipe it from his inner thigh,
peel back the scrotum,
lifting and scrubbing (but not too hard),
at each step rinsing the washcloth,
draping it back around my fingers
so I can probe through it
the little purse mouth of the anus,
the drowsy penis,
every part of my father’s soiled loins.
I do my best — and I guess
it is OK, because my father falls
back asleep. Hardly awake myself,
I finish changing his diapers
and, just as I used to with each of my infant sons,
I kiss his brow — as close to the dreams there
as I can get. A pretty ending,
one might say of this goodnight kiss —
except for the basin of muddied water,
the smears that won’t wash off the sheets,
not even with rubbing,
every dark streak that refuses to be persuaded
from the weave of my father’s blanket,
from the soiled nightshirt I can’t pull off
without waking him.
I want all that touches my father
to be spotless, to smell sweetly
of vitamin-E cream and baby powder.
I want my father immaculate,
unstained. How can I go back to bed now,
abandon him like this,
all my work left incomplete?

VII
What do we expect of our fathers?
That they make a final, legendary journey back,
travel whatever distance they must
to reach us, appear as ghosts in our new houses,
sit by our beds,
and speak in such a way that
we at last can speak, too?
Do we really hope that they might leave us at last
with a kiss,
and that kiss be so right
it explains everything that confused us as children,
each puzzling grief,
each unfathomable longing?

VIII
For an entire week, when I was four
and you and I were both afraid
Mother was never going to be released from the
hospital,
at bedtime you led me to the window
I loved best, Father, the one that opened like a door,
and we looked up at the stars
as if we had the power to reach them.
You told me stories of a flying horse,
swung me onto the back of Pegasus,
and then pulled yourself up behind
and wrapped your arms around me.
We are crossing the burning floors of suns,
you said. We are walking on beds of starlight.
Don’t be afraid, son.
We are riding bareback now
on a horse with wings.