What’s new? Oh—right. You can’t answer me.
Dear Pen Pal,
How are you? I am fine. Actually, I’m not.
Chapter 1: Once there was a guy named Dale who lived with his mother and his stepfather and sometimes with his stepbrother. Dale felt bored and lonely, so he started writing about himself in third person and on second thought, I don’t think this is working either.
Are you there, God? Oh, forget it.
Monday, February 28
I read a book once about a character who kept “writing it out” in a diary, and when I rolled over and saw that it was three in the morning and I still hadn’t fallen asleep, I figured I had nothing to lose if I started “typing it out” on my laptop. I tried a few different ways to do that, but none of them worked, so I decided to write you a letter instead. Writing to you makes sense since it’s sort of because of you that I need someone to talk to. And even though you can’t read this letter, I’m fine with that, because right now I need to talk to someone who won’t talk back.
It’s been seven years since you died. I was nine then, or as I liked to say in those days, nine and three-quarters. I’m sixteen now, about to turn seventeen. You probably wouldn’t recognize me, or Ma, or anything about our lives if you could see us from beyond the grave. I’m not sure I’d recognize you either, in spite of the photos I have of you and the memories I play in my head sometimes.
Maybe you know (or maybe you’re beyond knowing) that since last summer I’ve been working hard to perfect six super-complicated piano pieces—including a Chopin étude that I seriously thought was going to make one of my fingers snap off—to get ready for my practical exam at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Maybe you know the exam’s usually held in June, but this year they moved it to February without telling us why. And maybe you already know that the harder I worked to get ready, the more Ma drove me crazy. Whenever she complained about having to hear me play the same pieces over and over, I’d plug my earphones into the electric piano, but then she’d grumble that wearing earphones so much was going to wreck my hearing. Or she’d sneak up behind me while I was concentrating and startle me by putting her hands on my shoulders. At one point I moved the piano so I could sit with my back to the wall, and she got annoyed that I’d done this alone, because apparently I could have hurt myself. And every time the exam came up at the dinner table, she’d look at me with a smile that was lacking in kindness—all mouth and no eyes.
But my hard work paid off, and yesterday morning Ma and I drove to the city for my exam. And I did okay! I don’t want to jinx anything since I won’t get the results in the mail for another month or so, but I know I did really well. Afterward I bumped into one of the judges in the hallway, and she said nice things about my technique and my expression, which totally made my day. As Ma and I walked out of the building and down the city streets, I played that compliment over again in my head, and I was just so proud and happy. All I wanted at that moment was to continue feeling good about myself for a little while and to daydream about the future.
Then Ma ruined it, with her usual two-pronged approach. First she told me she was glad all this was over now so that I could devote more time to my school work. I let that one roll off me since my grades are fine, but once we were in the car and I asked her what she wanted in terms of driving-away music, she unleashed part two. “Honey, I want to talk about what happened the other night,” she said, followed by pointed silence.
We’d barely left the parking garage at that point, but already the air inside the car started to crackle. I adjusted my seat belt to stop it from choking me and craned my head toward the window to watch the sky. This is what she does: she brings up a topic of conversation, then waits for me to jump in.
Except this time I didn’t rise to the bait. I didn’t even sigh to show her I was annoyed. I guess I was hoping that if I didn’t react to what she’d said, my mind wouldn’t absorb it, and I’d be able to continue enjoying the good feelings from my exam. But my head kept sinking, no matter how much I fought it, even as I tried to pretend I was somewhere else. I sensed that going over this again with Ma wouldn’t solve anything, since it clearly hadn’t the first time we’d had this conversation, and I knew full well that wasn’t really what she wanted to talk about.
What happened was this: Ma walked into the kitchen one evening last week when it was my turn to load up the dishwasher and overheard me singing along to a pop song—I won’t write down which one because you wouldn’t know it anyway and because I don’t want to admit to you that I knew all the words. The point is the song was a love ballad between a man and a woman, and I was singing the woman’s part an octave lower. At first I wondered if Ma was upset by this for some reason, but soon it was clear that she was actually excited by the possibility that this meant something. And she just wouldn’t stop with her questions. She even followed me from room to room as I tried to get away from her. I told her the truth: most pop duets are written for a male tenor and a female alto, and I can’t sing the tenor line because I’m a baritone—my voice is too low. Singing the alto part an octave lower put it in my range. I wasn’t trying to sing a love song with another man, and I don’t see myself as a woman. And yes, I was sure.
None of this seemed to make any sense to her—she knows nothing about music except whether or not she finds it pretty—so she kept staring at me with this look of expectation on her face, like a new episode of her favourite TV show was about to start. And then today in the car, she turned to look at me even though she really should have kept her eyes on the road, and I saw that expression again.
I knew what she was fishing for, so I said nothing.
It drives Ma crazy when I stop answering her, although that’s not the only reason I do it. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to say nothing when you know full well that speaking will only make things worse. Ever since I told her my theory that Bach wrote his Toccata in F-sharp minor as a way to spite future generations of piano students from beyond the grave and she said I was just being dramatic, I’ve tried hard not to give her any reason to say that to me again.
I selected a love duet on my iPod in which the tenor is practically a eunuch, but she pressed the button on the steering wheel to turn the car stereo off before the vocal line started. So we drove in silence while I played some peppy music in my head to pass the time.
Soon the signs for Guelph came up as we headed west on the highway, and suddenly I remembered.
“Ma,” I said, sitting up straight again, “since we’re driving past Guelph, could we stop at the cemetery on the way home?”
When Ma didn’t reply, I turned in her direction and saw a look in her eyes like she was no longer seeing the road, and I felt my eyebrows skew together, but then she seemed to shake herself out of it.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “it’s been a long day. I’m really tired. Why don’t you go next weekend? You have your driver’s licence now—you can borrow the car.”
“But we’re driving right by it, and the anniversary of Pa’s death is today,” I said. I thought I was being logical. I mean, hey, I could have pointed out that if Ma thought she was tired, she might try imagining what the day had been like for the one who’d had to get up on that stage and be evaluated by a panel of judges after a year and a half of work, but I didn’t.
Ma said nothing, so I stared out the window and tried to think of something else. But soon enough my eyes filled with tears that streamed down my face while I pretended not to notice. This hadn’t happened since maybe a few years after you died. I don’t know if it counts as crying—it’s like my eyes are faucets and I’ve walked away without making sure the taps are fully closed. But it’s awful because I can’t seem to do anything except wait for it to stop on its own.
I watched the scenery whiz by—trees and the remains of snowbanks and a couple of ancient farmhouses here and there—as I thought about all kinds of things I could have said but didn’t. But soon I felt the car lurch into the right lane and sensed that we were heading up the overpass to Highway 6, at which point Ma drove us north, toward Guelph. She said nothing, and I said nothing, and eventually she turned into the main entrance of the cemetery and parked. “I’ll give you ten minutes,” she said in a tone I didn’t recognize.
I got out of the car. The sun was still shining, but the wind had picked up, so I bundled up and marched through the pedestrian gate and down the gravel path. Even though I hadn’t been to the cemetery in a couple of years, I figured it was just a matter of time before I recognized some landmarks that would guide me straight to your grave.
Except I didn’t. I stood at an intersection and didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what to do. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the day of your funeral, but when I felt my heartbeat climb up my throat, I shook the memory away. I still don’t understand how this happened—it’s true that I’ve visited you only once or twice since Ma married Helmut and we moved away from Guelph, but I used to bike here all the time.
“Where the hell are you, Pa?” I called out, but of course you couldn’t answer me.
But then, in the silence that followed, a bird flew over my shoulder and landed on a gravestone nearby. I know dick all about flora or fauna, so the only thing I can tell you about this bird was that it was bright red with a black patch around its beak—that’s what made it so noticeable against the grey landscape. It danced and hopped and looked at me, its head bobbing this way and that like it was keeping its guard up for predators.
So I stood there, breathed, and watched for clues. In the distance, a truck backing up beeped in E-flat.
After a while the bird flew away and landed on another grave in the distance. By that point I figured my ten minutes were up, so I turned around and headed back to the car, which Ma had kept running. I thought about pointing out how bad that was for the environment, but instead I thanked her for stopping, said nothing about her being so pissed off at me that she wouldn’t get out of the car, put my seat belt back on, and found some instrumental music on my iPod that hopefully Ma wouldn’t object to. She didn’t ask any follow-up questions, which was just as well, because I never would have admitted to her that I hadn’t been able to find your grave. So we drove home in silence, all my questions trapped inside my head.
I don’t know if it would horrify you to learn that Ma got married again, but she did—three years ago. I like Helmut. He doesn’t try to be my dad or anything, and he loves to cook, so there’s always something interesting on the dinner table. He’s a lawyer who specializes in slip-and-fall cases against the city, so it’s hard to win an argument with him, but we get along okay.
Helmut has a son who’s a couple of months younger than I am. His name is Gonzales, but he’s always been known as Gonzo for some reason. We’re not exactly friends. Helmut and his ex-wife have joint custody, so Gonzo lives a week with us and a week with his mother. I’ve only seen Iliana from a distance, but she seems nice.
Helmut was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on supper when we got home. He asked me how the day had gone, but Ma started with her own answer as though I wasn’t even there. So I poured myself a glass of water and moved as though to head downstairs to my room, but as soon as I closed the door at the top of the stairs, I sat on the steps and figured that eavesdropping was the only way I’d get to understand what was really bothering her.
She had a whole laundry list of complaints. First, I was sullen. I was moody (I forget if she used the word “pouting” or just implied it). I wouldn’t open up to her. All of which Helmut brushed aside as me being a typical teenager. But Ma said I was also manipulative—I used tears and guilt about the anniversary of your death to get what I wanted, even after she’d said no. I had no respect for boundaries or for her feelings. She said nothing about the exam, not even whether I thought it had gone well, except to say that at least it was “done,” as though all that work had been more of an ordeal for her than for me.
There was no further talk about the exam when we sat down to dinner. Instead, Ma got on my case about the state of my bedroom and about being way overdue to get my teeth cleaned, which apparently reflects badly on her because she’s a dental hygienist. I just sat there and pushed food around my plate. It was too bad, because Helmut had made all my favourites, including this glazed chicken that’s practically a symphony of flavours.
After supper I called Rita, who’s been my piano teacher since I moved here, to let her know I thought I’d done okay. It was also a chance for me to thank her for everything, given that I’ll need to find a new piano teacher now because at this point I’ve apparently outgrown her. “Don’t wait too long before you start contacting people on the list I gave you,” she said. I’m sure she meant to be kind, but at that point my fingers still ached from the Debussy piece that to me has always sounded like a barrel rolling merrily down a steep hill, so I said something vague in response.
I texted Jordana after that because I really needed someone to talk to. You’d remember Jordana, Pa. We’ve stayed friends the whole time she’s been at her fancy-pants performing arts school in Boston, but she’s hard to pin down sometimes. Whenever I text something like Hey, we should chat sometime, all I’ll get in response is Definitely—sometime. And when I ask point-blank if she’s free to chat, often I don’t hear from her until days later, if at all. As I was getting ready for bed, I heard my phone buzz and grabbed it, hoping Jordana had texted me back, but it was a notification that my phone was going to die unless I plugged it in.
I don’t know. This is probably pointless. I’m writing a letter that can’t ever be delivered—I’m pretty sure that’s called a dead letter, which is fitting—because I don’t have anyone else to talk to. I mean, I remember getting along with you when I was little, and I have some nice memories of us spending time together, playing music. But would I be talking to you like this if you were still alive? Or would you be like Ma and Helmut, nagging me about my homework instead of saying you’re proud of me for doing well on my piano exam?
Anyway, it’s almost four o’clock in the morning and my eyes hurt from the glare of the screen, so I’ll hide this file in my system preferences folder and try to get some sleep.
Your loving son,