Amanda Michalopoulou

Dad and Childhood

“Come here, little one.”
I may be little, but I’m not shy. I puff up my chest and mentally prepare to perform another cartwheel.
“Do you want to sit down?” He has fingerprints on his glasses. He’s tall and shiny, like the statue of Venizelos in the park.
I’m supposed to always tell him the truth.
“I thought you might feel more comfortable if we sat down.”
There are framed diplomas in his office, and books with leather spines, and drawings done by little kids. There are dollhouses, too.
“Unless you’d rather play,” says the man who guesses everything.
He takes notes as I make the dolls do cartwheels on the roof of the dollhouse and triple flips in the air. I push two of them off the roof to see if he’ll write that down, too. He does. Then he asks which doll is the daddy, why the mommy is always lying in bed, and why I don’t put my sister inside the house. I tell him it’s not worth the trouble, my sister is going to die. She just fell off the roof.
“Would you like her to die?” he asks.
“No, but she’s going to. Stella told me so.”
“Stella? Is there another Stella besides you?”
It’s hard to explain. Stella grows up, gets ugly, turns into an old lady, forty years old. She says kids don’t stay kids forever. If I tell him that will he yell like Dad did? Everyone’s always yelling at me, ever since I told them I saw Stella when she was old.
“Stella is in Dad’s movie.”
“What’s she doing there?”
“She’s sitting on the rug with a dog.”
“And she talks to you?”
“She says I’m not going to be a gymnast when I grow up.”
“Do you want to be a gymnast?”
“Of course.”
“Because when you do cartwheels you can see the grass upside-down.”
“And Stella says you’re not going to make it?”
“That’s what she says.”
“Do you think maybe you dreamed all that?” he asks calmly. “Sometimes when we’re sleeping, our daytime thoughts come back to us, our fears, and…”
I’m not listening to what he says. Behind his dirty glasses his eyes are getting bigger. The room is getting smaller. I want to leave.
Finally he calls Dad into the office and tells him to have a seat. Dad perches on the edge of the armchair, barely touching the cushion. The man tells him I’m disconcertingly intelligent.
“What does that mean?” Dad asks.
It means that I’m sensitive and mature. Dad sits back more comfortably, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair. Then the man says we need to encourage my imagination. Dad sits back up at the edge of the cushion.
“Encourage it? More?”
Perhaps they could buy me books, literature, to facilitate the healthy development of my imagination, says the man who guesses everything.
Dad makes a face. “Literature? What kind of treatment is this, anyhow?”
“Treatment for the soul,” the man says sharply, as if he doesn’t really like Dad. “Books contain encoded solutions, you know.”
I’ve heard that somewhere before.
I’ve been reading my whole life. It hasn’t been an important life, but it’s been unique, full of encoded solutions. Somewhere along the line I adopted the manner of that child psychologist. Smudged glasses, eyes like two lakes that drink everything in: poems, essays, novels, short stories. I like short stories best. They’re on a more human scale. Novels seem like desperate attempts at control, and poems like attempts at grandeur. Essays I can write myself, if need be.
I’ve met a fair number of writers at literary events. Some of them look at me like I know everything, others like I don’t know anything at all. One man once clapped me on the back to show the others we were friends. That’s the kind of sincerity you’ll find at those events. I prefer my books and the company of Zacharias.
Basically not much has changed since I was a kid. I live in the same house, behind the park. I forget the details of my old life, as the new one is written over it.
“Come here, Zacharias.”
And he comes, with his characteristic eagerness. He flops down on the floor next to me and licks my arm.
“Good boy. Do you want to see Stella when she was little? I was a baby once, too, you know, just like you. Can you believe it?”
The VCR growls.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing. We just press the button, see? They made all the old movies of me into videos. It’s what we call the miracle of technology.”
I like explaining things to him. How we convert old super eights. Why the iron is hot, why the clothes spin around in the washing machine. Where I go when he stays whimpering in the house. Why life without siblings has given me a soft spot for dogs, trees, and strange imagery in poems.
“Today is Sunday, silly. Look how hard it’s raining. That’s why we’re just going to sit here and watch the little video I dug out of the storage room. You know, storage rooms are useful places, because that’s where…”
I could talk to him for hours. He’s a perfect listener. His velvety little ears perk right up whenever the tone of my voice changes. And when I’ve run out of things to say, he lays his snout on my chest.
“So, should we get started?”
I always ask his opinion; it seems only fair. He’s my roommate, after all. Sometimes he keeps me from overindulging in alcohol or cigarettes, throwing his head to one side and looking at me like a thoughtful, shrunken little bear. But today he has no attention span whatsoever. He keeps attacking the fringes on the carpet.
“Come on, Zacharias, concentrate. It’s starting!”
I press the play button on the remote control and curl up on the rug next to him, hugging my knees to my chest. A black and white girl with bangs appears on the screen, turning cartwheels on a black and white hill. The sun lights up each individual blade of grass separately. The quality of the film isn’t very good, but I remember that light. The girl is me. A large bronze man stands behind me, scowling down on my every move.
“That’s Venizelos, Zacharias.”
Zacharias barks twice at the statue. The little girl with the bangs is happy and sweaty. We follow the cartwheel from up close: the perfect arc of her legs, her white tennis shoes, the swish of her bangs in the air.
“Did you see that cartwheel? I could’ve been a gymnast after all.”
I chew on the last walnut in the plate of nuts resting on the arm of the sofa, then lick my finger and dab up the crumbs.
“I was really considering it. A gymnast. Don’t you think it would’ve suited me?”
Zacharias gives a halfhearted growl. The girl in the movie runs down the hill. Her dad is filming everything. Bottle caps. Couples embracing under the trees. The dry grass. The hood of a car.
“Dad wanted to be a director, you know. Back then there were all kinds of legitimate excuses for not achieving your dreams. Poverty, the dictatorship, family obligations….”
The dad and the girl in the movie are walking toward a gray apartment building behind the park.
“These days we’ve got money, democracy, and loneliness. What I mean is…”
In the film they’re unlatching the wrought-iron gate.
“Anyway. That’s our hall. Remind you of anything? It would have been a waste of money to redo the whole place. Besides, if you cover the table with books, you can hardly tell it’s fake wood.”
The girl in the video is overexcited. She’s showing off her room to the camera, as if it were a hiding place under the earth, or some useless but entertaining discovery.
“Here we see a fine example of a little girl’s room, Zacharias. Posters of boys with girlish smiles, stickers, piles of clothes. See that huge pencil sharpener? It was bolted to the table and rumbled like a train…. And here’s the living room.”
The girl in the video walks toward us slowly. Her hair is wrapped in a towel and she’s wearing pajama bottoms and a faded pink robe.
“Dad, where are you?” she calls.
“On the phone,” he answers from the other room.
“The film stopped,” the girl murmurs.
“It snapped,” I explain.
Outside the window more clouds have gathered. The rain falls from them slowly, as if from dirty, half-squeezed sponges.
“Who are you?” the girl in the movie asks.
“I’m Stella,” I say.
The girl’s eyes grow wide.
“But I’m Stella,” she says, thumping her chest with both palms.
“You mean… you can see me?”
She takes a step back.
“Can you see me?”
“Clear as day.”
“Well, I have to leave, because….”
“Don’t be afraid. Look, I remember as if it were yesterday, the film snapped. Being on the other end it doesn’t….”
“Doesn’t what?”
“It doesn’t seem so scary.”
“I have to go,” she says, out of breath.
“I’m worried about you. Just tell me, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. But Mom….”
“I know. And your sister?”
“She’s all grown up, she doesn’t take me with her anymore.”
“Try to love her. She’s going to die soon.”
“Yes. She drives too fast.”
“Stop scaring me. Who are you?”
“You know who I am.”
“No, no way. They’d never get me a dog.”
“When kids grow up they can get their own dogs, Stella. No one’s going to tell you what to do when you’re—”
“Yeah, sure….”
“—forty years old.”
“Tell me about yourself. What do you want to do with your life?”
“With my life?” the girl in the movie asks, as if she’d never thought of it that way.
“Yes, with your life. When you grow up.”
“I want to be a gymnast.”
“I thought so,” says Stella. “Well, you’re going to be a literary critic.”
“What’s that?”
“A job with books. You’ll read lots of books and say which ones you like and why. Cartwheels aren’t everything.”
“No!” the girl in the movie shouts, putting her hands over her ears.
“I know. But maybe if you can remember a few things. …”
“Like what?”
“Get out of this house before it’s too late. Don’t listen to what Dad says about careers and stuff. Don’t feel sorry for Mom. And don’t take things personally. Awful things are going to happen, but don’t take it personally. Everyone gets their fair share of disaster. Oh, and steer clear of a man who’s old enough to be your father. Or rather…”
“Shit. It’s useless. Listen, Stella, you’ll survive, that’s all that matters. There are encoded solutions.”
The girl in the movie is crying quietly.
“I know, little one. I wish I could comfort you.”
“You’re bad,” she says. “And you’re scaring me.”
She takes a few steps backward without looking where she’s going, and nudges a little table covered in porcelain figurines, making them clatter and clink. A cat playing with a ball of yarn falls and smashes into a thousand pieces on the floor.
Dad rushes into the living room. He’s my age, with the same black bags under his eyes. And most importantly: he’s alive.
“Dad, do you see her? Do you see that woman?”
“What woman? Christ, the film snapped! Why didn’t you call me, Stella?”
“I did call you. You were on the phone. And then the wall went all white and….”
“What’s got into you? The film snapped, that’s all!”
“I know. And then the woman with the dog appeared on the wall.”
“What woman? There’s no woman.”
“Can’t you hear the rain, Dad? It’s raining in her house.”
He pushes the curtains aside with an air of futility. He points to the setting sun, the grass in the park quivering under the heat, far in the distance, behind Venizelos’s back.
“Look, Stella! Is everything where it should be? Or are you crazy, like your mother?”
“No, Dad, she’s not crazy!” I shout. “I’m not crazy.”
The porcelain figurines on the table are breaking inside of me. One after another.
He turns off the projector and darkness suddenly swallows the image.
The living room is gone, and the statue, and the grass.
Dad is gone, and childhood too

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