Because I am still on London time, waking up around four in the morning, I live the meat of my work day while most Nutmeggers—native Connecticutians—are asleep. I don't have my painting supplies in Connecticut so work consists of replying to client emails. The key with these emails is to make it sound like I am personally apologizing for my father's impending death, for my failure to stay on top of correspondence while he dies, and above all for my decision to fly home to spend a few precious days with him before he departs this world. If I seem to be apologizing for all this, then my correspondents will naturally feel the need to rectify my perception and by extent their own, corroborating my innocence, reinforcing my martyrdom. I sincerely apologize for the unprofessional delay, I write. I will do better going forward. And they write back with something like, Oh no, take care of yourself, work is not your priority right now. And in this way, I buy myself a few more weeks.
white These are clients who've commissioned portraits, oil paintings of their spouses and children and dogs. I've already accepted full payments for the commissions, and I've already used the funds to pay off a small portion of my debts. The immediate disappearance of the money is discouraging, to say the least. I have only a negative balance to show for all my sales efforts, and I have charged upfront rather than collecting a partial deposit, which means that even if I do finish the paintings—a good month in the studio—I will receive not a cent more. It also means that if I don't complete the paintings, I'll have to pay everything back, a mathematical impossibility. All I can do now is continue to exist in this excruciating chapter between accepting and completing (or not completing) a commission. The chapter has no predetermined end date. Sometimes this fact is a comfort to me—I can keep extending the chapter, requesting more time, providing more excuses—and sometimes it's a prison. With every passing second in which I do not either execute or cancel the commissions, the odds that I will ever take action grow smaller and smaller, without disappearing entirely, so that barring any consumer complaints or legal retribution, I will carry for the rest of my days the minuscule possibility that I might still take action, that I might ultimately pick up the paintbrush and begin.
white So there is no point in anything: no point in finding commissions, no point in finishing them, no point in beginning other work. No point in paying off debts either, because no matter how much I pay off, the rent is always due; whatever modest income I've patched together is obliterated. Even though I know I will receive no inheritance—that my father, like me, has spent his life drowning in a debt of his own design and is currently on the hook to the IRS for hundreds of thousands of dollars—even though I know that no salvation will come with his death, that I might even be left to resolve his predicament post-mortem, even though I know I am on my own because all my grandparents are dead and all their money has been parceled out to persons unknown, and even though my father's death will mark the end of all my hopes of familial rescue, and from then on I will have to rely on myself—and I am essentially an unreliable person—even though it will do nothing to reverse the course of my financial ruin, I still somehow see my father's death as a way out of this nightmare, as though my clients or my bank accounts or even the numbers themselves might take pity on me, as though this is how business works, as though the laws of economics only apply to happy people, as though misery might grant absolution.
white There is nothing to do except wait for things to get worse: wait for the banks to come calling, the clients to band together and condemn me on the internet, my father to give up and die. Stripped of futurity, my life becomes exactly what it is, which is nothing. It diminishes in scope and depth, its geography collapsing, its momentum slowing to stasis, its cast pared down to just me, my father, and Marina. The setting is Connecticut. For a week, I accept this change gracefully. I feel purified, like a skeleton picked clean. I play along. It is probably the longest, if not the only, period of sacrosanctity in my adult life. I sleep well and wake up and eat my oatmeal and drink my tea and go for a swim at the pool. I shower in the locker room. I drive to the nursing home, stopping along the way to pick up a treat for my father—an apple turnover or a chocolate bar. I read aloud to him from books about Connecticut history, which he unironically enjoys, asking to see all the pictures of colonial houses and war memorials. I feed him lunch and stand my ground when he refuses his vegetables. You need broccoli to get strong, I say, doubting my own grasp of dietary science but wanting nonetheless to instill a sense of the future in both of us. The more we commit to this future—this impossible future in which money arrives and my father eats enough broccoli to reverse his dementia—the longer he'll live, even if just a few more weeks. I spend my daily shift reinforcing this notion of the future as something to work toward, something to fight for. I leave the nursing home having convinced myself that I am single-handedly keeping my father alive, watering him like a plant, coaxing his leaves upward with the bright rays of a clear conscience.
white But is anything watering me, warming me, nurturing my growth? Not my father: this has never been his role. Not my social ties: I am in touch with no one. Not my work: I am not working. Where is my fertilizing force? From where I stand in Connecticut, London seems a paradise of self-actualization. In London, I tell myself, I might attend fitness classes and literary events. I might meet people and go on dates. I might join a local community group. I might finish paintings. I might enter competitions and exhibit my work. I might earn money. I might pay off my debts. I might marry a salaried creative, someone interesting but financially dependable. We might save up together and buy a house. We might get married in our backyard, with all our friends from the local community group playing acoustic music and supplying home-cooked food in hand-built casserole dishes. We might have a baby and raise it on a vegan diet and send it to a Montessori school. And even if none of these things ever happened, there would always be the possibility of them happening in London. What would be possible in Connecticut? The question disturbs me. I know, logically, that plenty of Nutmeggers lead satisfying lives. Marina chooses to live here and she's interesting. My dad has spent almost a century here. But when I consider the phenomenon of Nutmeggers, known and unknown, living out their days here, I perceive it as a taunt: One false step and this could be you.
white I don't want to be a Nutmegger. I want to be a cosmopolitan femme fatale. I want to be a rootless and fascinating woman with superfluous headgear. I want to develop an interest in art history. I want to stand in front of a marble statue and feel an emotion. I want to ride trains and read newspapers. These are not Nutmegger fantasies. These are expat fantasies. Who would I be without the circumstantial distinction lent to me by my foreignness? Who would I be without my cultural curriculum vitae: exhibitions and book launches attended, museums visited, parks strolled, books purchased, historical architecture studied? Or no: who would I be without the audience for such acts? Because I could do most of those things in Connecticut, but it would be a sophisticated shout into the provincial void. I need the London intelligentsia to witness my lifestyle. Without them, what would be the point? Might as well be watching TV and browsing the internet and reading books that are actually entertaining. I can't give in and start enjoying myself. Life is too short to be enjoyed. Life is for personal enrichment. In Connecticut I am unenriched. I am comfortable. I am rotting. Two weeks here pass like two days in London. I am racing toward death and it's all my father's fault.
white There's no other word for what happens next: I become a complete bitch. I grow impatient with him, I stop laughing at his garbled attempts at humor, I adopt the tone of a harangued and oppressed mother at the end of her rope. When he won't finish his vegetables, I take his ice cream away. When he asks me questions—where am I, how long have I been here, when can I go home—I answer his questions in a tone that suggests he's forgetting these things on purpose, to piss me off and distract me from whatever else I'm doing. I am always doing something, sorting emails or reading an article online, and I hate to be interrupted. I treat him like a child who's begged to spend the day in my office on the one condition that he does not disturb my work. I can't tell if it's his dementia or some late-blooming good nature that stops him from mirroring my animosity. Oh, alright, he'll say when I brusquely correct him, I didn't know that. And I'll go back to my work, and he'll go back to looking meditatively at the wall, and then he'll say, in all innocence, unwittingly nudging me toward the edge: Now, why do you suppose that is?
white I hate sitting in his room for hours each day. I make this very clear. I complain that it smells like piss and I open a window to air it out and then my father gets cold and asks for another blanket, and I sigh aggrievedly as though he's asked me to spin the yarn myself. I hate the little sagging chair that bends my spine into an unhealthy and unsustainable curve, so that every quarter of an hour when I stand up to stretch, I'm subjected to a troubling series of clicks between my shoulder blades and at the base of my skull. I hate that there's no cafe in the nursing home like there was at the hospital, so if I get peckish now I have to time it perfectly, waiting until after my father finishes eating, but before the orderly comes to remove the tray. Then I'll eat whatever he's rejected, vegan or not, even the roast beef, because it's all headed for the trash anyway, and because I don't really know who I am anymore, don't have a clear identity in relation to other people, can no longer discern my place in society, because Connecticut has taken everything from me, making me a shapeless, pointless non-entity conducting a non-life in a non-place.
white I stop swimming because my health doesn't matter. I stop reading high literature and start reading novels endorsed by daytime talk shows, novels with promotional taglines on the cover, novels that make me cry even when the plot unfolds exactly as expected. I start watching a reality show where people get married to strangers, which is funny because I almost got married to a stranger, except on the show there's a whole team of experts employed to match the couples on a range of compatibility metrics from spirituality to family plans, whereas in the case of my own engagement, the only metric was willingness to marry a stranger. My credit card statement comes in and I'm a few thousand dollars in debt. Just like daddy. I make the minimum payment using a loan from another bank, and then I return the rental car because my recklessness does have its limits, and because I'm showing up so late to the nursing home these days that I might as well just catch a ride with Marina to be there for the afternoon shift. My father is alone most mornings, and when we arrive in the afternoon he acts like someone who's just been lifted out of a well: he nearly cries with joy and relief. I woke up and didn't know where I was, he says. I tried to get out of bed but then I realized I couldn't walk. I tried to call but I couldn't remember anyone's number, and I couldn't find a phone. It sounds like a nightmare, and I hate listening to it. I know I could reduce his suffering by spending more time with him, by being more patient and attentive, but I also know I will never fully relieve him of his suffering, that no matter what I do, he will still wake up each day lost and paralyzed, pinned to a strange bed in an unrecognizable room, attended to by strangers, unable to contact the only people on the planet whose names he remembers. So instead of confronting the nightmare, instead of getting my hands dirty reckoning with it, I withdraw even further. I allow Marina to run the show, I watch her entertain him and hold his hand, I watch her share news from the outside world while I lean moodily against the windowsill, waiting to be driven home so I can microwave a potato and watch TV.
white Marina is gripping his leg now and I can't tell if it's some sort of special circulation massage for bedridden people, or if she's just demonstrating affection. It's all healthcare, in a way. Even just standing here by the window is healthcare. I have a mental image of his lifespan extending incrementally with every act of care. What if each day I'm here, even if I spend that day reading in the corner of his room, even if I'm impatient, even if I don't make eye contact—what if each day I spend here adds another day to his life? And subtracts one from mine. Are these days worth it for anyone?
white Marina withdraws and takes a seat, pulling out the crossword and a ballpoint pen. I approach my father, doubting my ability to match Marina's performance. I don't like touching him. I once read an article about child-parent bonding, how it has to happen at an early age or not at all, there's this brief window for establishing biological love, and otherwise both parties are consigned to a lifetime of effortfully simulating a natural connection. I don't want to believe it but it does feel kind of true. In theory, at a distance, he's my father, but up close he's an acquaintance in a hospital bed. I don't want to touch him. When Marina squeezed his leg, I felt nauseous.
white I crouch down beside his bed and rest a hand briefly on his arm, but through the blanket so our skins don't touch. Immediately I feel the way I feel after taking the recycling out, like I've done my duty. How are you doing, Dad?
white Oh, just wonderful, he says, so I know he's in one of his moods. We're both silent for a while and I look back at Marina to see if she's watching us, but she's still laboring over the crossword. I feel like I'm due for a negative performance review. I'm so shit at this. I'm just crouching here saying nothing, not even touching him anymore. Once enough time has passed, I ask what's on his mind.
white I'm thinking about the futility of trying to make me happy.
white What? This seems a shockingly bleak pronouncement, even for a dying man.
white You know, everyone's so nice and chipper here, trying to cheer me up, but what's the point?
white Well, the point is probably to cheer you up.
white I'm not going to be happy as long as I'm in this place. It's unclear from the phrasing if he knows that this is his final destination, and I don't want to break the news if he's already talking about futility.
white Well, there's a real connection between mind and body, I say, grateful that my father is in no position to do the research necessary to confirm or refute anything I tell him. Science has become a creative domain now. There are studies about how people recover faster when they think positively, I say, improvising. And besides, you've got me and Marina visiting you every day. So that's something to feel good about, right?
white Of course, he says, I'm so lucky to have you both. I feel bad for guilting him into gratitude. I wasn't trying to invalidate his pain. But I wasn't trying to validate it, either. What am I supposed to say? If I were in his position, immobile in a nursing home in suburban Connecticut with only two regular visitors, one of whom is hungover and visibly uncomfortable and would clearly rather be anywhere else in the world, I would probably wish for death. I would definitely be in a bad mood.
white Just try to remember you'll get better faster if you try to keep a positive attitude, I say, hating my tone. I think about this meme I saw once with an illustration from Kafka's Metamorphosis: an ink drawing of a human transformed into a large bug, lying prone and helpless, legs in the air, the caption reading, Have you tried mindfulness? There's also this meme of a little girl rejecting a spoonful of vegetables, her head turned away in revulsion; the child is labeled depressed people and the spoon is labeled yoga. I don't want to be a mental health meme. I want to be honest. I want to collapse on his bed and cry into his scratchy white blanket and say, God, it's so fucked up, isn't it, it's so fucking miserable, it'll never get better, you'll never be yourself again, you'll just have to wait here in this shithole until you die. My father's face looks caught between an attempt and a failure to be happy. Dad, I say, and he looks at me with total trust, his expression like an open mouth, ready to swallow whatever I feed him. I am the spoon, he is the mouth, I am the caption, he is the bug, and I can say anything, and I look into his cloudy little eyes and say, Cheer up, Dad. You'll be out of here in no time.