I love Thursday nights.
They have a feel to them that’s outside of time.
It’s our tradition, just the three of us—family night.
My son, Charlie, is sitting at the table, drawing on a sketch pad. He’s almost fifteen. The kid grew two inches over the summer, and he’s as tall as I am now.
I turn away from the onion I’m julienning, ask, “Can I see?”
He holds up the pad, shows me a mountain range that looks like something on another planet.
I say, “Love that. Just for fun?”
“Class project. Due tomorrow.”
“Then get back to it, Mr. Last Minute.”
Standing happy and slightly drunk in my kitchen, I’m unaware that tonight is the end of all of this. The end of everything I know, everything I love.
No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.
The track lights shine on the surface of my wine, and the onion is beginning to sting my eyes. Thelonious Monk spins on the old turntable in the den. There’s a richness to the analog recording I can never get enough of, especially the crackle of static between tracks. The den is filled with stacks and stacks of rare vinyl that I keep telling myself I’ll get around to organizing one of these days.
My wife, Daniela, sits on the kitchen island, swirling her almost-empty wineglass in one hand and holding her phone in the other. She feels my stare and grins without looking up from the screen.
“I know,” she says. “I’m violating the cardinal rule of family night.”
“What’s so important?” I ask.
She levels her dark, Spanish eyes on mine. “Nothing.”
I walk over to her, take the phone gently out of her hand, and set it on the countertop.
“You could start the pasta,” I say.
“I prefer to watch you cook.”
“Yeah?” Quieter: “Turns you on, huh?”
“No, it’s just more fun to drink and do nothing.”
Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible. It still slays me.
I polish off my glass. “We should open more wine, right?”
“It would be stupid not to.”
As I liberate the cork from a new bottle, she picks her phone back up and shows me the screen. “I was reading Chicago Magazine’s review of Marsha Altman’s show.”
“Were they kind?”
“Yeah, it’s basically a love letter.”
“Good for her.”
“I always thought…” She lets the sentence die, but I know where it was headed. Fifteen years ago, before we met, Daniela was a comer to Chicago’s art scene. She had a studio in Bucktown, showed her work in a half-dozen galleries, and had just lined up her first solo exhibition in New York. Then came life. Me. Charlie. A bout of crippling postpartum depression.
Now she teaches private art lessons to middle-grade students.
“It’s not that I’m not happy for her. I mean, she’s brilliant, she deserves it all.”
I say, “If it makes you feel any better, Ryan Holder just won the Pavia Prize.”
“A multidisciplinary award given for achievements in the life and physical sciences. Ryan won for his work in neuroscience.”
“Is it a big deal?”
“Million dollars. Accolades. Opens the floodgates to grant money.”
“Obviously that’s the real prize. He invited me to a little informal celebration tonight, but I passed.”
“Because it’s our night.”
“You should go.”
“I’d really rather not.”
Daniela lifts her empty glass. “So what you’re saying is, we both have good reason to drink a lot of wine tonight.”
I kiss her, and then pour generously from the newly opened bottle.
“You could’ve won that prize,” Daniela says.
“You could’ve owned this city’s art scene.”
“But we did this.” She gestures at the high-ceilinged expanse of our brownstone. I bought it pre-Daniela with an inheritance. “And we did that,” she says, pointing to Charlie as he sketches with a beautiful intensity that reminds me of Daniela when she’s absorbed in a painting.
It’s a strange thing, being the parent of a teenager. One thing to raise a little boy, another entirely when a person on the brink of adulthood looks to you for wisdom. I feel like I have little to give. I know there are fathers who see the world a certain way, with clarity and confidence, who know just what to say to their sons and daughters. But I’m not one of them. The older I get, the less I understand. I love my son. He means everything to me. And yet, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m failing him. Sending him off to the wolves with nothing but the crumbs of my uncertain perspective.
I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, “Your father could have won the Nobel.”
I laugh. “That’s possibly an exaggeration.”
“Charlie, don’t be fooled. He’s a genius.”
“You’re sweet,” I say. “And a little drunk.”
“It’s true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family.”
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.
“Your father said to me one night—never forget it—that pure research is life-consuming. He said…” For a moment, and to my surprise, emotion overtakes her. Her eyes mist, and she shakes her head like she always does when she’s about to cry. At the last second, she rallies, pushes through. “He said, ‘Daniela, on my deathbed I would rather have memories of you than of a cold, sterile lab.’ ”
I look at Charlie, catch him rolling his eyes as he sketches.
Probably embarrassed by our display of parental melodrama.