FATHER ATHLETE

I ate shit less than five seconds after the shove over the edge of the hill. It was pathetic, slow-motion––my bike tipped me onto my side and the white bowl of the sky tilted in view above me. The back wheel spun a little while the bike held me down to the grass spangled with gray-green goose turds. A precursor, perhaps, to an adolescence of losing my balance, of tripping off the sidewalk when my flimsy ankles helped gravity do its grounding work. The thirsty grass crunched beneath the footsteps of my approaching father, and soon the weight was lifted. I stayed staring heavenward until I was hoisted by my arms, brushed off, set straight. Because he believed in dignity and second chances, my father made me ride the block home while he walked alongside holding the handle bars. The deal was I would only get ice cream if I stayed upright down the hill, and the deal stayed that way. The confetti vision of rainbow sprinkles fell away. My elbows hummed––green grass skid and the sting of missing skin. 

My father is a runner. He’s so tall that our cat becomes enraged when he enters a room. He winds a furious blur of gray and white between my father’s legs, howling his dismay and stretching his paws up his shins to try and comprehend such great height. Faced with my mother’s, sister’s, and my identical five-foot-sevens, he’s undisturbed. Upon sight of my father, though, he meets his own god in the form of towering light-wash Levi’s and unrelenting, extra-long Chicago Cubs sweatshirts. My father carries his obscene six-foot-four on runs that leave our neighborhood for the nearby path that cuts under towering power lines that crackle in the rain, past the golf course where quintuplet groups of men in outlet store polos say things like, “Jerry, you just can’t get the ball out of those reeds,” or something like that. When I mastered my bike after many more pushes down that hill, I followed my father on wheels while he ran. About three blocks away from the house is when it would start––pops like distant firecrackers, then an unmistakable sulfurous trail. “YOU ARE NOT FARTING WHILE I AM DOWNWIND, DAD. TELL ME YOU ARE NOT.” And he could not tell me that because indeed he was. I could see straight through the back of his shaved head to the smirk on the other side; I know what it looks like––mine is exactly the same. 

My body and its image in my mind shout at each other from two separate rooms. They have never met one another, and they pound the walls till every picture of me as a flushed round child in a geriatric women’s section tankini clatters to the floor. My body’s image shrieks at my body’s reality about their mutual goals that all end up looking like Brie Larson in those Instagram videos she posted while she trained to be Captain Marvel. My body’s image carries on about that third strawberry mochi I ate, the Spanish-ham flavored chips from World Market that tasted exactly like they said they would. I sit listening in the hallway outside these rooms and daydream of a perfect soft-boiled egg atop a shimmering bowl of ramen. I turn to the side in front of the mirror, flattening my hands against my stomach to create the illusion that it doesn’t push forward. I rub at the spot in my jeans where my thighs have worn the fabric into smoothness. I stood in the living room once while my father stretched on the rug before one of his runs. “Do you want to come?” He asked. “No,” I said, then reconsidered. “Maybe.” One thing led to another. “Do you think I’m ugly?” He released his knee, studied me as he lay there on his back. “Not at all. You just have a little baby fat. Not at all.” I was twelve. 

My talent in sports was not the result of an innate athletic ability, but rather emerged from an ancestral spite and predilection for hitting and throwing things as hard as I possibly could, without exception. Both these things were delivered in my bloodline directly from my mother. On the tennis court she’s like a coiled snake, a sprung trap, a lit fuse. When we played together I ducked at the net while her forehands tore past me; her backswing was twice her wingspan. “If you can’t hit it hard, why do it at all?” was her motto. How true. She and my father found a tennis instructor for my sister and me, and once a week since I was five until high school, we met with this person to whose dismay, I would not be convinced that the miles-per-hour reading on my shots did not have a direct and proportional relationship with my skill. It worked for me, and I played varsity doubles in high school with reasonable success against teams from the suburbs where people tied cashmere sweaters around their necks and raised sons who posted Snapchat stories from private yachts on Lake Michigan. My father, always proud, clapped a paternal hand on my shoulder after these matches. He asked me what my favorite shot was, then offered critique on some of my others. “You swing for the rafters sometimes. You just have to pull it back a little.” No, I would not. 

The phrase that most closely resembles my relationship with food is “crime and punishment.” My adolescent involvement with sports waxed and waned unpredictably in some demented lunar cycle that was determined by how much I needed my body to change. I wanted hard muscles. I wanted lungs so strong I could stroll along the ocean floor for minutes at a time. As I crashed up and down the football field bleachers during tennis practice, I imagined that the soft curve of my belly melted away to reveal washboard abs and the xylophone of my ribs when I stretched and my shirt lifted. I raced home after practice to inspect my progress and shut myself in the bathroom with the shower turned on while I turned one way in front of the mirror, then another. I frowned when my stomach stuck out past my boobs, then calculated what food I could eat for the next days to fix the problem. The trip to Denny’s with my friends late that night was now in jeopardy, and so was the cheeseburger my father had on the grill for me with its red scent poking past the open bathroom window. I was disciplined. At the table, I took precisely three bites and set the burger down. “I’m so full,” I said, ignoring the disbelieving stares. Let the punishment fit the crime. 

On special nights my family went to Applebee’s. On the five-minute drive across town, my mouth watered at the thought of the overseasoned fries alongside an icy Sprite. This dinner couldn’t count against me because according to the senseless rules I’d made up for myself, it didn’t happen at all if it didn’t happen in the house. A fugitive thrill tingled in my gut as we passed into air conditioning and artificial light. My bare legs suctioned to the leather booth, and I opened the menu with the same quiet enthusiasm I’d seen in business-suited men on the train going downtown as they gave their Wall Street Journal a Republican shake. It would be the sliders tonight. I folded the menu closed and swung my legs against the booth’s carpeted side. “I’m not going to eat fries anymore,” my father announced. I asked him why not. “I just don’t need them. Nothing good in there, really.” Our server took our orders, and I peered through the wooden slats in the blinds that looked out on the Hollywood Video. It was in moments like this one that I decided, like I always did, that I would annihilate my excess in all of its forms. I pushed the fries around on the plate when they arrived. I remembered my personal chant: I will be so thin they won’t know me. The server returned and asked if we wanted dessert, and I knew what I would order if I said yes: the brownie a la mode, with ice cream so cold that hard little crystals of it popped between pillows of synthetic vanilla. The decadence of this image in my mind’s eye was paralleled only by the other great treasure of my tween life, precious stones, like the rubies that threw red shimmers onto the velvet poufs that housed them at the Field Museum. Not today, though, dessert rubies. While my parents asked if I was sure, I imagined a cool stone on my tongue––solid, tasteless, untouched by any good light. 

I did not learn how to dread my parents’ death until college because I was too busy anticipating my own. My fear surpassed any charming precociousness altogether and sat itself squarely down on the couch at my first therapist’s office, peering out past its sad hermit shell onto the children’s books and tissue box on her table. There it was sailing with me at the top of the swing’s arc. And again, leering from the bottom of the aquatic center pool like the fabled turd that would shut down the place for hours at a time, except that the poop was real, and I was so, so full of it. It is the man who yanks my headphones out on the bus for no reason at all and after I whip around and think of the knife I’ve wanted to buy, the only thing he can say is “Oh, I thought I knew you.” You don’t, but I know you, fucker. On the best days I can curse at it. On the worst, I’ve spent Sundays that held a whole lifetime beneath sheets that badly needed washing, begging myself to get up. And then one evening I remembered how other people would leave me, too. I was stretched out across the floor of my dorm with my legs up the bedpost. The realization blinked in the afterimage of the fluorescent lights, and I was changed. The moment was completely uncomplicated, a clean and great cleaving. There is a poem I keep trying to write that will not arrive in language the way I need it. It starts, “It’s likely that places disappear after I leave them.” I worry that when I turn away for the airport doors, the press of my parent’s faces in my mind starts letting up bit by bit, their faces disassembling like a carnival ride that is gone the next day, leaving only a dull brown circle in the grass. 

I thought if I could control my body better, I could cheat death. This was one of my bottom lines. Fit into that pink dress and meet God. Show the sharp bone of a hip and repeat forever, like two mirrors facing until they’re both gone. Pearls of taut muscle beneath my surface would never rot. My own thinness would be a barrier, a spell against this oncoming death whose force I could not overcome.

To me, the true embodiment of athleticism is not my father, but Clarice Starling. I don’t remember the first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs, but it left an impression as wet as the collar of sweat on Clarice’s gray sweatshirt in the opening scene. It should also be noted that the first time I saw this movie I was severely unaware of lesbians as a category, and even less so of my belonging within it. It took Dana Scully to help me make that cognitive leap, but that’s a different essay. I wanted to be Clarice hurdling the high-ropes course. I wanted her stoicism, the exclamation point of her waist as it shot down into a tight column, the adrenaline shake of her hands as she eviscerated Buffalo Bill. She had her fitness, yes, but she also was unshakeable, always one step ahead, punctuated by a mauve 90s feminism whose slickness I wanted in my own vocabulary. Clarice wouldn’t fall off her bike. Clarice would fly down that hill, pedaling to go even faster. Yes, she cried and was scared and was angry, but there was something rigid about her, a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign. She heard the bleating of her fear and still turned into the forest, walking as far as she could without looking back.

In November 2017, I was in the car with a woman who played Joanna Newsom for me and sealed the deal on what Dana Scully started. She was named for a flower, had tiny tattoos on the backs of her hands, and wore delicate jewelry that chimed with every movement. She piled her mountain of blonde hair on the top of her head like it was a declaration. She wrote with hot conviction and quoted people like Anne Carson; I wanted to be her, I wanted her in me. We would never kiss. The closest it came was on the couch in my house with the books for our class scattered in a circle around us. She stretched her hand out to mine and we sat smiling at each other the way I imagine people do when they are deeply in love. When she left I went to the bathroom to stare at myself for a very long time and noticed a ring of red wine flecked on my dry lips. She was probably just looking at that, idiot. In the car on this night, though, we were headed for my friend’s apartment across town. I like Minneapolis best when it is draped in a lace of fine mist, and the light from downtown hit the clouds in a spray of cold orange. As we pulled up I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and I paused to read a message from my mother. My father had a stroke. It was uncertain. I knew not to ask what was uncertain, that was a given. I had nothing else I could do––they were in Illinois, 350 miles away––so we went upstairs and I drank until my stomach felt full despite the dinner I’d skipped, until the possibility of a death crossed its legs in front of me and shone with a rosy glow. Whose death? I didn’t know. The woman drove me back, and for every concrete pillar we passed I wanted to be cast through the windshield, stopped. 

We see food, but Clarice never eats. 

I was only thin for a short period of time, and even then I didn’t think that I was. I was sixteen and taking a drug cocktail of anti-psychotics, SSRIs, and barbiturates––no less than three at any given time, for almost two years. The medications quieted my appetite. In one photograph, I’m standing on the patio with the green of the pine trees blurred into velvet in the background. I wear a blue dress that clings to every part of me, my hand is on my hip, and my hair that I’ve dyed cherry-red hangs in a curtain of split ends down my back. The leg facing the camera looks like it belongs to a different person, a doll with a mismatched part. The top of my hip ridges out beneath the fabric. My face is tired. My mouth pulls toward the ground. Late at night, when I feel every corner of my body against my clothing and it itches like it has nowhere to go, I page through six years of photos on Facebook until I find this one. I don’t want to look like that again, but this girl stands always behind the screen of my eyes. 

When my father returns from a run, he casts evidence of his physical exertion in horrible breadcrumbs around the house. His shirts, soaked completely through, hang in hooded shapes over the handle on the laundry room cabinets. He flings his socks into dark corners and his feet leave outlines across the kitchen tile like crime scenes. More than the running itself, it’s the post-exercise theatrics that intrigue me. In the summer he crashes through the screen door and lunges for a plastic cup that he fills to the top with ice and cold water. He slurps with great gusto as rivers of it surge down his chin, taking great breaths between like a soprano about to hit her highest note. A yellow sulfur floats over town. The raccoons and squirrels cower in their bushes until the farted poison trail passes. When his thirst is quenched, he returns to the patio and casts himself over one of the metal chairs, but not before removing his shirt in one fluid motion, accompanied by a long, primordial groan. Should someone come out to try and talk to him, he holds up a brick wall of a hand. Not now. The man is resting. After showering, he lounges in the leather recliner and discusses his success: “I run like I did when I was twenty.” “My resting heart rate is lower than a hibernating bear.” “In this shape, I could throw a football clean over the neighbor’s house.” His body is his project, and he renovates the temple of it almost daily. I’m older now, but his fitness still feels like a judgment on mine. He’s passing back the baton and I’m not fast enough to reach it. I trip on the track and flop down in a cloud of his dust. 

Clarice should have died. Or at least it seemed inevitable. If it was me, I’d have taken one look at that sludgy basement bathtub full of post-woman decomposition and just perished on the spot, perhaps even in a puff of smoke. Each time she winds her way through the house in her final pursuit of Buffalo Bill I curl my fingernails into my palms until the nails leave fearful white smiles. When light finally floods the room and Buffalo Bill gurgles one last nasty breath, the bottom of my face is sore all the way up to my ears from gritting my teeth. It’s not Clarice’s fear that interests me at this point, but her relief at his improbable death, engineered by her. She must have not believed what her eyes reported to her; she could still be stuck in that room, skull slapping concrete as Bill’s hands closed around her slim throat and brought her down. Not in this universe, though. In this one she made it. 

What if I turned off the lights and let my fear gather all around me? What if I felt it against my back and stayed still? 

My father hates Silence of the Lambs. Like many movies he detests, he does so against the grain of critical acclaim and the consensus of women in his household. “That soundtrack,” he says as he trails down the hallway for the stairs where football awaits on his bedroom T.V. He makes a noise to imitate this soundtrack that can only be compared to a gorilla’s call for a mate. When I ask him why he despises it so, he flips a dismissing hand in my direction. “Ahhhhhhh,” he says. “You know? It’s just…” He has never given me a straight answer. “It’s just so…,” and then he disappears up the stairs with the definitive shuffle of his slippers to watch men whose bodies he wishes his own would resemble. It feels relevant to note here that he sometimes speaks in an elaborate code of Tommy Boy lines. Each time, he’ll ask me if I know what movie that’s from, as if he didn’t assemble us all before the T.V. on weekends in junior high to watch it and give us a proper film education

I decide intermittently that discussing my feelings with others is a total waste of my time, because if I just think long and hard enough, the pitiful cartoon rain cloud that follows me into my bedroom and grocery store parking lots will just disappear. I usually decide this about a foot outside of my therapist’s office after I’ve surprised myself in the session and cried––crying, I tell myself, should be reserved for those insurance commercials where the dog can’t get coverage for the bone he wants to bury, and also for outside of dive bars when I’ve started an argument that I’m clearly wrong about but determined to win. My favorite way to talk about my feelings is inappropriately, to people who have not asked nor wanted to know, and can do absolutely nothing to help me. When my roommates ask how the session went I tell them “I lost today, guys. I cried again,” and then vaporize into my room to lay face down on the bed for at least twenty minutes while they look on with stares of incredulity. Imagine my distress, then, when my therapist suggested to me that I had an eating disorder, and needed to see an additional person to talk about it. “You mean to tell me that I, the master of suppression and external coolness, have not cultivated a completely sane and intuitive regimen of eating and exercise? Is this what you mean to tell me?” I did not say this. I cried instead, and then a week later I did again as I watched the smooth leaves of a new therapist’s jade plant bounce over the air from a heat vent. She told me something about a bell curve and numbers that applied to the rest of the population and numbers that applied to me. “Most people are around here,” she said, circling her pencil around a one on the paper she showed me, “and your assessment says you’re about right here,” she continued, circling a four, the highest number. I called my mom afterwards, and at the crest of a brief wave of manic excitement over the thought that I might finally conquer my own brain, I told her: “I scored a four on that test. It’s the highest one!” She paused, then said carefully, “Good job. But I think that means you need to keep seeing her.” 

I assumed that a side effect of my father’s recovery from his stroke would be a softening in our relationship with one another. The days after it happened were strange. I went by myself to an LCD Soundsystem show that I’d been anticipating for months, and over the bone-fracturing wall of noise issuing from the speaker directly in front of me I heard the sound of his voice from a few years ago, telling me that he wasn’t afraid to die. “Everyone is at least a little bit. But I just don’t think about it.” I skipped class for the rest of the week and read books whose words morphed from English to hieroglyph. I stood with my arms crossed in front of the kitchen window and watched for the flashpoint when the sun thudded below the tree line and charged everything in electric gold. Despite all the hours of tennis, hiking, and running he’d deposited into his body, it returned a betrayal that now, a year later, makes his left leg drag a little behind him on bad days. He was lucky. We were all lucky. He told me that for a full day afterwards, he couldn’t open his eyes because the room tipped and wobbled over an endless peripheral edge. I was scared to talk when my mother put him on, scared that there would be a tenderness there I couldn’t interpret or return. I told him I loved him and he hesitated audibly, then handed the phone back to my mother. I don’t know that it would have been better if he’d said it, too. 

Looking back on college, high school, and even before, I assess my food habits and it assembles like a crime scene in reverse that starts with me, here, outlined in chalk. Except I’m not dead, and I get up and scare the shit out of all of you. It was news to me that not everyone opens every cabinet in the kitchen, thinking of the pizza they’re scheduled to have with friends later, and therefore unable to comprehend that they need to eat a meal right now, too. Not everyone turns away from the bathroom mirror while undressing to get in the shower, or brushes their teeth in the dark to avoid looking. I look to that eleven-year-old in the hideous swimsuit, inspecting her stomach in the inflatable pool, filled with water so warm it grew a skin. I nod to her, weird child, and thank her for turning into me, who tries her best to ask for help. 

I got my first tattoo this past September. It is on the back of my right arm in fine black dotwork: a death’s head moth for the ones flitting around Buffalo Bill’s basement, and the words GOODBYE HORSES beneath for the song he listens to while he disrobes. I called my father one afternoon before I got it and he insisted I would chicken out. “You can’t do it. You’re going to get one little poke with that needle and bolt.” Additionally propelled now by the defining undercurrent of my life, proving him wrong, I vowed that he would be the first person to get a picture once it was finished. I showed it to him in person when I visited home shortly after, and the phantom of a smile tiptoed across his mouth. “It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” He told me this as we shared an almond pastry so loaded with butter that it left a film over my tongue. “You know, I never would have gotten this before,” he said, stopping for a moment to lick a speck of powdered sugar from his fingertip. “But it’s worth it, don’t you think?” 

Claire Fallon is a poet and essayist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota in 2018. Her nonfiction is forthcoming in Passages North in 2020.