Sometimes, when I’m with my father, I find myself hoping that Uncle Roberto were my dad instead. My father doesn’t walk straight-on; he leads with the left side of his body, dragging the right side like a corpse. He doesn’t walk in a straight line, either. To go between two places on the same street, he’ll walk in zig-zags to double the distance. When he walks in the woods, it’s like he’s walking onto another plane, another universe in the leaves. When I lose sight of him, my instinct is to look up, as if he might have floated into the trees. He is quiet, exceedingly quiet. You can mention how America is on fire and the sun is blocked in the west, or how an entire species of primate has disappeared from the jungle, or even that you, his only daughter, have just gotten engaged—and he’ll sit there with his chin in his hand. My friends have described him as “unnerving.” When I was a child, I was told he was “scary.” Other parents took note; I was invited, never visited. People say he is the most brilliant philosopher alive today. In Europe and Japan, he’s treated like a god. I admit that in his books lives an eloquence that must be an effect of his abstinence from everyday interaction. But when I was a kid, how I hated it. It’s only now that I’ve lived a little more that I see that he is merely preserving himself, like a monk that retreats into the sweet darkness of a temple. When I ask my mother, a Dutch Argentinian stunner of a woman, and brilliant herself, what she saw in my father, she says, what the world sees or his theories on life. Now you see why my mother is difficult. It was always a wonder to me how she could have snagged such a disinterested man. And why would she resign herself to such a life? A tall, strapping woman who perpetually looks like she should be mounting a horse. My uncle, Roberto, is her twin. The two of them side by side are an advertisement in good DNA. Roberto is a tennis star. Because of him, I grew up knowing the taste of glamour, of the US Open and Wimbledon and white terry and stars over a black lawn. His tan was the antidote to my father’s spectral presence. ∆ It was my own grandmother who revealed the family secret to me. We were talking in the kitchen of her wooden summer house in the Hague. She was chopping cucumbers. I must have been twelve or so, old enough to be careful around, for I understood everything happening around me. “You don’t mean your uncle is there now?” “Staying?” “For how long?” “And where’s your father?” “Does he stay like that, often?” “And no one else?” It was the way she chopped—as if trying to sever some invisible bough from her chest—that tipped me off, and the abruptness with which she shipped me back to America when I was supposed to stay the whole summer. There was something improper and wrong about my uncle and mother being alone together. It was my mother’s disappointment and my uncle’s unusual coldness when I got back that solidified the idea in my head. “Why don’t you just go up,” Uncle Roberto said, tapping his cigar against the crystal ashtray. Usually, he would have taken hold of me, picked me up and twirled me around in his arms so that my legs flung out like streamers behind me. “I don’t know what you will do all summer now,” my mother said, her teeth grit. I had found them in the dining room, at the long oak table, sitting side by side. My mother’s hand was encasing my uncle’s on the table. A little obvious, I thought. When I had finally entered the room, my mother had slowly, reluctantly, removed her hand, as if giving the act great consideration. A fire was bristling behind them; its warmth made me sway. At last, I had cried out, “Mother!” and stepped from the shadows of the hall. The word came out all wrong; it sounded more like J’accuse. ∆ Though my uncle went back to treating me as the beloved niece—he had no children—I never felt easy around him again. I was repulsed when he touched me. It didn’t seem right, to have the hands that touched my mother, touching me. I went back and forth, too. Was he my father? Or just my gross incest-uncle? What if he decided to incest me? I didn’t like to think about it. I tried to become closer to my father, but there was nothing I could say that got his attention. ∆ Sometimes, shopping with my mother, or over lunch at a nice, breezy bistro, I contemplate her blonde, open face, and want to confess. I know about you and Uncle Roberto, come clean, I won’t condemn or blame you. It would be a relief to know. But my mother’s gaze is cold. It sweeps down you like a broom, removing all that she doesn’t like, and so often it distracts me from delving deeper into her. When DNA testing—for ancestry questions—began to take off, and there were all these commercials of people finding out they were Irish or Australian aboriginal when they thought they were only American, I became obsessed with getting a test myself. But I was embarrassed, too. For it to be printed on paper like that, to acknowledge knowing that I was a child of incest, is a very serious thing. What if I ever wanted to run for politics? Or be the head of something? Would I have to disclose that my mother’s brother was my father? Besides, I was about to get married. Josh is squeamish. I needed to know, but my source had to be private. I honed in on my grandmother, who seemed vulnerable. She liked to talk, to tell stories. By the time I saw her again, she was lying in her grave. ∆ My mother is especially cheerful around Christmas. Not on Christmas day, but for the month leading up to it. She’ll expend an unusual amount of effort in decorating the house, a black, Victorian monstrosity that she’s inherited from a twice-removed uncle. Singing along to the Christmas songs she blares, she even bakes cookies. On Christmas day, she wakes up morose, grumpy. The spell of Christmas is broken, somehow, by its arrival. I’m afraid to touch her with a ten-foot pole. Up until the Eve, it’s a good time to ask her anything. And so, this Christmas Eve, I decided to talk to her. She was meeting my fiancée for the first time, and this too worked in my favor. Josh, I thought, would be a wonderful buffer. When the time came, I was in a strange, exalted state. It’s not every day that you find out the story of your origins. It was after dinner and she was rummaging through a pile of gifts to fashion a stocking for Josh. She extracted something small from my father’s stocking, something long from my uncle’s stocking, and something flat, probably a book, from mine. The effort touched me; I took a long sip of the hot toddy I was nursing. “Mom,” I said. It was a strong start. She didn’t look up; she was gluing JOSH onto, I noticed, the stocking that used to be our dead dog’s. “You know how I look just like Uncle Roberto?” “Yes?” I didn’t really know how to proceed from there. I couldn’t just ask, Is he my father? Not with the sudden atmosphere in the room, like a gleaming and cold pair of scissors had appeared out of nowhere and was hovering between us, ready to cut the cord. I was giving up, smiling idiotically; holding out my mug as if to cheer, though she was sitting too far away. My father, whom I had not noticed was in the room—he must have slunk in, in his silent way—laughed loudly, which made me scream. When I turned around, his face had returned to its immobility; it was hard to fathom he had been the source of the sound; in my memories, it was Satan himself who laughed. ∆ The next morning, I found my father at the breakfast table. My mother was lying ill in bed. “She’s got the bug,” father said, after setting down his buttered toast. I stayed silent, afraid to disturb this new event—we were communicating! “A nasty little bug. Although in some ways, I find it quite poetic, too. You can’t help what’s in your blood. Beautiful, really, if you think what’s lurking in all our bodies, waiting for the day.” I was stunned and confused; what did that mean? Was I to die young? “The virus of elegance.” Mesmerized by Father’s voice, feminine and trilling, I leaned over the breakfast table until my chest was hovering above the eggs. “What virus?” Then he told me the truth. I focused on the snow gently falling on the branches outside the window. A weak blue light streamed onto the dining room table like a puddle of detergent. When I tuned back in, father was still speaking. He scraped his knife against a third slice of toast. He liked to butter all his toasts before beginning to eat. As intellectual as he was, he ate like a kindergartener, white bread, macaroni and butter…I realized I had never really given my father a good think—why did a grown man eat like that? “At Harvard, your mother and Roberto—” “That’s enough,” I said sharply. Josh had poked his timid head into the breakfast room. His hair was carefully combed and he was fully dressed though it was only six. “Merry Christmas!” he said. Josh was Jewish and trying very hard. He had always planned on marrying Jewish, he liked to say, until he met me. I looked at my father, at the lit fire behind his chair, and out the bay windows again. I felt like I was coming down with something. Coughing weakly, I excused myself.
Christine Kwon is the author of A Ribbon the Most Perfect Blue (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2023), which won the Cowles Poetry Book Prize. Her short stories appear in Joyland Magazine, Louisiana Literature, and X-R-A-Y. She lives in New Orleans. Follow her on Instagram @theschooloflonging or at christinekwonwrites.com.