The Bamboo Innby Karen Loeb
Rachel is sitting alone on a Saturday night, mulling over whether she should binge out on the box of chocolates her father sent last week for her birthday. Her father has no idea what to give a daughter for a present. He throws himself on the mercy of eager sales clerks across Chicago. This time a clerk at the Dutch Mill rescued him, choosing chocolate-covered turtles and bonbons that explode red syrup on the first bite. Her father does not sample the products he gives as presents. He is relieved that someone will make the choice for him.
As she takes a large bite from a chocolate reptile, the phone rings. "Hello," she mumbles through teeth stuck together from the candy.
"Rachel? Are you okay? Your voice sounds odd."
"Your daughter is a failure," she tells him. "She doesn't have a date on Saturday night."
"Have you eaten dinner?"
"Just some very sticky chocolate-covered turtles." She says this in an accusatory voice, but she doubts that he even knows specifically what the candy store sent.
"I'm still downtown," he says. "How'd you like to get some Chinese food?"
She runs a comb through her long brown hair and takes a cab to her father's law office. This La Salle Street section of the Loop is deserted. The publishing company where she's worked since college graduation last year is not far away. They frequently meet for lunch. She signs in with the night guard in the lobby and rides up. The law office occupies the entire twentieth floor. She walks through the reception area and the library. Her father isn't in his office, but she can hear water running somewhere. She sits on his huge couch, smoothing down her white sundress.
Rachel has suspected for several weeks that her father has split up with Ruth, his current wife. The evidence stacks up in her memory: when she last called their number it was disconnected; he has a combination stereo/TV in his office that used to be in his living room; his entire record collection is in a matching wood cabinet next to the stereo. A couple of days ago she noticed pillows and blankets in the closet. Her father must be living here. When all the other lawyers go home to their families, they're assuming that Cliff Silver is doing the same.
Her father has never hinted at any of this. He hates to tell Rachel anything that will upset her. A few months ago when he couldn't keep a luncheon appointment, he didn't call her. The next time they saw each other, neither one of them mentioned the incident. There are such painful silences and winces when she asks him something personal, she finds herself dodging topics that other families probably consider normal. Her father walks into the room. His hair is wet, and he is straightening his tie. Where is the shower? Rachel wants to ask. Instead she says, "The cab got me here quickly."
Her father is distinguished looking with his gray broom of a moustache. "Let's go get some Chinese food, honey," he says. He's dressed in an off-white summer suit and looks as if he's prepared to argue a case in court.
They walk to their favorite restaurant a few blocks away. It's located in a basement and stays open until midnight. She and her father and brother Hank had started coming here on her father's visiting days after the divorce.
Inside, gilded lanterns and curlicue dragons hang from the ceiling. It's a huge place with a bar off to the side and a six foot aquarium along one wall. They're the only customers here at nine o'clock. Several waiters descend on them at once. Their favorite waiter wins out, a thin elderly man who hobbles over to their booth.
When the food comes, they share the contents of the metal compotes. "Did you have a good birthday?" her father asks.
"Yes," she lies. She went to the laundromat the night of her birthday.
"Did you and Jim go out?" Her father continues his questions.
Rachel chews a piece of shrimp coated in black garlic sauce. Then she taps her chopsticks on her plate and takes a deep breath. "Dad," she says, feeling her voice catch, "you know Jim and I broke up months ago."
Her father hands her a bowl of crunchy noodles and rubs his forehead. "No, I guess I didn't know."
"Dad, I told you."
"I remember something about Jim."
She presses her lips together. They seem incapable of keeping each other's histories straight. "It's okay if you don't remember. We broke up and I went through a bad time and now I'm better, except I'm depressed and I had a shitty birthday." She stuffs a handful of the noodles into her mouth and doesn't look at her father.
"When does your brother finish school?" he asks. "Do those technical schools have graduation ceremonies?"
They finish dinner and order almond cookies, as always. Then they walk through deserted Loop streets to the Randolph parking lot. Her father's car is the only one in the vast cement prairie. He has insisted on driving her home despite her protest that she can take a cab. Perhaps he has to make a pretense that he is going somewhere other than back to his office. They get into the dark green MG, bought when he received a special bonus last year, and zoom toward Old Town where Rachel lives.
As they pull up to the front of her building, she says, "The Buddhist cultural festival is next weekend. Right on my street. Why don't you come over on Sunday?"
"Sounds fine," her father says. They sit in silence and he lights a Camel, which he still smokes even though he claims he has the beginnings of emphysema.
"Dinner was good," she says. It's the only thing she can think of to make conversation. Every word they share is bland and smooth, like the thick glassy noodles that they always order as a side dish. "Honey," her father says. "I've been wanting to tell you . . ." He takes a long drag on his cigarette.
"Is it about Ruth?" she manages to ask in a casual tone, as if she is asking directory assistance for a number.
"How did you know?"
She doesn't say anything.
Her father squashes his cigarette in the ashtray. They both watch sparks fly. For a second Rachel is sure the moment is gone–he's not going to tell her. It's only when her body goes limp that she realizes she's balanced on the edge of the seat.
"Ruth and I sort of, well, separated."
"I kind of guessed that," she says softly. Suddenly she leans over and touches her head to his shoulder in her version of a hug.
"I'll see you next week at the festival," he says, leaning over her awkwardly to open the door. "I'll wait till you get in."
She hears him strike a match, and glancing back, she sees the red glow on the tip of a new cigarette.
She collapses on her couch, crying for a moment before she realizes it. Her father told her about his separation, and neither one of them disintegrated. Maybe he'll admit to his living situation next week.
She rummages around and locates cooking sherry, the only alcohol in her cabinet. No wonder she's a failure with men. They come over expecting scotch on the rocks. The sherry is bitter and reminds her of cardboard, but she drinks it anyway.
Her parents' divorce when she was nine left her and Hank stranded in the gray-walled living room with the gray carpet that curled up like their mother's lamb's wool coat. They saw their father promptly at seven on Friday nights. He came up their front steps, holding his briefcase stiffly as he entered the outer hall and shook snow off his overcoat and unbuckled his black galoshes, leaving them in their own private puddles to wait out the evening. He visited with Hank and Rachel in the living room while their mother finished making dinner. She always set the table in the dining room for company, using a crisp tablecloth and cobalt blue plates and glasses.
Dinner was solemn and slow-moving and felt to Rachel as if a death had occurred. Afterwards she walked carefully to the game cabinet and pulled down the maroon Scrabble box, setting it on the living room floor. Her mother never participated. She stayed in the kitchen cleaning up and talking on the phone. When they didn't play Scrabble, she and Hank took turns playing their father at checkers, always with their mother's voice on the telephone in the background. This went on for years. Even after their father married Ruth, he came alone on Fridays to eat with them in the strange, grief-stricken silence.
One night their father was over, and they were having their before-dinner visit. Rachel had turned fifteen the week before. "I hate this," she whispered. "I hate having dinner here." They looked at one another, the father, daughter and son. She could tell from the way her father's and brother's eyes tilted downward that they hated it too. "We're not going to do this anymore," she announced. "This is the last night. We can meet somewhere else for dinner."
No one agreed or disagreed, but it was easier to move around that night. They chatted during the meal, and the three of them went for a walk to Lake Michigan later, breaking their Scrabble routine of all those years. From that time on, they met their father at the Bamboo Inn on his visiting day.
Rachel turns on the faucets in the tub. A bath will relax her. She sinks down into the water. By now her father is parking his MG in the alley behind his office. He will ride up in the elevator. Then he will hang his suit in the closet and turn to late-night jazz on the radio. He will spread out some sheets on the couch and lie down with a drink and cigarette nearby.
Only her head bobs above the water. The steam encases her, lulling her to a near sleep. She remembers a fountain pen her father gave her when she was nine. It was a Parker 51. Its shell had designs on it like a turtle's. A de-lux pen, her father announced. He showed her how to fill it by tipping ink into the glass well of the bottle and pressing the lever on the pen. He made a big to-do about giving her this expensive gift. She loved the pen even though it continually leaked all over her hand, creating splotches on her school papers and inviting reprimands from her teacher.
Rachel sits up quickly in the tub, causing a wave of water to splash over the side. Perhaps her father gave her the pen because it was broken, and he just didn't tell her that it was. In a late-blooming realization, it seems to her that he wouldn't have given a costly pen to a 4th grader if it worked right. She steps out of the tub and dries off, watching the clear pebbles of water on her arm soak into her towel.
Crowright 2003 Osric Publishing. Last updated 01.26.2003