Most of What I Write is Meaningless, But I Write It Just to Reach You
The August before I turned ten, Ugo ran away and did not come back. He warned me of this leavetaking by disguising it as a simple and temporary relocation.
We were sitting on a bench outside of an ice cream parlor when he told me. “Abelie, honeysuckle” he said. “I have to tell you something. I’m moving. To California. Next week. But only for a little while.”
I knew then that he didn’t plan on returning. He only spoke in such short, dire sentences, dusted off the affectionate “honeysuckle” when he was delivering bad news: “Honeysuckle, please. Listen. We cannot go to the zoo today.” “Honeysuckle, darling. I think it’s about time I told you. There is no Santa Claus.” “Abelie, honeysuckle. I have to talk to you. Lupo was sick. While you were visiting Nonno and Nonna, we drove him away. To a farm. He will be happy there.” “There is no more baby sister. In Mama’s belly. I’m sorry, honeysuckle. I know you wanted her.”
I dropped my hands into my lap. Sweet strawberry ice cream ran down the side of the cone and dr ipped through my fingers, oozing between my thighs. “Next week?” I repeated. “But my birthday’s in a month,” I said, as if he did not know.
“I’m sorry, honeysuckle.”
“So you’re not moving,” I said skeptically, “so much as...going on a little trip.”
Ugo looked uneasy. “Um. Yes. Right. A trip. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Mmhm,” I said with a note of finality. “Okay, Ugo.”
“Now, who is Ugo? Just because I’m going to California doesn’t mean I’m no longer your Papi.” I wasn’t so sure. Suddenly, my stomach hurt. I dropped my ice cream and it formed a wet, fragrant heap in the grass. I started to cry.
That spring, my mother had calmly and quietly asked Ugo for a divorce. That summer, he’d moved out of the house he’d shared with my mother and me and took a stuffy one-bedroom apartment with dirty wall-to-wall carpeting where I spent Wednesday nights and alternating weekends. In the apartment, Ugo and I said little to each other. This was not to say there was not an intimate bond between us: instead of words, we used music to fill the apartment. Ugo had an old Victrola player and The Beatles’s White Album in very good shape. We used to sit at the garage-sale dining table with the fake wood grain and the fat, milky-white water stains with our hands folded and our eyes down, listening to the record wind and whir. We let the sounds of the songs fill up the rooms, slide through the slats in the venetian blinds, soak up the sunlight that seemed perverse and mocking in such a desperate place.
Once, memorably, Ugo danced to “Back In The USSR.” He kicked his long, thin legs in the air like a marionette controlled by a shaky-handed alcoholic, jumping wildly, landing perilously. When he danced, he was serious. He kept his arms rigid, fisted, at his sides. His eyes and mouth were unsmiling.
“This is how I used to see my Papi dance,” Ugo said. I nodded. I looked away.
Another time, “Rocky Raccoon” came on and Ugo held my hands and picked me just up off the floor, placing my feet on top of his. He took wide steps and waltzed me around the room and I laughed until he suddenly stopped. I was too big to play like that, he said harshly, with a kind of impatient anger in his voice, as if the dance had been my idea. The last of my laughter echoed through the empty house. Ugo stepped away from me and beheld me. There were several feet between us. Our stance was two lovers fighting. He retreated from the room into the kitchen, and I heard the crisp crack of a bottle opening, the tumble of liquor into the bottom of a glass. I turned to the mirror on the mantel and listened to the song play out in a shimmering shower of ragtime piano. I looked into my own eyes with dread, wondering how I had ended up his daughter. Wondering how our family had become so fragmented. Knowing that I was perhaps the only one Ugo had left in the world. Knowing that maybe I was doomed.
For I was young, but still I understood that I was more similar, on a fundamental, almost existential plane, to silent and stoic Ugo than I was to virtually anyone else in my life. That mirror told the truth: when I looked at me, I saw him. We had the same long limbs and high cheekbones, same eyes and fine hair, so black it was almost blue. But beyond this superficial similarity, when I turned away from the mirror I could see the deepening darkness inside of him; the sadness, the departure, the withdrawal. I wanted to point to the darkness, to look at it, to say, Yes. To say, I see. I recognize. I own.
He drove me home to my mother’s house the next day. As he idled in the driveway, I could see my mother waiting for me on the porch. I could see her short blonde hair, in the bob style she’d had since I could remember; the bright pink collar of her linen shirt. She saw me see her and smiled more brightly. I could almost hear the silver bracelets she wore jingle as they fell down her arm when she waved. I unbuckled my seatbelt and put my hand on the door handle. As if reflexively, Ugo locked the doors with a decisive click.
“It’s not three-thirty yet,” he said. “Your mother wanted you back at three thirty.”
I looked dubiously at the flat black numbers on the dashboard. “It’s three twenty-eight,” I said. “A little more time,” said Ugo. “A little more time. Please.”
That night, my mother played the Indigo Girls as she cooked us grilled eggplant and tomatoes.
“Your favorite food,” she said, “to welcome you home.” Every time I returned from Ugo’s house, my mother insisted on making grilled eggplant: I ate the dish at least twice a week. It was hardly “my favorite;” I was ten years old, and no ten-year-old I know loves grilled eggplant. I resented my mother for doing this, for making things up about me that she imagined were true. Still, I loved the colors of the vegetables she grew in our garden, the scent and sound of garlic and oil sizzling in a pan, the sound of her little voice underneath the crashing cacophony of the Indigo Girl’s “Fugitive.” “Now it's coming to you, the lessons I've learned won't do you any good: you've got to get burned” she sang. I stood at the sink next to her and washed the soft tomatoes for her to peel.
During dinner, she told me about the weekend she’d had without me––the vintage picnic blanket she picked up at a garage sale, the movie she’d seen with her girlfriends as I swirled the tough strips of eggplant through the watery sauce.
“What did you and your father get up to?” she asked, restraint and caution balanced but poorly masked in her voice. I didn’t say anything. “Now, Abelie! she exclaimed sharply. “So secretive!” My eyes immediately filled with tears, whether from the acidity of her tone or the exhaustion that typically followed my weekends with my father I don’t recall. At ten, I was desperate for my mother’s approval and hated it when she criticized me––especially when she was right. I was so taciturn when the subject of her ex-husband was brought up because I was afraid of how I felt about him and me, and afraid for him! She thought I was protecting him from her contempt. She didn’t know how much I wanted to be her child! To have her energy, her distinct femininity, her vegetable garden, her collection of vintage linens. How much I wanted not to be irreversibly Ugo’s child: odd, dark, foreign, afraid. When I returned to my mother’s home at the end of my weekends at Ugo’s, it felt like I was arriving at a place, to a person, that would never end, never abandon; while when in Ugo’s apartment, I was weirdly and prematurely aware that this, us, would not last. That it would all be over startlingly soon. That I was haunting my father in the last weeks before he ran away for good; to observe him in the hole he’d dug for himself and to figure out how to avoid falling into a similar one myself.
For Ugo was not an ungenerous man. When he left me, he left me with me almost all I have: my name, my feeling of always apart, the way I look, think, speak, act, feel. When he left me, he left behind his dusty, lonely apartment, his records, his player, his empty bottles. When he left me, he told me he’d return for Christmas, but we both knew that he would never come back to that apartment where I learned how to love men and music in the way that each demands to be loved; where I began to unwrap Ugo song by song, line by line.
As much as I knew how his final departure from me would break my heart, I knew that he was broken worse, that Ugo was something less than fully a man and losing more and more of himself every day, losing to loss itself, this not-wholeness, this vacancy, this wanting. By the time he ran away, I was the only thing he had left. I knew that as much as I dreaded those nights and weekends in the musty, dusky, lonely apartment, he lived almost solely for them. Unlike all the others he’d disappeared from, I was his daughter and so I had to love him, to share with him, to commune. I was the only one left, and as much as I knew that all I had was his, I knew that in a different way, all that Ugo had––his unbearably empty home, his old record player, his aging body, the White Album, me, all of those things that he left behind in Ohio when he ran away forever––I had given him, too.
The White Album is the common name of The Beatles’s formally self-titled ninth studio album, released in November, 1968. The album’s lyrics are largely satirical, alluding not only to the turbulent, uneven political climate of the late 1960s but to the tension that was by that time starting to build within the band less than six months before their breakup. Perhaps in order to subvert this tension, the band and their producers conceived The White Album as a radical departure from the band’s previous releases: the album’s cover is artless, just a vacant white square with the band’s name embossed left of center while previous albums, most notably Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had whimsical, colorful cover art, and the genres explored in the album include British blues, transcendentalist folk, and ska. Thus, The White Album is wildly idiosyncratic, and it received distinctly mixed reviews from critics upon release, though it is now considered one of the best and most influential albums of all time and has sold more copies than any other Beatles album. The twenty-first century music journalism publication Pitchfork says that the White Album is “sprawling, overflowing with ideas and excess...not only a monument to unbridled creativity but a rock archetype.”
It took Ugo nearly a month to get to California as he slowly made his way through the Midwest, stopping in nowhere towns for days-long binges, passing drunken nights in sodium-light drive-in motels or in the back of the car that carried him away. When he reached the coast, he was taken in by his well-married sister, my aunt, in Santa Cruz. In those years, my aunt was still sending my mother letters with hundred-dollar bills stuffed into the bottom of the envelope and news of Ugo’s rapid unravelling between apologies for how he’d left us. When she got these letters, my mother would fold them, unread, into an old moth-eaten tablecloth which she’d shove into the back of a closet for me to pillage and pour over late at night, when she was at work. He never stayed in one place for long, my aunt said. He always went back to her.
In California, Ugo’s spiral shortened as he finally succumbed to the the prying, needling fingers of disease, of alcoholism and unchecked anhedonia that had been reaching out to him for years. He slipped off of his medication, picked at his skin until it bled, spoke to the voices he and no one else could hear, believed things that shouldn’t be believed. The walrus was Paul. For awhile, I heard from Ugo infrequently. He sent me birthday cards, intermittently, throughout the year, always on days that were not my birthday. On the cheap-paper envelopes he surely stole from some copy shop or postal station, heavy fingerprints showed near the creases, and the seals smelt sour. I would open the letters slowly, running my fingers slowly over the weak strip of adhesive, where he’d sealed the letter closed with his drunken spit. Inside the cards, always pastel-colored, hideously cheesy pieces of little-girl dreamworld nostalgia, in his hasty, spindly script, moving in and out of coherence, he’d frequently change tense, person, even language: Abelie, Honeysuckle. I’m working for a vet. If I saved enough money, I’m going to move in down the street from Venice Beach and out of Auntie Agata’s house, with her six big dogs, woof woof woof woof woof woof, floppy ears, comi i cani della strada, and her husband Drake who looks like a dog. Mi manchi. Ti amo. Mi dispiace.
When I went to college, I hung a photo of Ugo on the cinderblock wall of my dorm room. This was the only photo, of family or otherwise, I hung when I was decorating. In the picture, Ugo sits on the gray concrete bird-shit-stained steps of the fountain outside of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. He wears round, gold-framed glasses and a short-sleeved button-down shirt in a rather dubious plaid pattern that incorporates a few too many shades of pink. He is smiling, and his teeth are square and very white. He is so young it breaks my heart.
On the back of the picture, I wrote my favorite line from “Fugitive:”
“I said, remember this as how it should be.”
Early that semester, I left a party with Peter, who lived upstairs. We walked through the campus in the rain as it slowly waned to nothing. When we came to the bookstore, its lights off and doors shuttered, so late at night, we sat down on its stoop, which was the same gray as the fountain in front of the Plaza in the picture. We talked for hours, and it was revealed that we had almost everything in common: we both went to Catholic schools, loved James Joyce, smoked American Spirits in spite of ourselves, had no siblings and nurses for mothers. He asked me what I wanted to do.
I didn’t answer for a while. “Music journalism,” I finally said. Peter laughed. “What?” I asked. “Nothing. Just––you want to be a music journalist. I want to be a musician.”
“My father is a musician,” I said, and though this was hardly true, it was one of my favorite ways of endlessly exoticizing Ugo, remembering him as he should be, not as he is. A larger part of me than I cared to acknowledge still childishly wished that if I believe it, it must be true. Truth be told, I’d had no clue what he did or where he did it since the not-birthday cards stopped when I moved to college.
Peter smiled easily. “What does he play?” Records, I thought. “Guitar,” I said. Again, the smile. “I play guitar.”
Of course you do, I thought. Of course.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked, shortly thereafter.
“Home,” I said. “We can go home.”
He laughed. “Okay,” he said. We stood up from the stoop and began walking toward our dorm. “I meant, though, where do you want to go, when this is all done, and we’re out of here?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. This was true. “London, maybe.”
“London,” he said. “A good place for a music journalist, probably. So is California. That’s where I want to go. Maybe you’ll come with me?”
I smiled. “No,” I said simply, and I took his hand as we moved over slick, rain-battered streets toward our new home.
When we reached Peter’s room, I sat on his bed and looked around at his bare walls as he began
to roll a joint. He had hung no photos of his father. He had hung no photos at all. The room quickly filled up with the smell of marijuana which lingered thickly in the humidity of the after-rain in the late summer and after he’d taken a hit he passed the joint to me, turning away to put a record on the tabletop player that sat on the edge of his bare desk. He slid a record out of a sleek square envelope, set it on the turnable, lifted the arm, and dropped the needle onto the disk. I closed my eyes and let the taste of the smoke in the haze rest gently on my tongue, waiting to hear the opening chords of the record, so familiar.
It was The Beatles. The White Album. “Dear Prudence.” Peter noted my instant recognition. “I always play past ‘Back In The USSR,’” he said. “It’s nothing but a stupid novelty song.” I made a small noise that barely acknowledged the depth of my disagreement.
“Airplane noises,” he said.
When he kissed me, that night, he kissed me slowly, heavily, in the smoke-choked room; his hand wet and warm on the top of my thigh. Slowly, each song melted into the next in the way of a truly timeless album until we could hear nothing but the soft, respiratory sounds of the record’s empty, endless, pointless loops.
“Julia” is the final song of the White Album’s A side and the last one to be written for the album.
It’s widely considered one of John Lennon’s best and most haunting compositions. The lyrics are tangled and dense, recalling lines from Kahlil Gibran and Alice in Wonderland, but the song’s most significant inspiration is the eponymous Julia, Lennon’s mother. Julia was an evasive woman, absent for much of her son’s childhood, who encouraged him in his love of music: Lennon’s half-sister recalled fondly mother and son “jiving” around the living room to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on Lennon’s infrequent visits. The song was written after Julia was killed in a car accident involving a drunk-driving off-duty policeman. It is said that the night she died, Lennon had a dream that he and his mother were standing on a beach, holding hands; this sweet dream inspires much of the song’s oceanic imagery. Of her death, Lennon said only that he’d lost her twice: once, when she left him, as a child, and again when she died. For this reason, Pitchfork calls “Julia” “a piece of “painful autobiography.” “Julia” was recorded at Trident Studios in London on October 13, 1968, exactly twenty-eight years to the day before I was born.
It happened a week after my twenty-first birthday. It happened in his sleep. He had lost his housing and was again sleeping in the bed she kept warm for him in my now-divorced Auntie Agata’s house. It was one of her then-seven dogs that found Ugo, still and breathless, early the next morning. When Agata woke up at sunrise to walk the dogs along the pier, she found the dog curled up beside him in his deathbed. She called me moments later. On the east coast, it was still early morning, still dark, when my eyes snapped open at the ringing of the phone. Somehow I knew.
“Auntie Agata,” I said when I picked up. “ Cosa sta succedendo.” It had been almost a decade since I’d spoken Italian, and I’d barely been fluent before then, but still, the words rolled off my tongue automatically that night, in the middle of the night.
I listened to her short-winded weeping, clutching a sheet around my bare body. I felt Peter start to stir beside me, and by the time I got my Auntie off the phone he was fully awake, his eyes wide and very white in the moonlit room as he gazed at me with a concern that I knew wasn’t inauthentic. I settled back in next to him, so close that our stomachs touched and our eyes were inches apart and we breathed together, like a machine: I breathed out, he breathed in.
“What happened,” Peter said.
“My father died,” I said. “In his sleep.”
“My God,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
After that, we were silent for a little. On the road behind the house, I heard a car pass. “Can you do something for me?” I asked.
“Anything,” he said.
Peter told me he loved me a month after we met. We were perilously high and lying on our backs on a blanket on the lawn outside our buildings, our legs and fingers and breathing tangled together. “I think it’s easy to feel like that when you’ve smoked this much marijuana in such a short amount of time,” I said, squinting.
“I’m serious,” Peter said indignantly. “I love you. I’m in love with you.”
I could only laugh. He sat up and pulled me with him. I looked into his bulbous pupils. “Stop laughing! Abelie, I’m serious. I know that I both love and am in love with you because I have never met anyone who’s so much like me before.”
I stopped laughing, suddenly acrimonious. “Do you think that’s what love is?” I demanded. “Being the same? Having a few things in common? Liking the same authors, the same music?”
“Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it? Isn’t that what love is?”
“No,” I said. “Love is showing up. Being there.” My anger was wasting my good high.
“Okay,” Peter said seriously. “If that’s what you think love is. Then that is what I will do. Be. For you. I’m not lying to you, Abelie.”
I laid back on the blanket. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.” He laid back beside me. We did not touch, we did not speak, for awhile. Slowly, my anger at what I perceived as Peter’s alarming misunderstanding of the meaning of love waned and was replaced by an encroaching apprehension. When I looked over at him, he was looking at me. All at once, I was terrified.
After a year or so I figured that I did love him back, though not nearly with the force or urgency with which he loved me: Peter always seemed like he was ready to get married. He wanted to move into an off-campus apartment with me for the first semester of our junior year and go abroad together in the following semester. I was able to circumvent both plans: I insisted that we get separate apartments and convinced him to stay at school and finish taking his music classes while I took my semester in London. This was how it worked: he was eager and I was trepidacious, though what I asked for, he always gave me. The night Ugo died, after I asked him to leave, he stayed away for a week while I sat silently in my pristine loneliness in a meditative state. Then, I called him and asked if he would drive me to the airport.
“When we met, you told me you wanted to someday go to California,” I said. “Yes.”
“And I told you I wouldn’t go with you.”
“Yes,” he said again, wearily, as if it made him sad to remember.
“What I wanted to tell you was that I would never go to California because California is the place where people ran when they ran away from me, and I knew too many runaways to ever want to become one myself. But today, I need to go to California. For the last time. And I need to go alone. And I need you to take me.”
“Okay,” he said. Within fifteen minutes, his car was idling outside my apartment, and he was carrying my single suitcase out the front door.
On the ride to the airport, I told Peter that we couldn’t be together anymore. I studied his face for traces of reaction but detected none. I was predictable to him. He had seen this coming.
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“Sure,” he said, and repositioned his hands on the wheel.
“Listen. It’s not,” I said. “But it’s not my fault either.”
“Tell me how that works, then, if it’s no one’s fault.”
“Well.” I said, and then I was quiet for a while. I had said these words to myself so many times that when they came out they came out sounding stale. “It works like this: since I lost my father the first time I’ve had to stop thinking in terms of what is forgivable and what is not. At the end of most days, I am not certain that anything my father did was truly unforgivable, and even if he did, I’m not sure it matters. After all, the word that’s supposed to precede love is unconditional, right?”
Peter glanced away from the road, raising his eyebrows at me. “Maybe,” he said. I knew he didn’t understand, and perhaps had never understood.
“The only thing I’m certain that he is gone, and that he can’t come back. I’ve been practicing being a girl without a father since I was ten. And now I am one. But I don’t think all that practice will make it any easier. Because I still wonder, who is a girl without a father? Who is afraid that one day the love may stop, may cease to flow both ways, or even flow at all? Who knows that nothing lasts but hopes that nothing ends?”
“What are you saying to me?” he asked.
“Me,” I say. “I am saying that this girl is me. I decided to think of it less like when he died my father no longer loved me, but that he still loved me, urgently, and no longer knew how to tell me just how much.”
“Abelie,” he said, as if my name were a sentence. We drove the rest of the way in silence. When we reached the airport, even inside the car, we could hear the vacuum-like sounds of planes taking off, as in the beginning of “Back in the USSR.” Peter slowed the car and waited for me to get out.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and turned to him so that he could not avoid looking at me any longer.
“Listen,” I said. “In a way, I feel like you and me grew up together. I love you very much. Very, very much. More than I have ever really been able to say. You are unquestionably my best friend.”
“Okay,” he said, and he sounded unconvinced. This was fine. I did not need to convince him.
“But sometimes. No matter how much you love someone. Even if you love someone unconditionally. It just doesn’t work out. It just doesn’t. For no real reason. And it’s sad. But it is. Just so. Remember freshman year, on the lawn? When we talked about what love is. As it turns out, Peter. Love isn’t having so much in common with someone, but maybe it isn’t showing up for them, either”
He turned away and looked out the window to the vast sky, which was streaked with the exhaust trails of departed planes and the color of carsickness. “Then what is, it, then?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I placed one hand on the door handle. I leaned forward so that my mouth was just shavings of a second away from his cheek, but I didn’t kiss him. I just let him hear my breathing, and then I got out of the car. I retrieved my suitcase from the trunk. I walked towards the airport and the automatic doors parted to greet me. I didn’t look back.
On the plane, I opened the book into which I’d tucked the picture of Ugo from my wall. For the longest time, I ignored the smears of shit on the fountain and the clash of the various pinks in Ugo’s shirt. I looked only at his eyes. After all that time it still alarmed me when I looked into them that his eyes were my eyes. Now I know what it’s like, I thought, to leave someone whom you love, who is desperately in love with you. And for no reason at all. I turned the picture over and read the words I’d written:
“I said, remember this as how it should be.”
“I'm harboring a fugitive, a defector of a kind, and she lives in my soul, drinks of my wine, and I'd give my last breath to keep us alive. Are they coming for us, with cameras or guns? We don't know which but we gotta run. And you say, this is not what I bargained for.
So hide yourself for me, all for me.
We swore to ourselves we'd go to the end of the world, but I got caught up in whirl and the twirl of it all. A day in the sun, dancing alone, baby, I'm so sorry. Now it's coming to you, the lessons I've learned won't do you any good: you've got to get burned. The curse and the blessing they're one and the same, baby, it's all such a treacherous gain.
Hide yourself from me. I said, hide yourself from me, all for me.
I stood without clothes, danced in the sand. I was aching with freedom and kissing the damned. I said, remember this as how it should be.
Baby, I said, it's all in our hands got to learn to respect what we don't understand. We are fortunate ones, fortunate ones, I swear.
So hide yourself for me. I will hide myself for you, all for you.
I stood without clothes, danced in the sand. I was aching with freedom, kissing the damned. I said, remember this as how it should be."
Charlotte Freccia is a second-year student of English, Creative Writing, and Women's and Gender Studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where she also enjoys an associateship with the Kenyon Review. She is a winner of the Philip Wolcott Timberlake Award and has recently published poetry in Zaum Magazine and creative nonfiction in Newfound. Her short story "Baby Teeth" was published by POTLUCK in June 2016.