The summer my mom finally decides to plant another father, it is already too late. He wilts under the unrelenting August heat. By the time the leaves darken and shake away their leaves, I turn twenty-five and I remain fatherless.
For a time, I accepted fatherlessness as a given, as something inescapable, as something that, even if a father miraculously decided to sprout from the ground, had marked me permanently as an adult. This doesn’t occur to me until shortly before Mara’s wedding. I arrived at her house early to get settled in before her bachelorette party, to smooth glitter eyeshadow over her lids and blacken her thinning lashes with mascara, all while her five fathers (five!) peck her on the forehead in a revolving procession of love and adoration. A small infantry of fathers. Apparently, all five can’t wait to walk her down the aisle.
The morning I arrive, they tell me I haven’t changed since college, even if a couple of them hadn’t been properly harvested until after I graduated. During moments like these I remember Mara during college, Mara with her five handsome and still-blooming fathers, Mara with her towering yellow house just at the edge of town, Mara and her mother who, bereaved by the loss of her second real husband, left for Gibraltar for two weeks and returned with another potted father. Her mother who later began a garden of fathers in their backyard just so her only daughter wouldn’t feel so lonely.
From outside the kitchen window, I can see the newest pot on the back stoop already congealing into a shape, already revealing the hand of a half-formed father trying to create something out of nothing.
After the party, I return to Mara’s place to stay the night, slightly drunk and tired and winded. We eat chocolate; we paint each other’s toenails sugar-plum pink; we talk about the men we could’ve ended up with if we had ghosted this guy in favor of the next. In other words: we’re college roommates again and we let loneliness bury inside our chests and make a home there.
Her five fathers smile at us, dote on us, fail to recognize our intoxication even between our insistent laughter. It is three o’clock in the morning. They don’t go to bed, even when Mara’s mother, decades older-looking than her partners, stand at the stairwell to tell them it’s time for bed, sweeties, it’s time to come to me now. Each time Mara’s mother’s request is met with, “We will, dove,” or, “Let me get my daily exercise in,” or, “Isn’t it a little early for that?” Their footsteps continue to pad against the carpets, tiny legs moving one after the other in a one-two-one-two march into the master bedroom. For a moment, my envy settles. Why become jealous of a family who housed so many ghosts?
“I need a smoke,” I tell Mara, who is now half-asleep on the living room carpet. Because I know I do not smoke, because I know I never carry cigarettes (though I don’t doubt one father carried a lighter), I am quick to correct myself. I want fresh air, I tell her. I need to learn how to breathe again.
Outside, the air feels both cold and stuffy, as if I entered inside the pit of a rotten peach. I sit on the porch, fumbling with a nonexistent cigarette, fumbling to take measured inhales and exhales.
Beside me, I watch the father’s hand move and flinch. It moves like a baby’s hand, opening and closing, closing and opening, adjusting to all the nerves and veins and blood holding itself together. It is a big beautiful hand and completely hairless. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mara’s mother already groomed her budding garden of fathers to perfection, carefully waking up at odd hours to manicure their newly formed nails, to shave away at their little hairs sprouting from their meaty fingers. And for a moment, I believe this is what having a father is like: staying awake until four in the morning to watch his hand move. To wait for the moment when his perfect hand gathers into a fist, to watch when he finally smashes his fist against a car window or a mirror as a means to prove his ability to parent. This is what my mother used to tell me what fathers are like.
I don’t remember my own, at least not clearly, because this was a time when the real fathers so often left the mothers, a time when we could vaguely recognize them in photographs and old keepsakes left behind because they talked about war and the new lives they could forge there. I might have been three or four when he left. He was all fists, my mother tells me. All perfect hands. He had a knife for a mouth. He had so many white teeth. He played piano and he smashed it apart with his fists and he fixed it just as beautifully with his perfect, hairless hands.
My hand—childishly small and trembling and not so perfect—slid into the growing father’s own. He adjusted to my touch, sank into the rhythm of hand-holding, of envisioned love. After several moments too long, I shake his affection away tenderly, attempt to release myself when I feel my palm burn with sweat.
“It’s okay,” I tell the father’s half-formed hand, smiling and nursing my own against my chest. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
I pet his hand, study his hairlessness. I now believe this is what fatherhood is like: telling him it’s okay when it isn’t, trying to fit myself into love that will not, nor will ever, take shape. But I still spend an hour dragging the heavy pot to the front yard and heave him into my Sedan trunk, hoping maybe, just maybe, Mara or her mother wouldn’t notice I stole him. In this way, I convinced myself the years I spent trying to help my mother plant and replant wilted fathers might amount to something and might make the world seem new and strangely whole.
Brianna McNish’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Jellyfish Review, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, Juked, and elsewhere, including the longlist for the Wigleaf Top 50. She studies American literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut. You can follow her on Twitter.