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  • The Skin Changes Quickly
  • Ruth Gila Berger (bio)

My father’s life is over. Now, his body must be allowed to end.

These are the bones, the skeleton on which I hang my voice. Life over, his body, the skeleton, my voice.

The weekly hospitalization is not okay. I know, I know Charlie would not want this. Maybe 20 years ago he told me. We had this crazy conversation while I was visiting in Piermont, having flown from my home in Minneapolis. I was helping him strip paint from the banister, the beautiful wood of a no-frills Victorian thickly covered. He used a chisel. Doing this kind of shit made him happy. Carpentry, woodwork, things with distinct boundaries. I was sanding the newel post. Totally at random, my father proclaimed he’d put an elevator in the house when he could no longer use the stairs. What exactly would that elevator be? I asked him. A basket on a pulley out the window? From the bedroom? The house wasn’t a palace. It wasn’t even a mansion.

So that was my father, on the stairs. Memory. An elevator. Really. He probably wore a stained professor shirt—in that regard he wasn’t vain, except for his beard. When it grew in fully gray he shaved. I’ll just say his pants were brown corduroy, wide-waled, dilapidated. Thusly clad and thusly acting, he said he’d be dead before he was dependent upon nursing. Whatever that meant. Suicide? I asked him. He and my mother would die together. A suicide pact, how romantic, I said. His story was that Dr. Steinberg, his gastroenterologist, had promised him a 60th birthday (despite the severity of his Crohn’s). He couldn’t say more than that.

Going back over 30 years, standing by those stairs, like so many of my [End Page 149] memories set there, between the front door and that first step. My father’s cheekbones were the support beams in a war zone, stubble shot, the hollows hanging. And yet, his smile, the same one I remember from when he held a hat with our kittens in it. Their two heads poked over the top. At the bottom was a pom-pom. The smile was in his eyes. His, mine, a mirror. I was Athena then, at the end of junior high. I think that was around when he took me to see Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway. It was funny. We sat each alone in shadow, our intelligences overlapping. I wrote a story about a girl with black hair and yellow eyes; her father gave her razor blades for her birthday. Who was she supposed to kill? I left that up to interpretation. I wrote short fiction about the school headmaster doing cocaine and molesting children. Each time the teacher sent me to the guidance office. It was easy to stop writing. I wanted to be a star then and put all the energy I had into my acting—the one audition my parents allowed, for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts teen program. I got in. Outside our family realm I wanted to be glamorous, beautiful, wanted, fuckable.

My father’s north star story: in the last year of their PhD program (in research mathematics), he and a friend spent long hours considering their odds at love and calculated their one chance would be with women who were artists, abstract painters. The modifying adjective, abstract, was key. The two men would need a soul mate who intrinsically understood on a level deeper than marrow that their life’s work, their passion, had nothing to do with other people. And this was how they both married.

I have a set of photographs from an early math conference my father attended, either just before I was born or while I was still a baby. It was in the end of the beginning days of Las Vegas. Only a few photos in the roll are populated with people. Most alarming about those pictures is the lack of a relationship narrative or even evidence of connection. Colleagues are captured in...


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pp. 149-162
Launched on MUSE
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