The International Writers Magazine: New Fiction
Order to Forget
do you say to a girl whose father killed himself?
When she was two
years old, her father died. Nobody bothered to explain it to her, ever;
she had to ask her mother, when she was thirteen, how her father had
died. When her mother told her, she looked at the older woman for a
moment and then said, "Oh" and went away into her own room.
What her mother had told her froze her so deeply that now, at eighteen,
she still had not brought herself to ask her mother why her father had
died, or who had found himhow he had done itwhat everyone
had thought about itwho made the decision to cremate himwhere
the urn was now that her mother had remarried.
She kept meaning to: On the drive up to New Hampshire, during her two-week
stay there at her mother and stepfathers new home, but it hadnt
happened. Occasionally, now, it would occur to herI am living
on my own now, not with my mother anymoreand I still dont
know. Now I probably never will know, not any of it.
Perhaps it was because she couldnt stand to bring her mother pain.
Obviously talking about an occurrence like that would hurt a person,
and hadnt her mother had enough hurt in her life? Certainly.
She told me once that, even if it was unconsciously, that she was doing
the noble thing by not bothering her mother about it.
She said, no one has a right to know anything; only a desire.
She was tall and of normal weight, though she sometimes appeared thinner
than she really was. She had dark brown hair that she kept cropped in
an almost severely short pixie, along the lines of Jean Seberg or Winona
Ryder, depending on the age of the person doing the comparing. Her eyes
were a mix of green and brown, with thick but short lashes and black
arching brows which she never had to pluck or wax. Her clothing was
usually unremarkablejeans and t-shirts, occasionally a skirt,
sandalsand her makeup unobtrusive. She was freckly all over, thought
that her legs were too skinny, and probably was never quite sure if
she was attractive or not. She held that her haircut kept her from getting
asked out on dates, but that wasnt enough to make her grow it
out; she liked her hair short, considered it a social experiment.
She liked to read and write both, but she was majoring in history instead
of anything English-related because, she said, she hated grammar and
was bad at it. Once, when I asked her what she wanted to do with her
college degree once she got it, she barked out a laugh and said, "Get
married, if I can manage it." She said that didnt seem likely,
though, given that she was eighteen and had never even been out on a
She let me read one of her old writing journals one time, and I read
wonderful dreamy entries about the coastal cities of Spain and France,
particularly those in the Basquelandshe had been there once, to
Biarritz and San Sebastían, and seeping through those writings
was the longing to return. She didnt even speak Spanish or French,
let alone Euskera; she had taken three years of German in high school,
but that didnt seem to deter her, she wanted to go to the beautiful
sundrenched azure waters of the north Atlantic and never return to the
humid, stolid placidity of urban and suburban Florida.
Oh, she loved her hometown, an East Coast barrier island as long and
skinny as herself, sandwiched in what she called the land of two
rivers. She missed it more than she missed her own parents while
she was at college, she said. She always spoke with great fondess of
her home, and her writings about it were beautiful and poignant. But
something in the golden sand, the red earth, the blue water, the verdant
lush green of the Basque hills called her. It was mostly the food, she
laughedonce youd tasted that paella and flan and some native
dish called pil pil and especially gateau Basque, you were hooked. But
I got the feeling there was something more than that. She didnt
talk about it overly much, the way some obsessed people do. If someone
asked her about her trip to Spain, she would tell them. But she didnt
wear her leather lauburu bracelet very often, which would have been
a conversation starter; you didnt find her reading The Basque
History of the World or For Whom the Bell Tolls or Homage to Catalonia
every day, even though all those titles and more were on her bookshelf,
and even though shed been to all those places and seen the famous
Picasso mural, and even though if you brought them up she would add
her ten cents (sometimes more) to the conversation.
But for all of that, her dreams of a tiny old flat tucked away in some
corner of a cobbled Spanish street remained mostly in her head.
She was raised solely by her mother until the age of eleven, when her
mother remarried. She liked her stepfather and thought he was a good
man and was happy that her mother was happy, but as she grew older she
began to realize that she had never met someone so polarly opposite
to her as he was. She reasoned, though, that it didnt matter,
since it had only begun to irk her in her senior year of high school.
That summer, right after her graduation, her mother and stepfather moved
to New Hampshire, and she went away to college in Tampa, and so it didnt
matter anymore if she agreed or disagreed with her stepfather.
She had used part of the money in her savings account to buy a house
with her sister, at the urging of her mother and sister and grandmother.
She didnt really mind either way, since they were attending the
same college and might as well live together; she had no desire to live
in a tiny dorm with someone she had never met anyway. The house they
bought was little and old and situated in what might uncharitably be
called the ghetto, but the neighbors were friendly, if a little loud.
She grew to enjoy taking care of the housevacuuming, washing dishes
and rugs and towels and sheets, dusting and straightening the legion
of magazines on the coffee table, shopping for groceries. They didnt
have a dining room table for a while, but then they rarely had company
to sit at one. They had one spoiled orange cat and did not pay for city
water, but used the slightly rusty well water instead.
She did not hold a job when I knew her; her sister had said she didnt
really need to get one yet, she was only a freshman in college and had
enough money in her bank account to pay her part of the bills and mortgage.
She went to church in a congregation full of young people, and didnt
get out much besides school and church. She did her homework and did
not skip class.
She had one of those online journalsa blog, they call themas
did I. I read hers regularly, and between the lines of sardonic commentary
on traffic and schoolmates and music and various bits of news, I read
loneliness and doubt. I could tell that in particular she missed her
best friend, a girl who was attending school in Tallahassee. They had
been best friends since first grade, she said, and had lived in the
same town, in the same neighborhood, nearly all their lives. They had
gone to Europe together, which I deduced was part of the attraction
of the Continent: Her best friend figured strongly in the memory of
Spain and France. They talked on the phone and online several times
a week, but I knew that she missed her still.
I made the mistake of asking how her father died soon after we met.
We were in my dorm room, getting ready to watch a new episode of some
sitcom, and talking idly about our families. She mentioned something
about her stepfather, and I asked if her parents were divorced. She
said no, her father had died when she was two. I apologized, and she
half-smiled, saying that it was okay, she didnt remember him anyway,
so there was really nothing to miss.
I found out later that she resembled him to a tee, especially when wearing
glasses, and once she had cut her hair off. She said once that she didnt
know how her mother stood it, having a daughter who looked so much like
her dead husband.
Then I made the mistake of saying, "How did your father die?"
She could have said, "Id rather not talk about it" or
even a succinct, "None of your business". Ive wondered
why she didnt. Instead, she said merely, "He killed himself."
I hate to say it, but my mouth gaped open like a wound. I didnt
know anyone who had suicide in their families. I didnt know what
to say, so clumsily I apologized again, and again she made a taut half-smile
and said that it was all right. Providence came to our rescue with the
beginning of the TV show.
I hate to say it, but after that I looked at her a little differently.
Maybe I wanted to see if she had any of the same
how they put it. Maybe I wondered how she handled it, day to day, that
knowledge. Perhaps she burned with it, and burned with the inability
of her friends to understand. Perhaps she found something to pour herself
into in order to forget.
You cant help but wonder how a person deals with something like
All I know, still, is that she did.
© Diana Hurlbut October 2005
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