The International Writers Magazine
: New Fiction

In Order to Forget
Diana Hurlbut

What 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 him—how he had done it—what everyone had thought about it—who made the decision to cremate him—where 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 stepfather’s new home, but it hadn’t happened. Occasionally, now, it would occur to her—I am living on my own now, not with my mother anymore—and I still don’t know. Now I probably never will know, not any of it.

Perhaps it was because she couldn’t stand to bring her mother pain. Obviously talking about an occurrence like that would hurt a person, and hadn’t 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 unremarkable—jeans and t-shirts, occasionally a skirt, sandals—and 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t seem likely, though, given that she was eighteen and had never even been out on a date.

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 Basqueland—she had been there once, to Biarritz and San Sebastían, and seeping through those writings was the longing to return. She didn’t even speak Spanish or French, let alone Euskera; she had taken three years of German in high school, but that didn’t 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 laughed—once you’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t wear her leather lauburu bracelet very often, which would have been a conversation starter; you didn’t 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 she’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 house—vacuuming, washing dishes and rugs and towels and sheets, dusting and straightening the legion of magazines on the coffee table, shopping for groceries. They didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t get out much besides school and church. She did her homework and did not skip class.

She had one of those online journals—a blog, they call them—as 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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, "I’d rather not talk about it" or even a succinct, "None of your business". I’ve wondered why she didn’t. Instead, she said merely, "He killed himself."

I hate to say it, but my mouth gaped open like a wound. I didn’t know anyone who had suicide in their families. I didn’t 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…tendencies, that’s 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 can’t help but wonder how a person deals with something like that.
All I know, still, is that she did.
© Diana Hurlbut October 2005

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