Now Reading: On Cleveland

Wren Long, November 2023

Uncle Leon's an old man now. He was always older than Dad, but now he's just old. He has trouble walking for long, smokes a Marlboro between every activity, forgets how to deal seven card studs, a game he's played since my age. He's three times divorced, and no longer on speaking terms with his kids. He mentioned, when Dad and I visited on Thanksgiving, that it was the first time in many years he'd spent the holiday with family.

Dad says Leon's memory is going. It probably is, but as we drive though Cleveland's gray and desolate streets, Leon paints the city with his recollections.

“I worked on that building there, did that steel and the concrete.”

“I planted those trees along that street there.”

“See the streetlight two past this one? That was the first automated streetlight in the world.”

I watch two brothers returning home. I see glimpses of a seventy-year story with every mention of how things used to be. Novembers were supposed to be colder than this. Leon got Dad a job as a busboy in that restaurant over there. The Arcade, a grand, old building which was once filled by various little storefronts, had been converted into a hotel. Dad tells me that he's not surprised: businesses never did last very long there.

We ate Thanksgiving lunch at a restaurant in the city, then returned to Leon's apartment for Rummikub and poker. While Dad parks the car, Leon shows me his paintings, each rich with symbolism and stories. Each shape on his canvases alludes to some anecdote about his kids, his brothers, or his parents. On an easel by the door, sits a painting I recognize. It is surrounded by flattened paint tubes and dirty brushes, apparently still a work in progress though the canvas is thoroughly covered. Before I can ask about it, my Dad comes through the door. I forget the easel in favor of playing cards.

As evening creeps in, we have to say goodbye to Uncle Leon. His daughter Lynn has invited us to dinner. Leon gives us a bouquet of flowers and asks us to pass them along to his estranged child. We take them. Of course we take them.

Lynn greets us excitedly at her front door. A man I don't recognize stands behind her. I shake his hand and introduce myself. He tells me he knows who I am; that we're cousins. At eighteen years old, I'm only just connecting the dots: Leon had a son with his first wife. How could I possibly have missed that?

The kitchen is crammed with people. The air is thick with the scent of pumpkin pie. I recognize a yellow lab with a snowy face, sprawled out underneath the dining table. Twelve years old now, the last time I saw her she was a puppy trying to climb the wood-and-plastic rockwall of our jungle gym. Now she's fat, and she groans as she lowers herself to the floor. Her tail wags like she remembers me, or maybe she just likes people. I'm the same way, embracing strangers as old friends.

Lynn introduces us to her new fiancee, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from showing my surprise. I remember attending her first wedding as a little girl. The kids Lynn had with her former groom are teenagers now. Last time I saw them the eldest was just entering elementary school. Now, they have steady boyfriends and girlfriends of their own.

Lynn's mom is a dental hygienist. She compliments my teeth and insists I get a retainer made. My teeth will shift, she says, if I don't. She's right, but I won't buy a retainer. Teeth shift; it's what they do. It's not worth a lifetime of painful nights just to keep them in place.

Dad and I leave before the turkey's in the oven. We say we're tired, and we are, but truthfully we both knew there wasn't much of a place for us at that dinner. The brother of the estranged father probably wasn't an especially welcome sight. Maybe the stilted conversations were to be expected.

As Dad drives me back to campus, I press my face against the cold glass of the window and hope that our exit ramp would never appear. I wished that I could stay in that car with him, heading home after a long day, but never really having to give in to the finality of arriving there.

Back in my tiny room, I can hear the raucous shouts of college kids. They're drunk, returning from some party. One of them yells, “dude, tonight was like a movie.”

It is easy, at eighteen, to feel like I am in the rising action of a story which ends at graduation. The only thing conceivable beyond college is a vague happily-ever-after. Time freezes over; the love interest becomes the lover; the narrative ends on a good note. We're left to assume it lasts forever. It doesn't.

The college graduation snapshot fades. Marriages implode, or else silently wither. Bodies begin to ache, groaning like metal hinges with each movement. Cities warp and change until alien streets bear the names of old childhood haunts. Everything rusts and grays until it can't anymore, then I suppose it dies.

I find myself confronted with two options. Do I drown myself in a megalomanic stupor and buy into the delusion that the joys of college life will last forever? Or should I cling to these four years out of fear that the decay will begin the moment I have my diploma? I feel time like a vice pressing through my temples, I feel the seconds slipping through my fingers.

Then, I hear the low buzz of my phone from where it rests on my windowsill. It's a text from Dad: all the pictures he took during the day's festivities. I remember what Uncle Leon said, when he saw me that morning.

“Look at you,” he said, “you're a grown person now.”

He was fifty-two when I was born, my whole lifetime fits neatly into his adult memory. As I wrapped my blanket around me, marveling at that thought, I was struck by another. The painting on the easel by the door! I recognized it because it had been the same painting in the same place when I had visited Leon five years prior. It was exactly the same, and yet visibly revised, miniscule brush strokes defining and redefining forms. Uncle Leon had been working on that same painting for five years.

Five years ago I was thirteen. I was still a proto-person, or at least more of one than I am now. I had a different name. My braces had only just been removed. Five years ago I hadn't even learned the names which now make up a list of heartbreaks. I was still convinced I wanted to be a Broadway star. I was still convinced I looked good with hair three feet long. I was barely anybody back then. I was unrecognizable back then. I spent five years molding a person for myself to be, and in that same time, a painting goes unfinished.

The yelling in the hallway finally goes quiet as I reach for my lamp. I look out my window at the stars, then respond to Dad's text. I thank him for the pictures, but more importantly for the time spent together. Tomorrow, another sunrise will come, then another, then another. They all blink by as swiftly, and yet little by little they construct my entire existence. Passing hours will define and redefine me: brush strokes on a canvas.

This life may be small and short within the vast inky cosmos, but it is also the longest, most magnificent thing I will ever do.