I love Thursday nights.
They have a feel to them that’s outside of time.
It’s our tradition, just the three of us—family night.
My son, Charlie, is sitting at the table, drawing on a sketch pad. He’s almost fifteen. The kid grew two inches over the summer, and he’s as tall as I am now.
I turn away from the onion I’m julienning, ask, “Can I see?”
He holds up the pad, shows me a mountain range that looks like something on another planet.
I say, “Love that. Just for fun?” “Class project. Due tomorrow.”
“Then get back to it, Mr. Last Minute.”
Standing happy and slightly drunk in my kitchen, I’m unaware that tonight is the end of all of this. The end of everything I know, everything I love.
No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting. No time to flinch or brace.
The track lights shine on the surface of my wine, and the onion is beginning to sting my eyes. Thelonius Monk spins on the old turntable in the den. There's a richness to the analog recording I can never get enough of, especially the crackle of static between tracks. The den is filled with stacks and stacks of rare vinyl that I keep telling myself I'll get around to organizing one of these days.
My wife, Daniela, sits on the kitchen island, swirling her almost empty wineglass in one hand and holding her phone in the other. She feels my stare and grins without looking up from the screen.
"I know," she says. “I’m violating the cardinal rule of family night."
"What's so important?" I ask.
She levels her dark, Spanish eyes on mine. "Nothing."
I walk over to her, take the phone gently out of her hand, and set it on the countertop.
"You could start the pasta," I say.
"I prefer to watch you cook."
"Yeah?" Quieter: "Turns you on, huh?"
"No, it's just more fun to drink and do nothing."
Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible. It still slays me.
I polish off my glass. "We should open more wine, right?"
"It would be stupid not to."
As I liberate the cork from a new bottle, she picks her phone back up and shows me the screen. "I was reading Chicago Magazine's re view of Marsha Altman's show."
"Were they kind?"
"Yeah, it's basically a love letter." "Good for her."
"I always thought ..." She lets the sentence die, but I know where it was headed. Fifteen years ago, before we met, Daniela was a comer to Chicago's art scene. She had a studio in Bucktown, showed her work in a half dozen galleries, and had just lined up her first solo exhibition in New York. Then came life. Me. Charlie. A bout of crippling post partum depression.
Now she teaches private art lessons to middle-grade students.
"It's not that I'm not happy for her. I mean, she's brilliant, she deserves it all."
I say, "If it makes you feel any better, Ryan Holder just won the Pavia Prize."
''A multidisciplinary award given for achievements in the life and physical sciences. Ryan won for his work in neuroscience."
"Is it a big deal?"
"Million dollars. Accolades. Opens the floodgates to grant money."
"Obviously, that's the real prize. He invited me to a little informal celebration tonight, but I passed."
"Because ifs our night."
"You should go."
“I’d really rather not."
Daniela lifts her empty glass. "So what you're saying is, we both have good reason to drink a lot of wine tonight."
I kiss her, and then pour generously from the newly opened bottle.
"You could've won that prize," Daniela says.
"You could've owned this city's art scene."
"But we did this." She gestures at the high-ceilinged expanse of our brownstone. I bought it pre-Daniela with an inheritance. ''And we did that," she says, pointing to Charlie as he sketches with a beau tiful intensity that reminds me of Daniela when she's absorbed in a painting.
It’s a strange thing being the parent of a teenager. One thing to raise a little boy, another entirely when a person on the brink of adult hood looks to you for wisdom. I feel like I have little to give. I know there are fathers who see the world a certain way, with clarity and confidence, who know just what to say to their sons and daughters. But I'm not one of them. The older I get, the less I understand. I love my son. He means everything to me. And yet, I can't escape the feeling that I'm failing him. Sending him off to the wolves with nothing but the crumbs of my uncertain perspective.
I move to the cabinet beside the sink, open it, and start hunting for a box of fettuccine.
Daniela turns to Charlie, says, "Your father could have won the Nobel."
I laugh. "That's possibly an exaggeration."
"Charlie, don't be fooled. He's a genius."
"You're sweet," I say. "And a little drunk."
"It's true, and you know it. Science is less advanced because you love your family."
I can only smile. When Daniela drinks, three things happen: her native accent begins to bleed through, she becomes belligerently kind, and she tends toward hyperbole.
"Your father said to me one night-never forget it-that pure re search is life-consuming. He said ... " For a moment, and to my surprise, emotion overtakes her. Her eyes mist, and she shakes her head like she always does when she's about to cry. At the last second, she rallies, pushes through. "He said, 'Daniela, on my deathbed I would rather have memories of you than of a cold, sterile lab.'"
I look at Charlie, catch him rolling his eyes as he sketches. Probably embarrassed by our display of parental melodrama.
I stare into the cabinet and wait for the ache in my throat to go away.
When it does, I grab the pasta and close the door.
Daniela drinks her wine.
The moment passes.
"Where's Ryan's party?" Daniela asks.
"That's your bar, Jason."
She comes over, takes the box of pasta out of my hand.
"Go have a drink with your old college buddy. Tell him you're proud of him. Head held high. Tell him I said congrats."
"I will not tell him you said congrats."
"He has a thing for you."
"It's true. From way back. From our roommate days. Remember the last Christmas party? He kept trying to trick you into standing under the mistletoe with him?"
She just laughs, says, "Dinner will be on the table by the time you get home."
"Which means I should be back here in ..."
"What would I be without you?" She kisses me.
"Let's not even think about it."
I grab my keys and wallet from the ceramic dish beside the micro wave and move into the dining room, my gaze alighting on the tesseract chandelier above the dinner table. Daniela gave it to me for our tenth wedding anniversary. Best gift ever.
As I reach the front door, Daniela shouts, "Return bearing ice cream!"
"Mint chocolate chip!" Charlie says. I lift my arm, raise my thumb.
I don't look back.
I don't say goodbye.
And this moment slips past unnoticed.
The end of everything I know, everything I love.