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Affection

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Ryan stands at the garage door and watches his father cut open the belly of a deer. The deer hangs from the rafters, its legs trussed. Ryan's father has laid down an old blanket to catch the blood, which rushes out in a panic, steaming as it hits the cold fall air. Ryan's father reaches in between the soft white flaps of stomach and pulls out a kidney, a liver, a heart.

Ryan doesn't want to participate. But even if he did, his father wouldn't ask. When the family first started coming to the weekend house north of the city, Ryan's father tried to get Ryan to join him hunting, fishing, on the golf course. But Ryan always turned him down--sticking to the house, to the television on the second floor and his video games--and eventually his father left him alone.

He turns away from his father and the deer and goes inside. He lies on his bed, covers himself with a thin blanket. He hears his sister laugh somewhere in the house. This reminds him that it's her birthday, that he doesn't have a present. He gets up and looks for his mother but can't find her. He wanders into the kitchen, where his father is washing his hands at the sink.

"I don't have a present for Melanie." Ryan speaks in a low voice and looks at the floor, both desirous and grudging of his father's help. "Can you take me somewhere?"

They get into the Mercedes and drive to the next town. They speak guardedly about football. Ryan looks out the window of the car, at the bare trees and the wide expanse of dry grass. He looks at his father and admires the fast, sure way he drives, changing gears as he takes the curves.

Gravel snaps under the wheels as they pull up to a kite store. Inside, there are kites in the shape of birds, dragons, and butterflies; they hang from the ceiling, transparent and delicate as skin. "Pick one," says his father. Ryan wanders, craning his neck.

He wonders if his sister will really like one of these kites, or if it's a trick. He looks to his father, who stands in the middle of the store, rocking back and forth, his hands in his pockets. He smiles, and Ryan smiles back, relieved.

The kite Ryan likes best is blue and green, in the shape of a serpent, but he chooses a different one for Melanie: a purple butterfly. His father nods as Ryan points it out to him. "She'll like that," his father says. "Good choice."

Later Ryan lies in front of the fireplace, a skinny, freckled adolescent in worn blue jeans and a pink Izod shirt. His mother and little brother, Jason, flank Melanie on the couch as she unwraps her presents. She smooths out the paper and unties the bows, making the presents last a long time, the same way she always takes care to finish a cupcake or an ice cream sundae after Jason and Ryan finish theirs.

Their father watches Melanie from his big chair near the fire. When she gets to Ryan's present, he nudges Ryan with his foot, and Ryan, who has been pretending to sleep, lifts his head and rests it on his hand. His sister parts the flaps of the cardboard box and lifts the kite. The fire cracks, and a spark lands on the rug.

"We should draw that screen," says Ryan's mother, but she doesn't get up.

"It's almost out." His father rises and pokes the low fire, crumbling a charred log.

Melanie lays the kite aside, and Ryan feels the heat intensify. A massive drowsiness is filling up his mind like glue. His face feels hot and his back burns, but he's too weary to move. As usual, he hasn't eaten a regular dinner. He can't stand to eat most things: fish, chicken, vegetables, whole wheat bread.

His father says, "Hey, Ryan. Wake up. Don't you want to watch your sister open her presents?"

Ryan opens his eyes and sees Melanie unwrapping a book.

"Isn't that a nice book?" his father says. He strolls in circles around the room, his face flushed over his striped blue-and-white shirt.

"Yeah, it's nice," Ryan mutters.

His father puts his hand to his ear. "What was that? I couldn't hear you."

"It's nice. I said it's nice," Ryan says loudly.

"You're jealous," says his father. "You're in a foul mood because it's your sister's birthday and not yours."

Ryan raises himself on his left arm. He turns his head and spits into the fire. "If that's what you think, you've got problems," he says.

His father crosses the room and kicks him in the stomach. His mother stands and begins to shriek. Ryan stares at the dark shoe resting in front of him. Then he vomits all over the shoe and the rug.

A year goes by. Ryan's love for junk food catches up with him, and he gains 20 pounds. From the family room, Ryan hears his father rumbling in disgust over the bags of potato chips and Fritos his mother is unloading from a grocery bag, the bag rustling softly, the cellophane making a clearer, snappier sound.

His mother says, "It's a stage. When he hits his growth spurt, he'll lose the weight."

"Do you have to keep that crap in the house?"

Ryan can visualize his mother turning defensively. "It's the only thing he'll eat."

Jason, who's six now, worships Ryan. When Ryan has friends over, Jason follows the older boys around. Sometimes Ryan lets Jason hang out with them--sometimes, tired, and angry at Jason in a way he doesn't understand, he closes the door in Jason's face. On one of these occasions, Jason goes crying to their father. Their father makes up a little song, which he sings, later, within Ryan's earshot: "Oh, Jason, don't be sad, because your big fat brother is so bad."

Ryan's mother and father get a divorce. His father moves to a small apartment on Beacon Street.

Ryan goes away to boarding school. He grows five inches and loses 25 pounds. He makes the soccer and lacrosse teams. The teachers at this new school are gentler and more patient than those at his old school in the city. To his surprise, he discovers that he's popular with girls.

His father is pleased to see Ryan's thinness and to hear about the sports. He calls Ryan often and asks to take him out to dinner. It occurs to Ryan that, like himself with the girls he chooses to call, his father only wants him when he is a certain way; his love for Ryan is not unquestioning, unconditional, as Ryan has always heard parental love is supposed to be. In a painful, furtive way, he enjoys snubbing his father. When Melanie gives him A Farewell to Arms for his birthday, and he reads and actually enjoys it, he does not tell his father but secretly hopes he will find out.

At his mother's urging, Ryan agrees to go skiing with his father in Vermont for a weekend. His father picks him up on Friday at the boarding school, and they drive north. Ryan listens to his Walkman, and Ryan's father listens to public radio. They quickly become stuck in traffic. To pass the time, Ryan looks out the window and imagines his father falling on a ski slope and breaking his leg and Ryan coming to his rescue.

They check into the hotel and go to see a movie about fighter pilots. The audience seems to find the movie stirring and sad, but Ryan feels embarrassed by the cheesy music and soulful close-ups. He feels sorry for the actors, although he knows they are probably grateful to be in the movie. He slides down low in his seat. He hears a noise come from his father's throat and looks over at his father's big head looming in the light of the scene. His father glances down at him.

They begin to laugh. A woman in front of them twists her body around angrily and whispers "Shh," but after stifling their laughter for a few minutes, they laugh on and off through the rest of the film. Ryan relaxes into the motion of the seats as his father laughs beside him, and he is suddenly level with a sort of happiness. It's as if his father in all of his whimsical power has lifted him to a sunny plateau, a runway for the rest of his life.

But later, at the diner where they eat after checking into the hotel, Ryan swipes two dollars from the tip his father has left for the waiter. He wants to buy cigarettes from the machine in the lobby of the hotel. In the car, his father says, "I saw you take that money. That was a crappy thing to do."

Ryan's face burns in the darkness. "I'm sorry." He takes the money from his pocket. "Here."

"Keep it," his father says.

Ryan buys cigarettes with the money anyway. He's sharing a room with his father, so he sneaks down to the lobby after his father is asleep. He sits on one of the vinyl benches and smokes; he's the only person there except for a janitor mopping the floor and the man at the desk, who's sleeping with his head on his arms. Ryan longs for his room at boarding school. Crappy, he thinks. Crap. A warm grief needles his throat. He breathes deeply and smokes and smokes until the nicotine smoothes out the tight, angry cramp in his side.

The pain starts when he's a junior in high school. He's sitting at his desk doing math homework on a Thursday evening when he feels a heavy burning in his upper abdomen. He gets up and walks quickly down the hallway to the dorm bathroom, holding his hands to his stomach, and after he closes himself into a stall he vomits.

He goes back to his room and gets into bed, although it's early, only 8:30. He turns onto his side and tries to sleep. In the middle of the night, cramps wake him, and he runs to the bathroom and vomits again.

Some days, eating makes him feel better, but on other days he can't eat at all. Soccer season begins, and at first the pain stays away when he's in motion. But eventually he has to tell the coach he's sick. He stays in his room and doesn't go to class. He sleeps as much as he can. When his girlfriend, Suzy, comes to visit him in his room he's short with her, and soon she goes away.

Finally he calls his mother and tells her there's something wrong with him. He goes home. His father stops by the house and wants to know if Ryan wants to catch a movie, or if there is anything he can do. No, he says, he's not feeling well enough to go to a movie. The next day a heavy box wrapped in pretty paper arrives at the house. Inside, there's a VCR for his room and a card from his father.

Ryan's mother takes him to the doctor. Ryan is given some muscle relaxants and the doctor inserts a long tube through his mouth, down his throat. A dim screen reveals the camera's eye. The doctor says, "Look. It's your stomach," but Ryan keeps his eyes tightly closed.

"It could be an ulcer," the doctor says. "Or some sort of infection. Part of the stomach is very aggravated." He writes Ryan a prescription.

"When will it go away?"

"Sometimes this sort of thing just goes away by itself. Don't worry about it too much. No drinking, no caffeine, and take it easy."

He doesn't go back to the boarding school. His mother enrolls him in a day school in the city, and he makes a new group of friends: Paul, Eric, Andy, Logan.

He gets better with the pills. He talks on the phone with Suzy, and she comes to visit him on the weekends. When he first sees her, after a month of not seeing her, he's startled by her prettiness. But one Sunday right before she leaves, he breaks up with her. He has a test the next day he hasn't studied for yet and he suddenly feels crowded by her presence. She's taking a long time to pack her small bag, spreading her shirts and jeans out on his bed, smoothing out the wrinkles, picking off tiny bits of lint.

Still, as soon as he says the words he knows it was a stupid impulse he won't be able to take back. He still loves her and looks forward to her visits for weeks on end, the only thing he looks forward to so completely. She drops a blouse she's folding and starts to cry.

Ryan begins college in Ohio. He joins a fraternity. He stops taking the pills, and the pain and nausea stay away. The sickness seems part of a very distant past. It starts to seem like something that never happened to him--a mistake.

When he's a sophomore, his father has a stroke. Ryan and Melanie fly home. For a week, they take turns driving each other from Brookline to Mass General and back. Jason, who's 11 now, plays with his Game Boy in the backseat, humming to himself.

But when his father dies, Ryan has slept late and is not at the hospital. Everyone is there but him. His mother calls to tell him what happened. Melanie comes home and tries to come into his room, and he yells at her to go away. "I know already," he shouts. "I know about dad."

He graduates from college. He moves to Colorado with two friends, but when he gets sick again, he comes home. He fills the basement of the house with weights and machines, and in between the bouts of sickness he works out. The exercise thickens his neck, swells his shoulders and arms and waist; the boyish thinness of his freckled features is gone. He's uncomfortable in his strange, muscular body, and he moves awkwardly through bars late at night, powerful but clumsy, like a child wearing too many layers of winter clothing. He hovers constantly on the edge of violence. He picks fights. Wiping the blood off his nose in an unfamiliar bathroom, he recognizes his father's broad forehead, the lines around his mouth. His father has disappeared; except for these signs in Ryan's face, there is no trace of him. There's a headstone in Brookline with his name on it, which Ryan has visited twice. What he feels about his father is all wrong. He's not sad, exactly, but he senses that he's lost any chance of ever being happy.

He watches movie after movie, and in them he finds a white gap of relief. He dreams of taking his kids to the park, watching them on the swings, and of a blond, laughing woman. He reads medical manuals, looking for clues his doctor might have missed. The pain makes it difficult to sleep, so before bed he takes a shower, smokes a joint, and puts some soft music on his stereo. He imagines taking a vacation from his body, tucking the pale shell of it into the bed while the rest of him--a bright, see-through self--flies to a warm beach, plays volleyball, and gets a massage.

One Saturday Ryan feels well enough to meet Eric and Paul for drinks. He drives downtown and parks in an empty lot belonging to a bank. He walks in the direction of the bar. The neighborhood is quiet.

He hears something before he sees it: a man on the ground, moaning, half a block ahead of him. Ryan bends over the man, who shifts and tries to push himself up. Ryan puts his hand on the man's shoulder and looks at his face, which seems uninjured aside from a mark across the cheek. "Don't get up too fast," Ryan says.

The man nods and lets Ryan help him to his feet. "Are you badly hurt?" Ryan asks. "What happened? Do you want to go to a hospital?"

The man shakes his head. "Two guys...I'm all right." He is small and pudgy, older than Ryan but not old, with the surprised look of someone who's lost his glasses. Ryan sees a pair lying on the ground, and a few yards beyond, a black wallet. He retrieves the wallet and the glasses. "Thank you," says the man. He has an accent. He's shaking all over. Ryan doesn't want to leave him like this--"Are you sure you're not badly hurt?" he asks. The man nods. "I'm on my way to meet some friends. Can I buy you a drink? I bet you could use a drink."

They walk to the bar. The man is visiting from Austria, on vacation. He was on his way to see a movie when the guys jumped him. He doesn't care about the money, he says; he's just glad they threw back his wallet, which has all his credit cards and pictures of his nephew.

At the bar everyone gathers around the man, exclaiming and asking questions. Ryan buys himself a whiskey and soda. "What are you drinking?" he asks the man, but the man--Holger--shakes his head. He doesn't want a drink. He lights a cigarette, and Ryan sees that his hands are still shaking. Ryan feels shaky himself, and he sips the whiskey and soda slowly, relishing the rare taste of alcohol. He claps Holger on the shoulder again and again. "Let me buy you a drink," he says. "Please. I know you could use a drink." Finally, Holger has a drink.

It begins to snow. Ryan says his good-byes and walks toward his car, kicking at the gauzy layer of white on the ground. He is suddenly in an extremely good mood, and the events of the evening march through his mind like scenes from a movie: the dark street, the figure on the ground, the sympathetic reactions of Ryan's friends, Holger's slow gathering together over his scotch. By the end of the night Holger was laughing, joking about how his friends at home had told him he'd be mugged in the American cities. When he left the bar with the 20 dollars Ryan insisted on giving him, he seemed tougher, thinner even, than he had been before.

In April, Ryan starts to feel better, and he meets a girl at a party. Her name is Eliza. Her eyes tilt upward, and her blond, wavy hair is cut to her shoulders. She catches him as he's leaving and asks for his number. "Give me yours," he says--he's embarrassed for her to know that he lives with his mother.

But as it turns out, she doesn't care. For some reason, she loves him. She has a dog, and they walk it together in the park near her apartment before she goes to work; they sit on a bench and let the dog run and watch the mothers and fathers take the children to school. The children in their springtime clothing are as colorful as balloons. They break away from their parents at every opportunity. When Ryan was little, only his mother took him to school, and that was the way with the other kids too, but now there are both mothers and fathers pulling the reluctant children along by their short, flexible arms. Ryan is reminded of The Sound of Music. The father of the children was moody and distant, but by the end of the movie he'd learned how to show love for his children, and they all went and flew kites. Or maybe it was singing--the father was singing with his children, who'd never known he could sing. Or maybe there was both, kites and singing. Either way, Ryan is disconcerted to find himself preoccupied with such sentimental thoughts. Pollen and memories fill his eyes, and he clutches Eliza's hand like a drunk.

The morning that begins the next bout of sickness, he wakes with a thick allergic feeling in his head. There's something funny about it this time. It's not just pain but a bloated sensation, as if someone has blown up his stomach and knotted the end. There is an obstruction, his doctor says; scarring around the infection has narrowed the passage from his stomach. They need to remove the infected part, reconnect the remaining stomach to the intestine.

In the hospital, Ryan is fed with an IV. The bloating subsides, as does his muscle. His old thin face and neck emerge.

Ryan's mother holds paperwork and follows the doctors in and out of the room. Her anxiety throbs in the blue veins below her pale skin. She tends to Ryan--bringing him books and magazines and things to drink and straightens his covers and asks that the sheets be changed--in a way that is comfortable and discomforting at the same time, like a cozy bed in a strange place. He braces himself against her ministrations and is reminded of his first night at boarding school, when the dorm mother came into his room and tried to hug him to stop his crying.

His surgeon, a tall, sallow man with moles on his hands, says, "You're a young guy. Unless we open you up and you're just a piece of garbage inside, it's likely we'll be able to do the whole thing in one shot."

Being in the hospital reminds Ryan of his father, of his swift and surprising death. He hated the hospital when his father was sick, but now it seems a benign and capable place. He has a sense of collapsing into the hospital's white, billowy bosom. When the nurses change his IV he jokes with them, asking if they can slip in some scotch. Some of them laugh; some of them look away and fight back their smiles.

Eliza spends the night before the operation on a cot in Ryan's room. When he wakes at 2 AM and looks over, he's amazed to see her there.

He can't get back to sleep. He turns the television on with the remote, pressing the mute button so as not to wake Eliza. He flicks through a lineup of irrelevant shows. He can't identify the sitcom he settles on, but the bright colors and vague recognizability of the actors appeal to him.

Eliza's delicate snoring lulls him into a reflective state. His memory darts playfully but with purpose, like a hummingbird searching for the sweet throat of a flower. He lights on a winter day up at the weekend house, years ago. It was one of those days when his parents bickered all morning. They were all supposed to be up there as a family, this was what his parents had bought the house for, but around lunchtime Ryan overheard his mother tell his father that if she looked at his face for one more second she was going to be sick. Ryan's mother took the kids to the movies and left their father at home. It was a movie Ryan knew his father wanted to see because he'd heard him talking about it, but he said that he didn't want to go. As they pulled out of the driveway, Ryan twisted his body to look out the window and saw his father skating on the small pond that marked the end of their property. He skated with his head down, fast and heavy; Ryan could see his exertion even from the window of the car.

Then the air jumped, and his father fell. Ryan thought he heard him shout. The car turned onto the road as he started to get up, and Ryan couldn't see him anymore. He sat back in the seat, thinking that even if he'd been standing at the edge of the ice he wouldn't have tried to help.

Ryan watches a young man and woman chase each other around a coffee shop. The memories of family interactions still circling his mind remind him of exactly this, watching television with the sound off, people doing the most bizarre things with absurd expressions on their faces, no context for their behavior. His gut aches, reminding him of why he's here. It's the one thing he's failed, so far, to consider. The part itself. What will they do with it? He imagines it tossed into a can labeled Medical Waste, along with other things that used to be part of a life. He imagines it livid and dazed, shrinking in the surgical lights.

In the morning the sun filters weakly through the plastic-shaded windows of his room. His mother rushes around talking to different doctors and nurses, and Eliza sits at the end of his bed, reading him gossip from an entertainment magazine.

Then it's time to go. An orderly gives him a blue robe and helps him onto a stretcher. Ryan watches the gray drop ceiling whip by faster and faster. He closes his eyes and folds his hands across the site of the dull, familiar pain. He doesn't want the part taken out after all. He's changed his mind! "Wait," he says, and someone presses a warm needle into his arm.

"I think I'm going to be sick," he says, but nobody acknowledges him and the sickness passes.

He hears the voice of his surgeon, and he tries to mutter "Piece o' garbage" and smile, but he can't speak. A close white space surrounds him. He sees bright lights, faces wreathed above him, connecting to each other in a way that is somehow harmonious and profound. Cool metal slides across his belly. He feels his organs quiver, then inside him, the surgeon's skilled, homely hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.

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