The only phone Sage had was the one in the bathroom, a pink banana-shaped thing at the end of a curly wire. It was dated, and therefore it was not the type of thing capable of being unplugged. It simply emerged from the place where an open electric outlet should have been, its permanence overshadowing what could have been an outlet for a rotating cast of other devices. Anyway, it was not that bad. Sage made do with the bathroom’s one outlet. She used it to blow her hair dry before work, and she left her electric vibrator to charge up from nine to five. At eleven each night, she extracted the vibrator from its charging cord and laid down on her back on the bath mat. The vibrator gave a begrudging, but reliable twenty minutes before it, like Sage, signaled a loud and breathy emptiness. The plush mat put Sage’s face closer to the tiles than she would have liked, but it beat a guilty, sticky walk from bed to the shower after she had sufficiently gotten off all over herself. Once, at lunch, one of Sage’s girlfriends jokingly called her “a whore for convenience.” She meant not that Sage had become a whore for convenience purposes, but that whenever something was convenient, Sage loved it with the functional, feverish love that only whores really experienced. The line was funny enough to be brought up in almost all social contexts, but Sage never told it without that specification.
Nearly everything that happened to Sage happened in the bathroom. She got her first period in the stall of an elementary school. Doctors were surprised to see such dark blood from a third grader, but she had the hyper-developed femininity to match. Later, in the first apartment he bought her, Sage’s father had the phone installed next to the toilet as some tactic of telling her to stop gabbing all the time. The only thing this did for a nineteen-year-old Sage was forge an unshakeable association between talking and being naked. She moved into her latest apartment five years ago. The “for” line on the down payment check read Happy Thirtieth, Sweetie and was labeled with her father’s curt signature. He signed in a way that had the aura of dyslexia, even though all the d’s and b’s were correctly faced. Anyway, it just felt romantic, dreamy, nostalgic or something to have the phone located in the restroom. She asked around to ensure it could be done, given that cordless phones were quickly becoming all the rage, and was pleased to find somebody to do it. After its installation, Sage gave a tour to her father, and hoped that he would laugh, lovingly shake his head, or just give her a blatant something to work with about the toilet phone. What was it for, if not? Instead, he asked her why on earth she had had that done and how much extra it had cost to be silly with the technician’s time.
The last time Sage and her father spoke on the phone was two years ago, days before he left home with a severe case of vomiting and never returned. Liver cancer was what Sage credited as the villain, the bacterial second family that sweet-talked her father out of her corporeal world. When it got to him, it took him quickly. What sucked even more about the liver cancer thing was how real it was, how measurable and countable and visible. The community of cells in her father’s body reduced itself to the individual black and white tiles of her bathroom floor: quantifiable, distinct, infected.
To Sage, the details of that final phone call had a palpable, forceful truth. She remembered every line her father said. His words breathed through her lungs as if an equal shareholder in the equity of her body. When a person accessed a memory like that, so frequently and so physically, any shred of reality was disintegrated into alterations. Whatever Sage remembered about that call was true to her, and to anyone who asked, and to anyone who had ever lived a completely different, separate life and was therefore unable to tell Sage she was wrong.
She remembered it like this. Her naked body was perched on the closed lid of the toilet seat, her toenails were spread on the porcelain like hot pink, pedicured prongs of a claw, and her stomach felt larger than usual as it pillowed out into friction against the boundary of her thighs. Sage, at thirty three, was only ever naked in solitude, but in that solitude, she was pretty much always naked. She had called her father that day because of a scented candle. She had also called to tell him about the five dollar bill she had given to a homeless man outside the subway.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said when she heard the click of an answer. It was nearing seven in the evening, and she imagined him in a suit, his feet on the taxidermied rug in his living room, masquerading around his house like a businessman though his retirement had already been anniversaried.
“To what do I owe this call?” he asked. Sage envisioned the Scotch in his hand and the hidden, parasitic cancer under his skin.
“Remember my friend, Sandy? From work?”
“Well, I came into the office real sad today, the type of sad that perspires through makeup. And Sandy was talkin’ to me in the morning, tellin’ me how she could tell there was an issue even despite my insistence that there wasn’t. I’m thinkin’, alright, she’s onto me, but what can she do, you know? No rule against bein’ sad in the workplace.”
“I’m going to stop you right there.”
“The good part is comin’–”
“Why are you talking like you’re Southern?”
“Am I? I hardly even noticed–”
“You were born in Brooklyn.”
“I was raised by a man from Tennessee.”
“When’s the last time I’ve even been to Tennessee? I haven’t talked like that since I was sixteen–”
“Okay, okay,” Sage said. “I’ll try to talk more New York.”
“Or you could just open your mouth and use the natural voice that comes out. I mean, Jesus, Sage. You’re telling a story about your office at Macy’s and you’re making it sound like you had a little aside while milkin’ cows–”
“I get it,” Sage said. “Anyway, Sandy comes to find me at lunch, and she gives me a scented candle she picked up. Isn’t that the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard? Lavender and cedarwood scented, too, so it reminds me of the old house. I’m going to burn it tonight.”
Her father gruffed. “Cedarwood,” he said. “You call me to tell me you’re so sad, but you phrase it through this long-winded, nothing story, and then you want to talk about your sister?”
“I don’t want to talk about Ceda.” Sage pawed at the polish on her left big toe. “I would talk about Ceda if I wanted to talk about Ceda. And I know better than to call you about sadness. I wanted to ask if you would like me to bring over the candle.”
“You just said you were going to burn it yourself.”
“I was only going to do that if you didn’t want it.”
“Enough,” her father said. “I don’t want the candle.”
“Alright,” Sage said. “Anyway, it was just a nice story about a friend. It’s nice to be thought of like that.”
“Are you tryin’ to tell me something? Are you dating Sandy?”
“Jesus, Dad, no.”
“Why else are you talking my ear off about her?”
“I had another nice interaction today, too,” Sage said. “A man on the corner by the subway, I couldn’t even tell he was homeless, at first, because he had a real clean look to him.”
“So you call your father, on a Friday evening, and you tell him you’ve got crushes on women and the homeless?”
“I don’t have a crush on anyone.”
“So what are you on about?”
“I’m saying that I gave five dollars to the nice man,” Sage said. “And that usually, I’m afraid to do things like that, what with not being adequately trained in self-defense and all. But something about Sandy’s gesture at lunch, it reinvigorated a sort of kindness in me. And so I cracked open my wallet when I saw him and I handed him the bill.”
“Well, congratulations,” her father said. “A few more five dollar bills and he’ll have a house.”
“Jesus.” It was quiet until Sage spoke again. “I know it didn’t buy him a house. Don’t you think I know that? The story’s hardly about him, anyway. It’s about how being kind feels good. I walked home from the station with the biggest smile on my face, knowing I had done something good for somebody else, knowing I made a difference–”
“That’s called self-importance.”
“This is different,” she said. “You know, I’ve lived a lot of my life feeling self-important. I was obsessed with manicured nails and dresses and only eating gum the way every girl is–”
“You don’t have to remind me.”
“Okay,” Sage said. “What I meant was that I’ve lived a lot of my life not feeling like a good person. And today, it was like Sandy did some magic, and she was so good of a person it made me into a good one, too, and now some man might be able to buy a bowl of soup today, and it’s through me that that kindness was instrumentalized, like a chain. Of course that makes me feel good. Of course it does.”
“Feeling good is the antithesis to being kind,” he said. “And it’s hardly worth debating, it’s been debated so many times before. But you’ve got this whole complex, Sage, really, you do. You can’t see yourself as anything other than yourself.”
“I’ve got body dysmorphia.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Really, I do,” Sage said. “I got a diagnosis in college, and everything. It’s when you can’t see yourself how you really are, and you see yourself as all warped and mangled and hideous. I’m not talking about ugly, like having a rotten face or a sour mouth or something, I’m talking about full-stop hideousness, the kind where you don’t even want to go in public.”
She often wondered if by talking in medical terms, she accidentally willed the cancer into her dad’s body. If he had not had cancer when he answered the phone, he certainly would by the time they hung up.
“Every woman thinks she’s fat,” he replied. “You were beautiful in college, and that’s not what I’m talking about in the slightest. It’s not about how you see yourself in a mirror. It’s about how you see yourself as a puzzle piece, if the social order is the grand puzzle–”
“So you’re suggesting I sacrifice a sense of self, then?”
“That’s an awful thing to say.”
“It’s not, it’s really not, and that’s the thing. You’re so caught up in being you that you walk away from a homeless man–you walking away is the thing, you left him there to live or to die or to do God knows what–and you walked away somehow feeling good. You’ve got this whole concept of being yourself as a subjective experience and you’ve got no idea about what else there is. Look at the world, Sage, outside of yourself for just one minute. What good did you do? What good did your lesbian friend do in buying you a candle?”
“She’s married,” Sage said. “That’s hardly the point, but she’s not a lesbian. She’s got a husband and kids. Anyway, I don’t see what harm it does if I help someone and get to think I did a good thing. I’m not saying I changed the world. But don’t you think that if everybody had a Sandy around, like I did today, and everybody got the seed of kindness planted into them and then paid it forward, don’t you think that would be real? Don’t you think that would do good?”
“Goodness is not so complicated.”
“It’s the most complicated thing in the world.” Sage’s feet got tired, and so she opened the seat of the toilet and sat down on it. “I’ve lived my whole life trying to be it, and I finally feel like it for two seconds today, and you’re trying to tell me that that wasn’t true good. That’s complicated.”
“There’s your mistake, is making goodness into a feeling. It’s a statistic, if anything. It hardly matters whether or not you feel like a good person. If you want to do good, you can do it. It’s an action. How many dollars did you give to the homeless? Not to the one man you happened to see, but to The Homeless? You don’t get to scapegoat yourself out of standards because you think you’re complicated.”
“Okay,” Sage said. “So how many concerts of mine did you come to when I was younger? How many hugs did you give me? That’s what makes you a good dad, then, right? Not how I feel about you, or how much I can forgive you for–”
“Jesus Christ. You talk about wanting to be good and then you go right in for a fight, huh?”
“It’s not a fight.” Sage ran the tap from the sink so that her dad would not hear her peeing.
“Really,” she continued, over the stream of urine and the draining of the sink. “I’m just trying to tell you, that there’s more that matters than just what can be counted.”
“How many apartments did I buy you? How many loans did I give you? How many job interviews did I set up for you? I mean, talk about forgiveness–I’ve earned it, fair and square.”
Sage shoved a fist of paper between her legs and then flushed the toilet.
“I’ve earned it,” he repeated. “Haven’t I?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Sage said. She was earnest, but sometimes she thought that this was one of the biggest regrets of her whole life.
“You don’t know?”
“A lot of the time I feel mad at you. I want to forgive you, of course I do, Daddy, but I’d hate to parade around saying I’ve forgiven you when I still feel all this other stuff, too–”
“So, you’ll be mad at me forever?”
“I ought to hang up,” her father said. Sage pictured his familiar, self-ignited rage as he said it. “What time is it, anyway? I don’t need to hear all of this, now–”
On neither end of Sage’s pink phone was anyone who knew the time. There were no clocks in her bathroom, and she was, just by the nature of inverses, a prude for anything inconvenient.
“Come on, Dad,” she whispered. “I’m allowed to have the occasional feeling.”
“I’ve given you a lot of comfortable places to sit while you have these feelings,” he said. “So forgive me if I feel like I deserve some credit for that.”
This was the part at which Sage started to forget her physicality. She had reimagined it many times: whether she moved to her comfortable home on the bathmat and laid, or whether she crossed her legs on the floor and pressed the back of her neck to the toilet bowl, she would ultimately never know. The image she usually chose was of herself pacing all over her apartment, trapping herself in circles with the infinitely long cord of the phone.
“I always wanted to feel like there was safety inside of you,” she said. “I always wanted there to be some insulation. Like you wouldn’t go that far. Like when you drove drunk with me and we didn’t die, I took it as some kind of a sign. It was like because you were my dad, you could try to kill me and I wouldn’t actually die. And that’s what love is, to me. Believing that you weren’t going to hurt me even if you did everything in your power to.”
She was not sure what length of time transpired before his response. Sometimes his “I never wanted to hurt you” came tumbling out of the receiver alarmingly quickly, nearly slicing the end of her sentence. Other times, it was more subdued and peaceful and premeditated. Either way, his next line was always in the same, monotone register of disappointed, admitted defeat. “I can’t really explain it.”
“Maybe that is something like love,” Sage said. “I don’t know. You don’t even have to love me for me to dial you up again.”
“I always answer, you know,” he said. “Whenever you call. And I worry about you. I do. You don’t have to give me the credit for it, but I worry.” Whenever Sage could not sleep at night, she felt that last word, worry, claw at the inside of her chest. She just could not make up her mind on the important matter of whether or not dead parents could still worry about you.
“Goodnight,” Sage said. “Goodnight, Daddy.” Strangely, though this was the line which ended the call, she did not regret having said it.
She put the phone back into its holder. Her precarious seating positions had stretched out the bouncy shape of the wire, and its casing had begun to wear off at parts. She made a mental note to call the technician and ask whether or not this small bit of exposed underwire would result in her electrocution. It may not have been a big deal if the phone were not in such a splash zone.
Sage avoided being electrocuted in the two years which passed after the phone call, though her nightly vibrator usage certainly did not help the cause. She also avoided looking at old photographs, and smelling lavender and cedarwood, and she even avoided Sandy at work, which sucked, because friends at work were the hardest types of friends to obtain. She avoided thinking of her sister, Ceda, and the ways in which her father never got over Ceda’s decision to exile herself from the family (i.e. make the move of ultimate traitorship to the West Coast). Ceda was supposed to come back for the funeral, but characteristically missed her flight, and was unconcerned with booking another against the clear advice of the universe and time and California traffic. After the funeral, Sage went to the nearby craft store – who knows whether or not she would have gone had it been any further than down the block from the cemetery – and purchased paints and a canvas.
Sage then avoided the canvas, too. She focused instead on the portrait of her father she was concocting in her head. She could see the intended painting as a completed project: the darkened wrinkles she would stroke in under his eyes, the blue sweater into which she would thrust his painted body. It was in the unfathomable difficulty of beginning that Sage ran into trouble. She could not determine the first body part to carve out, the first pigment to mix, the placement of the first confrontation between brush and canvas.
By the bathroom sink, she left the paints sitting out in small, spurted circles on a plate. When the paints naturally grew mold, she washed the plate, squirted more out of the bottles, and let the process renew itself. Sage was hardly a painter, aside from a few abstract renditions she had done when she had crushes on teachers in high school. (These had now accumulated both dust and romance under her bed, except for one that she had sold in college when someone thought she might really be worth something.) Still, she really did want to paint her father. She thought it might unify him again, reassemble him from the scattered and cancerous shards into which he had been demolished. She thought it might mean something real. It was just that every time she dipped her hands into reds and greens and browns to immortalize some image of him, she saw her fingers as troops, as invaders, their acrylic nail tips as grenades. It would have been one thing to paint the subject if he sat before her, posed and visible. It was another to have the artistic responsibility of a posthumous rendering. In memory, her father’s shape was impossible not to maim.