A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Among the things I was afraid of inheriting from my father, his snoring and his high-arched feet were the most frightening. At night, in moonlight, terrifying. His feet all his life were laced into heavy boots. It left his feet thickly calloused, white as grubs, and his toenails grew yellow and hard as shelf fungi. A man of his generation didn’t think about his feet, and even if he did, he didn’t know there was anything to be done that wasn’t vanity.
It was women who worried about their nails, although no man would ever let his fingernails grow past the fingertip. His nail clippers in my medicine cabinet. Men were expected to snore too. His snoring, however, was legendary, and whenever it came up, every one of us had a story to tell about a time when we heard it and thought the ceiling was falling in, a tornado was at the door, or someone was pushing heavy furniture very slowly over a wood floor. Whenever I peeked into his room at night, there he lay, open-mouthed, those frightening white feet kicked free of sheets.
His snoring was useful, a signal that meant we could drop our guards. While it lasted. Once my mother told me she wanted to drop a dead fly into his open mouth to see if he’d even notice, and it is hard to imagine how she slept beside him for so many years. I’m guessing she thought it was what she was supposed to do. When my mother was changing my infant brother in the middle of the night, my brother fired off a stream of piss that arced over her shoulder and hit our father right in the mouth, right in the middle of a snore, but that’s the only funny story I know about his waking up.
If I knew that story was true, I’d say it was foreshadowing much of my brother and father’s troubled relationship. Funny in an uncomfortable way. I have my own strange relationship to my father’s sleeping body, and I might as well admit it. Because there are secrets that are awkward, I have never told anyone about the nights I sneaked into his room and lay under his bed, and it gets stranger. I used to kiss his bare, white, fearsome feet.
Considering the real hatred I had for him, my need to do this at least three times really puzzles me. Astonishes me now. My best explanation is that, at sixteen, I really loved my father or I wanted to love him, and that my real love, which he blocked or the cultural physically blocked in almost every other way, filled me with a longing to kiss, to touch the only part of him I knew to be vulnerable. I was a thief, as excited as a lover. I didn’t want to have sex with him, but what other way was there to make contact?
Since he’s dead now, he won’t be embarrassed by this confession. This intimacy, its strangeness. The morning after the first time it happened, he said he had had the strangest dream about someone licking his feet, and I said it must have been one of the dogs, who truthfully then did like to lick our feet. Everyone agreed that was the most likely explanation, and I felt freed to breathe again. Explaining was, after all, what language did.
Copyright 2016 Jeff Oaks. First published in At Length Magazine as part of The Big Father Essay. Reprinted by permission of the author.