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The Father and the Father
We turned and we turned and as we turned my father became one of the void-eyed horses that never stopped galloping. I mean that for a moment my father stood so motionless beside me that it seemed as though he was born on the carousel and would never leave it, and I wondered for that moment if I would have to leave and he would have to stay, because he was born there and I was not. I was seven years old. It was a Monday, a Presidents Day, a day off from school. 

      When the carousel finally did stop, my father clicked into motion and swept me with a laugh off the horse’s back and through the holographic garden and to the rink where we joined some teenagers carelessly pinwheeling across the ice and a smattering of mothers with tottering children younger than me. I spotted another father, skating with a daughter slightly older than me, and I saw, without really seeing, that he was of the same model as my father. 

      My father laced up his skates and then he Velcroed mine, pulling the straps taut across my feet. I was carrying in my mind a question, perhaps triggered by the merry-go-round ride, that I worried was silly, and I squirmed under its weight. My father lightly slapped the sides of my skates as he finished and smiled up at me, still squatting at my feet, his dark, orderly eyebrows raised in anticipation of whatever I might say to him. It was the same face with which he had greeted me when my mother brought him home from the store, three years before. That memory is my first.

      Seconds passed and my father waited as I worked up the courage to at last ask my question. “Daddy,” I said, “if I was a robot would you still love me?”

      On Webnews the day before, a couple in Minnesota had returned their new Andy to the company, saying that he had proved “unreliable.” That’s the end of that company, said my mother, but I could think only of that little boy, discarded by his parents for an unseemly facial tic or perhaps overly artificial proclamations of love. I had played with Andys on the park and found them indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood boys like me, and the prospect of my mother and father kicking me out of our little apartment for the crime of unreliability filled me with worry. At that age I still slept in my parent’s bed, and I was happiest when I woke in the dead of night to find my mother warm and soft on one side and my father heavy and hard on the other.

      “That depends,” answered my father, and his smile and eyes shifted into a familiar look that suggested that something very important was about to transpire between us. “Would you love us as much as we love you?”

      “Yes!” I cried. 

      A grin flashed onto my father’s face. “In that case,” he stage-whispered, “yes, we would still love you.” He stood up from his squat, his joints making the low purring sound that I had stopped noticing, and said in a normal voice, “Your mom and I will always love you, kid.” 

      I was still unsteady on the blades and my father guided me through the swinging gate out onto the ice, his hand big around mine. My father skated with the gliding certainty of a hockey player, his blades seeming to always know just how to touch the ice. We went around and around—I did not think of the carousel—and after a suitable time he announced that he was going to let go of my hand.

      “No!” I cried. “Don’t leave me!” I looked up at him, my eyes saying please, but his gaze seemed to cultivate a small distance between us. It was a distance I never saw in the eyes of my mother, and I knew she would never let go of my hand unless I asked her to. 

      “It’s you, you’re the one leaving me,” he said, teasing. 

      He was letting go and moving away and before I could plead with him a second time I was sailing alone across the ice, my ankles bending, my arms turning like a lonely weather vane. The ice rink enlarged and inside it I was even smaller. 

      “Daddy!” I cried again, desperate and yet thrilled in my childish way. He was skating farther away from me, into the center of the rink where overweight girls in tights and colossal men with pony tails practiced toe loops and double axels.

      “C’mon, Ryan,” said my father. “I’ve seen you do it before.” 

      He was right: I had skated on my own many times, in similar circumstances. Each time I hated it. 

      As I straggled across the ice, one of the teenagers whizzed past me, yelling in a way that cried look at me. He was a tall boy with a then-fashionable pageboy and I saw, as he turned his head over his shoulder, that his eyes were small and heedless. He was looking back at, of course, a girl. “You’re so fucking stupid,” the girl said, laughing, manically affectionate. She frightened me more than him—she slanted forward in a way that hinted at calamity—and I wobbled rightward into the wall. 

      In the center of the rink, my father completed a basic camel spin, his right leg a straight line above the ice, and spun around to see me against the wall. His lips turned inward and upward in a way that suggested patience and bemusement—“His expressions amaze me,” I once overheard my mother tell my aunt, “they’re so lifelike”—and he left the safety of the figure-skating circle. At the corner of my vision I perceived the teenager looping around, chased by the girl, both of them screaming. 

      The boy’s blade tip caught on a rut and he skidded down across the ice, headfirst into my father’s legs. My father flipped into the air and landed hard upon his head, and everyone in the rink heard the metallic clang of his cranium hitting the ice. Their eyes strayed in his direction and the clockwork of the rink paused for a moment as they took in the situation, and they watched with me as my father’s limbs twitched in a way that suggested a pinned insect instead of a man.

      The teenager unfolded like a fawn into a standing position, glanced at my prone father, then laughed, now a pimpled, self-conscious jackal. He shook his arms in grotesque imitation of my father, and the girl caterwauled with him. That broke the spell of disaster and the teenagers and mothers and figure skaters resumed their rotations and turns and spirals as though my father were not lying on the ice, his arms and legs now completely still. 

      Only the other father remained stationary as the rink resumed its indifferent turning. He stood with his daughter on the other side of the ice, looking from me to my father’s body, and back again. He leaned over and they exchanged a few words; she nodded and then skated off the ice on her own as he glided over to my father. 

      He gently lifted my father up by the armpits and drew his body across the ice, his feet snaking them both backwards. As they struggled through the gate three meters from where I stood, the fear holding me like a hand against the wall, I saw on my father’s forehead a silvery gash. His eyes were wide open but they did not see me or anyone or anything. The blades of my skates seemed to grow right out of the ice and so did my legs. I was afraid that if I tried to move they would shatter and I would fall. 

      The other father laid my father across the front bleacher, a tender hand behind his head. Then he skated out to my side and leaned in close, just as he had with his own child, and I could see the cosmetic differences that separated him from my father: the eyes were blue, not gray, and his hair was longer and blonder. 

      “You OK, buddy?” he said. His voice was not exactly like my father’s; it was deeper and his vowels were rounder, as with a Southern accent.

      “Yes,” I murmured.

      “Your dad’s emergency transponder activated as soon as he fell and I’m sure your mother is on her way. You want me to call her?”

      My mind was white with worry. “I … I don’t remember her number.”

      “Why don’t you sit with your dad and wait for her? The signal will take her right to where we are.”

      He took me to sit next to my father and I could not stand to look at him; I did not look.

      “Do you want me to stay with you?” asked the other father.

      I replied, “No.” I meant it: In fact, the presence of this other father horrified me and I could not look at him either. Instead, I stared down at the black rubbery floor creased with the blades of ten thousand skates.

      “OK, buddy.” He placed a hand on my shoulder that was meant to reassure but instead caused me to cringe. Then he turned and crossed the ice to his daughter who leaned against the plexiglass that wrapped the rink, watching us with, I suspected, an edge of jealousy. We had not yet learned to feel ashamed of our fathers.

      “Dad?” I said, still not looking at him. “Daddy?”

      In his brokenness, he did not answer. The sounds of the rink were outsized, amplified, and my own words seemed lost in the sharp aural angles they created. Mom is coming, I told myself. He would be fixed. Or he would be replaced. I worried about the difference. Your fixed father returned, your replaced father did not. One was your father and the other father was a stranger who only reminded you of your father. Still not looking, I reached over and groped along my father’s hair and shoulders, hoping my touch would tell me what I needed to know. He felt as solid as ever but he was absolutely still. I could have been touching a washing machine. 

      A machine. He had prepared me for this moment, when I would see him for what he was, when I would turn and as I turned discover that my father was not, perhaps was never really, there. He had tried to prepare me to be alone. “You were so calm when I got there,” said my mother, laughing, years later, when I was visiting my mother and my father from the city where adulthood had settled me. “You said, ‘Daddy and me rode the carousel.’” She laughed as though we were not discussing the day when my childhood was broken in two, when my father stayed on the carousel and I got off, and I saw the lines on her neck, around her eyes; every few years I would turn and, just like that, see more years on her face. My father chuckled with her but the horses were still stuck in their galloping poses. He still held that distance in his eyes, the one he kept between us, and in that distance that never stopped growing I saw myself skating alone on the ice, and I felt those eyes following me and leaving me and pushing me forward into this, the future.  

Jeremy Adam Smith is a 2010–11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and the author or coeditor of four nonfiction books, most recently Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood.