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On the Shoulders of Icarus, by Anna Paliy


In the drone of silence at dusk, avatars of my dad – the faces he wore five, ten, twenty years ago – begin to surface in my mind. He resides in solitude today, and so I enter solitude often to find him and to decode his petrified grin.

My dad brought me into a life too great for words: a life to match his own. He initiated the drive that has, does, and will go on infusing my world with purpose. He showed me the toolbox of existence, he explained what it contains for me and what tools will be most handy to build wings and rise. Because of his contagious free spirit, since I was three years old, I’ve been ailed with a ballooning fever for the entire planet, including those corners of it that I will never witness. He showed me how to embrace the Earth: how to lace my fingers behind its neck and hold its temples. He demonstrated to me how to taste food. How to really taste it: to savour. We ate oysters; we drank wine: we made tiny sandwiches out of Brie cheese and concord grapes, and occasionally pears. And by imitating his savouring of food, at three, I learned how to savour Time. I felt myself present at such a young age because he made sure that I knew that I am alive.

My dad was the first person whom I ever knew to genuinely, candidly enjoy the tastes and textures of the world’s fruit, as well as the tastes and textures of language. No matter that he was a molecular physicist by practice, or that he originated as a young seed of late Soviet socialism. He was an epicurean and a gourmand, in full disregard of the obsolescence and kitsch evoked by these titles. I knew this when he read The Lord of the Rings to me when I was seven (in its entirety, in Russian), and then tried to teach me the Elvish dialects, nodding to me that they would come of use later on in life. With a straight face, he did this for months until we developed an exclusive lingo. We then rambled in our new tongue, exchanging secrets undecipherable to all including ourselves. Decadence par excellence.

It was all my dad’s fault. It was his fault that I fell in love with language. With translation. With storytelling. It is his fault that I am pursuing poetry until death – that when I stop writing words down frantically my lungs clog up and I develop paranoia, hypochondria, and melancholia. It is his fault that I am scribbling this apologetic ode.

My mom helped. She was dismissive of our whimsies, but nevertheless steadfast and patient. But it was my father who paved the path: with one-way airplane tickets to Hong-Kong and to France, with curry dishes, with Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas adventure novels. I don’t even think he envisioned, as a young parent, to what depths these manifestations would embed themselves in my being. How long these bugs would live and swarm inside my personality. It was just kind of his way of life. It was his chosen course – he followed the only swerving path he saw. Little did he know that his sprint across the world would peak with my insanity for the love of all that is torrential. My dad took me everywhere – innocently, vulnerably, anxiously at times – holding my hand and my imagination, leading. I walked across medieval cobblestone bridges with him; stood under palm trees and citadels and mighty skyscrapers perched on his shoulders. He took my weight upon himself. He clipped his vigorous wings so that I could have better visibility. He boosted me up so that I could behold, and utter the beheld on his behalf.

To the melodies of Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, Enigma, and Joe Dassin, we ventured to the best places; we went on all the best metaphysical rides. We meditated without intellectualizing. Before I even knew what philosophy was, my dad made me into a toddler-philosopher, furrowed brow and all. Maybe it was all the glaring that he did through microscopes into the fabric of molecules – into the pulsating nuclei of atoms – in his laboratory work. He wanted me to discover what he had seen: the centre of the Universe. And so we journeyed into the belly of the world, and we stood in its entrails: on its narrow nocturnal avenues and on its vast, trembling, tumultuous cliffs. I know this is a sight not many kids get to see. This is a vista only for the very privileged few, and it still feels surreal to think that I was guided right into it.

In the nineties, my first decade on this planet, I was shown the jagged escarpments of culture where friezes flirted with lavender breezes, where clouds and skyscrapers conversed over tea, where smells of spices, croissants, wines of a myriad shades, and my dad’s simmering cigarette courted each other in the cacophonic crowd made up of dancing dialects in the pungent fish markets of Southeast Asia. My dad opened that door – he kicked it down for me. He let me see the masquerade, the frenzied and ambient spectacle that is civilization. When he read the tales of Rudyard Kipling to me, it wasn’t mere bedtime courtesy: we were the heroes, we were the villains. And, as a result, I am today, both delightedly and achingly, my own hero, and my own arch nemesis too. We were vagabonds; flâneurs; detectives seeking synaesthesia in street puddles. We were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The world was our oyster, and we were pearls rolling away.

And then, on one morbid May morning … all of these motions and aromas dissipated into a phlegmatic fizz. In a moment’s blitz, my dad was lost in a frothy vapour and left for dead. He collapsed, still alive but comatose. I lost his grip and walked on. The world forgot him. The world never rewarded him. The world never acknowledged a single one of his vehement, impetuous efforts to look deeply and fearlessly into it, and to describe it to itself. My dad’s lifelong expedition – with me in tow – was meant to reveal to the world a thing or two it had previously ignored about its own design. He did so, but nobody came to listen to his grand defense. I overheard it. The room was hushed. Not a round of applause before he disappeared, before speechlessness overtook him. Fifteen years of ventures amounted to nothing but dead air. There is no mistake to be made: he was no god, no soldier, no Messiah. He was short-tempered and often erratic. He did not fold his socks properly. He drank. But he saved me before I even needed saving. He prevented a particular kind of disaster: the disaster of woman folding in too much unto herself. He made a ravenous explorer out of me: an ambivalent, androgynous, pulsating pilgrim. He walked into the social quicksand so that I would know where to step safely. He got in deep, to his knees. And then it consumed him, while I looked away.

I cannot imagine how incredibly overwhelming fatherhood must have been: to carry kin on shoulders, wings tucked in, and then to flake apart under pressure, to watch as the others move onward while you, only you, are left behind suspended in jelly, body tattered and mind in shambles.

My father is in limbo. He was little more than a keychain to my mom, and ultimately, she lost him easily. Quietly abandoned, he has become the Miss Havisham to my Estella. The oysters, the cheese, the wine are rotting, distorting the air. Atrophy is his trophy. And aphasia.

I never thanked him.

How could I ever thank him enough?

What words could I use?

He no longer speaks.

I wish I knew how to apologize to a man.

I wish I could remember everything with him, over another glass of Gewürztraminer; I wish that I could rattle the ground underneath our feet a little bit, and summon that dormant nectar at the centre of the earth again. I wish I could remember Elvish. Maybe he would understand me then.

I wish he could see in my eyes that with a single look in his direction, I am putting a thousand medals of honour upon his chest, and doting upon his past life unrelentingly. I wish he could see that in my eyes hangs an infinite apology.

You think that I have been inaugurated into the world that has mocked you. That is untrue. I am sorry that I didn’t speak to you for three years, and scowled at you for three more; I am sorry that I forgot that you, too, are human and not impermeable to flaw and intoxication; I am sorry that for a while, I impertinently naturalized your gifts as achievements of my own; I am sorry that I temporarily failed to see you in myself. I was mistaken. You did not neglect three years of my youth; I selfishly missed out on three years of giving you gratitude. You did not miss much: I am still the same as I was when I was three years old. I am more like you than you would ever hope; I am you, in female form, if form matters at all. If you are a villain, I am too. If you are pathetic, then I’d rather be a pauper than a prince. If it seems that you are ignored, then know that you are not. If handfuls of steaming mud are flung your way, then let’s fling them back together; I am not afraid of a little dirt on my shirt. If you are weary, remember that I carry part of your leftover energy in me, and that even in moments when you are maximally inert, there is still a part of you that is walking, observing architecture, eating grapes with oysters, and speaking gibberish to strangers on the streets.

I remember you. In this recoiling silence, I remember nobody else but you.

Let’s take up our expedition again. Let’s speak again. Boisterously upward and onward again.

~ A.M.P., October 2014