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Out of Focus

Ana Novoa

We’re going thirty miles an hour in the fast lane. I don't deign to look at my father because it feels like his slow-ass driving is a test of my patience. We weren't getting full-on dirty looks from people who passed us in the right lane, but I distinctly saw that glance and then a nod of confirmation because yes it was a little old man who was driving so slowly. Of course. Among other things, he gets a pass for this because of his age. He looks at least ninety. His hair isn't completely gone; instead, it's become so thin, stringy, and hard to control that he allows it to do whatever it wants, making him look like an old heroin addict that's too doped up to tell the difference. The cracks in his face form dehydrated canyons, the spots of color on his hands landmarks visible from space. I half expect a creak whenever he stands up.

I tighten my folded arms and shift away from him as if I can prevent myself from someday looking like the old codger if I just stay far away enough. Hopefully, I'll be long gone before that many years pass. He won't though; it's always the bitter ones that live the longest.

I pull out my phone to annoy him, and sure enough, he makes that grunting noise when he sees it. The sound manages to convey his general disappointment in me and jealousy at the fact that I know how to use my phone. Today’s top story: yet another city flooding. The next: new lakes forming in Arizona. Part of me wonders if it’s ever going to rain again. Mid-September and the sky is clear, the pools still open.

Dad always says climate change is bullshit, of course. “Haven’t you ever heard of a thing called seasons?” Neither of us are feeling particularly chatty today, thankfully.

I decide it’s best for my mental health to stay off my phone, so I screw with the radio instead. Dad gives me the side-eye but says nothing. Evidently, he’s gotten tired of my attention- seeking.

We're back up to the speed limit when I get a text from Lila. Now that I'm stuck in the old Lexus (which might as well be a Hummer for all the exhaust it spits out) with the old man, she's suddenly cleared up her schedule and could've given me a ride today if only I'd reminded her. Silly me. I let her play it off as a coincidence, taking her sparse apology without sending my skepticism back.

"Who's that?" I hear him ask.


"Mm." That’s about the reaction I have whenever Lila calls me. I mean, she’s my sister and I love her and all that obligatory stuff, but I’ve kind of lost the will to try to stay caught up on her life. She only calls to tell me stuff when her friends are busy. Not that I mind. She spent half an hour telling me about her latest boyfriend last time. I set my phone on the counter and edited some photos for a while, half listening. She makes for good white noise. That was a while ago, though. She swore off talking to me for reasons I can’t remember. She’s done that to Dad several times, though, and still winds up playing nice again so she can ask for money, so I’m not worried.

Last time I actually saw her, I was going to this Chinese place at midnight, which is a weekend habit I hadn't been able to kick since freshman year. It let me pretend I was still excited about being an independent adult. The neon sign outside the restaurant looked very aesthetic, so I was taking a picture of it when I noticed my sister across the street, stumbling out of a karaoke place with a group of people. I couldn’t help but wonder how long she’d known them, or how long they would put up with her. She looked happy, at least, which is what I tried to focus on. Naturally, though, the starkest part of that memory is some guy watching her hungrily.

One of Lila’s friends, Beth, seemed to think for a while that I was her friend by default. Either that or she just didn’t know anyone else who frequented the coffee shop that she was always haunting. She always sat with me and would immediately start talking no matter how pointedly I avoided eye contact. At least she kept me updated on Lila, back when I cared. I used to dig for this, going down our list of shared friends until someone could tell me where my sister was and what she was doing. Now I wished Beth would leave me alone and keep Lila’s shit to herself.

“I saw her the other night. She always wants to go out, but I’m broke, of course. What am I supposed to do? Some of us have work in the morning,” she laughed. Lila had a job; she just didn’t care. I didn’t tell Beth that I was moving across the country. I also didn’t tell her that she was an irresponsible bitch for leaving my sister alone. No doubt she would be alone until someone hit on her, which never took long. I look at her number on my phone now and wonder if our old man knows any of this.

“How long are you going away?” Dad asks me. There’s no preamble, and he still doesn’t look at me.

“I’m not ‘going away,’ Dad. I’m moving. For years. Forever. I don’t know.” It sounds stupid, and I suddenly feel very much like a kid.

“What’s in Detroit?” he asks. What’s in Detroit is my first photography job in five years. That’s right, I’m actually pursuing my dreams. Way to go, Justin—you’re blowing thousands on airfare and moving expenses on the slim chance that you can actually have a profitable career in the arts. The distance is a bonus. At my old job, I could mostly work from my apartment, but on the few occasions I do go into the office, I drive past my elementary school, the old house, and the pizza place where I worked my first job. It’s quite depressing. What’s in Detroit is also a hell of a lot more culture than anywhere within a fifty-mile radius of home.

“A job,” I reply. He hums a non-response, which he knows I hate. There’s a brief moment where I want to start a fight. What kind of father doesn’t worry about his son moving across the country? He should be asking me where I’m working, where I’m staying, what I’ll be doing. I don’t, though; instead, I shrug at the dashboard and remind myself that I’m an adult. An adult who’s moving several states away to avoid his family, sure, but an adult all the same. Not that the avoiding is going too well at this moment.

I spot some wildflowers and nearly yell at him to stop the car as they start to thin out, but then it occurs to me that giving my father a heart attack while he’s behind the wheel of the car I’m in is probably a bad idea. “Can you pull over for a second?” I ask. He gives me a disgusted look—he’s one of those people who thinks flight deadlines are three hours before you’re called—but soon we’re slowing down, and I can hear gravel under the tires. Wordlessly, I get out.

The sun is still fresh enough to make me feel the skin on my neck pucker, and I have to pause to let my eyes adjust. I knew I would regret not buying the cheapo sunglasses at the last gas station. I open the trunk as fast as possible to avoid third-degree burns. It doesn't work so well, as old-ass Lexus means old-ass trunk. It creaks and doesn't stay propped until I push it all the way up. I dig through my stuff for a minute, willing my camera to reveal itself before I have to completely mess up all my luggage. I always felt cool when I put together the camera when I was little. I imagined it was a sniper rifle, and I was screwing on the scope. The memory leads me dangerously close to the "What's Wrong with the Youth of America" rabbit hole, which is plagued with Nerf guns and Halo.

I feel guilty and amateurish when I set the camera to auto, but I have a feeling Dad wouldn’t understand that art takes time. I run through it in my head: rule of thirds, half-push for the focus, click. It’s my way of reminding myself that I’m a qualified photographer, I suppose, and not an Instagram wannabe.

The sunflowers (and/or Black-Eyed Susans) remind me of the kitchen at the old house for some reason. I probably last sat at the dinner table when I was seventeen. Dad sold the house a few years back, although that didn’t stop it from haunting my commute.

I push the thought away as I make my way back to the car. The door handle is also scorching hot. I sit down and wipe my sweaty palms on my pants, the camera dangling from my neck. I don't look at my father; he doesn't need an explanation. I know this because I could feel his eyes on me while I was outside. I click the camera back on, ignoring the fact that he hasn't started driving yet. The picture isn't bad for having been taken in about thirty seconds. I had a friend tell me once that I'd be good at taking stock photos for empty picture frames. This seems like one. I still don't know if that was a compliment.

I zoom in a couple notches. The seeds in the face of it and the creases in the petals are clear. I feel his gaze again. I halfway start to look back at him but instead silently turn the camera toward him to show him the shot.

I don’t know what I'm expecting. I listen to myself breathe until he nods in what could be some small gesture of approval but could also just be him telling me to take it away. I do, pulling the strap over my head and nestling the camera between my legs and the armrest.

I don't mention at the next gas station that it's only been half an hour since we last stopped. I stare at my lap as my father pulls himself out of the too-low car and shuffles to the convenience store bathroom. I look up again as soon as I hear the store's bell ringing for him and I know he's out of sight. I need to get up, need some air again. I take out the key and open the door. I'm immediately greeted by the scent of a recent cigarette. Coughing, I grab the camera.

There are, of course, many truck driver types. Lots of said trucks and service vehicles. It’s all very blue-collar and Americana: lots of rough-looking probably-immigrants. I wonder if they worry about climate change.

A few empty parking spaces away, there's a pest control van, a couple of Hispanic guys getting out. I notice a pair of tiny boxing gloves hanging from the rear-view mirror. The setting sun (we've been on the road longer than I realized) brushes against the dust motes inside the van. It makes the poorly painted van that probably smells like dead roaches look just a little cinematic.

I try a few different angles on the boxing gloves. I know I'm failing spectacularly at not looking like a creep, so I give up any attempt at trying to look like I belong there, taking pictures of someone else's van. I frame them up for the third time, straight on. I play with the aperture until the car seats are dark, indistinct shapes, background for the gloves and the fairy dust motes around them. I take the picture just as the Hispanic guys reappear behind me.

I smile awkwardly because we're all uncomfortable at this point. One speaks with the slightest accent. "How's it look?" I'm mute. I didn't think they'd say anything at all. It's generally best in situations like this to not ask questions and back away slowly. I've stood still for too long.

I thrust the camera beneath his nose. His friend peers over his shoulder to see. "Hey, not bad," the first guy says. The second says something in Spanish that sounds reinforcing. I almost stutter out an apology for stalking their rear-view mirror, but instead squeak out a quick thanks as I receive a heavy pat on the shoulder, and they both get back in their van. My father reappears as the two men pull away.

"What was that about?" he asks, his voice sounding faded. Was it like that before?

I show him the picture. "Ah," he says. We watch the van as it vanishes on the freeway. His crepey voice makes another appearance after we're situated back in the Lexus. "What was that first one again? A flower?" I try not to ruminate too much on the fact that he can't remember and pull it up to show him. He nods again, his brow furrowing at the same time. It wouldn't surprise me if the thought of his son taking pictures of flowers filled him with a sense of dread.

I'm used to the blinking lights of planes and satellites after dark, so the motionless stars catch me off guard. I've never seen more than a scattering of maybe half a dozen in all my life. Here, above us, they're laid out like a tapestry. I can even spot a constellation or two. I roll down the window and stick my head out, the breeze mussing my hair, but the view makes it worth it. It's been a few hours, and we're nearing the airport. I duck back inside.

"Could you—would you mind pulling over again?" I ask. I'm uncomfortably aware of how late it is and how he's probably getting tired and irritable. He obliges me with, of course, a slight nod. I'm starting to think that's his primary method of communication.

The night air is a relief to my almost certainly sunburned skin. I get out while trying not to think too hard about the night crawlers that are likely out by now. This probably makes me less of a man but also, I think, more practical. I can't help but glance down at the dirt beneath my feet and take extra heavy steps.

I want to lean back on the car, but I can only imagine the maelstrom that would be unleashed on me were I caught touching the paint. Instead, I settle for craning my neck as far back as I can to get the stars in view of my lens. I have no idea how to balance my settings for this, and I feel a flash of panic. Am I even a real photographer if this doesn’t come naturally?

The ISO should probably be up high. My father is probably getting impatient. I forget to make the shutter speed faster, and the test shot is an array of shaky streaks. I fix it and try again, adrenaline starting to fill my hands. It feels like a test. This should be easy for a professional who’s uprooting their life. My father is aging in the car, waiting for me. I can’t hold still, even with all of my muscles tense enough to turn my fingers white. I take more test shots, every one as terrible as the first. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the headlights have turned off.

He's standing next to me in a second, suddenly seeming much nimbler than when he was negotiating himself out of the car at the gas station. Gently, he grabs the camera from me. Takes a shot himself. He inspects it; it looks like all the others. I watch as he goes back to the car, camera in hand, takes out the key, then lays the camera on the roof of the car, the lens aimed at the sky.

He steps back, crosses his arms, and waits. I half expect fireworks to come streaming out of the camera with all the focus he puts on it. There's a click.

Dad picks the camera back up and rounds the car, handing it to me. The picture is perfect: the stars are in their proper places, not a streak in sight. My mouth has opened slightly, but by the time I look back up, he's back in the car. I follow him.

I don't say anything when we're both back inside, though I want to. Instead, he does. "I at least know how to set a timer," he mutters. The words come out slowly, almost as if he's struggling for breath. I look at the picture again, look at it for a long time. We get back on the road.

The patch of road where the stars were visible is a short one. By the time we arrive at the airport, they're gone, replaced with dozens of head and tail lights. We're in line now. I could jump out now if I want to, but I’m sure the line will start moving as soon as I start unloading my luggage. I wait, holding up the camera again.

I look at all the pictures, flip through them back and forth over and over again. My father's finger is suddenly in my periphery, pointing at the screen. "What was that first one again?" I hold it up.

He squints at it. He squints at it long enough that I expect him to parse around for his glasses, which, as always, are dangling from his shirt collar. He did that a lot when I was a kid.

He turns his face to the wheel, that expression still in place. We inch forward. I watch other people hop out, reminiscent of the various romantic airport scenes I've seen in movies. There's no one here running to catch their loved one. They're all here to let them go.

He snaps his fingers.

"Your mother—she had a dress with those flowers on it. No, not a dress. An apron? Something?" It's the most he's spoken, and I'm momentarily shocked into silence. This does knock some images loose.

"I think it was . . . the tablecloth?" I do remember it now.

I spilled pasta or something on it one night, and he helped me to clean it up before Mom could see. We were both afraid of what she might do. I used to stare at the very faint spot that remained, trying to remember that, in his own way, my father was on my side.

"The tablecloth! That was it," he says now.

"Yeah," I reply. We inch forward some more. I'm still looking for romantic confrontations. I do see a woman who could be the leading lady. She wears a big scarf, some trendy approximation of a trench coat, and a knitted beret that's bright red and matches her lipstick. She has a single piece of luggage. We're in front of the doors now.

I could wait some more. I pull the camera's strap over my head. I want to double-check my luggage, but of course there won't be time. I sit up straighter. "Well, uh, thank you. For the ride." He doesn't say anything at first, doesn't react. His face is lit up by the entryway lights, deep shadows marking the crags that come with age.

He turns to me, makes eye contact for the first time. "Justin," he says. I raise my brows. He falters a few times, testing out different syllables to speak. He takes a breath. "I'll see you," he offers at last, holding out his hand. I shake it.

"I'll see you," I repeat. The camera's lens knocks into the door as I get out.

Passing headlights send shadows over my hands and bags, and I almost get vertigo unloading it all. Everything seems much heavier now. I almost ask my father for help, forgetting that he doesn’t tower over me anymore, the way he’s shrunken. Resolutely, I hoist the duffle over the Lexus' bumper. It takes two or three tugs to get my suitcase over the curb, but soon I'm there. I'm holding what might as well be all my earthly belongings, save a few remnants of my childhood in the attic of my dad's house. It occurs to me that, at least until my flight lands, I'm homeless. I look at my father as people rush and push past me. I thought I would be the same way when we finally got here, but instead I wait until I can lock eyes with my father. A last gift—he nods, revealing a hint of a smile as I turn to leave.

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