On May 5, 2008, my father took me downtown to a show we didn’t see.
It’s complicated to explain why I remember that date so exactly. It has a little bit to do with pebbles in a landslide and a little bit to do with the color of light when it passes up through the spider-web latticework of waves in a pool. I think if it wasn’t for the color of that light, I might not remember May 5, 2008 at all, which suggests the awful probability that many of the things that happened on that day happened quite regularly, and I just don’t remember them.
I do not remember the show we were going to see. In my memories—which are both vivid and disconnected, like a movie you only caught snippets of during fitful attempts at sleeping on a transatlantic flight—it was some sort of musical, or maybe orchestral production at the Kennedy Center, and it may have somehow involved one of my father’s childhood friends, and he had two tickets. We took the Metro. Dad never drove into downtown Washington if he could help it.
We wore suits, which would have meant I wore the only suit I owned—the charcoal blazer and pants I had worn to my sophomore homecoming at James W. Robinson High School several months earlier. I may have worn the silvery blue tie from the same occasion, although I also had a more subdued red, striped tie I was rather fond of in those days.
I was frequently annoyed by my father’s attitudes on clothing. When you’re sixteen, you only care so much about these things, and to my teenaged sensibilities, he could be obsessive to the point of hypocritical. Outside the home, he was not above making private judgments on the attire of others. Inside the home, however, he had no problem wandering about in an undershirt and boxers, regardless of whether any of my friends or classmates happened to be over. Whenever I returned from a school function at which I was expected to wear formal attire, he would insist that I take my clothes off and hang them immediately so they would not become wrinkled. It was as if the home was merely a staging area, a dressing room where the performer must not risk damaging the costume before the performance.
Now I am more prepared to sympathize with my father’s sartorial attitudes, in part because his vices and hypocrisies have become my own. No amount of personal liberalism can shake my conviction that a man who is older than twenty should not be permitted to wear flip-flops in public. Likewise I find I am able to sympathize with my father’s fixation on personal appearance. He probably would not have seen this sort of thing from a class point of view, and probably not with any bitterness, and so I will try to do the same. It is not as if we ever struggled in my childhood. But I will put it like this:
The man who is financially secure, in the truest sense, in the sense that he sits so comfortably atop a mountain of money that he never has to consider the ground, that man may wear a polo and cargo shorts, or a hoodie and jeans, or a pair of flip-flops in public, and feel no shame. The man who grew up in Indianola, Mississippi, who managed to send two kids to college without fuss, who gave up his dream house for a perfectly comfortable suburban home post-divorce, who, in the following years, would struggle through The Recession, The Sequester, and two job losses before abandoning the career he was led to believe was “recession proof,” the man who works every weekday and goes to church twice every Sunday and still finds time on a Thursday to appreciate a show at the Kennedy Center wears a suit to the Kennedy Center, because that’s what you wear to the Kennedy Center. It is about, in so many words, respect.
So we rode the Metro in our perfectly respectable suits. And in our suits, we walked through the Hall of Nations, that red-carpeted tunnel of white marble adorned with the flags of every country, and the giant sculpture depicting the head of Kennedy himself, all his features mottled and molded, as if someone woke up from a dream and just had to show people the man he dreamt of, and so he picked up a hunk of soft clay and when his fingers were done furiously pinching and folding the clay there was this head of Kennedy at the end of the red carpet in the Hall of Nations. Like something out of a dream.
To a theatrically inclined teenager in the greater Washington metropolitan area, the Kennedy Center had the ability to elicit a lot of strange and inconsistent emotions, mainly because of the Washington of it all. It’s a small town, a company town, and the company is the Federal Government of the United States, and so the cultural institutions are never easily separated from the fact that their patrons are some of the most important and powerful people in the world. There is a certain theater you can go to in Washington, you can go there and you can see a show, you can go there and see a show every night of your life, but good luck forgetting, even for a second, that a president was murdered there. I have a distinct memory of eating lunch with some classmates on the roof of the Kennedy Center and having a perfect view of the Watergate Hotel. In Washington, Washington is just sort of everywhere.
There is also the conflict between what the Kennedy Center is and what it is not. What it is not is an aspiration. When you’re a theater kid—or an orchestra kid, or an opera kid, so far as such kids exist—you don’t necessarily fantasize about making it to the Kennedy Center. At least that’s not the baseline, boilerplate desire. In the annual James W. Robinson High School yearbook, for example, they name two students as “Broadway Bound.” “Kennedy Center Bound,” even for those of us growing up in the DMV, would somehow seem like a disappointment.
What it is, however, is one of the undisputed cultural centers of your region, the gravitational core of performance—your chosen extracurricular profession. It’s not just a theater, and there are plenty of those in Washington. Real, hard-working theaters with real, hard-working crews and actors, and you go to see shows at these theaters, and you appreciate the art and the work and the work that went into the art. But you don’t wear a suit. You don’t get that fleeting, thrilling feeling like you’ve somehow snuck into Society, and that’s how it feels walking through the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center.
That’s how we felt. Or at least, that’s how I felt. Personally, I hope my father felt the same way, like we snuck in. Somehow that would make the next part much more bearable. Because the next part is when we got caught. We walked up to the doors of the theater and showed our tickets to the usher. And the usher had the awkward duty of telling us that we were there for the wrong show, on the wrong day.
I don’t remember much after that. We must have walked out the same way we came in, past Kennedy’s head and the Hall of Nations. I know that we left the theater, left Society, and made our way on foot to the National Mall, though I can’t remember whose idea that was. Maybe it was no one’s idea. I’d like to think that was the case. I’d like to think—no matter how unlikely it is—that my Dad and I said nothing to each other, but that we simply knew that we ought to go to the World War II Memorial. I’d like to think that we both knew, innately, that was where we really belonged that night—staring out at the reflecting pool, the green lights dancing on our faces.
And I can’t help but wonder if that was when my father started to think that something was wrong. Isolated, maybe this mistake wasn’t much more than an everyday slip-up. It would have been easy enough for him to just misread the date on the tickets. The show was on May 4 or May 6—but did he read May 5 by mistake? Or did he think that night was actually a different night? In those quiet moments at the World War II Memorial, was he asking himself what day it was? Was he asking himself why he didn’t know?
But I don’t entirely remember what I was thinking myself. I probably dismissed it as another one of Dad’s little slips. Like how he would sometimes show up to the wrong friend’s house to pick me up. Like how he would sometimes repeat entire sentences, verbatim, twice or even thrice in the same conversation, as if he didn’t remember saying it the first time. I may have even felt a little bit of vindication. As a teenager, parents and teachers were always telling me I wasn’t paying attention. Here my father was providing the exonerating evidence that sometimes adults don’t pay attention either. I may very well have been thinking that. Well, Dad, look who wasn’t paying attention this time…
But I don’t remember saying it. I don’t remember saying anything to my father after we left the Kennedy Center that night. Rudimentary words at least must have passed between us, but I don’t remember them. I don’t remember what we talked about, if we talked about anything. That, to me, is some indication that at sixteen I was a little bit aware that this time was different. That it was not isolated. That every little slip up was a pebble at the start of a landslide that would eventually land us here, now, where I talk to my father and he does not know who I am.
We went to other shows together. We shared other memories together. My father taught me plenty of lessons about performance, about art and narrative, and none of them required suits or the Metro or the red carpet in the Hall of Nations. I hold on to the lessons I can explain and I keep them on my shelf right next to the lessons I can’t explain. For a long time I’ve tried to explain, just to myself, what the lights at the World War II Memorial have taught me, but I’m not there yet. We all have files we can’t delete, postcards we can’t throw away. I have this memory, this monument, my father in a suit, the spider web light dancing on his face.
On May 5, 2008, my father took me downtown to a show we didn’t see. I will always remember the date.