“How to Become an Exile” by Sean Cleary

sean cleary
Fig 1. “The Storming of Fort Wagner” Lithograph – Kurz and Allen Art Publishers, Chicago.
  1. Being Alone

It was my father who taught me how to understand being alone. It had, he used to say, nothing to do with loneliness, or even solitude. For him being alone involved not even autonomy, but instead a focus that drove you toward an endpoint outside of even yourself, as if you could melt into a comfortable, silent, awareness. When was this then? Before I left. Before he left. In my early high school years my father took to spending summers in Granada, a day’s journey south of Madrid where we lived and my mother worked. That’s where he taught me all this. All of it.

My mother would put me on one of the little short-hops from Barajas and I’d sit and listen to the crinkling voices of old genteel Spanish women whose black muslin jackets were heavy with perfume. They would say hola, crinkle crinkle. My mother worked for Iberia, and this was in the nineties, so she used to walk me all the way to my seat, and introduce me to whatever lady sharing my row. Always the same lady, it seemed. This is Leon, she would say, and although it was clear we were American, and that I was a nothing of a lion in stature or demeanor, the old women always seemed to be so impressed by me. It was their way of being polite. It could have been my neatly combed blond hair. And I was nothing if not gracious back then in return. I had been taught that much. My mother, who always wore a knee length but sharply fit dark blue skirt-suit, would lean over to me in the window seat and say, now you be nice to the kind woman. I would take the woman’s hand and say, in my best Spanish, pleased to meet you. I am Leon. Sometimes, if it was the right type of old matron, she would giggle at my name, or offer me a sweet from her purse. Once or twice, I was patted on the head. It felt nice, the type of child I was there in the plane. I could feel it slipping away, though, the closer I got to my father — my mother’s hand on mine as we crossed the tarmac, the sound of a sweet being unwrapped from its foil, they began to lose their luster after time, after I knew what lay on the other end of those trips.

My father would not pick me up at the airport, but would meet me in the plaza below his apartment with cash for the taxi. I would visit him for one or two weeks, then return to my mother, who would wait for me back out on the tarmac, her red and yellow Iberia lanyard flapping against the wake of the little plane’s rotors.

I supposed if those old women knew why my father spent his summers away in the humming, scorching Andalucian heat, they mightn’t have tousled my hair — might not have told me about their granddaughters or grandsons in Madrid who were the future and finest of Spain. Sometimes there were pictures. The boys were beautiful, the girls were well mannered. This they all agreed on. The fathers were dignified in the pictures, the flat black of their suits contrasting the olive of their skin. Those fathers always had wonderful jobs. Responsibility. Legitimacy. What my father claimed to be doing was finding Frederico Garcia Lorca’s grave. Back in the states, he’d been a high school English teacher, and since he couldn’t work in Spain, he told us that he was going to write a book on Lorca. But what this really meant was that in the conservative city of Granada, and especially at the university, there existed a whole world of men to be discovered, and fawned over, and loved. Other men, too, searching.

When I arrived I’d often follow my father up the stairs to the apartment where he’d have a friend sitting at his little table in the kitchenette. The apartment was small, in a building with a courtyard and an outdoor space on the roof whose brown tiles would remain hot to the touch through the night. The men would greet me casually, almost flippantly. Sometimes it was Roberto, a Catalan man in his mid-forties like my father, and other times younger men, usually a bit chubby, always clean shaven, always dressed in loose fitting white shirts and tight American blue jeans. They’d cross, and uncross, their legs. Their tongues would click at the state of me.

All of the days of my arrival pile up in my mind like a heap of broken televisions, flickering, dying, and reviving in flashes of color — it couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen times I arrived like this in those four summers that my father spent away from Madrid, but it seems to run in my head like a thousand hellos, a thousand men, a thousand nights spent stuck to my sheets or waking, in the middle of the night to lay on the warm tiles of the roof deck and dream that I was the grandson of some tight-faced matron, some future, some finest.

Was it genetic? I questioned, not really knowing what it was, what my father was. This was the nineties, I knew. But I hadn’t yet mustered the courage to say the words. I had this impulse to tell the women sitting next to me on the plane. It was always some version of the same woman, I swear. The words would be in my throat, they would feel like swollen glands pressing up against my windpipe. My father’s a — . My father’s —.

Inevitably a day or two after my arrival, my father and his men, or my father and Roberto, would remember I was there, and after invite me to small talk and a glass of wine (one of the big perks of my life in Granada, I felt). They’d make a big deal of our amble after from Calle Cruellas over to Calle Marques de Falces to a bar full of other men they all knew. I was invited. But I always went uneasily. He looks lonely, a man once announced with me right there in the room, as if I were a deaf mute. My father looked at me and then went back to his book. I would guess so, he’d said into the pages. My father and his friends would talk, often too fast for me to comprehend, and I would flick the buttons on the cigarette machine in the corner of the bar in passive response like semaphores across a dark marine night. Some nights, my father would let me excuse myself and I’d wander back through the night streets. I would stare at the graffiti on the alley walls like they were some sign from the cosmic beyond. I was never given much spending money, but I didn’t really have much need to buy anything. Some nights, my mother would call after dinner, and I’d stretch the long phone cord out into the open air hallway that circled the courtyard and speak to her in whispered English. Everything was fine, I inevitably said. I missed her. But I liked it there — too proud or stupid to know the thin ache of empty loneliness.

I made no friends in Granada, which seemed natural enough to me. I read though. Oddly enough it was then I became fascinated by the American Civil War. Maybe it was a reaction to my father’s fetishizing hikes up into the hills to look for Lorca’s grave that I started reading about the battle of Gettysburg, and Bull Run, and Antietam. And when I tagged along on my father’s hikes — he really was, it seemed writing a book at least in the first two summers — I would bring along one of those dense, blood soaked histories to read while we would spend siesta in the godforsaken plaza of some little suburb in the hills. And as my father no doubt tried to figure out of the bullet-holes left by the firing squads should be described as “egg-shaped” or “like thumbprints left in wet clay” I would be reading out to him the casualty numbers from our faraway nation’s great immolation. I read them usually with hyperbolic enthusiasm. The pure weight of them seemed in my mind to diminish my father, curtail the searing heat I felt in the spending those summers with him. The many dead were friends, I think. He would listen to me passively, the only way one can listen in the heat of August in the hills above Granada. In his passivity he accepted the blunt anger of my fascination. It was death I loved. Maybe like him. Antietam, 22,000. Gettysburg, 36,000. Chancellorsville, 30,000. I would imagine blue and gray human walls tumbling toward each other, locked in some insane gravity that drew them smashing together, deflecting, and then crashing again, never subsiding, just whooping, shouting, firing masses. I imagined blood seeping from the rocks, bubbling from the ground like a spring. I imagined blood in tears. I imagined in it piss, and mingling it swirled running shit. I imagined entrails. I imagined the slickness of black clotted entrails on barn floors.

My fascination became something of a side show for Roberto, the older Catalan my father saw most among his friends. The summer I turned sixteen, he would sit in the little kitchen of the apartment, leaning back on a little wooden chair, a tumbler of wine in his hand, and he’d ask me to describe battles. Antietam’s sunken road, called the “Bloody Lane”, particularly thrilled him. I would describe the slosh of blood as more and more Union boys surged over their fallen comrades. The word boys felt so lonesome then. It had a black nostalgia. My voice would go as deep as it could. I’d lower my chin as I read, as if the book were a holy tome. And to Roberto’s finger tapping on his wine glass, I would describe the wail of the wounded through the night, and the blood stained cornstalks that lined the road, cut down by bullets and streaked with the paths of injured men dragging themselves back to their lines. I imagined they dragged themselves back for honor, to fight on. I imagined they dragged themselves back knowing they would soon die.

It was wonderful, he would say, and take a sip of his dark red wine. My father was not so amused as Roberto. It wasn’t good for a child, especially a teenage boy, to have such morbid fascinations. Roberto harrumphed out a laugh. You! he said. You are the morbid one. It is where he gets it from. Don’t be absurd, my father said. Don’t be silly. Don’t speak of such a culture of death. My father laughed at it, he knew that there was a beauty in his hypocrisy, because it was a Spanish sort of contradiction, and he would feel better qualified, he thought, to write about Lorca as he should be written about.

Near the end of the last summer I went to Granada, in an August morning’s heat remnant from the day before, my father, Roberto, and I piled into Roberto’s black Talbot Horizon and drove over the mountains to the beaches on the other side. I had never gone to the beach with my father. In my weeks there, we would usually go swimming in the early mornings at the University pool, and then sit in the gardens after in the shade of palm fronds and eat raisins and bread and share water he’d poured into an old wine bottle. That morning, as we headed to the beach, we were silent and tried to retain the coolness of the morning. But from the way that him and Roberto moved in the darkness, I knew it had been a trip they had done many times without me. My father packed bread and cheese while Roberto assembled three towels and took sweating bottles of beer from the refrigerator. I wore my trunks and a white t-shirt and a pair of plastic flip-flops I’d bought that spring in Madrid. I remember liking the way I looked.

On the drive down we had barely talked, and instead I let my mood rise and fall with the hatchback’s engine and the crackle of the plastic interior as it strained against the surging little car.

We got to the beach at Salobreña early. The expanse of yellow sand was warm and empty and the surf was low but hit the shale with a soft mist nevertheless. Roberto ran off to buy a beach umbrella from a vendor and then I was alone with my father. I sat next to him, the sand sticking to my sweaty thighs.

I could not tell you if I truly loved my father. His smile crackled and sparked. He was tan, always, but peeling as well on his shoulders and nose. All of these images of him seem to be important to what I thought was my love of him. He could make me laugh with a glance. There were moments in the summer when he’d get a bit drunk and we’d make voices at each other, and he’d pretend to be me, and Roberto would pretend to be him. It would not be an elaborate mimic. He would hold my copy of The Union Image and put a finger to his nose and he’d say, look at me, I’m Leeeonnn. Or we’d make Roberto put a napkin on his head, and he’d hobble around the apartment like an old lady and shout at my father and I  in barking Spanish — he’d yell sluts! or damn children! or just you fuckers! and would use the broom as a cane to shake at us.

My father kept a slight stubble of a beard that summer and when he was happy, like when we’d all do impressions, or when we’d crest a foothill and see the wonderful gray heights of the Sierra Nevada, he’d run a had across his chin. The hair ran down his neck and petered out against his chest. On the beach, we did not talk. I’d brought a book, and I held it in my lap unopened — its atrocities entombed. Perhaps I should have told my mother about the men. I’d had plenty of occasion to, I thought. There were plenty of times where I hated my father — thought how our lives would be better with him gone, or dead. But perhaps my mother already knew, and me telling her would just be another sign of my immaturity, and that when I did tell her, she would pat me on the head like an old Spanish lady and say bueno, Leon, bueno. It was this sort of infantilizing I dreaded. I supposed that it was then the lesson, my father’s silence those summers in the face of it all, learn to be alone.

Roberto came back with the umbrella and plunked it down into the sand. It was flimsy and its metal rod bent under the strain of Roberto wrenching it into the sand.  I sat under its scant shade and Roberto took off his shirt and lay bare against the sand. The halo of hair on his chest twitched almost imperceptibly in the breeze as he lay flat on his back. He put a towel over his head. The tufts of white hair that sprouted from his nipples seemed to mimic the gray peaks of the Sierras behind us. My memories are physicalities. They are casualty numbers, I guess.

My father lay down beside him and instinctively, it seemed, held his hand. It was the first time I had seen some sort of physical intimacy between my father and one of his friends. When I was there the men would surely be around, and they would be there in the morning, as well, when I woke up. But in the evening heat of our kitchen, or in one of the bars on Marques de Falces, they would never touch. They always just seemed to pose, to position themselves in these leaning angles of long slender legs and round little bellies. But there, on the beach, I saw my father’s soft pink hand slip into Roberto’s and I saw Roberto’s head move under the towel as if to angle itself toward my father. Their hands remained like that for a minute, and then with a painful slowness, they unclasped and retreated.

  1. Cutting Ties

I resolved to never tell my mother about the men, though now I assume she known all along. How could she not have known? I never took her for the person that would have sent me as some sort of spy. She was too forgiving for that kind of thing. She would never ask me how’s your father in the leading way she would ask how’s school going when she knew something was wrong. But in my teenage brain I still felt like I betrayed her by just going along with it all — my father’s sin, I thought, visited on me every time my mother held my hand on the runway and kissed the top of my head (when she could no longer reach the top of my head, I would bend down to hug her so she could — I was nothing if not a good little boy, even as a teenager).

So, then I was alone. But the loneliness didn’t descend on me like I thought it would. It wasn’t a crushing singularity. Instead, in the streets of Madrid, I found loneliness floating above the heads of each person, collecting in pools in the alleys around Puerta del Sol where I’d catch glances from my classmates at the international school as they stumbled around the streets.

It made exile easy — it’s not so much about cutting ties from your place of home, but instead about taking a wet towel slowly and surely smudging away the distinctions of that place, so that the words become blurry, and the images nothing but dull splotches of color.

  1. Finding the Non-Place

My father had told me that Cambridge, in America, where he grew up, was not really a place. He said this dismissively when I told him I wanted to go to the place where his family was, or had been — no one was left, he explained, except for some cousins who’d moved out to the suburbs. Nobody lives in Cambridge, he told me. There are academics, there are transplants, but there are no people. Don’t you want to be a person? he asked me. No, I said. I was eighteen. Tall, lanky, unhealthy. And what about you? I said. Aren’t you a person from there. Me? I’m not a person, he said.

We were sitting on our apartment balcony in a rickety new building in Tres Olivos where we’d moved that year. Closer to the airport and my mother’s job. The sun was hot and the trees outside little stubbles against the vast expanse of beige buildings. My mother could get me a job at the Iberia counter at the airport in Boston, she’d said.

You’ll have to clean yourself up, my father told me, as if to deter me from this plan. And what about university? What about school?

I can take some time off, I said.

Time off to work? he said, as if it wasn’t, for him a contradiction. He was smoking out there on the balcony, and was shirtless, and a fleck of ash had caught in his chest hair.  It reminded me of Roberto. I stared at it for a second too long and he looked down, shooed away the ash, and looked up at me, right squarely as if he knew what I was thinking.

Okay, he said.

  1. Find Not Yourself

At the departure gate my mother had hugged me and held me at arm’s’ length as if to appraise me. She said: I hope you find yourself. And her tears welled up. I leaned over. She kissed me on the top of my new, neat, haircut. I’d be working in baggage handling, so the cut was unneeded. But it felt good anyways, like I’d been transformed, however superficially. My father wasn’t there to see me off. He had gone off to Granada, for the last time it turns out.

He’d left me a book of paintings from the American Civil War in the front hall before he left, all these battle paintings of charging horses and volleys of musket fire painted as curling white smoke obscuring the faces of lines of men. He’d wrapped it in newspaper, which I tore off greedily right there in the dark of the morning before I left.

Do not find yourself, he’d written on the first page, without signing.

But I knew it was his writing, a sort of jumbled script. It seemed like he’d almost planned it with my mother, as if he’d told her to say, go find yourself, only to refute it here. And why the Civil War, and why these paintings of the, as the book put in its title, Union Glory? It had an uncanniness about it, I thought. On the plane I leafed through the book and settled on an image of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteers regiment, the first of the United States Colored Troops, storming Fort Wagner. I don’t know why the image caught me there as I waited for the flight to take off. Certainly I’d seen the film, Glory, that depicted the regiment. It’d won a few oscars, and I’d rented an unfortunately dubbed Spanish version on VHS during my high period of teenage bloodlust. And I’d read the novelization of Robert Gould Shaw’s letters that inspired the film. What had surprised me was that the depiction of the charge in the painting was strangely devoid of blood. There was the regiment and Shaw, their white colonel, at the apex of their storming of the fortress walls and the foreground action seemed to be caught right in this moment of strange bloodless penetration. Shaw clutches at his breast where he’s been mortally wounded by a confederate rifle shot, but his momentum hasn’t yet been arrested by the bullet, just deflected skyward. He looks up, as if in surprise, as if in question. And although his glorious death lays smack in the center of the painting, what had intrigued me about the painting was the foreground along the bottom of the print. At the bottom left two Union soldiers stand firmly with their outstretched bayonets at the moment they are set to penetrate into the chests of two confederate soldiers with the cold steel of their weapons. One of the confederates wields a knife and is standing, and like Colonel Shaw— his momentum has not yet been arrested by the mortal blow inflicted him. But the second confederate soldier, legs prone and his torso propped up with an outstretched arm, looks at the soldier with a strange wistfulness. He has a hand on the bayonet set to enter his chest. It’s clear that his hand is not there to deflect this attempt at his life. The bend in his elbow seems to guide this death blow—he accepts it,  knows it.

I saw my father in this soldier’s acceptance. I saw him on that last day out on our little balcony smoking a cigarette as I passed through the parlor to the front door. I stopped and saw him framed in the bright beige light of the Spanish plain. He came slowly into focus against the dark of the room. And there he was. That face. That man. His failures as a father, as a friend, as a lover, and husband. It’s terrible to say, partly because as an American, being ostensibly from Massachusetts I was supposed to instinctively side with the Union soldiers, and especially the famous 54th Volunteers. But maybe that was it. I felt a loathing pity for that soldier, like I felt for my father. But I seemed to feel a fondness for him and sad blue eyes all the same, like I could feel something of that same resignation he felt. It was inside me then. Do not find yourself. But not. Let it come. I know I deserve this. The bloodless acceptance of violence. Violence come back to visit on all of us. That was my father. He would guide the mortal blow toward himself.

It was amid this thought that the jets of the airplane intensified and we shot down the runway toward America. Hands close. And then they release.



Sean Alan Cleary is a high school English teacher, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife and son. As a child he dressed up as a dead Union soldier for six straight Halloweens. And also for not Halloween, many times. You can find his work elsewhere in Beecher’s Magazine and New Limestone Review. He has an MFA from the University of Montana.