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I don’t remember where or when the conversation happened, but I’m pretty sure it was my dad’s idea. Casually, like a doctor suggesting his patient try eating more fresh fruit: that was how he proposed our daily phone call. I agreed readily and every bit as casually – sure thing, doctor, I love fruit – never dreaming that I was signing on to a ritual that would become more reliable than nearly any other detail of my life. But on any given day, regardless of the other vicissitudes of existence, these three things are true: I will eat, I will sleep, and I will call my father.
The impetus for my dad’s suggestion (“Why don’t we try talking once a day?”) was the end of an era that had lasted longer than either of us expected. Just as I prepared to graduate from college in Chicago, my dad was just across the state line, emptying and selling the house where I’d done most of my growing up. He and my mother had made the aged yellow-brick bungalow their own throughout the ’90s, but a rare cancer, a quick, heartless thief, stole her away toward the end of that decade. A few years later, I’d left for college. My dad rattled around in that oversized mausoleum for four years then decided that was long enough. He moved into what might generously be called a two-bedroom condominium on the 30th floor of the middle-of-everything (of the skyline, of Chicago, of the nation) and I came along with him – 22, overeducated, and underemployed, with nowhere else to go. If he’d stayed in Indiana, I doubt I’d have lasted more than a year before launching out of my childhood home and into the wild unknown. But in this new arrangement, I lived rent-free, two blocks from my new retail job, 30 floors above the middle of everything. I stayed for seven years.
Then I moved to Los Angeles.
In an attempt to find access to a brutally inaccessible industry – film and television writing – I elected to become a Master of Fine Arts. TV writing had been a career dream of mine for a long time, predating the move to the 30th floor, with roots in a girlhood fantasy of the California I watched over TV-tray dinners from our living room. So I packed up those of my belongings that had survived the previous move, as well as the various paraphernalia I’d been saving up for life on my own (a collection of vintage Collins glasses, a screen-printed poster of various kitchen whisks) and headed across the country, alone. Leaving my father alone. For the first time in our lives, we would live more than an hour apart. Agreeing to touch base by phone each day was easy, obvious even.
In those initial daily calls, I talked up the exotic flora of my new home, expressing my astonishment at the birds-of-paradise that filled strip mall medians as if it were no big deal. I told him about the short film exercises we were assigned, the mixers we were expected to attend, about my professors’ screen credits. I did not tell him how I hauled my new mattress up the stairs to my second-floor apartment all by myself because I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask for help. I told him about how I agonised over the mysteries of screenplay structure. I didn’t tell him how terrified I was of defending my ideas in class, day after day. In retrospect, I can see how I was editing my day-to-day for him, wanting to tell him only the things that I was proud of. I needed him to feel excited about this wild, expensive risk I was taking. As long as he could be excited, it didn’t matter how lonely I felt or how afraid I was of failing. I told him about how I struggled to write, and I heard myself becoming a writer.
My dad, meanwhile, was closing in on his 20th year working for the same company. As retirement loomed, he found himself constantly being asked to do more work with fewer workers, fighting off the sensation that the powers-that-be would prefer if his whole division could be replaced with tireless robots. And even in his happiest years at the job, he’d given the unfailing impression that going into the details of his work would deliver a fatal dose of boredom and/or confusion to the hearer. His days started early and ended late, but he didn’t want to talk about work. So unless he’d eaten an exciting meal or been to Orchestra Hall or the theatre, his daily recap was over in a sentence. By contrast, my art school hijinks – crying in front of my feature-writing professor, being screwed over by directing students, winning over my feature-writing professor – must have seemed like serialised coming-of-age episodes of This American Life.
For most of my early childhood, my father had himself been an adult graduate student. That’s partly why I hadn’t expected, at 29, to be one of the most senior members of my grad school cohort. In almost every way, my extra five-to-seven years were a boon to me, endowing me with a depth of experience and emotional maturity that many of my peers lacked. Even so, the age difference sometimes made me feel sheepish about my daily calls home. I quickly noticed that no one else talked to their parents as much as I talked to mine. Was I weird? I wondered. But even as my schedule got busier and I made more friends, I never skipped my daily call.
I began to see that my insecurity wasn’t about the calls, not really. It was about the difference between 23-year-old Marissa and these intrepid Middle-Millennials around me. I had spent seven years looking for the same answer to the question they’d addressed straight out of college: What now? I’d spent those years living in the spare bedroom of my father’s new condo. Part of me was eager to put the whole post-college era in a box labelled Wasted Time; the phone calls were one small testament to that label’s inaccuracy. I hadn’t just gained life experience and stories to retell. I’d also learned how to be friends with my lone surviving parent.
My thesis was a screenplay about a father and daughter who were best friends and lived in a Chicago high rise. Over the course of the script, my characters were forced into new situations, until eventually they learned they’d been holding each other back from growing as individuals. Finishing the screenplay was a requirement for my degree, but I was wary of sending it to my favourite reader. I knew this story came from somewhere true, but I didn’t want my dad to think I saw our relationship as fundamentally flawed in the way my characters’ relationship was. The daughter in my movie was, critically, still in that apartment. I was 2,000 miles away, pursuing my dream.
Eventually, I graduated. At a post-graduation party, one professor advised me to wait until I landed a job before settling into a new apartment. That way, I could cut back on the soul-sucking commute that was the quintessential Angeleno’s lament. Of course, both jobs and apartments are hard to come by in LA. I got a part-time job in Beverly Hills; my apartment, lease signed the same week, was eight miles away in Silver Lake.
While I’d been a graduate student, my schedule had shifted with the semesters. Now, the rhythms of working life thrust my father and me into a far more predictable era of telecommunication. He began to memorise my social schedule: Thursday night was choir practice, Trivia was on Tuesdays. The routine in both of our lives made it possible to distil the conversations into what had been different from the day before. Since we last spoke, what had we eaten? What had we read? What had we watched? My father is a well-read, culturally-engaged, food-obsessed generalist, and he raised me to be one as well. Even at our busiest, three questions could easily fill a twenty-minute conversation.
I’d often call my dad as I was leaving work, dialling so fast that my phone would get tripped up because it hadn’t disconnected from the office Wi-Fi as I walked away. My urgency was part duty, part ritual, and part respite. I knew my dad expected me to call, and I hate to disappoint; I relied on the consistency of the call as a part of my routine in a chaotic, unpredictable world; and I looked forward to escaping to the other realm that the calls represented, neither there nor here.
Or, at least, that was the idea. If I called my dad on my way out of the office, our conversation coincided with my half-mile trek to the underground city lot where my car was parked. As the years went on, I spoke first on wired headphones, then Bluetooth, but regardless of their wiring, all headphones seemed to have preternatural capacity to amplify random sounds around me. Someone in a Mercedes would lay on their horn from a block away, and my dad would assume I’d just been in a near-miss accident. Christmas music would tinkle out of a speaker in a nearby tree, and he’d ask if I’d arrived at a party. A family of European tourists or a horde of moody Beverly Hills High teens would approach the crosswalk, and Dad would say, “Oh, sounds like you’re with a bunch of kids” before I even noticed them standing there. All this interference (not to mention the mere challenge of walking down the sidewalk in central Beverly Hills) could make it hard to concentrate on the content of the conversation, to leave this plane for that middle one.
Occasionally I’d wait and call my dad from the car. During the evening rush hour, the eight miles of surface streets from Central-West LA to Central-East LA took about an hour to traverse. On commute calls, I would often ramble on about nothing in particular – after all, I had nowhere to go but forward, at the speed traffic allowed. But as much as commuters attempt to pretend otherwise, driving while talking on the phone is, in fact, attempting to do two complicated things at once. I often sensed an unease on my dad’s part when I called from the car. Midway through a sentence about feeding sourdough starter, I’d suddenly interject, “GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK, DUDE!” – a perfectly normal thing to shout toward drivers who speed up to prevent you from merging into their lane, but not a great thing to say to your father over the phone. My shitty old car didn’t have Bluetooth, so honks, motorcycles, and passing ambulances were amplified by my trusty headphone mic, inducing further panic in my father, who could only listen from across the country and hope for the best.
And so, most frequently, I would try to squeeze in the call before the commute home began. I’d make my way from the office to the parking garage, trying to stay present and focus on what I wanted to report. More often than not, I’d get to the garage and still there would be more to say. I couldn’t even step into the elevator without losing cell service, so I’d walk a longer route than necessary or just continue circling the block until we wrapped up our conversation. Sometimes, I’d lean against the low stucco wall of the nursing home next door, staring at the pink hibiscus bushes outside the garage. When had I started taking all this impossible flora for granted?
My dad retired, and our conversations opened up a bit. They still covered the same topics, but the lists of things he’d read, cooked, and watched were getting ever-longer. Sometimes we could compare notes on things we’d both consumed. But increasingly, he’d tell me about shows that he’d started but I had never seen. He gushed about HBO’s The Leftovers, for example; I had only listened to the audiobook the show was adapted from. He retold jokes from these shows, setting them up by explaining the characters, the setting, the plot. “Well, I thought it was funny,” he’d sigh when I inevitably failed to laugh at the recounted punchline. Then I’d try and steer the conversation back to recipes, or family gossip.
Truthfully, though I’d travelled across the country with dreams of writing television shows, I’d entered a phase of my life where I could barely bring myself to sit in front of my beloved TV for more than 30 minutes at a time. Every time the topic came up, on the phone with my dad or out with friends, I would complain bitterly about “not having the time” to watch the shows everyone was telling me about. It felt almost pathological. I had become afraid of anything that didn’t look like work, sleep, or socialisation. Year after year, no matter what progress I’d made, I felt no closer to achieving the career goals I’d followed to California. Now, I was falling prey to the popular fallacy that I was the only thing standing in my way. Watching TV, which had once felt like entertainment or research, was now, at worst, a waste of the time I should be spending getting my career in order and, at best, a reminder of what I had not yet achieved.
In March of 2020, I got a job as an assistant in my first TV writers’ room. The very day that I was hired, Los Angeles entered lockdown. The job went forward, but the office and the commute ceased to exist. Choir practice was cancelled. Trivia was cancelled. But my dad and I kept up our well-established rhythm. Now I never called from the car; if I was walking, it was only around the block, with no motorcycles or tourists or teens in sight.
We started watching TV together. “Together” means we arrange a start time and each press play on our respective screens. Our first show was The Leftovers; it felt somehow appropriate to watch this fictional humanity cope with the aftermath of losing two percent of the population. The characters’ dilemmas were simultaneously familiar and so much more dire than the trauma our real-life world was – is – coping with. I finally understood the jokes he’d been trying to retell me over the phone. We could finally laugh at them together.
The surreal circumstance of the pandemic lockdown period (and the largely work-from-home era that has followed) has changed our calls somewhat: Sometimes the calls are short because we look back at the day and can’t recall when it began or what happened. Sometimes they get really long, as we have more material to draw from in our primary areas of discussion: what we read, what we watched, what we cooked. But the best, longest conversations happen when we veer off the unofficial outline. Like when Dad (who is always reading four books at once) attempts to explain the philosophy of Anthony Giddens to me before he forgets it again. Or when his daily hour of Spanish practice (a new fascination) has unearthed a thrilling new irregular verb conjugation. Or when, after months of feeling like I couldn’t write, I bounce a new idea off of him, hoping it will get me excited enough to pick up a pencil and commit it to paper.
As I write this, we’ve held up our daily call tradition for over nine years. When we get to the end of any given call, my dad will often utter a now-familiar phrase. “Well,” he says, “nothing else on my end.” I’ve lived my own life in California for longer than I lived with him, lost, on the 30th floor. And I know more about my father’s days than at any other time in my life.
Every time we have been together in person for the past few years, my dad has made the same joke on the first evening of our reunion: “It’s time for our call, but you’re right here! I don’t know what to do with myself!” It is, of course, one of those jokes that really isn’t one. Our phone calls are our shared diary. As we talk, we are recording our experiences into the other person, making them somehow both more real and less fearsome. Over the years our lives have changed, sometimes drastically. But the practice of recounting them, day by day, makes each day into something manageable.
If I’m feeling masochistic, I can consider the question: Who will I call when my dad is no longer available to pick up the phone? But one beautiful thing about the daily calls is that they don’t demand that kind of thought. There is no future, and the past all blends into one script, one tradition. There is just today’s call. We’ll say hello, we’ll unfold the story of the day until, on either end, there is nothing else that needs to be said.
Marissa Flaxbart is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in Film Studies from the University of Chicago an and MFA in Screenwriting. Her feature writing debut, THE MIRROR GAME, will premiere in 2022.