Never Came Back: Chapter 12
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Dad slid into the booth across from me at Lucky's Pub with raised eyebrows. Did I imagine a shade of anxiety in his gaze? This was only the next in a handful of previous meetings—he still felt like a stranger to me, although I could see myself in his eyes.
Around us, the restaurant unfurled with the quiet squeak of wet shoes across the tile floor and the distant clank of silverware. The murmur of voices, and occasional clang of something falling, calmed my frazzled nerves. Just being here reminded me of Lexie, and that was vastly comforting.
"Hey," I said, smiling.
He gave an uncertain half smile, though I saw sincerity behind it. I couldn't blame him for being nervous. Even I felt nervous and our last meeting had gone well. The waitress slid us a few menus and disappeared again without a word. Dad glanced at the laminated menu with an unseeing gaze, and I wondered what kind of thoughts whirled through his head right now. Were they similar to mine?
The smell of rain crept into the restaurant with every opening of the door as we silently perused the menu options. Walls of humidity followed, making the air sticky, heavy, and thick. Despite no sunshine, I was almost sweating through my shirt. Dad didn't seem to mind the general wetness, and I wondered—not for the first time—what kind of things he'd experienced that made him so mellow. From what I'd heard from mom, life with him had been anything but mellow.
Finally, as if he couldn't bear it, he chucked the menu onto the table and leaned forward.
"How did it go with your Mom? Your text was . . . ah . . . vague."
"Ah . . . not great," I said, setting aside the menu. His expression dropped before I added, "at first."
My clarification seemed to give him a dash of hope. He straightened slightly, so I proceeded into the story to spare him the wait. As I explained what she had said, to my surprise, his expression softened. He leaned back in the booth and shook his head slightly.
I cleared my throat, leaning back as a waitress brought us water. I ordered my favorite sandwich—chicken BLTA on toasted wheat. Dad picked something off the menu at random, and we were soon left alone again.
"So I leave it in the flower box, she signs it, and . . ."
"You can get on with your life."
His smile held a glimmer of resolute sadness. All things considered, he may be more stranger to me than anything, but there was a tenuous thread of family between us. One that possibly, with time, could be strengthened. The vulnerability that relationships require struck me anew. Dad could pop in my life now, but disappear again entirely. Did I have enough trust that he wouldn't do that?
Or, if he did, that I could survive it now as an adult, and not a lost little girl?
"Now that I can put all that behind us, can I ask you a few more questions?" he said, steepling his fingertips together on the table. I wondered if it was a nervous gesture. "There is so much I'd like to know."
"Would you tell me more about this Janine lady that you've been meeting with? I'd love to hear more about her."
"Oh, well, sure. She's a therapist I've been seeing for awhile now. Well over a year. I never thought I'd do something like that, but now I'm glad I have."
"What drove you to do it?"
My chest felt heavy when I thought back to those days that felt like they'd happened years before. As if I were an entirely different person then. Probably because I was, and maybe that's what reassured me that my work with Janine was totally worth it.
"Anxiety," I said. "And . . . depression. And hating myself." A pressed a hand to my chest, where it seemed a weight sank all the way to my spine. "I could barely think outside my need to . . . to prove myself, I guess. To be perfect? I guess I thought I had to be the whole package to have worth. Janine has helped me peel away the layers to see that it's just not true."
The strains of compassion in his eyes, like tangled brown wreaths, startled me. Could a man be empathetic and understanding? Could a father be that way? Whatever it was disappeared, back to a wry sense of amusement.
"You must get it from me," he said with a heavy breath. "I've also suffered severe depression and anxiety. In fact, it almost drove me to suicide. And that is what took me into professional counseling as well."
My eyes widened. "Really?"
His gaze cut away, to the table top, where he stared with a distant glaze in his eye. He nodded. "It took a turn for the worse about five years after I left you." A pained expression filled his face. "After we separated, I couldn't stop drinking. I had anxiety so bad I could barely leave for work in the morning. Sometimes I didn't. Then I lost my job. One night, I tried to slit my wrists."
A haunted vein of pain cut through his voice. It sent a chill down my spine.
"My brother found me and saved me. Professional counseling was the only way out for awhile. Thanks to some programs, I learned to control my anger issues. I had to learn to accept that events and decisions of other people were outside my control, but that never removed the pain of leaving you behind without an explanation. Even now, I still struggle with the self hatred. But it's better," he said softly. "Now."
"Listen," I said, still staring at my food. "Things are still a bit awkward for me, ah . . . with this." My hand flapped between us. When I looked up, I saw only attention in his gaze. "I don't really trust you not to just up and leave forever again, but I don't want to miss a potential opportunity. Can we . . . can we figure out what this will be?"
For a long moment, I just looked in his eyes, lost in the surprise that he was here at all—I wasn't sure I'd ever get over it—and the hope that it would be more than a pass-through event. Still, trust didn't come cheap. "Can we be friends? Can we keep it . . . there for now?"
He nodded, seeming relieved. "Yes."
"I mean like texting, phone calls. That kind of thing."
"I'd love that."
A long breath escaped me—I hadn't known how hard that was to say until it was out. Moving too quickly into this felt just as frightening as not having it. I wanted to shove him out of my life as quickly as I wanted to pull him into it, show him everything he missed, tell him every memory that I still cherished. But my better sense knew that only time could heal some wounds. Time, and taking it easy.
"Thanks," I said. "I look forward to getting to know you better."
A familiar grin cracked his face. "You too, Rachelle. You too."
"So," I said, taking a sip of water. "I have an uncle?"
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