Never Came Back: Chapter 3

 

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Did you miss the last installment? Read it right here.

 

Chapter 3

When I stepped back outside, Dad hadn't moved.

He stared at the front of the trailer, running his gaze over the dead flowers in the strip of dirt that used to be a flower box. Strips of dreary gray paint peeled off the house. One broken window shutter hung from a rusty hinge. Most of the trailers in my neighborhood had faded, disintegrating with apathy. No one seemed to mind the shabbiness, as if we could win a trophy for not caring.

When I shut the door behind me, Dad managed a wry smile. The moisture had cleared from his eyes. He drew in a deep breath.

"It's a real Buckingham Palace, isn't it?"

Sliding into my usual witty self—complete with heavy sarcasm—felt surprisingly easy. Easier than trying to comprehend all this meant, anyway. 

"Lots of memories. This place hasn't . . . hasn't really changed much."

I lifted an eyebrow, struck by the comment. The house had always seemed like our world. I'd forgotten that Dad lived here once. What memories played in his mind now? It seemed so unfair that he should remember more about my earlier years than I did. I kicked a rock off the broken cement path. It skittered into the patchy yellow grass. We really should turn on the sprinkler.

"It's pretty dumpy."

His lips twitched, half smiling.

"So." I shrugged, glancing around. "What did you have in mind? I'm assuming you came with some sort of plan to woo me into talking to you. Pretty ballsy, if you ask me. Showing up without warning." 

Despite my driving curiosity, I couldn't help the edge in my tone. I felt like my inner teenager had just unleashed and I didn't know how to rein her back in. Dad didn't seem to notice.

"I'd love to take you to dinner. Do you have a favorite place you'd like to go?" 

I thought about taking him to the Frosting Cottage, but wasn't ready to let him know that much about me yet. Did I want him to know that I owned it? Not really.

Not yet.

"I'll drive separate. Meet me at Lucky's Irish Pub. You know it?"

He nodded.

"Great. I'll see you there."

 

***

 

The inside of his SUV smelled like evergreen. 

Either Dad had just carted a Christmas tree home, or he'd stuffed an air freshener somewhere. The scent drifted out when he opened his door and climbed out.

I waited on the sidewalk, but peered inside. Only a few belongings filled the interior in a neat, methodical layout. A package of spearmint gum stood next to cell phone charger, which wound around a covered coffee mug in between the seats. I wondered exactly how much money Dad made these days.

Where was that money when the child support never came through? I mentally snapped at him. Actually . . . I didn't know if Dad paid child support or not. Mom never brought it up, and I never asked.

Maybe he did.

Dad closed the car door and locked it. Scuff marks filled his knuckles and wide fingers, like a day laborer or construction worker. But what kind of construction worker drove a ride like this? Trying to figure him out felt like a constantly-moving puzzle and I'd only been talking to him a few minutes. 

This could be the longest dinner of my life.

"Ah, Lucky's," he said. "I used to come here often."

I remembered—again—that Dad had once lived here. Where have you been all these years? I wanted to ask, but bit my tongue. Trying to imagine him walking these streets—trekking up our front stairs—felt wrong. Like petting a cat backward. Questions ran through my mind, but I shoved them off. Answers always brought more information than expected.

I could barely comprehend the fact that he'd showed up. For a moment, I wondered if I could act like the last twenty years hadn't happened. Not reference the past.

A soft chuckle from Dad startled me out of my vacuum of thoughts.

"It's easy to forget," he said, shaking his head. "But there are so many funny memories of this place."

The bustle of downtown, and presence of other people, soothed my frightened nerves. My stomach flip-flopped. For the first time in a very, very, long time, the idea of food held no appeal.

Perhaps I should reconnect with lost relatives more often, I thought.

"Ready to go inside?"

"Of course."

Pat stood at the bar, wiping down a spilled beer. The smell of corned beef and cabbage permeated the air. When he saw me he smiled and lifted a hand.

"Pick your spot," he said.

Only a few other patrons littered the other seats. I strode past them to the back, where a booth would hide is from passerby's on the street. A heavy awkwardness lay on the air while I peeled my jacket off and made myself comfortable. Dad cleared his throat. A waitress came up for our drink orders. While she retreated for our drinks, I stared at the sugar packets and wondered how to start. Dad adjusted, clearing his throat again. In the background, TV's droned with the news.

So, it's been twenty years, eh? I thought of saying. Do I look any different? You're taller than I remembered. Oh, and Mom hates you and never speaks of you and basically stopped living life when you left. So thanks for that. 

I swallowed. He showed up. Let him start the conversation. Once the waitress returned with our drinks, breaking the uncomfortable silence with the clink of ice on the glasses, Dad leaned forward and threaded his fingers together.

"So . . . I guess I have some explaining to do." He frowned. "Maybe I should have tried harder to give you a warning about coming. Sent a letter, or something."

"Mom would have thrown it away," I said automatically.

His expression didn't waver, and I wondered why. 

"Let's start with why you're here," I said. The idea of moving into ancient history felt too out-of-control. Too frightening. I still didn't know what part of my brain—or my heart—I could trust. Would the memories overwhelm me? Would I see the truth, or just whatever my youthful self remembered through her jaded, uncertain lens?

"Fair enough."

I grabbed my straw and chased ice cubes with it. Although sand filled my mouth, I didn't take a drink, frightened it would bubble back up. Dad's mouth opened and closed, as if he didn't know where to start.

"You aren't dying are you?" I asked, unable to bear the silence. "I mean, not like on some crazy Hallmark movie when the parent shows up after not being around for an entire lifetime and makes this big announcement that they're going to die." 

He snorted. "No." 

"Then why are you here?"

A sudden fervor made my voice tight, perhaps desperate. He swallowed, but his gaze never faltered.

"Because I want to try."

My response stalled in my throat. I expected him to say, I want to make this right or because it's the right thing to do. Then I could have said, You can't erase twenty years of history. You can't make this be okay. Or my personal favorite, if you're interested in doing the right thing, then you should never have left.

The air felt suddenly still. Hot. Like the sticky humidity before a tornado swept in, destroying everything in its path. 

"I see."

"Rachelle, there's so much I've wanted to say for years." He spread his hands. "But now that I'm here, I can't remember any of it. How do I explain twenty five years of history to a daughter I barely know?"

My brow grew heavy. "Look, I'm not ready to be your daughter. We can't start there."

He pushed his lips to the side. "I understand. Can we start somewhere more simple then? Maybe let's start from the bottom. I'd love to get to know you. Maybe we could just be friends."

He said all the right things at all the right times and I hated it. Why couldn't he get it wrong so I could yell at him? So I could have my moment of glory. You left! I'd scream. You left and never came back. You never tried. Why didn't I matter? Why?

All my work with Janine, all the understanding for him I'd started to develop disintegrated like the gossamer strands. Maybe I didn't have room in me for compassion. Maybe all this broiling confusion and agony was just too expansive.

"I'm twenty six years old." My gaze dropped to the top of the table, excoriated with years of use. "I'm currently in college at night because I run a bakery during the day. Yes, it's a lot. Sometimes it feels like too much, but I do it anyway. I love food. I hate mornings. I love dressing up. I was a mess growing up. I slept around behind Mom's back. I snuck out. I ate a lot. I used to be really overweight."

A knot moved up my chest, sitting heavy at the base of my throat. Every word I spoke came out with more energy, laced with pain and vulnerability and fire.

I leaned forward.

"That pretty much catches you up, Dad." 

Unable to bear another moment, I shoved away from the table and ran out the front door, disappearing into the anonymity of downtown.

 

 

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