Never Came Back: Chapter 7
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“I’m ready,“ I whispered, clenching my hands. “I’m ready for this.”
I stood outside Lucky's Irish Pub, peering inside from my car. A raucous Saturday night crowd filled the room with the background noise of a football game and the occasional shrieks of half-drunk men living out their glories days through the television screen.
In the corner sat a lonely, haunted figure. He was half hunched, eyes darting to the door every time it opened. My
Could he really be my father?
Unfortunately, the resemblance was undeniable. I saw myself in his features, and I didn’t like that.
My keys jangled in my pocket as I slipped out of my car and headed inside. The smell of yeast and cinnamon intensified. Pat, red-faced and laughing, worked behind the counter with a greasy apron stretched over his paunchy belly. I navigated through the gleaming tables to the back wall, where the noise calmed and the lights grew dim.
Dad wore a simple gray t-shirt and a pair of jeans. With his light dusting of gray and thick head of hair, I couldn't help but notice he was an attractive guy. Had he aged much?
Did he resemble the same man my mom fell in love with decades ago? Lines filled his somber, nervous expression. Wrinkles from a life of hard work, it looked like.
For some reason, I couldn’t picture him with my Mom.
"Hey," I said, standing next to the empty chair across from him. He straightened, a little flicker of light in his gaze. He motioned in front of him with a hand.
“Have a seat.”
This time, meeting his eyes didn't seem so difficult. Despite a mutual agreement to show up, the air felt tepid. Wary. He smiled, but I could sense a film of hesitation in it.
"Thank you for giving me another chance,” he said.
I shrugged. "It's not that big of a deal. We all should get a chance to explain ourselves, I think. I'd like one as well."
He leaned back. "Of course, Rachelle. Of course."
A waitress appeared, drink in hand. She gave Dad a little smile. "Diet Pepsi," she said. "Just like yesterday.
Let me know when you guys are hungry. I'll bring out some cinnamon pretzels in the meantime. On the house, from Pat.“
My heart warmed. Lexie must have called him—the cinnamon pretzels had been our mutual favorite when she worked here.
"You get to decide who starts talking first,” Dad said, “and what we talk about. I'm just grateful to spend time with you at all."
I swallowed, picking at a loose string on my shirt. I'd always imagined him to be some kind of a demon figure in my head. But now he seemed entirely human, even a bit frightened. His voice shook. Maybe he wasn't the monster I imagined him to be.
"Yeah, uh . . .”
All the words that I’d built in my head began to fail. I swallowed hard, feeling as if my mouth filled with cotton.
“I guess I just wanted to explain why I left so unexpectedly. And, to, you know . . . ask some questions.”
My gaze fell to the table. A ring of moisture had tracked down the side of my glass, forming a small puddle at the base.
“I . . . I think I panicked a little.” I glanced up, testing the waters. His expression bore no malice. I kept going. “I'm kind of overwhelmed by the surprise of not hearing from you for my entire life, then finding you on my doorstep.”
A hint of resentment lingered in my tone—even I could hear it. He didn’t flinch, but seemed to accept it with a wary nod. He tilted his head to the side.
"Do you want to talk about this Rachelle? Or would you rather leave the past in the past?"
I blinked. The temptation to sweep it under the rug gave me pause; wouldn't it be easiest to just start over without addressing these issues? But maybe they'd come up later, I thought. Just like little Rachelle, who couldn't deal with her big problems then. Janine would never pass off on me ignoring this. If I didn’t get my answers now, we’d have to circle back eventually.
Bolstered by the thought, I shook my head. "No, this is good. I'd rather talk about it and get it out of the way."
He shrank back, nodding, as if relieved. "Good. I'm happy to hear that."
"I'm really mad at you."
The words rushed out of me in a wave. Although tempted, I didn't break eye contact. The calm, even cadence of my tone empowered me. His expression didn't falter, which gave me more courage.
"I'm angry that you left, of course, because I remember that day so clearly. But I'm more angry that you stayed away. There had to have been thousands of times in the past twenty years that you thought of me—and then didn't do anything about it. Or am I wrong? Did you not think of me at all?"
"Every day," he whispered. "I thought of you every day."
The pang struck my heart again. "So you decided not to contact me every day?"
He pressed his lips together. For a long stretch of silence, he seemed to cast about for words, but fell short. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he looked up again.
"Yes, and no. Some of this may make more sense when I tell you my side of what happened, but at the time, I thought I was doing the right thing. In my head, it made so much sense." His brow furrowed. "Perhaps I willed it to make sense. Suffice it to say, it did. And I felt like you would be better off without me. I didn't stay away because I didn't want you. I stayed away because I felt it was how I could best protect you."
His jaw flexed. The sounds of pub seemed to fade away, leaving us alone in the world of our warmly lit booth, surrounded by cherry walls and subdued lighting.
Beneath the light, shadows cast his expression in deeper contrast. He seemed old. Tired. Worn down. His gaze became distant.
"Yes," he said, staring just past my left shoulder. "I had such a temper, Rachelle. Such a temper. I feared that I may hurt you." He closed his eyes. "One day, I hurt your Mom."
My throat tightened. "She told me that you hit her."
"I did." He nodded, his expression drawn. "I did hit her."
His lack of defensiveness, and the open confession, startled me. I blinked. What now? Did an abusive man deserve forgiveness? Did Mom abuse him, just not in physical ways? I'd been through enough boyfriends to know that no relationship was perfect; everyone had their faults.
What were Mom's? What were Dad's? Setting the questions aside, I waited.
"We were fighting that night it happened,“ he said, blinking. "We were always fighting by that point. I can't even remember what for, but she said something about my family. I don't remember much. I just remember seeing red. Literally. It . . ." He shook his head, motioning to his eyes with a wave of his hand. "It just kind of flashed before my eyes. And when I came out of it, your Mom lay on the floor, crying. She held a hand to the side of her face."
He pressed his palm over his cheek, as if reliving it in his mind. I didn't dare move, frightened I would shatter the still air and he'd disappear, fading into nothing.
"What happened then?"
He shook his head, coming out of a daze. "I left. I didn't return for a full day, so ashamed of what I'd done. When I came back, she didn't speak with me until the next day, when we fought again.“
“And then you left?”
He nodded and held up his hands. "I was wrong, Rachelle. I hit the one person I should have cared for most, and I can't take that back. I tried to talk to her, but she shut down. Years later, I tried calling. I emailed. I wrote letters. Nothing. She'd hang up. She'd never respond. Finally, I stopped trying."
"Sounds like Mom," I murmured.
"The night before I left, I slipped into your room to say goodbye." Our gazes locked. I pictured five-year-old me, snuggled up in bed, comforted by the familiar darkness of my room. Never knowing how my world would change. "You looked so beautiful, just laying there. So peaceful. I must have stayed in your room an hour, at war with myself. I didn't want to go. But I didn't want to stay and hurt you. What if I hit you? I couldn't bear the thought of harming you. It made me physically ill. And I was young. Barely twenty four at the time. I didn’t know how to check my rage."
Something in my chest clicked. Despite the odd arithmetic, it made sense. A stupid idea—he could have sought out counseling, found a punching bag, or a myriad of other things. But I hadn’t been the problem. In a warped way, I could see that he did care.
As odd as it felt.
“So that's why you left. You thought I'd be safer."
He nodded. "Yes. I was young. Impulsive. I didn't have control. When I hit your mother, I realized that something had to change."
"Okay, I can understand that . . . to some degree. But what took you so long to come back."
He swallowed. "After so long it felt . . . it felt wrong to come back. To disrupt your life yet again. I figured you hated me."
The pain laced in his words cut deep into my heart. I had hated him. Maybe part of me still did.
“You took that choice from me," I said, growing into the certainty of my voice. "That should have been my choice. I should have been given the opportunity to say yes or no."
“Yes.” His haunted eyes pierced mine. "I took something from you I can never give back."
“Then why now?” I asked, sipping at my sweating glass of water. The cool condensation felt smooth on my fingertips. I wanted to rub it across my flushed face.He cleared his throat, sinking a little deeper in the chair. The waitress appeared before he could respond, a basket of cinnamon pretzel’s in hand.
"Here you go," she said. "Anything else?"
I waved her off. "We're good. Thanks."
He pulled his shoulders back with a deep breath, meeting my gaze again. "I came back for many reasons. Curiosity, for one. Hope, for another. I hoped that enough time had passed so we could talk as equals."
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wad of papers I hadn't seen there.
With a careless flick of his wrist, he tossed them onto the table between us. He swallowed, his throat bobbing.
"I also came to resolve a little piece of my past."
With a hesitant glance his way, I reached for the papers, opening them with one hand. At first, the words scrawled across the top confused me. My brow furrowed.
"A certificate of marriage?"
"That's your mother's and my marriage certificate," he said, tapping the space above Mom's name. Her scrawl, even from decades before, still looked the same. I read through the license and then back to him.
"What does this have to do with anything. I already knew you were married."
He swallowed hard, shifting uncomfortably.
“Ah . . . Rachelle, your Mom and I are still married."
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