by Sidney Stevens
I haven’t seen him for eleven years, but he looks nearly the same. Remarkably so, except for the few silver hairs at his temples and the single shock of gray that flips to the right. My stomach churns as he enters the coffee shop. He’s asked to meet me. Not the other way around, as has typically been true. I’ve been asking my whole life.
“Hi there,” he says with a nod and tight smile. He opens his arms. I slide out of the booth and lean into him, positioning my arms awkwardly around him. It’s like hugging a neighbor for the first time, one you’ve known for years and talk to regularly. You’re familiar with their routines and habits, you’ve seen them in every light and season, but you have little feeling for the intimate details of their personal life or private thoughts. The connection has never deepened into full trust or ease, and your body tenses, unable to release fully to the foreign energy of their embrace. It’s almost a violation of their privacy and yours. Not what I imagine most people feel with their father.
“Good to see you, Cam,” he says, pulling away, hands still clasped on my shoulders. He follows with a quick couple of firm pats. Holly, Jolly Christmas plays in the background. White twinkle lights are strung around the shop, and the barista with short, reddish hair is wearing reindeer ears. Everyone seems happy, unaware of my excruciating discomfort. Jolly, even. It’s remarkable that the holidays can transform even the tightest of hearts. I marvel every year, and even feel it myself some years. But not this one. Not in this moment, with him.
He orders a plain dark roast at the counter—I’ve already ordered one with sugar—and sits across the booth from me. “Nice place,” he says looking around, hands encircling his oversized red mug. “Good suggestion.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a neighborhood hangout … right on the edge of cool but without pretentions or corporate bland-branding.”
He sips his coffee and smiles. An easier smile than the one he wore when he entered, a wide, charming smile. He’s relaxing. I see that same smile in the mirror—at least I used to before everything started going numb.
“You’ve got a real talent for observation—Are you still writing, I hope?”
“Yeah, a bit.” And it’s true. I am writing, but without much success or motivation. It’s all I can do to arrive at my dreaded job as junior industrial designer every day, the “creative” career I trained for and now despise, whipping up catchy consumer product designs and compelling packaging. I can’t seem to admit this out loud, even to myself—the fact I made such a staggering miscalculation about my own need for meaningful purpose and fulfillment, a reason for being.
“Remember that Christmas I sent you the remote-controlled robot?” He chuckles and shakes his head.
I do remember. Vividly. It had four different speeds and six different sounds. Technology has never intrigued me much—a fact he failed to regard that year or forgot—but I loved the robot anyway with all my being, because it was from him. I also remember its empty box sitting under the Christmas tree after the euphoria of opening presents had subsided, mounds of ripped wrapping paper strewn around it like the shredded remains of some wild-animal feeding frenzy, my momentary satiation already waning. Never enough.
“Yeah, I played with that thing so much it finally keeled over. Even mom’s boyfriend, Ted, the mechanical engineer, couldn’t resuscitate it.”
“How’s your mom?” He swirls coffee around in his mug.
“Good. Actually, just took a sabbatical from the university to help Aunt Nayra care for Lita in Ecuador.”
“Your mom’s a good woman.”
I nod, uncomfortable talking about her with him. It’s almost a betrayal. She wouldn’t see it that way. She is, in fact, a good woman. She forgave him long ago for leaving her, for leaving me mostly behind. But I’m not sure where I stand. Certainly, nowhere in the vicinity of forgiveness.
“Listen, Cam, I’m glad we could meet.” He pauses, glancing at two young women with matching fuzzy white scarves loudly ordering lattes. This is hard for him. You can hear it in his pauses. If only I could stop him from saying it.
“I wanted to talk … for a while actually.”
My gut clenches. He’s been here all along just outside the city, not far away at all. Why now?
“I didn’t see you much when you were growing up … I’m sorry for that.”
The opening strains of White Christmas drift in, encircling us slowly but relentlessly and thoroughly like cigarette smoke. Bing Crosby’s silvery voice is too gorgeous for this moment, too laden with memories of old Christmases never spent with Dad but still special because of Mom and her family’s joyful love of celebration. The very definition of bittersweet. Irreconcilable halves of my life. It seems to come from far away like hearing a distant tinny radio tucked away in some back room. I squirm and scan the shop for a bathroom. I want to shut off this moment. Shut down.
“I really am sorry.” He waits for me to react. Intently. I look away, motionless, silent. I can barely breathe, as if I’m suffocating inside my own walled-off heart, drowning in stagnant blood. No way out.
I’ve longed to hear this forever. No one guesses the depths of my longing. I’ve imagined a weighty scene, like in movies, music swelling and all wrongs magically righted. We’d hug tight and love would flow forever after. Father-son bond finally made ironclad. But they’re just words by now, two-dimensional and drab, like brown leaves stripped of all color and identifying form whisking across the cold ground. No tidy Hallmark reunification for us.
“I thought it was for the best.”
I watch him without speaking. Frozen on the surface. Screaming inside.
“I was afraid you’d be traumatized by my coming and going. All the goodbyes. It seemed better to make a clean break, not cause you more emotional pain.”
He looks sad, remorseful even, unable to quite look me in the eye. He reaches for words, sips more coffee. I haven’t touched mine. He believes this—that he selflessly took me into account with his calculations. It’s a surprise. I hadn’t considered it. But there’s something more when he finally glances up, lodged in the deepest parts of his retinas. He did this to dodge his own hurt, too.
The reality of his pain is another surprise. A greater surprise. He’s never revealed a tender center, capacity for suffering. But I see it now. For him this was a necessary sacrifice on both our parts. We share this pain. I had no idea.
Other memories arrive now, unbidden. Memories I suppose I’ve forgotten or perhaps squelched to feed my narrative. I’m no longer sure which. Memories of times before he left when I sat cuddled on his lap as he read to me. Holding his hand as we walked to Central Park from our apartment. He wasn’t a stand-offish neighbor then. I adored him, the security of his big hand around mine, the cozy warmth of his breath against the back of my head, the animal softness of his embrace. I was his then, and he was mine.
What to do with these memories? They don’t fit my working framework, the one I stitched together years ago like a kids’ blankie to cushion my grief. Where do they belong among other truths? Like Stella. Two more children, daughters, half-sisters I still barely know. He focused on them. Not me. Poured his love there. Yes, he paid for part of my college, sent gifts on birthdays and holidays, and called every so often. But he left me out of the intimacies of daily life. Yes, to steer clear of pain—heartbreak so big it was easier to walk away. But also, to avoid the awkward untidiness, the inconvenience, of having to slip in and out of separate, incompatible worlds. To make his new life easier without burdensome reminders of the old one. You’ll never convince me otherwise. All these things are true. Irreconcilable.
“I always loved you.” His eyes are misty. I can’t stand how they glisten, two puddles of regret too raw and exposed for me to bear. My tears have long evaporated.
“I was so sad I couldn’t keep you. It hurts to this day.”
“It’s okay, I’m fine now.” I lie. If only he’d proffered these revelations more slowly, without emotion, we might have discussed the factual bits and pieces of our history over time, the way scientists analyze each small discovery and eventually weave disparate data into a larger truth. I was living with my narrative of abandonment and loss. It was just barely manageable. I might have come to a gradual new understanding, finally incorporating contradictory memories and nuances into my encrusted neural networks, stretching and expanding them slowly. But how can I possibly process this colossal dump of additional hurt all at once—his on top of mine?
“You’ve turned out so well, so handsome. I knew you would.”
He wants to believe that. Focus only on the visible.
“I was right to let you grow up without the added pressure of losing me over and over.”
“Yes.” I lie again and look at my watch. “I’ve got to get to work, Dad, but it was good to see you.”
Waves of anguish emanate from him, slamming against me as we stand. He swigs down the last drop of coffee and holds me closer this time, hanging on longer. His embrace still feels foreign despite resurfaced memories of more loving embraces. Tinny memories from across time.
I should offer my own confession, a profession of love, words of comfort. Something. But it’s all I can do not to shatter from the added heft of his crushing sadness. I’ll try for a more definitive response, an appropriate response, for next time.
I’m glad we could meet one last time. You apologized to me, and you have no idea how much it meant. Now I want to apologize to you. Please forgive me for causing you such pain. I never meant to be a burden. I’m sorry you had to make such a hard decision to leave me. I can’t imagine your suffering, but I understand you better now. I hope by removing myself from the world you can find some peace again. We are more alike than I realized, and it’s my turn to do what I think is best. Please know that I always loved you, but I’m not sure I can give enough now to satisfy your new (and, by the way, commendable) need for reconnection with me. It’s too far buried. This way you won’t have to lose me over and over going forward. No trauma from my coming and going, all the goodbyes that fall short of satisfaction or closure. This way you only have to say goodbye once. A clean break. I really did always love you. Cam.
Sidney Stevens’s short stories have appeared in literary journals, including The Woven Tale Press, Hedge Apple, The Wild Word, OyeDrum, and The Centifictionist. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, The Dillydoun Review, and Nature’s Healing Spirit. See www.sidney-stevens.com.