I pulled to a place at the door. Several cars were parked in the parking lot. A man and a woman followed a child through the double-glazed door into the coffee shop. The one in my imagination is the father. He put a protective hand on the little girl’s back and an arm around the woman’s waist. They are normal. They are very happy. I can hardly bear to look at them.
I’ll wait. Not sure what he will look like now, 32 years later, I remember his messy, dirty blond hair and half-smile, hoping to hide his crooked, neglected teeth. Maybe drugs or malnutrition cause addiction. He is also very poor. His mother left them. She abandoned her five children and gave them to her husband to take care of them, but she left, married another man and gave birth to his children. With four children of my own, when I kept waiting, thinking of her disappearing, and one day just standing up and leaving, I let this pressure on me. Is she packing things up, or is she just walking into the bright afternoon sun while vacuuming the carpet? Maybe she waited until she heard a man she no longer loved snoring laboriously, and then slipped out in the darkness? I heard a rumor somewhere, although I no longer remember what it was. Even after my father left, my brother still kept in touch with my father’s family.
I have a pair of pink corduroy and a white shirt with a soft silk bow. The birthday present he bought me. Silk is a synthetic fiber, not real. My father is penniless, and all his money is used to take drugs and support his wife, the new one, which looks like my mother’s wife. When I looked at the time on the phone, I wondered if she was also addicted. It is not shocking that he was late, but after so long, I thought he would be on time, as if such a thing could make up for the last time he left us.
“Never trust him,” I heard my grandmother say, even though she has passed away a year. This is one reason I met him, and the only reason I sent a message to Jim.
“Dad is on Facebook,” my brother who lives two states outside said, and he waited. “He lives in a town not far from you with his wife and our half sister.”
I let it sink.
“Do you know who that man is?” My adoptive mother whispered as I stood outside the church after I finished the first communion. My biological mother has passed away less than a month. Her cremated remains were shipped across the country on Delta flights. Seizures caused by continuous and heavy use of drugs, I have not found an overdose of drugs for more than ten years. Instead, my grandparents tried to protect me from the pedigree of my addiction by mitigating the blow with a less insidious cause of death. They said that my mother drowned in the shower.
“I think it’s my father,” I said, lifting the belt of my white dress with eyelets. My adoptive mother nodded. Across the courtyard, just beside the Virgin holding the baby Jesus, my grandmother shook hands with the priest, and then glanced at Jim. Her face hardened. She stood between him and us, our watchdog, our protector. They exchange words. I finally got through her, one of his obstacles. My father hugged us, my brother and I cried because he missed us, because his ex-wife, who left him like his mother, is dead, Because he hoped he never abandoned us. At least these are the reasons why I imagine an adult will cry. I might be wrong. I am seven years old.
“So I have sent him a message. We might meet. You know, speak,” my brother paused.
“I don’t know if I will talk to him. I mean it’s been a long time,” I quickly calculated in my mind, realizing that at different moments in my life, I could recall my father’s second time without thinking. The number of years since leaving us. I tracked his absence on the internal calendar through missed milestones, birthdays, and no cards, gifts, or his holidays.
“Thirty-two years,” my brother spit out faster than I thought. I have never been good at math.
Damn, the DJ on the radio announced the time. Now, my father is late, which is shocking.
I looked at the couple and their daughter. I got out of the car and walked the length of the coffee shop. An older man is smiling, but he is not my father. He is too tall. His teeth are perfect. He has never taken drugs and has never left his family. I thought of him on the way home and made up a piece of history for him: wife, children, long-term careers of helping others, such as teachers or detectives. I think about him, so I don’t have to think about my father.
“He didn’t show up,” I said to my husband, ashamed of the sin that didn’t belong to me. My father has this fault, and countless other faults.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m used to it,” I replied, sorry I told my children that I was going to see their grandfather, sorry I let him relax, even if it was only a moment.
“I will never leave you again,” his hazel eyes are mine, staring at me like a mirror. “I promise.” We were sitting in my grandparents’ house, where I have lived since he first left us. I curled up under the sheets, and the warm breeze on July night came in through the open bedroom window, pushing the white lace curtains into the air like a ghost. My father will not call tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. I will not hear from him again until I contact on Facebook 32 years later.
When I was on the computer, the message came in. “I waited at the coffee shop from 6:30 to 7:30, and now I am home,” I replied. I am there. He is there. It was just a mistake. The father and daughter missed each other because 32 years have passed since they met last time. I forgive him again. It is a pattern. This is a disease.
After a few weeks, we finally met. I asked about his life. It’s worse than I thought. We talk on Facebook every day. He likes to write, just like me. After washing up, my father returned to university, met his wife, had a child, and tried his best to stay awake. He told me that he loves my mother, but they are stupid, they are addicts, and they are not strong enough to love each other in all this.
When the children were cycling on the driveway, the box arrived in the afternoon. I saw from the return address that it was from my father. Inside, there are gifts for all of us. Boy’s shirt, jewelry, delicate gold thread, girl’s, and my birthday necklace. He didn’t remember the date until he asked me on Facebook Messenger. I often wonder if he thinks of me on the day I was born in May every year. I now know he didn’t, because he forgot my birthday. Like many details in my life, it was attracted and swallowed by his addiction.
“Sorry, I forgot your birthday,” he has sent me messages several times a day since we returned to each other’s lives. “I want to give you something, although I will never be able to make up for the ones I missed. In my house, we have never received a gift.”
Now I am ready, after receiving my father’s second birthday present. This thin chain has almost no gold and only nominal value, which proves that he has transformed from a willful rehabilitation addict to a doting and loving father. People will change. Jim changed. I am pretty sure about this. My children, I said, it is okay for you to see them, but only if you can guarantee that you will not leave. You must stick to it this time, or you won’t see them. I made these demands to him like my grandmother used to. He is sober now, and has been sober for decades. He promised. I believe in him. I will always believe in my father.
Kyle took him immediately. Young and trusting, she is my copy. He was equally fascinated. Watching the two of them together healed some injuries that I didn’t know I still insisted on. My father threw a ball at her, and if he stayed like all my friends’ parents, he would throw the ball at me. She fought back and was happy to show off the skills she learned in T-ball. This day has a natural and easy flow, so it is not like other times. This will work. He is different. The man I have always called him Jim is finally my father. “Dad,” I squeezed it out of my mouth, and while practicing, I imagined that he was taking care of the children, or spending time with us in the park with me in the sometimes long and lonely mother’s days. He doesn’t listen to me.
“Nicole,” my grandmother called me into her bedroom, right next to me. This is a Saturday. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand. “Your father wrote you a letter. Well, you and your brother.” I was shocked and numb. It has been seven years since he left. Seven birthdays, seven Christmas days, seven Father’s Days, without him. I have become accustomed to his absence and trust him more than the brief time he was there.
“Okay,” I said, sitting on the sheets, and when I stood up, she would smooth out the wrinkles. “Should I read?” I asked the woman who helped me make all the decisions.
“I don’t know.” My grandmother cleared a junk drawer, which was a little mess she allowed in an orderly life, and then handed me the letter. “Use it to do what you want. If you don’t take it, I just throw it away.”
“I will look at it,” I said, trying to be unmoved. I think this letter is somehow my fault.
“My dear,” she said, stopping from her cleansing and softening, “your father is recovering. This is one of the steps.”
What are you heading for? I would like to know.
“He must make compensation for the people he hurt while taking drugs. That’s why he wrote this article.” My grandmother turned and left me and reorganized. Our discussion is over.
I was preparing for the party, and my husband ran out to prepare beer, wine and soda for non-drinkers like my father. He appeared at the appropriate appointed time and had an embarrassing introduction because many people know our history.
“I thought your father was dead,” a friend said, filling her glass with sangria.
“No, we are alienated,” I said, unable to provide a better explanation.
I met my sister, she is very young, 18 years old, and is going to college in the fall. I imagined that she started to understand my child, and they were attached to her, as if they knew that their lives had some connection with hers.
We eat and drink by the pool. For the first time, I had a normal family, brothers, sisters, and father. This is the fourth of July.
Later, my brother sent a text message saying: “Today is really a good time.”
“Perfect,” I replied as it is.
The next day, I woke up to check my laptop. No news from my father, no morning greetings. I didn’t think too much. As the days passed, the morning sun became stronger and stronger, and the dark clouds were pushed aside, leaving a clear blue sky. I didn’t know whether to stretch out my hand.
I went in to cook lunch for the children, and my father sent a message. I started to read and realized what it was, goodbye. He is too old, too much time has passed. Quoting the letter he sent to my grandmother after cleaning up many years ago, the one I never replied. I am not working hard enough. The last sentence, “We decided that it is best not to continue this trying relationship”, and then follow up with a simple signature, “Dad”. When I looked up my father on Facebook, his account no longer existed. I have no way to respond.
I am eight years old again, and he is by my side. His eyes are looking for my own forgiveness. He will leave tomorrow and disappear from my life. Jim, my father, I will never call him a father, he is young and has shaggy hair. I’m 40 years old, and time volleys back and forth. “I forgive you, Jim,” I whispered, because I finally understand who he is. He is not my father. He has never been. This is the end. This is closed. I am free.