I breathe out, the white cigarette smoke indistinguishable from the thick clouds of vapor coming out of people’s lungs into the freezing air of the indifferent streets. I can see it’s warm and cozy inside the café, but I much rather stay out here. I was the one who invited him, but I can’t go in. I would love to tell myself “Come on, Kate. You can do it.” But I’m not sure I can.
The little bell over the door jingles as someone enters the café.
I stay outside and fill my lungs with warm smoke while my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s the fourth time. He’s getting impatient. I scheduled this lovely breakfast for 9AM. It’s 9:17 now and I can’t get myself to get in. He must think I’m still sleeping — which would be a fair guess — but I’m just outside, incapable of going in.
I much rather stay out here, hidden under the hood of my winter coat, the sinless white of the snow tainted by the mud, people walking past me without caring if what’s coming out of my lungs is pure air or smoke, without caring if I’m alive or dead. I’m invisible, I could freeze to death standing here. I won’t, though. I will enter the damned café. I will. Just let me finish my cigarette.
This is my last one. After three of them, I’m not only out of cigarettes, I’m out of excuses. The little bell jingles over my head as the warm insides of the café kiss my face welcome.
I can see his gray-haired head, he’s sitting on the third table, as always, facing the back of the place. I walk to his table and sit in front of him.
“You’re late,” he says without looking me in the eye. His hands are hugging a half-empty coffee mug. He’s wearing a full suit under a long coat. On a Saturday. The man is a machine.
I don’t answer. I take off my winter coat, uncovering my head. His eyes travel through my face and land on my hair. My hair! I completely forgot about it. Instinctively, I slip my arm into my coat, but it’s too late to hide under it. I throw it on the extra chair.
His eyes are still on my hair, but he doesn’t say anything. I won’t say anything either. I’m looking through the window. How I wish I was out there, walking the freezing streets, listening to the sound of cars’ wheels on the slushy snow, the indifferent steps of hundreds of strangers. Alone in a crowd. Alone in the cold. Alone.
“Coffee?” the waitress — Lilly, her name tag says — offers with a smile, trying to break the ice. There’s an iceberg on this table, dear. Coffee won’t do.
“Yes,” I say with half a smile, “thank you.”
She puts a mug in front of me and slowly pours coffee into it. “And how’s everything this morning?” She’s inviting me to dance. The wondrous journey of pretending you care, the choreographed social ritual everyone knows the steps to, the oldest waltz in human existence. Left and right. Back and forth.
“Well, it’s awful cold,” I say. One, two, three. “But other than that, it’s all good.”
“Good! Would you like anything to eat?” she obviously adds. One, two, three.
“How are the pancakes today?” One, two, three.
“They’re great! Would you like a short stack?” One, two, three.
“Why, sure!” I look across the table. “Dad?”
“I ate before coming,” he says. His mouth closes into a thin straight line. I hear a record scratch.
“But...” he won’t dance with me. Lilly is watching, I’m all dressed up, I’ve mastered the steps, but he won’t dance. “I invited you to have breakfast with me.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Ah. There it is. You know what? It’s fair. I don’t know what I expected.
“Pancakes just for me, thanks,” I tell Lilly, crossing my arms.
She leaves and we’re back to the silence. I drink from the coffee and burn my tongue.
My eyes are back outside, looking at the sea of people. Where are they going? Why are they in such a hurry all the time? Are they late? My eyes follow them down Main Street, to Saint Patrick’s Building, towering over the rest of the city.
I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twenty-three years and I’ve never been there. It’s a “New Yorker has never been to the Statue of Liberty” kind of thing. What do the halls of the iconic Saint Patrick’s Building look like? I don’t know, I’ve never been. I much rather be there now.
“I like it,” he says.
When my eyes meet his face, his mouth is already just a line.
“Like what?" I ask.
“The hair. I like it.” He’s not smiling.
“Really?” I ask, running my hand through my two-inches-long hair. “You can’t be serious.”
“But I am.” He looks like he’s reading a death sentence.
I squint. “What about the color?”
He points to his blue tie.
“Fuck off!” I say. “It’s the exact same shade!”
He shrugs. He doesn’t even show a hint of a smile, but I do. Maybe this is gonna be fine. I let my hands rest on the table. My hands are weak and pale when compared to his.
“I don’t have all morning, Katherine,” he says. “Why did you call me here?”
Maybe it’s not gonna be fine.
“You know why I called,” I shrug.
“I do,” he nods. “But you have to say it yourself.”
I fiddle with my fingers. Usually, this is the time to start dancing again.
“Can we try to talk first?” I ask.
He rolls his eyes. “Sure.”
“No. Honest this time.”
“Yes. I’m… practicing.”
He’s interested, curious.
“Sure. Why the hair?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I start, without knowing where I’m gonna go from there. But I can have a normal conversation with my father, it’s just like a dance. One, two, three, four. “I always wanted to have short hair. I didn’t know I wanted it so short though. I surprised myself!”
“And why blue?”
“Who knows?” I say.
The conversation dies out, I can feel I stepped on his toe. I try again. “How is…” he raises his eyebrows, waiting for the end of the question. “The company! How’s the company?”
Five, six, seven, eight.
“The same,” he sits back, his fingers wrapping around his mug. “We did hire some engineers, though. We’re trying to put some technology into our process. It’s gonna be an interesting year, full of challenges.”
He drinks from his coffee.
“And how is Margaret?” I ask.
He coughs into the mug and almost makes a mess. He quickly cleans his mouth with a napkin.
“It’s fine, Katherine. I know you don’t care about Marge.”
I swallow hard. I don’t. I don’t care about Marge. But I don’t care about the company either. I sure as hell don’t care about engineers and putting some technology into the process. I don’t even care what the color of my own hair is. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. Is it not clear? What do people expect of me?
He looks at his phone.
“I have to leave in fifteen minutes. Would you mind getting to the point?"
I’m not ready yet. “Could we wait for the pancakes?”
He sighs. “Sure.”
I gulp down the rest of my coffee and I’m out in the snow again. And I’m inside the expansive halls of Saint Patrick’s Building. I’ve never been there. I’ve never walked into the elevator and looked at the infinite rows of buttons. I’ve never gone to the top of the building. I’ve never taken a picture with the entire city behind me. I’ve never studied the security and the fences. I’ve never searched for an unprotected access to the ledge. I’ve never stood right on the edge, watching Main Street stretch under me, with hundreds of indifferent people walking to catch up with their tight schedules, always running. I’ve never jumped off the ledge. I’ve never felt the cold air freezing my eyeballs as I dropped. I’ve never felt my insides dissolve while the tiny people grew bigger and bigger. I’ve never died even before hitting the floor. I’ve never jumped off Saint Patrick’s Building. I’ve never done it. I should go there one of these days.
“Your pancakes,” Lilly sets off the alarm, taking me back from Saint Patrick’s Building. I tap my mug and she gives me a refill.
I watch dad. He’s looking into my eyes, into my soul. His mouth is a line and he doesn’t blink.
“Have a good meal.” Lilly leaves with a smile.
I drink from the coffee.
“Why did you call me here, Katherine?”
I burn my tongue and swallow the coffee. It goes down melting my insides. My heart is kicking against my chest, like someone trying to jump out of a building on fire.
“Dad...” I start.
“Do you know the story of the boy who cried wolf?"
I’m not gonna dance.
“Yes. The boy lied to the ones around him, to his friends. He betrayed their trust time and time again. Then, one day the boy cried wolf again, and no one came to help him because everyone thought he was lying once more. Except, this time, there really was a wolf. And the boy was alone.”
This is not a dance.
“Dad.” This part of the dance involves crying, but I won’t cry this time. This is not a dance. “I need money.”
“Yes, you always do. Are you clean?"
I won’t cry.
“I know you don’t believe me, but I am. I really am. I’m clean.”
Dad knows his steps. Five, six, seven, eight.
“What do you need money for?"
This is not a dance.
I’m crying, but this is not a dance.
The music has stopped. The snow is melting. My pancakes are getting cold.
“I’ve been seeing Dr. Philips, dad. It’s been almost two months. He says it’s a good idea if I… I went to the clinic, but I don’t have the money.”
I can’t see my pancakes through the tears. I want to take the knife Lilly brought me and stab my heart to stop it from jumping inside my chest. For fuck’s sake, stop!
“We’ve done this before, Katherine. Over the years you asked for money for that business course, to open a shop, or just for rent… but you’ve never spent my money on these things.”
“I swear I’m done crying wolf, dad.”
I can’t look up. My elbows are planted on the table, my head above the plate, and I can only stare at the tears raining down on the pancakes.
Dad grabs my pale hands and I melt. I’m the tainted slushy snow turning into muddy water.
“I believe you, Kate.”
I look at him. “You do?"
“Yes.” Dad’s crying too, his mouth a thick squiggly line.
“Thank you, dad. I swear I--"
“But I can’t just give you money. Not anymore.”
I’m no longer a human being. I’m not a boy crying wolf. I’m not a junkie crying in front of her father. I’m only tears. I’m the slushy snow flowing into the gutter. I’m under Saint Patrick’s Building, while hundreds of indifferent people walk above me.
“You give me their number, Kate. I’ll schedule a visit and check the place. We’ll sort this out.”
He doesn’t trust me, he fears I might be lying, and this hurts more than the lava melting my heart while it desperately tries to jump off the building. But I don’t blame him. I’m the boy who cried wolf.
I hold his hands tight.
He gets up from his chair and lifts me up from mine, hugging me.
He runs his hand through my short hair. “We’re gonna sort this out,” he says, drying up his tears. “If this is true… I’m proud of you, Kate.”
“I’m proud too, dad.” I laugh and he finally smiles. It’s been years, but there it is. He’s smiling again.
“I have to go,” he says and throws some money on the table. I tell him I’ll send the details of the clinic once I get home. He leaves, the little bell jingling over his head. And I stand here, like an idiot. My face is a mess.
“Excuse me,” Lilly calls after a minute. “Won’t you eat your pancakes?”
I laugh. “Nah, sorry, Lilly. They’re kinda gross. I cried over them.”
I grab my coat and walk out, leaving Lilly behind. Before I know it, I’m walking past Saint Patrick’s Building. Nobody in the crowd notices, but I’m dancing on the slushy snow. Five, six, seven, eight.