He starts his day with a shot in his coffee. I pretend not to notice.
“Good morning, Dad,” I say.
“Morning, baby,” he replies.
He fries the eggs. I toast the bread—two slices for him and one for me—and wash the strawberries. We eat in silence.
I remember the way he used to pick me up when I was little, bundle me tightly in his arms, and drop me onto the couch. I would giggle and try to escape, only for him to scoop me up again and kiss on the top of my head. I remember pillow fights, tickle wars, chasing him around the house.
I remember seeing him at each of my violin recitals, being embarrassed at the way he stood and cheered as loudly as he could. I remember playing and imagining he was the only one out there in the audience. My memories of those recitals hold just me, him, and the music in the air.
He hugs me before he sets off for work. He smells of cologne and whiskey. Arms thin, body worn. Stitched together with the fragile, stringy thread of pride. I hug him tightly, as if the embrace could heal.
He plants a kiss on my head, reminding me that not everything has changed.
“Have a good day!” I say, waving as he pulls out of the driveway. He waves back.
I wash the dishes, wishing I were not alone with my thoughts.
I don’t like how alone he is when I’m away. Mom’s gone and my sister is never home, always off with some new boyfriend. I don’t like to think about how he sits on the couch in silence with his glass of whiskey, the dogs curled up on the floor beside him in sad solidarity. It scares me to think about it. But I feel guilty when I put him from my mind.
I sometimes wonder why I didn’t notice what was happening until I moved away for school. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I took too many things from him when I left.
When he comes home from work, we take the dogs, Bubba and Blue, for a walk. They are getting old and fat. He doesn't walk them when I’m not here.
The sun is bright, and he squints his eyes as if it is foreign to him.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Long,” he says. “Must've walked 15 flights of stairs total making the rounds today.”
“That’s a lot.”
Bubba smells something in a nearby bush and pulls at the leash. Dad clicks his tongue at him and he comes right back to my side, tail wagging and legs bowing slightly under his weight. Bubba always listens. Dad has a way with animals.
“How’s school going?” Dad asks.
“Fine,” I say. “I’m working on a Tchaikovsky concerto this semester. It's pretty tricky.”
We turn the corner back to our block. Bubba and Blue lead the way, panting at the exertion of the walk. Their unclipped nails clack on the pavement. The sun is low in the sky, not quite setting but nearly there. It still surprises me how the days can feel so long but pass so quickly.
There is a rhythm to my world that I do not yet understand. A constant, hollow drumbeat beneath a symphony of life and living. When I am here, when I am home, the strings and the brass and the winds are quiet, suspended over the unending rhythm. Here, at home, the rhythm takes a sinister tone. I am on edge, waiting for the music to resume.
I know that he does not hear it, doesn’t notice that my life comes to a breathless fermata when I’m here. He hasn’t heard the music in a long time.
We get inside and take the leashes off the dogs. Bubba and Blue lap at their water gratefully and plop themselves onto the tile floor in the kitchen to cool down.
“What do you want for dinner?” Dad asks.
We decide to order a supreme pizza from our favorite place. I pick the olives off my slice and shovel them onto his plate, our age-old tradition. We sit on the couch and he finds an old war movie.
“Want something to drink?” he asks.
“Just water,” I say.
I nod and he heads to the kitchen with a shrug.
He comes back with two glasses, one filled with water and ice and the other with water and whiskey. We watch the movie in silence. I lose track of how many times he gets up to refill his glass.
I wish I knew what to say to him. I’ve never been one for words. They feel choppy, inadequate, and I wield them clumsily.
I wish that words were music. Then, I think, I would be able to talk to him, to really talk and be understood. I wish that I had not learned to pour my heart into the strings of the violin, that I had saved some of my heart for words. But I am out of practice and I cannot say what needs to be said. I cannot tell him how deeply it wounds me to watch him poison himself. To watch him and realize that I am not worth staying sober for.
He gets sick that night, in the middle of the night. I can hear him retching in the bathroom and my heart begins to pound. Blue is on the bed with me and I am grateful not to be alone. She doesn’t wake, just sighs and shifts her weight to take up even more of the bed.
This is normal to her.
My cheeks are wet, my stomach is heavy, and I wish that I were brave enough to go check on him. I wish that we could stop pretending he is fine.
I cannot listen anymore. I put in my earbuds and listen to nocturnes for hours until I finally drift into a restless sleep.
I hate that there is a part of me that is glad to say goodbye. I hate that I can retreat into the music again, let it crescendo so that I can pretend not to hear that nagging drumbeat. I hate that I am afraid, that I cannot love him enough to be braver and stronger. That I cannot find it in me to say something, to beg him to get help.
I hate that I have rehearsed the words over and over again while I’m away at school, that I have known what needs to be said for years now. I hate knowing him well enough to know that he won’t want to listen if I do say something.
I especially hate that having a chance to speak is enough to keep me silent.
The next morning, he drops me off at the airport and helps me pull my suitcase from the trunk. We hug tightly and he kisses my head. I have to stand on tiptoe to kiss his hollowing cheek.
“I’m gonna miss you, baby,” he says. We both pretend not to notice his eyes fill with tears.
“Me too, Dad.”
He climbs back into his car and rolls down the window to wave goodbye.
“Love you, kiddo! Be safe!”
These are the meaningful words that I can say, and I say them with all the force and music I can muster.
“Love you too, Dad!”