Lia rushes to the door to open it. With one hand on her coffee mug and another on the doorknob, she pulls the door open. She steps back, startled, as she sees an old balding man, with eyes wide and breathing heavily.
Lia smiles as she asks the old man, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
She continues to stare at the old man nonchalantly.
The old man doesn’t speak. He rummages his bag, refusing to answer her as he gets a piece of paper from the bag. “I got your letter.” He said, only then meeting Lia’s eyes.
Her eyes spot the piece of paper he’s holding, and she meets the man’s eyes once again. His eyes speak of regret and experience, one combination she doesn’t want to have. Lia covers her mouth as they hang open in shock. Twenty-five years of not seeing him, and he now shows up. She jumps in surprise hearing the sound of her coffee mug crash on the floor. She has dropped her coffee without realizing it. With trembling hands, she kneels down and tries to steady her hands as she picks up the broken pieces.
“Let me help.” The old man then kneels down beside her and helps her pick the pieces.
The silence as the two of them clean up the mess was deafening, and was only broken with the man’s attempt for a conversation.
“So, Athalia, how are you?”
“People only call me Lia these days.” Lia’s forces a smile as she takes the broken pieces the man has with him and brings them to the trash can. The old man lets himself in the living room as she rushes to the trash bin.
She continues to count as she steadies her breathing. One, two. One, two. One, two.
She returns to the living room to see the old man looking at the picture frames on display. Her eyes teared up as she remembered the last time she saw him. They were both still young. She was a child, and he was a man ecstatic for what's to come. She sees him observing one particular photo with great interest.
Lia clears her throat. The man turns and smiles as he points at the picture, “When was this photo taken?”
The photo shows the picture of a little girl holding a red balloon and smiling broadly, while behind her is a picture of an older woman holding up a puppy.”
Lia only smiles but her hands are still trembling. She looks down and notices her hands. She folds her hands together, forcing them to stop. She breathes deep and only then looks up at the old man, “That was on my sixth birthday. Every year, my mom gives me a balloon as something more of a birthday tradition. But that year, I was feeling extra sad, so she surprised with a new puppy.”
“Why were you extra sad at that time?”
Lia’s demeanor changed. Her hands started trembling again, but her eyes were no longer shining. They were blazing. She unfolded her hands as her knuckles closed and the demeanor of her voice became icier. “Why do you think?” She snapped.
The old man then looked down, as if a child being scolded for being naughty. “Listen, I’m sorry for what had happened-“
“Sorry is not going to cut it.” Lia continued to glare at her own father. She held her hands to her hips and began to address the elephant in the room. “Twenty-five years of leaving me and my mom alone. Twenty-five years of me hoping for you to come back after you said you’d buy a box of coffee for mom.”
Lia’s voice continues to rise as her emotion gets the best of her.
Do you really think you could just get away with it and say you’re sorry, and everything will go back to normal?!”
The old man looks at her, his eyes are unreadable.
Lia sits down on the couch as his father strides to sit across her. He knows better than trying to comfort her own daughter. Her hands started trembling again, and tears started to fall as he looks at his father.
“Do you know how every year, my birthday wish was for you to come back home?”
“I did. I read every one of them.”
Lia shakes her head, refusing to believe her father’s words, “You’re lying.”
Her dad then opens his bag once again, only to take out more papers, similar to the one he has before.
“Dear Dad,” The old man starts as he reads one of the letters,
“I’m six years old. Mom gave me a puppy. But my birthday wish wasn’t a puppy. It was for you to come back. But I know you’re going to come back. It’s just that there’s a really long line at the store! Right? You better have mom’s coffee when you get back. I love you.”
Lia sits silently. Her tears have disappeared, but she remembers the time how she felt, and how she kept on wishing her father would come back. Whenever Lia would ask her mom when dad is coming back, her mom would only shake her head and give her a sad smile, changing the subject to get her distracted. It was as if she didn’t want to accept her husband left, too.
“Dear Dad, it’s my first day of high school. I’m officially a freshman. I wish you were here to see this. But you’re not. I hate you. If you wanted to leave, you could have just said so!”
Lia clenched her fists as his father reads what she had written so many years ago. Her father stops reading to look at her, trying to see her expression. But she has put on an unreadable expression on her face.
“I fooled myself into thinking you would come back. I hate you. I wish you don’t come back. I wish I had a different dad! Like Arthur’s dad! His dad is always there for him, not like you! You’re evil and mean!”
When Lia was in high school, she has learned to control her outbursts of anger by masking it. She would breathe evenly and quietly, her hands clenching and unclenching, her eyes looking away and unfocused. She mastered the idea of detaching yourself to the things that upset and unsettle her. But the old man in front of her is not someone she can detach herself from.
Her dad flips the pages to have another letter.
“Dear Dad, I’m in college. I wish you were here. I wish you would tell me what to do when I’m starting to like the guys I’m dating, and how you would protect me from them if they break my hearts. I wish I didn’t have to look for my knight in shining armor in other places, in other homes, and in other men. I wanted my knight in shining armor to be you. But you left before I can even scream for help. And I have to save myself from all of this. I wish you were here. Why did you have to leave?”
“I was wrong in that letter.”
The old man looked up as Lia spoke. She shook her head as if to argue with the letter she had written.
“I was wrong. My knight in shining armor wasn’t you. She was at home. She was stuck getting double shifts and making ends meet just to see me succeed in life. She was the one not getting any sleep so that I can have my own bed. She was the one trying to be so perfect in everything. Mom also was my father. She was the dad you could have been. But you chose not to.”
Lia’s dad put the letters down and holds his daughter’s hands. Lia flinches at the calloused fingers and struggles to get her hands from this stranger.
How dare he comfort her after all this? He has lost twenty-five years with her!
The man notices her hesitation and goes back to his seat.
“Let me read the last two letters, then if you still don’t want me, I’ll leave.”
Lia closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The relationship was far too broken to begin with. So why bother fixing it?
“You often do that.” Lia’s dad said.
“You breathe deep whenever you’re rattled or trying to compose yourself.”
“Finish the letters.” Lia said.
It has been so long since she sent letters to her father. Some letters she sent, some she would keep, refusing to acknowledge her father and his absence.
“Dear Dad, I landed my first job today. I love it here, it’s perfect. The people here treat each other like family. Mom is finally dating again. I love the guy. He treats mom like a queen, and mom is happier than ever. There’s just one problem. He’s not you. I still miss you. I got the job, my mom’s got the guy. But I still don’t have my dad. I miss you. I wish you were here. I miss you. Maybe if I say these words enough it’ll lose its meaning. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.
Dad, it has been eighteen years. I still miss you.”
“Is your and Brad still together?”
“I-“ Lia pales and her mouth hangs slack. “How did you know his name?”
“Are they still together?” His dad refused to answer her question.
“Yes. They got married three years ago.”
Lia looks at her father. His eyes are calm and relaxed, and so are his shoulders. He seemed unfazed with what was has happened. And how did he know his name?
“Can I read the last letter?”
Lia nods wordlessly.
“Dear Dad, by the time you have read this, this will all be over. This is the last letter I will send to you. After this, I will have cut my connection with you completely.”
“Yet here we are,” Lia mutters under her breath. The old man hears her words but continues to read the letter.
“Twenty-five years ago, you have left our family saying you’ll buy a box coffee for mom, only to never return. You have left us with no money, no warning signs, and no father. You have let mom live her life without the husband she loved dearly. You have left a daughter to grow up without a king protecting her princess. Exactly two months from today, I will be walking down the aisle with the man I love. I have asked mom to give me away. She has been both her father and mother to me. I only hope my fiancee is nothing like you. I hope he will never leave his family just like you have left us. I’ve struggled with myself, and now I know that I didn’t lack anything as a daughter. And my mom didn’t lack in anything as a wife and mother But you lacked everything in being a father and a husband. I am my own princess wearing a knight’s armor.
“This is it. This is my goodbye. Your absence made me grow stronger. I may not have liked the path you forced me to take, but at the end of the day, I have no choice but to walk on it. I have made my mom proud. And I do not need your approval, anymore.
The old man finished reading the letter, only to see her daughter focused on her trembling hands once more.
“You were right.” The old man sighed.
Lia looked up and at his father.
“You were right in everything. I didn’t become the father or the husband you and your mother deserve. And I know I don’t deserve to be talking to you, right now. So, I should be going.”
Lia’s dad stands up and takes her daughter’s hands. “I’m proud of the woman you have become.”
Lia doesn’t shove them away this time.
“And this man, he’d be a fool not to treat you right. I know I was.”
Lia walks him to the door as he bids goodbye.
“And by the way,” the man opens his bag one last time.
“The line was long. Can you believe it took me twenty-five years just to get this?”
He hands her the box of coffee inside the bag. It’s mom’s favorite.
The two of them laugh. Lia’s hands have stopped trembling.
Just as the old man begins to walk away, Lia’s words come rushing out of her mouth,
“Do you want to drink this coffee?”
The old man smiled.
“I thought you’d never ask.”