“You remind me of someone,” you say to me squinting your steely blue eyes.
It’s unsettling how everything else about you has changed and withered over the past six years except for those damned eyes. I say hi and you look sweetly at me, offering your hand to shake mine. I like this. No more displays of forced, fake fondness. Now we can just be ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a handshake kind of woman, but I like my words and gestures to be a true reflection of how I really feel about someone.
It’s getting chilly out here. September has always been your favorite season. You used to go for walks in the forest almost every day to enjoy the chill and the greyness. I used to beg to join you, but you always said no because it would “tire my little legs”. Sometimes you took Sandra, even though her legs were shorter than mine and her yearning to be in your good graces was non-existent.
It’s a nice garden they have here. Lots of deck chairs are strewn on the manicured lawn. A few stooped figures pass by and make silly remarks about your “pretty young date”. You laugh, waving them off.
You’re dressed in a grey cardigan, which I think I recognize. Didn’t Mom knit that for you many years ago? I tried to knit some things for Andrew, but nothing I knitted was ever good enough for me to even show him.
But where is Andrew? It’s so unlike him to leave me waiting, especially when he knows it’s an important occasion. An occasion where I need him to ground the floundering hot air balloon in me.
You’re still inspecting me, trying to place me, but I won’t give you the satisfaction of putting your mind at ease. Keep trying.
“Ehem,” I clear my throat, “Do you like it here?”
“I’m waiting for my alien jam!” Your eyes light up.
Those eyes! They used to freeze the marrow in my bones when I was little. Is that what it means to be petrified, I wonder. But then in an instant, I swear, they would turn a different shade of blue. One that charms whoever they were looking at. Of course that color was reserved for people outside of the household. I used to watch from the side with shame, not for me but for you. Secondhand embarrassment they call it, I think. If you were going to be mad and mortifying, then at least stay in character for a few hours. Just for a bit of face-saving.
“What’s ‘alien jam’?” I ask coolly.
“It’s so good!” your eyes twinkle, “Today is Wednesday, right?”
“Hmmm.” It is indeed Wednesday today, but what the hell is alien jam? I never, ever thought I’d hear my imposing, no-monkey-business-in-this-house dad put those two words together.
“You’re buzzing!” your eyes widen.
“Hmm?” I’m jolted out of my thoughts.
“You’re buzzing!” you point at my belly.
“Oh!” I realize my phone is ringing, “Andrew! Where are you?”
I look at you picking your nose. You inspect your spoils in fascination. Was that your alien jam? I remember when you jammed my ear between your fingers when I picked my nose at the age of four. I never did that again; I still don’t.
“Hmm?” I mumble to my phone.
Andrew apologetically repeats that while I’m stuck with you, he is stuck in traffic and it’s looking pretty bad, but he’s doing his best.
“I know my lovely, I know!” it feels like his hand is caressing my hair like he does when I’m stressed or worried. Something I ached for you to do on the rare occasions I opened up to you about something that was stressing me out, fishing for some empathy.
Do you remember what you used to say? “Oh don’t worry! You’re your father’s daughter. Stay tough!”
Then you’d go back to your news channel, turning up the volume.
I look at you now, all grey-haired, thin-boned and toddler-brained, and I can’t believe you once were both my embodiment of terror and subject of adoration.
Why the hell did I agree to this? Why did I agree to come back to this wretched town with all of its bad memories? I’m so glad I took Andrew’s advice and let him book a hotel room for us instead of staying at the ‘family home’. Mom’s tears, your bellows, the inside of my closet.
The deal was that I pay for this mansion of a nursing home while Sandra takes care of visiting you and managing your affairs. She’s always been your favorite anyway. I’m doing more than you deserve, really, taking a big chunk of my salary for you to be comfortable and looked after. But Sandra is in the hospital giving birth to her third child. And God forbid that you go one Wednesday without a visitor. As if you can even remember anything, or anyone!
Your eyes flutter for an instant before they close. Your big, dark eyebrows overlook your droopy eyes like a defiant, age-weathering awning. You nod off and the checkered blanket slips off your shoulders. The sun is turning into a ball of shimmering gold, turning the yellowing leaves into an array of shades of bronze and copper. A menacing breeze whooshes through my hair and ruffles the shivering leaves, blowing a few speckled ones past your speckled face, racing it to the end.
I look around and see other residents leaning on their walkers or visitors and shuffling back inside. Maybe I should do the same. But you look like a peaceful baby when you sleep. Have I ever seen you like that before? I really don’t recall you ever falling asleep on the couch or on the garden deck chairs. You were always on guard. Why did you never let your guard down? It must’ve been exhausting, this alert existence. My heart softens; I almost like you now.
A string of drool escapes the corner of your open mouth and spills out onto your bristly chin, as the sun collects its spilling trail and disappears. We’re the only two left out. I hate to wake you, but I think I must. Just where is Andrew?
I get up and approach you, bending down to your level. “Dad! Dad!” I start off whispering barely audibly. But you don’t stir. I reach a hesitant finger and tap your arm, “Dad, we should…”
But you start almost knocking me over and your eyes shoot open and you look at me in furious fear.
Your ever too familiar voice roars, “They sent you here to kill me?”
There they are, the eyes I know, your real eyes. As a little girl, I always wondered how blue eyes could suddenly have specks of ember in them, but I can see now; they’re just blood capillaries bulging around the irises, not in them. But they’re just as terrifying. You terrify me now even more than you did when I was younger. I thought I’d put all this, you, behind me, yet here I am, a little, weightless leaf blowing in the storm.
“I was…” I retreat trying to explain.
But you reach a surprisingly strong hand and grip my wrist.
I scream, more out of shock than pain.
But then, it suddenly hits me, I am no longer your child. I am a grown-up woman who runs marathons and manages twenty employees. I have no reason to fear you! I yank my hand away and the expression in your eyes changes from madness to surprise.
“Enough you stupid, senile son of a dog!” I scream at the top of my lungs, “Haven’t you done enough? Haven’t you thrown enough tantrums? Just who do you think you are?”
“Mother?” your eyes now narrow in fear.
“What?” I whisper in confusion.
“I’m so sorry!” your voice squeaks like that of a mouse in a corner, “I won’t do it again! I promise! Not the belt, please!”
You bury your chin in your chest and put your arms up as a shield in front of your face.
Pathetic. No other word can describe how I see you at this moment. Pitifully pathetic.
Is this what this has been all about? Just a tormented boy trapped in the body of a monster of a man? I stood there watching you whimper like a wet dog on someone’s doorstep, waiting to be redeemed. But it’s too late for that. Too little, too late. I’d always fantasized about this day. The day you would apologize for all the damage you caused, all the nights I cried in shame because I was never good enough for you. For the world. I wanted you to apologize for the jobs I never applied for, the boys I never trusted and the thousands I spent on therapy.
I wanted you to apologize for making my mother sick. For killing her without killing her.
Yet here you are, apologizing for something that had to do with none of that, to someone that wasn’t me.
A sick voice in my head tantalizes me, urging me to try and dig deeper into this. Poke a finger in your festering wound. I could continue the roleplay and gauge just how far my grandmother went. Was it just the belt? The terror seems much deeper than that.
This might be my perfect chance to understand you. Maybe even have some empathy for you.
I can’t do it.
I want to end this, tell you it’s me, your oldest daughter, and lead you to your bed, so I can go as far away from here as possible. But I can’t make my legs move. Then we hear hurried footsteps approaching us. I look to my right and I see Andrew. He’s finally here.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I think I got a speeding… oh, what’s wrong?” He holds me and I break down into a flood. I gasp into his sweater and he strokes my hair.
When I look at you, you’re watching us in confusion, “Mother?” you ask again.
“No, I’m not your fucking mother!” I snap.
Andrew’s eyebrows form two raised arches, but he says nothing.
A nurse comes out straining to see in the dark. She spots us and hurries toward us with a smile of relief on her face.
“There you are!” she says to you in a singsong voice, like a nursery teacher talks to her toddlers. She offers you her hand and you slowly get up, letting the blanket fall to the ground.
She looks at me and smiles apologetically, “It’s dinner time, would you like to join him?”
“Alien jam!” you holler excitedly, like nothing has happened. Like we’d been playing hide and seek just moments ago.
“Yes, it is!” She winks at Andrew and me, “It’s green jello day.”
You slowly walk off with her, and I stand there squeezing Andrew’s hand a little too hard.
Before you reach the illuminated room behind the glass doors, you turn around and say, “It’s delicious. You should come and try it!”
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This is sad, sure, but it's also scary how real of a situation this is. I don't doubt someone somewhere in the world is living out this exact situation. Heartbreaking. I really enjoyed the slow reveal of the backstory, how you didn't just throw all your cards on the table at the beginning. Really helped to understand the narrator's relationship with her father piece by piece, and it allowed your reader to be an active participant in the story. I kept going because I really wanted to know how why the father is the way he is now and why the d...
Zack, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to leave this detailed, encouraging comment! I've made a few subtle changes to make it clear early on that this was her father. Good luck to you too!
There's a lot of emotions here. The narrator is anxious about having to be here - a little annoyed, a little afraid. She's resentful and bitter of the impact her father had on her life. She's sad that she never bonded with him. She's hopeful - a little - that maybe now things can improve, and then pitying, contemptuous and almost sadistic when she learns about her grandmother's influence. We get all sorts of emotions constantly shifting in a complex dance. Ultimately, it feels like a kind of mourning. He's had a big negative impact on her ...
Thank you for the great analysis, Michał! You reveal things that I wasn't even aware of. Much appreciated!
This is such a gorgeous story of growth and evolution. I also love your dialogue--you have a great flare for it.
This comment means so, so much to me! Thank you!
This story seems bigger than the slice of life it depicts - the commentary on power shift between child and parent as one becomes less dependent and the other more is interesting and relatable on lots of levels. The ending does a great job of conveying that life goes on, and what feels monumental to the main character is already fading into the background for her father, like so much of the trauma experienced in childhood.
Beth, you read the story exactly the way I wanted it to be read. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that. I look forward to reading yours very soon!
This story teams with unbridled raw emotions, and you did well to reveal them slowly throughout the story. A difficult read but an enjoyable one at the same time. Well done
Thank you very much, Lorraine! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on my story. It's been an insane week (no story this week) but I look forward to finding time to read your story!
This specific dynamic of a father/daughter relationship, the adult daughter and aging father, is one I don’t think I’ve seen very much of! Parents growing older and losing their grip on reality is such a sad thought, and I like how you layered other emotion here too. It’s sad, but also frustrating and confusing and kid of traumatizing for this woman who had a rough childhood with him—and now we sort of understand why. The way you revealed how had his own abusive parent was just heartbreaking. This sentence is powerful, and felt like the cr...
Thank you so much, Aeris! Your comment is much appreciated :-)
This is such an intense story. I love the motif of the eyes, a great call focusing on them to show the range of different emotions here.
Thank you my dear Rebecca!
A great story, well written.
Thanks so much Alice!