When I was younger, he stuck around. He got an apartment nearby, dropped in whenever mom went to work and my brother went to play basketball. He would rent movies, a new one every week. We would watch them together. Eat all the frozen pizzas in the house together.
The next day, mom had warned me not to let him do that again. She’d said it was bad for his blood pressure.
As I got older, he drifted farther away.
Location-wise, he was a nomad.
Parked his truck in empty fields and slept in it. He only parked in places where he knew he wouldn’t get a ticket, and he would call me, telling me the newest place he’d managed to fall asleep. It was dangerous, his like of work. People robbed trucks and shot truckers, I was told, and for the longest time I would spend nights awake, wondering if I would get a call from him the next morning. He always seemed to make it, and by day, he emptied the truck to the designated store. Then be on his way again.
He had sent me postcards.
Alabama, Washington, Las Vegas, Utah, Texas, Maryland, California.
I still have them. My favorite was Virginia. He would call and ask me if I’d received the latest postcard, and I would reply with a yes, I had, but Virginia will always be my favorite. For a while, she let him come back, my mom.
She let him stay with us and we played house again for a while. He was the daddy. She was the mommy. I was the daughter and my brother was the son. The roles were intricate. My part was easy, but everyone else struggled. Eventually my mom got sick of pretending. She wanted him out. He left. She apologized to me.
To my brother. My brother took her sorry to heart, as if he was the one who’d been wounded.
I remember going into another room and calling him, tell him that she apologized. He never picked up. Never called back.
I am a girl of false hopes, my mother told me once. He promises me things. I cling to them with all my heart, all my soul. When he doesn’t deliver, I am heartbroken. But he makes more promises and I cling some more.
Nowadays she tells me that I don’t remember the old him. The one who sent me to bed without food. Who pushed me to the ground whenever I would kiss her goodnight. The one who pinched me so hard he split my tender six-year-old skin in half for biting on a straw.
She says that if I remembered the way I would cry in her arms while he was outside mowing the law, the way I would wail in my bedroom at night after he went to work, the way I would shake in his presence when I did something he didn’t like. If only I remembered that side of him then I wouldn’t hold on the way I did.
But all I can say to her is that he is my dad, and you can never let your number one fan go.
He doesn’t call me on my twentieth birthday. I don’t wake up waiting for it, but at the end of the day, I realize there is one voice I haven’t heard from. When I call him, he assures me, yes, he did call, and he even left a message. While he is speaking, I check my phone for the voicemail sign.
It’s not on.
I ask him when I will see him again. It has been almost a year. We make plans for Sunday. He has a delivery in Miami for Monday, so he will pass through Orlando for a few hours.
I am excited. Not just to see him, but just to be in his presence. To hear him talk in person, for once. To see his facial features, that huge smile I got from him. I miss it all. He does not call me on Saturday.
On Sunday, I wake up early, dress, and put my keys in the ignition, as my phone buzzes with a new text message. I don’t need to read it. I pull my keys out, go back inside, undress and go back to bed.
At my door, my mom, is on the verge of tears because she can hear mine. False hopes, honey. False hopes.
Three days later, I read the text message. We have new plans for Sunday again. He will be there, my phone assures me.
He does not call me on Saturday. On Sunday, I wake up early, dress, and put my keys in the ignition. My phone is silent the entire drive.
Since sixteen, we have met at the Navy Exchange, even though I am twenty nothing has changed. I drive around the parking lot, looking for him. I find his truck.
The purple eighteen-wheeler is tall behind the old lawn and garden building. When I pull up he is not there. I park behind it and go look for him. I find him exiting the barbershop. From faraway, he is my dad. My daddy.
The man that woman would swoon over at my brother’s basketball games, at my job, in restaurants, in theme parks. He is tall and poise, walking with his back straight, like the military taught him. His hair, which has been balding since before I could remember, is cropped closely to his head. From far away, that smile is bright with memories of his little girl, and momentarily I expect him to run to me and scoop me into his arms like he used to. But he doesn’t. He keeps walking, and when we are standing face to face with each other, I realize that I have made a mistake.
This man is not my father.
His hair is salt and pepper instead of black. His eyes, usually vigilant and alert, are tired and baggy, as if they threaten to close at any moment. His stomach, once flat and muscular, is now heavy with the threat of a gut. His muscular arms are skinny.
And his face.
He is handsome still. But his face is accented with heavy lines around his mouth, around his eyes, on his cheeks, like origami art that has been deconstructed.
I stare because I don’t know what to say. What do you say to a stranger?
He speaks first; a loud obnoxious greeting that if I was still thirteen would have made me laugh hysterically. Now it makes my bottom lip quiver.
I greet him, closing in for a quick hug. He embraces me and even manages to lift me off the ground an inch or two. I do not stay airborne for long, and it scares me to think that there will come a time when he will no longer be able to do that.
When he releases me, my cheeks are wet. I tell him it is allergies. He believes me.
We walk and he tells me about the allergies he had while in Alabama. He throws his head back in a laugh and says that I wouldn’t last a minute there. I nod, still looking at him, never looking away. I want to be able to see when this man will turn back into my dad. I want to watch the metamorphosis. He asks me what’s wrong? It’s my birthday.
I should be happy.
I reply that I am old now. He laughs again. That same laugh that sounds like my dad’s. He asks me how I have been. How is my boyfriend? How is my brother? How is my car (he can’t help but comment that it still looks like shit)?
I tell him everything is good. Everyone is fine.
I don’t tell him about how I have moved in with my boyfriend, how my brother has moved out because of fights with mom, how my car stopped working in the middle of the highway the other day, how my heart stutters when I laugh too hard or sleep on my stomach, about my puppy, about my grades.
He doesn’t pry.
He tells me about his fiancée. He calls her Mrs. Sivels.
When he says this, I laugh for the first time. I picture my mom. She isn’t, but to me, she will always be the only Mrs. Sivels. It is not as funny to him as it is to me. To him it is not funny at all.
We walk around the exchange for an hour. When he finds something he likes, he gets my attention by calling my name and begging me to look.
It reminds me of our road trips when I was younger. When we would pass a field of horses or cows, he would nudge me repeatedly.
Look! Look! Cows!
I indulge him by feigning interest.
In return, I point to things I like. He merely nods, continues walking. Makes a comment about my mom buying me something if I want it bad enough. When we pass the jewelry department, he shows me the ring he plans on buying for the new and improved Mrs. Sivels.
It is five thousand dollars. He informs me that she is worth every penny.
He does not have time to take me out to my birthday lunch as we planned. He admits that I took too long getting there. We eat at a sub shop.
I do not like subs, but I don’t speak up. He doesn’t ask.
He eats quickly, almost swallowing his sub whole.
Mouth full, he confides in me that he loves their subs. How does mine taste? As he is speaking, mine slips out of my hand on to the floor. He laughs. My stomach growls. I did not eat breakfast that morning in order to have room for lunch.
He says oh, well. He shrugs.
We are silent as we walk to my car and his truck. I cannot help but still look at him, but this time I know he is not going to change. For me, there will be no metamorphosis into the man I knew.
He pats me on the back as I stop in front of his truck. He tells me that he has something for me. I cannot help it, I get excited. I did not expect anything from him. He dashes into the cab of his truck and rummages around for a few minutes. The longer he takes the more my heart sinks. He yells down to me that he might have lost it—Oops, he found it. He steps down the cab with two envelopes. One blue. One yellow.
Both of them read To My Favorite Girl.
Before I can open them, he tells me that he has to get going. He’s sorry he can’t stick around.
I understand, or at least that’s what I tell him.
I admit to him that I had a good time. It had been too long since I last saw him.
He is already in his truck, turning his keys, and pressing buttons. He pulls the string that hangs by his head, and the sound of his horn reverberates through the parking lot as he exits on to the highway.
When I can no longer see him, I open the first envelope. The yellow one.
It is a Valentine’s Day card. When I open the card, it sings a quick song and to the side he writes a simple message telling me to be good, don’t do anything he wouldn’t. I smile, close the card. Slip it back into the envelope, and slip the envelope in my bag.
I open the second card, the blue one.
There is a small postcard inside. There are big city lights and people smiling, showgirls dancing, casinos and gambling all on the front. Las Vegas, it reads in pink lettering.
When I flip it over there is a small greeting. To the right is his scribbled handwriting: I always remembered that this one was your favorite. Happy 22nd birthday, young lady.
Merlaine Sivels is pursuing a degree in English education and has promised her mother that she would publish at least one story during her lifetime (her mother's, that is, not that she plans on passing anytime soon.)