Table of Contents - Vol. VI, No. 2
His call comes after midnight.
“What cha’ doin’?”
He is drunk.
Well, so am I actually. It is kind of weird. I am playing beer pong with my roommate, and I am losing. It’s Thursday. I don’t have class until ten tomorrow. I’ve finally figured out a decent schedule. No early classes at all. Though my American Lit class is at night, bummer. I don’t get out until seven.
So he says to me, “Do you know who this is?”
Of course I know. I wonder why he is calling me, but I don’t want to ask.
“I was jus’ thinking of you,” he slurs “just.” It sounds like “yes.”
“What d’ya’ want, Paul?” I call him by his name.
“Nothing. Jus’ wanted to say hi. How ya’ doin?”
“I’m doing good. How’re you?”
“Oh, well. Thanks for checking in,” I tell him. “I gotta’ go.”
“Ok, sweetie. Talk to you later.”
“Who was that?” My roommate asks, plucking another goddamn ping pong into a plastic cup in front of me. Damn! The beer splashes onto the floor, the wall. It sprays me with tiny drops.
The ball floats on the surface, grayish white in the urine colored beer. I put the cup to my lips and down it. The rush of fluid gathers at the back of my throat and I swallow. It feels like a beach ball has invaded my belly. Putting down the cup, I tell her, “My dad.”
“No way,” she says. “He called you?”
“Yeah,” I say. I feel relief. Gratitude. I am almost happy.
I think I have seen my dad maybe a dozen times in my entire life. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to get my mom to abort me. He was married to someone else when I came along.
I don’t know why she hung in there, waiting for him for years. Years! I could hear them late at night after I was supposed to be asleep. I always woke up when I’d hear his voice. Like clockwork, I’d hear him once or twice a week. But sometimes there were months without him. My mom would be pissed, she’d yell at me a lot. Then he’d be back. Whispering as he’d come up the stairs; my mom “sh-h-h-h-ing” him before she’d click the lock on her bedroom door.
I really didn’t care. I didn’t see him much. He wasn’t there for me, so I didn’t think about him.
Once, a really long time ago, Dad took us skiing. I was pretty young and I hated it. It was so cold my fingers turned numb inside the thick mittens my mom had bought me. I wanted to snow board but they fitted me with skis that I dangled from the chair lift. We were so high up in the air, I was scared. I didn’t want to look down, but I did anyway. There were people zipping by underneath me, in the snow. Fast. The mountain was big and it took a long time to get down. Dad skied ahead of us and I held onto one of Mom’s poles. I wanted her to take me home.
Instead, she took our skis back, found an outdoor rink near the ski area and rented skates for us. We had a ball, her and me. I was glad she left Dad skiing on the mountain.
My roommate says, “That is so strange about your dad, Paige. What did he say?”
“Not much, he was drunk.”
“How’d you know?”
“How do you always know?” I look at her. “He slurred his words; the fact that he called me at all is an indication.”
She shakes her head, “That’s just, God, Paige. That’s just wild!”
My head aches a little from last night as I pull on my backpack. I wear a maroon and gray jacket with a baby blue plush lining. Warm. It is colder up here than it is back home. When I first got here, I didn’t know anyone. I thought there might be other people from Baltimore at NYU, but no one from my high school is here. I’ve met people from New Jersey, Manhattan, of course, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and I’ve taken the train to Philly a couple of times with Ronnie, my roommate. She’s from a place called Germantown. Pretty. Lots of green lawns and tall trees. Her dad’s a doctor and he actually lives with her mom and kid brother. The brother’s in middle school and he’s kinda’ annoying, but I like visiting her house. They eat dinner together at a big table in a room filled with windows and light.
My mom and I ate a lot of TV dinners – chicken pot pies and Salisbury steak with carrots and peas -- in front of the television. My mom didn’t like to cook, so I’d sit cross-legged on the floor on a quilt she got when I was born and she’d eat off the butler’s table in front of the couch. I remember asking her whenever Tom Brokaw as on vacation why he wasn’t on the evening news.
“Hey!” Ronnie says passing me in the doorway as I head out. Her classes are all earlier than mine.
“Gotta’ go!” I say to her as I take off down the stairs, skipping the elevator. Our dorm was a hotel once. It has high, molded ceilings and framed panels, painted a pale lavender on the walls. We have posters of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, the Beatles and Bob Dylan in the center of each wall panel. They are portraits from the sixties when they were a little older than I am now. A cut out of Johnny Depp, smiling – his gold tooth showing -- in his outfit from the Pirates of the Caribbean, stands in front of Mick, Keith and Bob. Another full wall is all windows; draped with curtains that have liners in them, keeping the sunlight out. If we pull the drapes back, we overlook Washington Square Park.
I start jogging through the park because I am late. The sky is gray clouds. The trees have changed to a yellow, orange, red and brown canopy over me. There is a sense of urgency in the air’s chill. It’s so cold I have on thick socks with my Birkenstocks. My mom bought them for me at the Comfort Shoe Store on the Avenue at White Marsh the last time I was home. I know they’re expensive and I told her I’d wear them ‘till they rot and it is true. My old ones were worn down to the cork lining, and I’d had them since my freshman year of high school.
Near the fountain by the arch, I hear a faint, “Paige!”
I turn around. My dad is sort of skipping, kind of running after me. The leaves are moving in the wind with him. They blow around his legs and I blink. Shocked. My dad lives in Boston, now. A darkness descends on me like the gray clouds I can see beyond the spots in the trees where the leaves have fallen off. My dad is panting; a smile on his clean shaven face. I can see why my mom liked him. He is better looking than any of my friends’ dads. Ronnie must have seen him, told him where I am. When we watched Dexter, that serial killer guy on TV, I told her my dad looked like him.
“I was hoping I’d find you. Hell of a time locating your dorm.” He says. He is wearing a long, black expensive looking coat. It is open and it flaps with his steps. He’s got a pressed light blue button down shirt on and a nice, woven leather belt peeks out from the opening in his coat.
“What are you doing here?”
“You got time for coffee?”
“I’ll miss my class.”
“Can you skip it just this once?”
I shrug and take him to Starbucks. We sit on the wide, cement sidewalk under a hunter green umbrella, in plastic chairs. It is growing colder but there is no place to sit inside. The round table before us has crumbs on it, poppy seeds, a dried circle of cream colored coffee. I listen to the tone of his voice. It is low, hesitant, “How’s your mom?”
“Fine,” I say, automatically. They haven’t spoken since I turned eighteen and his child support ended.
“Good. Good,” Dad says, cradling his paper cup of decaffeinated tea between his palms. He stares at the cup. “My mom died,” he says.
“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry.” My café mocha sends faint threads of steam toward me and a sudden “ping” hits me in my stomach. She would have been my grandmother, and I never met her.
He lifts his cup to his lips. I notice he has left the tea bag in it. A little folded paper thing -- yellow -- brushes his cheek. I can make out Bigelow Tea Lemon Lift in white letters.
Our silence feels bad, like the last guy I really liked who ignored me.
I try to think of something to say. “Why don’t you drink coffee?”
He looks up at me. Swallows his tea. “I gave up caffeine.” He puts the cup down, “We buried her yesterday. I came up on the train this morning.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re my daughter.”
My teeth start to chatter and I can’t talk. I know it’s lame, but I sit back in my chair and manage an “Oh.” It feels sort of good to finally have his attention. I pull my jacket closer around me by wrapping my arms around my chest, sticking my hands under each arm pit. My stomach is queasy. Sadness eats at the edges of my thoughts and I squirm in my chair. I think again about how I never knew his mother, my grandmother and I realize I have no grandmothers, now. My mom’s mom died when I was eleven. She was a real piece of work, lived alone, divorced my gramps when my mom was eight and probably drank herself to death.
I wonder what my dad’s mom was like, and I’m pissed that he never took me to meet her. It makes me mad that he’s sitting here in the cold telling me about her now that it’s too late.
The wind blows. Leaves make that hissing sound as they flutter on the cement sidewalk around us. I look across the street at huge, half bare trees. “What was she like?” I ask.
“My mom?” he looks up at me. Severe gray eyes. I wonder what he’s seeing when he looks at me and I wonder if I measure up. My dad makes a sniffling noise. He takes a gulp of his hot tea. He’s crying! Tears are bubbling up in his eyes. He wipes them. “Sorry,” he says and tries to smile. But he lets out a soft, horrific sounding noise, instead. “Hu – ack,” and the tears start falling fast down his face.
I look around. Relieved; we are alone. What my dad is doing embarrasses me. I am ashamed and I want to leave. Go back to my real life and the class I am missing.
A pretty black woman pushes the Starbucks’ door open. Her hair is plastered on her head, a slice of thick bangs cutting across her forehead in a triangle. She’s all dressed in red, with a fringed shawl thrown over her shoulders. She is sipping her coffee as she steps outside, stops, staring at my dad. Dad is grimacing, trying not to make any noise. But a soft, “heh, heh, heh” is escaping his lips. He even looks like he’s smiling the way he is trying not to cry. He wipes his face with the palm of his hand. A long swipe from his forehead down his nose, to his chin. Then he plucks a light brown napkin, dabbing his cheeks under both eyes. For some reason, the way he touches his face with that napkin makes me smile. It is too dainty, like a woman would dab at her skin if she didn’t want to ruin her make-up. It’s not something I would ever imagine my dad doing. Then again, I’ve never seen him cry before. Hardly seen him at all, really. I still don’t think of him as a real father. And I don’t want to be seen sitting here with him while he cries.
The black lady glances at me before she turns away. The look she gives me is one of shock, like I made him cry. And I think, if you only knew, lady. I should be the one crying. I watch her walk -- fast -- down the street towards the intersection in front of the arch at Washington Square Park.
I push my chair back, reaching down on the cement for my backpack.
“Don’t!” my dad shouts, slamming his hands flat on the table. My café mocha tips over. It spills – creamy colored chocolate – all over the table and I jump back before it seeps over the edge.
“Shit!” I yelp, standing up and watching it drip onto my chair.
“Jesus Christ!” Dad says. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Me? You’re the one who spilled my drink!”
“Can’t you see I am in pain, here?” My dad wipes his eyes, then his nose. He sniffles again. His gray eyes are mean looking and I stare back at him. My face feels hot and the cold from the cement under my feet penetrates my socks and Birkenstocks. I stamp them, first the left, then the right. Something holds me in place, though. I can’t leave my dad. I want to turn around and walk away from him. But I stand there. Breathing. In and out. In and out. I am actually listening to my own breath.
Dad pushes his chair back. He stands up and starts mopping up the spill with his teary, crumbled napkin. The one he used to dab at his face. There is still some on my chair, though. I stoop down and wipe the thin strips of splattered café mocha with the sleeve of my jacket.
“I’ll buy you another one,” he says.
“No. I’m fine.”
“I’m just. I don’t know what to do, Paige.” He plops back down in his white plastic chair. It creaks and buckles under his weight. I sigh and sit down again in mine. I do not make a sound.
The following week, he calls again. Five thirty in the afternoon, I am headed to American Lit class, passing the Starbucks. The tables have been taken inside and the sidewalk is swept clear of all the dead leaves. I have on a ski parka. My mom bought it for me on sale the summer before I graduated from high school. It has a silk lining in each sleeve that really keeps my arms warm.
“Hey, Paige. It’s Dad.”
“Hi.” I don’t call him Paul.
“I was thinking of you. How’re you doing?”
“Fine,” I say, “I’m good,” and I look up at a completely clear sky, the color of blueberries. My eyes crinkle and I feel the edges of my mouth spread in a grin, listening to his deep, strong voice.
“Ok,” he says. “Call me sometime.”
© Caryn Coyle