I’m standing in shocked silence while the rest of the supermarket continues its business. People shuffle past me and pick out the things they need. He’s been looking intently at the various types of tampons for five minutes and a part of me wants to haul off and punch him. But another part of me wants to run into his arms the way I did when I was eight. The way I did when I would get off the bus to find him sitting on the steps with a juice box in one hand and a beer in the other. The days he came home from work early were the best days.
We would sit on the steps and he would ask me all about my day. How were my classes? How were my friends? I would tell him about a certain project I was doing or about something that happened on the playground. I would ask him how his day went and he’d tell me all about how the numbers were particularly easy that day, thus the reason he was able to come home early. I always felt like a grown up sitting there talking to him. He treated me like I had was someone worth talking to instead of just a silly kid.
“Excuse me.” None of my mom’s other boyfriends or husbands had ever made me feel so confident and accepted. “Excuse me!” I turn to find a woman behind a cart full of food staring at me with annoyance.
“You’re excused.” I say without moving. She continues to stare at me. But I just turn around and start walking toward him. What do I say? Will he even remember me? That was almost 20 years ago? Should I even approach him? He’ll probably run, thinking my mom may be with me. Or he’ll act like he doesn’t remember me. Either way, this is pointless, right?
“Get the kind with a plastic applicator.” I say softly, more softly than I intended. My insecurities are all running to the surface of the deep dark cave where I keep them. He keeps his head down and looks from box to box.
“I don’t see…” I point one out to him and you can see a little light bulb come on in his eyes. “Oh.” He still hasn’t looked at me. Maybe he saw me before I saw him and decided to not even make eye contact. I decide I’m not going to say anything. I’m starting to turn when he says thank you and looks up. Before I am fully turned away, he touches my arm.
“Wait.” I turn back to him. For some reason I feel like crying. “Do you know what kind of-” his voice drops to a whisper. “Pads are best.” His volume increases to normal. “This is my first time doing this and I’m not sure what all I need.” I start to point out the kind that works best for girls just starting this maddening cycle of life. Then his face changes and my words catch in my throat.
“Um.” Is all I manage to get out. He is studying me quite intensely now. “Is something wrong?” I ask bringing my arm back to my side.
“I didn’t even recognize you at first. Gretchen?” For an instant I think about telling him that he’s mistaken. That I’m not that little girl who he abandoned. That I’m not the ten year old watching his car back out of our driveway, tears rolling down my cheeks, knees digging into the gravel. That I’m not the girl he left to deal with the wrath that now had to be placed on me because she had nowhere else to aim it. Only for an instant though. Considering tears are blurring my vision I have no chance of denying it.
“Hi Miles.” It’s all I can get out. No what the hell? Why did you leave me? Why didn’t you take me with you? Why did you leave me with her? To my surprise he doesn’t say a word. Instead of talking he pulls me against his chest. His arms still fit around me completely. I wrap my arms around him in return. All the pain of the last 20 years is clawing at my throat. I’m fighting the tears with everything I have. I’m not one to cry. I don’t cry. I just don’t.
But his hug feels so good. It brings back all the times he snuggled with me on the couch. I don’t care that he came into my life five years late, he was my dad. I don’t know what deadbeat got my mom pregnant and left, but the man holding me now is my dad. His grip starts to loosen and he holds me with his arms straight out, box of tampons still in one hand. I watch his eyes take me in from head to toe and back again to meet my eyes before letting go.
“How have you been?” His question is so generic, almost bland.
“Good.” I say. “You?”
“Good.” He says. We stand in awkward silence for a few seconds. Both unsure how to proceed.
“Daughter?” I point at the box of tampons I helped him pick out. He laughs and a proud smile widens across his face.
“Yes. Her mother passed a couple years ago and so the task of purchasing feminine products is now mine.” He doesn’t even have to talk about her for me to see how much he loves her. The way his eyes lit up at the thought of her. I don’t think anyone’s ever had that look in their eyes for me. Amidst the pain, joy, and sadness, anger starts to creep back into my system. I open my mouth to ask why he left me when his words fall out in a soft breath.
“I’m so sorry.” He says letting his shoulders drop. “I know I left abruptly and I know that probably hurt. You were so young.” His eyes are so sad. I notice the lines in his face for the first time. All this time I had been seeing him as the young thirty-something he had been when he’d left. His face was still handsome. The vibrance in his red hair was starting to fade just a touch. His green eyes still deep and kind. But his smooth young face was replaced with that of a middle-aged man.
“I’ve managed.” I say with more edge in my voice than I intended. It’s the truth though. No matter how many “fathers” came in and out of my life and no matter how long they stayed, I managed. I made do with whatever I needed to. His mouth twitches.
“How’s your mom?”
“I haven’t talked to her in a few years.” He nods, understanding. What made me leave was that she had found a man that finally decided to hit back. I didn’t want anything to do with that much crazy. “Oh” is all he can manage. He looks at me in silence for a few seconds more before reaching into his pocket. He pulls out a pad of paper and a pen. Who does that anymore? He writes something down and then hands me the paper.
“I have to get going, but that’s my number. Call me so we can get together some time. I’d love to catch up.” I smile for the first time since seeing him. “And you can meet my daughter!” He adds in excitement. I remember when I was his daughter and the memory makes my smile fade a little.
“Yeah.” I say in response. He pulls me into one more tight hug before starting down the opposite direction. He walks backwards for the first few paces.
“I mean it. Call me.” I smile and nod. He turns and disappears around the corner. I stare at the numbers on the paper. I feel so… so… empty. He sees me for the first time in twenty years and all I get is a number and an invitation to call him? What a dick!
I hope you have enjoyed my intro to Gretchen. I think there’s a lot more I to be told of her story and I will probably return to it in the future. For now I’m going to leave you with just a small piece of her life. Thanks for reading!
Funny – I couldn’t help but write. I only wrote a couple paragraphs a day so this post actually took me 3 days (including today) to finish. I have been doing schoolwork every night and on my lunches so I’ve had to squeeze it in here or there. I wrote a little before going to bed, a little before getting out of bed, and was finally able to finish it this morning.