Mom warned me about meeting him. She said he was fool’s gold. She said he was all sparkles and promises, always on the cusp of something big. I wanted to tell her it had been ten years and he’d had a lot of time to change, but what was the use? So I told her not to worry, I wasn’t going to suddenly fall in love with a father who’d never been around. I told her she would always be my favorite.
She didn’t think it was funny.
We met at The Woodchuck, a local bar and grill with ancient wooden tables held together by chewing gum and burger grease. A place Dad and I used to go whenever it was just us.
I walked in and knew where to look. There he was, waving me back. My dad. A flash of him driving away. Always driving away. After he’d swoop in for a weekend, shower me with gifts and smiles only to leave before I could catch my breath. Then it was Mom and me, alone, the lingering smell of his cologne, all those over-the-top presents on the floor.
When he went to prison his gifts seemed tainted. All the smiling memories of him seemed worthless. He was convicted of fraud. Mom said it was only fitting.
Now at twenty-two, about to graduate from college despite my father’s bad decisions, I was determined to take control of this lunch if nothing else. Scratch it off my list. I wasn’t about to let him buy me off with a Barbie Doll.
He swung out of the back booth—our booth—with a smile. My dad. Tall, graying at the temples, adjusting his glasses with his smile. My heart hitched and pulled and I was seven years-old. Mom stroking my hair as I held in my hands whatever he’d given me as we watched him drive away. I told my heart to get itself together.
This New Year’s get-together was his idea, although my own private resolution was about facing the past. Already in my head I’d faced Clive, my freshman boyfriend, Jill, my sophomore nemesis, Mom, well, I’d get around to that next year. The only thing left on the list stood before me, holding both my hands and telling me I was beautiful. Just like my mother, beautiful.
I broke away, unable to stop myself from smiling, from gushing. My face went warm and my thoughts flew from my head as we took our seats opposite each other, my mother’s betrayal gripping me tight. My hands slid over the initials and graffiti carved into the table. I looked up, to my father in a dusty blazer, collared shirt with no tie. His hair was on the longer side, Buddy Holly glasses. He didn’t look like a convict but more like an aging hipster.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” he started. He seemed nervous, which was surprising but also endearing. He reached for his menu then set it down. “I just can’t believe it, you’re graduating this spring. Crazy, huh?”
I nodded. Almost said I can’t believe you did ten years in prison but managed to check myself.
Dad nodded. “So what else?”
Even prison couldn’t take away his charm. The next thing I knew I was gushing, talking fast to make up for lost time. I told him all about the trip to Europe I’d mapped out. My hopes to go to grad school out west. How I wanted to go into teaching. I wanted to please, wanted to impress. I wanted him to know how great I was despite him being gone.
“Wow, that’s…” He shook his head. “How’s your mother?”
It took me a second to shift gears. “Oh, um, she’s good.” I left out the part about telling him to go to hell. It didn’t exactly fit the mood.
“You know, I’ve been wanting to talk to her, too.”
“Good luck with that,” I blurted out. Maybe I wasn’t the adult I fashioned myself to be. Maybe I couldn’t do this. Maybe I wanted to reach out and hug him, slap him, then hug him again. Hold him tight like I used to so he couldn’t get away. Maybe my love for my father was a punch drunk boxer. It would always stand in the ring, under the lights, swollen and swaying, refusing to go down. Refusing to throw in the towel.
My father closed his eyes and smiled. It irritated me. I wasn’t a child. I didn’t need to be patronized. When he reached across the table, I pulled back.
He tapped a spot, looking down. “It’s still there.”
“What? I snapped. “What’s still—”
I followed his gaze, where, in the midst of scrawls and carvings, I saw what he was smiling about. It was still there, smoothed over, stained by spills and time, but there it was.
DADDY LOVES ELLA.
I remembered telling he was going to get in trouble as he worked with a knife. His hair was darker. He didn’t wear glasses. But he was my dad. Would always be my dad.
“I’m so sorry, Ella.”
The waiter returned with our drinks. “Can I…” He looked at me. “Oh, I’m um, I’ll, I’ll come back.”
So much for control.
*From the Writer’s Digest word prompt – The Resolution