A Summer Start

March 9, 2010
My hair whipped me in the face as wind poured through the open window. My mom drove down the highway in the middle of nowhere. We were somewhere in California and that was more than I wanted to know. I couldn’t hear anything except for my iPod which blared “Empire State of Mind” on repeat. How could my mom do this to me? I’d never lived anywhere except for Connecticut, and now she expected to just drop me off in some random beach town on the other side of the country for the entire summer? And for what? My dad? I’d never met him before, he’d left my mom before I was born. I’d never wanted anything to do with him, and yet here I was, staying for summer break. I kicked my bag, an old gray messenger bag covered with pins from old rock bands. My mom launched into another lecture on what I assumed to be about how it was important to get to know my dad, and how I should be excited and have a good attitude and be more like my older sister, Aurora. I rolled my eyes and turned up the music, drowning her out.

I fell asleep somewhere along the ugly gray freeway, watching as the boring stretch of smoggy cities and brown hillsides zipped by. When I woke up, my mom was pulling into the driveway of a little house. My iPod battery had died by then, so I yanked out the ear buds, ignoring my aching ears. My mom quickly got out of the car and started unloading my bags from the back of her rental car. I was a lot less eager. I carefully wrapped the wires of my ear buds around the little red iPod before jamming it into my sweatshirt pocket. I stretched and then slung my bag over my shoulder before hopping out of the car. A man approached then, smiling tentatively as he neared the car. He and my mom gave each other an awkward hug, not saying a word to each other. My mom cleared her throat the way she does when she gets nervous and came to stand by me.
“Uh, honey, this is your father. He’s, well you can tell he um, looks like you.” She said, lamely. I looked up at him and truly studied him for the first time in my life. The bad thing was he really did look like me. We had the same eyes, big and deep green. His smile was crooked, it went farther up on the right side, just like mine, and his hair was the same stark black. He pulled me in for a hug and whispered in my ear.
“Melanie, I’m so happy you’re here, I’ve waited for this day from the moment you were born.” I rolled my eyes and let my arms hang at my sides, refusing to hug him back. What kind of cheesy thing to say was that? I mean, he’d made no effort to contact me until a few months ago when he’d asked my mother for a visit out of the blue. Feeling me tense up, my father released me and shifted his feet.
“Let’s get your stuff inside the house, I’m sure your mother has a lot of things to do. Don’t want to hold her up.” He grabbed the two closest suitcases and made a beeline for the house, probably feeling as uncomfortable as I was. I didn’t to look at my mom as I picked up a giant duffle bag and stalked up the front porch steps. My mom sighed and followed. The house was small, but cute. It was a faded blue, two stories with a basement and an attic that didn’t really count as floors. The wrap-around porch was splintering and worn, but there was a table set up with chairs around it overlooking the beach. A porch swing faced the front yard, a little grassy square with a stone path and a mailbox. I pushed open the heavy front door and took a few steps into the house. The entryway had a mirror above a table that held the day’s stack of mail, a silver dish with keys in it and a vase of wilted flowers. My dad had stacked my things next to the staircase. I added the bags I’d carried in to the pile and roamed around the house while my parents had coffee in the kitchen and caught up.

The house wasn’t much, a living room with a piano that was missing a few keys, an old T.V. set, a coffee table, a couch, and a few chairs. The kitchen was standard, nothing fancy, just some basic appliances. There was a downstairs bathroom, my father’s study (he’s an author), a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves crammed with volumes of all sizes and genres, and of course, a closet that held a few coats, extra blankets, and shoes. Upstairs was my father’s bedroom, a guest room where I’d be staying, two bathrooms (thank god) another closet with more sheets, towels, and cleaning supplies. There were a lot of rooms for such a small house, and everything was smushed together and crammed. The rooms were small but I hadn’t brought much with me, so that was all right. It was worn down though, some of the doors stuck and many of the locks had fallen off. Some lights flickered every once in a while, the floorboards creaked, and the whole house smelled musty. Other than that, it was all right, but I made myself see it as much worse that it really was. I was supposed to hate this place, not think it was tolerable, or cozy, or had character and especially not cute.

I ambled down the stairs, hating myself for letting the place grow on me. Don’t get me wrong, this was still the last place I wanted to be at the moment, but I was starting to accept the fact that it wasn’t a Cyclops’ lair or a vampire’s dungeon and that there was a very small chance of my mother grabbing me by the hand and yanking me away from the horrors as fast as she could. That’s what I’d fantasized in my mind, anyway. I’d sort of made this negative connotation over the years about my father because for 15 years, he’d ignored me. He’d always had little devil horns poking over the top of his hair in my head, and I’d mind-photo-shopped them into the few pictures I’d seen of him from my sister’s computer. She’d been four when my dad had left, so she had vague memories of him. I didn’t know whether to pity her, or be jealous.

By the time I’d reached the bottom of the stairs, my mom was pulling on her coat, getting ready to go. She grabbed her purse off the little table in the hallway and planted a kiss on my forehead, reminding me to be good. I watched her climb into the car and drive away, leaving me here with a stranger she knew wasn’t trust worthy. Wasn’t that exactly the opposite of what those parenting magazines tell you to do? Aren’t you supposed to take precautions because it’s ‘better to be safe than sorry’?

I wanted to do a lot of things at that moment as her little silver Honda rolled away into a fuzzy dot in the distance. I wanted to yell at her like I had been for the past six weeks, I wanted to shove the pamphlet for the summer program we’d planned on me attending this summer in her face. I wanted to hug her goodbye and tell her I loved her, I wanted to fall on my knees and beg her to take me home. I wanted to be mad at her, but I just couldn’t. I could fake mad, though. I slammed the door, making my father cringe. I turned and stared him in the eye.
“Jake, can I call you that?” I didn’t wait for an answer before I continued. We called our parents ‘daddy’ and ‘mommy’ out of respect, and I’d call him ‘daddy’ just as soon as I respected him, “Great, I’m just going to go up to the guest room and get situated here in this ah, house.” I hoped my contempt for the situation dripped off my voice like venom. I hoped it stung. With that, I turned away from him and marched up the stairs closing the door and cursing when I realized that the lock on this door was also broken.
I spent the next few hours making the room more me-ish. I hung posters using a special tape my mother had bought me that wouldn’t chip the paint on the walls. I set my laptop up on the desk and plugged in my iHome. While I charged my iPod, I had to make do with the radio, which irritated me because I had to switch channels during commercials and listen to cheesy radio hosts make jokes no one really laughed at. Because I knew it would probably irritate my dad and his artsy fartsy author creativeness, I turned up the volume to the point where it could possibly wreck brain cells. When I was satisfied with my room, having vacuumed it, dusted everything, Lysoled like the clean freak I am, and changed the bedding to the ones I’d brought from home, I finally crashed onto the bed, making the air hiss out of the fluffy duvet. I hadn’t realized how late it was until I peered around the yellowing lace curtains (note to self: see what we can do about getting rid of those ASAP!) to open up the window. The window was stuck anyways, so I had to deal with the stuffy air, but I could still see the twinkling stars through the stain streaked window pane.
I hadn’t known that even out here, I would be able to see the stars. I’d been able to see a whole bunch of them at home, countless constellations that Aurora had taught me. I’d forgotten most of them, but I still remembered some of the one’s I’d really liked. I crossed over to the little crooked bookshelf in the corner of the room. It was wedged between my dresser and my desk, but I’d added a couple of my favorite books to the barren shelves along with some framed photos of my friends from home. My sister had given me a book before I’d left, a book of space, and the planets and moon and things like that, but there was a chapter on the stars. Aurora had always been into those kinds of things. She was named after the goddess of the dawn, so the sun had always been an interest for her, though I didn’t really care. I’d promised her that I’d take the book though, and write to her about the stars out in California. She’d wanted to know if you could see them through the pollution, or if there was too much smog.
I have to admit that I was surprised to find myself laying on a beach towel in the back yard, staring up at the sky. No one was out anymore, so I left my stuff and walked out to the water. I felt the icy cold ocean spread over my toes and soak the hem of my jeans. I squished my toes in the California sand and spread my arms over my head, embracing the warm night air. I walked back over to my towel and gazed up at the stars. I’d brought a small flashlight from the house, but I didn’t need it. I could read just fine by the silvery moon light that splashed across the page.
I read until I thought my brain would explode. I had learned about constellations after identifying them in the night sky, and I was proud of what I’d accomplished. The stars were beautiful, and it struck me as odd that something so amazing could be seen in a place that I’d grown to resent with such fervor. I picked up handfuls of sand and let the cold grains slowly slip through my fingers while I contemplated space. It blew my mind that compared to our universe, we were just tiny specs, tiny grains of sand on a huge beach. I was feeling kind of deep and philosophical when I realized that Aurora must feel like this all the time.
There it is again, Melanie, always comparing yourself to Aurora. No, not you, everybody around you compares you to Aurora. Mom, grandma, grandpa, the teachers at school, the workers at the community center, the volunteers at the old people’s home, everybody expects you to be like Aurora. Smart, pretty, confident, giving, kind, but you’re not Aurora.
I wanted to scream. No, I wasn’t like Aurora, we were different in every possible way. She was sweet, gentle, and careful. I was reckless, judgmental, temperamental, and harsh. I kept to myself for the most part. I didn’t help the homeless like Aurora, I didn’t go out of my way to see that others we alright. I just wasn’t that kind of person. I shook my head and slapped the book against the palm of my hand over and over again. I didn’t realize that someone was coming until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I looked up. My dad was standing there, looking sheepish and holding a plate in one hand and a glass in the other.
“Thought you’d want some dinner. Sorry, I was writing, kind of got caught up. The time, it just flew by. I guess I’m not used to having to have dinner on the table at a certain time. I’ll, I’ll try harder. I’m sorry.” My dad must have noticed that he was rambling on because he stopped abruptly and took a sudden interest of his sandaled feet. I sat up and cleared a spot on my towel for him. He looked grateful but sort of unsure. Finally, he took a seat beside me and handed me the plate. Kraft’s Mac’n Cheese from the box. It looked all right, but I realized that I’d probably have to teach my father how to cook sometime soon this summer. I wasn’t great, but Aurora (of course) had been and had taught me as well as she could. My dad made a sort of cup holder in the sand for the drink which looked like orange juice and pulled a plastic sleeve from his jacket pocket. It was like the sets they give you at take out restaurants. Plastic utensils and a thin napkin.
“Thanks…Jake.” I said quietly. It was pretty awkward for both of us. We watched the ocean and I ate, chewing slowly and wondering how I was going to live like this for the next three months.
“Is it, is it okay? I don’t cook very often for other people, usually my friends and I just go out to eat. I didn’t know what you like.” My dad peeked at me out of the corner of his eye. I turned and faced him head on which seemed to intimidate him. He picked up a twig and started stabbing at the sand with it.
“Yeah, it’s good. Thanks, I love Mac’n Cheese.” I gave the tiniest hint of a smile. My dad returned the smile, still shy, but it was a smile. I felt bad, my dad was alone and lived off of Easy Mac mixes. I felt like I should have been more open, started a conversation about something other than fattening, cheesy pasta.
It’s his fault. He left you guys, remember? If he’d wanted a family and some decent cooking, he would have stayed. He deserves to live in a little run down house all alone with boxed foods. You shouldn’t have to pay for his mistakes.
I didn’t know who to believe, the voice in my head (which by the way sounds like a man with a Scottish accent), or my heart. I drained the rest of my orange juice while I contemplated this and stood. I brushed the sand off of my pants and collected the dishes.
“Coming in? Or do you want to stay out here?” I asked, uncertainty lingering on my words. My dad looked up and shook his head.
“I’ll be in later, just going to stay out here for a bit. You should sleep, it’s late.” He looked me in the eye and I felt a tug in my stomach. I’d missed those sea green eyes for fifteen years. In them, were all the love that had been built up. I saw that he was sorry for leaving us, sorry that he’d made me miss out on half of my family, my life. I felt like in that moment, all the resentment had washed away. We were making up for lost time; it wasn’t my dad’s fault he’d had to leave. He’d married too early; he wasn’t ready for a family. He was doing my mom a favor. He couldn’t handle it and sticking around would have made it harder for him to leave anyway. Pretty soon I realized that I had to respond to him.
“Right, um goodnight then. Jake. Uh, there’s a…a book about stars and stuff. It’s from Aurora to me, but look at it if you want. It’s cool I guess.” I stumbled awkwardly before turning, red faced with embarrassment and fled to the house. I tripped over the door frame and made me way clumsily to the kitchen. I’d been so stunned at finding an understanding in those sea green eyes, I’d made a fool of myself. I washed the dishes and thought about what I’d seen in those simple eyes that made me make excuses for my dad. I shook my head. Now that I wasn’t looking at my father, the old hate came flooding back. Yes, it was his fault. He’d had a choice, he could have left a note, a warning , a stupid child support check. What in his shallow eyes had made me think for a moment that this man was sorry? I thought about it while I got ready for bed, and drifted off to sleep weighing the options and theories in my mind. But nothing came close to seeming like the right answer.





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