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My Private Lesson
I sipped my coffee very carefully. I was addicted to the bitter taste of the dark liquid. My mother detested that I drank it, which only gave me more reason to drink it. Moments earlier I had stormed out of our families apartment and headed over to the cafe down the street. My parents and I got into another fight. It seemed to be happening all the time lately. We could never agree on anything. All I wanted was to go to concert in Central Park this Sunday, but neither of them wanted to take me and they wouldn’t let me go alone.
It wasn’t a surprise that they wouldn’t let me go either. They never let me do anything. I always have to tell them where I’m going and if I don’t, I get grounded. Growing up in Manhattan I learned how to handle myself in the big city, and now that I was going to be turning fourteen in a little less than a month, I would have thought that they’d be able to see that by now.
My parents had always been protective of me but they were never this strict. When Nate was my age I remember the same thing. They were always arguing because they wouldn’t let him go anywhere without them either.
As I sat in my little corner picking at my crumbling blueberry muffin I noticed a man sitting at a small table across the room. He had a cup of tea on the table and a big box full of some sort of baked goods in front of him. He wore small, circular, wire rimmed glasses on the bridge of his nose and gray hair that stood straight up, as if he had been struck by lightening. He was quite peculiar, but so familiar.
The man finished his tea and exited the cafe. I myself didn’t want to go back to home yet, so I made a risky decision to follow the man. I was a strong city girl and I thought I could handle myself and I needed an excuse to stay out of the house a little longer. My mother knew that this cafe was my hiding spot, so I figured she would come and take me back to her evil lair.
Curiosity got the best of me and slyly I sneaked out of the cafe. The man was casually walking down the street carrying the box and then entered a store. I hurried my pace to catch up to him and see where he was going. When I reached my destination I realized that he had entered a toy store. I went in and saw the man browsing through the dolls. This store, like others in the village, was small and unique. They carried handmade toys that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Stepping inside the store a rush of clean air filled my lungs rather than the thick and sweltering July air. Carefully he browsed through the dolls. He picked up almost every one to examine them. I pretended to be interested in the colorfully boxed board games as I secretly peeked over at him in the corner of my eye. After a few minutes he finally settled on a doll. He seemed to suddenly be in a hurry and checked out quickly before exiting the store. I waited a few moments before following him.
He stopped at a small flower stand on the street and bought a lush bouquet of flowers. He got a taxi and I contemplated following him further. I wanted to follow him so badly but I knew I shouldn’t. I couldn’t help myself so I hailed a cab, just as my mother had taught me to. At the same time the man got in a cab directly in front of us. “Follow the cab in front of us,” I ordered the driver.
He obeyed and we drove through the city. We finally stopped somewhere on the other side of Greenwich Village. I looked out the window to see a cemetery. It was a beautiful place. Gravestones stuck out of the vivid green lawn and vibrantly colored flowers were placed throughout. It looked completely out of place, being stuck between two colossal buildings but shaded by tall sturdy trees. The man got out and started walking through the grave sites. I paid the driver quickly and subtly leaped out of the yellow cab. I hid behind a gravestone and then looked out to see the man kneeling in front of a simple granite, gravestone.
I carefully carried myself through the cemetery, hiding behind the various slabs of granite. I finally got close enough to see the stone he was kneeling at. That’s when it finally hit me. I realized, how I knew this strange man.
“She would be turning 17 today,” The man spoke aloud. I stayed quiet. He kept staring ahead. “I know you’re there,” he said louder this time.
I peeked out from my refuge to see him looking my way. I came out and sat next to him since he wasn’t a stranger anymore. I remembered him now. He used to live in the apartment upstairs from us with his wife. The couple just had one daughter, named Mia. His daughter was in the same grade as my brother and babysat for me. Every year the family spent their summer in Maine. About three years ago while they were vacationing there, she got into a tragic accident and was killed. The family moved out soon after and we never saw them again.
“I know. She was in my brothers grade and she babysat for me. You lived in the apartment above us,” I told him.
His eyes lit up. “Alice is that you? You’re all grown up!” He exclaimed excitedly.
“Yes, it’s me Mr. Douglas,” I told him recalling his last name.
“You’ve turned into a beautiful young women. At the cafe I knew I recognized you from somewhere,” He said.
A piece of black hair fell in my face so I carefully tucked it behind my ear. I was embarrassed at first, when I realized he knew I was following him. “I’m sorry for following you. You looked so familiar and I was just trying to figure it out,” I apologized.
“No need for apologies,” he told me.
“I’ll leave if you want,” I replied.
“No, it’s nice to have some company for once, he spoke gently.
“She was so smart. Straight A student. She was our only child too. My pride and joy. When we went to Maine something changed in her. She was hanging out with the wrong crowd. She wanted to go to this party but we didn’t want her to. She was only fourteen and we knew there’d be alcohol. We got into a huge fight, he said stopping. He traced the letters of her name that were craved into the gray rock with his fingers. He seemed to struggle with this next part.
“The last words she said to us were ‘I hate you,’” He began again. “She left and went to the party. She was riding in a car with kids who had been drinking and they got into an accident. She was the only one killed. We were devastated. My wife and I became distant. We got divorced and when we came back to the city and she moved away to Arizona, to be with family. We left our apartment but I stayed in the city for a bit. There were too many memories here so I eventually moved upstate,” he explained.
“I’m so sorry,” I told him trying to hold back tears. I was so overwhelmed with emotion but I was trying to stay strong.
“It’s alright. Mia was our glue that kept us together but now that she was gone we had nothing,” He spoke gently, opening the box that I had seen him get from the cafe. There were a dozen cupcakes with pastel colored frosting and ‘17’ printed on each one, in white piped frosting. He put a candle in one of them and put it in front of her gravestone. “Do you mind singing with me?” He asked.
“Sure,” I responded. We sang happy birthday together. After, he handed me a cupcake to eat. I bit into the creamy frosting and delicate cake. “It doesn’t hurt to come and visit, and see her grave?” I asked him.
“No. It’s nice to come. I do the same thing every year. I get her cupcakes, some flowers and a present. I buy her different doll every year. She collected dolls, so I bring it to her to show her the new doll. I have a bin in my basement full of her dolls,” He explained.
“That’s so nice of you,” I told him.
He smiled. “Well of course I’m going to get her a present. It’s my daughters birthday,” he told me.
Then it clicked. I finally understood how this man could love his daughter so unconditionally, even though she wasn’t alive. My parents weren’t letting me go to the concert because they were worried about my safety. I was making such a big deal out of this one concert. I was young and I would be able to go to plenty of concerts in the future. My parents were doing the right thing by not letting me go. They were doing the right thing for me because they loved me, just as this man loves his own daughter. I got up and turned to Mr. Douglas. “I have to go. My parent’s are probably worried about me. It was nice to see you,” I told him.
“It was nice to see you too,” He told me. I began to walk away when he suddenly ran up to me. “Thank you,” he told me.
“For what?” I responded quickly.
“For listening,” he spoke. He had taken a flower from the bouquet and handed it to me and then just simply walked back. This man was thanking me, when I was the one who should be thanking him. In this short amount of time he had taught me a lesson I would never forget.
I ran to the side walk and hailed a cab. I told him my address and off we went through the city streets. When I walked into my apartment my mom was sitting at the couch, writing on her silver laptop. “Where have you been Alice? I’ve been worried sick about you,” she spoke sternly
I didn’t say anything but I sat next to my mom and gave her a hug. “I don’t care about the concert anymore,” I told her.
“What changed your mind?” She asked confused.
“I learned a few things while I was out,” I told her. “This is for you,” I said handing her the flower I carried.
“Thanks sweetie,” she said in her calming motherly toned. “You didn’t have to get me a flower.”
“I know but, I love you,” I told her walking into my room.
My mother never asked me where I had gone that day, and I didn’t feel the need to tell her either. I got grounded for leaving the house, but I didn’t mind. After that day I made an effort to not fight with my parents as much. It was nice. My parents seemed confused at first by my sudden change in behavior, but I knew they were enjoying it. From that day on, I always made sure to say ‘I love you,’ before I left them, because in my private lesson, I had learned that you’ll never know the next time you’ll be able to say that.