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It is raining when Nora walks up her father’s steps. Nora hates the rain. It makes her cold and sad and her hair always dries funny afterward. Will it rain a lot in Zambia? She wasn’t thinking about that when she applied to go there. She hopes it’s drier than it is here.
Nora feels slightly nervous about what will happen after she walks through her father’s door. She hasn’t told him she is coming. She hasn’t told anyone she is coming. She doubts it would mean very much to anyone. Most of her school friends are off in other parts of the country right now, taking classes and working with teachers and getting degrees – in things they care about, things they don’t. She keeps in touch with some of them, but her being at her father’s home right now would not matter to them. It wouldn’t matter to their parents, either; she was never very good at parents. Most have already forgotten her.
She bites her lip as she looks at the door to her childhood home, trying to see through the frosted glass window at eye-level to no avail. She knows she must do this before she loses her nerve. Acting before she has the chance to second-guess herself, she reaches up and jabs the doorbell quickly before dropping her hand to the side, suddenly nauseous. What comes next is not going to be pleasant.
She watches as her father’s silhouette grows sharper behind the glass; then, all of a sudden, he is there – gray-haired, balding, slightly stooped, and wearing an expression of happiness mixed with total surprise. Her heart seems to leap and sink simultaneously at the sight of him – his car had been hidden in the garage. She had been hoping he wouldn’t be home.
He speaks immediately, his voice and face registering every thought and emotion running through his head. “Nora! How did you get here? Why are you here? Is something wrong? Why aren’t you in school? What’s happened?”
Nora swallows. She needs to sit down. “Let’s go inside, Dad.”
He follows her, his face now clouded with worry. They walk together into the living room and sit opposite one another – him on the couch, her in her favorite armchair. She can see that he wants to keep asking questions, and is only stopping himself so that she can put her bags down beside her and get comfortable. She does not take off her coat.
“I need to talk to you, Dad.” Her voice sounds cold and monotonous in her ears. After everything he has done for her, everything he has worked for… But she pushes her guilt away. He wasn’t a god. He wasn’t even an amazing father. That’s why she’s changed, isn’t it?
The thing was, he had tried to raise her well. He had tried to make sure he knew her friends and wasn’t too busy to cook dinner and could provide her with everything she wanted. He had tried to make up for her mother having left, despite the fact that Nora had been so young at the time it made no difference to her. He had tried so hard.
But he had also taken away her freedom before she ever had a chance to really taste it. He had been harsh, judgmental, unaccepting. In trying to be a strong parent, to get her to always put in her best effort, he had pushed her too hard. He had verbally abused at her, scolded her when her grades weren’t perfect, when she was home ten minutes after she had promised she would be, when she wasn’t practicing her goddamned bass all the goddamn day…
And that is why this discussion needs to happen. She owes so much to him, but she also needs him to see that he doesn’t own her, doesn’t control her. She opens her mouth to speak again, but he interrupts her. “You never came to visit.” She is focusing on the stretch of wall behind him, trying not to look at his face, but she hears the resigned sadness in his voice as he says it.
“You never invited me.”
“You were always welcome.”
“Your emails made it sound like you were too busy.”
“I could have made time.”
She gives up. How could she truly believe that excuses might work on him? They never have before. “I suppose I could have, yes. But… I didn’t think to, and I’m sorry. You read my emails. My first summer, I went to India. India! I saw you every day for eighteen years. I’d never seen India.” She bites her lip, hoping it will be enough.
He nods, looking hurt. “I understand.” There is a pause as each thinks about what to say next. He breaks the silence. “How are things going with the bass?” Damn it. She knew he would bring things around there at some point. He would bring things around there, and then it would be awkward and terrible. How could it not be? How can it not be those things, when one’s father goes to one of the most country’s most prestigious music schools to study the instrument he loves, but must drop out to take care of his sick father? How can it not be when he does everything in his power to make sure his daughter has every opportunity he missed, when he works for decades to make sure that he has the money to retire comfortably, to let her pursue her (his) dreams? How can it not be, when she must return home to tell him she’s dropping out of school, abandoning her instrument and dropping out of school and throwing away his dreams for a second time?
Her voice is small. “They’re fine.” He knows. He has to know. She doesn’t have it with her – at least, not the one she left with. The new instrument she carries is smaller, lighter, cooler. She has returned with a bass, but a different kind of bass – and one her father never approved of.
His eyes flit to the case. He has seen it. She can tell. He nods at it. “What’s that?”
She swallows again and looks down. “My…bass.”
He attempts a joke. “It shrank!”
She looks up to see his mouth smiling at her; his eyes, however, are fearful. She takes a breath. It’s now or never.
“No, Dad… It didn’t shrink. Things…things are different now. So much has changed.” She can hear her heart beating in her ears, feel it thumping against her ribcage. She takes another breath and goes on. “I’m… I’m in a band now. It’s an electric bass. I play electric bass. I have since last year, since the third month I was at Julliard. We play, and we’re really good, Dad. I wish you could hear us. It’s me, and my roommate, and this girl across the hall and her roommate, and we play all over the city, and we’ve been so successful at busking – ”
Nora stops as she sees her father’s eyebrows shoot up in shock, while his face grows redder with each passing moment. She has said too much. She braces herself, waiting for the storm – and it comes almost immediately. “You – you – you’re playing that? On the street? Like some filthy homeless person?” He practically spits the words into her face, wasting no energy attempting to hide his scorn. “What about your real bass? What about your studies? What about your plans?” He cuts off, his mouth still opening and closing like a fish lying in the smashed and drying remnants of its bowl. Nora seizes her chance before he can speak again, before she loses the hot energy she suddenly feels coursing through her veins.
“Your plans, Dad. Always your plans. Always your goddamn plans for me. Do you ever remember a time when you let me do what I wanted? Ever? There wasn’t one. Every single f*ing day of the week, it was ‘sit up straight,’ and ‘play your bass,’ and ‘no, you can’t see anyone this weekend, you have a recital in two weeks,’ and there wasn’t a single goddamn time that you let me do what I wanted. I missed every field trip I ever had because you thought that there were more worthwhile ways I could be spending my time, like playing and studying. Do you know how much I would cry because I thought I wasn’t good enough for you? Do you know how much I began to hate that bass? Five f*ing hours a day, every day, six on weekends, so much practice time that I thought I was going mad because everything was just echoing around and around my head. And you never noticed a goddamn thing unless I played a note off.”
Nora gasps for breath. It is, she supposes, a day of firsts – the first day she has ever sworn at her father, the first day she has ever told him her true feelings about the bass…and, she realizes, as her eyes begin to sting, the first day she has ever cried in front of him. It is freeing in a way she never imagined possible. She is invincible now, practically welcoming his next attack. It has been so long, too long. She has never stood up to her father like this before, never told him these things.
There is a pause; her father appears lost for words at this sudden outburst. Finally, weakly, he says, “You…you loved that bass. You had so many plans for what you were going to do with your bass. It was your dream, Nora. Your dream!” His voice grows stronger. “Maybe at whatever little shitty club you and your band hole up in every night they don’t take plans, don’t take dreams seriously, but in this house, we do. In this house, when you commit to something, you stay committed, godammit. For godsake, Nora, it’s your dream. How can you just abandon it like this? After everything I’ve done for you – how can you do that to me?”
Nora is amazed at how quickly her anger is replaced by tranquility, a calm and clarity deeper than ever before. “It was never my dream, Dad. It was yours. It was yours, and you pounded it into me until I believed it was mine. But when I got to college, I realized that there was still a difference, that it didn’t have to be mine. And it’s not. It never was. Do you know what my dream is? Do you know why I’ve come here today?”
He cut her off. “I don’t care, young lady. If you’re going to waste my money so you can live in New York and busk your entire life, I refuse to pay another cent. You can forget about living off of my money, you ungrateful little brat!”
She stays calm, takes another breath. “You don’t have to keep paying, Dad. I’ve come to say goodbye. After I leave here today, I’m going back to school. I’m packing up most of my things and driving them to my roommate’s house in Rochester. And then I’m going back to JFK, getting on a plane with a suitcase and my bass – this bass, not my upright – and I’m flying to Zambia. I’ve volunteered to work with the Peace Corps! I’m going to Zambia and I’m going to work at a school there and I’m going to teach children how to make music. I’ve made music for so long – but always your music, someone else’s music. From now on I’m going to make my music. I’m going to make it because I want to, not because you or anyone else makes me. And right now, I’m going to Zambia, going to teach other people how to make their own music. I went to college and discovered what I cared about. And I care about music, and I care about you, and right now, I care about this – and that’s what I’m going to focus on. Don’t you see!? You cared so much, you forgot to find out what I cared about! And now I’m finding out for myself!”
Nora is breathing heavily now, crying and smiling and feeling lighter than she has in her entire life. Because as she speaks, as she lets out the things she has never been able to say to her father, everything suddenly becomes clear. She can still love her father. And she can still love music. And yet she can still love things outside of them, things unrelated to them. She has been away from her father for two years, but only now, telling him these things, has she become truly free of him.
He stares at her as if seeing her for the first time, as if seeing her as an entity separate from himself. He breathes, trembles a little, breathes again. When she looks at him closely, she suddenly realizes that he, too, is crying.
He looks up at her, doing his best to dry his eyes on his sleeves in the process. “Nora…” He seems at a loss for words. “Nora… I love you. I love you so much. Please… just be safe. Stay safe. Keep emailing me so I know you’re all right. Will you do that? Please?”
She hears everything in his voice, the apology and the pleading and the forgiveness and the love, the love for her even though he doesn’t understand her. He hears these things, and knows that everything will be okay. She will return home one day, and they will have another talk like this, only calmer, and many more will follow, and slowly they will come to understand each other. It will take time, so much time, time she hasn’t even begun to try to imagine how she will fill one day, but it will get better. It will all get better. Nora is certain of that.