It’s probably my favorite memory of you. It’s the one I think of whenever I try to remember things that you didn’t f--k up. It’s bittersweet, of course, but everything about you is. But even though you weren’t perfect, you were my dad back then, my real dad. There was no wartime PTSD changing your demeanor from day to day. You were imperfect, but you were my daddy, and you still liked to spend time with me.
It would always be extremely early in the morning, way too early for a winter’s day, especially for an 8-year-old, but it was my choice to go. You would be grumpy because you would have liked to head out much earlier, but you still waited for me to get a little more sleep. That’s the part I like to remember. Your irritation would be gone soon after we got in the car anyway.
I would get dressed in the clothes you picked out for me, my long ratty hair unbrushed but hidden under one of your favorite fishing hats, one of the ones that smelled like you. You would get the boat and the rods ready, if you hadn’t done it the night before, while I ate breakfast. You were always in a rush to go, but you were always in a rush anyway, so it didn’t bother me much.
Finally we would be ready, and you would help me up into the tall green truck that always smelled like smoke and had candy wrappers stuck in the ashtrays. You were always mad about that, even after we stopped stuffing them in there. I cried when you sold the truck, but now I’m glad it’s gone. It’s just one of those things that causes me acute discomfort whenever I think about it, a discomfort that lies low in my stomach and hides behind my tear ducts, a feeling I can’t quite explain.
You would hoist me into the front seat. I can’t remember if I was actually big enough to ride in the front at that point or you just thought I was. You’d triple check to make sure I was belted in and belted in correctly. We’d pull out of the driveway slowly, carefully, boat in tow. I remember feeling guilty for holding you up; I was afraid that these extra minutes would exacerbate your anger to the point of making you give up and just stay home, and then we wouldn’t spend time together.
We would be flying down the road soon after, and the radio would be playing low enough for us to talk, if either of us had anything to say. We were never very good at car conversation. I know you think we used to chat like old friends, but aside from the months following your deployments, when I talked endlessly and loudly just to make sure you didn’t forget me, we were never good at small talk. I think I was just too in awe of you, or too hurt and ashamed of the life I had. I’m still not sure, to be honest.
Then would come my favorite part of the trip. We would pull into the convenience store to grab sodas and snacks. You would let me pick out whatever I wanted, usually Goldfish or a can of Pringles, and you would get coffee. I would tag along, snacks in hand. You would get me the biggest cup for hot cocoa. I remember you would let me press the button, and I would stand on my toes to do it. My mind gives you a smile at this point, but I’m sure there were times you frowned. I prefer to remember the smile of perfectly straight, off-white teeth, and a crinkling around your eyes. It’s an image that will never leave my mind, even if I don’t see it often anymore.
You would put the lid on for me, since I could never get it on correctly. We would go pay for our stuff, and I would avert my eyes from the cashier, shy as I was. You would tuck me into the front seat again, and I would hold the hot chocolate. It was warm against my tiny fingers that were too, too cold on this winter’s morning. The sensation of the seeping heat burned and delighted me, and I would breathe in the scent of the chocolate. I would blow on the cup a few times, and either singe my tongue or wait. Either way, you would buckle yourself in, take a fearless sip of your coffee, and then back out of the store.
And then we would be off to a day of you fishing and me soaking up your happiness, a thing sweeter than the hot chocolate ever could be.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.