“There’s no need to be sorry. We had quite the time.” He pulled my head towards him and kissed it.
“Did you guys at least eat?”
“We ordered pizza.”
“Dad, I told you I made dinner.”
“I know. But now you’ll have leftovers for tomorrow. Or eat it another day. I told you I can babysit again tomorrow.”
“Are you at least trying to date? Mrs. Thomson has a nephew…”
“I know. I know. And what about you? Mrs. Thomson isn’t bad herself.”
“Oh…she’s a nutter,” he said wiping it away with his hand. “I don’t even understand how Brian put up with her for so long, rest his soul. Then again, he thought the same of….” he stopped and simply smiled.
I love my father. We are close now, more than we ever were. But there are some topics we choose to let be. Mom is or was one of them. It’s something we learned to do. We know there are only so many ways we cannot agree.
Instead he said, “No. I’m too old to date. You’re young and beautiful and smart. Very smart.”
“Thank you,” I said, then seeing the look on his face I added, “I’m looking.”
He peered at me from over the bridge of his glasses, but accepted the lie.
It isn’t easy. The apartment is small. It’s really all I can afford. My father wanted us to move. He said he would help. We both knew I wouldn’t take it, though. Every once in a while he’ll offer again and I’ll say I’ll think about it.
In truth, I think I pity my father. At times, I get the sense that despite the years and space in between he can’t allow himself to heel. He thinks he’s ruined love for me, and that no matter how many milkshakes he offers, he can never sweeten it again. And then—then there are those other days in which I’m certain he thinks I’m alone to spite him. That, in the end, no matter what he does, he’ll go to the grave in regret.
I really don’t know how to feel about any of it. It wasn’t he that walked out on Jake. But it sure felt the same. They both had a way of hiding things, my father and Jake’s. They’d tuck it deep inside, then one day it would peak out over dinner, a glimpse at that carnal appetite. One day I’ll have to tell Jake the truth about my father and his. I’ll have to. But not yet. I wanted Jake to be my Jake for a few more years.
“Mommy!” Jake ran in as he always does—grabbing both my legs and sticking his head through. “Look Ada, I’m in the stocks.” He let his wrists turn to dead fish.
“I take it you guys watched another western.” I slapped his butt and he pulled out. “And made quite the mess I see.”
There was mud from Jake’s shoes on the carpet. The sofa cushions were missing. Later I’d find that they became the walls of an Indian fort. Some of it wasn’t Jake’s doing, though. The columns of mail on the coffee table are my fault. Bills mostly. There’s just never any time. For bills or for dating.
“So what did you get me?”
“Not so fast. First we need to cut the cake.”
Jake sat on my father’s lap, galloping on his knees as I spread candles on his ice cream cake. There were only six candles in the box. I quickly washed a dirty knife from the sink and brought it all over to the table.
“Quick, close your eyes.” I lit the candles, hoping he wouldn’t notice I was shy one, and turned off the light, which was already on the fritz.
My father and I did a duet while Jake played the composer.
“And many, many more,” I said when we finished.
“Go ahead. Make a wish, a big one,” said my father.
Again Jake closed his eyes. For a long time we sat, waiting. His face screwed up in concentration as the candles dripped wax onto the cake—but he kept his eyes closed, hard and tight. Finally he opened his eyes, smiled, and, in one breath, blew out all six.
I lingered in the dark. Closed my eyes for good measure. I was hesitant but I did it anyway. And there, I was. Again. I stepped right into the black. I took a deep breath, letting the birthday smoke waft Jake’s wish into my nostrils. I held it in me and felt it glide down the back of my throat. I could feel it flutter through my heart—the beat spiraling down my ribcage. I felt my cheeks lift.
It was nothing like my father or Jake’s father. It was sweet and innocent and warm. It was honest. And there were those hints of aged wine.
I exhaled and flipped the lights back on.
“So what’d you wish for?”
My father plucked a candle and sucked the bottom like a cigarette. I could see his crows’ feet forming. “Nonsense. He can’t answer that. Then it won’t come true,” he laughed, clapping both his hands on Jake’s small shoulder. It was an old laugh. I could feel the weight of those hands. And something stirred inside me like fingernails pulling my cheeks down.
“Presents?” said Jake with a puppy tilt of the head.
I looked at him. He looked up with his father’s eyes. It was as though that invisible weight that drapes my father had suddenly cast itself on to me and I could not shake it. That old woman began to speak to me: It’s in the genes. I passed Jake the box. I watched as he clawed at it with hungry hands, my father helping him along.
“Hey, Jake,” I said. “Jake? What do you say I come home early tomorrow? I’ll come home early and we’ll go to the park. Or anywhere. How about that? How does that sound? Just me and you.”
But they didn’t hear me. Jake gnawed at the plastic. A couple Lego pieces spilled out. My father bounced him around and clapped his back and laughed that old laugh.
I closed my eyes. Pee—KOO Lee, Pee—KOO Lee.
An architect would be nice, I thought. Jake deserves to build his own home. Then again that man—I could see that man.
I wish Jake could see that man, too.