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Familiar Stranger MAG
“Be good, all right? Help your mom with your sister. Don’t forget to do your homework. Go to sleep earlier. Don’t drink too much coffee.”
“Okay, okay,” I reply awkwardly. “I get it.”
“I have to go or I’ll get stuck in traffic. I’ll call when I get home. See you soon. I love you.”
Six hundred and thirty-two miles from my home is Florence, South Carolina. That’s where he works. That’s where he lives. He’s far away, always out of reach in some way.
At midnight, I sit at my desk and attempt to concentrate on my homework. I rub my dry eyes, yawn, and stretch as I glare at my biology textbook. He may not be home, but he still wants to help me in any way he can. On the phone, he’s waiting for my questions. Gulping down the lump in my throat that prevents me from saying what I feel, I choke out that it’s late and he should go to sleep. He’s driving home from Florence in the morning. Yet he insists on staying on the phone.
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “You do your homework. I’ll wait just in case you’re confused about anything.”
It turns out that I do have questions, and he answers them enthusiastically, like he’s had five cups of coffee, until I finally hear a static-filled yawn. Again I tell him to go to sleep. I tell him I won’t be done until late, and he replies, “I’ll stay awake until you’re done.” A wave of gratitude rushes through me, but I open my mouth only to close it again. It would be strange if I said something cheesy.
“It’s my work, anyway,” I finally snap after a long pause. On the other side, I hear a long creak of a chair as he leans back, but he doesn’t say anything.
How do I say thank you?
I can hear the car in the driveway after his 10-hour drive. He’s staying for the night, and tomorrow he leaves for Boston. My sister and I run to the door to greet him. Outside, the car door opens and out pop two huge suitcases. He sees us and smiles brightly, despite his exhaustion.
My younger sister has no hesitation; once I help her with her shoes, she runs to greet him with a hug. “Wo de bao bei, my precious treasure,” he says, picking her up and spinning her around. “How are you?”
I want to do just what my sister did, but I’m a teenager, and shows of affection are embarrassing. I restrain myself. My boots are on, my jacket is zipped, and I should go grab one of his suitcases. Instead I stop at the doorway, a concrete smile frozen on my face.
How do I say “hello”?
I’m shoving messy binders, enormous textbooks, and a lunch box into my bag while trying to cram a hot piece of toast in my mouth. The garage door opens. He’s home this week to visit, so he can drive me to school. I grab my jacket and slip it on. When I turn back around, I realize my backpack is gone. I don’t need to go to the garage to know that he has it, but I run downstairs to get it anyway, and try to get hold of it. He pulls it away. “It’s too heavy,” he says simply, easily lifting it with one hand.
“I carry it every day.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt.”
I bite my lip, but I hastily grab the bag as soon as he puts it on the seat of the car. I can’t tell, because the car is starting, but I think he sighs.
Why can’t I just accept his help?
“Help me fold the laundry,” he says. I want to smile. I love the smell of clean clothes just out of the dryer.
“Fine,” I grumble, like it’s the biggest hardship in my life, and trudge up the stairs with him. Flatten, fold, place, repeat. Flatten, fold, place, repeat. Before he left, it was flatten, laugh, fold, talk, repeat. I would tell him stories from school, and he would tell me nerdy math and science jokes. There’s an anecdote on the tip of my tongue, but I bite my lip and look down at the clothes. Flatten, fold, place, repeat. It’s the same feeling of trying to talk to your best friend after a fight. Awkward.
“Hey,” he starts with a grin, and I brace myself. “It’s snowing outside, so if you’re cold, go into the corner. It’s 90 degrees!” I’m about to smile, and he looks pleased. He’s been trying really hard, unlike me. But I suddenly sneeze, and that relapse slips back into the present, where he has to deal with a sullen, stressed daughter. I acknowledge the joke with a nod, then take my clothes to my room. I can feel his eyes boring holes in the back of my head as I lock the door.
Why can’t we get along like we used to?
“All right, I have to go or I’ll get stuck in traffic. I’ll call when I get home. See you soon. I love you.” He stops there instead of opening the car door and waits expectantly. I don’t react.
“Bye” would sound terse and uncaring, the way I have been acting. “Good-bye” is too formal, too final. “Take care” sounds cheesy. “So long” seems rude.
“Well, see you,” he finally says disappointedly, and gets into the car before I can say a word. The engine revs almost angrily as he drives away.
I stand in the doorway until he’s far, far away. “Bye-bye,” I whisper, with a tiny wave. Tears roll down my face. “I love you too, Daddy.”
Park City, Utah
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
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Knowing is better than wondering, waking is better than sleeping, and the biggest failure beats the hell out of never trying.