I'm awake! No seriously, I am! :D
Happy New Year, ya'all! Hope it was a good one, and can you believe it's 2012 already?
So, to get going early this year, I signed up for the Frankie Diane Mallis' 3rd Annual No-Kiss Blogfest! Get all the details at the link.
This kind of scene is somewhat outside my comfort zone, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway. Also, I took a swing at structuring the story a little differently than the usual guy/girl match up. I've no idea if I pulled it off, but it sure was fun to put together!
So here it is! Enjoy! And don't forget to go read everyone else's entries also!
(c) 2012 Jon Paul
Sarah left her bags at the front door and walked toward me, crossing from the morning-brightened living room into the kitchen, her easy disarming smile dancing in the honeyed light. As she approached I remember thinking only one thing: she was still my little girl.
She intended to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, an understood ritual, the last act of affection a daughter shows her father on the day she leaves for college. The scene was a cliché of course, acted out in a hundred corny movies, but the prospect of facing my daughter in that moment had played and replayed in my mind for weeks. How would it feel, I wondered, when it came time to say goodbye?
I set my coffee cup on the counter and returned her grin. Doubt flickered through her steady gaze, or surprise perhaps. Sarah was not the kind of person to find herself at a loss for words. Her blue eyes swept the kitchen, as if the familiarity of the table and chairs, pots and pans and dishes peering from the shelves, might offer her a clue what to say.
"The big day is finally here," I said. "You all packed, ready to go?"
"Yeah." She blinked twice, as if a spell had been broken, then poured herself a cup of coffee. Cream. Two sugars.
"When's Heather get here?" I asked. Sarah's best friend Heather Nance had been accepted to the same school.
Sarah looked at her watch. "In about twenty minutes."
"Ok. Don't forget what we talked about."
Sarah chuckled and raised one eyebrow.
"Be careful when you get to Austin or you'll hit morning rush hour dead on. I-35 will be like a parking lot by then if--"
"I got it."
I fell silent, my overprotective words suddenly ringing in my ears. I couldn't help but smile. It was a hard habit to break. Too many skinned knees. Too many tears over broken dolls and schoolyard crushes.
"Dad, listen," she began, standing close. "It's...I-I'll be home weekends and holidays, you know..."
I nodded. When I met her gaze, she was reading my mind, sensing my uncertainty.
"Sarah?" Her mom's voice filtered down from upstairs. "I found that sweater you asked about. And a couple other things you might want to take."
"Be right back," Sarah said.
When she was gone, I sipped my lukewarm coffee, feeling too lazy to warm it from the pot. Upstairs the girls negotiating over what clothes might still fit in Sarah's bags. The plan was for Sarah's mother Nell and I to drive up in a couple of weekends with her furniture, once she knew how much space was available in her dorm room. The semi-furnished rooms pictured in the college brochure looked smallish so Sarah, sensible as ever, decided to pack light and make due until we arrived with the rest of her stuff. We'd suggested driving her to college ourselves, but she'd already agreed to travel with Heather. Two weeks would no doubt feel like an eternity.
I placed my empty coffee cup in the sink, ran hot water into it and put it in the dishwasher. I caught a glimpse of my face reflected in the window. How tired I looked. I'd stayed up late looking through old photo albums, having a few too many beers.
Eighteen years had come and gone in the blink of an eye. People always said kids grew up fast, but life is full of platitudes that barely resemble reality, so I suppose I never really believed it. I couldn't escape the feeling that the last few years had blurred by in seconds.
Dustin, Sarah's brother, bounded down the stairs and came into the kitchen. His bedhead hair stood out in wild angles, and he gave me a wry smirk. "She still here?"
Dustin pulled a carton of orange juice from the fridge, pouring the golden liquid into a glass. Naturally, his sister's departure didn't seem to bother him. Sarah had vacated the larger of their two bedrooms, so he'd immediately staked a claim to it, no doubt contributing to his eagerness to see her leave.
I left Dustin in the kitchen and went to my office. I wanted to get in a little work before a planned trip to the grocery store with Nell later. I flipped the power switch on my laptop and listened as it booted up, feeling a thousand miles away, my mind adrift. I clicked open a report from Jim Lackey, one the insurance agents in my office. He had a couple questions about my methodology for settling a recent claim for one of his customers. I tried to work my way through his notes, but I couldn't concentrate. I kept catching myself, eyes on the wall, listening to a peculiar silence settle over the house. Soon, Heather pulled up outside. Dustin answered the door when the doorbell rang and yelled upstairs. Sarah and her Mom came down, still chatting over wardrobe choices.
"Dad, come on! I'm leaving," Sarah yelled out.
"Be right there."
I closed the laptop, sat still for a minute. On my desk, my gaze fell on a framed photo of four-year old Sarah, dressed as a genie, her pre-school Halloween costume one year. The same smile. The same twinkle in her eye. 'I love you, Daddy' scrawled in crayon along the edge of one corner. It felt like the picture had been taken only yesterday.
When I came down the driveway, Dustin was putting Sarah's bags in the trunk of Heather's car--a rare act of chivalry. Nell hovered nearby, arms crossed in her cardigan, a strained smile painted on her face.
"Morning, Mr. Howard," Heather said as I approached.
"Morning, Heather," I said, sounding more chipper than I felt. "You have everything, Sarah?"
Sarah ran her eyes quickly over the bags in the trunk. "Wait. My camera bag." She started up the driveway toward the house.
"I'll get it," I said.
"It's on the side table in the living room," she said as I disappeared through the door. I found the small black bag, right where she said it was, and brought it back outside.
As I came back down the driveway, Sarah waited patiently near the open trunk. It was clear the others had already said their goodbyes. Dustin and Nell stood off to one side as Heather climbed into the driver's seat of her car. I handed Sarah her camera bag, but she refused to look me in the eye.
The sun, fully up, bathed the street and houses in a brilliant, sundering light. I keenly felt everyone's eyes on Sarah and I. Gone was the intimacy of our time that morning in the kitchen, evaporated like steam dissolving in the warming air.
I searched Sarah's face, seeing a new maturity there. Or had it been there all along? At that moment, I really wasn't sure of anything and I shook my head, trying to get my eyes to focus. It made no sense, but someone had taken away my daughter and replaced her with a beautiful, mysterious young woman who looked at me now with a kind of sadness. There was a new remoteness, an invisible barrier, an expansive wall constructed from the bricks of a missed opportunity.
Did she sense it too, this strange shift in reality? Was it some defensive mechanism on her part, to put some distance between us, to make leaving less painful? Or perhaps she was nervous in front of her friend. Whatever it was, she seemed suddenly like a stranger to me, grown up, responsible, sophisticated in a way I couldn't fathom. I searched her eyes for a sign, for some indicator that this was all a mistake, a misunderstanding. She returned my gaze tenderly, with great composure, and that's when I knew something had changed.
"Goodbye, Dad," she said quietly. "See you in a couple weeks." She didn't hug me, or give me a kiss on the cheek. Instead, with forlorn grace, she turned and climbed into the passenger seat of the car, a bizarre frown turning down the corners of her mouth.
When they had driven away, Nell came to me, took me by the arm. Dustin had already disappeared inside.
"You Ok?" Nell said. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
I nodded, but couldn't speak. I could only smile weakly, a spiritless emptiness gnawing my insides. We embraced, my wife warm in my arms, then walked up the driveway, alone, and disappeared inside.
Thanks for stopping by, and don't forget to stay groovy! :D