Love, Dad

In honor of Nanowrimo, (or perhaps to keep myself from cheating and using old material) I am publishing some short stories I wrote in college. Let me repeat: I wrote in college. Apologies in advance.

I thought about sleeping with him once.  Briefly.  Then I decided I would get more satisfaction with a dead man.

It wasn’t that Rick didn’t have the goods.  Not that I knew for a fact, but I’d be willing to bet he was pretty blessed in that area.  No, it was more that his ego was bigger than his hands were.

Maybe if I had gone home for the summer I wouldn’t have met Rick.  Then I wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

I was taking a summer photography class to get some elective hours in the form of an easy A.  I forgot my keys one day, and as I entered the classroom to retrieve them, I heard harsh words coming from the professor.  “Dammit Rick,” he said.  “I don’t know how you think you’re going to pass this class if you don’t quit turning in pictures of your band.  You can’t keep using the same subjects!”

“Well, no one ever asked Monet to stop painting landscapes,” was his calm reply. 

“Long-haired guys playing keyboard are not the same as Monet’s landscapes,” the young professor snipped.

“Music is one of the finest appreciations of the art world, and I am portraying these musicians in their most ferior element,” was Rick’s reply.

“Ferior?  What the hell does that mean?”  I was surprised to hear the professor’s voice had risen slightly.

“Unlike inferior, which you may be since you feel my photographs have threatened your authority, ferior means confident and secure. Now do you understand?” With that he turned and strutted towards the door in which I was standing.   He tipped the rim of his baseball cap and gave me a wink as he passed through.

There was a party later that night.  My roommate Beth and I entered the smoky bar well after midnight.  A few of the baseball players had hosted a get-together earlier, and we went there hoping it would be more enjoyable than this no-name party thrown at this raunchy bar. However, Beth’s new love interest had been all over this other girl, so we stayed only as long as we had to.

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“Come on, let’s go see the band,” she said after we left the bar with our usual Absolute and Sprites.

“Fine,” I agreed, and rolled my eyes at her sashaying through the crowd.

I felt his breath on the back of my neck before he even spoke.  “Now what’s a prissy girl like you doing at a place like this?”  I knew who it was even before I turned.  His mocking, almost singsong like voice was unmistakable.

I turned around to tell him exactly where he could stick it, but when I faced him I saw that his eyes were twinkling.  “Why is it any of your business anyway?” I responded, but I was smiling.

“I’m Rick.”  He held out his right hand after switching his Icehouse to his left.

“Jennifer.” I shook it grudgingly.  His hands were wet and cold.

I shifted my eyes to the right and saw Beth’s raised eyebrows and slightly opened mouth.  I elbowed her sharp in the side and wanted to laugh when she jumped.  “This is Beth.”

Beth glanced down at his untied shoelaces and wrinkled her nose slightly. 

“I know Beth,” Rick seemed excited.  “You were in my macro class last semester, huh?”

“Probably,” she said.  “I don’t remember you though.”

“Yeah, we had it at 9:30, right?  Are you a economics major?”  Beth barely even had time to nod before he kept talking.  “So what’d you think about that stock crash last Thursday?”

She looked at him with disinterest.  “I used to be an econ major.”  He said it like he thought she might care.  “But then I switched to history.” 

“I thought you were an art major,” I blurted out against my better judgement.  We were at a bar, not at school.  The last thing I wanted to talk about was academics. 

“Oh, I am now,” he said.

Beth rolled her eyes.  “We gotta go.”  As she dragged me off to the dance floor, I couldn’t help but glance back at Rick.  He was talking to some guy in glasses, and he was waving his arms around in a very exaggerated fashion.  Probably talking about stocks or something.  Whatever.

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Class the next week was frustrating.  My pictures were coming out flat and the professor refused to give me any grade above a C.  I sat in the darkroom that Thursday for an hour after class ended, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

“You’re not letting the right amount of light into the aperature,” Rick appeared out of nowhere.  “That’s why your subjects are fading into the background.”

“Thanks,” I muttered.  I was not in the mood for a lecture on photography, especially not from him.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “Let’s go take some pictures together.  I’ll show you how to fix your mistakes.”

I really didn’t want to go with him but I was not about to get a C on my transcript.  Maybe I could get him to do my homework for me.

He drove a fairly new Suburban, green with tan leather interior.  I looked for and expected to see Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead stickers, but there were none.  In fact the only sticker on the entire car announced, “Kicker,” a speaker system brand, on the back windshield.

“This is your car?” I couldn’t help but say.

“You don’t like it?” he asked as he opened my door for me.

“It’s okay,” I shrugged and climbed in.

He drove fast and reckless.  I got the feeling he thought he was driving a roadster, not this big boat of a car.  His speakers were loud and he seemed to know every word of the rap CD he was playing.

“So, you’re an English major?” he asked between songs.  “I was once,” he said before I answered. My God, what hasn’t this freak majored in?  “Did you ever take that modern poets class with Hollingsworth?” 

I barely remembered the class, but I muttered that I had taken it sophomore year.

“What’d you think of his analysis between traditional and modern poets in Britain?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“You don’t remember that lecture?  That one was beautiful,” he said.  “The connections between the tragic deaths of these poets was unbelievable.”  Was this guy a plethora of knowledge?  I barely remembered the professor’s name, much less what he lectured on.

The wind was blowing at the pond, and the waters were rippled.  The ducks looked like they were clinging onto something underwater to keep from being swept into the air. Rick seemed oblivious to the wind, but I was beginning to wish I’d worn a shirt with sleeves.

He loaded the film quickly, and crouched down at eye level with the ducks.  He tried to snap two shots before he realized the lens was still on, and then hurled the cap into the grass like he meant to do that.

I watched him snap those pictures.  All the different angles he used were interesting.  On one knee, laying on his stomach, propped up on his elbows … I began to feel like I was watching an exercise video, not a photographer.  And he never took the time to focus his shots.  His finger just kept pushing that little button, over and over … I began to realize I’d just wasted a roll of film.  This moron knew even less that I did!

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I ignored him for the rest of the summer, and the next time I saw him was the week after Thanksgiving.  He was sitting on a bench in the middle of campus, alone, with red cheeks and chattering teeth.  I walked past him and didn’t say anything, but then something made me turn around and approach him.  “Not taking pictures today?” I asked him.

“What? Oh hell no,” he responded.  “I don’t take pictures anymore.”

“Well, what do you do now?” I asked, standing over him awkwardly.

“What do I do now?” He looked at me like I was stupid. “What do any of us ever do? What do I do? I sit on a bench in freezing ass weather and try to figure out why I’m sitting here. That’s what I do.”

I turned and started walking away.  “No, wait,” he stopped me.  “Come back. I’m sorry I snapped at you.  It’s just that I’m looking around, watching all these people who know where they’re going and why they’re in college.  And I don’t know if they really know what their calling is in life, but at least they can fake it.”

“But I thought you were an artist,” I said softly.  For once I saw that his face had something sad about it.

“I was an artist.” He looked like he was going to cry.  “But then I lost my touch.”  He reached over and touched my gloved hand.  I started to pull away, but then I realized he wasn’t being sexual.  “Have you ever felt like you just don’t have a niche’ in the world?”

I’d never really thought about it.  I opened my mouth but I didn’t have anything to say, so I quickly shut it back.  Without even really knowing why, I sank beside him on the bench and found myself actually enjoying his company.

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We started hanging out after that day.  Rick made me laugh with all of his stories.  He’d been to Italy and Switzerland and Germany, both for vacations and for studies.  He’d been in the military and almost got to fight in a small battle off the islands of Hawaii.  He graduated from high school when he was 16 and that’s how he got to do all that and still be in college.

He had no family here; his father died when he was 18 and his mother ran off with some guy and didn’t talk to him much anymore. He had a sister in Texas but she was always busy with her husband and kids.  His family didn’t have very much money so Rick scraped by doing odd jobs. He’d saved up some money from his band’s performances, and that’s the reason he didn’t need a job at the moment.

We went to plays and performances and drank cappuccinos at poetry readings every Monday night at this coffee shop that also did body piercings.

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“What’s up with you?” Beth shot at me one morning on the way to the mall for some after-Christmas shopping.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.  I hadn’t seen much of Beth lately.  Somehow getting all dressed up and going to parties had lost its glamour.  I’d much rather sit at home and discuss with Rick the books I’d most recently read.

“You never want to go out with me anymore,” she said.  “You and I used to be so much alike.  Now all you want to do is get guitar lessons from Rick or whatever the hell you guys do together.”

“Well maybe I’m just growing up,” I snapped at her.  “I heard myself becoming defensive even though I didn’t know why.  “Sorry I can’t bring you with me.”

“He’s not even your type.” She was biting her lip and her eyes looked a little red.

“Since when do I have a type?” I said.  “Besides, we’re just friends.”

“Whatever,” she mumbled. We drove the rest of the trip in silence.  Beth was really starting to bug me.

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Rick jingled the keys in front of my face like he was trying to break me from a trance or something. “So you won’t forget?” he asked for the fiftieth time.

“I won’t forget to water your stupid plants,” I muttered. I was trying to study for my French final and didn’t want to bother with him right then.

“And what else?” he asked in a sing-song voice.

“And play music for them,” I grabbed the keys out of his hand and tossed them on the table. “Now leave, I have to study.”

“It’s the music on the CD,” he was saying as I shoved him out the door. “Don’t just play the radio or anything.”

His timing couldn’t have been more perfect to decide to go away for spring break.  He was visiting a friend in Atlanta. After my last exam I stopped by to water his plants and decided to hang there for a while. Dealing with high-strung Beth right then wasn’t exactly my favorite way to relax.

I made myself comfortable on the couch and was actually able to tolerate the soft orchestra music he had chosen for his beloved plants. Then curiousity and boredom led me to his bedroom where I proceeded to look around his things. 

I found a bookcase that was filled with books of all different natures.  There were psychology books, literary texts, and calculus books.  There were binders crammed with wrinkled papers stained with pen.

At the end of the middle shelf almost hidden behind a black notebook was a plain manila envelope that caught my attention. Inside the envelope were a handful of legal sized envelopes with Rick’s address neatly printed on each one.  The postmarks dated as far back as three years ago, and as recently as last week.

I picked the most recent one and found a letter inside. “Richard,” it started, “Here’s $15,000 that should last you until September. Spend it wisely; maybe if you save some you’ll be able to vacation out of the country like you’ve always wanted.” It was signed “Dad”.

I thought his father was dead.

I sat in his room for 45 minutes holding that letter. None of this made sense – why would he tell me his father was dead? And $15,000 wasn’t exactly pocket change.  Why would he lie about how much money his family had? And why would he not tell his dad he’d been out of the country to all of those fascinating places? I would never keep my travels a secret from anyone. I didn’t understand any of it.

I put the orchestra CD on repeat, over-watered the plants, and left that letter in the middle of his bedroom floor.  I locked the door and put the key under the mat, and never went back there again.

“So Rick turns out to be a fluke,” Beth snickered. “What a shame.”

“Shut the hell up,” I responded. I’d been moody for three days, and I wasn’t about to take her crap. 

I’d done everything in my power to avoid Rick since he’d come back from vacation. It wasn’t that hard actually. I knew where his usual spots were, and I just made sure I wasn’t there when he would be. A few times it had been difficult, however. I even ended up behind a tree one day hoping it would shadow me from him. I had no need to worry, though. He had walked right past me looking up towards the tree’s branches. I envisioned him running into a pole or tripping on a break in the sidewalk and it made me feel better.

“I’m sorry, it’s just I don’t understand what the big deal is. You guys never even dated, so why does it make a difference if he doesn’t want to hang out with you anymore? He was so weird anyway.” Beth was trying to be nice but it wasn’t really working. 

The word ‘weird’ stuck in my mind for the rest of the day. He definitely wasn’t normal. He never seemed to be quite the same around any one person.  Everything changed about him based on who he was with; his tone of voice, his movements, his thoughts even. When I voiced my concerns to Beth she told me I was one to talk.

I knew I had it coming. It’s hard to avoid someone you’re used to seeing every day.  I managed to avoid him for two months before I met up with him on the sidewalk in front of the math building. I didn’t even notice him until he was right there in front of me, and he startled me when I saw that it was him. I didn’t even have time to react to him before he, not even looking at me, bumped me accidentally with his shoulder. “Oh excuse me” he said, tipped his hat, and kept walking.

I couldn’t help but turn to look after him. He hadn’t even looked back, hadn’t even recognized me.  He was just trotting along with that same little skip in his step that he’d always had.

This story won first place prose in the 1999 Winthrop University literary magazine. Call me George Lucas, but the editor in me came out and I had to fix some of the details lest I cringe while you read it now. So this is slightly different than the original version.