One day as I was leaving for school, I turned to my mother. "I think Dad is on his way here."
She turned and looked at me, shaking her head. "He just called last week and said he'll be in California, dear. Don't get your hopes up. I don't see how he can make it up here to Spokane."
I did not tell my mother the truth—that I wasn't really hoping for him to come. In fact, it was actually quite the opposite. My stomach had been doing nervous jumps all morning, and my insides felt edgy and anxious. It was too familiar and too uncomfortable.
"Mom, I can feel it. He'll be here." I spoke in a matter-of-fact way. The feeling had been building for a few days, until it felt like I was suffering from a form of paranoia. Just yesterday afternoon I had begun looking out my window every few minutes, watching for my father's car or truck to park in front of my home. This growing, deep-seated anxiety was so strong, it had prompted me to tell my mother.
As I prepared to walk out the door, I stopped to give her a hug. "He will be here very soon."
"We'll see," she responded. Her tone reflected how skeptical she was. If I hadn't been feeling so serious, it would have made me laugh. This was the fourth or fifth time we'd had this conversation, and every time I told her, she was skeptical until the second she answered the door and my dad was standing on her porch.
During the entire time it took me to walk to school, I started to ponder why I would have these intense feelings in my belly and then my chest when my dad was about to visit. I used to call it the knowing, but then if I described it to people, they freaked out on me. I wondered if any of my friends felt on edge or even a little frightened of their fathers. If they did, they sure knew how to suppress their feelings well.
Maybe I'm weird, I thought. I should get over these sensations and this fear. I had begun to doubt the state of my mental health, especially since I had experienced these uncomfortable feelings around my father since I was a young child. Am I secretly adopted? What is wrong with me?
I tried to sort through my strange emotions, but I only felt more tense and unsettled, especially since I could not find a logical explanation. I was feeling the same way I had felt that day on the couch in our old home. If I were to act on my emotions, I would run and hide until his visit was complete, but I was sure I would only question myself when it was over, and that it would make people question my sanity. I felt strangely alone. I didn't know anyone in the world who had experienced this kind of thing.
I wondered if I would ever grow out of this peculiar phase and want to be close to my dad. Recently, I had watched a movie where a bride was dancing with her father. The thought of me dancing with my father made my stomach turn in disgust. This is crazy! I thought. I am abnormal.
Once I got to school, I let go of my deep thoughts as my friends greeted me. I pretended to let go of the knowing—the warning—and started to walk with my friends through the halls to our homeroom.
The next morning, I woke up, eager to leave the house early. I was almost ready to head out the door when I heard a big rig coming down our street. There were a few of those in our neighborhood. It could be anyone, I told myself. Then our doorbell rang, and my stomach dropped. It was far too early for it to be any of our friends. I heard my mother open the door and be greeted by a large, joking laugh.
"Hey!" said my father with a huge amount of excited energy, "are the kids still asleep? I wanted to surprise them!"
"They're getting ready for school," my mother said. I heard Jason's door being thrown open with a thud and Carrie jumping out of the bathroom and running to him. Forcing myself to breathe normally, I stayed in my room for as long as I could until I knew he would begin asking where I was.
Just pretend everything is fine, I told myself as I took one more deep breath and went to the living room. "I told you Dad was coming!" I turned to my mother. "You never believe me." She turned and looked at me, just like last time and said, "Well, now I will pay more attention."
She smiled. I could tell it was a relief for her when Dad came to town. He would mitigate the stress of caring for us, at least for a few days. On top of entertaining us, I think she was grateful to him for providing the things we needed and filling the cupboards with food that would last for at least a week after his departure. But this visit was a little different.
"I'm just in town briefly," he said somberly. "I'm headed off to the Midwest, so I wanted to take the kids to school this morning." Everyone else was disappointed, but I was secretly relieved. My sister was still attached to my dad's leg, holding on to it. She wouldn't let go.
Once it was time to go to school, I glanced quickly at Jason and Carrie. They both seemed quite comfortable around Dad, and this made me wonder how I could move past my feelings. I hurried to finish getting myself together for the day and then I caught a glimpse of my father's huge, green semi-truck, parked in front of our home. I realized that I would be getting dropped off for school in a semi, and it embarrassed me. The truck was huge, loud, and grass green. While several of my peers loved anything that made them stand out, I just wanted to quietly fit in. I wanted to be normal. Anything that made me stand out made me uncomfortable. This morning I was going to be with my big dad, in his big truck, and all I could feel from the pit of my stomach was big trouble. What the heck was wrong with me?
One by one, we kissed Mom good-bye. She was already dressed in her work attire and jacket and ready to leave too. I watched as my father opened the truck cab door. With him standing next to the truck, it made both of them appear normal sized. He had to help Carrie up the chrome foot-rails and into the back of the semi cabin, and when I stood at the foot-rail and peered up, it appeared to be impossibly high. It felt as though I was climbing a ladder to a second floor. In a moment I was up in the cabin as well. Jason needed no assistance and was soon in the passenger seat and ready to go.
As we rumbled down the street, I kept quiet while Carrie and Jason chatted with Dad excitedly. I was hoping to be able to get my license in less than a year, so I had been paying attention when Mom drove us somewhere or I got a ride with a friend. I looked at all the knobs and buttons in the truck with confusion. How does he drive this thing? I thought. Jason was checking out all the bells and whistles, too. Then he opened up Dad's glove box while my father was looking at the road.
"Dad!" he exclaimed angrily. "Why do you have these?" Dad quickly turned his attention to Jason, who was holding a carton of Camel cigarettes in his hand. With the shiny foil pulled apart slightly, we could tell some had been used, and there were still some remaining. "I thought we aren't supposed to smoke! Are you smoking?" he demanded. Dad looked a little caught off-guard.
"No son," he explained, "those belong to a friend of mine. I keep them in here for when they ride with me." Jason appeared to be a little skeptical, but he gave Dad the benefit of the doubt.
In the meantime, I realized I had an agenda that Dad might be able to help with. He had helped us out of a jam before.
"Dad, we have to move again."
"What?" he cried, angrily. "Where to this time?"
"Back to Grandma Frances's house," said Carrie. Her eyes were troubled, and Dad caught the sound of her voice. We were all deeply saddened, but Dad got angry.
"What the hell is that man's problem?" he blurted out. "Does he do anything in that house at all? Does he pay any of the bills? What kind of man did your mother marry?" We were silent. He was voicing the same feelings we had but never spoke out loud. To the question about the kind of man Robert was, I wanted to blurt out, The kind that throws Mom into the wall every time he gets mad!<br>
I waited, holding my breath, for Dad to say he would help us out, do anything so that we didn't have to move. Instead he said, "Well, I've given them enough money to build a castle. I pay child support every month to keep you out of messes like these. I've been an enabler, but not this time. Laura made her bed, and she'll have to lie in it! Maybe it will be good for that idiot she married to have to go back to her mamma's with his tail between his legs." He muttered something else that I was glad I couldn't hear, but I saw Jason glance up at him sharply, then out the window.
I was devastated. This was what my father was supposed to do—help us out when we were in trouble. He was supposed to . . . save us! I knew I was being dramatic, but I didn't care. I felt like my whole world was crumbling. I finally had friends and felt safe at my school, and now we were going to have to move. Once again, it was up to me to find a way to survive the mess that my parents had created. I knew it wasn't my dad's fault that we had to move again, but I wanted to blame him.
We stopped and picked up treats for Jason and Carrie, and soon enough we were at their schools. We dropped Jason off at the middle school first, and he gave Dad a big hug before he ran to class. Then it was Carrie's turn.
"I love you, Dad," said Carrie, giving him a great big squeeze and a chocolate-donut kiss. "When are you coming back?"
"I don't know, sweetie," he replied. "Whenever I can, I will be up here." I saw a sudden sadness in my dad's eyes as he looked at her, and the anger in my heart melted for a moment. I hoped my dad wasn't depressed and suicidal again. Maybe that was why he had quietly asked me to go to breakfast with him. I had better be careful what I say and how I say it, I thought. Carrie was off and running to make it in time before the bell.
Now that the large, musky-smelling truck was empty, I could have sat up in the passenger seat, but I didn't feel quite as at ease as Jason. I decided to stay where I was, in the back on the sleeper bed. The mattress did not have a sheet on it, just a thin pillow and an old gray silky sleeping bag that had slid off to the corner. On the walls were compartments that had the trucker's staples: NoDoz and other pills to stay awake, toothpaste, a toothbrush, some gel, and some dirty clothes. The cabin in this truck, like the others, didn't seem clean or warm, just a dark corner. I had heard my dad refer to it as a coffin, and the name seemed to fit. I wondered if other truckers called their sleeper cabs coffins too. Moreover, I wondered how my father could even rest back here, since the mattress was very hard. I zipped my jacket up and folded my arms to ward off the chill I felt.
As he rounded a corner, I almost lost my balance. I moved the flat-looking pillow out of the way to get more comfortable and have more room for my hands to balance myself. As I did so, my hand hit something hard, and it scared me at first. Looking more closely, I saw that it was a roll of duct tape. Men and their duct tape, I thought, bringing to mind Heaven's dad and all his home fix-it projects covered in duct tape. I knew Dad used it constantly in his work, but I thought it was odd to have duct tape under his pillow. I brushed the thought aside. My stomach was still jumpy, and this was the first time I'd been alone with my dad in quite some time. I was a little nervous, but he was the only man who could fix my home life.
My father started to make small talk with me, and my tension eased as he talked about his family and how everyone was doing. We stopped at the light in front of my school. I looked out the front passenger-side window to see everyone going to class and part of me wished that I had made some kind of an excuse to be there instead of going to breakfast with my father alone. The light turned green, and my father started to turn right to head downtown. He was talking about Grandpa Roy and the antics Grandpa was up to now. As he turned sharply, everything in the cabin moved and shifted almost violently, and I had a hard time sitting straight.
"Ouch!" I exclaimed. The heavy roll of duct tape had fallen off the mattress and hit my leg, just above the ankle. I smoothed the skin where it had hit, and then picked up the roll.
"Oh," said my father, as he saw what I was making noises about. "Just hand it to me." I did so, and he was silent for a time. I realized I must have been lost in my own thoughts because I couldn't remember what he was telling me before he stopped talking...
We pulled into Denny's and found a side parking place large enough to park. I was relieved to get out of the semi and be around other people. The cold air felt good, though I hoped we were on the downward slope of winter. Spring always gave me hope. We sat inside in a booth by a window, and after my father's prerequisite flirting with the waitress, our conversation turned to what he wanted to share with me.
"Melissa, I want to buy some property in Astoria, Oregon." I looked at him with wide eyes. He knew how I loved the coast and my summers we had spent there. I was pretty sure he knew I had a crush on Gavin. Was he teasing me? Was he telling me this so I would move there with him? "I have plans, Melissa," he said. "Big plans."
"Like what, Dad?" I asked him.
"I want to build a home there."
"That's really cool," I said, but I wasn't sure he was serious.
Our topic changed to the fact that I was turning sixteen that summer and I wanted to get my driver's license. My father laughed and told me stories of having to teach my mother how to drive when she was an adult.
"You are not much like your mother, are you, Melissa?" I shook my head, remembering how just the day before Robert had thrown my mother into a door. In my mind, I saw her crumple to the floor. I loved my mother with my whole heart, but I never wanted to be like that.
"I think I'll buy you a red Pontiac Grand Am," my father said and watched for my reaction.
I was shocked. My own car! Suddenly all thoughts of my problems at home faded away. With my own car, I wouldn't have to transfer schools. I could stay at Shadle for as long as it took for Dad to build his dream house. I could take Jason and Carrie away from Robert and the horrid little basement we had to share with him. We would have freedom. As we talked, the thought of being able to drive was thrilling, although a red Pontiac was not my personal taste for a car. At first I thought that if Dad was going to spend money on my first car, I wanted to pick one that fit my style. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I didn't really care. I looked at all of the vehicles in the parking lot, and the freedom they represented for their owners. I realized that a car was a car! If a Pontiac was what my father wanted to provide, a Pontiac it would be.
Just outside of our window, my father and I spotted a beige car pulling into the restaurant parking lot. A man in a suit got out, removed a piece of wheeled luggage, and placed it by the passenger door. Then another car pulled up. Another suited man got out and brought an identical piece of wheeled luggage out. Without a word, the two men traded their baggage, got into their vehicles, and drove away. What the heck?
I was puzzled, and my father studied my face intently as our breakfast arrived. I found that I wasn't hungry, so I just picked at my food.
"Melissa, not everything is what it appears to be." I looked at him, wondering if he knew why the men were trading their suitcases. "I have something to tell you," he added, "and it's really important." His tone was suddenly very serious, and the look in his eyes mirrored it. My stomach dropped again, but this time even harder and deeper. What was wrong? I had to look away from his piercing eyes. I wanted to sink into the vinyl bench as deep as I could to avoid this feeling.
"What do you have to tell me?" I asked after a long, uncomfortable silence.
"I can't tell you, sweetie," he said, looking down for the first time since we had started the conversation. Emotion after emotion crossed his face, and I could tell he was having some sort of battle in his own mind. Despite the rock in the pit of my stomach, I was morbidly curious. I thought about all the things my father willingly told me that I had finally realized most fathers generally did not tell their children. What could he possibly not tell me?
"What, Dad?" I asked, gently. I thought of his admission of contemplating suicide a few months ago. I thought I shouldn't sweep this under the rug. What if I was the only person he could talk to? "What is it?"
I was not prepared for what came out of his mouth next.