You Can Always Come Home

As a kid, Dad told me he’d leave the house key under a rock near the pavilion and that when I came home from school, it’d be there. Dad said there’d be snacks in the fridge, but to leave his salad alone, which is the first thing I wanted to eat. Since Mom died last November, it’s been Dad and me. Mom clung to life for three years before cancer stole her from me. Dad doesn’t show his emotions, so I had no idea how badly he’s taking it. On the other hand, I was more than willing to smash a window with my fist or cut my thighs with a knife, so Dad didn’t see. Because, although Dad doesn’t show emotion about Mom, I know he’d take me cutting myself personally. Dad would blame himself. He already blames himself for not praying enough for Mom. As if that’s the reason she died.

Dad took breaks from burying his head in his executive job to watch those stupid televangelists talk about how people needed to sow a seed for a blessing, or God won’t listen. How could a man so smart be so gullible? I wondered. Dad beat himself up so much; he forgot about me. I grew up with a key under a rock and a Dad, whose life mission was to forget about Mom. I caught a glimpse into his thinking once, though. Prom night, he told me I looked like Mom—as he batted tears back. I embraced him, and his barrel chest made me feel protected and wondering why he’d never hugged me before. It was as if I’d finally made him proud of me. After prom, I came home to Dad sitting in his chair, waiting on me. He fell asleep with a framed picture of Mom, him, and me. I draped his marron fleece blanket around him and turned off his lamp. I hadn’t cried in years, but I shed tears at how cute Dad was waiting for his daughter. I hoped this was the beginning of something new—something real.

You may ask why Dad left the key under the rock. Well, I’d lose my head if it weren’t for my shoulders, and Dad was sick of coming home from work to let me in the house.

Now, the leaves had fallen from the bare birch trees, and the sun withdrew its heat for the year. Gold and brown replaced the green grass. I wore zipped hooded sweatshirts over my button-up shirts and thought about Mom. Mom died three years ago today. If it weren’t my senior year of high school, I’d stay home. I wasn’t the smartest student, and it took me a while to learn new things, but once I got the hang of it, I got a 3.0 G.P.A. And before you go thinking I’m slow, you’d be wrong.

I came home to Jake, sitting in his car, waiting for me. Jake is my boyfriend. He’s fine as wine. His thick black hair and stubble along his Marine jawline said as much. He graduated last year and wanted to marry me as soon as possible. We were both virgins, and that’s the thing about fundamentalism, you can’t have sex until marriage, and Dad gave me a chastity ring. Whenever I thought about sex, I twisted that ring on my finger. No. The feelings didn’t disappear, but the will to abstain didn’t waiver. Dad was all I had left. My grandparents didn’t like me because my Mom was Hispanic. Dad hasn’t spoken to them since they used a racist slur when asked if they wanted to meet their Granddaughter. I respected Dad for loving me even more than his parents. I couldn’t understand their hatred for someone different. It did a number on my self-esteem, as described by the cutting.

“Frank,” Alan said as the three of us sat at the kitchen table with a coffee cup before each of us. “I want to marry your daughter.” Dad looked at me and back at Alan. I could feel Dad’s disdain crawl the length of my spine. Dad hated Alan. Dad hated his slick hair and his skinny jeans. Dad wanted a business executive to marry me won’t have to struggle like he and Mom did when they first met.

“Anna, is this what you want?”

Alan hadn’t officially asked me before asking my Dad, so I choked back a lump in my throat and took a deep breath, and blew a sharp sigh. “I didn’t know Alan was going to ask, but I want to marry him.” I slid my hands across the table with one hand embrace Dad’s hand, and with the other, I embraced Alan’s.

“The key is always under the rock near the Gazebo if you see what I see, and I won’t say I told you so.” It was Dad’s way of telling me: Kid, I know this isn’t going to work out, and when it doesn’t, you can always come home.


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