It will not seem different at first. You will do the things all new couples do: joke and share silly stories. Laugh louder than you ever anticipated. Laugh harder. You get drunk off fingertips and innocent touches, like when she lingers on your shoulder for just a beat longer. She kisses you like you are the first person she has ever kissed, and it will keep you up at night, in the best way possible. Everything is fun and exciting. She will do whatever she can to make sure it is fun. She needs it to be fun. Exciting. Light. She knows darkness already too well.
She will be careful in her words. You notice she never says “parents” and looks away when someone mentions their father. You are consumed with a strange, irrational guilt when you answer a phone call from your dad. It feels dirty, like a secret that will unravel this ethereal happiness you’ve built together.
She does not flinch when someone asks about her family. She has memorized this back and forth. You wonder how many times she has regurgitated the same script. Her voice never breaks. There is not even the smallest crack. You picture her standing in front of her bathroom mirror, practicing what she will say when someone asks about her dad. You will wonder, was there a time when she couldn’t even spit out the words? Did she choke on her own grief? Are you capable of being with someone so guarded?
She will share small moments with you that do not seem like much of anything. She tells you about that one Halloween when her dog ate almost all of her candy and was still miraculously completely fine. “Dad was so scared. He slept near her all night in case we had to rush her to the vet.” You will kiss her forehead, and she will direct your hands to hold her. She has never asked to be held. Do not underestimate how monumental this is. This is her slowly lowering the shield she has spent years crafting. This is her trusting you.
She will shy away from discussing problems. She tiptoes when you wish she would just walk. You don’t understand how someone so feisty, so full of opinions and fire, can go mute when confrontation approaches. She is flight when you would have been sure she’d fight. You get too close, things get too real, and she runs. She has tennis shoes on stand by.
A girl without a father does not want to create waves because she has been underwater longer than she cares to explain. She is not a pushover, though you may push and ask why she is so scared of doing something, anything, that will upset someone. You ask how she can be so brave on paper, but so scared of talking to someone face-to-face. She will deflect and bite back with sarcasm. She self-deprecates, calls herself messed up like it’s as casual as her first name. You will think maybe this is it. Maybe she will never be honest with you.
Here is the truth: it should not be surprising that conflict makes her skin crawl. It should not be absurd that she will passively sit by, figure out the best way to avoid saying anything that will put a riff between her and someone she loves, because people can fucking leave. And that is the most terrifying thing she has ever learned. If the only man she ever truly needed left when she was not done needing him, it is fair game for anyone else to decide it’s not worth it.
For anyone else to decide she’s not worth it.
But none of that will spill out very easily. She doesn’t want these labels: The one with abandonment issues. The one who keeps you at a distance. The one looking to fill a void. The fatherless girl. She does not want your pity.
When you date a girl without a father, you need to understand you will not always understand. And if she is worth it, love her anyway. And love her all the way.