“Dad, can I ask you something?”
I cast a searching look over the frame of my glasses. I could never figure out how people in movies did this so cavalierly; it always hurt my eyes. Maybe if I wore my frames farther down my nose. I wanted to look casually unsurprised; my daughter’s tone jabbed me in the chest like the clenched fist of a fifth degree — no, sixth degree blackbelt. I felt something important about to unfold before me.
“Sure, kid. You can ask me anything.”
Crap. Hadn’t I learned by now that this kind of cart blanche often had undesirable outcomes?
How often do you and mom have sex? I heard her asking. Is it true that boys don’t know where the clitoris is? Have you ever smoked weed? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Do you love me more than my brother? Are you happy?
She seemed to both expect and dread my openness. She leaned against the frame of the door to my study, her left hand grasping her right elbow, her narrow frame rocking a bit awkwardly, like a malnourished kitten looking for cream. She looked down as though gathering herself, and I was struck with a vision of her as a toddler, just learning to walk. How the hell did we get here?
She flushed and turned as if to go; she turned back again. I saw her steel herself. I was afraid she was going to ask me if she could move to Nepal.
“Dad… what if you feel like the person you’re with is the person you’re supposed to be with forever?”
She opened her mouth as if to ask more — as if to bowl me over more thoroughly, as if to rip the lapels from my shirt with the ferocity of her unexpected query — and then she closed it.
Holy fuck, I didn’t say aloud.
“You — ” I began, knee-jerkily. I was going to say: you’re too goddamn young, what in the fucking fuckity fuck Christ almighty! Who in the love of Jesus are you seeing and why don’t I know his name and address and social and favorite classical composer because if he doesn’t have one he is not good enough for my daughter and even if he said Beethoven I’d want to kill him for stealing your heart this early and anyway you’re too damn young to be asking —
And then I remembered what I’d written to her a long time ago, about how love isn’t the same for everyone, how it happens when it happens, and how we shouldn’t assume love doesn’t happen to the young, as though it were only attainable after gaining enough XPs, like life was nothing more than a game of Final Fantasy.
No. My mistrust of her was not it. I trusted her completely. I was just… afraid. Terrified. I saw in a flash my little girl grown up so terribly fast, running off to Bali with Chad or whatever this guy’s name is, leaving her sea foam green room with its push-pinned pop culture posters and plastic trophies and shipwrecked laundry for me to weep in as the sobering brevity of life piled on me like elephantine Kiwis in a scrum.
“Am I so old already?” I whispered aloud.
“Dad?” she was standing in front of my desk now. I hadn’t seen her cover the short distance.
“I’m sorry, kid. I… I blacked out.” It was a reference to Old School, a movie I’d half-regretted watching with her one impulsive night when mom was out with friends. That, and “earmuffs” were a couple of jokes we shared. I smiled weakly. She didn’t crack a smile at all, but looked at me with intent expectation. Clearly, my next words would mean the world to her. I felt unequal to the task.
How much stock our children place in our words, I thought. She hasn’t realized yet that I’m just as clueless and fallible as she is.
“Kid — ” I began. I didn’t even know what I was going to say. What could I say? There were ten things vying for control of my lips and vocal machinery. Over the incessant babble of my consciousness, one word kept coming to the fore.
I started talking. Not as a parent to a child, but as one soul to another.
“Kid, we’re not supposed to be with anyone.”
She looked startled, as though I’d told her the leather sofa in my study was actually made out of puppies.
“Listen — the phrase supposed to implies that there is some higher power, some external other that has all the answers. Who’s calling the shots here? Who knows better than you if you need to be with someone?”
She looked completely nonplussed. I tried something else.
“Do you want to be with… with — ”
“Davis,” she said. “His name is Davis, and he likes Beethoven.”
My heart actually jumped. It was the same feeling I’d get when my wife suggested we have sex. Butterflies. Excitement.
“Yes, I want to be with him. And he wants to be with me.”
My inner dad was miserably uncomfortable. It couldn’t see past my teenage daughter, who was too young, who was supposed to be focused on studying and athletics and being silly, who would never find a suitable boy at this age.
“How old is this… Davis?” I asked, irrelevantly.
“He’s my age,” she answered, almost defiantly.
My inner dad surged. He’s too young. Boys are idiots at fifteen. Tell her not to see him anymore. Find out his last name. Find out where he lives. Talk to his parents. Forbid them —
“It’s Romeo and Juliet all over again,” I whispered.
“Dad, do you realize you’re talking out loud? It’s not Romeo and Juliet. We’re not going to kill ourselves. You don’t even know his parents, so you can’t be in a feud with them. And I’ve known him for more than five minutes, so…”
Absurdly, the thought of being compared to Lord Capulet gave my inner dad pause. I looked at my daughter, who stared at me expectantly, still convinced I had something sensible to offer. I saw her, then, as a fellow soul on this journey through life, more than the role in which I’d so readily placed her. She was not merely my daughter, subservient to my wishes because society had dictated the relationship between us should be so; she was my daughter, a fellow human whose feelings and desires were no different than my own.
“Why are you with Davis?” I asked.
Rather than blurt something out, as my inner dad hoped she would, she thought for a moment, and then said, “Because I want to be. Because he makes me happy.”
I knew right away what to say next, but didn’t. I was afraid at how easily it came to me.
“What is it, dad? Say it. You’re killing me.”
I cleared my throat, an unnecessary gesture given its dry rawness.
“Then… be with him. Be with him as long as it makes you happy. But — and this is important, kid — don’t worry about supposed to and don’t worry about the rest of your life. You have plenty of it. Maybe Davis is the one who will always make you want to be with him, and maybe he’s not. But, kid, this feeling you’re feeling? It might go away. You might wake up one day and not feel it, but wake up the day after and feel it again. Don’t let that bother you. Don’t feel like you always have to feel that feeling. It’s not the thing that matters.”
The words left me in a rush. My initial feeling of certainty gave way to queasiness as I tried to recollect everything I’d just said. Was it perfect? Was it actual wisdom, or my crappy understanding of it? Had I just ruined my daughter’s life?
“Wow, dad. I’m not sure I understand half of what you said. But I like it. Just be with him. I like that. He makes me happy. I’ll be with him for now.”
She turned to go.
“Is… does that… It seems like there’d be more you’d want to say.”
She turned back towards me, and I saw in her still that unburdened, youthful exuberance that hardens under layers of anxiety and age and lays forgotten in the minds of grown-ups.
“No, dad, I can’t think of anything. I figured you’d have something wise to say, but would be afraid to say it; I was wrong. I feel better now. Thanks.”
She turned and practically skipped to the door. There, she turned once again, and said, “Dad? Thanks for not treating me like a child.”
She flashed a grin and was gone, leaving me and my bemusement in a dusky pool of incandescent light.