When my father strode into my room on a balmy June night, well past my bedtime, I almost believed that perhaps the rivers of the world had begun to flow upstream. I watched him settle uncomfortably into the too-small office chair which sat in front of my too-small desk. The desk, since the time of its possession from Craig’s List (my father’s favorite second hand website) had served for me as nothing more than storage of random, long-forgotten objects.
At the time of my father’s very first and greatly unexpected visit, I was sprawled across my bed on the other side of the tiny room, an earbud subtly tucked in my ear and concealed by my hair. The rest of the wire and my phone, from which the music was playing, was tucked deep under the covers. I was supposed to be sleeping, but my father had already seen that I wasn’t, so I supposed that there was no point in pretending.
Since I always slept (or pretended to) with the tube light on, I could clearly see his face. I waited tensely for the lecture on sleeping early, but it didn’t come. For a moment, my father’s eyes wandered about the room, first visiting my Ravenclaw poster on the wall, then my bow and arrow set (another worthy prize from the wonderful Craig’s List) wedged between the dresser and another wall, and finally my small bookshelf in the corner of the room, which was overflowing with books of all shapes and sizes- the only area of color in my otherwise bland room. The bookshelf itself I had painted apple green, my mother’s favorite color. His eyes seemed to linger on the bookshelf, as if he was searching for something.
Once he had completed his survey of my room, he fidgeted slightly in the chair and then cleared his throat. I held my breath and waited. My father’s heart-to-heart’s were never not awkward. But which fourteen year old girl can say otherwise?
Finally, while staring at a nondescript point on the floor, he muttered in his low, rumbling voice, “Have you gotten around to doing any more reading, Hal?”
I blinked. What? Where were condescending, arrogant words which my father prided himself on. Instead, he was referring to a decades-old book of his which he had given to me to read. I glanced guiltily past my father at the cluttered desk behind him, where I just barely made out the battered spine of the aforementioned book, peeking out from between a sixth grade math test which I had failed and a crinkled Nature Valley bar wrapper.
Following my gaze, my dad grasped the tip of the book and freed it from the wreckage. Dusting it off, he idly flipped through the pages. I eyed the book in his hands, trying to think of the reason why he so desperately wanted me to read this book that he paid me bizarre visits in practically the middle of the night to check my progress. And the story itself was by no accounts a page turner.
“How do you like it so far?” he asked, thumbing through the pages with unnecessary and rather excessive passion.
“Um…well,” I shifted awkwardly and yanked on the wire of my earbud so that it fell out of my ear and was hidden under the folds of the blanket. Clearing my throat, I sat up on my elbows and grasped wildly at straws, silently cursing myself for not having read past the first page.
“It’s quite fascinating, you know, the bit that I’ve read so far. Really thought provoking. Of course, the characters have hardly been introduced, so it’s hard to say at this point and well…”
Why do I even try? My father obviously didn’t buy a word, but strangely, he didn’t tell me off. He seemed strangely calm and withdrawn tonight. Sort of like the calm before the storm. The thought frightened me, so I stopped thinking it.
“It’s teaches a nice life lesson, actually. I think you’d find it a great read,” he pressed.
Why? As far as I knew, my father wasn’t a fan of fiction.
“Sure, I will,” I said automatically. This encounter was growing more and more uncomfortable by the minute.
“Right. The next time I come in here, you’ll be using it as a footrest. Well, I’m done with my work. I might as well tell you about it.”
I forced myself not to roll my eyes. The irony! He decided to start telling me bedtime stories once I got to highschool. My father straightened in the chair all of a sudden, dwarfing it completely.
“The story is about greed,” he said loudly, “What money does to you.”
He leaned forward, and I winced. There probably was not a single neighbor who couldn’t hear his little fairytale through the wafer thin walls of our tiny apartment. But as his voice grew louder and louder, his eyes grew wider and wider.
“It’s about a young woman who had everything that you could imagine- talent, kindness, looks. Hal, she was so beautiful. But she had one weakness- money.”
By now, I was thoroughly convinced that something was wrong. Oh lord. Not yet fifty and already mad. Maybe someone had slipped something in his Diet coke at the team dinner? Perhaps I should have called my mother’s driver and asked him to pick me up immediately and take me home. I yanked the blankets up to my chin and scooted as far away from him as the size of my twin bed would allow, which, granted, was not very far.
“She sacrifices everything, even the love of her life.”
His hands flexed suddenly, as if he had been zapped by an electric current, and the book flopped on the floor. He wrapped his fingers tightly around the straight back of the chair, and as he did so, I noticed something for the very first time. On the ring finger of his left hand, a small band of skin was a subtle shade lighter than the rest of his hand.
“The young man she loves wants to travel around the world. He doesn’t want to be tied down to a single town. But she wants him to stay with home, with her, her business, and most of all, her money. And of course, the corrupted creature uses her money to tether him to her home. But he’s free spirited, you know? You can’t put a wild bird in a cage. But he stays for her because, well, he loves her. But soon, he realizes that his own lover was behind everything. So he gets angry and he leaves her alone in her splendid house. Alone with no one to share her seven bedrooms, her pool, her green walls.”
Why did that sound so familiar? I looked desperately around the room, thinking… Seven bedrooms… her pool…. Suddenly, my eyes landed on my beloved green bookshelf. Green walls. Under the blankets, my fingers clenched.
“But she has her money, right? So she doesn’t care. She completely forgets about her husband and her kid. All she wants is money. And that consumes her. She just keeps getting richer and richer….and her heart becomes incapable of love, like stone. Like the dragon under the mountain.”
I peeled my eyes from the bookshelf and looked down, anywhere but my father’s face. The book which he had dropped had fallen open, and from the pages, a small photograph had fallen out. It was of a young woman who looked like me. With huge green eyes, short dark hair, and a pale complexion. I inhaled sharply and looked up at my father. His expression was grief stricken, and his voice had softened to a whisper.
“And she never loved anyone ever again. But I–he never forgot her.”
Our eyes met and my world began and ended and began again in that instant. For the first time in an eternity, my father and I had something in common–both of us were utterly speechless. After my lifetime of wondering and despairing, he had told me the truth. And the truth had set me free. But after all these years, he was still a dampened free spirit, a wild bird that my mother had caged. So I set my father free.
“Dad,” I started in an unbearably quiet whisper, for the rest of my voice had abandoned me, “Mom never forgot you either.”