I never looked forward to summers with my father because it meant leaving all my friends behind and spending my days with the cats, Tinkerbell and Pixie, my nights at the drive-in or music in the park watching people dance to cool jazz and funk.
“Do I have to go?” I asked my mother who responded with an are you kidding me expression.
She drove me to the airport and told me to call her when we landed, to tell dad hi, ask him how he was doing, as if they had only ever been casual acquaintances, strangers. I slept through most of the flight, listened to CDs the rest of the way. It was a typical flight with a few bumps along the way, the usual numbing feeling as I waited for my luggage to appear on the carousel, a forty-five minute wait for my father who always claimed to have gotten my arrival and departure times mixed up.
“Ready?” his first word to me when he pulled in front of the terminal, the truck’s loud diesel engine idling as he waited for me to throw my bags in the back.
We stopped off at Dairy Queen on the way home so we didn’t have to talk, so that we could slowly find that father-daughter groove, move past the awkwardness that comes from knowing someone over the phone and then meeting him in person. At home, everything looked the same: the same furniture, the same framed pictures on the wall of me when I was a baby, but none of me since then. My room was the same as I had left it but dustier, with cobwebs in every corner.
“I didn’t want to bother anything,” my father explained as we stared into the dark room. “There’s a movie playing at 8pm,” he said. “But it’s PG-13.”
“Dad, I’m 16,” I reminded him.
“Nooo,” he said, winking as he turned and left to join the cats on the couch.
The movie was actually rated R, for violence and partial nudity, but we went anyway, sitting in the truck chomping on popcorn, Red Vines and Whoppers while the sound played through small speakers. On the way back home, we argued about the characters, the visual effects, the plot, deciding to agree to disagree when the neighbors overheard us.
“Hey,” my father said to the man and his son who worked in the driveway on a black and gold Trans AM.
“Oh, hey Steve,” the man called back, and we walked up the driveway to where they were both bent over the hood, a halogen light shining bright.
They chatted about the car, the son and I avoiding each other until he got up the nerve to introduce himself.
“I’m Nathan,” he said.
“Maddy,” I smiled.
“You live next door?” he asked.
“I live with my dad in the summer,” I explained.
“That’s why I haven’t ever seen you before,” he laughed.
“You guys weren’t here last summer…”
“No, we just moved in a couple months ago,” he wiped his hands on an already greasy rag. “It’s just me and my dad…all year round,” he smiled.
“What grade are you in?”
“I’ll be a senior,” he leaned against the car and folded his arms. “You?”
“Junior.” I blushed.
“So what do you guys do for the summer?”
“If you want to hang out sometime…”
“Ready?” my father interrupted, putting his hand on my shoulder to guide me down the driveway.
“Dad,” I whined with embarrassment, not even bothering to look back and say goodbye.
Over the next couple days nothing happened, except the usual–movies at the drive-in, shining lasers on the wall and watching the cats chase red dots, listening to music, talking to my friends, even though my father said I was running up his phone bill, and crushing pizza boxes on the porch before stuffing them into the garbage can.
“You guys eat a lot of pizza,” Nathan rolled down his window and yelled.
“We do,” I laughed. “You got your car fixed.”
“Yep,” he tapped the door. “You want to go for a ride?”
“Where?” I shied.
“Just around town,” he said, but I still didn’t budge. “What about the arcade? Do you like arcades?”
“I love arcades,” I said. “I have to be back before my dad gets home.”
“I have to be back before my dad gets home,” he admitted.
We drove down 8th Avenue, our quiet residential street, and then turned left onto Main, passing fast food courts where people sat outside with their burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, milkshakes. There were auto part stores, banks with drive-thru deposit boxes, drug stores, markets, a Lumberjack, K-Mart, fabric store, and a crowded shopping center with a Shakey’s Pizza, a skating rink, an arcade, and a Baskin Robbins.
“How long has this been here?” I asked as he looked for a parking spot.
“You’ve never been here?”
It was the perfect hangout, a place we could spend hours, and we did, each day, making sure we were home in time. He beat more levels in Ms. Pacman, Astroids, Street Fighter 2, and Frogger than me. I beat him in Skit Ball and Table Hockey. When we tired of the games, or it got too crowded in the dark room, we went to get ice cream, ate it under a tree behind the building, watched trucks back up to the dock and unload boxes and crates. We filled up on salad at Shakey’s sneaking olives, baby corn, cucumbers, and grape tomatoes for later.
“You’re so weird,” he laughed, helping me stuff the veggies in a sandwich bag without getting caught.
A few weeks in, things had changed between us. We held hands in the Trans AM, sat right next to each other at Shakey’s, shared spoons when we ate ice cream, sometimes he let me beat him at Ms. Pacman, and he only skated with me when a slow song came on.
“It looks like I have a girlfriend,” he said one day when we were on our way back home. “And in a week she’ll be leaving me,” he pouted and put his arm around me.
“I’ll be back…” I played with the idea in my head. “Maybe I can move in with my dad,” I suggested, but knew it wasn’t plausible.
He kept driving, blasting R.E.M., singing along, embracing the sadness already. We turned onto 8th Avenue, turning the music down as we neared our houses. He slowed when we saw my father’s truck in the driveway.
“What am I going to do?” I panicked.
“Just tell him the truth,” Nathan put his hand on mine and squeezed.
Surprisingly, when I got out of the car, and my father hopped out of his truck, he didn’t say anything. He looked at me, quickly acknowledged Nathan, and then looked back at me.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” I broke our silence.
“You’re 16,” he shrugged, pulling his keys from his pocket and moving towards the front door as he worked through the awkwardness, as he thought about what it meant to be my father, now that I wasn’t a baby anymore.