Friday, October 23

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California

I gripped the armrest and felt my stomach drop as we prepared to land in California. My face was tingling, I felt overheated, and my stomach seemed less than pleased with the experience. My brother slept peacefully next to me, the subtle scent of soap and boy wafting off of his head, and I was once again jealous of his easygoing nature. While he enjoyed his pleasant dreams, I was fighting to keep my lunch down. I won, but just barely. My relief soured soon after we landed and I remembered what was ahead. An entire two weeks with the man I’m obliged to call my father. Just the kind of Christmas vacation I always wanted.

He was standing there when we made our way out of the terminal, with his arms crossed over his chest, his cropped hair, stiff stance, and the intensity of his gaze perfecting the picture of a retired military man. Brian ran ahead to greet our father, but I hung back, taking my time. I wasn’t ready to jump for joy at the sight of the man who had threatened to take my mom to court if she didn’t ship us across the country. He hadn’t bothered to spend time with us when he lived five minutes away, or even before the divorce, despite my efforts. I was tired of hearing the same excuses over and over again, so I had just given up. Then he decided to move to California, and suddenly seeing his children was a big deal to him. Never mind the fact that neither of us had ever flown before.

It was no secret to him that I hadn’t wanted to come out here, but his face had softened as we approached, and I smiled in spite of myself when he picked Brian up into a bear hug. It was so much easier to despise him or pretend he didn’t exist when he was a thousand miles away.

“Hello, Beth. Welcome to California.” He smiled and held out his arms to me, as if he was oblivious to the rift that had opened up between us. It occurred to me that he was honestly trying to bridge that gap, but I knew my father. He could hold a grudge just as well as I could, and I hadn’t exactly been the most loving daughter lately. Despite my misgivings, I stepped into the hug. I had already decided to be civil during our visit. Not for his sake, but for Brian’s. He was too young to remember the verbal and emotional abuse, and how easily our father had left us without looking back.

“I have a surprise for you guys waiting at the house, so let’s get out of here. Brian! Slow down!” He shouted after Bri, who had taken off towards the parking garage, his small carryon bag bouncing around behind him. I followed them at my own pace, listening to the wheels on my suitcase rattle against the tiled floor.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the backseat of his shiny new sports car that I noticed the ring. Bri had called shotgun and I hadn’t protested, so I settled into the cramped space in the back. As I looked around the interior of the car, my gaze fell upon my father’s hands, resting on the steering wheel. They were large, just like the rest of him, rough and veiny. But that wasn’t what my eye was drawn to. It was on the ring finger of his left hand. The band was wide and silver, with grooves encircling the top and bottom edges. It didn’t quite fit his finger; the skin bulged on both sides, and I wondered how it wasn’t cutting off his circulation. A few second passed before I stopped staring at the ring and began to comprehend its meaning. He hadn’t worn his wedding band in years, and besides, the one I remembered from my childhood had been gold. This was a new band.

I stared silently out the window, cutting myself off from the noise of the radio and the traffic, dwelling on the fact that my father had gotten married without telling me. Without telling us. My mother couldn’t have known about it either. My face contorted into a scowl and my eyes burned. I glared at the back of his head for a few seconds and then turned away again. He had mentioned a surprise waiting at his house; well this was certainly a surprise. The snow continued to fall outside and I let myself get lost in its swirling patterns.

“So Beth, how has school been? Getting all A’s?”

“Sure. It’s been fine.” I wondered why he was suddenly so interested in my life. Perhaps being married was making him think about being a father again.

“That’s a very informative answer there, Beth, thanks for enlightening me. Any other exciting things going on in your life?”

“Nope, not really.” I turned to glare at him in the rearview mirror. “How about you? Anything exciting you haven’t told us about yet?”

He looked away, and I followed suit. Brian was too enamored with the wintry world outside his window to notice what had just passed between us. Escaping the confines of this car was the first thing on both of our minds.

The house was unremarkable, and my mind was too overwhelmed by the thought of meeting my stepmother to give it much consideration anyway. I did notice the other car in the driveway though, a powder blue punch buggy.

“Punch buggy! No punch back!” Brian shouted at me as he turned around in his seat to punch my arm before jumping out of the car.

“You guys get your bags from the trunk, you each have your own room,” he said as he walked into the house. Brian grabbed his suitcase and ran off after him, excited as ever. I dragged my feet and slammed the door when I got in. While Brian ran off to investigate his room, I decided to confront my father.

“So…where is this surprise you were talking about? Or I suppose a better question would be, where’s your wife?” I stood in the front hallway with my arms crossed, glaring at the back of his head. He pretended not to hear me.

“Come on Dad, I saw your ring. I suppose it would have been too much to tell your children you were getting married, let alone invite them to the wedding. Not that I would have gone.”

He finally turned around to face me, and I was surprised by the pleading expression on his face. “Beth, please try to be civil. Karrie really wants you guys to like her. I want you guys to like her. She’s a great woman. She should be back from walking the dog any minute.”

“Oh, so her name’s Karrie. That’s nice to know. Well when she gets here you can tell her I went to bed early. Nothing personal, it’s just been a long day. Goodnight.” I didn’t stick around long enough to see his expression change, but I knew it would. That look would have been more familiar; his anger was no stranger to me. But I was surprised that he didn’t tell me to stop right then, to come back and apologize, to stop being a selfish brat. He didn’t say a word.

It had been too late for me to call my mom that night because of the time difference, so I called her as soon as I woke up the next morning and told her about Karrie. The house was empty, so I sat in the front room, watching Brian play in the snow. Karrie was probably out there keeping an eye on him since my father was at work, but I couldn’t see her.

“Mom, I don’t know if I can take this. I mean, who does that? Who gets married and doesn’t even tell his kids? And he expects me to be ok with it? To like her? I’ve never even met this woman before, and now she’s my stepmother!”

“Honey, I don’t like it any more than you do, but I can’t do anything. You understand don’t you? I would fly out there myself and bring you home if I could, you know that. You have to be strong. Find something to do to occupy yourself, and you’ll be home before you know it.”

“But what am I supposed to do? I can’t just avoid her for two weeks; I’ll have to talk to her eventually.”

“I know honey, I know. Try to just think of her as your dad’s friend instead of his new wife, and try to be nice. Your father should have told you, yes, but you shouldn’t take your disappointment in him out on this woman. I love you Beth, and I know you’ll be ok. You’re my daughter after all. How is your brother doing?”

I sniffed as I told her how excited and oblivious Bri was. He was playing outside in the snow; I could see him through the window, making snowballs in the front yard. I just wanted this to be over, but my mom was right. I could fight through it. She always knew how to comfort me. Brian ran in, covered with snow and jabbering about his snow angel, just as I was hanging up.

“Bri, you’re going to drip everywhere! Go put your coat away and clean yourself off!”

“Don’t tell me what to do Beth, you’re not the boss of me,” he said, and then proceeded to run around the room, flinging the melting snow everywhere. Great, I thought to myself, and I’ll probably get in trouble for letting him do this. And then I heard her coming.

“Brian! Your father wouldn’t want you to – oh. Beth, you’re up. Good morning.”

I took a moment to take in this first sighting of my new stepmother. She was short, probably shorter than me, and had her dark hair tied back in a low ponytail. I was relieved to see that she looked to be about the same age as my mom.

“Hello Karrie.” I tried to do what my mom had suggested, just pretend she was a friend. It was easier said than done.

She turned her attention to Brian for a moment. “Brian, your father wouldn’t want you to track snow through the house. Go take your coat off and hang it by the door.”

I watched him do as she said, wondering why he would so quickly obey this stranger before his own sister, but I tried to shrug it off.

She turned back to me, trying to hide her obvious discomfort. “So…Beth…how are you liking California so far?”

“I wouldn’t really know, it’s only been one night. The snow looks nice though.”

“Yes, the snow is great this time of year. Not fun to drive in though. Well, I should go – “ Her eyes shifted to the front hallway.

“Wait. I have a question for you. How long have you been married to my father?”

She gave me a quizzical look. “We got married in August, you know that.”

“Actually, no, I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know my father was remarried until yesterday.”

“He didn’t…he didn’t tell you? Oh Beth, I’m so sorry, this must be a terrible shock for you, I –“

“It’s fine Karrie, it’s not your fault. Listen, I’ve got some schoolwork to do while I’m here, so I’m going to go do that. I guess I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Oh, ok. Yes, I’ll see you then.” I could feel her watching me as I went back to the bedroom and closed the door. Later that night, as I doodled at the bottom of a page in my journal, I heard raised voices coming from the bedroom that she shared with my father. I took some small satisfaction in knowing that she was upset with him too.

My father had to work for most of the first week that Brian and I spent in California, while we stayed at the house. I hadn’t asked him about his job, so I didn’t know much, just that he worked with sonar and usually had long hours. Bri got his fill of playing in the snow with Karrie watching him, and I kept myself occupied with reading, homework, and journaling. I had been writing my thoughts down every day for almost a year, ever since my grandma had given me this red marbled journal with gold-trimmed pages for Christmas. Usually I just did it out of habit, but now it seemed like a necessity. It would keep me from exploding.

It seemed that my friends were all too busy for phone or text conversations, so I barely talked to anyone besides my mother. She called every night to see how I was doing, and I vented to her about my self-imposed isolation. I was obligated to leave my room for meals, but I kept silent during them. The only time I saw my father was at dinner, and he usually left me alone.

It was on the fourth day of our visit that I finally decided to listen to what my mom had been telling me the past few nights: stop moping and make the best of the situation. So I joined Karrie and Brian for lunch, and tried to be sociable.

“So Bri, what did you make in the snow today?”

“I made a fort! And then I hid behind it and I threw snowballs at Karrie. She tried to get me back, but my fort kept me safe. It was awesome.” He beamed at me and then at Karrie. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“Sounds like you guys have been having fun. Maybe I’ll join you out there tomorrow.”

“Really? That would be so cool Beth! We could have a snowball war, and you could build your own fort!” He looked so excited that I began to regret keeping myself separate from them for the past few days. I had forgotten that by shutting myself off from Karrie and my father, I was shutting him out too.

“Yeah, Bri. It’ll be great.” I looked over at Karrie to see her smiling at me.

“You know, it’s a shame that you guys won’t get to meet John and Sarah, I think you would get along. They would have loved to have a snowball war. They’re spending the holidays with their father too.”

“Who?” I could feel the happiness from the previous moment starting to slip away.

“John and Sarah? My kids?” She saw the expression on my face and her eyes widened. “Oh. Your…your father hadn’t told you about them yet, had he? Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Wait, you have kids? And you said they’re spending the holidays with their father, so…have they been living here?”

“Well…yes. I mean, those are their rooms.” She nodded towards the bedrooms where Brian and I had been sleeping.

I stared at her for a moment. “Well that’s,” I paused for a moment to stifle the quiver in my voice, “Great. Just great. You know, I think I’m going to go check out that wonderful snow.”

I grabbed my coat and tried not to slam the door on my way out.

The sun reflected back into my eyes so brightly that it hurt, but it was beautiful still. I had never seen the world so covered in snow before. It coated the ground, the trees, the houses, and made everything sparkle and glow in the morning light. If there was anything that could make me feel like this trip wasn’t quite as horrible, it was this. The thoughts that were running through my head in that moment were calmed by the quiet serenity of the view around me. Brian and I never did have our snowball war. Instead, I took long walks in this wintry dream for the next few days while Karrie watched him build snowmen and forts in the front yard. The days bled together into images of white and gold.

Suddenly our first week in California was ending and it was the weekend again. It was the first day since we had been there that my father didn’t have to work, which of course only gave me more reason to spend it outside, away from the house. I had heard Karrie confront him the other night about all the secrets he had been keeping from his own children, but I hadn’t been able to make out his excuses. I just knew I would rather be anywhere else than around him.

I was coming back from a long walk in the snow, wanting to stay outside, but needing to eat something before I passed out. Karrie and Brian were outside, and I was hoping to slip inside, grab some food, and get to “my” room before they came in. Lunch with Karrie was something I avoided at all costs.

I plundered the kitchen and then walked to the room, but stopped short in the doorway. My father was standing there with his back to me, leaning on the desk. He had something in his hand.

“What are you doing?”

He turned around so quickly that he dropped what was in his hand. My journal fell to the floor, the pages crumpling. I stared at it, and then back at him.

“Beth, I-“

“Seriously?! You were reading my journal? What is wrong with you!” I stooped to snatch it up off the ground and then glared at him.

“Don’t talk to me like that. You’ve been shutting me out all week; I wanted to know what was going on. Karrie told me that she mentioned John and Sarah, but you never brought it up.”

“Well maybe if you had told me yourself instead of trying to hide it you would have gotten my reaction first hand!”

“Don’t you reprimand me Beth, remember who is the parent here. I’m not one of your friends that you can just yell at when you get angry!”

“Oh, so you’re a parent now. I thought you had excused yourself from that role when you left us. You have no right to invade my privacy like that! If I wanted to talk to you, I would have.”

“Well you certainly voiced your opinion well in there!” He started to recite lines from my journal entries, a bitter edge creeping into his voice and his face getting redder with each word “I can’t believe he dragged us all the way out here…I wish I never had to see him again…I hope Karrie knows what she’s getting into…He doesn’t deserve us, let alone another family.”

I stared at the familiar sight of my father’s red face – familiar, yes, but it had never been directed at me before. I don’t know how my mother stood it all those years. My anger boiled in my cheeks, I could feel them tingling.

“Yeah? And I meant every word of it! What kind of father doesn’t tell his children that he’s getting married, let alone that he’s been married for four months? Or that his new wife has kids of her own, and that he’s building a happy new family after leaving his own kids behind and moving across the country?”

I watched as the ugly purple vein in his forehead pulsed, and began to feel old memories tugging at the back of my mind. This isn’t going to end well for you. My own fury began to fade, and was replaced with a deep sorrow. I was surprised to see that his expression began to change to. As I watched, the blood stopped rushing into his face and he looked down.

“You know what, Beth? Maybe you should just go home. That’s clearly what you want. I’ll get you a plane ticket, drive you to the airport, and you can just leave.”

I stared at him in shock for a moment, but then I shrugged. “Fine. I don’t know why you made me come here in the first place. You don’t seem to want to include me in your new life anyway.”

He walked past me and through the doorway, not looking back. “Just get your stuff packed. You’re leaving tomorrow.”

My eyes stung and the look on Bri’s face as he watched me walk towards security at the airport nearly broke me. I tore myself away from the gaze of his sad brown eyes. I couldn’t stand to leave him alone, not like this. But I refused to cry there in front of him, and I wouldn’t give my father the satisfaction of knowing I cared at all. The tears came slowly as I wound my way through the security line, sliding down my cheeks one at a time. They continued as I made my way to the gate and boarded the plane. With the bitter realization that I had gotten what I wished for, I looked out the window as the plane took off and gazed down at the small piece of northern California that I was leaving behind. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be coming back.

© Anastasia Towe