Albert Plath looked over at his daughter and decided she was full. She had pushed her food slightly away from herself. She kept her eyes down at her legs.
"Do you want some dessert?" Albert asked his daughter. Jennifer nodded timidly. She had grown quiet, and Albert felt the entire restaurant was watching the awkward pair. Albert didn't know what to say.
"Your mother tells me you're one of the best Volleyball players on the school team."
"Yeah," Jennifer said shyly. Albert looked at her in hopes of elaboration. "Coach says I can improve my technique a little, and I'm a little bit anxious to make plays, but he says I can probably start on the varsity team when I'm a sophomore."
"Wow, that's really good," Albert said, trying to emphasize how impressed he was. He had watched three of her games, but she never spoke to him after the games finished. They barely even made eye contact at the games. Albert thought to make a comment about his participation in the volleyball. "You know I went to a couple of those ball-games, right?" he said.
"Yeah, mom told me. Thanks a lot. That's really nice." She sounded like eighteen instead of fourteen.
Albert noticed her tone and was taken back by her. She looked beautiful. She sat upright and her pretty brown hair rested gracefully on her delicate shoulders. Her make-up, surprisingly, wasn't caked on, and she didn't have the gawkiness that girls her age sometimes have.
She still couldn't look him in the eyes. Albert heard the football game blaring in the background and looked around at all the people in the restaurant. It was a cheerful Monday night and he wanted to stay out a little longer.
Unfortunately, the night had played itself out early. He and his daughter had been at the restaurant for barely a half an hour.
The waiter walked by and Albert ordered one Cookie Monster for he and his daughter. He felt sort of embarrassed to order it. He ran his hand through his slightly gray hair and felt his short, wavy pony-tail. They sat in silence for a time that felt too long.
"Jennifer?" Albert began.
He wanted to call her Jen. She was three feet away from him, but when she turned she looked like she came from far away. He sharply focused his eyes on her. She was sitting quite still. He tried to look in her green eyes, but she quickly looked down.
"Jennifer, I want to talk about something with you."
"I heard Gary can be a bit rude to you. Your mother told me he talked down to you the other night and you had to leave to go to your room. Is that true?"
"Yeah. Some of it is. It's not a big deal though. He just got home from work and he said that one of the guys he saw me with looked like, "one of those Marilyn Manson guys."
"How do you feel about that?"
"It's o.k. Bobby does have like eight earrings between his two ears and his tongue, and he spikes up his hair so he can look like a freak." She was obviously bragging about how much of a "freak" her friend was.
"Are you going with this boy," Albert probed.
"No. No way. Gross. We're just friends."
"Are you sure?" Albert said with a smile.
"Yeah. I don't even want a boyfriend right now."
Albert looked at her with a grin. She was such a precious girl, and he felt close to her for then.
"Oh, now I know," Albert said with a smirk.
"Do you like Gary?" Albert asked, a little more serious.
"Yeah, Gary's really nice." She seemed slightly surprised. "He's been around for almost five years, Dad. I know him pretty well."
Albert heard a "Dad." He hadn't heard a "Dad" all night. He heard it in a way he didn't like.
Albert decided to change his tone.
"If you need to talk about Gary or any of these other people you know then you just tell me, o.k.? I'm serious about that."
"O.K. Thanks I would like that."
"I'm serious. Anytime you want to talk you just tell me, and I'll be there as fast as I can."
Jennifer squirmed a little bit and acted as if Albert's last comment didn't mean anything. He knew she heard it.
Albert rested his back against the seat. Jennifer was leaning up with her elbows on the table, looking in the direction of the oncoming waiter. The Cookie Monster came and Jennifer politely picked up a spare spoon and began to pick at the giant dessert in a very lady-like way. All the politeness made Albert anxious. He wanted his fourteen year-old daughter to enjoy her ice cream like happy fourteen year old girls are supposed to enjoy their ice cream. He guessed maybe this was precisely how they did it.
She looked beautiful indeed. She handled the awkwardness by hunching over her dessert and taking tiny bitefuls every thirty seconds or so. Her eyes were supplanted firmly on the food. Albert smiled to himself and thought, "Good girl."
Immense pride fell over him. God, she was beautiful, and she was his. She was his baby. His only baby.
"Jennifer. I want to say something to you." He realized this was the second time in the evening he had started out a sentence like this. "I...want to apologize to you for not being there for you and your mother enough."
Jennifer sat flat on her seat and simply opened her eyes a little wider.
"I've wanted to say this to you for a long time and I haven't had the chance but now I thought I could say it to you."
"God, you've turned into such a good girl, a beautiful and talented girl, and I haven't been there to watch you grow, and now I realize I don't even know you as well as I should." Albert shook as he said this and his face began to feel stiff and flush. Everything was very quiet now and Jennifer was suddenly listening all too carefully. She was very far away from him again and the movements of her face seemed to occur in slow motion. Albert felt very heavy in his seat as if he had to look up to everything he wanted to see.
He wanted to continue. "What...what do you think about me?" "I mean, do you think I'm this awful person?" Albert's forehead felt hot and his mouth and eyes felt like they had been connected very awkwardly to his face. He loosened his tie a little.
Jennifer looked somewhat defensive. "No, Dad, I don't think you're a horrible person or anything. You're very nice to take me out tonight and to watch some of my games. I like Keiko and Mom says she really likes seeing your face these days."
"Jennifer, I'm not trying to get you to say that I'm a good person or anything. I want you to really be honest o.k.? I've been thinking a lot about this. Do you think I'm a bad person?"
"Dad, no. It's been good to see you this last year. I'm glad you're back. We missed you. Gary's really nice and Mom and I are really happy."
"You're sure because if you're not then I want to help you somehow. I can do it, you know, I have money and Keiko likes you a lot; she told me she thinks you're really cool."
"No, Dad, we're really good. Don't worry. Mom doesn't see you as a bad person or anything. Neither do I. I like seeing you. Gary's really nice to me, you know? And that baby's going to be so cute."
"Yeah," Albert said. The baby was far from his mind.
A silence followed and Albert sat like a rock in the booth for what felt like 5 or 6 minutes.
The guilt rushed over him. He had to tell her now. It had to be now. He could barely raise his head up, and he had to pull his eyes apart because his vision was blurry.
"How...how could you stand to sit with me after what I've done? I mean how could you bare to even look at my face after I left you like that? Don't you see what I've done to you?"
Jennifer looked embarrassed. "Dad; don't talk like this. Of course I can bare to spend time with you. I'm sitting here with you right now, aren't I?"
"How could you, Jennifer? God, how could you?" Albert said in defiance. "God, what the hell did I leave for? What the hell was my problem?"
Jennifer sat still. Was his daughter still sitting across from him? Had she checked out? His nose nearly touched the table.
"Dad..." she gently began.
"God, what the hell was I doing all those years? Why wasn't I here? Why wasn't I with you? "What was I doing over there for Christ's sake?"
Albert rubbed his cheeks very hard, and the tips of his fingers were wet with tears. He held his face up and wiped it off. He realized where he was, and what he was doing. "God, what the hell am I doing?" he quietly asked.
He rubbed his cheeks a little more, and he bravely looked at his daughter. She was looking down at the table. Her right eyelash was wet, and some of her fourteen year old makeup was slightly damp.
Albert's face fell in his hands again. "What the hell am I doing," he murmured again weakly.
"Dad," Jennifer said. "Don't worry, o.k.? You'll see us a lot now. I want to see you now. I'll try to see you almost every week now."
Something was wrong with the words he heard. She meant them, but Albert hated the way they sounded coming out of her mouth.
Albert remembered the waiter. He hadn't seen him crying thankfully. He looked to a man on his right and the man looked away. The restaurant was very bright and loud again. A woman he made eye contact offered a look of sympathy. Christ.
Still, the guilt remained inside and Albert didn't know what to do with it. He had hoped some if it would go away, but it wasn't gone.
Something powerful came over him and he stood up to sit next to Jennifer on the other side of the table. She seemed to wince as he sat down and put his arm around her.
"Look, I...I've been awful and I just don't know what to do." His voice sounded loud in his ears. The tears hadn't stopped either. "I just want to see you more. Is that o.k.?" "That's all I want to do; just see you more." More tears came and Albert struggled to hold them back. He pushed back several, but one noticeably trickled down to his lips.
"Yeah, sure, Dad. That would be great," Jenny said.
Albert felt composed and strong and hugged her with both arms. He felt confident with his daughter in his arms, and she seemed to enjoy being between them. They sat like that, next to each other, in the booth for a few precious moments. The moment passed and Albert's shoulder sank. He pulled his arm away and said, "God, I'm so sorry." He heard his own voice, and it sounded mournful and pathetic and flat. He rubbed his eyes in embarrassment and hesitantly scooted back to his side of the table.
"God, what the hell am I doing," he muttered underneath his breath, embarrassed. Jennifer looked at him in silence. She wanted to leave and he knew it. She looked beautiful to him where she was.
Albert paid the bill and led his daughter out of the restaurant. His face was still sallow as he pulled up in front of his daughter's house twenty minutes later and walked her to the door. He rang the door-bell and Jennifer's mother answered the door. Jennifer hurried inside the house and shot a quick "Bye Dad" out to Albert. Albert's ex-wife, Pamela, walked up to the door with a pleasant expression on her face.
"How'd it go?" she asked.
"Fine. Our daughter is a gorgeous and talented girl, isn't she?"
"Yes she is. I'm glad you can see that."
"How couldn't I. The little girl's amazing."
"I'm glad you had a good time and I don't know how little she is..."
Albert allowed the comment with a grin.
"Thank you for spending time with her." Pamela gave a look of gratitude. "Now I'm tired so I'll see you later, o.k.?"
"Wait, what are you doing now?"
"Gary and I are about to go to bed. It's late; you know."
"Yeah, I know that--I just wanted to say "hi" real quick."
"I know and it's good to see you, but I'm tired and I'm about to go to bed. I'm glad you came by tonight."
"Yeah. Thanks. Real quick; I talked to Jennifer tonight about Gary treating her badly."
Pamela patiently considered the comment. "What did you say?"
"I told her that she shouldn't put up with that and you and I can talk to him about being like that."
"Do you really think I'd do that, Albert?"
"Well, if he's a jerk to her then you know we should say something to her about it."
"Albert, he's my husband." "He's lived with her for five years now, and he's been fine to her. If it gets worse then I'll say something to her. It's not that big of a deal to this point." "He was awful that one time, and he was very awful. But I'm going to wait to say something." "Don't worry about it, seriously."
Albert wondered how close Gary might be to the two of them standing in the hallway and talking about him. It began to feel awkward standing there.
"All right? See you later. Everything's o.k.?"
"Yeah, it's fine," Albert said. "All right. Bye." "Good night." Albert sat in his car a minute and looked at the house. He sat for a few seconds longer and drove towards home.
1 a.m and Albert couldn't sleep. Keiko was sleeping with her back towards him. Her stomach was quite big now. She had six weeks until her first child was to be born. Her shiney hair rested close to his face. He loved her hair. Thick and soft to the touch and jet black. He touched it with his finger as she lied next to him.
Albert eyes were wide open so he sat up. His mind was blank, and he hoped he would stay awake for a few more hours.
His wife looked very strange to him in the dark. She lied on her back now. She looked as if she slept in the lightest of sleep. She always slept like this even before she was pregnant. Her wide-spread, smallish eyes and her delicate mouth would rest lightly on the pillow in the easiest slumber. Keiko was a beautiful and sweet Japanese woman, and she was not the Southern Bell or the High School Prom Queen.
Albert gazed at the window when he heard Keiko rustling in her sleep. She uttered a tiny accented sleep sound and said, "Are you still awake?" lightly. Her voice was thin so Albert moved very closely to her to listen. "Are you o.k.?" she asked.
"I'm fine," Albert said in a whisper.
"Are you sure? You haven't slept very well all week."
"I'm fine really. I'm just thinking."
"What are you thinking about?"
"I'm thinking about Jennifer, actually."
"Did you talk to her about Gary being rude to her?"
"What did she say?"
"That it was o.k."
"Do you want to talk about?"
"No. It's just like...Damn, it's like..." He caught himself and tried to slow down. "I'm sorry. It's very difficult to explain. I'm fine. We can talk about it tomorrow."
"Are you sure you're o.k.?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. You should go to bed. I'm sorry for waking you up."
"No. No. It's o.k. Today was very good for me."
I felt the baby kick many times today."
"Oh yeah? That's really good. When?"
"Maybe around 8:30 and 3:15 and 7:30 and 4 o'clock."
"Awesome. That's cute." "We'll get to meet him soon."
"He'll be a very nice boy."
"Oh yeah. He's going to be a really good boy." Albert rubbed Keiko's stomach, and Keiko grinned down as she looked down at her forthcoming baby boy. She then said she was tired so she turned away from Albert and closed her eyes.
"Keiko," Albert gently said after a few minutes.
"Hmmm?" she said with her back to him.
"What...what did you like about your father?"
"What did I like about my father?"
"Yeah, was he kind to you or did he do things for you when you were young that you enjoyed? What did you like about him?" Albert knew and liked Keiko's father, Hirone, very much.
"He was very kind to me when I was a young girl. He bought me presents and he talked to me before I went to sleep. I liked when he would talk to me before I went to sleep."
"What did you talk about?"
"We would talk about how I liked school, and we would talk about my family sometimes. He talked about my brothers with me. Sometimes he would bring me cookies before I went to sleep."
"Cookies before you went to sleep."
"Mmm-hmm. He was very kind to me when I was young." She spoke with her back to him.
"Keiko?" Albert said.
"What...what do you think I should do about Jennifer? I mean I want to have a good relationship with her...and... I mean I really want to...I don't know...I just..." He realized he was talking too fast again. "I just want to have a good relationship with her."
"I think you should just spend time with her. You're a good father to her. She likes to spend time with you."
"I know I just...well...tonight I cried when I talked with her. I felt very sorry for the way I treated her."
Keiko lied still. Her tiny voice was very awake now. "Just spend time with her. Don't worry. You're a very good father to her."
Albert looked up to the ceiling and slid farther under the blanket. "I'm sorry for talking about this. I know you're very tired and the baby's tired too. I'll let you go to sleep."
"No. no. It's o.k. You must rest, and I think you're tired after being upset. Tomorrow you will feel better."
"I'm fine. You're right. I need to go to sleep and I'll feel better tomorrow."
"Jenny told me she liked you very much."
"I'm glad to hear that. That makes me very happy. I like her too." Keiko rolled over on her back and closed her eyes. It was very quiet in the room as Albert lied awake.