This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
|That same Friday, Jessica woke up from the sound of her alarm clock at 6am. She always got up way before her father. But as she tried to reach for the light on her bedtime table, she knocked over her favorite volume of Hikaru Hayashi’s How to draw Manga, which she had been reading the night before. The book fell on the floor with a thud. Startled, she sat on the edge of the bed, listening into the apartment. She was afraid that her father might wake up from the sound and that he’d come into her room to check on her. But as nothing happened, she slowly got up and started her morning routine. She tiptoed into the bathroom, silently switched on the smaller light, took a shower, then brushed her teeth, washed her face and so on and so forth. Back in her room, she got dressed and packed her Eastpak backpack for her day in school. Just as she was about to put her books into her bag, her cell phone gave off a vibration alarm. She had been sent a message.
Hannah Colson: Wanna ditch chemistry?and have brek fest tgthr?
Hannah Colson: breakfast ☺ don’t have spell check somehow
Jessica was a bit puzzled at the fact that Hannah Colson wanted to ditch a class. She had always considered her this anal control freak, ambitious and eager to get good grades. And it had been quite a while that Jessica had ditched a class herself. But somehow, the idea of doing something naughty, even if only for one day, enticed Jessica. So, on the spur of the moment, Jessica replied.
Jessica Hill: For shizzle ☺ Where do u waana meet up?
Hannah Colson: How about the Starbucks on Main Street? In 30?
Jessica looked at her watch. If she wanted to be there in thirty minutes, she would have to leave right away.
Jessica Hill: I’ll be there!
Jessica slid of her stool, grabbed the backpack and left the apartment. When the door slammed shut behind her, some of the orange juice that Jessica had filled to the brim into the glass, spilled over and served as proof of her hastened departure.
She took the subway to Main Street and got off at Cambria Heights. She only had a vague idea of where the Starbucks was that Hannah had been talking about, but as she emerged from the underground station she could see it right away. She checked her watch. It had been only twenty minutes since the call, and so Jessica expected Hannah to be amazed at her speedy entrance. And she was.
“Wow”, she said as Jessica approached the green couch Hannah was sitting on. “I feel like I just got off the phone with you and here you are.”
Jessica smiled back at Hannah.
“I just couldn’t wait to get out of the house”, she replied, without knowing exactly how she meant what she said.
“You wanna get a cup of coffee?”, Hannah asked back. “You have to try the Iced Caramel Macchiato, it’s friggin’ awesome.”
So Jessica went to the counter in order to get the Iced Caramel Macchiato. But as she looked at the display above the counter she grew more and more fond of the Creamy Caramel Latte and when the guy behind the counter asked her what she’d like to have she opted for exactly that. The waiter took her money and her first name, gave her the change and then, for no apparent reason, scribbled ‘Jessica’ onto the receipt. A few minutes later Jessica was given her beverage on a little tray along with some free biscuits and she returned to the couch Hannah was sitting on. She planted herself next to Hannah on the green couch and they toasted with their coffee mugs. The relaxed atmosphere between the two of them was genuine and for quite a moment they felt at ease with the situation. It was only after two minutes or so that Jessica wondered about the topics they could discuss. After all, the idea behind this meeting probably was to elevate small talk to medium talk and make some sort of connection. The only proper topic Jessica could think of was school since this was the only thing they knew they had in common.
“I wonder what Mr. Rearden is doing at the moment”, Jessica said out of the blue.
“Who cares?”, Hannah replied.
Again, a brief moment of silence ensued. It was not quite on the verge of getting awkward yet, but it would get there soon. Somebody had to say something. Anything.
“Can I ask you a question?” Hannah said eventually.
“Sure”, Jessica replied, feeling the impossibility of responding any other way.
“People say you live alone with your dad.”
Jessica was relieved. For some reason she had expected an embarrassing, more intimate question.
“Yes, I do.”
“That must suck.”
“No, it doesn’t, really, it doesn’t. My father is a lecturer over at Hailsham and he works an awful lot. He is almost never home. So I get to have a big apartment for myself and there’s no parent breathing down my neck, asking about homework or my private life. I know it sounds stupid, but to me, being the only child of a single father is a form of independence.”
Hannah gave her a look that seemed to express pity. The message behind that face was quite clear: “Oh, poor you, who are you kidding? You’re in denial.” Jessica was a bit unnerved by this reaction, but she didn’t want to let it show. Instead, she replied as open-heartedly as she possibly could.
“I know it doesn’t sound very convincing. And of course, I do miss my mom from time to time. And in a perfect world, I’d have a loving mom and a caring father who spend a lot of time with me and who love each other more than anything. But, come on, let’s get real, half the kids at our school probably come from broken homes.”
“And that’s great. But I don’t want to spend my days whining about how bad I got it. So I make the best of it.”
Hannah nodded. Again, silence ensued. Jessica didn’t feel uncomfortable with the topic, but she didn’t want Hannah to pity her. Because this form of pity, as Jessica had experienced it before, was often nothing but a concealed feeling of superiority. Depending on how Hannah would continue the conversation, she could either be this conceited girl that thinks she’s something better because her family is quite harmonious and wholesome or she could turn out to be cool with the fact that other people had different family structures.
“You know, to be honest, my parents fight a lot. Right now, it’s okay, but when my dad was laid off like five years ago, my mom and dad were constantly having a go at each other. They would usually argue after putting us kids to sleep, but of course we woke up from the noise and then my brother and I would sit next to the stairs trying to understand what they were saying downstairs. And I remember my father saying ‘you stupid cunt’ to my mother and I remember the stab of pain that I felt at that moment. And then I would wallow in self-pity for days on end and you know what: I enjoyed it.”
Jessica looked up at Hannah. She couldn’t help but smile at her. Without realizing it, Jessica was beginning to establish a connection between herself and Hannah. They were still very far from being soul mates, but Jessica hadn’t met many students who would confide in her to the extent that Hannah just had. And it encouraged Jessica to confide in her, too.
“You know, sometimes I really hate my father for what he did. But then I think it’s unfair because he’s still there and it’s my mother that took off. I keep making excuses for her, saying to myself that she’s somewhere out there trying to get her life back together so that one day she can come back to us and say: I’m alright now, I got my act together and I want to make it up to my daughter, I want to make up for not being around. But the older I get, the more I realize that that’s probably not going to happen. Chances are that I’ll never see her again.”
“Does that mean you have no idea of her whereabouts?”
“No, I don’t have a clue. I’m not sure if my father knows where she is and if he does I don’t know why he’s not telling me. But I’m too afraid to ask.”
“Why did they break up in the first place?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. I only have a very faint memory of my mother, I was like four or five years old. I think she looked a lot like me, but it could be that my mind is playing tricks on me.”
“You must have pictures of her.”
“We probably do, somewhere. But I think my father stashed them some place where they aren’t easy to find. I have two photos of her in my room, one is a photo of their wedding day in which I can’t really see her face because the white veil is blowing in her face and the other one is a picture in which she is breastfeeding me, but she looks down at me and my father or whoever took the photo was standing up. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter what she looks like or what she did look like. She’s gone.”
“Have you ever tried to contact her?”
“When we moved into our new apartment and when my father started working at Hailsham I would search through his things inside his desk. But, first off, I didn’t find anything and second, when he found out he locked his office room before he left the house.”
There was silence again. The first steps had been made. They had confided in each other and it had not been the usual American type of touchy-feely talk. No, it had been a European matter-of-factly conversation. Which was probably due to the fact that both girls came from educated families with a long line of academics that had paved the way for them throughout the last centuries. At least, that was what Jessica thought.
“Enough about me”, she continued, trying to change the tone and topic of the conversation. “If you don’t draw Mangas in your free time, how do you waste it?”
“Yeah, sure, to you, anybody who is not into Japanese comic art must have completely lost his marbles, haha. Well, anyway, I quite enjoy photography. My parents gave me this cool camera last Christmas, and now, at the weekends I wander the streets of Queens, trying to be the next Vivian Maier.”
“Vivian Maier. You haven’t heard of her?”
“She is this great photographer. She mainly took photos in the streets of New York and Chicago in the Sixties. Beautiful black and white photos of buildings and people from all walks of life. But she never showed any of her photos to anyone while she was still alive. And then, after her death, some guy bought the negatives of her photos at an auction for like a hundred dollars and now there are exhibitions and books and documentaries about her. There is an exhibition at the Howard Karnowsky gallery next week, if you’re interested.”
“Sounds great”, Jessica replied a little too hastily.
“It’s a date, then”, Hannah replied, smiling.
They spent the rest of their time at the Starbucks café talking about various topics. Jessica asked Hannah where she bought her clothes and she took it as an incentive to talk about fair trade, child labor in Southeast Asia and a number of websites where you could order what Hannah referred to as ‘sustainable or slow fashion’. Jessica admired Hannah for her principles and said so. She even said that she would consider ordering clothes from those websites in the future, but subconsciously knew that she wouldn’t. She had her favorite brands and those were brands that Hannah defined as ‘fast fashion’, brands fueled by an insatiable demand for cheap clothing and accessories. They went on to talk about music and discovered that they didn’t have much in common there, either. Hannah favored Indie Country music and Jessica was into Grunge and the classic music by a Japanese composer, who was professionally known as Joe Hisaishi although his real name was Mamoru Fujisawa. Jessica’s favorite food was Tartiflette, a simple French dish with potatoes and cheese that her father had often cooked when she was younger, Hannah’s was beetroot puree with yoghurt and za’atar. Jessica was unable to name her favorite teacher since she found them all equally dull and boring, whereas Hannah liked her philosophy teacher, Mr. Corden, for his distinctly Christian beliefs and values. Both girls disliked sports and had a good laugh about the jocks and cheerleaders at their high school. They showed each other funny clips that they had found on Youtube and giggled at them like the teenagers they were.
An hour and a half had passed when Jessica looked at her watch. The two lessons with Mr. Rearden were over and it was time to decide whether she wanted to skip school altogether.
“You staying here?”, Jessica asked Hannah.
Hannah looked at her watch as well.
“Nah. I think I’m heading back to school. I can’t miss out on my English class. We’re reading Hamlet and I seriously can’t wrap my mind around this Shakespeare guy.”
“What do you say if you bump into Mr. Rearden?”
“I’ll just say I overslept. Besides, he spends all his breaks with the smokers in the teacher’s lounge. I wouldn’t worry about him. What classes do you have anyway?”
“Ethics and German.”
“You’re taking German? Didn’t you say your Father was a professor for French at Hailsham?”
“That’s exactly why I picked German instead of French. The last thing I want him to be is my private tutor in French.”
“Boy, you must really hate your father!”
Jessica didn’t respond to that last statement. She would wonder for the rest of the day whether it was true but she would not respond to that remark at that instant. She just acknowledged it without being offended in the slightest way.
The two girls took the subway together and got off at Ditmar’s Boulevard. They walked to the entrance together and then bid farewell to one another. Jessica would continue on her school itinerary and Hannah on hers. Hannah would read Shakespeare and Jessica would attend her Ethics class.
The people from the Ethics class would meet only twice a month and it was semi-voluntary. Students would earn credit points for participating but those credit points would not be counted unless you took part in the public debate at the end of each term. Jessica was way too shy to put her oratory skills on public display, but she enjoyed listening to the debates and if the teacher, Mrs. Fronto, would force her to voice her opinion, she would do so.
“Ah, Miss Hill, I’m glad you could make it”, the teacher said as Jessica walked through the door, three minutes late.
“I’m sorry”, Jessica mumbled and went to sit down with the group of twelve students. As she sat down, Mrs. Fronto got a bunch of envelopes out of her bag. Each of those envelopes was sealed and had the name of one of the students printed on it. Mrs. Fronto started distributing those letters and explained their function in the meantime.
“I want you to imagine the following situation: If you’re female, then you are expecting a baby and have been to the gynecologist to get a prenatal diagnosis. If you’re male, your wife is pregnant and you went to the doctor with her. Do you all know what is meant by prenatal diagnosis?”
Jessica had no clue and remained silent. One of the girls raised her hand.
“I think it’s a kind of test that you can take if you want to see if everything is okay with your baby.”
“That’s exactly right”, Mrs. Fronto replied. “Prenatal diagnosis or prenatal screening is testing for diseases or conditions in a fetus or embryo before it is born. The aim is to detect birth defects such as neural tube defects, Down syndrome, chromosome abnormalities, genetic diseases and other conditions, such as spina bifida, cleft palate, Tay Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.”
Mrs. Fronto had read that last bit from a piece of paper. What the hell is spina bifida?, Jessica was asking herself. But before she could develop any ideas on this disease, Mrs. Fronto went on to explain the arrangement of her lesson.
“Now, I’d like you to think that you’re that pregnant woman or that husband of a pregnant woman and you get this letter. Please read the letter carefully and then write a response to the doctor in question, okay?”
All of the students nodded.
“Then please open the letter”, Mrs. Fronto went on, smiling enthusiastically because of her brilliant idea with the letter.
Jessica opened the sealed envelope and took the letter out.
Dear Mrs. Jessica Hill,
we are writing to inform you on the results of last week’s medical examination. Your pregnancy has advanced into the 18th week. The ultrasound displays a regular heartbeat, further examination indicates that you will give birth to a baby boy. The results of our prenatal diagnosis, however, raise concern. We have reason to believe that your offspring, should you decide to carry the child to full term, has a 75 percent chance of being born with a genetic defect, such as down syndrome, cystic fibrosis (a often lethal lung disease) or sickle cell anaemia (a blood disease). We need you to decide whether you want to have an abortion or whether you want to give birth despite the uncertain outcome. Please write a short letter, in which you communicate your decision. Federal Law requires you to give reasons for your answer in order to justify an eventual abortion.
Prof. Dr. Lowenstein.
Jessica had to read the letter a second time before she understood. But then she got it. The letter was simply asking her if she was for abortion or not. Now, Jessica knew that Mrs. Fronto was a die-hard Christian and an advocate of the Pro-Life movement. And she knew that if she wanted to score any credit points for this class, it was best to tell Mr. Fronto what she wanted to hear: that abortion was a sin, an abomination, that human life began at conception and that contraception equaled the murder of a child. Of course, there were some teachers at Ayn Rand who liked students that took a stand against the dominant opinion, but Mrs. Fronto clearly wasn’t one of them. Be that as it may, Jessica suddenly felt an itch to write a dissenting letter. And so she did. Of course, she had no intention of reading it out to the class, but she didn’t just want to write a letter that would serve to please Mrs. Fronto’s convictions and values.
After fifteen minutes of students scribbling written replies into their notebooks, Mrs. Fronto cleared her throat in order to get the students’ attention.
“Okay”, she said. “Now I’d like to hear a few of your letters so that we can take a look at the arguments. Any volunteers?”
Again, the girl named Samantha raised her hand.
“Alright, Samantha, let’s hear it.”
Now it was Samantha’s turn to clear her throat:
Dear Mr. Lowenstein,
thank you for your letter. After short deliberation, my husband and I have decided that we still want to have the child despite the uncertain outcome. We believe that life, no matter what form it takes, is precious and should be preserved and protected. An abortion at this point in time would seem to us like actual murder. God works in mysterious ways and we need to accept the path he has chosen for us. We also believe that any disease the child might have doesn’t actually turn it into a human being without value. Who are we to decide which life is worth living and which isn’t? Even a sick child can have a purpose in life and can bring or receive joy to and from the people around him. So, thank you, again, for your letter, but we will take our chances.
There was a round of applause from the student body and Mrs. Fronto couldn’t have been happier.
“That was a very intelligent and yet touching reply. Thank you, Samantha, you really made my day.”
Jessica was starting to feel a little sick.
“Okay, now before we write down the arguments I’d like to hear one last letter. Anyone?”
Silence ensued, and, as always, the more time passed, the more the students grew reluctant to read their letters. It was clear that only person in this room could break this silence.
“Mrs. Hill”, Mrs. Fronto said after a while. “You were a little late today. So maybe you would like to make up for your tardiness by reading your letter to us.”
Afterwards, Jessica wasn’t so sure what had incited her to read that letter: whether it was the smug smile on Mrs. Fronto’s face, whether it was stupid Samantha with her suck-up attitude or whether it was the defiant mood Jessica had been in ever since she had skipped her chemistry class. In the end, it didn’t really matter.
“Sure thing, Mrs Fronto”, Jessica replied and bent over. She moved her head closer to the letter so as not to be distracted by the students’ facial expressions and read:
Dear Mr. Lowenstein,
thank you so much for your letter. First, I must admit that my husband and I were really shocked to hear the news. Of course, like any other parent, we both were hoping for a healthy baby. Now that you have presented us with the results, we were at first uncertain about what to do. We are not rich, you see, and we don’t have the best health insurance. My husband works full time as a salesman and I work as a waitress in a diner, we only get by with what we earn. It’s hard for us just the way it is. Of course, we would love a disabled child like any other child, but we were asking ourselves if we could give a baby with a genetic defect the attention, the love and the comfort it would need and deserve. We are Christians and we believe in the value of life, but we also believe that a baby deserves a chance in life. At this point in time, we are not certain that we can attend to a baby with a genetic defect as much as is needed. How would we pay for all the medicine, the doctors, the therapies, how would we make sure that our baby will have a good life even after we’re dead? I know this might sound very selfish, but my husband and I, we are young, we had plans and we see all these plans endangered by the possible outcome of my pregnancy. We would really like to talk to you before we reach a final decision but for the time being, I think, I mean, we think that we’d like to have an abortion.