A daughter visits her father in prison.
|HE GAVE HIS name as, “Rule, Reuben Te,” and was buzzed in through automated double doors to the inmate side of the visitor’s room. He saw a young woman sitting on the other side of window seven looking at him. Her hair hung past her shoulders and was darker than he remembered. Golden brown now. She wore a short-sleeved yellow blouse conservatively buttoned, and had gold hoops in her ears.
He had been right— he didn’t know this woman. She wore a different look in her clothes and in her eyes. She didn’t look like she wanted to be here. She looked like she wanted nothing more than to go home and take a shower. Reuben picked up his phone from the wall and looked back at the woman he had once agreed to name JoAnne. The silence between them was drawn out in a slow aching throb of disappointment. Their eyes moved back and forth in the silence: his on hers on his on hers.
She picked up the phone off the wall to her left.
“Hi,” she said.
“I’m glad you came.”
“Any trouble getting here?”
There was a pause as she looked closely at his face and then at his hat. “You gained weight.”
“Lots of rice,” Reuben said. He took his hat off and put it on his lap.
Reuben knew she was now deciding if he was drunk. He waited for her assessment to end.
“When are they going to let you out?”
“Who knows. I hear it’s going to be soon, but, you know what? It could be in ten minutes, it could be in ten months, ten years.”
“Hey, it won’t be ten years, Jay-Jay.” Reuben made himself smile. “I should get out of here pretty soon, I think.”
"Different system of law down here."
Her eyebrows went up and down. "Hmmm," she said.
“Hey! Do you remember when I used to take you to the park?”
“Yeah. . . ”
“Sort of. . . ”
“Sort of? We used to bounce a tennis ball back and forth on the grass?”
They looked at each other.
“And you let the ball hit you in the crotch, you remember, on purpose, and you fell to your knees all wriggling around on the grass, and you said— ‘Arrrrrrrg, right in the balls!’”
He was smiling with the telling of the story and went on smiling as he waited for her to remember.
She looked back at him, confused and slightly put off.
“You don’t remember that?” He put his hat back on. “Really? You rolled around on the grass saying, 'Right in the baaalls!'” He looked at her, still hoping, nodding his head. “I laughed so hard!”
She studied him for a moment. Then: “Are you drunk?” She looked at him blankly, waiting for an answer.
Reuben shook his head, defeated. He said, “Well, I do sweetheart. I also remember when you used to eat your boogers. You ate ‘em like popcorn.”
“Well, Father, guess what— I still do.”
And like that, the stranger was gone. She was still his daughter. He knew her. She knew him. He laughed into the sticky white plastic phone. “You see? You still got it.” He wanted to place his hand to the glass.
“Are you?” she asked.
“Am I what?”
“Are you drunk?”
Like that, she was gone again.
The realization made him sad for her, and sad for himself. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a beat. He said, “No! I’m not drunk.”
Their eyes locked. It was her mother’s stare, from her mother’s eyes. Steady, unamused. Ice-cold. The unblinking silence seemed to last longer than Reuben could bare. His right leg began bouncing. He said, “Jesus Christ, JoAnne, why are you so pissed off at me? I swear to you, I don't get it. I don’t understand.”
“And I swear to you, Reuben. . ., you do, perfectly.”
It was his turn to stare in silence.
“You ran away,” she said, raising and lowering her shoulders like it was common knowledge.
“You think so?”
“I think so.”
“Well, goddamn it, I’m asking you to give me another chance. How could throwing me out of your life be something you'd even consider? It's your mother. You’ve spent a lifetime listening to her. Maybe it’s time to hear my side.”
“JoAnne, there is no way cutting me out of your life can be a benefit to you. Your mother stopped loving me, I’ll be damned if I’ll let you stop! You can’t just stop! How the hell can you just stop loving your father? Be mad at me! Jesus Christ! Be as mad as you need to be!” He leaned closer to the window, waiting for her to say something. She simply stared back. “Come on, baby-girl. You have no idea how much I miss you. Let me ask you one question, okay?
“Do you know that I love you?”
The eyes staring back at Reuben were unimpressed. No love, no hatred. No connection.
“You’re a real shithead, do you know that, JoAnne?”
Their visit came to a merciful end. Reuben was tapped on the shoulder and taken out through the automated doors. As they were closing, he looked back and found JoAnne's eyes still watching through the little window. In that momentary gap of dissolving time and space he gave her a nod; a last try.
In the long nights to follow, Reuben tried to decide if he had seen her nod back. On some nights he thought he absolutely had. On others, he wasn’t so sure.