At first, I thought my apartment was being robbed. I got home from work, rode the elevator up to the fifth floor of my apartment building, and walked down the hall. Usually, by this point, I would hear my cocker spaniel, Jerry, panting and pawing behind the door, eager to prove her love. Instead, I heard nothing. And the door to my apartment was ajar. I stopped a few feet away from it, listening again. Still nothing.
Whether it was because I was brave, or just trusting that I live in a decent neighborhood, or maybe wanted to get abducted by aliens, I don’t know why, but I just took a deep breath and walked right into my apartment, expecting what? The worst? I was young and white, with relatively little childhood trauma, so I didn’t even know what worst was.
This is what I saw: my father, on his back on my couch, taking up the whole length of it with his lanky limbs, in deep sleep. Jerry was curled up on his chest, perched like a queen on her throne. I always thought dogs were supposed to be the most loyal of creatures. Jerry just opened her eyes for a moment, saw that it was me, and let out a big sigh, feathering out her curlicue bangs all around her sweet face. I would forgive her, of course. I was the forgiving type. The giving type. The self-sacrificing type. Which I guess is why, when I saw my father on my couch, I didn’t even try to wake him and demand answers and explanations from him. I actually walked to my bedroom on tiptoe, trying to be quiet, assuming there must be a good reason for a grown man to be sound asleep at 5:30 in the evening.
I was a bit surprised that I even recognized him. I had seen him only in fits and starts since the fourth grade: when he first cut out of town and left my mom and me behind. He claimed it was for our own good that he’d left and that when he got rich from one of his many grand ideas, he would send us a big chunk of the money. Either he never got rich, or he was a liar because no money even came our way. Instead, he’d show up for some occasions, like a few birthdays, and my high school graduation, never staying long. It had been years since his last appearance, but from what I could tell, peering over him from the back of the couch, he hadn’t changed much. His face was devoid of wrinkles—perhaps from the lack of responsibility he took—and his full beard was the same as I remembered, although maybe it had a few more patches of gray. His nose was neutral and he had passed it on to me—slim, flat, nostrils that flared out just enough.
As I continued to stare down at him, he opened his eyes and met mine. “Shelby,” he said. “My sweet girl.” He had a way of talking to women that enabled him to get away with a lot.
“Hi, Dad,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I got your address from Aunt Kathy. Took the train.”
“I didn’t ask ‘how.’ I asked ‘what.’ You know, like why?”
He let out a sigh that disturbed Jerry’s balance so much that she decided to just jump off the old man’s chest, and trot over to my feet, finally consenting to give me a bit of attention. “I need a place to stay for a little while, sweetie,” he said.
“This is a one-bedroom apartment.”
“Just a little while.” He somehow managed to wink and grin at me simultaneously. Then, in one fluid instinctual movement, he sat up and reached out his arms, pulling me into a bear hug. I shrieked, losing my balance as he pulled me partially over the back of the couch. I was glad to be able to hide my smile from him with my face buried in his chest.
I called my mother during my lunch break the next day, to let her know what was going on. “He’s got a lot of nerve,” she said. “Showing up like that. Damn Kathy.”
I didn’t say anything, but by not saying anything, said so much. She expected me to complain and gripe, and when I didn’t, she knew. I was happy he was here. Happy to be needed by him, after spending so much of my life needing him.
“He’s gonna leave again, Shelby,” mother said to me, after my silence had spoken. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed in him.”
“I’ve been disappointed in him my whole life. Nothing new there.”
I made her laugh. Always a small victory.
That night I stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up a whole chicken to roast, along with some broccoli and gold potatoes. I went to the bakery section and got two slices of carrot cake.
He was on the couch, but sitting up and awake, when I got home. His face was pinched and strained, and I realized he might be afraid that I had changed my mind during the day. The potential power that I had over his emotions surged through my veins like an electric shock, but I knew I couldn’t take advantage of it. More than that, I knew I wouldn’t.
“I’m going to cook dinner tonight,” I said, setting the grocery bags on the kitchen counter. “And I got carrot cake.”
He nodded his head, and his face still looked strained, as if the world was blurry to him and he was trying to make sense of it, but failing spectacularly. It occurred to me to wonder if he was using drugs recreationally.
“That’s your favorite, right?” I asked.
“Carrot cake? It’s your favorite, right?”
He shook his head like he was trying to get a fly out of his ear, and then stood up and walked over to join me in the kitchen.
“Carrot cake,” he said. “My favorite. I can’t believe you remember.”
“Of course,” I said. “Do you remember my favorite cake?”
His face fell, like a stage curtain at a Broadway show, so many expectations, not met, coming back to haunt us. I hadn’t asked to challenge him or make him feel bad.
“It’s okay,” I said. “But it’s chocolate.”
My father began to laugh. “Oh, chocolate,” he said. “I remember now, you just had to give me a minute. I’m an old man, Shelby. But I remember your seventh birthday. Your mom made a chocolate cake from scratch, with chocolate icing, too. Because that’s what you would say when we asked you what cake you wanted—”
“Chocolate, chocolate,” we said together, laughing. The younger years were the ones he could talk about. He didn’t know much about my life from the years past fourth grade, or much about it now. I wondered if he felt like he was standing next to a stranger when he was standing next to me.
The next day was Saturday, and my father came with me to the farmer’s market. We got lunch from the Italian sandwich stand: focaccia with fresh mozzarella, thick slices of tomato, and sprawling basil leaves. We drank fresh kombucha from the tap, and I bought a pair of earrings, handmade from dark brown leather. Later, I took him to the beach by the railroad tracks and we watched the sunset. The sky lit up with pink, purple, and orange.
On Sunday afternoon, we saw a movie at the downtown theater. For dinner, I cooked again. Beef stew with carrots, celery, and potatoes, and seasoned with sage, rosemary, thyme. Cornbread from scratch. I pretended we were celebrating a holiday together, maybe Christmas Eve. We talked about the distant past and the far future but shied away from the present. I didn’t ask him what events had led to him having to crash on my couch and he didn’t ask me about any boyfriends or hobbies, or even my job, which I would have been happy to discuss, as I was quite proud of it. But, no matter. Time, the manipulating of it, enabled us to enjoy each other’s presence. At night, just the bulk of him stretched across my worn couch was enough to help me imagine him telling me the words I’d long stopped expecting: he loved me, he was sorry, and it wasn’t my fault.
But it couldn’t last forever, could it?
When I got home from work on Monday and rode the elevator up, and walked down the hall to my apartment, I heard Jerry up to her usual antics. That’s how I knew. All weekend, she had been glued to my father, shamelessly leeching from him the love that I couldn’t bring myself to ask for. The couch was empty, and there was a quality to the apartment that made me understand the space was happy to have him gone as if it had been holding its breath all weekend.
“Did he say why Jerry?” I asked, kneeling down to scratch under her chin. She barked, and licked my face.
I checked the coffee table for a note, and then the refrigerator, and then the bathroom mirror, feeling like a fool. I came back into the kitchen and opened a bottle of red wine. I ordered take-out and turned the television on. The couch didn’t even smell like him and had no imprints from his body. He hadn’t stayed long enough for that sort of thing to happen. Had I imagined the whole weekend? It was like my father had never been here at all. And I didn’t feel any better for it, but curiously, I didn’t feel any worse. Historically, when my father entered my life and abruptly exited again, it would take me days or weeks to fully recover. This was why my mother had been worried on the phone, of course. But this time, I felt like maybe all I would need was a bath and a good night’s sleep, then all the experiences of the weekend would integrate themselves in my body, woven in like ropes with my tendons and ligaments, or as red ribbons around my organs.
I leaned back into the couch cushions and Jerry sprang into my lap. I took a sip of my wine, imagining it as a sacrament. And now the sacred text, I whispered to myself, not for the first time, and not for the last time: I love you, I’m sorry, and it’s not your fault.
Erin Schallmoser (she/her) lives in Bellingham, WA, works by day as a naturopathic clinic manager, and delights in moss, slugs, stones, wildflowers, small birds, and the moon, when she can see it. She’s also a poetry/prose editor and staff contributor at The Aurora Journal and is still figuring out Twitter @dialogofadream. You can read more at erinschallmoser.com