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Chapter 9 – I called Dad on my thirteenth birthday.
Dad had only been gone a few months when I turned thirteen. I called him because I hoped he wanted to wish me a good birthday, and I thought he wouldn’t know a good time to call. Despite our situation, Mom was trying to make the day a good one for me. “You’re lucky to have your birthday on a Saturday this year,” she said. “We can go out for dinner later, but first, Stevie and I have something to do.” She looked at me and smiled. I knew Mom was trying to hide the strain in her voice. When she stopped talking, I could tell from her tight smile that her front teeth were clamped down hard and I felt the heaviness of trying to celebrate something when no one was in the mood. Maybe Dad would lift me up. I waited until Mom and Stevie were out of the house and climbed the stairs. I looked through Mom’s papers in her bedroom and I found Dad’s number written on an envelope.
I don’t think Dad would have answered the phone if he had known I was calling. He would never know that it had taken all the effort I could gather to say, “Hey Dad” as if I had just seen him that morning.
“Jes!” he said. He was surprised, but I was hoping there was also something glad in his voice. I pictured him standing in his kitchen, one I had never seen, holding the phone up to his ear and not knowing what to say. I wondered, but I didn’t want to think if other people were in the room.
I felt my mouth go dry. I had thought to call, but I had not planned what to say next. My hand was wet around the receiver and I felt a trickle of sweat go down my back. I turned and faced the open window and slid my finger through the curly phone line and twisted the cord tightly around my finger, thinking hard what to say next. How could I have been this stupid?
“How are you?” I choked.
“Good!” he said. His voice was suddenly loud, too cheerful. “Working hard. You getting the checks I’ve been sending?” Dad, the Money Maker.
“Uh, yeah,” I answered. Maybe he thought Mom had set me up to call him to check on the money part of their deal. As I stood upstairs in Mom’s bedroom, I caught a glimpse into the closet and saw a lone wire hanger move in the breeze. Dad’s side of the closet was empty and the hanger was the only thing left. My head raced for something more to say.
“Well, good,” he said, filling the silence. He paused for a minute. “How are you, Jes?” I caught the pause and I wondered how a father could feel the awkwardness of not knowing what to ask his daughter.
“Okay, I guess.” I lied. I had been waiting since Dad left for a call or for him to come back. I wanted him back, but I hated where he was. “I guess you don’t remember that today’s my birthday, do you?”
“It is?” he asked. “Well, of course, you’re right. Happy Birthday, Jes,” he added. I thought I was going to feel good catching him at forgetting my birthday, but I didn’t and I don’t think Dad felt bad about his mistake.
I heard noises in the background, voices, kitchen sounds, the echoes of another life. Then Dad put his palm over the speaker part of the phone and said something that was muffled and unrecognizable.
“Hey Jes,” he said, as he released his hand. His voice was too loud. It had a forced cheer and I thought how Mom had just talked to me with a similar false enthusiasm. “I’m glad you called, but I’m going to have to get going. I’m sorry I didn’t remember your birthday. I’ll send you a check so you can get yourself something, okay?” He was rushing me and I wondered if he was afraid of what else I might say.
I ignored his offer. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t know when to call. That’s why I called you, Dad.”
“Well, you’re right, Jes. I don’t know a good time to call. Really, I hope you’re having a nice day today. Now I’ve got to go, but thanks for calling. You take care.” The call was over. I looked at the clock. I had just taken up five minutes of Dad’s life.
That was the last time I called Dad. I decided then that there would never be a good time for Dad to call because I would never come to the phone if he did.
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