I know it happens in California, not Maryland, where we used to live, because the kitchen is behind us and it’s our California house’s open kitchen, with the cream and brown patterned linoleum bordering the beige carpet in the living area. I know it’s hot like summer and I am wearing shorts and a tank top, and the sliding glass door is open. I remember the breeze coming in warm and dry. It has to be September because we are watching football. My father sits on one end of the velvet couch that is the color of coffee and cream, and I sit at the other end.
I don’t like football, but I want my dad to like me, so I stay. I am six. Before long, boredom drives me to annoy him. He scolds me for humming, then for singing. I ask him how to tell the teams apart, and he says they wear different colors–but he says it like I should have known, so I don’t ask any more questions.
I watch his arm. His elbow sinks down into the plush armrest. His forearm tilts up to a hand, fingers pressed into the rim of a glass. He rocks his half-full glass of Cutty Sark scotch (on the rocks) back and forth. The amber liquid sloshes through the ice. Beads of water drip slow lines to the bottom of the glass, soaking into the couch fabric, a dark ring enlarging. The sharp, sweet smell of alcohol floats past me every time he takes a sip.
There is an ashtray on the armrest, full of cigarette butts, lined up in neat, narrow stacks. My father gets shrimp ready for tempura like this, too — lining the delicate, translucent bodies in a geometric pattern on a plate. I wonder why he does these things as I watch him. Between the fingers of his other hand is a Marlboro from the red and white pack that peeks out of his shirt pocket. He takes a long drag, leans over to the ashtray on his right and taps off the accumulating ash. He parts his lips, the smoke pours out. I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, but I want him to like me, so I stay.
When I haven’t been snapped at for bit, I scooch over toward him. He doesn’t respond, so I move closer. I repeat this inching towards my father until I am touching his arm. He doesn’t have a cigarette going, so I wiggle my head between his arm and body, and there it is — his arm around me!
I look up at him. He stares at the TV, but I think I see the slightest of smiles on his lips. Joy floods through me with such force that I can barely keep still, but I have to, or I might ruin the moment. My father is a big man, and it turns out his arm is heavy. I grow uncomfortable. Yet, I remain motionless. Is this when I learn that to experience the love of some men I will have to bear a certain measure of pain?
Too soon, he swings his arm out from behind me, leaving a cold swath tingling on my back. He lifts the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, taps on the package until one pops out, and lights it up. From my seat next to him, the smoke is thick. I blow a path through it, and watch the smoke curl in on itself. I do it again. I have another football question. I ask as he is taking a drag on his cigarette. I look up at him, anticipating. He looks at me.
Something sparks in his eyes. Or maybe the lines around them crinkle. I don’t know. Maybe I see nothing. But instead of answering, my dad opens his mouth and blows the smoke from his last inhalation right into my face. The acrid vapor makes me sputter and cough, makes my throat feel raw, makes my eyes water. It takes me just seconds to start crying, but I don’t know if I am crying because of the smoke or because my dad is laughing at me or because I know I’ve lost something I’ll never get back.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/aimhelix