Her friend pulled the truck up to the doors of the hotel. She glanced over at him and said, “Thanks for the ride.” Not bothering to acknowledge his hurt look at the brief comment, she got out, shut the door and walked through the double glass doors and into the hotel lobby. To her right she saw her mother, father and friends, some already standing, waiting for her to join them. The look on every face was of raw concern, whether smiling through it or just frozen in place, like so many deer in the headlights. She couldn’t deal with them right now – she needed to be alone.
The elevator doors stood across the vast lobby and in a split moment’s decision, she headed straight for them instead of to the collective support that waited, holding its breath to see what she would do. She heard someone call her name but kept walking. The elevator doors slid silently open and she stepped in, pushed number three and waited for the doors to close. She saw her dad walking to catch up, the hitch in his walk apparent. He liked to say he’d broken every bone in his body at least once, some twice – and it was the walk that betrayed he might not be exaggerating much. The door slid closed and she rode up alone to the third floor.
She made it to the room and pushed down on the door handle, before she realized she didn’t have the cardkey. She tried again, hoping maybe it would just open out of respect for her need, but the door wasn’t obliging. She leaned her forehead on the cool wood, content just to stand there forever, realizing with surprised detachment that she still smelled like the hospital, like witch hazel.
A hand reached out to her shoulder and gently pulled her back to make room. Her dad slid the cardkey in with his weathered, almost mahogany-tanned hand with its thick, clean nails. He liked to show her “nail strengthening exercises” for those times when one is caught without their pocketknife and needs to pry something loose with a fingernail. She didn’t quite believe the exercises worked, but did them anyway because his nails were unbendable, tough and she wanted to believe everything he took the time to tell her.
He opened the door and she went to the far bed and sat on the edge, facing the window. He stood alongside her with his hands in his pockets, also not seeing the same vista through the opaque curtains. He waited for her.
“Dad? That sucked.”
“I know, honey.” His voice, made deeper, and face were ravaged with pain and empathy, his slate-gray eyes searching the curtains for something to make her okay.
The tears welled up into her eyes, making the room blur into an underwater realm of pleasantly colored light woods, and distinctly hotel-like colors and patterns. She stood up and buried her face in his shoulder. The tears flowed from her eyes in hot rivers and she clutched at the front of his lightly plaid shirt with both hands. All the grief and anguish had surprised her – she never cried. It welled out of her as if some foreign entity had possessed her. She was both crying and watching herself carry on, embarrassed but not unclenching the fists of plaid shirt in her hands. Her dad embraced her with both arms, not saying a word – just holding her, gentle and solid.
She could smell his familiar morning odor of spice and musk from his “cheap, but does the job” aftershave, coffee, and 40 years of mentholated cigarettes. He hadn’t started smoking until he was in the hospital, after some Korean War injury he never talked about. His buddies would bring him cartons of smokes and he’d just pass ‘em on to others in the ward, until someone brought him menthols, and the smell reminded him of one of his meds. He started smoking them as if they’d somehow have the same effect, and had never quit. She had picked up the habit the night of her 16th birthday, when it was legal, because she wanted to be just like him.
Her nose clogged up now, forcing her mouth open to catch ragged breaths of air. The sounds that escaped her were not of her. They were from some mewling, grotesque cave creature. Why had she done it? Why had she acted so cavalier about it all? The only time she had felt slightly off-kilter with the whole deal was when she was looking at her father, the pain in his eyes over her decision apparent, only slightly hidden by his love for her. He was her rock, and she had shaken him without regard, but he was too kind to say anything. Her tears were not only for herself, but for the pain she had caused him and, unknowingly, for the guilt of that inflicted pain she would carry long after he was gone.
When she became self-aware again, the tears subsided. She pulled back and hung there, feeling cleaned out and used up. She didn’t know how long they’d stood there, but it had been long enough. Cracking a little grin, she touched the black smudges of mascara and slick wetness of her dad’s shirt.
“I got your shirt dirty.”
“Oh Christ, it’ll wash.” He cracked a little grin back at her, reaching into his back pocket to get his hanky. He handed it to her and, knowing better than unfolding it, she dabbed at her puffed and sore eyes. She took a deep, only slightly ragged breath and tried a wider smile at him. His moist eyes twinkled, under his slightly bushy, grayed brows and he touched her cheek, “That’s my girl.” And she was.