Dad meets the family

I wrote this as an opening scene for an end-of-semester reading a couple of semesters ago. Recently I found it again and I’ve been working on it more, developing the story further. I’ll share it now and see how it feels.

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As soon as the music began, I knew it was a mistake, bringing my father there. The audience had grown silent, the cold air still as the lights went down and some overeager mom began to pump shrill, lively tones into the auditorium. She apparently believed that the less rhythm a song had, the easier it was for children to dance to it. The spectacle on stage said otherwise. Two dozen kids were bumping into each other, their eyes wide as they looked up at the teacher who led them and gazed past her bobbing head to see the dimly lit faces of their parents behind her.

I tried to imagine how my father, standing beside me, was seeing it all. His eyes falling upon his grandkid for the first time, frosty white lights beaming onto the stage to show her standing out like a fly on a potato salad. One side of her white dress was tucked into the side of her loud orange underwear, and as if she didn’t look alien enough already, her braids were standing up on her head like antennae. The other folks’ kids were picking up the dance pretty quickly, doing what looked like four easy steps and repeating them over and over again. My kid, on the other hand, was bouncing around on her feet in any old way, to music that only could’ve been in her head. I’m not saying I was jealous or ashamed of my kid or anything – kid’s seven years old, and what man is cruel enough to be ashamed of a seven year old? No, I wasn’t ashamed, just wished I’d practiced a little with her at home or something is all. I could see what all the other parents saw when they looked at her, a kid who couldn’t even tap her feet to a beat, probably the product of another absent black father.

More importantly, I could see what my father saw when he looked on stage. My wide-set eyes and sturdy jaw on the kid’s dark round face, each misstep a sign of bigger mistakes, the tapping of her feet sending out thunderous echoes of many years of disappointment. Since I’d picked my father up at the airport and driven him to the recital he’d had a strange look about him, his narrow eyes wrinkled in the corners as if everything he was seeing was a part of some joke and only he knew the punchline. As I glanced over to see the look still fixed on his face, the audience began to stand.

Standing. Really? My father stood with them, and I rose only because I couldn’t see over their balding heads. My wife Elsie, of all people, led this premature ovation. She stood on my other side, opposite my father, and though she’d shaken his hand briefly just before the recital began, I knew this moment would sear itself into my father’s mind as his first impression of my wife. Elsie thought our kid was perfect. She was convinced that kids were flawed because they were kids, and couldn’t grasp that maybe our kid would be better off if she didn’t have a mother who was so willing to accept her flaws. Elsie was gaping at the stage, her eyes bouncing with joy, her hands clasped in front of her like she was uttering a prayer that was being answered as she said it. Thrilled that our kid was standing out, Elsie was too dense to realize that standing out for being the black kid unable to dance among white kids isn’t a good thing.

I’d always hoped to help the kid out before she turned out like her mother. I never liked kids, but of course I loved my own, and I knew that if she followed what her mother told her, all that crap about being herself even if it got her off track, then she’d end up being stupid. Happy, maybe, as they say ignorance is bliss, but stupid. And if she got smart enough one day to realize I didn’t let her turn out that way, surely she’d thank me.

She stopped dancing. Music still playing, white kids swaying around her, and the kid stood still as a tree on a windless day. I looked at her big brown eyes and saw that they’d found mine. She grinned, teeth glowing, reached up her hand as far as she could and started waving, not at Elsie or anyone else, but at me. For some reason this kid thought I’d be glad to see her up there waving like a fool.

Through the corner of my eye I saw my father look at her and look at me, and I was sure I felt the lights above me grow brighter. A chill rushed through my body. Should light be cold? The kid’s eyes were locked on me and I didn’t break their gaze. It was the only way to avoid eye contact with my father, and with the other audience members who had surely turned to look at me. Beside me, Elsie was shrieking her high-pitched giggle. It was all too much – the lights, the music, the eyes on me. I watched the kid as I sank back down into my seat.

All I could see now above the audience’s heads was her small palm, pale under the spotlight, as she slowly brought it down to her side.

This was my father’s introduction to my family. It was the first glimpse he’d seen of my life since he’d vanished from it nine years earlier.

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Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 9:25 AM  Leave a Comment  
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