As I stare into the familiar face of this stranger, memories flood me.
I used to sit there, brushing the hair on my blond Barbie doll. Often, I’d wish that I was the doll: she had it made. She was beautiful, she was always groomed, always exactly who she was supposed to be. Her parents must be proud, I used to think. Her father, wherever he was, was probably a big CEO, traveling the world to make a life for his family while her mother stayed back and took care of the house.
Barbie’s father would never come home stumbling and yelling. He wouldn’t scream at her mother so loudly that Barbie would hide in the greenhouse to get away from all the noise and the breaking dishes. And if, by chance, some small, easily explainable misunderstanding had caused an argument between her parents, Barbie always had Ken, her perfect blond boyfriend, to keep her company . . . even in the greenhouse.
Barbie was perfect, so she would have the perfect life, with perfect parents.
My father, who left me nine years ago, is standing in front of me, dirty and haggard. Nothing like he should be, nothing like I remember. A smile covers his face as he stares at me, and another memory surfaces.
My father, the night he left . . . my mother’s face set in stone. She didn’t cry. She just stood there, waiting for him to walk out the door. That night she changed; she wasn’t the same loving mother anymore after that. She became something unkind, and distant, and unhappy.
But she was there after he decided not to be.
Dad?” This man in front of me couldn’t possibly be my father, despite the familiar brown eyes staring back at me.
“Tessie?” His voice is thicker sounding than I recall from my distant memories.
Hardin turns to me, eyes blazing, and then back to my father.
My father. Here, in this bad neighborhood, with filthy clothes on his back.
“Tessie? Is that really you?” he asks.
I’m frozen. I have no words to say to this drunken man wearing my father’s face.
Hardin puts a hand on my shoulder in an attempt to elicit a reaction from me. “Tessa . . .”
I take a step toward the strange man, and he smiles. His brown beard is peppered with gray; his smile isn’t white and clean like I remember . . . how did he end up this way? All the hope I once held that my father would’ve changed his life around the way Ken did has vanished, and the realization that this man is actually my father hurts worse than it should.
“It’s me,” someone says, and after a moment I realize the words came from me.
He closes the space between us and wraps his arms around me. “I can’t believe it! Here you are! I’ve been trying to—”
He’s cut short by Hardin pulling him away from me. I step back, unsure how to behave.
The stranger—my father—looks between Hardin and me, alert and in disbelief. But shortly he eases back into a nonchalant posture and keeps his distance, for which I’m glad.
“I’ve been trying to find you for months,” he says, wiping his hand across his forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt on his skin.
Hardin stands in front of me, ready to pounce. “I’ve been here,” I say quietly, peering around his shoulder. I’m thankful for his protection, and it dawns on me that he must be completely confused.
My father turns to him, looks him up and down for a while. “Wow. Noah sure has changed a lot.”
“No, that’s Hardin,” I tell him.
My father shuffles around him a little and inches closer to me, and I can see that Hardin tenses when he moves. This close, I can smell him.
It’s either the liquor on his breath, or the by-product of abusing liquor, that has him confusing the two; Hardin and Noah are polar opposites, and could never be compared to each other. My father swings an arm around me, and Hardin gives me a look, but I shake my head slightly to keep him at bay.
“Who’s he?” My father keeps his arm around me for an uncomfortably long time while Hardin just stands there, looking like he’s going to explode—not necessarily out of anger, I realize; he just seems to have no clue what to say or do.
That makes two of us. “He’s my . . . Hardin’s my . . .”
“Boyfriend. I’m her boyfriend,” he finishes for me.
The man’s brown irises go wide as he finally takes in Hardin’s appearance.
“Nice to meet you, Hardin. I’m Richard.” He reaches his dirty hand out to shake Hardin’s.
“Ehm . . . yeah, nice to meet you.” Hardin is clearly very . . . unsettled.
“What are the two of you doing out around here?”
I take this opportunity to move away from my father and stand next to Hardin, who snaps back to himself and pulls me to his side.
“Hardin was getting a tattoo,” I answer robotically. My mind is unable to comprehend all that’s happening right now.
“Ah . . . Nice. I’ve used this place before myself.”
Images of my father having coffee before leaving the house every morning to go to work fill my mind. He looked nothing like this, he spoke nothing like this, and he sure as hell didn’t tattoo himself back when I knew him. When I was his little girl.
“Yeah, my friend Tom does them.” He pushes up the sleeve of his sweatshirt to reveal what resembles a skull on his forearm.
It doesn’t look like it belongs on him, but as I continue to examine him I begin to see that maybe it does. “Oh . . .” is all I can manage.
This is so awkward. This man is my father, the man who left my mother and me alone. And he’s here in front of me . . . drunk. And I don’t know what to think.