I adjust my modest, borderline childish-looking sweater. I received it six years ago on my birthday and have worn it only twice: once the very day it was gifted to me and then on Christmas that year. Since then, the sweater has gathered dust in the far reaches of my closet. I cleared away the years of neglect, and it looks brand new, but every few moments I keep inspecting it in the floor-length mirror beside my dresser like I expect it to become disgusting and faded when my attention is elsewhere.
I must admit I look cute—like the ever-lasting little girl my father sees every time he glances at me. I also think I appear to be trying too hard to curry my father’s favor. In no version of reality will he fall for my obvious intentions.
The debate that started early the night before rears its annoying head. Should I stick to invoking my father’s nostalgia or present myself as an adult on equal footing with him? Which route will guarantee success?
A knock on my closed bedroom door draws me from my thoughts. I turn from the mirror. “Yes?”
The door opens and my mother sticks her head into my room. “Darling, your father’s meeting has finished.”
My stomach somersaults. “Okay.”
I take the portfolio I’ve spent the past two months creating from its place on top of my dresser. The bulk of it comforts me. The amount of research I hold could rival one of my father’s many notable papers. At the very least, my father will admire my hard work.
My mother edges her way into the room. As I watch, I fight the urge to demand she leave. Since it came out four months ago that my mother has been wasting thousands of dollars of my father’s hard-earned money on frivolous items she hides in the basement or attic (most unused and still in their packaging), I can’t stand being around my mother for more than a few seconds. Yes, my mother clearly has a problem that requires professional help, but it’s been going on for fifteen years out of my parents’ twenty-two-year marriage. She should have sought aid long before she got caught.
Maybe then my parents wouldn’t be on the verge of divorce.
They haven’t mentioned the idea, but, since my return home from college two weeks ago, they’ve fought every night. They call each other increasingly horrible names, and just last night my mother told my father she hated him. Once, I swear I heard something break, but I can’t be sure which parent would have gone that far.
I know both my parents’ behavior needs adjusting, yet I can’t help but put all the blame on my mother. Why can’t she control herself? Why doesn’t she go to therapy like she keeps promising?
My mother’s full lips turn up in a big smile, and the wrinkles around her grass-green eyes crinkle. For a second, she doesn’t look as tired or old as she has for days. “You look nice.”
I glance away at my four-poster bed covered in the Slytherin comforter set Grandpop, my paternal grandfather, got me the Christmas of my junior year in high school. “Thank you.”
“Darling...I really wish you’d reconsider my suggestion.”
“I have, on several occasions.” The edge in my voice makes my mother wince, and I want so badly to smirk but don’t indulge my rude tendencies. Someone must act like an adult in the house.
“What’s so wrong with it?”
Finally, I meet my mother’s gaze. “It reeks of cowardice.”
“But your father—He’s not—Just wait ‘til you graduate.”
My mother sighs. “Another year can’t hurt, can it? By then my and your father’s issues—Everything will be back to normal.”
“Can’t tell that from your arguments,” I say under my breath.
I shake my head. “Nothing, Mom. I’ve got to go.”
I race across the room and out the door before my mother utters another syllable. I don’t slow as I reach the end of the long hallway and take the steep staircase to the first floor.
My father’s study sits off the living room and offers him a great view of the peach orchard beyond the spacious backyard. The study was initially a simple patio, but it was remodeled shortly after my father got a job as a pediatric cardiologist at Duke University Hospital and moved his young family to Hillsborough. He had a professional come in and decorate the room, so it reeks of determined masculinity, but it doesn’t distract from the important tasks he completes inside.
Besides my own room, I consider my father’s study the best place in the house. The dark wood paneling softens the bright sunlight the garden window allows in without making the room seem like a vampire’s lair. The lush beige carpet promises a soft, comforting experience not soon forgotten. Bookshelves cover three-fourths of the walls, all packed with books; mostly ones needed for my father’s research, but the books I loved as a child take up their own section.
As I step into my father’s study, I inhale the ever-lingering scent of the chocolate truffle coffee my father special orders from overseas. Though I dislike the taste of coffee, the familiar aroma soothes me. It reminds me of the rainy days I spent reading or drawing while my father worked. We didn’t talk much, but we didn’t need to. Unlike the rest of the household, my father and I find solace merely by being in the presence of the people we love. To chatter non-stop would ruin our joy.
The computer desk rests in the middle of the room. As always, my father sits on a massive black exercise ball; his fingers tap out a furious rhythm on his keyboard. As a child, I couldn’t understand the ball and why my father liked looking silly. Now, I recognize its benefits but still think the distinguished man just shy of sixty looks a little funny at his desk.
My father works a few moments longer before raising his head. Despite the stress of his job and the issues with his wife, his square, proportioned features don’t reveal any of it. In fact, my father appears ten years younger, closer to my mother’s age.
He nods for me to fully enter the room. He waits until I’m settled on the loveseat across from his desk before he asks, “What brings you here, Princess?”
“Daddy, I—” I catch herself. I can’t speak to my father like I usually do, not if I want him to listen to me. “We need to discuss my education. About where I’ll continue it,” I continue in the tone I use at college when I present projects.
My father’s thin eyebrows (the same as mine) rise. “Oh, is that so?” He stands, clasps his delicate, hard-working hands behind his back, and paces. “You’ve been doing so well at Harvard, though. Why do you want to leave?” His eyes, the color of bitter chocolate, pierce me. “Are you having problems?”
I want to glance away from my father’s penetrating gaze, but I know I can’t back down, not if I hope for success. “No. Everything’s gone better than I could have ever hoped.”
“So, what is it?”
“I need a change of scenery.”
I don’t tell my father a lie, but my admittance only dips its toes into the pool of truth. I hate I must ease my father into the conversation instead of just laying it before him. My father favors the more direct approach when it comes to his work, but I learned years ago my father doesn’t share the preference at home.
The suspicious glint doesn’t leave my father’s stare, but his jaw and shoulders relax. “Just bored, eh?” He scratches his clean-shaven chin. “Well, you’re young—I understand.” My father smiles. “I suppose a transfer to Stanford wouldn’t be so horrible. Unless you have somewhere else in mind?”
I stand, adjust my portfolio, and approach my father’s desk. “Yes, I do.”
My father grimaces, though smiles to show me only kids. “Let’s have it, then.”
I take two deep breaths before I say (not with the level of confidence I’d like), “I want to go to The Institute of Culinary Education.”