Every morning, you wake up and see your mother in the mirror.
Your fingers tug through her knotted hair, which is more auburn instead of sunset orange. Your cheek bones are not quite as high as hers, nor is your chin quite so narrow. The nose is all properly proportioned, small and just round enough. You wiggle it as the foul stench of your breath wafts free of its calcified prison. Your teeth are white and, you like to imagine, not slightly off center down the middle despite seven years with braces. They are covered by a thin, fleshy-pale pair of lips and her eyes – they are exactly her eyes.
The sour taste lingering on your tongue grows stronger and you spit into the sink, turning away from the mirror. You shower, dress, wistfully ponder that maybe your breasts have gotten bigger, before frowning and squeezing on an unflattering button up shirt you haven't worn in years. Slacks come next and you fit on the long, faded red coat that once belonged to her. After all these years, the faint whiff of cognac still stains the inner left lapel. You take a brush to your hair, throw some makeup on because you're feeling not-ugly, and stand before the mirror again, the image complete.
She stares back, and smiles.
"Good morning, mother," you say and, after another breath, she nods you off. You say it in German, like you have every morning since you were six.
Downstairs, Madame Sophie is at the stove, a cigarette hanging precariously from her lower lip and her round, half-lidded eyes fixed on a small T.V. set she occasionally curses at when the football players do poorly. One hand has a glass of wine that tips near to spilling – Madame always begins her day with a bit of moscato – and the other shivs a pan of eggs tiredly.
While not large, the house is not a poor one in Le Marais and you find a quirky bit of charm in the rough, and often dirty, wooden floors complimented by oppressively low and vaulted ceilings. Particularly in your room, which used to belong to Sophie's daughter. She's long since moved out, a filmmaker in Ireland. The lot is shared by two other tenants, both of them nurses and both of them rarely seen, which is fine by you. Sharing space with others was the very reason you couldn't live on campus, as you've never really gotten along with other women and, as luck would have it after three failed roomings, found Sophie's ad in the local paper.
She gave you the space nearly on the spot, if only because you were not a boy like the nurses, since she has never much liked young men and thinks herself lucky for never having any. The house is not often tidy, which is familiar and comforting in a country so unlike your own, though the walls and pillows lack the distinct smell of hops you didn't realize you'd become accustomed to until you couldn't taste it in the air. Sophie hasn't been married for nineteen years and proudly claims as much whenever there is an ear to hear it.
"And I wouldn't have a care in the world how they do things in the East – I ain't your Ma'! You'll do your own laundry and cook your own food!" she'd said your first night in. So you took to calling her Maman, because she is bristly around the edges, but secretly enjoys your presence, as it makes her feel, in part, that her daughter is still home.
"Salut Maman!" you call, thundering down the stairs.
"Earlier than usual, girl," she says, with a glance and a puff of nicotine. "What mischief are you up to?"
"No mischief. Today is my soutenance," you say, taking the pieces of buttered toast she has left out and pretended is not for you. She huffs, smoke shooting from her nostrils, and making you think more of a weary dragon than a burnt out mother.
"Wish me luck," you say, heading for the door.
Sophie lifts her glass. "Santé!"
You fast-walk down Rue Rambuteau, struggling to fight the tantalizing smell of fresh crepes baking along the sidewalks, and board the metro. Exactly on time. It takes you under the Seine, the racketing of the rails allowing your lethargic neurons focus, honing each thought into a worry which builds into a gnawing buzz that has you fidgeting in your crowded seat.
Place Monge is packed with other students like you as you disembark, the streets livelier than they were just across the river. The buildings you pass are mingled with the old and new. Each one, in its own way, a representation of the fluid nature of the city. Each one the face for a work of art given firm, physical form in blocks of concrete or statues in place of pillars.
As you reach campus, you can see the chimney stacks of Palais du Luxembourg in the distance, just beyond its expansive garden. The green of its trees seem to glow the more you look, imparting their energy to you. Their spirit and confidence.
Today is your soutenance. Today you defend your thesis. You'll make her proud today. As you walk, you wonder how she must have felt when she defended her thesis, back at MIT in America. Whether or not she had butterflies too. You dismiss the notion in the same moment. She was a prodigy, your mother, and her intellect is something that your professors are all too fond of quoting to you. If your own temper is anything to go by, you know she had at least done her fair share of hair pulling to get there.
Then you see him, curly brown hair and all.
You see Luc, sitting on the steps to the library, wearing a thoughtful frown you didn't know you liked so much until just now. As if sensing you, your presence and the intensity of your gaze, he looks up – finding your eyes. You are caught, trapped, and flinch. His chin lifts, large lips that might be nice to kiss parting, maybe to call out to you. But you can't keep his eyes, shame reddening your cheeks as you turn away and continue your march. The further you get, the more your embarrassment grows, and the weaker your mind becomes to the memory of the night you spent in his bed.
You'd picked him up on a whim at a bar with friends, emboldened by a bit of liquor. The girls with you tried to warn you away, since he was joining the Grande Armee soon, but you thought that was perfect. Really, though you didn't know it at the time, it made him all the more attractive. Either way, he would make a fine lay and you could forget all about him the next day.
You marched up to him and his little group, and made a fool of yourself stuttering about thermal expansion in relation to breasts. His kind, almost sad eyes, made your stomach quiver. You'd never been this nervous before. But he gave a nervous laugh back, and that was better than nothing. His friends soon dispersed, leaving him stranded, and then he was all yours. You got to talking, and even convinced him to dance with you. By then, you'd had quite a bit more to drink and the night blurred until you were at his apartment. He'd figured out what all this was by then. But something happened to you.
The drinks wore away at your barriers, the ones you erected to keep your thoughts from drifting and sifting up old memories. For the first time in a long time, you thought of your father.
You thought of how you'd abandoned him in that terrible clinic, a place you once thought he more than deserved to be. How scared you'd been of going to another country, all by your own and with no one who even spoke the same language. You'd been acting the adult for so long, taking care of yourself because your father couldn't. But that was the first time you were truly alone.
You turned into a sobbing mess on Luc's bed, half-naked. He didn't ask you questions, or tell you to leave or anything else. He just took you in his arms, and you realized all you really wanted was to be held.
In high school, you used to promise boys you'd do whatever they liked, leaving the implications for them to imagine, if only they'd go out with you. If only they'd look at you. Most never did, because most could see right through the act you wore like a second skin – and you laughed it off to take away the sting. Other boys, who were more willing and more easily drawn along by their lust, you made out with behind movie theaters and let them touch you if it was dark. But you never let them undress you. Never let them explore you bare, because you were frightened they would not want you after they were done. Or that they would see you for the sad, lonely little girl you really were.
Luc had seen that broken little girl, without her armor, and you are too frightened of that to face him again. Why did you have to see him today, of all days? You're standing in front of the assembly hall now, frozen inches from the door.
The walk there all seemed so easy, but now that you've arrived, the confidence has slipped from your step and the energy all but tumbled from your gait. The gurgle in your stomach, for a rare, weak flash, makes you think of your father and the heat of his hand touching your fevered forehead, stealing away some of the burn. You wonder what he's doing now, if he's still at the institution, if he–
You stop, purge him from your thoughts. You are your mother's daughter. You are fierce and brave and proud. You can't disappoint her. With a deep breath, you take hold of the handle and swing the door open.
The hall is empty, save for a table occupied by three bodies. The committee consists of two men and one woman, the former with black and brown suits respectively, while the latter wears lavender. Their flat expressions do not shift as you enter, critical eyes following you and judging every step you take to the podium.
They stare at you, and you stare back.
How many hours did you spend in your room, sitting with your thesis in your lap, running the introductions over and over in your mind? Honed the words until they had a sharp, powerful edge? A refined elegance? After all that time spent in front of the mirror, testing your own voice until you hated the sound of the words mudding out of your mouth. After all that, how did you forget every single line?
The woman clears her throat, pen tapping impatiently on the desk, and you realize you're supposed to be speaking. But your brain is still empty and not a single forethought will come to mind. You're sure they can hear the wind echo in one end and out the other.
Stalling for only another few terrible, long seconds, you start to read, and pray you're prepared for questions. You are sure there has never been a more blurting, awkward, stuttering opening, and really you want to die right then and there. Burst into flames until there's just a miserable little pile of ashes. At least then you'd be spared humiliation.
You are far too nervous. Your belly is trembling and your hands won't stop shaking. They ask you questions, and you manage not to stammer your answers. When they are done, the woman asks you to leave the room so the committee can deliberate.
You sit in one of the mahogany chairs by the door, opposite a grandfather clock. The ceilings are low, but the morning light coming in and warming the cream-white marble floor makes it seem less like they are pressing down on you.
Still, a hand dives in your purse and you consider taking an anxiety pill or two anyway. The bottle is in your hand, capsules clattering together. You haven't had one in six months. You know you don't really need them, but sometimes you feel weak. That's what made you realize just how much like your father you were becoming back then, and you vowed to quit drinking on the spot. Much like him, you found it an easy promise to break.
Some of the most vivid memories you have of him are when you were fourteen, trying to bring him into the land of the sober again:
Empty pill bottles scatter his nightstand and the stains in the sheets tell you he was sweating, even though he's never kept the AC higher than 68. The blinds are down and draped with blackout curtains. Clothes are tossed about and though the place feels warm, it's a hot, unwashed sort of stink that encloses you.
"Dad, come on, I have to go to school," you remember saying, shaking his shoulder gingerly, and hoping he wouldn't wake in a rage.
He jerks up and you flinch.
"Asuka?" he whispers and takes your breath away with just a word. In just a word he tells you a story about a woman he loved so deeply he drinks himself to oblivion and gets high off pain killers because life without her is just too difficult to bear. In your father's eyes, you see hope and loss and it scares you stiff.
His hope becomes bitter when he realizes it's just you. Though you are the spitting image of your mother, you are not her, and it earns his resentment – if only for a moment. At least until he hugs you, latches onto you as if you might float away into a dream. You hug him back, but you don't know what to say. There is nothing you can say, and it makes you want to cry when he hurts so much. But, sometimes, you hate him too. Aren't you enough to soothe his pain? Don't you make him happy?
In the end, you don't cry. You are not allowed to shed any tears. You must be an adult.
One of you has to be.
Into the shoulder of your uniform, he rubs his cheeks as if he's wiping away sleep and not the residuals of tears, putting himself back together as he rises and slides his knotted shoes on.
You remember those many birthdays ago, when he always tried so hard to give you everything you wanted. But your family was a poor one and your father so often hid away from the world. He could just barely afford to keep a roof over your head, let alone spoil you with extravagance. You have hazy memories of birthday nights in your dirty kitchen, helping make the cake he'd set some money aside for. Though he put on a brave face for you, you could feel his guilt, and knew it was all he could do not to break down in shame.
He could have bought you the Taj Mahal. He could have gifted you a herd of pure, white-maned horses or a handful of emeralds or the millions of other things childish girls dream of. None of it would have mattered without the one gift he always gave you.
All you wanted, all you looked forward to every year on that day, was a little card he surely spent at least an hour deliberating over at the grocer's. Christmas morning, when he was gone for work, he left it for you at the kitchen table. On the front was some superfluous Happy Birthday or another, scribbled with some pretty message. It didn't matter what it said. Glitter fell over your hands when you opened it and in his sloppy print the card read: LOVE DADDY – and it made you smile the whole day through.
That night, when he put you to bed, he'd sit next to you and brush his fingers through your hair and tell you the story of how he and mama first met, right up until you fell asleep.
You still recall how much you ached, how betrayed you felt when he was sent to jail. How angry you were at everything. Though you tried to be strong for him, to be his brave little girl, some nights you sobbed into your pillow until it was soaked all the way through.
Even when he came back, still they tried to keep you apart. You were so frightened, more than you'd ever been, when he and Misato screamed and fought in the kitchen.
"You have no right to take her away from me!" he shouted, loud enough to shake the walls and wrestling her for a phone, a number half dialed.
You ran to latch onto him.
You cried and pleaded for him not to leave again because you don't like how empty the house sounds even though Misato sleeps in the next room and all you can think about is how much you miss your mama and the only thing that makes it go away is having your daddy there; even when he drinks and yells at you. It's okay as long as he doesn't leave you alone.
Please don't leave me.
The world stopped, and the only sound was your pitiful squeaks as you rubbed at tears. The anger melted away, and he sank to his knees to fold you in his arms and make you safe. "Please don't cry, my little girl. My little Mirai…" he said, choking on the words. "If you cry, then daddy'll cry too… please don't cry."
But he did cry, and you held each other there on the floor, because that was all the two of you had in the world. You are daughter to Shinji Soryu. Eva pilot, Angel War vet, though he has never been any of those things to you. He was just your daddy, and that was all you ever needed him to be.
As you grew older, the more you listened to the other kids talk, parroting their parents. How their hawkish eyes watched you down the hall and their whispers chased you when they thought you were out of earshot. He'd stopped drinking so much by then, but only because he'd found the pills worked better and didn't make him so angry. Sometimes you came home to find him on the couch or at the kitchen table, drool hanging from the side of his mouth, his body so still he might have passed for a corpse.
It drove a wound in your heart every time. When you needed him to be awake, to listen, to be overbearing or to just be around. He was never there. It tore you open when the boy you gave yourself to, the one you'd built a future with in your head, left you behind. Said he was joining the Navy, and dumped you at the hockey rink when you said you didn't want to end up some withered, broken down military wife. Really, you were just scared of the unknown, of being abandoned again. But in the moment, all you could do was hate and hurt because you felt your love was being spurned, as it had been so many times before.
"I wish it'd been you," you whispered, glaring at the shadowy form of your father passed out in bed, the venom in your words foreign. "I wish you'd died instead of her."
You would never say it to his face. As much as you dreamed of it, played out the fights and tears in your head, you weren't sure if you could stomach breaking him like that.
He liked to take baths in the evenings. Close his eyes and submerge himself under the water as pockets of air trickled to the surface. One night, you found him soaking up to his neck in red water, listless as it spilled to the floor and warmed your toes.
"Congratulations, Doctor Soryu."
You look up, and standing there with a smile is the woman in purple, holding out a hand to you. For a second, you are jarred stupid – and then shoot to your feet, snatching her hand and shaking harder than is warranted. The woman laughs, setting a hand on your shoulder when you start to tear up a bit, and giving it a soothing squeeze.
You walk with her for a time as she discusses some minor revisions that must be made to your thesis, as you always expected. Much as you made a fantasy of it, you knew you could never have been your mother and swept the committee off their feet. You are proud all the same.
The committee woman schedules a time and café to meet at for coffee, to plan a small reception in recognition of your success. You hope there is more enthusiasm in your answer over this than you feel. There are not so many people you have to invite. To say a handful would be generous.
Avoiding the main courtyards this time, you find a secluded place in the Luxembourg gardens, eyeing a novice painter as you mull over the revisions on your laptop. Still, not for a moment has your mind left that hospital room.
After several hours with the intensive care unit, at last they'd let you see him. He was so pale, and the EKG, somehow, made his heart sound unbearably weak, like each chirp might be its last.
You begged him not to leave you, like when you were eleven. Cried that you were sorry about all the things you'd said, and that you'd take it all back if only he would open his eyes and look at you. Even though it was impossible for him to have ever heard you and all the nasty, vile wishes you made. Somehow this felt like it was your fault.
You didn't really want him to die.
When you crumbled at his bedside, losing hope, that was when his fingers wove into your hair. You jerked at the contact, and met his eyes. His hand fell and you didn't think you had ever seen your father as vulnerable as he was then. His fright and pain, for once, wasn't focused inward. As his eyes tracked you, like he was seeing you for the first time, you knew it was all for you.
And that was when you realized you couldn't live like that anymore.
You made a decision. Misato helped you with the paper work while he slept, told you which forms to signs and who to give them to. You felt so justified then, so powerful. After all these years, you were finally taking control of your life. You knew you couldn't be the woman you wanted, go to the schools you needed to achieve those lofty aspirations while shackled to your father. A man who couldn't stop hurting himself.
You scraped together every scholarship and grant you could, and essentially earned yourself a free ride through college. You did not visit your father in the hospital again, nor when he was transferred to the rehabilitation institution. You knew if you did, then your resolve would weaken and you would stay. He had tried to leave you, after all. You held on tight to that resentment. It was the only thing that could move you forward, and you haven't looked back since.
Well, here I am. You think, standing in front of Maman Sophie's door. Home.
Your mother is there to greet you in the bathroom, her hair a bit disheveled, her mascara smeared some. She smiles at you, tired, but proud.
"Goodnight… Doctor Soryu."
The floor is colder than usual as you change, a damp chill creeping forth with the crawl of night. Voices from Sophie's T.V. whisper their way upstairs. Every now and then you hear the creak of wood or the muffled sounds of movement from the other two lives occupying the household. Close, but separated and insular. Your room is shrouded in shadows, but flickering beyond your lone window are all the lights of Paris.
Staring at you as you slip into bed is the plush tabby cat you won from a claw machine ages ago. It's the one piece of home you really took with you, and still smells a bit like dry, sawdust cedar. Your dad lost an embarrassing amount of money once trying to win it for you at a festival. This isn't the same one, since you'd found another much later, but the memory makes you smirk. It's soon swept away the longer you lie there, every minute another memory spent in your old house.
You recall what Luc's hand felt like that night in his room, combing over your hair, and think of it as your father's hand instead. Even though you can't see him, you feel his body near and you feel the love in the smile he's surely wearing, sitting at your bedside.
"Sleep tight, baby girl," he says, and for a heartbeat, you are not so grown up.
You pull the stuffed tabby cat close and, curling under the covers, squeeze your eyes shut. There in the dark, too soft for even you to hear, you say, "Goodnight, daddy."