I sighed watching my daughter trudge up the stairs to her room. Her shoulders were slumped and her usual scowl was on her face. Look at her-she's miserable. She's always looked sad but lately she's been worse—the little lady's been moody, depressing and quiet. I flick off the TV. Watching her has made me too depressed to see the rest of the Wheel.
I know what it is—that football-headed orphan finally got to her. Finally broke her in a way she'll never repair. Now don't get me wrong, I like Alfred, he's a good kid. But he's always had this control over my girl that he's never known what to do with. She's different when he's around. She pretends more, second guesses herself more. But she also smiles more, laughs more. I hated it.
But a few months ago that all changed. No one told her that even with a Master's degree she wouldn't find a job easily. She was more than a little upset when she had to move back home after college. I didn't mind though. I like having her close. At least she wasn't like some people who I had to push out when they turned 30. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the girl. Well, a few months ago she came bursting through the door with a goofy smile on her face humming and dancing without music. Patakis don't dance, so I knew something was wrong. I thought she was sick, or just got paid, but when the happiness didn't go away after a few weeks I thought of the only person I knew could put that strange perma-grin on her face—Alfred.
It was nice seeing her happy. Nice and weird. Hell yeah was it weird. It was like living with an alien. And there was more than one occasion where I caught her sneaking in. It was hilarious. Imagine a grown 23-year-old tiptoeing around at 2 in the morning to avoid creaky floorboards. And when she was caught she would stand still as a statue and blink up at me like she was some sort of hologram or ghost.
I wonder how she got from there to here. I admit, I haven't been the best or most observant father. I missed birthdays, graduations and school plays. Sue me, I'm human. I just never knew how to relate to her. My other daughter, Olga, was so different. She needed me, needed validation. Helga never needed anything. A man needs to feel needed. But even I could tell my little lady was hurting.
I had a good feeling it was something she did, or something she stopped herself from doing. That Alfred kid wouldn't hurt a fly and Helga wouldn't be so mopey if he hurt her. Hell, he wouldn't be alive if he hurt her. But it wasn't like I could ask her what happened.
I make it a point to stay out of my kids' relationship business. I don't want to know boyfriend's names. As far as I'm concerned if they aren't engaged, their relationships don't matter. And if losers were too dumb to realize how to hold onto my amazing girls, it was their dumb loss, not my girls'.
Something's got to give though. I can't take any more of that depressing music and Miriam's advice to just let things take their natural course has got to be the stupidest thing anyone has ever asked me to do. But I listened to my wife—for a few days. A fat lot of good that did. I still hear her cry herself to sleep. The girl's still completely miserable.
I've got to do something.
I grab my coat and head towards the boarding house before good sense sets in.
The walk isn't so bad and the place looks the same as it always has. Even with old man Shortman and his wife passing on and leaving the place to their prodigal son and stepdaughter, it looks like it did when I was a kid. I'm going to let you in on a little secret—I had a horrible childhood. My old man was a tyrant and told me I would never amount to anything. My mom just let him do whatever he wanted. So when we got into knock down drag out fights, I would often 'run away' to the boarding house. Phil always left a cot empty for me and when things were particularly bad he would let me help him and Miles with DIY projects. Even when I ribbed the older couple as I got older (I know I said some asshole things) I admired them and the way they stepped up and raised little Alfred when Miles and Stella couldn't. I was real cut up when I found out about Phil and Gertie's deaths.
Enough about me. No one wants to stick around and hear me wax poetic about 2 dead stiffs when I got a daughter to make happy.
Miles greeted me when I knocked on the door. After the kids found him and Stella in the jungle 13 years ago, he'd been adjusting to living back at the boarding house. When Phil left he took over everything until his mom died shortly after. He wanted to get a fresh start somewhere else and I can't blame him. But he didn't want to muddy little Alfred's life with more instability so they stayed. I should thank him because my little lady was so upset about the possibility of the football headed boy leaving that I had to force feed her for days to make sure she didn't starve. Miles looked a little confused and protective when I asked to talk to his son. Can't says I blame him. I have been an asshole to the boy. From the way Miles threatened me before leaving me alone with his son, it's hard to believe we were friends once upon a time.
I took a minute to look at the boy. He used to be a shrimp but now he's taller than me. His hair's a mess and the dark circles under his eyes match my Helga's. Plus he looks like he's been punched in the gut and lost his best friend all in the same day. I shook my head. Look at this dopey awkward kid. I'll never know what she sees in him but if this'll make her happy, make her stay, I'll try it.
"Mr. Pataki. I don't mean to be rude but why are you here?"
Damn, I really should have thought about what I was going to say. "I need to talk to you about Helga."
His eyes started darting all over and he looked really anxious. I thought he was on pot until he spoke up.
"What happened to her? Is she okay?"
"No she's not okay and neither are you. You're miserable, she miserable. I can tell that you care about each other. Why don't you just tell her how you feel boy? Why aren't you fighting for her?"
"I told her I love her and wanted to build a life with her and do you know what she did? She ran away. Told me she couldn't do this anymore. She threw me away-threw us away Mr. Pataki. I don't know if I have any fight left in me. I'm not sure she wants me to love her."
This was all my fault. I should have known all those years of regret would bite me in the keister. I had to make this right. "Blame me."
"Blame me. The reason she ran away was because of me. I was a lousy father and I never showed her how to love. I never told her it was okay to be in love, to trust someone else. It's something she had to learn on her own. She doesn't think she deserves your love. But she has a good heart and if you give up on her now it will be your loss and not hers. If you walk away then you don't deserve her." I walked over to him and gave him a pat of encouragement. "Hang in there Alfred and don't give up on her, she'll come around."
Then I slipped out the door before things got mushier. I don't like to talk about my feelings. We Patakis like to sweep things under the rug where they belong. Talking about my feelings made me itchy. I hoped that dopey kid took my advice and fought for my little girl, but only time could tell now.
I tried to hide my smile a few days later when I saw her bags lining the porch. I pretended to be shocked when she told me she was getting married and showed me the ring. I nodded as Alfred carried her bags to his truck. But the icing on the cake was when my little girl smiled and hugged me tight, thanking me for everything. If I wasn't so strong I might have cried a little. I know you wimps would have. I nodded at Arnold (apparently I had been calling him the wrong name the whole time, who knew?) when he bent over and kissed my little lady's cheek. I knew those kids were going to make it.