“Recalculating,” said Samantha, my GPS, confused that I had performed a K turn and was heading back to Dodge, away from our stated destination. I hadn’t told her yet about our change in plans. We were seeking a cell phone signal.
“He said he missed you?” I asked Natalie.
“I’m not sure. I think so, but he was breaking up. Arghh, I don’t know what to do.”
Natalie rolled down the window and climbed half out of the car, holding her cell phone up as if it were a torch. The wind blew her long black hair out behind her. Had anyone been there to see it, she would have looked like one of those dogs that hang their heads out the car window, ears flapping in the wind; a good looking dog; a dog with a cell phone.
She returned to her seat. “I don’t know what to do,” she repeated. “I know we’re not supposed to be together,” referring to her mistaken belief that a Catholic was not a Christian and she could only be with a Christian, “but I really, really love him.”
“Don’t make the same mistake I did, honey. Don’t let the love of your life get away.”
Her eyes got wide. “Do you still love Mom?”
“No, I don’t, and that’s the tragedy. I haven’t loved anyone in a long time,” I said, gravely. “I miss it, and I don’t know how to do it anymore.”
These words, these thoughts, escaped from my mouth before I even knew that I had them. I didn’t know I felt that way. But I did.
“Oh, Dad,” was all she said, but I could see her anger towards me passed quicker than a sign passes by the side window at eighty miles-an-hour.
“Recalculating,” said Samantha again, for we had passed the intersection where she thought we should turn.
“I love you, Dad,” said Natalie.
I began to weep, a dangerous proposition at eighty miles-an-hour, even in the Great Plains, where there is little to hit. For Natalie’s sake, I didn’t want to stop. I owed it to her to drive as quickly as possible within reach of her boyfriend. I needed to finish what I had started.
I wiped the tears with the back of my hand. An unusual concoction of emotions was cooking within me. There was a mixture of determination and fear, accounted for by the hazardous driving, in addition to my ever present foundation of regret and longing. They’re a staple for me, topped with gratitude and guilt, for I didn’t deserve her love. Add a smattering of hope; it had been so long, I wasn’t sure I recognized the feeling. Blend in the smallest suggestion of ecstasy, a dash of pride in my daughter for doing what was most hard, loving with reckless generosity, and a counterbalancing dollop of shame, that I couldn’t do it.
I kept quiet while I savored this new combination of emotions. The dish had so many complex flavors. It left me with the sparkling aftertaste of wonder.
“I’ve got it,” said Natalie. “I’ve got enough bars.”
She made her call and connected with Benjamin. They talked, cautiously at first, but then her voice warmed and her utterances became more spontaneous. The waiter had cleared the plates of this splendid amuse-bouche I had just consumed and brought it a second course of jealousy. I irrationally wanted my daughter all to myself and hated this Benjamin for snatching her way so presumptively. I hated her for being so fickle as to love so much. I hated myself for hating.
“Recalculating,” repeated Samantha. We had come to what passes for a town in Western Kansas: a grain elevator, some oil pumps, and a dusty intersecting road.
How do parents do it? Sacrifice so much for so many years and then just give their child away to someone else?
I braked and pulled over by the oil pumps. I got out of the car and tried to walk away from this squalid cuisine. We all seem to have a chef in our souls, cooking up feelings. Some have a perky Rachel Ray, others a silly Julia Childs, or a jolly Prudhomme. Me, I’m stuck with a Gordon Ramsey, cussing me out and calling me a donkey.