I’d heard people say that parents become the children as they get older, but I hadn’t expected it to start when my father was still in his forties.
I was in a better mood when I got home, but not by a lot, and seeing my dad snoozing in his chair with beer in one hand and the remote in another, as if he didn’t have a care in the world, pissed me right off all over again.
“Dad! Wake up.” I stood over him frowning.
His eyes opened and he squinted up at me. “Hey, Sunshine. How was your day?”
“Shit,” I replied in a testy voice. “Absolute shit. And we have to talk about it.”
“Okay.” He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “What’s up?”
“Dad, we can’t keep doing this.” I held out my arms in what was probably an overly dramatic motion, but I was tired and frustrated.
“Doing what, exactly?” he asked.
“Living on the edge. Every damn week there’s another crisis and I can’t live this way. I don’t know what you do with your money, and I’ve never asked because you’re the dad and I’m the kid, but that ends now. What do you do with your money? You make sixty thousand dollars a year and we live in this shitty little trailer. Your truck and my car are both paid off, and I pay a good number of bills. Where does it all go?”
“Do I ask you where you spend your money?” he demanded, frowning.
“No, but I pay my share of the bills. On time, like clockwork. I work two jobs and had to forego college so I could help, and that’s okay, but I make half what you make and I’m the one making the damn sacrifices.”
“You think I haven’t sacrificed since your mother left?” he grunted, getting to his feet.
“I don’t know. Have you?” I folded my arms across my chest. “You always have beer, but when it comes time to pay the power bill, you’re mysteriously short.”
“I don’t like your tone.”
“I don’t like it either, but if you’re not going to be the adult, then someone has to and I guess that someone is me. You’re forty-eight, Dad, and we live paycheck-to-paycheck. You have nothing in savings or a 401K or anything like that. What are you going to do when I’m living on my own and you’re too old to bend over engines all day? Then what?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You have seventeen years, maybe more, until social security starts coming in, and—”
“There’s more to life than money!” he snapped.
“I know that!” I yelled back. “And I also know why Mom left. But that’s not my fault so stop trying to make me feel bad.”
We stared at each other a little too long. “Your mother left because she didn’t like being married to a mechanic. My love for her wasn’t enough. People from different worlds don’t mix. You should remember that when it comes to you and Seth. Your mom came from an upper middle-class family and when she married me, her father cut her off. She stuck around long enough for you to start school and then she moved on to greener pastures. I was never enough for her and now I guess I’m not enough for you either.” He turned and headed toward his room.
“Dad, no, that’s not what I—” I broke off as he slammed his bedroom door behind him, and I sank onto the couch, burying my face in my hands.
He was the most stubborn person I’d ever known. I loved him, and now I felt bad that I’d hurt his feelings, but the truth was, it wasn’t about being enough. I was okay living in a crappy mobile home, with a used car and buying all my clothes from second-hand stores. But we didn’t have a lot of expenses, so the fact that the two of us—and I worked two jobs—couldn’t pay the bills made no sense.
On the other hand, I hadn’t really understood why my mother had left when I was five. Now I did. It kind of made sense in retrospect, but at this point, I barely remembered her. She’d been blond and beautiful, but one thing I remembered was them fighting. A lot. And her crying.
It had been almost twenty years, but I still remembered the day she left. It was a cold day in December, and she’d dropped me off at school. She’d hugged me a long time that morning, reminding me that there was a special treat in my lunchbox and that she had an appointment that afternoon so our old neighbor, Mrs. Benson, would pick me up from school.
I’d never seen her again.
I still remembered the tears in her eyes. The way she’d told me she loved me more than anything. And then she was gone. That night was the only time I’d ever seen my father cry. After that, he’d stepped up to the plate and been both father and mother. He was at every sports, skating, and dance event. He’d taught me to play baseball, how to ice skate, and how to defend myself. He wasn’t great with advanced math and science, but he’d bartered car repairs for tutoring when I needed it. My clothes had been old, but I’d always been warm and well-fed and loved.
So the man he’d turned into in the last couple of years made no sense.
Supposedly, he was making more money now than twenty years ago, so why were we more broke? He’d saved enough for a down payment for this mobile home, saying he wanted to have something paid for before he retired so his social security would go further. Now he could barely pay the mortgage.
I was too tired tonight for any more stress, but tomorrow I was going to log into our bank account and look at everything in detail. I had my own account, but it was linked to his so I could easily transfer money back and forth. I didn’t really look at much beyond the balance, but that ended now.
“Hey, Nova, there’s kids in the back making a mess. Can you go intervene and remind them they’re in a library?” My boss, Kris, asked me.
I was in the middle of putting two huge carts of books away and she was sitting up front reading, but I had to go deal with the kids. Great.
“Sure thing.” I made an exaggerated motion of climbing down the ladder, tossed a stack of books back on the cart, and huffed toward the back.
Four kids who looked about five years old, were playing in the children’s area, their mothers deep in conversation or on their phones, completely ignoring them. Story Time was supposed to start in thirty minutes, which was also my responsibility, and these kids were regulars, but they still needed supervision.
“Guys, you need to settle down. Emma, please stop chasing Peter, and Glory, we don’t bend books that way. Remember how I taught you to take care of your books?”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Nova.” Glory’s pretty face turned down.
“It’s okay. How about you guys each find a book you want me to read for Story Time, and we’ll start a little early, okay?”
“Yay!” They immediately took off in search of books and I stared after them in amusement. I was having another bad day, but I’d never take it out on the kids who frequented the library.
“You’re so good with them,” Emma’s mom said to me. “I get so tired of chasing her all day.” She had an infant in a stroller next to her. “But Story Time is one of the few free things to do in the winter, you know?”
“I understand,” I said.
“Are you married, Nova?” she asked me.
“No.” I smiled, thinking of Seth. “But I do have a boyfriend.”
“Is he rich?”
I frowned. “No, he’s in grad school.”
“Just make sure you marry up,” Peter’s mom interjected.
“What?” I asked in confusion.
“Marry up. Not down. Meaning, marry someone a little better off than you because marrying down never ends well.”
“But doesn’t that go both ways?” I countered. “I mean, if I marry up, doesn’t that mean the guy I marry is marrying down?”
“Sure, but guys love being with a beautiful woman so they don’t care about that stuff. You have to protect yourself, you know? Trust me, I did not marry up and it’s hard. Every damn day is a struggle.”
Yikes. This was way too personal for me and I smiled politely as I reached out to take the book Emma brought me.
The day dragged and my conversations with both my dad and the moms at the library today left me unsettled. Seth and I were nowhere near ready to talk about marriage but I’d definitely be marrying up if I did marry him. Which meant he was marrying down. Was that even really a thing? I had no idea. None of my friends talked like that, but none of them were married either.
My mother had apparently married down and it hadn’t gone well. About five years ago, as a cranky, hormonal teenager about to graduate high school, I’d looked her up on social media. She was remarried and living in San Diego. She was married to some big-shot lawyer and had two other kids. And there was no mention anywhere of the daughter she’d left behind.
As if her first child, that little girl she’d told she loved her more than anything, had never existed. I’d almost sent her a nasty message but Dad had come in, seen what I was doing, and talked me off the ledge. He’d held me and let me cry it out, whispering that he didn’t know why she’d left us either. But he did know. He just hadn’t wanted to say it back then.
She’d married down.
Would Seth get tired of me in the same way? Emma’s mom said it was different for men, but was it really? Seth was going to be a big-time scientist. I had no doubt about that, and if we got married, I’d never be anything but his pretty, blond trophy wife. Would he get bored the way rich, successful men did? Was I setting myself up for heartbreak?
I was getting way ahead of myself, but I already loved him, and the last thing I needed was to get married, have kids, and then get dumped because I wasn’t smart enough, educated enough, or successful enough to keep up. Hell, if I hadn’t been good enough for my own mother to take me with her when she left, why would a guy like Seth keep me around long-term? In a few years, he’d have all kinds of women clamoring for his attention, even though he had no idea it was coming. I read a lot, but I had no real-life experience with the business world or academia. And I would never fit into his world just like my father had never fit into my mother’s. Her parents had known that and ultimately, they’d been right.
The smart thing to do would be to protect myself now. I didn’t have a future with Seth, so what was the point of letting myself get even more attached than I already was? No, the smart thing to do would be to end it now, before it was too late. It was also probably time to quit my ice dancing job and wait tables or something. Something that would bring in a lot more money. Dad was dropping the ball on pretty much everything, but I couldn’t afford to. If that meant breaking my own heart, so be it.