Her father was already waiting at the table when Veronica got there. The juvenile, kitschy decor of the restaurant made it look like he was sitting on doll furniture, his lanky legs barely fitting under the pastel table. The dichotomy would have been charming if not for the look on his face—awkward, hesitant, nose scrunched up and mouth twisted, perpetually unshaven and hungover.
John gave her a crooked smile as the hostess led her to the table. She realized immediately that she was overdressed. She didn’t have time to change after work, and figured that rushing back to her apartment to change before last-minute dinner plans wasn’t worth it. Now her heels clicked too loudly against the tiled ground, her skirt suddenly too constricting, her dark blazer feeling inappropriately formal. As if Veronica was begging him to notice her newfound maturity and growth, lipstick streaked across her mouth in an obnoxious declaration.
Veronica sat down across from him, looking under the table for a place to tuck her umbrella. There was none—his legs took up the entire space. Resigned and irritated, she hung it on the back of the chair. Before she had the chance to open her mouth, a waitress rolled over to them, wobbling in her flowered roller skates. Butterfly shaped menu delivered, she rattled through a list of specials before zooming off to serve a posse of pre-pubescent girls and their exhausted parents. He had already ordered her a frosty mason jar of root beer, her beverage of choice when she was six.
“How long has it been since we were here?” he asked, overly satisfied with himself for somehow remembering her favorite childhood restaurant. As if it were an impressive feat for him to recall this very familiar tableau of the two of them sitting there with their drinks, making small talk as they tapped their feet to saccharine Top 40 pop.
“I don’t know, it seems like forever,” Veronica said, forcing an obligatory smile. He shoved the sleeve of his jacket up before jerking his stubbly chin at the scar on his forearm. “I could never forget, you know, what happened.” A little dent in pale, dark-haired flesh, looking like barely even a paper cut. He had slipped on a puddle of lemonade in the restaurant and slammed his forearm on the sharp bar counter. The days after the incident occurred she used to mock him for his clumsiness, pelting him with balled-up straw wrappers, hurling insults in her squeaky, childish timbre.
“Me neither,” Veronica kept her gaze on the menu, scanning the lists of sugary confections and meals attempting to replicate the familiar taste of Mom’s cooking, fried monstrosities that could easily feed a whole family for a month.
“It still hurts sometimes,” John joked. “I get war flashbacks.” She could feel him continuing to look at her, as if he was hoping she might reply with a witty retort, a snarky quip. Instead, she waved the waitress over and asked for a salad. “Healthy,” he commented before ordering a burger and fries. The waitress walked off. “You like salad, huh?” She shrugged and took a sip of her root beer. It was so sweet she could feel it already giving her a cavity and pushed it aside. “I guess.” They sat there for a moment. She drummed her fingers against the table in uneven, sporadic thumps, glancing around the room for anything to look at but him.
“How are you?” Veronica asked, deciding to break the silence.
“Good. Great,” he told her. “Freelancing right now. Keeping things loose.”
He fiddled with the lapel on his jacket, black leather, one that looked clearly too expensive for him to own. She could see the tag, still attached, peeking out from behind his neck.
“That’s good,” she replied. “Yeah. You know how it is.”
He stared at her ID badge hanging out of her bag. She hated that photo of her. She had worn a stupid blue and green striped sweater the woman in the store convinced her to buy and her nervous sweat made her eye make up run.
“It’s for work,” she offered. “My new advertising company. Flux Worldwide.”
“What happened to Backstage Industries?” John asked. “You did that commercial for Red Bull. With the dancing matador. I loved that one. Clever as hell.”
The waitress came by with their food. He grinned a little too wide as she set the plate down. It was almost grotesque, the way he could contort his face like that. Before the divorce, Veronica’s mother used to call him Putty Man for the way he could twist his features at the drop of a hat. It was funny back then.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” he called after the waitress. The way he said it in this fake Boston accent irked her. Sweethaht. They lived in New York. He must have gotten it from someone.
“I’m a creative director now,” Veronica said. “Mostly pharmaceutical. Like drugs for rheumatoid arthritis or ulcerative colitis.”
“That’s really big,” he arched his unkempt eyebrows and nodded in approval. “You must have worked hard.”
“I did,” Veronica said, lifting her chin, a quiet display of dominance if there ever was one. But she didn’t feel like the alpha dog. She just felt stupid.
They ate in silence, him devouring the burger, her stabbing pieces of arugula and baby carrots. Between each bite he dabbed his mouth delicately with his napkin—another new habit he seemed to have picked up since she was a child. It was as obnoxious as it was jarring.
“You want one?” he asked, a limp fry dangling from his fingers, hand outstretched towards Veronica. The fries there, she remembered. When she was younger she ordered them with everything, no matter the time of day. Fries with waffles, pancakes, eggs. She probably inherited her affinity for them from him.
“Come on, you have to balance out the salad with something a little greasier.”
Too greasy, she thought, as she looked at the fry, then back up at his eyes. His waning attention span. The fry lost its delicious appeal and she cast her gaze back down to her salad. She could feel him still looking at her, but she poked a tomato until he got the message and looked away.
“I know this is weird,” John said finally. “I know this is awkward. I wanted, well, needed to talk to you about something.” He cleared his throat. “I’m not going to die or anything, don’t worry. I don’t have cancer or something. God. None of that, none of that.” An uncomfortable laugh burbled from his lips. He was nervous. “Uh, do you remember Mindy?”
Veronica did remember Mindy. She was a nurse from Boston, who had dated Veronica’s dad and come to her college graduation party with a gift—a bull filled with tequila. She wasn’t particularly notable with the exception of her constant drunken proclamations that the Red Sox were far superior to the Yankees and giving Veronica a gift card to Bath and Body Works as “a little something on the side.”
“Sure,” Veronica said.
“Well, things have gotten pretty serious between me and her, I mean, we’ve been living together for a couple of years now, and, you know, I really like her,” he said. That surprised Veronica. She didn’t even know that they were still together.
So that explained the grating accent.
“She’s a really special woman. And, uh, I think I want to ask her to marry me,” he stared at Veronica expectantly. She looked away, waved the waitress over, and asked for coffee. Black. She could still feel the residue of the root beer on her gums, lingering like a sugary plague.
“Aren’t you going to…” his words trailed off. “I mean, are you okay with it?”
“Yeah. I don’t care who you marry,” Veronica said, even though she obviously did. She was sweating underneath her overpriced pencil skirt, drops rolling down her ass and thighs.
“Well, you don’t seem to happy.”
“I really don’t care. I just don’t understand why you’re telling me this,” she fanned the back of her neck and smiled coldly, wondering if there was spinach wedged between her teeth.
“Because you’re my daughter, Veronica.”
“And I want you to be there. Because Mindy will be your stepmother.”
“Jesus, Ronnie,” he leaned forward on the table, his breath smelling like cigarettes and ketchup, “you’re really not being very receptive.”
“You haven’t seen or spoken to me for five years.”
After a pause, he shrugged so nonchalantly it almost made Veronica’s blood boil.
“Five years. Ten if you don’t count half-assed, forced get-togethers after you and mom split,” Veronica reiterated in a deliberately condescending tone. “I’m just confused what your game plan is here.”
“No game. No plan. I just want you at the wedding.”
“You text me for the first time in forever. We meet up at my favorite childhood restaurant because you want to build some sort of connection or something we haven’t had since I was a child. And you spring this on me, and I’m supposed to be, I don’t know, shitting out rainbows?”
“I thought you said you didn’t care.”
“I don’t care,” Veronica smiled placidly. “I don’t. I’m just saying your expectations are absurd. I don’t care what you do.”
The waitress came by with her coffee. She drank it so quickly it burned her tongue, but didn’t stop until she had drunk the whole thing. John was still looking at her.
“Okay. Why did you come?” he asked. “I’m not holding you hostage or anything. I didn’t think that you would come—you are right, we didn’t talk for a long time. You are right. So why did you come? Why did you even make the effort?”
The table of girls next to them erupted in peals of squealing, scratchy laughter. The shortest one wearing a cheap plastic tiara had shoved two french fries in her mouth so she looked like a pink, glitter-dusted walrus, and her friends were hysterical. The mother smiled apologetically at John, the kind of knowing smile reserved for some sort of secret parental understanding, and he smiled back. Everyone except Veronica seemed to think he was the father of the year.
“I don’t know,” Veronica tore her gaze away from the sickening exchange. “Maybe I was bored.”
“That’s not true,” he said so confidently that it almost made Veronica sick. A loud crack of lightning made them both jump. It started raining outside, the sky just shifting to an ominous gray.
The table of girls scuttled out, plastic rain coats draped over frilly dresses, shielding their tiaras from possible damage.
“How do you know that?”
“I know you.”
Veronica laughed joylessly into her empty coffee cup. She had half a mind to order another one, but her tongue was still singed. And, besides, she didn’t want to be in the restaurant for much longer. “You don’t know me at all.”
“You’re my daughter, Ronnie.”
“Not anymore,” Veronica said. John blanched. Veronica looked at him for a moment, with that scar on his bicep, his unshaven chin. Memories flitted through her brain—them sitting at that table with their beers (root for her, real for him), her too short legs dangling off of the seat, and them sharing a smile or a laugh, all with a hazy pink tint. These vignettes were as hard to digest as they were fleeting.
It was a pretty harsh thing to say, and she knew that, but it still felt good. Normally she would keep dramatic proclamations like that bottled up inside her, deep down, until she until she was shaken too hard and exploded. This felt healthy.
“And don’t call me that. I hate it.”
“No,” she said. That too. “Ronnie. I haven’t been Ronnie that since I was a little girl.” She could see him formulating a response in his mind, something sappy and sweet, like, you are still my little girl. But in her pencil skirt, heels, obnoxious lipstick and expensive purse that cost more than her rent, she wasn’t little, not all. He paused and she could tell that he finally understood that too.
“Look, I should get going,” she scrounged around in her purse for some cash, something extra to give the waitress for suffering through all the melodrama. “I have work later.”
“I’m sorry that this didn’t go better,” he said, pitifully.
“I’m sorry too,” Veronica said, meaning it, and tossed a handful of dollar bills on the table. “Let me get you a cab,” he jumped up.
“I can get one myself, it’s fine.” Wrapping her thin blazer around her, she headed to the door.
Within seconds of stepping outside she could feel herself slowly getting soaked. The streets were chaotic as people fled into shops and buildings to escape the torrential downpour. She could hear John behind her, stomping boots squelching with each feverish step.
“Don’t call me that!” Veronica turned around. She could feel her mascara running in thick, black rivulets down her cheeks. “I told you not to call me that.” She saw a cab race by, then another one. At this rate she’d never get home.
“You know I care about you a lot, right? Because I do. I care about you so much, and I know I was, I am, a shitty father. I am a shitty father. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Veronica had always been able to tell when her father was being sincere. It was a skill that she had perfected over the years and had become remarkably astute about. And right then, she could tell that he was being entirely sincere. She wished that he wasn’t. It would have made things easier.
“I messed up. Big time, I know,” he said, wiping his sopping cheeks. “And, I just really want to make things right with you. Because I act like a dick and I’ve acted like a dick for a long time, and it isn’t fair to you. So I want to make things right. I want to make things right, I want to make things okay between us.”
“Things are okay,” Veronica said.
“They aren’t okay.”
“It’s okay. We’re okay,” Veronica said again with all the finality she could muster.
“I want to be more than okay, Ron—I mean, Veronica—I want to fix things-”
“What do you want me to say?” Veronica said. “You cut me out of your life when I was a child because of your issues with Mom. You made me feel alone—and I had Mom, but Jesus Christ, it was still pretty damn rough knowing that your dad was alive yet, by the way that he never called or visited you, it would be easy to assume that he was dead.
John stood there, disheveled, his tag-still-on jacket ruined. His matted dark hair was plastered to his face, water dripping down his cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. It was a long time ago.”
They stood there for a moment, gazing at each other. A cab pulled up next to her, and a bachelorette party stumbled out, drunk off their asses. She watched as they made their way down the sidewalk, protecting blow-outs from the rain with folded gossip magazines and fur coats.
The last of the bridesmaids, lonesome in her path, had nothing to cover her head and ducked under store awnings as she made her way down the sidewalk, wobbling precariously in heels too high. The scene was too similar to what Veronica was sure would come.
“I have to go,” Veronica got inside the cab and shut the door. John walked over to the window, and she rolled it down, a gust of cool air entering the warm car.
“Will you come to the wedding?” he asked.
The cabbie regarded the exchange with a cool, noncommittal gaze, and Veronica envied him terribly.
“I don’t know,” she said truthfully.
“That’s okay,” John said.
“I know,” Veronica said. He smiled in a way so sad, Veronica almost wanted to get out of the car and embrace him. Press herself against him, let him cradle her like she was little again, let all of the pent-up shit and anger and hurt wash away with the unrelenting rains and winds and cavity-inducing root beer she had discarded.
Maybe if she did submit to that hug, wave her white flag, she wouldn’t hurt as much as she did.
But Veronica knew clearly, that even if everything hurt less, it wouldn’t just wash away.
Even with storms like these.
Zoe Nelms is a seventeen year-old author and playwright. She has been published on Hypernova, Ellipsis, ParallelInk, and Paradox Magazine. She is currently writing her musical BFF for production in the fall of 2018.