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Sofia’s voice was soft and gentle, with just a hint of pleading and a sprinkle of helplessness. “Please Dad? Please can you come over and fix the sink? It’s really blocked.”
I sighed, making sure it was audible enough for her to hear but not overly dramatic so she immediately realised it was pure theatrics. Sofia was twenty-seven and still had me wrapped around her little finger. I knew it and so did she. But I still offered up my usual charade of resistance.
“Fine. Give me thirty minutes.” My knees creaked as I got out of my old armchair that Sofia had recently called ‘shabby chic’ and I groaned more audibly and very genuinely this time. Thirty-five years of being a plumber with at least another fifteen to go. I wished I could fit my body with new parts the way I fitted them on sinks.
Exactly twenty-eight minutes later – time-keeping had always been a strong point - I arrived at Sofia and Glen’s ostentatious home. Six thousand square feet of over-the-top luxury in the most exclusive part of town. Sofia’s shiny, new black BMW was the only car in the driveway. Good. I wouldn’t have to put up with Glen’s constant remarks about how tough it must be to be a plumber or about how much money he’d made this year. Investment banker doesn’t rhyme with absolute wanker for nothing. I suppose at least he’d offered to pay for my new knees.
Sofia opened the door and hugged me. I caught a whiff of booze. It wasn’t the first time.
“It’s the master bathroom.”
I followed her upstairs.
“Thanks for coming.”
I nodded and started laying out my tools on a blanket, thereby protecting the gleaming marble floor. Their bathroom was almost as big as my house. What was the point? How much room did a person need to shit, shower and shave?
“So how’s Glen?”
“Fine. I think.” Sofia sighed as dramatically as I had earlier and sat down on the edge of the bath. I noticed her legs had gone from shapely to skinny, like little twigs sticking out from underneath her dress. Her face looked gaunt, dark circles framed her eyes and her blond hair hung limply around her face.
“Good, that’s good.” I busied myself with my tools, pretending I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong. Sorting out Sofia and Glen’s problems had been Sandra’s domain, but Sandra had died of breast cancer two years ago. I could hardly get a grip on my own issues as a fairly recent widower, let alone my daughter’s.
It’s funny how people thought two years was enough time to grieve. I’d been with Sandra since the tenth grade. High-school sweethearts, soul mates, call it what you will. We’d been together for over thirty years and should have had thirty more. Two years, three months and seventeen days after her death I was supposed to be over her? Fallacy.
“My knees have been really bad lately,” I offered. “I’m definitely going to have to get them done in the next few months. I’m very grateful you and Glen offered to help out with the money.”
“Hmmm… that’s good. Do you want a sandwich?”
I smiled and nodded. Sofia’s attention span had always been short, much the same as mine. Sandra had always said we were like two peas in a pod. Sofia disappeared out of the bathroom and I concentrated on fixing the sink, even though there didn’t seem to be much wrong with it and it was hardly blocked at all.
When I got to the kitchen Sofia was sitting at the table staring off into space, a blank expression on her face and an untouched sandwich in front of her.
“Hey Dad,” she half smiled. Her eyes were red and shiny and she quickly wiped them with the back of her hand. “I made you a tomato and buffalo mozzarella with pesto.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t say that bologna and cheese instead of the posh stuff would have done. We sat in silence. I ate, surprised that I was actually enjoying the flavour combination, as Sofia nursed what most certainly wasn’t her first or last glass of wine that evening.
“The kitchen looks good,” I said, looking around. “It all came together nicely.” It was a genuine compliment. I surveyed the walnut cabinets, the gleaming aluminium handles, the shiny stainless steel appliances, the smooth granite countertops and the beautiful Italian slate floor. It was a chef’s kitchen, Sofia’s dream kitchen. I just wished she actually ate what she made in it.
“Yeah,” Sofia answered unenthusiastically, pulling her cardigan around her and crossing her arms. “I guess it did. The living room’s next. Paolo has come up with great ideas.”
I noticed how her face lit up and how she blushed whenever she mentioned her interior designer’s name. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and cleared my throat.
“Do you know when Glen will be back?”
She shrugged. “He said he was working late again.” Her eyes wandered around the kitchen. “Do you think we should go with turquoise or teal in the living room?”
It was a question Sandra would have been better equipped to answer. What does a fifty-year old plumber know, or care, about interior design and colour schemes? And what the bloody hell was teal anyway? I scratched my head pretending to ponder the choice.
“Dad,” Sofia’s voice was low and she was fiddling with the stem of her wine glass, avoiding eye contact. “Can I ask if you and Mum were always happy? I mean, did you ever go through a rough patch?”
I opened my mouth and then paused. I cleared my throat again and waited a bit more. A rough patch? There had been a few. Some monumental fights about money, about me being a selfish prick and working too many hours. But nothing serious enough that took us to the point of no return, the place where we didn’t want to be together anymore. Soul mates fight but they don’t quit on each other. Although eventually Sandra’s body had quit. I still hated her for leaving me and I hated myself for feeling that way. It wasn’t something I could talk about.
“Teal,” I said finally. “You should go with teal.”
Sofia stared at me for a few seconds, then she nodded and I got up. I could tell she wanted me to stay and talk but I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready.
“I’ll see myself out. Speak to you soon.” I kissed the top of her head.
On my way out I walked past Sandra’s photo in the hallway. It was my favourite picture of her; her long, dark-brown hair blowing wildly in the wind, her head thrown back, her mouth open in a huge belly laugh and her eyes – her gorgeous eyes – sparkling like sunrays dancing on water. It was taken four years ago, before she started feeling ill, before finding the lump, before the diagnosis, before the chemo, before my wife became a shell of her former self. A time when we were recent empty nesters, enjoying every second together and rediscovering each other like a pair of horny teenagers.
Her eyes followed me all the way across the gigantic entrance. I could almost picture her shaking her head and hear her tut-tutting at my behaviour. “Don’t judge me,” I whispered. “Please don’t judge me.”
Of course I knew that Sofia wasn’t happy. You didn’t need to be a shrink to figure it out. I knew she missed Sandra just as much as I did. I knew she drank too much and ate too little. I knew she was cheating on Glen. I knew it all. And she most certainly knew that I knew it.
On the drive home I decided I’d get my new knees, maybe even go and talk to a shrink a few times to get my head sorted out. Then I’d help Sofia figure things out too. I reasoned that I’d help myself first so I could be a good father, a proper father.
Back at home I pottered around for an hour and watched a crime show Sandra and I used to love. But it wasn’t the same without her pointing out the flaws in the plot and telling me whodunit halfway through the show, when I still had no clue. I switched off the television and made myself go to bed. Sleep didn’t come easy these days. The bed was too big for one.
Early the next morning I was halfway out of the door when the phone rang. Normally I would have let the machine pick it up but something stopped me and I turned back.
“Dad? Can you come over? It’s the washing machine. It’s making a funny sound and…”
As Sofia continued talking, I closed my eyes and pictured her in my mind. There she was, the stubborn little girl who insisted on going to pre-school in a purple tutu, even though it was below zero. The gutsy ten year-old who kicked Lee Jenkins in the shins when he called her ‘stupid’. The moody teenager who always had to have the last word, another trait she had – according to Sandra – inherited from me. Sofia, the incredibly strong woman who had taken care of most of the funeral arrangements when Sandra had passed because I’d barely been able to function.
My Sofia, my daughter. She called me her hero once. There and then I had vowed I’d always go to battle for her and with her, because that’s what a father does.
“This isn’t really about the washing machine, is it?” I asked gently. In my mind, little Sofia slipped her hand into mine and looked up at me with a toothless grin and a twinkle in her beautiful eyes that were just like her mother’s.
She paused. “No, Dad, there’s nothing wrong with it. I just… I wish… Never mind. I’ll speak to you some other time.”
She was about to hang up but I wasn’t going to let her. Sorting out my knees, my own head and issues would have to wait. Being a real father couldn’t. Sandra was gone but Sofia was very much present. She needed me. It was time.
“I’ll be there in twenty-eight minutes.”
Hannah McKinnon, a 40-something British & Swiss national, and more recently a Canadian import, has been telling stories for years – but only recently started writing them down. She runs an electrical contracting business with her husband, dabbles in the art of voice-overs, and writes whenever she can. Hannah’s three boys give her plenty of material for children’s books. She recently completed her first children’s chapter book and a women’s fiction novel.
See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.