Inspired by a true story
Written by: Brittany Semplonius
Dad tucks his shirt into his worn-out jeans. His chest pocket exposes a pack of cigarettes. He smiles down at me.
“I love you Em,” Dad says, and he hugs me.
“Love you too Dad," I say, and I smile.
He walks to the sliding door of our apartment and gazes at the view of the city. Its been a year, and I never tire of looking out at the skyline. The sun slips beneath the buildings, reflects a burning orange onto the glass, and sets the city on fire.
I walk to the sliding door and stand next to him.
“Beautiful,” I say.
He places his arm around me.
“I’m happy you’re here, kiddo.” He kisses my forehead then steps outside for a cigarette. I watch him take a deep breath in and blow a white cloud of smoke from his lips.
Dad steps back inside. As usual, he takes out his guitar to mellow out with some tunes. He adjusts the tuning knobs and glides his fingers over the copper strings. The notes harmoniously vibrate over one another in a relaxed yet controlled sound. I hear him sing lyrics by MercyMe:
I can only imagine, what it will be like
I can only imagine, what my eyes will see
I have not heard this song since I was a little girl...
My first memory as a child was of my dad. I was living in Saskatchewan at the time, so I must have been a little older than two. It was late, and all my siblings were upstairs. My mom was supposed to be watching me as she was cleaning up from dinner but the basement stole my curiosity. The door was opened a crack. I perched myself in front it and peeked down the stairwell.
In the far corner of the basement, I saw Dad sitting at his desk. He turned in his chair and pulled out of his briefcase, an almost empty bottle of what I now know to be scotch. He poured the scotch into the glass, and the liquid began to flirt with the rim. He took a glance around the basement, but never noticed me, at the top of the stairs. He reclined in his chair, took a long sip, and smacked the glass back down on his desk. For some reason, I felt afraid. I crawled back to my mom who was washing the dishes.
Another memory I have with my dad was a few years later. I was trying to sleep but the yelling from downstairs grew so loud that my body stiffened with fear and my heart raced with panic. Seeing my parent’s fight would tie my stomach in knots. Yet, I had to see it.
I sprung out of bed and found my siblings crowded together at the top of the basement stairs, also in their pajamas. Their eyes were wide and their arms hugged their bodies, their frames slightly bigger than mine. My mom stood on the first stair. Her face was red and tear-stricken. Her blonde hair looked like she had recently been asleep on it. Her pajamas hung from her frame and her baggy housecoat messily laid overtop. I wanted to hold onto my mom’s leg for comfort, but I stood there motionless.
My dad was at the bottom of the basement steps. I could see his face from where I was standing. His face was red and his hands were shaking with anger.
“I can’t believe you sold one of my guitars! I’m working! We have money Rebecca!” Dad yelled.
“Where?! Do you store it in your empty scotch bottles?” Mom exclaimed.
“Oh, so my music doesn’t mean anything to you? To hell with it.” Dad grabbed one of his guitars and smashed it against the wall. With each hit, he yelled, “Fuck!”
I remember holding onto something, it may have been the door, it may have been one of my siblings, but I hid behind it. Pieces of guitar and drywall fell. My mom ran to him and grabbed his arm,
“Gabriel, stop!” she yelled, and tears streamed down her face.
My dad pushed her away and threw his guitar to the floor.
My mom looked up the stairs and saw that me and my siblings were watching. She rushed to us, pushing us away from the basement door and slammed it behind her.
My mom was tucking me back into bed when I heard the loud screech of my dad’s electric guitar plug into his amp. He started to yell lyrics. I couldn’t make out the words, but the smell of scotch from that night never left me. I couldn’t sleep that night.
One of my last memories in Saskatchewan began with another sleepless night. I was laying in bed. My room was dark except for the faint sliver of light seeping in from under my door, which the darkness seemed to ingest. I was holding my stuffed lady bug, Jupiter, that I had gotten from the zoo. I held her close to my chest, and I listened to the argument between my parents downstairs. I could feel the wetness from my tears dampen Jupiter’s fur. I hugged her tight and I closed my eyes.
“Emily? Are you still awake?” Alexandrine, my older sister, whispered to me from the top bunk. She snaked her hand down between the bed and wall and gently knocked on it.
I reached up and grabbed her hand, giving it a light squeeze.
“Do you hear Mom and Dad?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said while wiping my nose with Jupiter. “I wonder if Eli and William are awake.”
“Let’s go check” she said while sliding off the top bunk.
I waited for her feet to jump onto the ground before I ducked out from the bottom bunk. We slowly opened the door and saw that William, my oldest brother, had his head popped out from behind his bedroom door. His room was across from me and my sister’s. All three of us looked down the hall. We saw Eli was awake too. He was sitting at the top of the stairs, holding his knees and resting his chin on his crossed arms. We slowly emerged from our bedrooms towards Eli, avoiding all the squeaky spots in the floor. We all sat at the top of the stairs and looked down at Mom and Dad in the kitchen.
When we looked down, we didn’t know what to do.
Mom was pinned against the kitchen wall. Dad had her hair, twisted in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other.
“Another guitar is missing Becca!” Dad snarled.
“You miscounted! You’re drunk!” Mom screamed.
She gripped at her hair, trying to pry his fingers loose. She tried to grip at what was around her and at the flat surface of the countertop. Her hands squeaked against the marble. It was like nails on a chalkboard but instead, sweaty hands on polished stone. The sound sent a shudder through my body.
Fear stiffened me. I couldn’t look away. My hands gripped my body so tightly, the sweat from my palms dampened my pajamas. The next thing I noticed were three policemen walking into the kitchen. I remember seeing each man resting their hand on their gun holsters and hearing their heavy boots scuff against the floor. Me and my siblings exchanged glances with one another and quietly snuck back into our rooms. I lay in my bed, staring at bottom of the top bunk, consumed by darkness. I squeezed Jupiter tightly and shut my eyes as tears companied my cheeks.
A week passed until I could see Dad again.
We were sitting at a diner, but the police never left us alone with him.
“Order anything you want!” Dad looked up from the menu, and smiled. “Are you going to get the chocolate chip pancakes, Em?”
I nodded and scootched my bum along the red booth’s plastic seat closer to him. I looked around the table at my siblings. They were quietly looking back, holding the long yellow menus that partially covered their faces. It was strange having the police continuously peer at me. I picked up my menu too.
After eating, my dad showed us the motel he had been staying at. I peered into the room. Without going inside, I could smell the stale cigarette smoke. My eyes brimmed with tears of sadness. I missed him.
I remember when he was living at home. He would come in from work and give me a tight hug, then scoop me up, lifting me above his head, flip me upside-down and slowly walk my feet along the ceiling.
“Em! How’d you get up there!”
“Dad! It’s you! You’re lifting me,” I said while giggling.
“I’m not lifting you up! I’m trying to pull you down!” He laughed, as he tickled my tummy.
My memory melted into the darkness and my eyes readjusted to the curtain-closed room. Over the next few months, the strangeness of our visits dissolved. I began to experience comfort when with my dad because, amidst the observed visits, quiet conversation, chocolate chip pancakes, and a dark motel room, the face of my dad became familiar to me again. When he hugged me, the smell of his after-shave filled my nose, a smell that had been covered up for the last few years.
“I love you, Em,” he said, “I love you guys. I love seeing you guys.”
We all smiled back.
A few months passed until Dad came back to live with us. Mom never seemed to warm up to him. A couple weeks later I found her crying on the couch, holding some papers. I never asked her what was wrong. But after that night, I never saw my dad again.
Before he left, he gave me a tight hug and whispered into my ear, “Never forget me.”
I never did.
I look at my dad playing his guitar in our apartment. I hear him sing the lyrics:
I can only imagine, what it will be like
What my eyes will see
What will my heart feel
I realize that underneath these lyrics is a song of self-forgiveness; a redemption song. With his eyes closed, I feel the pain of the years lost between us. My heart is overwhelmed with the amount of love in his voice.
My dad looks up at me and smiles. I smile back.