This story is by Fiona Gold Kroll and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
An Uncomfortable Truth
Michael’s phone pinged with a reminder to take his medication. He groaned, heaved his body upright and steadied himself on the table edge beside the sofa. His hands trembled as he rummaged for his pill bottle through old newspapers and empty food containers. He pulled a wrinkled sweater from the corner of the sofa, tugged it over his head, shuffled into the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. Michael stared at himself in the mirror, ran a comb through his thinning hair, and rubbed the gray stubble on his chin with his hand. He frowned at his reflection. Who are you? he thought.
Lisa waited at the coffee shop and checked her phone—no messages. He must be on his way, she thought. She hadn’t seen much of her father over the past fifteen years and wondered if he looked the same. Lisa’s eyes narrowed; that’s him, she thought, as she watched her father lean on his cane and cross the road. She held the door, but Michael waved her off. “I’m fine,” he muttered.
“I bought you a coffee. Something to eat?”
“No thanks, coffee is fine.”
Michael longed to hug Lisa. Too soon, he thought.
Lisa broke the silence. “You must be wondering why I asked for us to meet. You see, for years I’ve known mom’s version of why you two divorced, but to move on with my life, I need to know yours.”
Michael’s brow creased. He knew Lisa deserved to hear the truth from him. “I lied to your mom, Lisa. I lied to everyone. In the end, it became a way of life for me. I lost my job just before you were born and didn’t want to tell your mom. I stole money from her wallet and went downtown each day as though nothing had changed. I borrowed money from family and friends with a promise to pay them back, except I couldn’t. Then I got caught writing bad checks—and went to prison.” Michael paused and sipped his coffee. “After I got out, I couldn’t find work and lived in shelters. That’s where I met Rick. He’s on disability now and lives in a small apartment. He let me crash on his sofa for a few nights. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been there.”
Lisa stared at her father; she had let go of her anger years ago. But now she knew his side of the story, at least through his eyes. And for the first time, she felt empathy for him.
“Dad.” she hadn’t called him that in years. “You can’t keep sleeping on someone’s sofa; it’s not good for you.”
“Lisa, I’m fine. I’d sooner sleep on a sofa than live alone.” And as he uttered the words, Michael felt an enormous sense of relief. Finally, the truth, he thought.
“Dad, I have a good job, I can afford to help you. We can find a senior’s residence with meals and medical services if necessary. You can make new friends…”
“Lisa, I’m used to living the way I do. Rick accepts me, for the way I am. When I meet new people, they don’t know if I’m lying or telling the truth, and eventually, after I’ve conned them out of money, they throw me out, or worse.”
Michael leaned back in his chair surprised at his own words. He held his head in his hands, ran his gnarled fingers through his thin hair and looked up.
“Lisa, I don’t want to hurt you, and if I let you help me, I can’t guarantee that I won’t screw up.”
Lisa took his hand. “Dad, you realize you’ve taken a huge step today by talking so frankly with me.”
Michael’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m so sorry Lisa, I don’t know why I lie.”
Lisa wanted to hug him, but she remembered one of their weekend visits after her parents split. Michael told her mother he was staying in a hotel before he moved to an apartment—a lie. He took Lisa to get some lunch, and when they got back to the hotel, the room key didn’t work. Livid, he yelled at the clerk and manager until they threatened to call the police. Michael hadn’t paid the bill for the previous two weeks. Lisa recalled standing on the street outside the hotel sobbing, clutching a black trash bag filled with her things. Her mother picked her up, and her parents began shouting at each other until she screamed at them to stop; that was the last weekend she spent with her father. Lisa wasn’t sure if she could trust him again. But, she also knew she could no longer turn her back on him.
“Dad, we all know that you lie, but today you admitted it to me. Maybe this is where we should begin again. What do you think about the two of us going for therapy?”
Beads of perspiration formed on Michael’s forehead.
“Dad are you alright?”
“Can you get me some water?”
Lisa hurried to the counter and handed Michael a cup of cold water. He sipped it, briefly closed his eyes, and then looked at his daughter.
“I’ve been in therapy before. It didn’t work.”
“Maybe you weren’t ready. Look, we both have to learn to trust each other. We can begin by taking therapy together. Sleep on it and let me know tomorrow.”
Lisa longed to hug him goodbye but pulled back. Too soon, she thought. She walked to her car and wondered if she would see her father again. Does he want this or is he happy with his life the way it is? she wondered.
That night, Michael’s back ached, and he barely slept. In the morning he looked at the torn sofa that served as his bed. He couldn’t remember what it felt like to stretch out on a real mattress. But, he had made a decision about therapy and called Lisa.
“Hello,” her voice sounded hoarse and dry.
Michael smiled to himself and recalled Lisa as a child, running into the bedroom in the morning, throwing herself on the bed and with her warm breath saying, I love you, daddy.
“Lisa, I’ll go to therapy with you,” he said.
“Thanks, dad, I know how hard this is for you.”
Michael and Lisa met weekly with the therapist. Lisa learned about her father, even though he pivoted away from painful questions. And she discovered his body language and how it gave him away just before he spun a tale and crossed the line from reality to fantasy. But Michael understood that if he wanted an honest relationship with Lisa, it was up to him to build the trust between them; he didn’t need to lie to raise his self-esteem.
A few months later Michael and Lisa met at the coffee shop. Michael looked pallid. His frown lines looked like furrows between his bushy eyebrows, the tremor in his hand more noticeable.
“You look tired dad.”
“I’m alright, just not sleeping well these days.”
Lisa took a deep breath, “You need a proper bed.”
Michael looked at her. “I know what you’re thinking. I need to move to a senior’s residence.” He took her hand. “Lisa, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I think I’m ready.”
Lisa smiled. “It’s the right thing to do dad. I know you’ll miss Rick, but you can see him whenever you want, and you’ll quickly make new friends with the other residents.”
Michael looked down. “I’m scared, Lisa.”
“Of telling the truth?”
“Tell people as much or as little as you want about the past dad, but don’t lie. It’s as simple as that.”
They found a residence close to Lisa’s apartment. She purchased some second-hand furniture and a new double bed for Michael’s room. On moving day, Lisa picked him up along with his belongings, an old overnight bag stuffed with clothes and two plastic bags filled with toiletries, shoes, a pillow, and comforter.
Michael stood quietly in the doorway and scanned the room.
“I don’t know what to say.”
He shuffled over to Lisa, his eyes moist, arms open.
“Can I hug you?”
“I thought you would never ask, dad,” she smiled.
Michael held Lisa tight.
“You have my phone numbers. I’m just a few minutes from here. I’ll drop by tomorrow.”
Lisa pecked her father’s cheek and walked to her car. She had no illusions as to how things would work out for her father, only hope that their therapy sessions would help him face his demons.
Michael leaned his cane against the night table, climbed into bed between the cold, clean sheets and stretched his feet to find the edges of the mattress. He pulled up the comforter over his shoulders and wondered, as he drifted off to sleep if he could live up to Lisa’s expectations. This time I have to if only for Lisa, he thought as his eyelids flickered.