I never liked my dad. I mean, sure, I loved him. Heck, I did more than love him: I idolized him. I thought he was a god. I mean, well, he kinda was. I just never liked him.
Wait. That’s not true, not exactly.
I was about 7 years old. I’d been playing on the old bridge that crossed the stream on our property. We always called it a stream, but at some point I realized it was really more of a small river. And Dad had told us not to play on the bridge, that it was dangerous. Not that any of us needed to be told that—everything about the bridge, from the rusted girders to the rotted planks, screamed “danger.” That’s probably why all of us—well, almost all of us—played on it as often as we did…although, of course, rarely together.
Anyway, I was on the bridge one day, marching back and forth, pretending I was playing the bass drum in a marching band. I was in the zone I sometimes got into when I was really deep into a story in my own head, otherwise I would have known better than to do that there—I mean, even for a 7 year old, it was really stupid. But the rhythm, the sound of my feet stomping on the wood, those thumps, so satisfying, the way the sound echoed off the water below…it all sent me right into what was basically a trance.
I snapped out of it the moment my foot broke through the board. As I fell, I reached out to grab something, anything, but the other planks all snapped, virtually shattered, as I tried to grab them. As I tumbled, I heard a klang and realized a moment later it was the sound of my head hitting a girder.
The water was cold—it was always cold. It woke me up a little, but not as much as you’d think, probably because of just how hard I’d hit my head on the beam. The shock of the cold sent my pulse racing, but it was also like getting hit in the chest: it froze my muscles. I was dizzy from hitting my head and couldn’t get my bearings, had a hard time figuring out which way was up. Then I realized I was upside down, but I couldn’t right myself—for some reason, I could look past my feet to see the surface of the water, could see, dimly, the wavy sun up above, but I couldn’t reach it. Later, I found out it was because one of my feet was still stuck through the board—and it was a big plank and of course it floated, so I couldn’t get back to the surface, back to air.
The sun started to dim and I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I was wondering why my dad wasn’t there to save me, the way he saved so many other people, and knew, just knew, that was exactly why he wasn’t: he was off somewhere, saving someone else, and not his son. He wasn’t there for me the one time I needed him.
And then the sun went out.
The world exploded around me. There was a huge whoosh and all was white water and turbulence and air bubbles and the concussive blast slammed me down before I felt arms wrap around me and pull me up.
There were only one pair of arms like that in the whole wide world. As he laid me down on the warm grass and bent over me, I saw a look on his face like none I’d ever seen before: he looked terrified. My dad. The Zar. Looked scared. I would never, in a million years, have believed there was anything that could have made him look like that.
And then I threw up on him.
I didn’t know it was going to happen, didn’t even get that brief warning you usually get. I’d swallowed a lot of water and it just all decided to come back up right that instant. He didn’t get mad, didn’t turn away or yell “gross!” or anything, even though it would have been a reasonable response. Instead, he simply rolled me onto my side and waited until I was done and then used his hand to gently wipe off my face. The hand that could crush diamonds, cleaning spittle off my chin, wiping it on the grass.
That’s not when I liked him. That came a little later, when he was carrying me home. I felt weak and still dizzy and my mouth tasted horrible and I was embarrassed and wondered if I was going to be punished for once. I looked at him, at the sunlight glinting off his hair, at his strong chin and chiseled nose and the eyes that threw terror into men everywhere.
“Thank you,” I whispered. I didn’t mean to whisper, but it was as loud as my voice would go. With the wind whipping by, there was no way he could hear me.
He heard me. He’d been staring off into the distance, lost in thought, the weight of the world on his shoulders, as usual. Now he looked down at me and for just a moment a hint of that scared look came into his eye. Then the corner of his mouth twitched in what might almost have been a smile from anyone else.
“You’re welcome,” he said in that voice that could rattle a supertanker. He looked off into the distance, then did the recon scope so familiar to all of us in the family, quickly but smoothly looking in every direction, west-north-east-south-sky-ground, casually assessing the situation, making sure no enemies were laying in wait.
He looked towards our house down below again, still well over a mile away but rapidly approaching; we’d be there any second. “It was my pleasure,” he added. And his arms tightened just the tiniest bit, so little that I might almost have thought it was just the wind. But it wasn’t. And I knew it. And for a man so deliberate, I knew he had to know I’d know. Which meant he wanted me to know.
That was the one and only time I remember really liking my dad.
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