The sound stopped my heart in its tracks.
I didn’t know what happened at first, but soon enough, my car dropped in the front. As the vehicle started to vibrate roughly, I slowed down and pulled over. There was no way I could continue like this. And that meant I would not make it in time.
This shook me to my core. My daughter hadn’t expected much from me. Honestly, she didn’t expect anything at this point. I had been out of her life for too many years. She could remember a few glimpses of my face from before she started kindergarten, but there was never a time when I was truly around. At first I was a passing occurrence. Then I became a distant memory. After that, I became a myth. Danielle, studying at Virginia Tech with her heart set on becoming a lawyer someday, referred to me only as her alleged father.
Today was her big day, the one where she would get to sit side-by-side with thousands of other graduates and make the transition from being asked for tuition to getting begged for donations. It was a role I knew Danielle would gladly transition into. She would display her diploma proudly, and she would gladly invest in the things that meant so much to her. She didn’t want to be like me.
My phone rested in my lap for a couple of moments as I wrestled between who to call first, my ex-wife or AAA. The former’s first words would be if I called the latter (second words actually, more than likely proceeded by “figures” and a sigh), so I dialed up AAA.
I had my card number ready. The routine was familiar by now, though it was usually triggered by a dead battery or locked keys. For me, a flat tire was a first. I probably had a spare in the back. I’m sure I did. But it didn’t matter. I lacked the tools needed to change the tire, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.
By the time I was done holding, ten minutes had passed. Once everything was done, I got off the phone feeling nearly as unsettled as when I first called. I had hoped time would calm my nerves, but as I sat in the margin off 81 South, my car shaking from each vehicle that passed, my anxiety grew. The rest of the world was moving while I sat still.
Hesitantly, I dialed Diana.
“What is it?” she answered the phone. She always greeted me this way, because apparently all of her hellos left with me twenty-two years ago.
“I have a flat,” I said.
“It figures that I would have a flat?”
“That you would again prove Danielle right and let her down.”
“I take it there’s no chance I could get a ride.”
“And cause both parents to miss her ceremony? No.”
“I’ll still be there. I’ll just be late.”
To this day, our long-time friends say I shouldn’t have ever dated a woman whose name was so close to my own. They all seemed to have forgotten that they previously considered this a sign that we were perfect for each other. Either way, I should have never agreed to the idea of naming Danielle after me. Diana can’t say her daughter’s name without thinking of her ex-husband. Danielle carries my absence with her everywhere she goes. By the time either one sees me, on those admittedly rare occasions, they’re both fuming with thoughts they haven’t been able to channel.
I had a good reason for leaving. No one ever believes that, but to this day, I stand by it. I got an offer in New York City, the chance to live out my dream in ways I could have never done back in Knoxville, the city where Diana and I met during our years at the University of Tennessee. She was a local, perfectly content to live her life within arm’s reach of her family.
I was from Frankfort, Kentucky. Though technically still a Southerner, her family never saw me that way, and moving to New York didn’t help. Neither did leaving my wife and daughter behind the way only a godless liberal could justify to himself. At least the good-for-nothing men back home had the sense to feel guilty as they paid their child support.
I’d hardly gotten praise for my actions in New York either. A deadbeat dad is considered a deadbeat dad regardless of where you go. No one cared to hear my side of the story. They don’t know how my ex-wife would have never agree to move, nor would she have tolerated the long distance thing. She hated travel, and she didn’t want me to do it either. She wanted me at home with her. She wanted a quiet life.
That would have killed me.
I love my daughter. I want to always love her. I know if I had stayed, I would have lumped her in with her mother. I would have viewed them both as the reason I could have never lived out my dream. I would have become a bitter old man, and in that case, what did it matter if my wife and daughter hated a man who was in their life versus one that wasn’t? At least one of us could be happy.
These thoughts filled my mind as I sat there on 81, watching the cars go by. They continued to flood my head as I drove in the other direction later that evening. Danielle had hardly looked at me the entire day. I couldn’t blame her. But I was still happy for her, and while I couldn’t claim a hand in raising her, I felt overwhelmingly proud. My daughter came out alright, even as I was off living my dream.
And I know she will stop at nothing to go live hers, just like her father.