When Has She Gone?

It’s 2 am, and Jessica is not back. She did not respect the usual curfew I gave her (she should have been home an hour ago) and now I am in the living room, waiting. I tried to call her several times on her cell phone, but she didn’t answer. ( Of course she didn’t answer; what did I expect?) I only get the irritating invitation to “please, leave your message…”. An anonymous voice, not even Jessica’s. Well, it would have been worse if I had heard a cheerful greeting: “Hi, this is Jess. I’m not able to take your call now. But if you…” I’m ready to smash the phone against the wall, but I would then lose my tiny chance to get in contact with my daughter.

She is 16 and she is difficult. Strong-willed, bright, talkative, always ready, even eager, to confront me, to go against almost anything I say. She can be blunt in a mean way: “Dad, you’re too old to understand.” Deep inside, I sometimes wonder if she isn’t right. I was 45 when she was born and now, in retrospect, I think it was too late. The fact that men can have children later in life than women might be a biological truth (although it’s not as simple as that…) but it does not make up for the large age gap that separates, and increasingly so as time goes by, child and father.

This evening, Jessica and I had a tense moment. It started with a casual remark she made about the food I had prepared for supper. Actually not much, something like: “Broccoli, again? AGAIN?” When she repeated “again”, I shouldn’t have replied,  but cooking is not my favorite activity, and I don’t like Jessica to criticize my efforts to bring healthy food to the table. I said, “Keep quiet and eat your vegetables. If you don’t like it, you can go eat somewhere else. This is not a restaurant where you can order whatever you want.” Etc, etc. The kind of rehashed sentences any parent utters one day or another. From that minute on, the tone of our voices became increasingly loud. We were both yelling at the same time, and soon it stopped being a discussion. I am the adult and I should know better, more so because it has already happened before. ( The last time we had such a scene, Jess was so furious that she threw a dish against the wall. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Rodriguez, our next-door neighbor, gently knocked against the wall, probably in a vain effort to calm us down. When we met a few days later, Mrs. Rodriguez gave me a look that meant at the same time disapproval and pity. At least that’s how I interpreted it. I was really embarrassed; I asked her about Salam, her Persian cat. She shook her head but didn’t answer.) When I have a fight with Jessica, I lose any sense of reason. I retort tit for tat and we become two adolescents quarreling on the school bus. In this instance, the feud came to an end because Jessica suddenly got up, left the kitchen where supper was ready and slammed the front door. I ran after her, trying to catch her but found myself alone in the hallway, a long, boring stretch that extends from my apartment to the elevator. Jessica was not to be seen; she must have taken the fire escape where she sometimes sits during the summer nights, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette.

It’s 3 am, and Jessica is not back. I’m hesitating to call my ex wife and tell her what happened. It’s useless. I know the answer. “When Jessica spends the weekend at your house, you deal with her, as I (this unbearable accent on I ) deal with her the rest of the week without calling you every minute.” It’s true, she doesn’t call me often except when I am late to pay her the monthly allowance I owe her, according to what the judge ordered despite my limited financial possibilities. It’s not fair for Yvonne to complain. She decided to leave and take care of our daughter. I never wanted a divorce, no matter how rocky our marriage had become. I suggested, “Let’s find a therapist that will help us sort things out.” But Yvonne was adamant. “No way. It’s over. Sorry, but I’m done.” Later I found out her reason. She had met the young guy with whom she now lives, a mechanic who works in a nearby garage. I never remember his name: Juan or Luis, whatever. When I ask Jessica about him, she says, “What do you care?” and refuses to answer my questions. Maybe she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by going into  further details. I simply hope what’s-his-name treats her well. Yvonne pretends she didn’t know him when we separated two years ago , but I don’t believe her. She was so determined to see her lawyer, a bitchy woman with dark-rimmed glasses who kept interrupting me the only time I met her. Now Yvonne has custody of our daughter, except for two weekends a month and three weeks of holiday every summer. (I can’t imagine what our next vacation will be like…)

It’s 4 am, and Jess is not back. I can’t take it anymore. So far I managed to control my fear, thinking, “She’s at Eva’s house, dancing or watching a movie. Eva’s parents are very tolerant, they will let the girls stay up very late while they go to bed. That must be it, unless…” Unless Jessica has a boyfriend I know nothing of. An older guy, for whom my daughter (her pale skin, her delicate features) could be an easy prey. She might be strong-willed, but she could fall in a seduction trap. It doesn’t take much: the guy talks softly, makes a few compliments, touches her hair, a gentle approach, fake of course, until the arrow hits the deer. My Jess, she is too young to defend herself. She knows how to yell at me but that’s all as far as men are concerned.

It’s 5 am. I’m going to call my brother. He raised three kids who are beautiful young adults. My sister-in-law is a wonderful person, a social worker, used to dealing with difficult teenagers. They will tell me what to do. I hesitantly dial the number and let the phone ring eight times. Nobody there. I imagine they left for the weekend. Or are they maybe fast asleep? Who else could I call? I could try 911 but I know the answer before asking the question. “Most runaway kids return within two days. For that reason we don’t act immediately. But, Sir, I will take your name and address, and we’ll keep in contact. Try not to overworry.” Stupid advice. I feel like asking, “What, if it were your child? Would you tell yourself not to overworry?”

I can’t take this any longer. I love my daughter but I want her to grow up fast, to leave behind her crisis, her bad mood, her aggressive looks. I never anticipated such a difficult time and I have nobody with whom to share my anxiety and my disappointment. I try to remember how I felt when I was Jessica’s age. It’s a gone era, buried in a foggy past. I did have my moments with my father, I know that but I can’t ask him about it. He passed away a long time ago.

It’s 5:30. I’m drowsy on the couch. I dropped the book I had borrowed from the library where I work as an assistant librarian. I hear the door. Do I hear the door? Or is it a dream? No, it is not. Here is Jessica with her disheveled hair, her shoes in her hand as if she had tried to enter the apartment as silently as possible. We look at each other, not saying a word. She comes to me and hugs me briefly. In the hallway we hear a cat. It must be Salam. Even a Persian cat sometimes spends the night outside.