My father once told me that women were all the same; they made promises they didn’t keep.
I was a freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear.
“They’re full of bullshit,” he said. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. It sounded like someone else’s and very far away.
“I really will come see you this summer,” I said again after his declaration. I was ready at last.
“Whatever. Happy Birthday. I love you,” he said.
I didn’t reply because I didn’t want to lie.
I am four years old and I’m a Princess. Dad is the King. In a house of six people I see only him. My brother and sister are invisible. My mother is at work and Teta, my grandmother, busy in the kitchen. We sit on the marble steps that connect upstairs with downstairs. He soothes my knee where I have fallen. A dark blue bruise is brewing beneath the skin. The tiles are cold. He picks me up and carries me up the stairs.
“Is my Princess okay?”
I am safe and warm in the throne of his arms so I smile and nod.
“You know, your Grandfather was a Count,” he says. His English is accented. “You have blue blood. Royal blood,” he says, his chest swelling and his eyes looking deep into mine. Teta passes by and rolls her eyes.
I lift my chin an inch higher. The blue knee makes sense now. Some months later, I am in the garden carrying a box of tools for my brother. It is too heavy and my hands are sweaty. It starts to slip and I can’t hold it. I drop it on my ring finger and the finger splits open. I bleed crimson.
I am five years old. I am bouncing on my dad’s leg and laughing. The TV is on and a blonde Miss Universe struts around the stage with her diamond crown. The perfume of tobacco on his fingers is warm and delicious.
“You will be Miss Universe one day,” he says, gripping his pipe between tea-stained teeth. Maybe, but I have yet to see a Miss Lebanon on the show.
But when he lifts me up and sits me in his lap I feel like Miss Universe. I am loved. That summer we are on the beach, me in my one-piece stripy bathing suit and blue floaters sucking at my arms, him in his Speedos. He is so tall and handsome. His hair is dirty blonde. The tips curl perfectly around his ears. Golden body hair sparkles on his bronze skin. He gives me change and lets me go buy a Merry-cream. I feel like a grown up.
I hurry back to share my ice-cream with him but he’s not on the slippery white benches that surround the pool. His blue towel is still damp with sweat. I look up and scan the tall hairy bodies all around. I see the back of a man in Speedos standing near the wall overlooking the crashing waves. The oil on his bronze skin glistens in the sun.
He is talking to Miss Universe in a tiny turquoise bikini. The chocolate and vanilla swirls melt onto my hand and drip down to the hot cement.
I am six years old and it’s been a long, sticky summer. The electricity is out again. This is normal in Lebanon. It is late afternoon and my sister and I have exhausted our list of games. Mom is still at work. Dad is awake and better today.
“Get changed,” he says. “Let’s go outside and take pictures.”
My sister doesn’t want to participate. I run to change out of my nightie and into my new ballet outfit. Outside in the dimming sun, hibiscus flower in my hair, I am the most beautiful girl that ever existed.
“My prima ballerina,” he says.
That school year I begin ballet classes – a gift from Aunt Hoda. At home after class, I dance in front of the mirror, sing to myself, do a plier, a pirouette. My father wobbles in the doorway.
“You want to be ballerina?” His voice sounds strange.
“Yes!” I screech, and jump at him to pick me up. He squats down instead.
“Then you gonna be a poor starving artist all your life,” he says.
Dad likes taking photos but he is an engineer. We are poor anyway.
I am seven years old and we are in the red-tiled kitchen. My father is very angry with my brother for not eating his tomatoes. The number of tomatoes does not equal the amount of anger. My brother puts a slice of tomato in his mouth and gags immediately. It’s a texture thing. My father thinks he’s being difficult. He undoes his belt, and in one move whips the leather from his pants and across my brother’s back.
My brother flinches but says nothing. I run out of the kitchen and into the living room. My father comes to find me. I shrink into the corner of the couch. He sits next to me and drops an arm across my shoulders.
“Don’t be scared.” He knows I am because I’m crying. “I would never hurt you.”
I know he wouldn’t but I am sad for my brother, and relieved it’s not me.
A bottle of Smirnoff and a row of beer bottles later, my father staggers into the kitchen in his underwear and grey robe. It feels like he’s been away for a long time but there’s war and I know no one can travel these days. I hurry in after him wanting us to spend time together. I want to hug him but hang back in the doorway. He struggles to open the refrigerator, sways in its mist, still gripping the handle while he scans the inside.
He stoops and plucks the bottle of French’s mustard from the door, wobbles, spins a little then falls on his bum, legs spread out. Laughter bubbles over his lips.
I do not go closer. I do not look into his face. I do not hug him. I focus on the bottle of mustard he still holds. It is very yellow. The King begins to fade and his Princess does too.
I am 10 years old. The man standing next to me outside is my father. I am crying because there’s a dead kitten on the concrete underneath his car. Or maybe I’m crying because Teta died so recently. He pats my shoulder like a baby pats a dog. Stiff. Awkward. Pat, pat, pat. We both seem disconnected, an old toy put together with improvised pieces.
“It’s okay, I’ll take care of it,” he says. “Daddy will always be here for you.”
He hasn’t been anywhere else, but I still miss him. I have never called him Daddy either. I take his words and carefully wrap them up. I put them inside my heart where they still burn.
A few months later, Aunt Hoda is dropping me off at home after a day at her place. A Red Cross ambulance is parked outside our house, the siren is off but the orange lights are spinning. Something happened to Teta? No, Teta died months ago. I sprint inside. A man is lying facedown on the floor next to my parents’ bed.
Mom tells me he’s going to hospital to get better. After that I sometimes see his name embroidered into towels I help mom hang outside. Then one day the towels stay home. I don’t say goodbye and I don’t say I love you because I don’t see him again. He is back in his country, getting better.
My father told me once that women were all the same, they made promises they didn’t keep. I don’t know if he was talking about my mother or me but in either case, he was right.
I was an engineering freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. I promised him I would visit that summer. Winter got there first.