“Your friends seem nice. Are any,” he hesitated, “girls?”
Her tired face was barely illuminated by the lone candle at the table’s center. “I’m intimidated by strong women,” she replied.
He didn’t know whether to force a chuckle or to ask further questions. He did neither. Instead, he searched her eyes. Big. Hazel. Her eyes look kind, and warm, he thought. He thought he was a good judge of character, as does everyone else.
“So how’s your math class?” he asked weakly. He wished he remembered the name of the class. He wished he knew all her classes like a good, supportive father, and which professors she liked and didn’t, and what she thought of the dining hall food. He wished he’d offered to take a few of her friends, like he now realized the “cool” parents do. He searched her face. Her nose and chin came to elegant points.
“It’s good,” she said, picking absently at the tines of the fork with her thumb.
He remembered finding her on the kitchen floor at Uncle Jay’s cabin when she was four years old, gripping the Rubik’s Cube that had been gathering dust on the lowest shelf. He pried it out of her tiny fingers and found it… solved.
“Jay,” he called, scooping her up and hurrying her out into the yard. “Jay, was this Rubik’s Cube solved already?” he asked, holding it up.
Jay was pulling a cooler out of his boat. “What? Nope.”
“She just solved it.” He said, astounded, holding up his toddler on high.
“No shit,” said Jay. “Let’s send ‘er to MIT.”
She went to Harvard (close enough), where she was studying Mechanical Engineering with a secondary in Philosophy, not a minor, a secondary, because when your institution is pretentious as all get-out you can call things whatever the hell you want, different from every other school, and people just have to go with it.
“What math class are you in?” he asked.
“21b,” she replied, picking at the circlet of bread she’d removed from the basket at the center of the table, fingernails with chipped navy polish barely emerging on dainty fingertips from the lumpy, pilled knit of the ancient black sweater she was dwelling in. Under the table she wore torn denim cutoffs he wasn’t a fan of and cheap plastic flip-flops.
A waiter clad in black came around with tall vase of water to refill their cups and take their orders. The ice crackled as he poured. They ordered, and the waiter swept away their menus.
“So, do you have any plans for tonight?” he asked. Moments later he wished he hadn’t asked. Initially, he thought she wouldn’t want him to know. Then he looked up at her face. She just shrugged, gazing tiredly down at the white rim of her plate. She didn’t seem to care that she was here in this Italian restaurant with a man she had only lived with until she was five. It was her mother who had raised her, who had comforted her in middle school, who had helped her pack for college. She had given him a tour of campus, and he was giving her a free meal, and after dinner they would take the T back to Cambridge, Harvard Square, she’d hug him uncomfortably and return to her daily life in which he was not even on the radar.
Fortunately, their food came quickly. Since he would not be setting a good example by drowning his sorrows in wine, he would attempt to do so with alfredo. She was eating slowly. He couldn’t tell if she was savoring the food or almost refusing to eat. What if she had an eating disorder her mother didn’t know about? Her legs looked awfully skinny in those shorts.
“Do you want to go?” she asked.
“No, no, take your time,” he said, beginning to feel like a woeful failure. “I’m just here to see you.”
This statement appeared to have no impact on her at all. She raised her fork to her mouth for another slow bite. He let her eat in silence until the majority of the plate was finished and she appeared to have entirely lost momentum. His humiliation hit an apex when she offered to pay for her own meal, like he wasn’t even her father, like they weren’t even related.
As they took the stairs down from the restaurant, though, she spoke up. “So, how’s work?” She asked.
“It’s alright,” he said. He was a dentist. Not really something to make a daughter proud.
“When I was little, you used to come home and tell me about how the grown-ups were just as afraid as the kids at the dentist’s,” she said. Her pale skin glowed off the black background of the North End street at night. Puddles shone by her feet and yellowing streetlights illuminated her as she re-tied her dark, wavy ponytail.
They took the T back in silence.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” He asked, glancing around the T station at sagged pants and sleeve tats.
“I kind of have somewhere I want to take you, if you have time,” she said.
He was taken aback. “Absolutely.” He hesitated. “Don’t you have things to do with your friends?” He had a horrific vision of her tipping off the side of a couch somewhere, her friends passing a bottle around. He visibly winced.
“Nope,” she said. “Let’s go.”
He followed her on uneven brick past the T stop, through a side street of restaurants, past a cluster of boat-shoed boys whom he scowled at severely when they eyed her legs, (which he was now noticing looked rather more athletic, with some muscle definition in the calves rather than sickly thinness), past a few student Houses, and to the bank of the Charles. She led him off the sidewalk, across the dying riverside lawn, and up onto the footbridge. She walked with purpose to the bridge’s center and rested her sweatered elbows on the bridge’s ledge. The waves’ ridges in the river twinkled gold, alight with the glow of the city. He joined her at her side.
“Are you alright?” she asked. “You seem like you might be lonely.”
He stared out over the river, unable to speak or move. Moments later, he felt a small head leaning against his arm. For a moment, he panicked internally, not knowing the perfect thing to say. He decided not to say anything at all. His heartbeat slowed to a comfortable pace. Together, they stared out over the starless night sky and the sparkling river.