You’re here at this godforsaken place on the outskirts of Richmond to meet Emma, your only daughter. It’s been over three years since you’ve seen her and now you wonder if you were crazy to drive the two hours from Washington. Idling in your Chevy Blazer, you stare at the almost-empty parking lot of the silver-plated diner. You could swear someone hung a couple of neon signs on a polished Amtrak car and dropped it here in the middle of this brown and brittle field. Snow flurries twirl around in the steel sky, but the fat white flakes don’t stick to anything. Neutral territory, Emma had called this place when you arranged to meet. You wonder if Emma is the only customer in the diner.
You remember the summer evening when Emma dropped her news on you and your wife, Mariah. News that shook up your tidy world. Emma, a technical writer for a trade association, had her own apartment across town, but that never stopped her from dropping in back home. That early evening, she had burst into your kitchen. She fidgeted and bounced around like a tennis shoe in a clothes dryer. You were drinking a cold beer and watching Mariah push skewers through hunks of raw steak and green peppers to make shish kebabs.
“I’ve just finally realized something important about myself,” she said, pink-cheeked, out of breath. “I’m gay!” She said this as if she were telling you she just won the Pulitzer Prize.
You stopped breathing for a few moments as her words sunk in, and then you laughed aloud. “That’s hilarious, Emma. I bet you thought you had me.”
Her face immediately told you she was not joking. You stared at her as if you were trying to recognize a criminal from a lineup. You announced forcefully that it just wasn’t possible. Not for your daughter. Mariah frowned, arms crossed, as you lurched into the living room and grabbed the Bible from the coffee table. You flipped through pages, showed your daughter passages that said homosexuality was wrong. You told her this was not acceptable in God’s eyes, or in yours. You thought you could talk her out of her insane notion, make her see the error of her ways.
Trembling, Emma stood her ground. She wouldn’t budge in her position that God, after all, made her what she was.
“I’m sorry, Emma,” you pronounced. “I will never accept this.” You felt exasperated, as if your little controlled world was spinning into an askew orbit. The three of you stood and stared at each other. Stalemate. Shaking, you broke the silence, “I want you out of this house. Don’t come back until you’ve got your head on straight.” Then, you turned your back on her and marched upstairs.
She yelled out, “Daddy,” and came after you, but Mariah held her back. “Let him cool down, honey. He’ll come around.”
After Emma left, you and Mariah had argued long into the night. “But, Andrew, she’s our little girl,” said Mariah, quietly, after the yells had faded into night. “Our only child.”
You stood firm. You told Mariah you didn’t care if she kept contact with Emma, but you wanted nothing to do with her. You had not raised a daughter to be so blatantly sinful in the eyes of God. You wouldn’t see her until she recognized her own foolishness and straightened out her life.
You focused on your own life, working long hours at your insurance company. In your free time, you restored the old Volkswagen, the never-ending project. You made frequent trips to the Baltimore aquarium, the only place you could feel peaceful, even in the midst of crowds. You didn’t return any of Emma’s letters or phone calls and told Mariah you didn’t want to hear about any of their conversations or meetings. In an evening of one too many drinks, you even destroyed every childhood picture of your daughter by throwing them into a fire you had built in the fireplace. You stared into the fire, watching the images of Emma curl, blacken, turn to flame.
You thought if you pretended she didn’t exist, you could forget her.
But the memories haunted you, memories of holding Emma on your lap reading Green Eggs and Ham, laughing together at Sam-I-Am. You had camped and fished with your daughter in the Adirondacks, cheered her on at swim meets and basketball tournaments. The two of you sat together at a card table on long Sunday afternoons, drinking Coca-colas and putting together jigsaw puzzles. Assembling faraway places: the Rockies, a rain forest, a desert brimming with cactuses.
On top of the unshakable memories, Mariah walked out on you a number of months ago. She would stay with her mother for a while. She wanted her family back together. She gave you an ultimatum: if you wanted her back, you had better accept your daughter and let her back into your life. Three years of this deadlock between you and Emma had sickened her to the point where she couldn’t stand the sight of you anymore. She told you she was fed up with your self-righteous, judgmental attitude and she hoped you would rot in hell.
You told her you would not rot in hell, but she would, for being an accessory after the fact to Emma. And Emma would, for her flagrant disregard of God’s laws.
Once Mariah had gone, the loneliness in your house grew to monstrous proportions. You had too much time to think. The long winter nights stretched out like interminable highways to nowhere. You abruptly realized all the friends you had were really Mariah’s friends. And at church, somehow, every sermon seemed to be about Jesus trying to trip up the Pharisees, those self-righteous religious leaders who were more concerned with keeping the law than loving others and God. Your minister seemed to stare right at you during the sermons, as he talked about how Jesus loved sinners.
But what finally did you in, what finally made you pick up the telephone and call Emma, were the recurring nightmares about the butterflies. Butterflies mounted to boards on insect pins, their wings spread out at right angles to their bodies. Like Christ on the cross, nails in his hands. These were not normal butterflies like the ones you and Emma used to collect and mount, bright-colored butterflies like the Red Spotted Purple or the Regal Fritillary. Oh the wings were beautiful, certainly. But the faces were contorted human faces, screaming in agony. Faces that you couldn’t fully recognize, but you knew at a deep place within your heart they were varieties of Emma. Emma tortured by your abandonment of her. Emma screaming at your cruelty.
You turn off the Blazer’s engine and open the car door. You step out into the cold wind and pull your coat tightly around your neck. After lumbering up the wooden steps to the diner, you pull open the door. Inside, it takes a minute for your eyes to adjust to the dim light. Some country music singer is blaring out from a jukebox, and you smell the salty smell of bacon frying, a fresh-baked apple pie.
You see her sitting in a booth at the far end of the diner. The seats are red vinyl, ripped in spots, and you remember red is Emma’s favorite color. You feel a huge lump growing in your throat. You chide yourself for not being a tougher man. She doesn’t see you yet because she’s shaking a rattle in front of a tiny child, an Asian-looking girl, propped up on the table in a car seat. Emma’s cheeks look flushed against her curly brown hair. She’s making silly faces at the girl.
You propel yourself forward, willing yourself not to run away. You’re here and you’re tired of losing sleep over losing your only daughter.
She looks up as you walk along the line of booths. She stands, a little off-balance, and half-smiles at you, her hands in front of her, fingers tangling together frantically. You’re pulled back in time to her freckled ten-year-old face after she nabbed that yellow clear-winged butterfly in her net, the Clouded Sulphur. On that day, her smile was tentative, the edges of her mouth quivering, because one of the wings of the Clouded Sulphur had torn as it struggled in the net. Now, like that day, you sense fear lurking behind her wary smile.
Your heart somersaults. Despite your pride, the fact that you’ve never really apologized to anyone in your life and you feel awkward as hell, you hug her.
“Oh, Daddy, I’ve missed you so much,” your little girl, now grown big, says into your shoulder. Her hair smells like pineapple. You hear the crack in her voice. Her body feels as taut as a violin string.
Something is in your throat and you don’t answer. You can’t. A long time passes while you hold her to you and you feel like you’re probably crushing her because you’re hanging on to her with all your might. You feel the tears wetting your face and you try hard to hold in the sobs that want to burst out. And then, into the side of her head, her curling hair tickling your face, you blurt out, “I’ve missed you too, Emma.”
Then, after a long awkward while, Emma steps back and you’re afraid for a moment that she’s going to reject you. Like you did her these three long years. Instead, she turns awkwardly and points to the black-haired toddler. She says, “This is Amy, your granddaughter.”
You pull yourself together enough to ask her what she means. Has she changed her mind about loving women? Has she married?
“No, Dad. Jillian and I adopted Amy. Jillian is my partner and Amy’s our daughter.”
You want to be tough and walk away immediately, but your feet will not move. Something keeps you glued to that sticky floor. You feel relief, happiness, and then disgust at yourself for your fucking hard-nosed attitude. You wish you could take the last three years of misery and bury them deep in the ground so that no one, especially Emma, will ever remember that you were a man without a heart.