The Goodbye Look

Saying farewell to my father when I went away to college was one of the strangest experiences of my life

It's September and I'm leaving to go off for my first year in college.

My father drives me and my friend, Bobby Fisher, who is going to the same school, to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Philadelphia. Mom stays at home. She's still angry about my decision to go to this unworthy little out-of-town school. Dad, however, is acting unusually friendly. It is so unlike him. At home, we rarely speak—I mean, ever. And all through high school, he has ignored me. Never even came to my basketball games. In the car, he asks Fisher about his college plans, and seems genuinely interested when Bobby says he is going to concentrate on math and physics.

At the bus station Dad buys my ticket for me: one-way to Marietta, Ohio. I've never even visited this school, Marietta College. I picked it at random from a shelf full of college catalogs in the school counselor's office. Anything to avoid going to the University of Pennsylvania, where Dad is an alumnus, and having to stay at home.

"So, do you have everything you need?" Dad asks. He's wearing a dark suit and a bowtie, like he always does, and an overcoat and hat, even though it's officially still summer.

"Yeah, I guess so." I have no idea what I need for college. I filled up my suitcase last night with the clothes I already own. And I threw in my transistor radio, the one I use to listen to WDAS, the soul station, when everyone else has gone to sleep.

"How about money?" Dad asks.

"You've already given me money."

"So, maybe you need some more. Maybe you'll want to go out for dinner."

"I signed up for the cafeteria meals, Dad. They feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner."

"Still, maybe you'll want a snack." He pulls a 20-dollar bill from his wallet. "Maybe you'll go on a date, even." Dad smiles at me.

I don't know what to make of him. This guy who has always been so damn gloomy. Now he's acting like my best friend. "OK, thanks." I put the money in my back pocket.

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Fisher nudges my arm. "Hey, man, the bus is here."

Dad picks up my suitcase and starts toward the loading area, walking quickly.

"I can carry that," I shout after him. "It's heavy."

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"Don't worry, Butchy," he yells back over his shoulder. "It's my pleasure."

Such a strange thing for him to say. I look over at Fisher. He's struggling with his own two suitcases, but meets my look and I raise my eyebrows and nod at my father, like he's some kind of crazy person. Fisher just shrugs his shoulders. He must have other things on his mind.

Dad scurries on ahead and hands off my leather suitcase to the bus driver, who is busily loading bags into the cargo hold under the bus. "My boy is going off to college," Dad tells the driver, who only nods and keeps working. "It's his first year. He's a freshman."

"He doesn't care, Dad. Can't you see that?"

"Maybe he does." Dad looks contrite, but recovers quickly and holds out his hand. And we shake. Dad holds on, then pulls me in for a hug. I don't think my dad and I have ever hugged before. "I'll miss you, son," he says.

"Yeah, sure." I pull my hand away. "Me too, I guess."

Fisher and I board the bus and find an open double seat all the way in the back. I sit by the window. As the bus starts to back out of its slip, I see Dad come running back alongside the slowly moving bus. Now he's waving and grinning, practically sprinting to keep up with the reversing bus. I don't remember ever having seen him run before. I feel embarrassed. I turn to Fisher and say, "What an asshole."

Fisher laughs.

When I look out the window again, Dad has stopped running—and smiling. He gazes down at the ground, then turns to leave and doesn't look back. I know he has read my lips. I think about trying to get off the bus and run after him. But it's too late now. We're almost out in the street. I feel sick to my stomach. But I'm too young and smug and fucking self-centered to know what I've just done. It doesn't pay to think about such things. I mean just because he's nice to me one time doesn't mean I'm going to forget all the rest of it.

"What the hell, huh?" I say to Fisher. "We're going to college, man."

"Yeah," he says. "Cool." Then he pulls out a paperback and starts reading.

I laugh for no reason, then I decide to put what happened with my father out of my head. He's probably already forgotten it, I tell myself. That's just the way it goes.

Tags: family