I hold him a few moments longer than I usually do. I don’t know whether I’m feeling extra sentimental because it’s Christmas or because I’m just about to introduce him to Michael. As I let go, I look into his eyes, my tears blurring the wrinkles on his face.
“I love you,” I say. “So much.”
“I love you. And who do we have here?” my father asks, his eyes wandering to Michael.
“This is Michael. Michael, meet my father.”
Michael holds out his hand and my father takes it. I carefully study Michael’s face to see if he might feel uncomfortable in this situation. But nothing about the old folk’s home or my father’s illness seems to faze him at all. It’s like he fits in here. With me. With my father. I sigh inwardly.
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir,” Michael says, his smile widening, but a sincere expression of respect in his eyes.
“The pleasure is all mine, son,” my father says. “You can call me Tom. Or Scarlett’s father, whichever you prefer.”
We laugh in unison.
“I hear you know a little about real estate?” my father asks.
Here we go. My stomach clenches.
“Well, some. I’ve been in the market for a few years,” Michael answers.
“Seriously? You’re going to go all modest on me?” I say, my hands hitting my hips. I smirk. “Michael is the best at what he does in all of Oregon, possibly the entire United States.”
“I know,” my father says. “I wanted to hear him talk about it, though.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“So I hear you’re an engineer?” Michael asks.
“Yes, quite right. Back in the day. I worked for Straton Engineering,” my father says.
“Truly? I’ve hired them a couple of times to work on some of my projects. It’s a great company.”
“Yes, it is,” my father says. “So, I hear you’ve proposed marriage to my daughter.”
He doesn’t beat around the bush, does he? Suddenly I feel my pulse in my forehead.
“Why did you choose Scarlett?” my father asks.
Michael doesn’t flinch at all. “She’s the most amazing woman I have ever met. She’s selfless, hard-working, considerate, conscientious, smart, and an absolutely lovely human being. She lives to serve others, and she’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. I am the luckiest man alive just to have met her. Did she tell you the story?”
“Vaguely,” my father says, a proud gleam in his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I’m doing this a little backwards, but…I would really be honored if you would give us your blessing,” Michael says.
“And if I say no?” my father says.
The room is held hostage by all our breaths.
“Seriously?” I ask.
My father cracks a smile. “Of course not. My daughter wouldn’t listen to me anyway. She’s even more stubborn than her mother, and that’s saying a lot. Take for example her school of choice. I told Scarlett to go to Princeton, but she was set on Harvard.”
Michael gives me a knowing smile. “I would have to agree with your father on this one, Scarlett. Princeton would have been a better choice.”
I gasp. “You guys are ganging up on me. No fair.”
“Not at all,” my father says, giving me a scheming smile. “We just seem to agree on some of the more important matters.”
Suddenly, Michael’s phone rings. He checks the screen. “I’m so sorry. It’s my mother. I’ll be right back.” He steps out of the room, and closes the door.
“He seems like a good man, Scarlett. Are you sure about him?” my father asks.
“I am. One hundred percent.”
“But nothing,” I say, forcing every doubt, every fear, every lie deep into the back of my mind.
“Don’t you know by now that I can read you like an open book? There is something you’re holding back, though I can’t tell what it is.” He squints his eyes.
I hesitate for a second. “No, I truly love him.” Shivers go through my spine. Do I? Oh, God, I do!
“That’s not what I’m talking about. You’ve changed, Scarlett. And it happened before you met him. You don’t look me in the eyes like you used to. You don’t have that carefree smile on your lips that told me you were truly happy.”
“I’ve just been through a lot,” I say, hoping he’ll accept my half-of-the-truth answer.
“I understand, but that’s not what I’m talking about,” he says.
What is he trying to get at? I’m not confessing anything. “Maybe I just have matured and grown into a woman.”
“Mature individuals don’t need to keep secrets from the ones they love.”
His words sting. “Well, I don’t know what to say.”
“You’re allowed to have your secrets. Heaven knows your mother had many. But just make sure those secrets don’t hurt the ones closest to you. Secrets can tear your relationships apart, and you will never be able to make amends,” he says.
I feel all the pressure back on my shoulders, all the lies pummeling down right there, weighing me down. Thankfully, Michael opens the door and steps back inside. The interrogation is over.
“Sorry,” Michael says. “My mother just wanted to make sure we were still coming tonight. We’re celebrating Christmas at her house. You are more than welcome to come, Mr. Hansen, and we’d be delighted if you accompanied us.”
“It is a very kind invitation, but unfortunately I am not feeling up to it,” my father says, still giving me the all-knowing eye.
“But it’s Christmas,” I say, feeling let down. I would hate for him to stay here all by himself with no one to celebrate with. “If you don’t come, I can just stay here.”
“This, having you here and meeting the man you love is enough of a present for me for years to come,” my father says. “And I wouldn’t dream of having you miss a hell of a party just because you feel sorry for me.”
“But…” I start.
“No buts, Scarlett. You go and have a good time,” he insists.
I take my father’s dry, wrinkled hand in mine and kiss it. I desperately hope there will be many, many more years. I look at the clock on the wall. “We should get going. I still have to get ready for tonight.”