Heaven is a Kiss and a Smile

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Sometimes, things happen that you can see coming from a mile away. You can prepare for it and in some cases, you can handle it well and move on. It wouldn’t be a terribly interesting story if this was about one of those times.

*****

I shifted my rearview mirror. The back seat had become suspiciously quiet. As conventional parenting wisdom goes, noise is fine. You can track noise, you can hear what’s going on. It’s when they’re being quiet that should raise suspicion.

Fortunately, my charges for the evening were well beyond leaving crayon surprises all over the back seat or trying to strangle each other. Most often, silence meant Melissa, my daughter, was using my data to watch videos on her phone.

Sure enough, when I glanced back I found her pale, freckled face glued to the screen, her dark eyes peering out from underneath her unkempt bangs. Next to her a set of green eyes peered out from similarly unkempt dirty blond bangs – although those bangs (belonging to Jenna, my daughter’s best and closest friend) were closer to brown than dirty blond these days. Both sets of eyes, pretty though they were, were fiercely attentive to the screen, so much so that my first three attempts to get either of their attention were met with nothing but silence.

“Melissa. You’re not using data, I hope.”

She glanced in the mirror and knew she was busted. “No. It’s something I downloaded before we left.”

It was complete BS and I knew it. Melissa was a terrible liar, far worse than most people. It’s not just that she struggled with making eye contact or speaking confidently when she was lying – it was almost like she subconsciously tried to sabotage herself completely. Which worked well for me, but not so much for her when she was caught.

She glanced at my scowling face in the mirror a few times, as if to see if I bought it. When she knew I didn’t, she locked the phone. “What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is, you don’t pay for the bill,” I reminded her. “Until you take over, there’s no heavy data usage.”

The subject of work was something that came up often. Most 18 year olds had at least a McJob to bring in a bit of rainy day money or to save up for a car. Not my Melissa. She’d rather try to get famous on YouTube than earn an honest day’s wages. And her bestie, Jenna, was just as motivated.

Of course, they both knew they had me wrapped. Melissa was my baby girl and Jenna was her closest friend; there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them, despite my often grouchy disposition. The problem was that they both knew it and regularly took advantage of it.

But then, that’s what happens when your kid grows up with the “D” word constantly circling. I felt terrible for Melissa, having to endure my unpleasant divorce, so I did tend to spoil her a bit more than I might have otherwise. She was self-aware enough to know that and worked it to her benefit.

“Actually, data streaming is a lot more efficient now, and you can set limits so that if she uses it all up for the month, then she can’t stream anymore until the next month. All automated.”

I glanced in surprise at Jenna, who pushed her glasses back up her nose and nervously returned my gaze in the mirror.

“Or maybe I’ll just be quiet and let you parent,” she said.

I laughed. “I am aware of the data limits,” I said. “But thank you. It’s a good idea.”

“Not when the limit’s too low,” she huffed. “My mom does not understand technology. Melissa’s lucky at least, she’s got you and you get it.”

“Maybe you could remind her of that from time to time.”

“She does. All the time. It’s annoying.” Melissa playfully shoved her friend in the shoulder.

“Yeah, annoying that you don’t get it.”

The red light finally changed, and I turned my attention back to the road as the girls continued to bicker. As I adjusted the rearview, I could have sworn I noticed Jenna gazing at me in the reflection. I took a second look, and decided I was probably seeing things.

*****

“I know, I know. I suck.”

Melissa shrugged as her ball went sailing past the cup for the third or fourth straight hole.

“You just have to slow down,” I offered. “Read the green.”

“I have no idea what that means. Just go, Jenna.”

My daughter had inherited a very unfortunate lack of patience from her mother, along with a stubborn unwillingness to learn things that she didn’t know intuitively. If it involved the application of effort, especially significant effort, it wasn’t worth doing. She had always been that way, but had gotten worse after the divorce. And since she was an adult now (by law, anyway), I couldn’t do much to change her mind.

Jenna was always a little more open to learning new things. She had a sharp mind and a knack for picking things up. She towered above the ball as she considered the course ahead of her. It struck me just then how tall she was and how difficult it can be to notice subtle changes over time. It seemed just weeks ago she had been a casino oyna short, awkward preteen who struggled to maintain control over her gangly limbs. Now her gait was much more graceful (though lacking in confidence) and her skinny legs had become full, shapely, and strong.

They just go on and on, I thought, and felt my pulse quicken. And those hips—full, curvy, incredible. She bent down to move a leaf from the path of her ball, and my eyes were drawn to her near-perfect, round…

“What do you mean?”

I shook myself out of my reverie and pulled my eyes away. You can’t do that, I thought. She’s your daughter’s best friend.

“Hello? Anyone home? I’m not getting any younger here.”

Jenna waved a hand in front of my face. I met her expectant gaze.

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “What do I mean about reading the green?”

“Yeah. How do you do it?”

“Well, it takes a bit of practice,” I said. “Just look at the curves.” Oh, brilliant. “On the green,” I added quickly, tripping over the sentence. “The way the green curves, I mean. You see what it does there?”

Jenna scooted closer to me to follow my eye line. My nostrils were greeted with a hint of sweet-smelling perfume—some kind of vanilla with a floral scent. She smells so good, I thought as my heart began racing.

Though I didn’t like dwelling on it, I was keenly aware of the changes both my daughter and Jenna had gone through the past few years. Not the entire time, but there were moments of clarity and epiphany that hit me from time to time—such as the one I was having in that moment about Jenna.

They were truly stunning young women now, but it was a struggle to push those thoughts out of my mind. It was easier with Melissa; she was my daughter, after all, and it was hardly my natural instinct to look on her simply as an attractive woman. That didn’t mean it never happened, that my eyes never wandered to her impressive chest or the slender legs that seemed to go all the way up to her neck. But the moment the word “daughter” registered, that was it. Move along.

With Jenna, it was more challenging. As close as she was to us, she was not my biological daughter and I knew it. I was also aware of the horrific social taboos of a grown man becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend. It was a grossly overplayed cliche in the media, sometimes fetishized or even romanticized and subtly encouraged. No thanks. Lester from American Beauty I was not.

Fortunately, Jenna’s close proximity didn’t trigger any bizarre daydreams of her laying naked on a bed of rose petals. It did, however, force me to steady my breathing a bit.

“Oh yeah,” she said after studying the green for a moment. “It kind of curves up along the side.”

“Exactly,” I said. It coaxed a pretty smile from her narrow lips. “So what happens to the ball when it hits that little curve upwards?”

“It depends on how hard I hit it. Too soft and it won’t make it up. Too hard and it will go right over it.”

“And that’s all there is to reading the green. So take a guess at how hard you have to hit it to get the ball going where you want.”

She turned towards me and smiled. We were closer than I realized; I could smell the spearmint gum in her mouth. I smiled awkwardly and wiped my damp hands on my shorts, then withdrew.

“I wish you’d go already,” Melissa said impatiently. “It’s just golf, it’s not science.”

“Actually, what I just explained to Jenna is kind of…”

“Dad. I love you, but stop being a dork.”

“He’s not a dork,” Jenna said as she lined up her shot. “He’s smart.”

I watched as Jenna’s long fingers wrapped around the grip of the club. I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering as she gently squeezed the club and took her swing. Maybe playing a game with balls and phallic symbols wasn’t the smartest move, I thought. After all, it had been months since my last actual date with a woman my age, and it definitely could have gone better. I was feeling the lack of human contact, and it was gnawing at me – enough to start projecting those desires onto Jenna, apparently.

I need to find a prospect, and soon.

I heard a triumphant cry as Jenna’s purple ball sank into the hole.

“See, Melissa,” she taunted. “He’s smart.”

Melissa rolled her eyes. There was simply no way she would ever accept that her old man was anything more than just a big geek. It seemed she was starting to lump her best friend in that category as well. Especially when Jenna thrust her phone into my hand.

“Take my picture! That’s my first hole-in-one!”

She hurried to the hole and placed the club on the ground. She popped her hips in one direction, her upper body in another, perfectly accenting her flawless curves. I took a moment to line up the shot and maybe a few extra to admire her shape. I snapped the pic with great reluctance, as its completion meant she would move. And move she did; she hurried to me, took the phone from my hand, and proclaimed herself satisfied with the canlı casino result. Then she pulled me down a good foot or so, flipped her camera, and said, “Smile! Golf selfie!”

I forced a smile as best as I could. Mainly I was just distracted by the feeling of her soft skin against mine and the intoxicating scent of her hair.

I was going to need a few stiff drinks and a cold shower by the time this night was done.

*****

“She always takes forever in there,” Jenna groused. We were sitting at our table in Harold’s, a little restaurant and tavern just down from the mini-golf course. It was something of a ritual to come here after our golf outings, and tonight was no exception.

The crowd was blissfully small, and we landed a cozy table next to an artificial fireplace. As was the norm, as soon as we sat down to eat, Melissa had to hurry off to the ladies room. Jenna had gone as well, but whereas my daughter liked to draw out the process and mess about on her phone, Jenna was much more to the point and returned swiftly.

“You know she does this every month,” I said.

“I know. But she’s been weird this week. Ever since I told her we might be moving.”

That was the first I’d heard of it.

“Moving? Where?”

Jenna sighed and took a sip of her water. “To be closer to my sister, back in Nebraska,” she said. “I mean, I love her and miss her, but I don’t want to leave here. All my friends are here. You guys are here. But my mom’s all worried about them since her husband left.”

I could see the worry in Jenna’s pretty green eyes—they really sparkled in this light. She slouched in her chair and only picked at the cheese sticks I had ordered—another flag, since she would usually have them gone by now. It wasn’t a natural state for the normally care-free, bashful, kind of nerdy girl. Well, young woman.

“Do you have to go with her?” I asked, hesitant to pry too much. “I mean, you could live on your own now. Find a college around here.”

“I know,” she said. “I’ve considered it, but that’s a terrifying notion too.”

“You wouldn’t really be alone. We’re here. I can help you find a place, or help you through the process if you’d like. I mean I get why your mom would want to move back out there, at least for now, but I’d be very sad to see you leave.”

Jenna cocked an eyebrow at me.

“You would be?”

“Yeah. I mean obviously Melissa would be too. But of course I’d miss you. Why wouldn’t I? Who else will stay up all night watching horror movies with me?”

She smiled, and some of the weight I had noticed seemed to lift just a bit. “It’s not for sure yet anyway,” she said “But yeah…maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, especially with some help in knowing what to do. Thanks.”

I felt her hand rest on mine. It was there for just a second or two, but that was enough to convey…something.

So,” she said awkwardly, “how’s everything else?”

“Same. Work, sleep, repeat.”

“Gee, can’t wait to get through college and join the work force,” she said.

I chuckled. Jenna’s acerbic wit was something I always admired about her, and it had only gotten more refined over the years.

“It’s not all bad. You can come and go as you please, you don’t answer to anyone, you can date whoever you want.”

“No offense, but that never seems to work out very well. My mom, my sister, you…everyone I know ends up separating. And if someone like my sister can’t keep her husband, what hope is there for someone hideous?”

This side of Jenna had shown up from time to time over the years. She constantly lived in the shadow of her older sister Jessica. I understood why, in concept at least. Jessica was stunning—she could have easily been a supermodel had she so desired.Scrolling through her social media photos was like paging through the latest issue of Beauty Queen Monthly.

Although Jessica was never arrogant and never looked down on Jenna, it was still an impossible legacy, and Jenna refused to believe she would ever be remotely near that attractive. She already was, at least as far as I was concerned, but good luck changing the mind of any young woman who already has it made up.

“First of all, the reason your sister —and your mother, for that matter—ended up that way is because the people they chose to be with were only interested in those amazing looks you’re always so worried about. When your only motivation for being with someone is because they get you going, that’s not a reason that’s going to last. It’s nice to be attractive but there are so many other more important things that go into making a relationship last.”

I leaned in and lowered my voice.

“And second, you need to stop calling yourself hideous.”

“But I am.”

“You seriously aren’t. You are…”

My voice trailed off. I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew what I thought and what I felt, but somehow saying those things felt strange. Inappropriate, even.

“I’m what?”

I took a breath. What the hell, it couldn’t kaçak casino hurt. “You’re beautiful.” She rolled her eyes and scoffed, fixing her gaze on the table in front of her as she always did when she was hearing something she didn’t agree with. “Don’t do that. You have the prettiest green eyes I think I’ve ever seen. Like, on anyone. And when you really smile they disappear almost completely. I love that. Looks aside, you’re so smart. I love your sense of humor; that dry sarcasm is hilarious. I love that you get most of the nerdy jokes I make. You are an amazing person. Someday you’ll make some schmuck very, very happy. I just hope he deserves you.”

My throat felt very dry. I took a sip of my ice water as I watched Jenna’s face for some hint of reaction. She blinked a few times, then rubbed her right eye. She looked up at me with a genuine, if tentative, smile on her face.

“You’re way too sweet to me. I don’t deserve it.”

“The hell you don’t,” I said.

Her eyes flicked back to the table. She picked up a cheese stick and held it above the marinara sauce for a moment.

“You know what I don’t get?”

“What?”

Jenna took a shaky breath. This was going to be good.

“Why would Cheryl have done what she did?”

I hadn’t expected her to invoke the name of Melissa’s mother. She made her distaste for my ex known on several occasions through subtle jabs and retorts, but nothing quite so directly as that.

“You mean why’d she cheat on me? I’ve wondered that for years.”

“She’s an idiot, if you ask me. You’re so sweet and smart, and you’ve got way more game than the losers I’ve gone out with it. You know how to make people feel special. She was dumb to leave that.”

I found myself stumbling over my next words. Jenna’s eyes met mine and suddenly it felt like my heart was trying to break through my ribs. “I don’t know what to say,” I stammered. “Thanks.”

Jenna smiled. “Golf and wings – you know how to show a girl a good time.”

The awkward silence settled over us again as we both glanced around the room bashfully. Any amount of eye contact teased out the red in her cheeks, and I felt mine flush a bit as well.

“I can’t believe she’s not back yet,” I said.

“Right? Maybe I’ll go make sure she didn’t fall in.”

Jenna rose and hurried away. I watched her go, admired the sway of her hips as she walked away, and realized I was no longer thinking of her as my daughter’s best friend, but as a young woman.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, I thought, and flagged down our waitress for another drink.

*****

Far too many bones creaked and cracked as I sat myself down on the couch. A few more popped for good measure as I raised my legs onto the ottoman. Ten years ago, a night of miniature golfing followed by dinner and shopping wouldn’t have phased me at all. Tonight, though, I was feeling it a little.

But to keep things in perspective, I still felt pretty good. I wasn’t old yet, just older. That’s an important distinction to make when you’ve crossed the threshold of 40. It was, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, a big milestone on the road of life. At the same time, it wasn’t. It was completely arbitrary, a made-up delineation of time. I knew people twenty years my senior who were in better shape than I was, and people just hitting thirty who walked around as if they were ancient.

I clicked through a few of my usual YouTube haunts to see if any new videos had been uploaded. Nothing looked terribly interesting, but I wasn’t quite ready for bed yet. I poked around for something new, becoming quickly annoyed with having to type everything out using my TV remote. It was a wonder to me, being able to watch YouTube right on my television. But something had to be done about entering data.

I finally settled on rewatching the first episode of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Somewhere around the halfway point, I heard the door to Melissa’s room creak open. Soft footsteps padded down the hallway and Jenna stepped into the living room in her oversized t-shirt. I could see the hem of her cotton shorts barely visible just under its lower edge. She fiddled with her hands as she entered, and wore a pleasant, if nervous, smile.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hey. What’s wrong?”

Jenna shrugged. “Eh. Can’t sleep. Is that Hill House?”

I chuckled. Jenna could never resist a good horror show.

“It is.”

“I love that show. So creepy and sad.”

“Take a seat if you want.”

She smiled and sank in next to me on the love seat, then tugged the ottoman over a bit and pushed my feet so she could put hers up too.

The next hour passed in a flash. We ended up watching the next two episodes. More than once she would grab my arm during a scary moment, or we’d swap glances at the few moments of levity. No words were spoken or needed; it was a pleasant silence.

As we drew closer to the end of the third, I noticed Jenna’s head was starting to droop. Soon enough she was falling asleep. When she finally lost it entirely, her head fell limp and landed on my shoulder. I glanced over and smiled. She seemed content. To be honest, so was I. I brushed a few strands of hair out of her face.

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