Her backpack thudded to a stop on the bench as she slid gracefully into our regular booth. “Why do we keep coming to this Chinese buffet? There are, like, five Thai restaurants nearby.”
I lacked her grace as I wedged my bulk into the opposite bench. “Oh, I know that. But this is the only place where I can make sure we both get some veggies. Also, they don’t care if you spread out your homework and study for a couple hours.”
“Yeah. That’s probably why I don’t like it,” she said, pulling a heavy textbook out of her bag.
“Hey, let’s change it up and eat first this week. I have a theory that humans digest our food better when we separate eating from working.” I gestured her toward the buffet. “There’s plenty of time to study later. I’ll watch your books. Go get some food.”
She paused as if to make a snarky comment, but changed her mind and stood.
“And I’m serious, don’t forget the veggies.”
Her eyes rolled as she left, but she returned with green beans alongside the usual starches.
“Hey, look, green veggies! You may live to see age 16 after all.”
“Ha ha. I get green beans every time. And why the concern? I eat better than you do.”
“Well, that’s your opinion. You eat less than I do, sure. But these days I’m eating more protein and veggies. Mostly just less processed crap,” I said, scooting out of the booth. “I worry that you’re not getting enough vitamins sometimes.”
“I eat what I like. You always say we should listen to our bodies, and this is what my body wants.” She twirled a noodle around her fork, flopping it sloppily into her mouth. “Mmmmm… carbs.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I said, not hiding my smile as I left her there, chewing loudly for my benefit.
I returned soon enough with a crowded plate of all my favorites, and we ate together. Between bites I talked about my work, and told her stories about her younger siblings’ hi-jinx from the week. She shared energetic stories about her friends, her thoughts on gender politics, and which bands were playing nearby.
Eventually she pushed her plate away and reached for her textbooks. “I have so much studying to do,” she mumbled with the heavy sigh of the downtrodden.
“You really do study a lot. But that’s pretty much your job at this point in life,” I said, taking a big bite of chicken from a stick. “Whereas my job is finding more meats served on sticks,” I said, chewing loudly.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said with a sly grin.
“You got me.” I swallowed and showed her my empty mouth, sticking out my tongue.
“Ewwww. Gross! You’re gross.”
I chuckled. “You know you’re good at what you do, right?”
“At busting you for breaking your own rules? Yes, I’m great at it.”
“No, I mean that you’re a great student, a great kid. I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it because you’re in the middle of it, and you’re still growing. But – you’re nailing it.”
She stared at me, eyebrow raised, trying to read any hint of sarcasm on my face.
“No, I mean it, kiddo. From my heart. You’re learning to study more efficiently every week. You’re keeping up your grades, all the while having fun side activities, too.” I scooped up a piece of General Tso’s Chicken. “I mean, you’re fifteen. It’s important to have fun.”
“Right? I work so hard! All of my classes are either honors or AP. It’s impossible to do all the homework they assign us. Plus, Orchestra and Girl Scouts and 4H and babysitting. Also, keep in mind I’m in a band, which is fun, but still a lot of work.” Her eyebrows scrunched. “It’s amazing that I get any sleep at all.”
“I love that you’re so musically talented and amazed you still have the energy to be in a band. You’re a pretty cool kid.”
“Who you calling a kid? I’m a young woman, thank you very much.” She smirked, but her stare didn’t waver. “Wait. Are you trying to butter me up or something?”
“Maybe,” I shrugged. “Or, maybe, just maybe, I’m really proud of my daughter and I think she deserves to hear it. In fact,” I said, pointing my fork for emphasis. “I think you should hear it as often as possible.”
Her eyes turned back to her homework. “Yeah, whatever. It’s nice. I guess.”
I chased a wonton around my plate for a minute, then gave up. “So, what are we studying this week? World History again?”
“Physics. We have a test on Friday and I’m a little stuck.”
“Oh, physics! I love physics. And don’t sweat the test. There will always be a test.”
“That’s not helping. Can you look at number 27? They give us all these factors, but I can’t figure out where the vectors are.” She tapped her pencil in frustration.
“Ah, yes. Vectors are fun. Lemme see.”
She spun the paper around so I could see it. “Vector’s aren’t fun. They’re gross. You’re gross.”
“Thank you, I will accept gross as a compliment,” I said, examining the page. “We all enjoy what we enjoy. I really enjoy math and science. They’re just sets of logical rules to help explain what’s happening around us.”
She sat up and leaned towards the paper. “Yeah, I like math. I like physics. It’s just that the class is so stressful with all my other stuff going on.”
“Oh, I’m sure. Maybe you need to spend more time on it. But that’s for another discussion. I see your problem here,” I said as I turned the paper back to her. “You have to remember that the point of defining vectors is to show the two forces that are being exerted on a single object from two different angles. But an object can’t go two different directions. The object goes in one direction, and that resulting direction is influenced by both vectors, according to each vector’s strength.”
Her eyes narrowed a bit. “Yeah, OK – I think I get that. So the answer – the answer is what the object does, because the two vectors moved it.” She started writing rapidly across the paper. “Yeah, OK. So you basically just draw a rectangle – using the two vectors as sides for your rectangle – and the result is the diagonal across the rectangle. Okay.”
“Yeah, see, you’ve got it.” I leaned back.
Her hand moved smoothly back and forth, sketching and computing. “OK. I get this now.”
I chuckled. “I’m glad I can help a little. I still enjoy that stuff. I guess it helps that you’re my rectangle.”
Her hand stopped and she looked up. “I’m your what?”
“You are my rectangle. I’m just one of the vectors that influences your life. All of us: your mother, your step mother, your friends, teachers. We just influence you, but you make your own trajectory.”
She sighed loudly. “Here you go again.”
I reached across the cluttered table and touched her hand. “No, I’m serious. Your life has all these influences. You’re getting it from all sides. I get it. I was in your shoes not that long ago.”
“It was pretty long ago.”
“Very funny. And yes, technology has changed but high school hasn’t. I know that you’ve got people giving you shit every day and you’re just trying to do the best you can. I know that we ask too much of you, but I also know that you’re up to the challenge.”
She looked away. “I don’t always feel up to the challenge.”
“Of course not. But you are. You really are,” I said, leaning forward again. “Believe it or not, I know exactly what it’s like to crave independence so badly you can taste it. You want to fly, but you also know you still need a safety net. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
She looked back at me. “So frustrating.”
I looked into her eyes. “You are doing something truly remarkable, kiddo. You are creating a new person, a new personality, from scratch. And it’s ridiculously hard work. You’re making hard decisions every minute of every day. You’re cobbling together bits and pieces of all these sources, all these influences. You’ve got a million vectors moving you, and you get to choose which vectors influence you more than others. Those choices help to create who you become. The final trajectory is all you.”
She held my gaze. “That almost made sense. Oh, God, so gross.”
“Hey, all I ask is that you let me continue to be in your equation. I just want my vector to be part of the push on your object. Or on you. Or something. I lost the metaphor.”
“You’ve lost more than that.”
“Hush. Now, the big complication is I’m your Dad and protecting you is part of every fiber of my being. It’s not a decision I make, as much as just who I am. So, I’m obligated to tell you to always, always question those other influences. Yes, some of them are cooler than me, and all suave and hip, and up on all the cool slang. But they don’t usually have your best interest in mind.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure thing, Dad.”
“Hey, c’mon now, here me out.”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t freak out. I’m listening.”
“This is important. I need you to know in your heart as you go through your day, that I always have your best interest in mind, no matter how lame it comes across when I show it.” I squeezed her hand gently. “I always have been and always will be trying to help you become the best person you can be. Whatever that means for you.”
I retracted my hand from her side of the table and slouched back into my seat. “Whether you like it or not.”
She looked down and started working on the problem again. “I know all of that. I know you’re looking out for me.”
I took a last bite of my food, and this time swallowed before speaking. “I’m really proud of you, honey. You are the greatest achievement of my entire life,” I said, setting down my fork. “And I just want my vector to be in that rectangle.”
She chuckled and shook her head softly. “It’s all so gross. But I love you, Dad.”
“I know you do.”
I pushed my plate away and let the moment quietly pass. I sat there and enjoyed the somber scratching of the pencil pushing her thoughts onto paper.
“So, tell me. Do you think your friends have Dads that say all this gross stuff?”
She didn’t look up and continued working her problem. As the pencil scracthed the paper, I heard her quietly mumble, “Maybe. If they’re lucky.”