My first memory of him is a scattering of images, smells and sounds. He had long shoulder length brown hair and brown eyes with specks of gold dust in them. The smell of smoke and sweat mixed with cologne hung over him like a cloud. He would keep humming tunelessly some song or be ranting on passionately about something and someone. I used to be awestruck whenever I saw him playing his guitar while Mom sang. If there was anything Mom was passionate in her life, it was music. She lived, breathed music. I was just an accident of this passion as I came to know at a later point in my life.
Mom and Daniel had met up during one of the rallies of the hippie movement. Their passion for music and zest for life had drawn them together. I was barely three when I saw Daniel for the first time. Being with my Mom for three years, I wasn’t much shocked with the appearance of this man one fine afternoon at our doorstep. And I didn’t mind much when he stayed beyond the Sunday afternoon and moved in with us. For one thing, he cared for me more than my Mom ever did.
I used to call him Dan and he used to call me El, Princess Ellie, Lizzie, Liz, Betty, and Queen Beth, anything he felt like at that moment. Mom had named me Elizabeth just because the nurse had suggested it. But Dan would tell me that I was named after Queen Elizabeth and would regale me with stories he made up about the “Exploits of Queen Ellie”. Dan’s always there with El; Dan-I-El, he’d say in a sing song voice. I do not remember when I started calling Dan Dad. It was just natural. I had found a father figure, a guide, a friend in him. All this while, Mom kept growing apart from us. The musical evenings turned silent and cold. I was six, when one morning I woke up to find Mom had gone. She had left us and run off to make a career in the west.
I was an abandoned orphan. Dan could leave me and go away any day. I wasn’t his responsibility. I felt scared, lonely and miserable. I took out the only photo I had of me and Mom together, hid under the dining table and cried and cried. After what seemed an eternity, furiously rubbing my eyes, I looked up to find those liquid brown eyes, gold dust splayed in them, piercing into my bloodshot red eyes.
“You want some breakfast?” he asked as he did everyday.
I didn’t know what to reply. Did he not realize that Mom’s gone, for ever maybe? But I was hungry. I just nodded mutely.
“Or rather you could do with some brunch. Its nearly lunch time.” He said pulling me from under the table and putting me on the tabletop while he made himself busy cooking up something.
“Dad… I mean Dan….” I mumbled haltingly knowing not what to say.
“Listen li’l Elli. I’m your dad and you’d better do as I tell you to do. So sit tight and keep quiet while I cook with all my might. God, I’m going downhill..” he said making a face.
I smiled feebly and controlled my urge to sob in his arms till the afternoon sun died and the burning pain in my heart was doused. He had agreed to take care of me. Maybe he was just being generous and did it out of pity for me. But I accepted his charity greedily. It was then and there that I knew, I just knew that I loved this man and would spend the rest of my life with him. I loved my Dan.
The years passed in a blur of countryside trips, musical evenings and help on school
work. Dan was the perfect father, friend and guide. There was never a dull moment with him around. I excelled in everything that Dan could teach me and that was almost everything- from music, academics to sports- Dan had made me the alpha girl. Till high school I was resolutely oblivious to boys, puppy love and backseat necking. In grad school I thought I could get over my infatuation with Dan. I dated guys and made out with my boyfriend of one week. I even thought I had finally fallen in love with this classmate of mine with whom I had been going out for two years. But after all that time, I came to realize that the only thing I loved about him was his name – Daniel Gordon. I always looked for something of Dan in all of them. The guys who asked me out and with whom I went out could never match up to Dan. After a string of such ‘failures’, I lost interest in the whole dating scene and concentrated on getting my Phi Beta Kappa in History and Literature. It was my graduation gift for Dan.
I had realized by then that I loved Dan in every which way known to the human heart. I was going to be with Dan for the rest of my life, I didn’t have time for flings. I still called him Dad, but in my own private world he was always Dan. He wasn’t my biological father- he was Dan, my foster father. It didn’t matter to me that he was a good 23 years older than me. I thought it perfectly normal to love him as a woman could love any man. All these years I had never seen Dan with any woman other than Mom. Maybe he truly loved her and I felt so jealous that I’d keep wishing wherever she was, she never came back. I would take out her old snaps and pore over them for hours wondering if I resembled her strongly enough and whether Dan would ever love me as he loved her.
My graduation day came. Dan looked handsome in his Sunday best. I was the class valedictorian. He couldn’t have been more proud of me. We went for celebratory dinner that night. Dan was in such good mood he took me to the most expensive nightclub in town. Dan kept ordering drinks and we kept downing them. I could see Dan was getting drunk. I was beginning to feel dizzy.
I grabbed him by his collar and said, “Dan.. yes Dan.. you’re not my father. I love you. I love you and want to be with you forever, not as your daughter but as a woman stays with a man.” With that, I don’t know what took me, but I just kissed him. It was like that one moment spent in a thousand days and a thousand days of joys collapsed in that one moment. I felt like I was born to be with this man.
Dan seemed to be coming to his senses and pushed me away lightly. A photograph fell from his pocket. I picked it up. It was very old.
What I saw made my head spin even more. It was a picture of him and a woman with a heart shaped face, honey colored hair curling at her shoulders, and eyes bluer than mine, holding a baby, in bundles, both of them smiling at me. I looked at Dan seeking any meaning, any explanation to this illusion in front of me.
“That’s you there, when you were just a day old. Yes El, you are my daughter. I am your Dad. And this woman here, your Mom, is the only woman I have ever loved. She had left me once. And she left me again. She left us all that day. Her car crashed. The second time I was lucky she left you behind for me. I see her in you everyday, every living moment….”
I do not remember what he was saying. I had begun to feel claustrophobic all of a sudden. I stormed out. I could hear Dan running after me. I was crossing the street, running away from this man who was my father. I heard a horn being blown loudly, brakes screeching against the gravel behind me.
My last memory of him is lying on the road, smiling, clutching my hand and the photograph, saying, “I love you Ellie… more than anyone in the world…I love you.”
I could see myself; I could see my Mom in those liquid brown eyes, and my tears drowning the gold dust in them. I could hear wailing sirens, the sound coming from some other world. I could feel people pulling me apart from the only person who loved me and whom only I loved, ever, truly ever.
“You look like a real Princess.” Daniel said.
Its been eight years since he’s been gone. I’m standing on the steps of a centuries old church, in the most beautiful white gown with Daniel, a white rose on his lapel. Father O’Donnell has come to see us off.
He kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “You really look like a princess, Mrs. Gordon”
Just days before the ceremony, I had found this box while rummaging through Dad’s (yes my Dad.) things. In there was a white wedding gown with a yellowing card that read- Sara’s, then scrawled in black loopy writing- For my Princess Ellie when I’d give her away to her Prince Charming. I knew it then as I had known it always- I’ll love Dan, forever. And that he loved me, as no one could. Maybe he had come back for my Mom. But he had stayed back for me - Because he was my Dad. Because he loved me, I was his daughter, his Princess Ellie. Dan’s always there with El.