It was easier to have the lights on. Keeping the lights off only raised suspicion, especially with a family she’d known since childhood across the street. If she was home and the lights were off — but not at a natural hour for the lights to be off — this would surely lead to a knock at the door. And while Riza appreciated the thought behind the gesture, she didn’t need more concern. She just wanted to move on.
This wasn’t the first Christmas without her dad. She’d had a few of those in years past, even before his untimely passing the previous year. What this was, however, was the first Christmas — and all of the leadup that the holiday entailed — without any adults of note in her life. There were aunts and uncles who offered her a place to visit during the holidays. Cousins offered to come spend a day or two with her. Even the Stones across the street opened their house up to her on the regular. But it had been years since she had grandparents to spend Christmas with. Or a mom. And now her dad was gone. Last year, the holidays were spent in shock. This year? They were merely spent.
Her childhood home was quiet now. When Riza was growing up, her dad rarely kept a silent home. Unless he was cooking or cleaning, there was an instrument within his reach. Whether he was mindlessly plucking away at his bass while she studied or playing the piano as she drifted off to sleep, the thing Riza missed the most about her dad was that his presence was never quiet, even if it was soft. But without Delmon Andreesi to make music by himself, Riza resorted to a CD player and her dad’s stereo system to fill the space.
To say it was still his stereo system wasn’t completely accurate. Everything in the house, save for a couple of odds and ends that went to her father’s euchre league buddies, had been willed to her. This included the house itself, paid for in full, and enough money to help with the upkeep for several years. Riza knew that Delmon had been frugal with his spending over the years. They’d never been on a vacation, her school clothes always came from outlet stores, and dinners were frequently made from store-brand ingredients. When she learned that her dad would be able to pay for her college and grad school ambitions in full, it caught Riza off-guard. After seeing the fallout of his will, things made more sense. Aside from a new musical instrument for himself at Christmas and fixing up the house as needed, Delmon did very little for himself. Even his one indulgence in life — the chicken tortilla soup from Max & Erma’s — was saved for his birthday and Father’s Day. If spending money didn’t benefit Riza in the long-term, he didn’t need it.
Though Riza appreciated that part of her father, there were many moments where she wished he’d been a bit more selfish for himself. Even his final moments were, at least in her father’s view, about putting his daughter ahead of himself. He’d said as much in the note he left her. College was taken care of. The house was paid for to do with as she pleased. There was a modest bank account to support Riza while she job hunted after grad school. All of this because her dad had chosen to get out quickly. To not leave her with the medical bills he was bound to rack up.
She hated him for it.
That wasn’t totally true, of course. She couldn’t hate her dad. There was a reason all of the pictures of him were still on the walls, even after Riza had taken down the ones with her in them. This house was never hers. It was his. She knew that wasn’t how he viewed it, but seeing his face above the couch kept her from crying…too much, at least.
Despite all of this, the lights remained off. Even though she knew it’d attract attention from the Stones. Even though she knew it kept her from seeing her dad’s face in the picture frame. Even though she knew it only served to amplify the cacophony of silence echoing through the empty house. Even though she knew all of that, Riza kept the lights off. They wouldn’t stay off all night. Someone was bound to come knock on the door and make sure she was okay. It was late enough that she couldn’t argue there was enough ambient light from outside to help her see, nor was a nap particularly believable. She could always say she’d gone to bed early or fallen asleep watching a movie, but those excuses only went so far.
If she listened carefully, he was there. It took a lot of effort and concentration, but she could find him. She’d slow her breathing and make it as light as she could. Even a car driving by or an ill-timed sneeze would break Riza’s focus, forcing her to start over. But with time and patience, she’d find him. A little creak from the stairwell. In the small pause between when the fridge kicked on and when the freezer started running. As the air from the furnace clattered the blinds against the windowsill in the living room. It was all him. They were his footsteps, his need to get a Tab before he sat down at the piano, his desire to keep the heat in better at the expense of a little extra noise. Riza would focus in on the sounds, thinking about how they reminded her of her father. Of course, he wasn’t really gone, but was all around her, whenever she needed him. She would bathe in the moment, soaking it all in until the echoes of the sounds drifted away.
And then he was gone. And she was alone.
Riza stared at the clock on the stove. From what little light was peeking through the kitchen window, she thought it was just past 6:30. If she didn’t turn the lights on soon, someone would offer her dinner. She didn’t want that. Dinner came with an expectation: conversation. And though she trusted Kyler, Lauren, and Ingrid to steer conversation to normal places, adults always seemed preoccupied with how she was doing. It was a funny sentiment, both because Riza still didn’t consider herself an adult at the age of 22, and the fact that ‘how she was doing’ wasn’t an easy question to answer. In general, she was doing better than she was last year. But just because today good didn’t mean yesterday was positive. And just because she was happy at 6:30 didn’t mean she wouldn’t be a ball of tears at 8:30. Grief comes and goes, like the sounds in an empty house.
The sounds of the album “Friday Night Lights” by Explosions in the Sky slowly filled up the room as Riza cranked the speakers. The music could be loud — she was a college student, after all — but not too loud. That would attract attention too. She flicked on the kitchen light, unpacking the few groceries she’d brought back from the store. She untied a bag of paper plates, placing one on the table in front of her. She loaded the plate up with a pair of drumsticks, before placing a dollop of mashed potatoes on the opposite side. With a careful motion, she dug a divot into the potatoes, spooning gravy over top, being careful not to drip any out of its starchy reservoir. She added a biscuit beside the chicken, then made her way over to the fridge, grabbing two cans of pop from inside. She sat the can of ginger ale down by the bucket of chicken, then placed a cold can of Tab by the plate she’d prepared.
“Merry Christmas, dad,” Riza mumbled, clinking her can against the unopened Tab across the table. “I love you.”
Riza took a seat across the table from the plate, propping her feet up on the chair next to her. She grabbed a chicken breast from the bucket, ripping the crispy breading off and eating it while the music blared in the background. While this wouldn’t buy her the whole night without someone coming by to see her, at least she could have dinner in peace.
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