You’ve changed, but I love you.

I see them smile and walk towards me. I do not recognize them from afar, but as they stroll towards me, they appear familiar. As they greet me, I finally recognize them.

They are my parents.

When I reached the Hyderabadi airport, the feeling of home greeted me. The thick tropical wind rushed through the exit door of the plane which brushed over me gently. The dry air made me forget the weather in Mussoorie.

At arrival, I see my parents approach. It was a challenge to recognize them with their wrinkles and grizzled hair, but the warmth in their voices remained.

“Welcome back!” mom said, smiling. The corner of her eyes crinkles as she smile, leaving her vulnerable to time.

“Welcome back!” you said, in the same way you used to greet me whenever I hopped out of the school bus. Maybe it was the harsh six months of school that really got to me, I was immersed in the rumination of the past.

It was always the same: I would get down from the school bus, find Mom standing across the street, run to her, and let myself melt into her arms. It was a routine. Sometimes, you would be smiling at me across the street instead of my Mom, waiting for me. Those days were special, since you barely had time for us. You were extra busy on the weekends and there was nothing called a “public holiday” for you. I knew you were working for us, so I never asked for explanations despite my longing to hang out with you. But to be fair, you tried to spend time with us whenever you could.

As I gained weight and grew taller over the years, the corner of your lips weighed down too. It was too late when I realized that I was unable to grasp the value of your smile. There were hardly any occasions where the edge of your lips would curve upwards, forming a smile.

I realized that your happy face was merely one of many faces that you could make. I realized that you were capable of giving me a death stare, scream at the top of your lungs, and scrunch up to resemble a monster. I realize that those same hands that caressed me, also threw cups and plastic toys at the wall.

The bad part was that you said,

“This is all for your good,”

after every scolding.

The worst part was that you hugged me with the same hands, and said,

“I love you.”

“I love you,” the phrase that had changed meaning.

It was not the phrase I heard every day at the bus stop. I remembered the sentiments it carried. It was something that you would say when you nearly dozed off to sleep, when you were about to step out of the house, when you saw me and wrapped your arms around me.

It felt like honey tea. Warm and sweet.

You said those words when you put me to bed, when you called me at boarding school, when you knew I was scared, sad, happy, hopeless, or disappointed. You said it all the time, as if it was a promise, that you will love me till the end. You said it as if it was a spell, to make me feel better and loved. You said it as a reminder, so that I would never forget your love.

“I love you.”

After you changed, so did your words. That special phrase felt like icicles. Cold and blunt, but sharp.

“How was school?” you ask as people briskly make their was past us. I still try to see whether the past still lives in you. Whether it could be the same as before. Whether the “I love you”s will sound like it did in the lost past. Doubting whether your actions were just irreversible, or if there still is hope. I anxiously hesitate, not knowing if I should let you in. Not knowing if this might be a mistake.

But all these thoughts melt away when I am in your arms.

I go back in time again; I become that kid again. That kid who dashed into your arms out of breath with rosy cheeks and shiny eyes. Just because you were my father and was your daughter. Only because I loved you perhaps a little too much that I would start stomping my feet and tapping my fingers when I would see you over the bus window.

I am startled, unrecognizing who you are. Is it you? Are you him from the past?

Your new look hazes my decision on how I should feel, think, and react to you. Dazed, I stare at you, as if expecting an answer from your smile.

“Here, let me take your bag,” you reach out to carry my backpack. Just like how you used to pick it up like it weighed nothing.

“Do you want some water? Juice?” You point at the vending machine with excitement. Just like how you used to ask what I would like to do for the evening.

“How was school? Did anyone bully you?” You ask me in jest, but secretly wanting to know, just like how you used to ask me.

You hold my hand as if in attempt to console my conflicted self. Your hands feel alien yet familiar. Its warmth embraces my heart while I am still startled by how smaller and rusty it feels. When I am overwhelmed with confusion and angst of not knowing you, you leave me with three words.

“I love you,” you say, as you gave me another hug and smile.

“I love you too, dad.”

Victoria Lee is the 1st Person editor of The Woodstocker

Edited by Hyenjin Cho

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