By Lynne Hoffman
The auditorium was full. Parents, grandparents, friends, lovers. A veritable sea of faces and the accompanying cacophony that went with that many people. Among those present was one Benjamin Stone. Yet, despite the plethora of people around him, he felt alone. Isolated. He eased himself into his seat and silently wondered how he could manage to feel so lonely in the midst of so many. He shut his eyes to block the feeling out and tried to relax.
"Daddy! Daddy!" He could hear her voice ringing out happily as the trill of the final bell of the year died away. In reality hers had been no louder than any other young voice in the crowd but he'd heard hers above all others.
He stood, as calmly as possible, leaning against the playground fence waiting for her to make her way down through the crowd. He clenched and unclenched his unseen fists, nervously, impatiently as he waited for her. How hard it was for him to just stand there waiting for her and not push his own way through the mad crush of kids as they fled the school, set free for the summer.
Then, suddenly she was upon him and he'd barely had time to pull his hands out of his pockets in time to catch her.
Seven year old Cynthia Stone tossed her school bag unceremoniously onto the dusty pavement and flung herself into her father's arms with all the emotion and adoration little girls of that age tended to shower on their fathers.
"Princess!" He scooped her into his arms and hugged her to him as tightly as he dared. She brushed a kiss onto his cheek as her laughing little mouth sailed past his ear.
"School's all finished!" She managed to squeak out before he all but crushed the air out of her.
"It sure is, did you pass?" He was teasing her. Despite some concerns at mid-term, when he and her mother had finally divorced, Cindy had risen above her parent's petty arguing and had held her own. As a result she had persevered and done very well during her first full year of school. Now school was out for the summer and he had two weeks vacation to share with her.
He had talked his boss into giving three extra days off in exchange for promising to work an equivalent number of hours of overtime. His next hurdle had been in dealing with his ex-wife. After some prolonged bickering and mean-spiritedness on her behalf, the woman had finally given in and allowed him to pick Cynthia up right after school was dismissed for the year rather than making him wait until the week-end.
Cindy loosened her grip on him and looked him solemnly in the eye.
"I don't know Daddy. Put me down, let me see." She wriggled herself loose and dropped to the ground to retrieve her school bag. She rummaged through it, spilling most of its bulging contents onto the ground at their feet.
Recalcitrant, he knelt beside her, "Cindy, Daddy was teasing sweetheart. You passed, I know you passed."
She didn't raise her head but continued to rummage through her bag until, triumphant she waved an elongated envelope in his face, "Here Daddy." She handed him her report card.
He ceremoniously opened it for her and showed her the row of marks in their squares. Not much change since the previous report had come out. A series of A's and B's and a lone C. He started to read the teacher's remarks and hid a smile. The C was for neatness. She tended to need reminders to keep her desk tidy. Oh well. That skill would come later. The Sisters at the school he'd attended as a child had almost gone bonkers trying to teach him to keep his desk tidy. Of course as he'd gotten older his rear end had learned the principle long before he was able to translate it to fact.
Now he kept a very tidy desk, thank-you Sister Angelique and company.
Cindy was smiling, obviously pleased with herself. She accepted the paper back from her father.
"We have to drop this off with Mommy before we go away."
"I know. Let's get over there and do it." Ben helped her gather her scattered books. Her light brown hair was braided tidily in two shoulder length strands though there were several stray strands falling into her eyes. She looked up at him as she too stuffed miscellaneous accessories back into her bag. Her mother's eyes, dark and luminous but she had the same shaped face as he did and the smile was his. Only she used hers more freely.
She stood up, smiling down at him as he crouched in front of her, "Will Mommy be glad?"
"That you passed?" He stood up and she slid her hand into his. She started to skip towards his car, dragging him good-naturedly behind him.
"Yeah. Can we get ice cream?" She asked, not waiting for his reply or really caring what her mother's opinion would be. She was with her Daddy.
"After we see Mommy."
"Why after?" Cindy slowed to a trot and began to look pouty.
"Because... " Ben looked down at her disappointed face, 'yeah, why after?' he asked himself. 'because Margaret's rule was no junk food after school.' To Hell with Margaret's rule. Cindy was in his care for the next two weeks. She'd just done very well in school, despite the disruption of her life forced upon her by her parents.
Cindy knew why not just as well as he did. She hung her head and scuffed the toes of her shoes as she walked more sedately at his side.
"You like DQ?" he asked her.
"Yeah. Can I have a sundae in a Yankee-cap?" She lifted her face to his, smile slowly returning.
"A Yankee cap? You traitor."
She burst into giggles and let go of his hand, "I'm teasing you Daddy! Did I get you?"
"Yes." Ben smiled indulgently at her, "Which flavor of sundae do you want?"
"Butterscotch it is. C'mon, get in." They had reached his car and she scrambled into the front seat. He secured her seat belt and got in next to her.
They'd gone for their ice cream, then they'd dropped her report card off with her mother and disappeared together for two whole weeks.
The memory was soothing to Ben. He began to feel the tension and anxiety slowly release him and he opened his eyes again. The auditorium grew steadily quieter until silence completely engulfed them and Ben noticed the students beginning to file in. He craned his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of her before she mounted the podium. Grade one had been such an unqualified success. So had grades two through eleven. Now she was finished grade twelve and would soon be receiving her diploma along with the rest of her classmates. He was so proud of her today. As proud of her as he could possibly be but he had no one to brag to. And that, he realized, was the basis of his loneliness.
After what felt like an eternity the opening ceremonies were over, speeches given and one by one the graduates stepped forward to receive their rolled parchments. Before long, applause gave way to cheers as the jubilant new grads tossed their caps in the air. Parents left their chairs and surged forward to greet and publicly congratulate their offspring. Ben rose with them and began to make his way slowly to the front of the venue as well.
Then he heard it. Her voice. Above all others.
And she was upon him. She unabashedly flung her arms around his neck and he joyfully, proudly tightened his arms around her. Her feet left the ground for a moment before he set her back on her feet.
"I am so proud of you Princess."
He may have wanted to tell the world how proud he was of her but the only person who needed to hear it was standing in front of him. Her smile told him how she felt hearing it and suddenly all his loneliness vanished.