At eleven years old, not seeing my dad was a daily thing; he left home for work at 6 am, returning around 8 pm, the day having long passed. He would lay down on the couch, unfazed by the world around him, flip through channels, settle on a WWE re-run, and just fall asleep. In the morning he would be gone, not really disturbing the house. My brothers and I grew up accustomed to this routine. But one night it just seemed to change, after an argument he had with Mum. He became more active in our lives. He woke me up late one night and I could barely open my eyes. He pulled clothes out of my drawer, laid them on my bed, and told me to head to the car once dressed. The stars were far more plentiful than normal, like a rural midnight. But the cold air cut through the beautiful scenery, making me hurry to the car.
Dad looked tired but had a smile on his face. The warmth of the car made the outside feel like a distant memory. My brother looked out of his bedroom window, waving at the car as we drove off.
We drove to McDonald’s, the bright lights seemed to drown out the stars. He told me to order anything I wanted, which was a Big Mac combo. But Dad changed our drinks to strawberry milkshakes. After we left it was quiet, not like an awkward silence, just like nothing needed to be said. I put my window down. Braving the cold holding my hand outside. Catching the wind in my hand, it was like I was flying. Dad turned the radio on, playing songs I knew from parties at our house. He started to sing, not that he really could, sounding more like a mangled cat than anything else. But he was happy, smiling as his voice tried to hit the right note, but always getting it wrong.
I started to hear this rumbling sound, thinking it was just Dad’s voice, but I looked out the window and saw a plane passing over our heads. The airport was a stone’s throw away. The lights held back the darkness, welcoming all into its embrace. I asked Dad why we were here, but he just told me to wait and said that we would be there soon. Thoughts ran through my head, maybe we were picking someone up or going to play mini-golf, but none of that was the right answer. Instead we stopped at this dingy little carpark, facing the runway. It was a small lookout point. Only big enough to fit 10 or 11 cars at most, it looked like it was in the middle of nowhere, a quiet place even though planes flew overhead. He parked the car and we started to eat our burgers and drink our milkshakes. He told me stories that I had never heard before, about how he was a chef, about to leave the country for bigger and better things, about how that all changed when he fell in love with Mum. He told me stories of the path he chose in life and how he wouldn’t change a thing. Listening to him, I felt sad, thinking that he gave up so much for us and that the only reason we never saw him was that he was working hard to give us better lives.
As he told stories it felt like he was unloading all the things he kept from us, as if he was trying to explain why he acted the way he did. Like he was the kid and I was his parent. It was nice, that he felt it necessary to explain this to a kid that should be thanking him. When we finished eating, we weren’t in any rush to go home, so we sat there. Watching as planes landed, and others took off. The roar of the planes didn’t even reach our ears, we just sat there listening to the radio play music from home.
In the car next to us was this old dude, sitting alone, watching the planes take off just like us. After a while he knocked on my window, had me thinking our music was too loud, but he just offered me a fizzy drink, telling us he was used to buying two of everything and just did it out of habit. Dad told me to take it and say thank you, so I did, and then Dad started talking with him. The old man told us how his wife loved to watch the planes take off, how he brought her here most nights so he could see her smile. He said that his wife had passed away and that this is the place where he felt closest to her. When we listened to him not once did he look sad, even at the mention of her death, it was just the same smile on his face. Dad said thank you to the old man for sharing his story. I looked at the planes wondering why his wife loved it here, at this little gravel-filled lot, which seemingly no one even notices. I smiled thinking what a good husband he must have been, and just how much his wife must have loved him.
The old man left, saying goodbye and that it was good to see other people using the lookout. After he was gone, I looked at Dad, asked him why he brought us here. He just said it was something he always wanted to do. That one night he wanted to come down to the lookout and watch planes take off, and wonder, where they were going and where they had come from. He smiled, telling me that we would come here again, drink strawberry milkshakes, talk about our day and just watch the planes come and go. I hope that one day I will drive down in my own car, with my own son, drinking strawberry milkshakes and tell him that because of this little lookout point, I knew my dad loved me.
This is a chapter from Unknown Places, a collection of short stories about Auckland by undergraduate creative writing students at Manukau Institute of Technology published here this week. The published stories are: