I was way early for my flight, but I didn't feel like doing my typical pacing routine through the terminal in New Orleans. I sat down in the gate area, watching people gather for a flight leaving before mine.
A forty-something man walked up with his daughter. The girl looked to be my son's age, nine or so. She was blond, with striking, electric-blue eyes. The man was fit and rugged-looking, with olive skin and dark hair. After checking in with the gate agent, they returned to their standing position a few feet in front of me. They stood looking at the gate, his hands on her shoulders.
She turned and wrapped her arms around him.
"I don't want to leave, Daddy."
My mind raced to fill in the blanks. A divorce. Mom has custody. Daughter visiting Dad for the summer. School about to start. A flight back to Mom and her other life.
"I know Honey. But I'll see you during Christmas break, okay?" His voice sounded just a little . . . governed.
"But that's so long from now, Daddy. I wish I could live with you all the time."
The dad looked at a loss, as if the right words were failing him.
Finally, he said, "Me too, Honey."
The gate agent came to them, told them that the girl could board early. He walked with her to the ramp entrance. She threw her arms around him one last time, and I saw them both mouth the words, "I love you." She walked down the ramp, and he watched her leaving until there was nothing more to watch. He walked the few steps back to my vicinity, and turned to look at the airplane. Tears rolled from his eyes. I decided to give him his space, and stood to go buy a magazine.
I paused. I clapped him lightly on the shoulder, surprising him.
"Hang in there," I said.
"She's going back to Mom for the school year?"
"Yeah. Damn this is tough."
"How long have you and Mom been divorced?"
"Two years. A long two years."
"Gosh I'm sorry," I said. "I can't imagine how hard it must be to see her go."
"She's not mine, but she's in my heart, you know?"
I paused. "You're her stepdad, then?"
It was his turn to pause. He looked at me pointedly, and seemed to weigh something in his mind. "I had a DNA test done when she was five. Turned out I wasn't the biological father. I told my wife and my girl that I was going on a fishing trip for a few days, but I checked into a hotel and drank myself stupid."
"My God," was all I could say.
"At first, I made plans to divorce my wife. I was going to get transferred out of down; I was going to start a new life. But after four days holed up in that hotel, I knew that I loved that little girl more than ever. Some other guy's seed may have created her, but she was my daughter."
I started to speak, but I had to get past the lump in my throat.
"Did you ever confront your wife?"
"No. I was afraid she would leave with my daughter." He laughed a curt, bitter laugh. "Two years later, she left anyway."
"Will you ever tell your daughter?"
"If she ever thinks to ask, I won't lie to her. But no, otherwise, I'll carry the truth to my grave."
He drew into himself for a moment. Then he surfaced, and stuck out his hand.
"Thanks for talking with me friend; it was mighty kind of you." He chuckled. "Hell, I haven't told anyone about my daughter, and I end up spilling my guts to a stranger at the airport."
I smiled. "Hell man, I'm just a nosy bastard."
He laughed. "I think I needed to run into a nosy bastard this morning." He looked at his watch. "Time to get to the office. Thanks again, friend."
He reached for his wallet, probably to give me one of his business cards. But he seemed to reconsider, and he walked away.
I watched him leaving until there was nothing more to watch.