This Is Supposed to Be an Apology by Alyssa Kagel


I stood at the threshold of my daughter Eliza’s studio apartment, staring at a nude statue with enormous breasts and a giraffe-like neck that held open the apartment door. I tried not to study the statue, turning instead towards my daughter’s side of the room: a painting on the wall with zigzagging gray lines that wasn’t Eliza’s style, dresser tidy as usual. But no Eliza. 

Eliza’s roommate sat scribbling at a messy desk, her back to me, her side of the room filled with students who were bored or angry; I couldn’t tell which. Music blared. The whole place reeked of stale beer. I wasn’t naïve; I knew my daughter drank in college, but Eliza preferred a mixed drink—she’d said so. The roommate had the brooding look of a daytime beer drinker.

I half-knocked, trying not to startle everyone. “Hi, there,” I said. “Have you seen Eliza? I called, but it went straight to voicemail.”

The roommate turned to face me and stood up, revealing raccoon-like makeup, high boots, and a black dress that practically forced me to look at her breasts. She would be a beauty without all that makeup, and the persona seemed wrong for a Sunday morning. It was called “goth,” according to Eliza.

Selena, that was her name. “Father-daughter brunch, right?” Selena said. “Adorable you and Eliza do that every weekend. I haven’t eaten with my dad in a decade. He’s a deadbeat, though.” She laughed, as if she’d made a joke, then turned serious. “Eliza left… this morning.” She looked at her friends and smirked. “I’m sure she’s at the library. She’s very studious. I’ll tell her you stopped by.” 

She returned to the desk and turned up her screechy music. I wanted to pierce through her indifference and yell something. ELIZA IS MISSING, maybe. I didn’t think my daughter had really disappeared, not at that point, anyway. But Selena’s cool-girl attitude irritated me. If she was truly Eliza’s best friend, she should care about Eliza’s whereabouts.

In the end, I decided it wasn’t worth saying anything—Selena made me nervous, and Eliza would call any minute now. I trudged outside, into brisk air and blinding sun. Day-old snow that had frozen overnight made a satisfying crunch as I walked. I’d expected Eliza’s Massachusetts college town to feel warmer than my home in Maine, but the cold got into my bones either way.

A jolt of fear pulsed through me as I looked at my Rolex. Eliza was supposed to meet me at the car thirty minutes ago and I still hadn’t heard from her, though she usually called when she was three minutes late. Something horrible could’ve happened. I imagined a ditch, a body. I called again: straight to voicemail. 

Twenty minutes later, my almost-ex-wife’s name appeared as an incoming call on my cell. We hadn’t talked in months.

I tried not to drop crumbs onto the blue velvet couch as I nibbled a tuna sandwich. Helen knew I hated tuna, and she ate her sandwich with gusto. The house stank of fish, ginger candle, and mold. 

I stared at Helen’s long, graying hair. She had gone to the hairdresser every month to maintain her shoulder-length, bright blond hair when we were together. I’d last seen her seven months ago, when Eliza moved into her overpriced off-campus apartment as a college sophomore and my professional life was still intact. 

Richard was away, so I’d agreed to visit, under the circumstances, though I regretted my decision as I stared at the room crowded with figurines and painted plates. Helen’s style was modern, subdued, and I did not understand what she saw in this Richard. He was a Chemistry Professor at Eliza’s school (the school connection was a horrible coincidence), so perhaps something about the prestige of academia intrigued Helen. 

Richard should’ve stayed in this crumbling colonial last year, instead of renting the house next door to me and Helen in Maine. What kind of maniac takes sabbatical in Maine when they teach in Massachusetts? Richard, that’s the kind. He’d pretended to be my friend, but he wooed Helen all summer. 

Eliza hadn’t called earlier that day about father-daughter brunch because she fell on the ice, broke her wrist, and cracked her phone. She called her mother, though, on someone else’s phone. And she’d agreed to move in with her mother and Richard while she recovered, even though Eliza was supposedly furious at Helen and rarely spoke to Richard. I tried not to let this sting, and instead to count what I was grateful for: Eliza’s safety, the “nice” coincidence that Helen had shacked up with someone who lived on Eliza’s campus so Helen could help without disrupting Eliza’s studies. 

“How are you feeling, sweetie?” I said to Eliza, reveling in my status as the good parent, the one who did not break a family apart. 

“Fine, fine. I’m not, like, a glass doll, or anything. But I could use a nap.” She looked from me to Helen. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Helen said. “You’re here to rest, so go rest.” 

Eliza ignored her mother and smiled at me before she walked upstairs to the spare bedroom.

I put my plate on the coffee table, giving up on the tuna as my stomach growled. “Is Richard a collector?” I gestured around the room. 

 She sighed and let the question languish. “Is everything okay?” she said after a minute. “You seem a little… worn.”

This was it. My opening. I could tell her. But my chest hardened around that word, worn. I’d felt semi-good about my reflection in Richard’s bathroom mirror just minutes before. My bright blue eyes, my full head of hair, which in middle age was something. She wanted a balding, brown-eyed Richard. Richard probably never looked “worn” to her. 

 I stood. “Give Richard my best.” My tone was more sarcastic than I’d intended.

“Don’t start. I’m tired of being cast as the evil witch while you get to play the nice guy with Eliza. You were married to work for most of our marriage—or did you forget that?” 

I stared at the door, wondering where Helen had put my jacket. I was suddenly desperate to escape. “I didn’t think a mindless pleasantry would set you off,” I said.

“Here’s your coat.” She pulled it from the rack right in front of me. “I still love you, you know. Wish I didn’t. It makes me feel like crap.” 

 I wanted to say the words back. I imagined saying them, but it wasn’t enough. It was nothing. I just stood there.

“We were awful from the start though, weren’t we?” she said.

“I lost my job,” I said on a whim, partly to change the subject. “Me and a bunch of other partners. The firm was losing money, so…” I trailed off, worried she’d know I wasn’t telling the whole truth. “I’m putting the Maine house on the market.”

“Have you told Eliza? She’ll be upset.”

“Well, Helen, I can’t afford that big house anymore. If it sells for more than I bought you out for, I’ll send a check. Maybe Eliza will stop being angry at you if she’s mad at me about the house.”

“You have no clue about anything, do you?” She shook her head, then composed herself with a neutral expression. “What are your plans once you sell?”

“The world is my oyster.” I tried to find relief in finally telling her, but my eyes sagged. “I have an interview in Boston in a few days. It should be good.”

“Boston, nice.” Her voice sounded hollowed out and bright. It was a play. We were both acting. “Good luck,” she said. 

I knew right away: the Boston law firm was not a good fit. It was glass and modern art and youth; I was oak and impressionist paintings and middle age. I should’ve stayed in Maine, where I belonged. 

“Selena is ready for you now,” the front desk lady chirped, smoothing glossy hair. The name surprised me. I had expected someone who sounded more like me, a George or a William. I thought of Eliza’s roommate Selena and her batting-eyelashes smile, and wondered if she could become a sleek lawyer one day. 

Law Firm Selena wore flattering black pants and high heels. She reminded me of one of Eliza’s preppy college friends whom I dismissed as sweet but unserious. This Selena was not smiley. Her office had a clinical austerity to it. At home, I knew my suit was a classic; in her presence, it was outdated. I was outdated. 

She went through the usual interview questions, and I answered honestly. I wasn’t getting the job, so why not? I felt reckless and free, like I was driving fast with the windows down on a perfect spring day.

Then she asked, “Why did you leave your last job?”

It was an inevitable question. Still, it took me by surprise. I paused, opened my mouth, clamped it shut. I’d told no one. Not that I had anyone to tell. The guys at the office, the supposed friends who disappeared when I lost my job, were the only ones who knew. Who would I tell—Helen? Eliza? Of course not. Barbara in HR had promised to keep things private after I signed the documents. 

My interviewer tapped her manicured nails on the desk, bringing me back to the brown leather chair I’d sunk into. She stared at me, waiting. 

I drew in a deep, jagged breath. I could’ve kept the secret, but I wanted to tell someone. Just once.

“I was fired.” I looked down at the dress shoes I’d forgotten to polish and noticed a scuff. “Been there for three decades. Impeccable record. But they had a no-tolerance policy… which I get, I understand. I deserved to be let go. I’m usually a good person, I think. People have told me that. Lynn, the woman I… She seems to be doing okay, according to LinkedIn. She got a new job and was promoted right away. She’s partner material for sure.” I looked up, dazed, at Law Firm Selena. “What do you think—would you have been traumatized if one of your supervisors asked to kiss you?” 

She pursed her lips and stood, then muttered under her breath, something like, “Jesus Christ.” I couldn’t make it out and I didn’t dare ask. She was a smidge taller than me, which I hadn’t noticed before. I wanted to say something to unset her jaw, but nothing came to mind. 

In a louder voice, she said, “I think we’re done here. Thank you for stopping by.” She looked everywhere except my eyes and kept her hands at her sides when I offered a handshake. 

I blasted talk radio as I drove away from the interview, but I didn’t hear a word. I’d hoped to feel lighter after telling someone. But it hadn’t been anyone. It had been another lawyer, in a place where lawyers knew each other. I felt weighed down in my seat, barely able to move. Once again, I’d chosen poorly.

After a few hours, I was back in seaside Maine. I couldn’t bear the empty house where my wife and daughter used to live, so I stopped at a bar uptown, far from my old office, for a gin and tonic. I thought of Law Firm Selena, wondered if she had met with other candidates that afternoon. Maybe she told colleagues about me. This guy, what a slimeball, something like that. I considered writing her an email right then, punching it out on my phone. Not one of those, “thank you for the interview,” sort of messages, but a different kind. An explanation. 

Instead, I sipped my overpriced drink and stared at the bar in front of me. White-painted bricks jutted out of the wall; top-shelf alcohol glistened in a locked grate. The place smelled of pennies and was too hip for me. Still, it would do.

And then there she was. Lynn, the associate who had worked at my law firm. Ex-firm. She was right behind me, edging towards the bar. I’d noticed red curls and turned in her direction. 

I wanted a time machine to erase the attempted kiss. Erase the feeling in my gut when Helen moved in with Richard, when all seemed lost. I hadn’t dated since high school. Fucking high school. My life was my job back then, so where was I supposed to meet someone new? I thought Lynn could be the answer. Lynn who stayed late at the bar, smiling. Lynn who was beautiful and smart; all the things. She mentioned a boyfriend, but still. Her fingertips brushed against me when she stood up from the bar. Plus, I was drunk. I followed her. Waited outside the ladies’ room, asked when she came out if I was crazy, or was there something between us, and would it be okay if I kissed her? She didn’t say I was crazy, but her eyes told me as she withdrew.

I felt a decade older as I gulped and smiled at Lynn, though only half a year had passed since that awful night at the bar.

“Oh, wow. Henry. Hi.” Her hands fidgeted at her sides. 

“Hi, Lynn. Sorry if I surprised you.”

She gestured for the bartender.  

“Do you work near here?” I asked.

She nodded. “You?”

I shook my head pathetically, wondering how I had ever imagined this young woman could desire someone like me. Her answer didn’t surprise me, and I feared my subconscious had chosen this bar for a reason. I imagined shrinking into something small and contrite. Her eyes told me I didn’t belong there.

She got the bartender’s attention and ordered several beers with strange names. 

“I’m leaving in a few minutes. I won’t be in this part of town anytime soon.” I had been trying to reassure her, but it came out wrong.

She said nothing. The bartender handed her the beers in exchange for her credit card. 

“Hey, before I go, can I tell you something?” 

She put down the beers and nodded, barely. 

“I’m sorry. That’s it, I’m sorry.” 

I waited. Still, she didn’t say a word. Her hands no longer fidgeted. She clenched them at her sides. 

“I was in a bad place and I misread the signals,” I blundered on. “I’d drank too much. But there’s no excuse. I knew the boundary, and I crossed it. And I’m sorry.” I stared into my drink and willed her to speak. When she did not, I said, “I signed a document agreeing never to contact you again. Which I wasn’t planning to do, but when we were both in here… I hope it’s okay, that I’m saying this.”

“You hope it’s okay?” She shook her head. A rabid laugh escaped her lips that made me go still. “It’s a coincidence, is it, that you showed up at this bar, near my new office?” She shook her head again.  

I blinked back at Lynn, too dazed to speak.

“I’m sure they gave you a nice severance package when you left,” she continued. “With a bunch of conditions, right? I got a handshake when I gave my notice, that’s all. Well, Barbara gave me her private cell. Said she took her job in HR seriously. I should call if anything came up, even after I quit.” 

I had Barbara’s cell too, of course. Barbara and her husband had been to my house for dinner. Helen made bacon-wrapped scallops once, and the second time I grilled a filet. 

“You’re right,” I said, my voice catching in my stomach. “I shouldn’t be here. When I came in, I wasn’t fully thinking about what I was doing.” I faltered as I looked at Lynn, searching for a sign of something; recognition or, I don’t really know what. 

She ran her fingers through her hair. One curl stood halfway out on her head. I imagined another world where I would press the curl down and she’d smile as she squeezed my hand. 

“Did you think I was competent?” she said. “Or did you just want to sleep with me?”

“You’re a brilliant lawyer. That’s one reason I…” I shook my head. “I’m sorry if I made you question that.”

“Well. I’m glad to hear that, at least.” Something in her eyes flickered. “If we run into each other again at a neutral location, that’s one thing. But please don’t… seek me out, or whatever you’re doing here. Alright? Can you do that?”

She spoke as if I were a child or a psychopath. The look on her face could have been fear or anger, maybe both. It was something burning, that much I knew. I wanted to change her mind about me. To show her I was a harmless dad who raised a lovely daughter, to assure her I would stay away from the bars near her office, to convince her I never wanted to hurt her, to admit I had been at my worst in that moment at the bar near the bathroom, and I had chosen poorly on this night too, but I was ready to become a better person. I wanted to tell her I was trying my best, trying to apologize.

Instead, I said, “Of course I won’t… I mean, not that I intended to, but I’ll try…” I sighed. “Is there anything I can do to make things right?”

“I should get back to my colleagues.” She gave a curt nod of goodbye and was gone.

A few days later, Eliza, Selena, and I sat in a booth at the Train Car Diner. The servers wore ill-fitting conductor outfits and hollow smiles. Outside was cold and cloudy, dirty snow piled along sidewalks, unrelenting even as the season edged towards spring. 

“How’s Marcus?” I asked Eliza, referring to the long-distance boyfriend she’d started dating in high school. 

Eliza paused and looked at Selena, then back at me. “We’re on a break.” 

I nodded. “You’re young. Makes sense to let go of your high school sweetheart.” 

“Do you wish you’d let go of yours?” Eliza said. 

I almost choked up. The last time had been ten years ago, when my dad died of a heart attack. A normal thing to cry about, in the privacy of an empty bedroom. 

“Your mom and I…” I cleared my throat, searching for the right words. “Be nice to her. It wasn’t easy having me as a husband. You’re the best thing that’s happened to both of us.” It was an eye-rolly dad thing to say, I knew, but I couldn’t help it. I slurped the last of my milkshake and the cold went straight to my head, freezing the tears before they fell. 

“Eliza is better off without him,” Selena said in between chomps. She’d dumped fried pickles on pancakes and smothered the mess in syrup. She was acting like a child, not the vixen I’d imagined her to be. “She’s a catch, and Marcus will be sorry when she has an amazing new boyfriend in no time. Or if she rocks it single, that would be awesome too!” Selena winked at Eliza.

Selena was a good friend to my daughter. This was obvious, though I’d missed it before. 

“Can we change the subject, please? My dad doesn’t want to talk about my love life.” Eliza rolled her eyes and straightened up to reveal the words written on her shirt: “fuck the patriarchy,” in a cutesy, gold cursive. I tried to maintain a neutral expression as I wondered what else I didn’t know about my daughter.

“I’ll talk about whatever you want,” I said.

“Oh, did you hear they fired Professor Brian?” Selena said to Eliza. “You had him for Econ, right?”

Eliza looked at me. “He came on to a bunch of students. Slimeball, right?” 

I gave the slightest of nods and swallowed hard.

Thirty minutes later, Helen slid into the booth across from me, breathless. “I’m glad you caught me before I headed home, but I don’t have long. Everything okay with Eliza? Why all this food?” 

“They agreed to let me hold the table if I bought a second meal,” I said, trying to ignore the sting of that word. Home.

I’d ordered as if for the three of us, without realizing. French toast for Helen, ham and swiss omelet for Eliza, fruit salad for me. I had always risen early and eaten my first breakfast at home, before the ladies were awake and ready for Sunday brunch. 

“I’m not hungry, but I’ll nibble.” She ate in her usual way, gulping down chunks of French toast. She still had the metabolism of a linebacker. 

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking a lot the past few days. About us. About how to… improve myself.” I paused, wrung my hands under the table. “I apologized to someone I used to work with. It didn’t go well—she wasn’t happy about it. I suppose I did it for myself. I wasn’t thinking of her, not in the way I thought I was. Still, I have to hope eventually she’ll appreciate my apology, or understand why I wanted to apologize, or, I don’t know. Maybe I should have left well enough alone. I’m not sure of anything. And Eliza, with Marcus. I don’t want her to end up with someone like me.”

Helen held her fork in midair. “Is that why you asked me here? To prattle on about how you apologized to your colleague?” 

“No.” I cleared my throat. “I don’t want to get this wrong. There’s a lot at stake between you and me.”

“For God’s sake, Henry, is this supposed to be an apology?” 

“No. I mean, yes.” I sighed, tried to get my words together. Things were going wrong again. “I’m sorry. That’s why I asked you here. I should’ve been fully present with you when we were together, and I’m sorry I wasn’t. You deserved better. Okay?” 

Helen jammed her fork into the French toast. “What, did you think I’d throw my arms around you in forgiveness?” 

“No, of course not.”

Helen was quiet as her anger flared and fizzled. I watched in relief: her eyes softened; her body drooped.

“Look, it’s good to hear you apologize,” she said. “I’m sorry, too.”

After a time, I asked, “Will you marry Richard?” 

“Richard has nothing to do with you and me.”

“Is that a no, then?”

“You’re missing the point. I was unhappy for a long time, before I met Richard. Maybe you tried your best.”

“I miss you,” I said, my voice cracking in a way that made me hate myself. The silence was heavy as I waited, and she didn’t say the words back.

“We weren’t awful from the beginning,” I finally said. “We were only young, and in love.” 

“I know.” She met my gaze. Her eyes were clear and dark and sparkling. I fell in love with those eyes when I was a teenager, when the future with all its promises stretched before us both. After a moment, she turned away and mumbled something about the late hour. Sunlight streamed in through the restaurant window, lighting her face. The snow would melt, and it would be an ugly mess outside. She gathered her coat and purse, stood up, and nodded her goodbye. All I could do was watch her go.

Alyssa Kagel’s publication credits include Brilliant Flash Fiction, the magazine of Southwest Airlines, and Mother magazine. When not at her writing desk, she’s working in renewable energy, spending time with her family, and planning her next adventure.