The gift you buy your daughter is not the gift she opens. What you bought her was a DVD of an animated film she’d begged to see in theaters but you were never able to take her to—the story of a rat who enjoys gourmet cooking. You planned to make popcorn and watch the movie with her on your next weekend together. But what she unwraps at her party, with her friends sitting on their knees in the kitchen chairs and leaning over the table, their parents standing behind them, is a copy of the exact same movie, only it is the Spanish-language version.
Everyone looks at you. You feel a bolt of panic pass through your stomach. It isn’t possible you could spend twenty minutes searching the family videos in the electronics department of the superstore, find the movie, carry it to one of the only open checkout lanes in the endless colonnade of them at the front of the gigantic place, pay for it, drive it home, leave it on top of the counter beside the junk mail for a week before wrapping it, wrap it, and never once notice that every word on the box, apart from the title and the actors’ names, is written in a language that neither you, nor your daughter, speak. It really isn’t possible, you tell yourself. Gremlins are the only explanation.
The look on your ex’s face—a kind of beleaguered acceptance, as though she knew something like this would happen—is so familiar to you it barely registers. It’s the same expression she’d give you when you stayed out late after a shift with buddies from work, shouting abuse at refs from your barstool, and came home swaying and broke. The look on your daughter’s face, though, devastates you; you feel it in your knees: her confusion and disappointment, paired with the newly acquired knowledge that those two emotions join each other effortlessly. The gift is what she wanted, but not what she wanted: a bike with no wheels. You’d like to bring her close and tell her she should get used to the feeling, that there’ll be plenty of Spanish-language DVDs in her future. In fact, if nobody else were around, you’re certain you’d say just that. Instead you simply apologize for the goof-up and promise to get a replacement as soon as you leave. Then you encourage her to open some of the other nice gifts her friends brought, which she does: a stuffed animal, a large box of crayons, an assortment of hair bands and nail polish.
The rest of the party passes in a fog. You sing happy birthday as enthusiastically as everyone else and join in the various party games, but despite the festivities, your thoughts continue to return to the messed up gift. How’d you miss something so obvious for so long? Everything lately, it seems, has been changing on you—little changes at first, like the shifting colors of a seashell held to light, and then all the solid fixtures in your world are stepping sideways out of your life. Your family, your friends, your work. This past year, your wife stopped sleeping in the bed with you, complaining the mattress hurt her back, and then she was giving you divorce papers and talking about attorneys. Your friends were suddenly busier, at the bar less and less, until not at all. And your boss, a month before he said you weren’t in the company’s future plans, quit CCing you on emails.
The party ends. You tell your daughter you can’t wait to see her again, kiss her on the check, and then depart. You keep your word and drive straight to the store to exchange the movie for an English-language copy, which you stash in your glove compartment so that you won’t forget to bring it when you pick her up the following weekend for your two days with her.
After a stop at the convenience store to get gas and pick up beer, you drive home but are too absorbed in the songs on the radio and your thoughts, recalling the puzzled look of your daughter, that you don’t realize you’ve driven past your apartment—and instead drive to the house where you grew up in a nearby part of town. Only when you pull into the driveway and park behind a car your parents could never have afforded do you recognize your mistake. You blink a few to focus yourself. There’re lights on inside the house, and a boy is playing on the porch with a battery-operated dinosaur with flashing red eyes. The dinosaur suspends its destruction of a small Lego village, and the boy, surprised at your intrusion, stares at you for a moment before running inside the house, probably to alert his parents.
You don’t back out of the driveway immediately and return to your home, as you know you should. Rather, you shut off the engine, pull a beer from the twelve-pack in the passenger’s-seat, and wait for someone to welcome you home.
Nick Sansone attends the MFA program at Emerson College, where he is the managing editor for Redivider and a fiction reader for Ploughshares. His stories have previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Flatmancrooked, the New Plains Review, and elsewhere.