The Empty Seat [Feature]

by Mira R. (Alumni)

I slid into the seat next to my dad. It was a cold, winter night and we were both bundled up in wool hats and down coats. There was a slight layer of frost on the shuttle bus’s windows and I traced my name with my gloved finger. I then started to shiver and chatter my teeth exaggeratedly and my dad laughed and put his arm, bulky with his winter coat, around my shoulders. The shuttle bus took us from the overflow parking lot back to campus, where we waited in line to pick up our tickets for the middle school’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To ten-year-old me, watching the middle school play was very cool and I had been looking forward to it all week. My dad had come home from work early to take me out to dinner and then to the play. My little brother, Louis, had even asked if he could come and my dad had said “No.” Tonight was time for just my dad and me, which was very special.

Outside of the barn where the play was going to take place, a few older students were selling hot cocoa in paper cups so my dad and I headed over to buy some.

“Here sweetie,” my dad said as he passed me a cup. I brought it to my lips, feeling the warmth and sweetness of the wisps of steam. Just then, with surprise, I spotted my best friend, Stephanie, from across the courtyard. I didn’t know she was coming to the play but there she was with her mom and her other friend from outside of school, Lea.

Stephanie raced over. “Mira! Mira! You’re here! We found cushions and we’re going to sit on the floor in front of the first row! It’s the best seat in the audience and it’s only for kids! Sit with us, Mira!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down energetically, as always. Stephanie then grabbed my hand and dragged me across the courtyard, inside a building to the table where cookies were set out. Lea, Stephanie, and I grabbed a few and as we nibbled at them, Lea started to tell Stephanie a story about one of their neighbors who I did not know. I found my mind wandering to think of my Dad outside in the dark, sipping his hot cocoa alone. I felt a sharp pang of guilt. I hadn’t had a chance to say anything to him before Stephanie dragged me away. I hoped he was talking to another parent. Worrying about my dad was a new feeling, and it felt weird. I can’t hurt his feelings, right? I asked myself. He’s the adult, I’m only the kid!

Just then, one of the teachers rang a bell to gather the crowd’s attention and inform us that the play would start shortly. Stephanie and Lea made their way outside and to the barn, and I followed right behind. I was wracking my brain for something to earn Stephanie’s attention with. Perhaps I could talk to Stephanie about some school gossip about someone Lea didn’t know, as Lea had done? My dad was waiting for me at the entrance to the barn.

“Hey sweetie, there you are,” he said. “Here’s your hot cocoa. Shall we find our seats?”

“Wait, Mira, aren’t you sitting with us in the front?” Stephanie asked. Of course I was – how could I not? I didn’t want to watch Stephanie and Lea whispering and giggling to each other the entire time from accross the room. Stephanie was my best friend. I had to sit with her. I looked up at my dad, hoping he wouldn’t make me ask him for permission, which he didn’t.
“Honey, go ahead and sit with your friends.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, even though I was already thinking of how I could find a way to put my cushion in between Stephanie’s and Lea’s.

“Of course.” My dad said.

The barn was packed: folding chairs were filled with adoring parents, friends, and teachers. Stephanie, Lea, and I took our spots on blankets and cushions on the floor in front of the audience. In the moments before the play began as the lights were being dimmed, I looked around the room and locked eyes with my dad. He smiled but I felt that there was a hint of sadness in his expression. My seat next to his was glaringly empty. He had his coat rested on the seat. I knew he was saving it for me, just in case I changed my mind. My dad didn’t look away and held my gaze with a steady, loving smile. A fleeting vision crossed my mind of me running over and taking my seat, leaning against my dad’s warm body as the play began, but I couldn’t. Then the lights went out and my dad disappeared with the audience, enshrouded in darkness. I closed my eyes and the image of my empty seat reappeared in the blackness. My heart ached in a way it had not before. Alone on my large cushion, I hugged my knees into my chest and looked up at the dark stage, waiting.

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