Mashing the delete key as I sculpt the final paragraph of my research paper, I glance at the time. 8:50 p.m. With a sudden fervor, my fingers fly across the keyboard, stringing together what I hope are coherent sentences, before slamming my laptop shut.
"Wait for a bit, I'm almost ready!" I call to my dad. Still shaking off the adrenaline rush of cramming my essay, I curl up on the leather sofa in our living room, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. My dad takes his spot on the ground, using the sofa as a backrest and glancing back, as he always does, to make sure he's not blocking my view.
“Do you want to watch this one?” he asks, after flicking through several films on HBO and choosing “The Adjustment Bureau.” Skimming over the synopsis, I get the sense that this is probably a cheesy romance movie that tries to compensate for its lack of a good plot with Matt Damon.
Because frankly, I don’t care what we watch, and I don’t think my dad does either. All that matters is that for two hours, I get to sit here, bathing in the quiet warmth of everything — the blanket over my shoulders, the incandescent lights overhead, my dad’s presence — my mind blissfully free of any what-ifs and I-still-have-tos.
Growing up, I never spent much time with my dad. He’d take me to school in the morning before leaving for work, returning in the evening, and often sitting in virtual meetings for hours after. Of course, he still spent as much time as he could with my mother, my older sister, and me — cooking for us or taking us out to a restaurant on the weekends, being my sister’s and my de facto math tutor, letting us help him with yard work — but I spent much more time with my mother, who stayed at home. Adding this to the fact that neither my dad nor I are particularly talkative or open people, our relationship, although warm and loving, developed at a sort of distance.
We began to develop our own wordless way of communicating with each other, of saying “I love you.” It manifested in the way we’d squat in our backyard together, the sun beating down on our damp necks as we pulled weed after weed from the soil, dirt embedding itself beneath our fingernails. It manifested in our trips to the grocery store or the farmers’ market, how we’d stroll through the aisles while my dad pointed out how to pick out the best produce. And it manifested in the nights we’d spend in the living room, our attention not even fixed on each other, yet still quietly savoring the feeling of just being together.
My earliest memory of watching a movie together evokes the aroma of a Thanksgiving turkey wafting from the kitchen as I sprawl on the living room carpet, watching “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Already a voracious reader at 6 years old, I had begun devouring the series a few months earlier. We’d watched the previous movies over the past two days.
My dad returns from checking on the turkey, floral oven mitts still on his hands. “What part is this?” he asks, leaning briefly in front of the television.
The screen flashes blue as the goblet regurgitates a slip of paper. “They’re choosing who gets to be in the tournament,” I respond.
He nods, clasping his hands behind his back, and stays like that for a while, watching the scene unfold.
My dad, for the record, has never read the Harry Potter series or had any intention of doing so. He chose the movies because he knew I’d enjoy them and, as I realize in hindsight, because he wanted to experience something that I loved, to be a part of this little world of mine that he never got the chance to immerse himself in during a regular week.
And so it began. Wherever I had a break from school, we would watch at least one movie together. Occasionally, one of us would have a specific film in mind, but most of the time, my dad would flick through Hulu or HBO, or he’d borrow a stack of DVDs from the library, which we’d go through one by one.
Anything was fair game. We watched everything from “The Wolverine” to “Hidden Figures,” from “Spotlight” to “Inside Out.” There were even times when we’d forgo a movie for something else. PBS science documentaries were a favorite, but we’d pick up the occasional TV series as well, like the time we binged “The Handmaid’s Tale” following Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation.
Every time, I would take my spot on the couch and he on the floor. Every time, we would sit in almost total silence, save a few chuckles or quick remarks, while the film unfolded. And every time, we’d leave the room perhaps with lingering feelings about the film (“That was kind of a lame ending, huh?”) but with an undeniable sense of warmth and contentment underlying it all.
As my workload grew in high school — and with it, my tendency to push myself to the point of burnout — movie nights morphed into something that meant more than just quality time. At the end of a particularly stressful week, my dad would lean back in his seat at the dinner table, a content, postprandial smile on his face, and ask a simple question:
“Do you want to watch a movie?”
Immediately, my mind would run through my ever-expanding to-do list, regurgitating reason after reason to not spend two hours on a Friday night to relax for a bit. But I still have to analyze another passage for my English homework. I have to take notes on next week’s biology readings. I have to edit these newspaper stories and write my own column as well. I have to start studying for my calculus exam. I have to, I have to, I have to.
Occasionally, I’d decide that I’d feel better if I could just clear some work off my plate. But almost always, I would look at my dad, the expectant smile and almost childlike joy on his face, and say, “OK.”
Like that, my dad would pull me from the whirlwind of I-have-to’s and back to reality. Two hours, I’d remember, won’t make me fall significantly behind on anything. I have to rest. I deserve to rest. And most of all, some things are just more important than items on a to-do list.
In these moments, curling up on the sofa while my dad chooses a movie, I learned and relearned what it means to love. I learned that the perfect words and grand gestures fall short of what is communicated in this quiet, in simply being attuned to someone's needs and making the time and space to let them soak up your presence in their life. I learned how much my dad loves me, and I learned how much I love him.
It’s been months since I last watched a movie with my dad, and aside from his brief text messages and jovial cries of “Hello!” in the background whenever I call my mom, I haven’t spoken to him much since leaving for college. It’s as if our bond has transcended even the bridges technology builds between people. How could a phone call or a text message possibly replace weekly trips to the farmer’s market or evenings spent fending off mosquitoes as we admire his plants? How could they possibly replace our movie nights, those cozy evenings of simply being together in the same room?
In the throes of midterm season, I call my mom from my dorm as I push around the remainders of a semi-soggy salad with a plastic fork.
“How have you been?” she asks.
Stabbing a leaf of spinach, I open my mouth to give her the usual “I’m doing alright,” but stop. Do I tell her that I’m exhausted and overwhelmed? That I’m working too hard and don’t know how to stop? That I just really need a big hug?
Before I can decide, the words stumble, petulant, from my lips: “I miss watching movies with Dad.” Almost immediately, tears spring into my eyes.
My mom laughs. “Did you know that he hasn’t watched any movies since you left?”
My heart aches, and I don’t know whether to smile or cry. The salad becomes a blur of green, then sharpens into focus again as the tears roll down my cheeks.
“No,” I whisper, clearing my throat. “No, I didn’t know that.”
But what I do know now is what I’ll ask the minute my dad picks me up from the airport. And chances are, he’ll already have a stack of DVDs on the coffee table in the living room, waiting for me to come home.