Until recently, I thought that the one trait I passed on to my daughter was my taste in music. The first song Abby learned in its entirety was "Hotel California." Only five years old, she would accompany me with gusto on the porch, her small body bent over as she made enthusiastic stabbing motions at the appropriate time. My wife, from behind the screen door, said "What have you taught her? What will the neighbors think?"

I think about that now, driving on the first day of a cross-country road trip, moving Abby from Durham, North Carolina to Southern California. Despite several renowned universities nearby, she has elected to attend college on the opposite coast. I try not to read anything into that.

It's late August 2020, six months into the pandemic, and we chose to avoid planes and airports, opting instead for disinfecting spartan hotel rooms and eating take-out meals. It's just the two of us, my ex-wife too busy with her work, allowing me this one act of responsibility, this one chance to adjust the scoreboard she keeps, where the tally of my acts of irresponsibility has me trying to catch up. Eight days of driving, there and back, and this will only be a start. There are debts that can't be fully paid.

Abby is a quiet person. We sit a few feet apart, breathing the same air, a precious and sometimes dangerous commodity amidst a viral pandemic. With every silent hour of the drive, the air thickens and I feel a powerful urge to drink—this is when it hits me, my brain looping on something distressful, something unsolvable, mutable only by sour mash whiskey—and I practice my grounding exercises, feel the steering wheel nubby against my palms, feel the gas pedal push back on my foot, feel my arm resting against the cool window. I'm not prepared for this awkwardness, when I envisioned this trip, I thought of it as a love song, picturing us singing together, one last time, to songs we both loved.

"She won't like that," Abby says.

"Who? Won't like what?" I glance over at her.

She shakes her head, lifts her earbud cord microphone closer to her mouth. She's not talking to me.

Will this trip become a drudgery to her, a lasting memory of her days with me, bored? I'm not used to this much time with Abby. Her mother, Sylvia, left me ten years ago, taking Abby with her, collateral damage. I was a drunk, Sylvia said, unfit to be a husband or a father. There are mean drunks, sad drunks, and happy drunks, she said, and you're none of those, you're just a stupid drunk. A realization: despite years of practice, I didn't even do drunk well.

After the divorce, Abby stayed with me every-other-weekend and I watched her grow in two-week increments. I became a tourist in her life, connecting at birthdays, holidays, and sporting events, but I missed the millions of minutes of ordinary life—toothpaste in mouth and one last thing to say before bed, partial phrases referencing sitcom episodes repeatedly watched, long-running discussions on food, clothing, friends—that tell you who a person is, that tell you who you are to them.

Now I have four days with Abby, thousands of minutes, trapped inside a car and dreary hotel rooms, my last chance to reconnect, to repair what I've broken, to salve the scars.

When I was seven years old, I lived in an apartment with my mom and her boyfriend. A young couple lived next to us. They probably heard us yelling, the broken dishes, the fists slammed against walls. I left the apartment when I could and the couple next door would take me into their place, play games, read to me. It never occurred to me to wonder why they had so many children's books and games, with no child in sight.

The woman was reading to me one evening, when she stopped, held up my arm, exposing four round bruises on the inside of my forearm, a single round bruise on the opposite side. "This is not okay," she said to her husband.

"If we report it," he said, "they'll take him into the system. That might not be better."

She said to me, "We're here, whenever you need us. Knock on our door. Pound on the wall. Scream."

My mother and I moved to another city a few weeks later. We were always moving.

Abby and I are taking Route 40 across the country. There are so many great places to stop: The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Graceland in Memphis, ancient cliff dwellings, and Albuquerque, setting of Breaking Bad, a TV show we watched together like a morality tale. Abby is interested in none of that. She doesn't want to play tourist with her father, she wants to get to Southern California as soon as possible, get started on her next life.

I think of the horrible things that can happen to girls at college parties, now adding a new one—catching a global virus. It is an act of bravery, I think, for parents to let their children go. Abby says it is simply an act of trust, a necessary step in life. I hope that we, mostly Sylvia if I am honest, have nurtured Abby properly. I do not know the rules for raising a girl into a strong, good woman.

We're a few hours into our cross-country drive, skirting the Great Smoky Mountains, songs from Abby's phone thrumming through the speakers. I recognize a few of the songs. Though it was before my time, I have always been drawn to the music of the late 60s and early 70s, the stories in the songs, the exquisite harmonies, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, the Eagles. As a young girl, Abby's playlists included much of my music and even into middle school she still had a few oldies sprinkled among her songs. They are all gone now and even during long stretches when she might sleep, I won't put my music on. I have no rights here, no right to please myself, not after what I did to her.

We've been quiet for hours when Abby asks, "Why don't you ever date?"

Thrown into the silence, the question is a gift, an opening, even if it's not the conversation I am hoping for. "Who says that I don't?"


"Your mother doesn't."

Abby lets out a sigh that hangs like a cloud inside the car. If she has the virus, I'm doomed. "Mom married her career," she says. "She says it's more satisfying. Less likely to disappoint."

I look at Abby, gauging whether she understands what that says about me. "I don't know how to date," I say. "My last date was with your mom."

Abby fingers the scar at the corner of her mouth. She's unaware that she often does this, unaware that the sight of it makes my chest fold around my heart and my hands go cold on the steering wheel.

"Online dating," she says. "There are websites for people over fifty."

"I just turned fifty."

"So, be the young guy all the women want."

I think Abby's smiling. Believing that smiling exaggerates her scar, she barely moves her mouth, smiling mostly with her eyes, her voice. Handy now, working around face masks.

"We'll stop in an hour," she says.

Abby's in charge of directions, mapping out our day on her phone, providing terse instructions, guiding us to stop only for food, gas, or bathroom breaks. I can see the roads on the small map on her phone, the roads like a line of stitches, a way to mend what we've hurt.

To fill in the quiet hours, I could talk about my college experiences. How I started college studying Wildlife and Conservation Biology and loved it, but I was a lackluster student, too enamored of booze-friendly activities. Two years in and I got scared. Jobs weren't plentiful, competition was. I had an aptitude for coding and jobs were abundant. I switched majors. I've had a good career in programming, yet I lost something in that switch. I lost the tangible world of biology. There's a teaching moment there, if I were willing to make the attempt.

When Abby was little, when we still lived together as a family, I used to tell her stories, true tales from the animal world, my own Just So Stories. I told her about the giant Pacific octopus with nine brains and three hearts pumping blue blood. About the rare Kermode bear, the Spirit bear, ghostly white and rarely seen. About sea otters who hold hands while sleeping so as not to drift apart. Preparing for this trip, knowing we'd have time together inside a car and hotel rooms, I collected animal stories featuring the best fathers of the animal kingdom.

I want to tell Abby about Emperor Penguin dads, the most famous of the animal fathers, sitting on their eggs for weeks, not moving because any slip and the harsh conditions would kill the chick inside the exposed egg. No eating, no socializing, Penguin-Dad just sits there, waiting for mom to return with food. And if the chick comes out before mom returns, Penguin-Dad regurgitates what little food he has inside him, for the chick to eat. Penguin-Dad love is inviolate.

I have accumulated many animal-father stories and each one ends with the same epilog, if only I were willing to say it: I would do that for you.

I never knew my father; he was never given a name. Just "a stupid mistake" according to my mother. They never married.

My first recollection: Mom and I living in Charlotte with a guy called Darryl. After that there was Greensboro with Richard, then Winston-Salem with Trevon. She found men who could match her drink for drink, if not always for temper and ferocity. Mom moved us frequently, apartment to apartment, city to city, outrunning evictions and collection agencies, chasing jobs and men, cohabitating, marrying and divorcing. Mom married when she became exhausted, by working, by mothering. She took to quick civil weddings like richer women took weekend spa treatments, hoping for a refresh.

We settled outside of Raleigh, where I started sixth grade being called by my middle name and the last name of stepfather number two, though he had not adopted me and never would. Mom blamed it on a paperwork issue. It's just a name, she said, it doesn't matter. The next year, I had my actual first name and once again, my stepfather's last name. Another clerical error, Mom said. Just accept it. Throughout middle school and early high school, while we had unfortunately settled into one place, every year I had a different combination of names.

If anyone found this odd, the teachers, the administration, my classmates, no one said anything. At school I was quiet, diffident, determined to be ignored and I kept waiting for someone to ask me, with all those different names, who are you?

I was never asked. I learned that if you're invisible, you don't need a name.

On the drive, Abby spends much of the time looking down at her phone or out the side window, not looking at me. I try not to assign ugly motives to that.

I work to control my thoughts, at least detour them, not let them take over in their cruel repetitions, their fixations on what hurts. Even with Abby and Sylvia, the only people I feel close to, I am edgy, uncomfortable, worried what they are thinking. I avoid attention. I have developed a skill in appearing completely engrossed in a task—coding, driving—looking indifferent while inside I am a taut vibrating coil of nerves, sensitive to judgements, to slights. On video conference calls, I minimize my picture, I don't like to be reminded that others are seeing me.

I work in the IT department of an investment corporation. Whenever we have a new member or a visiting executive, our team gathers in the conference room to introduce ourselves. I sit there feeling ill, fighting the desire to bolt. As my colleagues calmly introduce themselves, throwing out amusing anecdotes, my heart beats wildly, heat rushes to my cheeks, my forehead sweats. The idea of people seeing me sweat makes me sweat more. When it's my turn, I give the quickest introduction possible, then turn to look at the coworker at my side, moving the spotlight on, turning so others can't see the bubbles of sweat spouting from my forehead.

Sylvia, when she was still my wife, did research, gave me terms—Social Anxiety Disorder, depression, panic attacks—that she thought would help me understand, that would provide explanations for the person I had become. Terms, I discovered, are no different than names, it doesn't make a difference what you call something, it doesn't change what it is, it doesn't change who you are.

I want to tell Abby about the golden lion tamarin, carrying multiple infants on his back all day, handing over one infant at a time to mom for feeding. When they get old enough, dad will peel and mash bananas for them.

On the second day of our trip, I pull into a gas station east of Memphis, mid-morning, little traffic, few people out. I recall a scene in a zombie movie where a guy wakes up in a hospital and wanders eerie, empty London streets. Abby and I love zombie movies, we know the tricks—shoot them in the head, don't go into dark rooms, have someone watch your back. We'd be survivors in a zombie apocalypse. In a virus apocalypse, we don't have the same skills, the same breezy confidence. I'm not sure she would choose me as a survival-buddy.

Wearing a mask, pumping gas, no one in sight. There is so much going on in the world that alarms me. Yet at this moment, in this silent neighborhood, none of that matters, I care only about the person in my car. I'm not sure she knows. I've been a quiet parent, not demonstrative, not a disciplinarian, not a cheerleader. Does she know the dimensions of my love?

Back on the highway, I make myself push words into the quiet, taking a chance. "What are you looking forward to doing in California?" Neither of us has ever been there. Abby took a virtual campus tour before making her college decision.

She's silent for a moment and I'm worrying that I've wasted my chance on the wrong conversation when she says, "I want to hike up to the Hollywood sign. I want to cruise on Mulholland Drive. I want to stand on Esther Williams's star on the Walk of Fame."

"The Beach Boys have a star," I say. "But only Joe Walsh from the Eagles. Not Glenn Frey or Don Henley. That's a miscarriage of justice."

"Right." I can practically hear the eye roll in her voice. "You know what else I want in California? No humidity, no hurricanes."

"What about earthquakes?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely want to experience one."

"Earthquakes are dangerous."

"Hmm," she says, her attention on her phone.

We're approaching Memphis, home to Graceland, home to the sadness and history of the Lorraine Motel. I look over at Abby, gauging her mood, her interest in any unplanned stops. She has her phone near her face and I don't say anything. I settle into my own quiet driving mode.

In addition to my Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, on the advice of Abby and Sylvia, I've been seeing a therapist, Colleen. After a few sessions, she told me that I was too closed, too reserved, I didn't let anyone in.

I'm afraid to, I told her.

What are you afraid of? she asked.

I'm afraid of what they would find.

We have a lot of work to do, she said.

An hour later and Abby has fallen asleep without reclining the seat, her head bobbing forward then snapping back. I see the stress on the thin vertebrae of her neck. I fumble with one hand behind me, reach my sweatshirt on the backseat. I position it at the end of her headrest, nestled against the window, and I slowly guide her head to settle against the soft pile. Her mouth is slightly open, her breathing delicate.

One night when Abby was six and had pneumonia, she had trouble sleeping, labored breathing, feverish, overly warm. I stroked her hair, lifting up her damp bangs, leaning in to blow air kisses across her sweaty forehead. I whispered animal stories until she fell asleep. I was proud of myself, my patience, my perseverance. I sat beside her, monitoring her, celebrating my excellent parenting with a tumbler of sour mash whiskey.

Now, I think about her heart—strengthened by years of swimming, careful eating habits—and I hope it will never be hurt. But I know it will. Maybe many times. Maybe it has to be hurt, at least once, to recognize a greater love when its presented.

I want to tell her: I see you, the real you. I see all that you are capable of.

At work I have a supervisor, Justin, a younger guy, earnest and positive. At my last performance review, he told me I crank out code better than anyone else on his team. But you need to step out, he said, show collaboration, show leadership. Be more visible.

He did not realize what he was asking of me. Then the virus came and I was able to work from home, becoming almost invisible. It was liberating, whole weeks stretched into whole months where I could avoid in-person social interactions. A ghost story in reverse, not a ghost finally freed to leave this world, but a person freed to be a ghost in this world. Finding a selfish benefit in a deadly worldwide virus.

I requested only a week off for this trip; there are major code releases upcoming and according to Justin, I am needed. I have not often felt indispensable. In my free time, I teach myself advanced coding techniques—machine-learning, robotics, artificial intelligence—that I don't use on my job. There are companies where I could use those skills, find challenges, work on important, cool things, but I have not looked into that.

I live in a two-bedroom apartment. The second bedroom was for Abby, although she stopped spending the night several years ago. With access to her mother's car and an ability to go where she wanted, she no longer consented to shuffling between parent sleepovers. I still saw her every other Saturday, for movies or hikes, when she didn't have swim practice. My lease is coming up, I could move to a smaller place, lower my rent, which would be useful as I have agreed to fund most of Abby's expensive liberal arts school that does not offer athletic scholarships, though she has been promised a place on their swim team. My generosity is another act of contrition, a blatant attempt to balance the scoreboard that Sylvia, and perhaps Abby, keeps.

With remote work, I could get a place anywhere. Everything I do in Durham is pulled in by Abby, by her activities; I'm a solitary planet spun in her orbit and she is at this moment heading cross country to live somewhere else.

In my sophomore year of high school, my mother and stepfather number three decided, for reasons I could never fathom, to attend Parent-Teacher night with me. A succession of brief teacher conferences, each one following a pattern, the teacher saying I was a gifted student, no trouble, getting good grades, then looking over at me with a kind smile and a soft admonition that I was too quiet, I should participate more, share my thoughts.

In between the conferences, my mother stood in the hallway and took long swallows from a fast-food cup filled with rum and coke, complaining, "For this I gave up my evening? This is fun." For each successive teacher that night, her words became more slurred, her body more slumped. For the last conference, my math teacher, my mother spoke before he did, "Yeah, I know, good student, but too damn quiet." She got up and left. I couldn't look at Mr. Alvarez as I followed her out.

I knew it was coming, I knew the signs—I was an expert in deciphering her moods, levels of drunkenness, estimating the time till the storm—and I hoped we could get home first or at least into the car with the windows rolled up. We didn't make it into the parking lot. My mother stopped in front of the administration office and whirled to face me. "What is wrong with you?"

I thought the teacher conferences had gone well. The message was that I was a good student, my mother had nothing to worry about. That was not the message she had received.

"They say you're weird. You don't talk." My mother leaned in, the smell of alcohol assailing me, her volume rising with each word. "It's embarrassing. They always blame the mother."

I pulled away from her, heading for the parking lot, very aware of people around us, everyone trying to look away.

"And you," she said, turning on my stepfather. "Help me out here. The kid needs help."

"Your kid," he said.

"You never liked him."

"Not mine."

"So, I should just get rid of him?"

They were getting louder. I ran across the parking lot, past the car and I kept going. It occurred to me that I could just keep running, but I wasn't that impetuous, wasn't that decisive, and I ran the several miles home and by the time I got there, my mother was close to passing out on the sofa and my stepfather didn't look up from the television.

The next day, in the hallway, Allyssa, a girl I barely knew, put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in, her breath circling warm in my ear: "I'm praying for you." Manuel, with the locker next to mine, who'd barely ever done more than grunt at me, looked closely at me and asked, "Dude, are you good?" In Biology class, as the class was emptying, Mrs. Mathews asked me to stay a moment and said in a soft voice, "Let me know if you want to talk."

My mother had found a way to make me visible.

I want to tell Abby about marmoset fathers, who immediately take over care for the newborns, allowing the mother to rest. The marmoset fathers will lick, groom, feed the babies. A marmoset father, taking care of little ones, will completely ignore a nearby female in heat; he has eyes only for his babies.

In gathering these stories, I wondered if the animal fathers were driven purely by instinct or if they made deliberate decisions, assessed the trade-offs? Too often, faced with a choice, I made the wrong one, choosing to anesthetize myself with alcohol. When I first held Abby, a tiny, squalling, wrinkled human being, I pressed her close, peering as if I could see what I had passed on to her, my contributions. I wasn't looking at eye color or height, I was wondering, even then, if she inherited my weaknesses. I once asked Colleen, have I passed this addiction on to Abby?

There can be a genetic susceptibility, Colleen said, but you should realize what you have shown her is how to overcome it.

It took me a long time, I said. It cost so much.

You can't spend the entirety of your life convalescing from the first eighteen years of it, Colleen said. You've gained the rest of your life. Do something with it, make further changes, grow.

I started weightlifting a year ago, just a bench and dumbbells, a repurposing of Abby's unused bedroom in my apartment. I liked the incremental improvements that I could see in the increasing weights, that I could track in a spreadsheet. I grew calluses on my palms and it made me feel part of a certain type of people, the kind of people who labor with their hands. I felt stronger, more capable.

You can help others on this path, Colleen said, you have credibility, you know the effort and the consequences. I looked up a local crisis line—there was a ten-week training program. That presented a huge hurdle, too much commitment, too much change.

We're driving a few miles west of Amarillo, on the third day of the trip and the car is too warm, coated in sunlight, but I'm reluctant to blast the A/C on Abby, she looks relaxed, her legs tucked up, her head leaning against the window. With a long section of highway driving, no directions to provide, she hasn't spoken for hours. We're driving pass Cadillac Ranch, the row of half-submerged cars like a modern Stonehenge, cloaked in psychedelic graffiti, sun-splashed and obscenely bright. I turn to Abby, wanting her to see this, but she seems half asleep and I hesitate and then it's behind us. I missed my chance to say something, to share with Abby one sight we could see right from the car.

I'm quiet, I realized after years of therapy, because it was a learned response, it helped me avoid my mother's rages, the scorn of stepfathers, the notice of people who would judge me. Being invisible served me well. Abby's quiet, I've come to realize, is just different. It doesn't mean she is scared or withdrawn, doesn't mean there is a deep-seated hurt. Abby has many versions of quiet, when she's preoccupied, when she's tired, when she's frustrated. In the long silent hours in the car, I accept this, I listen closely, attuned to the subtle changes in her. I am becoming fluent in the language of shrugs and sighs.

I haven't recognized a song from Abby's playlist for hours.

In fifth grade, Abby's class was assigned an oral report on their favorite writers. I am sure the usual names came up—DiCamillo, Blume, Dahl—and for the children of traditionalists—Carroll, White and Milne. I would have loved to have seen the teacher's expression when Abby spoke about Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the singer-songwriters of the Eagles, to hear her talk about—she practiced at home - the heartbreak in "Tequila Sunrise," the anguish of "Lyin' Eyes."

Seeing her curled up next to me, I want to touch Abby's shoulder, nudge her into a meaningful conversation, and because I know the language of vulnerability, I want to tell Abby: don't be invisible, don't be too quiet, don't be vulnerable.

Over the music, I feel a silence in the car so absolute I can feel it thrumming in my bones.

I want to tell Abby about the greater flamingo fathers, who mate for life and will forever ignore the alure of hundreds of nearby females. The greater flamingo father helps build a nest, takes turns incubating the egg, shares feeding, parenting duties. The father, the husband, I should have been.

Most of my best memories include Abby. I wonder if she remembers them, if there were enough of them: finding constellations in the night sky while cocooned in sleeping bags beside Falls Lake, teaching her to ride a bike, teaching her Python coding, reading girl-oriented classics like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables, discussions of which of the four March sisters she most identified with, to which of the four Hogwarts houses she belonged to. How many of these memories are needed to balance out what sits on the other pan of the balancing scale: my drinking, the divorce, the scar on her cheek.

Her scar is a small white line, slightly puckered and raised, silver against her swim-tanned skin, like a delicate stud piercing. I've calculated this: the scar is approximately two ten-thousandths of Abby's body mass and three thousandths of her exterior. I want to tell her: the rest of you is amazing. Which any person would round up to one hundred percent amazing.

Abby stretches her arms in extravagant circles and I hope she will become animated, engage me in conversation, tell me what she's thinking. I've been interpreting her silences, the underlying causes—boredom, avoidance, resentment—looking for a silence less hostile, a silence more open to me.

"What else?" I ask.

"What else what?" She sounds weary.

"Do you want to do in California?"

"Okay," she says slowly, building up to something. "I want to see Death Valley and Joshua trees while listening to the U2 album. I want to see whales breaching and the redwoods and that weirdly blue water of Lake Tahoe and the largest trees in the world."

"You've done some research," I say. "Bet you don't know this: there are banana slugs in Santa Cruz."

"I'd like to try surfing at Santa Cruz".

"Of course, you would."

"I want an In-N-Out burger."

Abby's been a vegetarian for years. "Really?"

"I have to try it once, right? You should try everything once."

There are many things I prefer she didn't try. "I don't know about everything."

"Rock climbing in Yosemite. Wind surfing in Hurricane Gulch."

"You're killing me, girl."

She laughs, plops her feet on the dashboard, pulls her phone in front of her face.

I feel our lives turning in different directions, turning away from each other. She will take turns in the road that I won't even know about, turns I would advise against. The road will shape her more than I ever did. It will pull her away from me, pull her to places I wouldn't recognize, pull her to the person she is meant to be.

Some of the turns in life you see coming, like on a flat road you can see the road deviations from miles away. It doesn't make the upcoming turn any easier, maybe it even makes it worse. You see it coming, you have no choices, it gnaws at you.

My mother passed away several years ago. We had little contact, but she had listed me as next of kin, my latest stepfather having long ago left. Your mother isn't doing very well, the nurse said over the phone. I found my mother in hospice facility. She hung on for several days, never rallying enough to be lucid, to provide any last words. I sat there thinking of questions I had for her that I had never asked: What was your childhood like? What happened to you?

Colleen once asked me about all those name combinations I had in school. Why did I think my mother did that, since she handled all the papers and applications? I said initially I thought she was hiding me from my father; I was hoping that he was looking for me. Later I realized that was unlikely. She hadn't changed her name; we would have been easy to find. So, now, I think my mother just filled out the forms incorrectly, probably drunk, and not caring enough to fix it later. Drunken apathy, Colleen said, I can see why you'd prefer the idea that she was hiding you.

The doctor told me that a cardiac arrest put my mother in the hospital, but really, she said, she's dying of Alcohol Use Disorder. She had lived longer than most, the life expectancy with AUD is fifty to fifty-eight years for women. For men with AUD, life expectancy is forty-seven to fifty-three. I'm three years away from the upper limit.

I want to tell Abby about the many animal fathers—wolves and golden jackals and African wild dogs—who regurgitate their food for their infants. These stories, I realize, are self-serving, obvious. I will have to stand on my own actions as a father, where I'm behind, trying to catch up.

Driving across Arizona on the last day of our cross-country trip, Abby has been in and out of sleep. With nothing to do in the evenings in the hotel rooms, we go to sleep early and are on the road at dawn, with the sunlight pale and broad, everything beautiful and crystalline under it, and at that moment it's hard to imagine a virus lurking out there.

The almost empty roads, like driving into nothing, make me lose my bearings and the long stretches without conversation, the repetitive miles, give the trip a vague, suspended feel and I sense a simmering anxiety that grows, not because each mile takes us closer to Abby's destination, but because each mile driven is one less minute to say all the things I want to tell her, all the guidance I want to provide in order to try to protect her.

Abby is adventurous. She has a wild side that emerges with people her own age and I wonder how that wildness will manifest itself at college, where the options are almost unlimited. She will be okay, I tell myself. Even with her scars, the hurts she has endured, she is sturdier than I am, less brittle, less unsure.

On the drive, the sky is a flat blue opening before me, a wide unfurling. I'm in automatic mode—the scenery flat and unencumbered, monochromatic, scattered clusters of gas stations, truck stops and eateries—when Abby tells me to take the next exit.

I see the freeway sign and I glance at Abby. "Winslow? Winslow, Arizona?"

The Eagles' song comes out of the car speakers and Abby gives me a big smile, the one I'd do anything for, the one that deepens the furrow on the scar on her cheek, the one that widens and lightens her face.

Her smile produces a gentle shine I feel seep into my skin. "Abby, I didn't think you'd want to stop. I always wanted to… You're the best."

"Of course."

We stop at Standin' On the Corner Park, taking pictures of each other with the life-sized statue of the man and his guitar. Abby seems different here, freer, more outgoing, less guarded. We sing snatches of the song. We are singing, I realize, maybe not exactly together, but the same song, an Eagles' song, and I have to turn away so she won't see my eyes.

She notices. "Dad, don't get all weird on me now." She smiles.

This is an amazing young woman, I think, and I'm her father. That's a wonder and it carries weight.

When we get back onto the highway, for the final stretch to Southern California, I see this for what it is, at the end of our long drive together, her gift to me. Maybe it is nothing more than her own curiosity, a connection to a musical past we once shared, but closing in on our final destination, I want to believe that this is more than just a gift, that it is forgiveness, an act of grace, a slight balancing of the scales.

When Abby was nine, Sylvia called me one afternoon to tell me she was stuck at the office, could I pick up Abby from her swimming practice? It had been a bad day for me, work stressful, colleagues bothersome, my boss pressuring me. Sylvia had called my cell phone, I'm sure she thought I was still at work. I was at home, sitting on the porch, well into a bottle of whiskey. I splashed water on my face, gargled, and went to the community pool to pick up Abby. I let Abby sit in the front seat next to me, her face flushed from exercise, her hair hanging limp and wet. She immediately began fiddling with the car stereo.

I don't remember the accident, I don't remember the ambulance, how I got to the emergency room. I remember sitting in a hospital bed, Sylvia crying, screaming, how could you?

Abby was in the hospital for days. Bones broken, internal bleeding, stitches in a diagonal line from her cheek to the corner of her mouth. I received stitches as well, a cast on my arm. I healed, the cast came off, the stitches removed without a trace. The damage to my family didn't heal. I paid the price, a DUI fee, temporary loss of license, mandated alcohol counseling. It wasn't enough. There's a time, Sylvia said, when you have to admit defeat. The divorce came soon after.

A few years ago, I was invited to a co-worker's Fourth of July barbeque. Justin said I really should go. I sat on a lounge chair there, watching people stack their plates with food, watching kids kick a soccer ball. Colleagues wandered by, said hello, moved on when I didn't offer much conversation. I had often hoped they mistook my silence for depth, presumed that I had artistic leanings and philosophical thoughts.

When Colleen asked me why I don't let people get close to me, I told her I didn't want people to see what's inside me.

What will they see, she asked?

What's there, I said. Nothing.

When you hold so much inside you, Colleen said, you can't find yourself in there, it's too cluttered, too dark. And you can't change what you can't find.

That afternoon at the barbeque, the heat had a sullen quality, heavy and wet. I ate a hot dog, nursed a soda so long it turned flat and warm, like a mouthful of brackish water. I smelled mown grass, smoked meat and suntan lotion. Guests came and left, the children moved to the above ground pool in the side yard and it was just me, alone, in the backyard. Bradford, the host, sat on a lounge chair next to me, then his wife joined us, sitting on the opposite side of me. They attempted to pull me into conversation, but eventually they gave up and just talked to each other, mundane talk of food and drinks and insect repellent, their words rolling across me like a breeze. I liked the effortless rhythm of their conversation, the soothing cadence, the coded fragments that stood in for whole sentences, a shared lexicon. I wondered if I had ever felt that at ease with anyone. I was drowsy and it took a while to realize when they had stopped talking. They were both asleep, in strangely similar postures, one leg off the chair, their mouths open slightly, soft breathing sounds. It felt intrusive, resting between a sleeping married couple, but I couldn't make myself get up. There was something in their ability to relax, to be comfortable enough to softly glide into sleep, bookending a guest. Listening to their stereophonic breathing, envious of their casualness, I felt the wrongness of every choice I had made in my life.

"The package has been safely delivered," I text Sylvia, trying to sound like a movie tough guy.

"She's a person," Sylvia texts back immediately. "Not a package. She's your daughter."

So many years after our divorce and still so often her words leave a bruise.

When I think back to my life with Sylvia, I picture her as a fully developed person, with a finished form, and I see myself flickering, indistinct, a ghost trying to find substance next to her, trying to use her as the scaffolding I could build my life on. It took a long time to learn to live without it.

Abby has a late afternoon move-in time, the college spreading out appointments over many days to limit student and parent density. With most classes being taught remotely, the college is allowing only first year students to live on campus, which right now seems empty, a few desultory cars scattered in the lot, another vision of an apocalyptic movie. There's almost no one around, no chance to meet her roommates or dormmates and I can't shake the thought, as I help carry clothes and boxes, that Abby is happy about that.

It takes several trips, during which I think about what's coming for her. No matter what she experiences here at college, her successes, her disappointments, she will come out a different person. It's a major turn in the road for her.

I've changed, I want to tell her. I'm stronger, with visible muscles, I can see their satisfying bulge as I carry the heavier boxes. Colleen says that's cosmetic, surface deep. There is more I could change, if I were willing: a new job, a new apartment in a new city, volunteer work, online dating. I have tried to imagine, during this drive, living a different life, a life as someone who is not me, who is perhaps nothing like me.

As we walk back to the car for the last load, the Southern California sun is setting, lighting up the scar on Abby's face. I wonder if others will notice the scar, ask about its origins. I think of the people she will meet—friends, mentors, partners—who will come to know her better than I do, who will hold her dreams and her sorrows. I want Abby, at some point in her life, to experience the kind of love those animal parents show for their young, an unconditional, even immodest, raging tsunami of love. I don't want her to realize that people can spend their lives in sinkholes of despair and struggle to crawl out.

There are just a few loose items in the trunk. We're done. Is this the closest I will ever be to her? Will her life only pull her further away? Something rises hot in my throat and I fight to keep it down. I turn to her. I think about all that I wanted to tell her during this trip but never did, all my guidance, my stories, my memories. I want to tell her about those animal fathers, about turns in the road, I want to tell her this trip was meant to be a shared love song, I want to tell her that she is amazing. I want to tell her how much she means to me, and how very sorry I am. I say, finally, "I love you."

She's standing beside the car, the last few items in her arms. She doesn't need me for this last trip, and she's glancing around, looking harried, when she turns back toward me, her eyes bright above her mask and says, "Dad. I know."

Something shifts in the air, a humming line connecting us, and the silence that follows seems softer at the edges, more accepting. I hug her, and with her arms full, she cannot hug me back and instead leans in against me. I feel her full weight. For a moment, I am her scaffolding. Then Abby walks away, toward her dorm, toward her new life. I sit in the car watching her. She turns, waves me on. She's safe, she's telling me. She doesn't need me. I have released her into a world of viral pandemics and civil unrest and beautiful sunrises and songs that bind people.

I see that I have missed calls from Sylvia and Justin. I drive out of the parking lot, just far enough to be out of Abby's sight, should she still be looking, and I pull over. I haven't planned where to go, what to do. I no longer have my navigator. I could turn East, drive back the way we came, the shortest, most efficient return trip to Durham and my apartment, to Sylvia and Colleen, to my Alcoholics Anonymous group, to my job, where I am needed. I could turn north, on Highway One along the Pacific Ocean, home to sea otters who hold hands and giant octopi with multiple hearts, I could listen to the Beach Boys, the windows open, feeling the ocean breeze, taunting the virus, heading toward Silicon Valley where start-ups are creating pizza-making robots and autonomous cars, jobs requiring my skills.

I pull away from the curb, allowing the turns in the road to take me where I need to go, heading toward a different future. Instead of playing music, my music, I drive in silence, a silence built of the absence of Abby, a silence so deep, so complete, that I might be able to find myself in it.