Jennifer decided since her father was taking her and 15 close friends to the amusement park next weekend for her graduation celebration she only wanted a small family gathering at a fancy restaurant to celebrate her ‘Sweet 16’ birthday.
Oscar and Rudy arrived at the ranch much earlier than expected. They were disappointed their work schedules did not afford them the luxury of attending Jennifer’s High School Graduation ceremony a week ago so they rearranged their appointments to attend her 16th birthday party this evening and congratulate her on being her class valedictorian.
They exited the car and knocked on the door but received no answer. They read the note attached to the door, ‘Mom, Jen and I went riding be back by noon.’ Checking their watches they decided to sit, relax and wait for Steve’s expected return in approximately 10 minutes.
Settling comfortably on the patio chairs they took in the serene landscape, letting all their stress just melt away on this sunny day. They saw the changes that had taken place since their last visit. There was a new barn erected and an in-ground pool located next to the house. Fifteen relaxing minutes had passed before they caught sight of their friend and his daughter racing their horses at breakneck speed across the field. There was no doubt they were in a tight race. Steve was ahead until Jen urged her horse into the lead. They rounded the last tree headed right for the fence, nose to nose, gracefully jumping it at top speed. They did not slow any until they reached the corral gate. Jennifer won by a nose.
The birthday girl stood in the stirrups and let out a gleeful whoop. Steve was laughing as he dismounted. Lost in their playfulness neither one saw they had an audience.
“I can’t believe I finally beat you Dad!!” She said out of breath.
“I can’t believe it either.” He helped her off as she teased him.
“Let’s face it Dad you’re just getting old that’s all. I think, in your frail state, you’re afraid of falling off that beast and breaking a hip.” She gave him her cockiest smirk.
“Oh is that what you think?” He easily swung her up into his arms and began walking quickly toward the house to her cries of ‘put me down’. “Well I didn’t raise my daughter to be such a sore winner and I think you need to be taught a lesson in humility.” With that he threw her into the crystal clear pool while laughing. “And I’m not that old!”
She quickly came to the surface her T-shirt and jeans making treading water difficult. “Come on Dad getting old is just a fact of life.” She laughed her mother’s laugh. He smiled as he stood poolside with his hands on his hips. Raising her hand she commented with an exaggerated pout, “The least you could do is help me out.”
He reached out his right hand and smoothly pulled her onto the deck. They stood next to each other chuckling. And she made a weak attempt to push him in but he was much too sure-footed for that. He stopped dead when he noticed his two friends watching the entertainment with matching smiles. Jen immediately took advantage of her father’s distraction and shoved him into the cool water.
“Just remember I can give out as good as I get!” She giggled as she went to change into dry clothes saying hello to her adopted uncles as she passed.
Steve pulled his water soaked body from the pool as Oscar quipped, “Looks like she got the last word on that.”
“Yeah, well, just wait the day’s not over yet.” They followed him into the house as his boots swishing along the linoleum floor.
After changing his clothes Steve had to go out and put up the horses. He suggested his friends ‘babysit’ their niece in his absence warning them to stay far away from the pool. They made their way to the half-open doorway of her bedroom and knocked. She looked up from where she was sitting on the bed with empty boxes littering the room. She looked sad.
“Hi Jen. How is everything?” Rudy asked.
“Fine.” She said unconvincingly.
Both men shared a quick glance. She stood and began anxiously pacing the room. Rudy and Oscar recognized the behavior instantly as they had seen Steve do the same as he was trying to collect his thoughts.
She stopped and faced them. “I’m worried about my Dad.” She said simply.
“Why?” Rudy inquired.
“I guess I’m just worried about leaving him alone when I leave for college in 3 months.” She sat back on the bed and stated in a quiet tone. “I think he’s going through a mid-life crisis or something.”
Both men chuckled at her assessment. “A mid-life crisis huh?”
“Yeah, he went out and bought that little red sports car and he’s dating a younger woman. Isn’t that what men do when they hit mid-life?”
“Jen your father is the last person I would expect to see go through a mid-life crisis.” Oscar assured her.
Rudy added, “And he will be fine while you are off at college.”
“Do you really think so? Because I could stay you know.”
“Jen he will not let you put off college just because you think he will be lonely. It’ll just take time for you two to adjust that’s all. Trust me you’ll see.” Rudy sat next to her and put his arm around her. There was a short silence when Oscar backtracked.
“So what’s this about a younger woman?”
Jen looked at him sheepishly, “Maybe I should let him tell you about Rachael.”
Oscar let the name softly roll off his tongue before filing it away for future use.
The group of six arrived at the restaurant and filed into the reserved private backroom. They enjoyed a nice elegant dinner with easy conversation that centered around Jen decision to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara to study chemistry and maybe engineering, she wasn’t sure yet. The college was only an hour away from Ojai and she could come home on weekends. Between the meal and the dessert Oscar couldn’t stand the suspense and finally brought up the subject of Rachael.
“So Steve my sources tell me you have a new lady in your life.” He said with a wicked grin.
Steve calmly sipped his coffee deciding how much information he wanted to share. His eyes glared at his daughter seated directly across the table from him knowing she most likely leaked the information. She just innocently gave him a lopsided smile.
“Yes, Oscar, I am dating someone and yes her name is Rachael.” His friends were disappointed the explanation stopped there but were elated when Helen absently filled in some blanks as she fixed her coffee.
“Oh yes, Steve has been seeing her for about 3 months now.” Helen couldn’t hide her happiness that her only son had someone to share his time with again. Jim just rolled his eyes at his wife’s inability to keep a secret.
“Oh Steve! Why don’t you tell them how you met her?” Oscar and Rudy stared happily at Steve knowing he wouldn’t brush off his mother.
“Yeah Dad, tell them how she ‘fell’ for you.” Jen taunted.
He heaved a heavy sigh knowing the subject would not be changed he began, “Her name is Rachael Martin. She designed the new flight simulators at the base. She came along to train everyone and make sure the machine worked as expected. One day she climbed onto the simulator and was trying to access a panel that wouldn’t open. When it finally gave way the machine shifted causing her to lose her balance and fall. I just happened to be standing close by and caught her that’s all.” He went back to nursing his coffee.
Jen shared some more, “Rachael asked him where his ‘shining armor’ was.” She giggled at her father’s blush.
Rudy inquired, “So is this serious?”
Steve wasn’t answering too quickly so Jen intervened, “Well I hope it is since they just spent a 4-day weekend on Catalina Island!”
Steve saw no other way to change the subject except to suggest they return to the house for cake and presents. As they were leaving the restaurant Oscar leaned in and whispered, “So when will we get to meet her pal?” Rudy leaned in to hear the answer.
“She had to work but she might stop by the house later to give Jen her birthday present.” He quickly walked off without another word.
At the house they all gathered informally in the large family room. The cake was presented as the traditional song was sung. Jennifer made her wish and blew out the candles receiving a wink from her father. Before presenting the gifts Steve sidetracked the group to his presentation.
“Well I think we need to take some time to remember how far Ms. Jennifer Marie Austin has come in her sixteen years… and why I becoming prematurely gray.” He flicked off the lights and the slide show began.
The first picture displayed was Steve holding Jennifer, explaining it was her first day home. Everyone, except the birthday girl remembered how emotional that day was. Steve forced the lump in his throat down as he continued.
The second photo was one of her at age 2 kneeling on a kitchen chair with baking flour all over her face, her hair and of course the kitchen table. Only her big blue eye could be recognized in the mess. Steve smiled as he explained the circumstances, “This would be the birthday girl at age 2 after she wandered into the kitchen very early one morning and decided to make breakfast all by herself.” The group chuckled and Steve added, “This is why she is not allowed to cook to this day, definitely not chef material.”
A push of the button brought another photo into view. It showed the small toddler crouched behind the TV, screwdriver in hand. Steve described the scene, “This was Jen at age 4 taking the television set apart because she wanted to see how it worked. I only got one photograph because I immediately noticed the set was still plugged in at the time.”
The next slide was of her first bike ride. She looked so proud, the bandage still on her knee. Jen quickly spoke up, “I remember that! You taught me how to ride a 2-wheeler that day.” Steve nodded and wasn’t prepared for her next comment. “Afterwards you took me for ice cream!” She giggled and looked at her uncles, “That’s when I asked him what sex appeal was. You never did tell me Dad.” Steve quickly moved on to the next slide but was interrupted by everyone wanting to hear the whole story. Jen was more than happy to relive the moment. Steve’s parents and friends were laughing at the scene of an innocent little girl asking her father about sex appeal. Steve was saved by Rachael’s entrance.
“You my dear have perfect timing.” He whispered to her. “Rachael this is Oscar Goldman and Rudy Wells. Rudy, Oscar this is Rachael Martin.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is ours Rachael.” They shook hands with the stunning willowy blonde with green eyes.
“We were just remembering the high points of Jen’s 16 years.”
“Oh good, so I’m not too late. Happy Birthday Jen.” She and Jen shared a warm hug before Rachael sat next to her.
The next photo was of Jen at age 10, looking like the wicked witch of the west with her long dark hair teased into a rats nest with colorful barrettes scattered throughout. Steve explained she wanted thicker hair and a friend at school apparently told her if she teased it, it would look fuller. Jen laughed remembering the scene. “Hey at least I didn’t dye my hair purple like some of my friends.”
The next photo was Steve looking very angry next to his Mercedes convertible, Jen no doubt was the photographer. Everyone waited curiously to hear the story. Steve filled them in, “This was when Jen rewired my car as a practical joke. When I stared the ignition the top retracted, the roof switch activated the wiper fluid, the wiper knob activated the headlights, let’s see what else, oh yeah, the headlight switch turned on the radio,” The group was laughing hysterically at the creativity involved in the joke not to mention the skill needed to pull it off especially for a 12-year-old. “She tried to tell me it was a school project until I threatened to call her teacher.”
Jen gave him an apologetic look, “Sorry Dad.”
The last photo was one taken just recently before Jen attended her prom. She looked stunning and a lot like Jessica, in her off the shoulder red gown. “Now she’s all grown up and headed for college.” Steve said with a touch of disbelief then added with a chuckle, “I feel sorry for her roommate. God knows what she has planned for her.” Everyone clapped and shared more laughs as Steve flicked the lights on and the gifts were presented.
Rudy gave her a beautiful gold bracelet. Rachael gave her a delicate gold locket. Jim and Helen gave her a large framed photo collage of her and her parents. From Oscar she received a sapphire ring.
Last but not least Steve handed her a box slightly larger than a ring box. She smiled and opened it. She laughed out loud at the object. He asked, “What’s so funny?”
Unsuccessfully composing herself she answered as she removed the keys from the box, “I thought that red sports car was yours? You know part of your mid-life crisis?”
The room erupted in laughter as Steve looked shocked, “What mid-life crisis? I’m not having a mid-life crisis!”
She wrapped her arms around him and he held her tightly for a few minutes. Jen whispered her thanks for not only the gifts but for being such a great dad.
The next day Steve took Jen to get her driver’s license in her new little red convertible. She passed with flying colors. As she jumped back into the car he asked if she wanted to go get ice cream to celebrate. Jen smiled as the memories came back as she pulled out toward Main Street. They walked to the counter and ordered their usual, two strawberry ice cream cones. They settled themselves at a table when Jen spoke, “Dad, when can I get my pilot’s license?”
“Jen give me time to get used to my baby driving around in a car before you put me through that! Besides you can only get a student permit right now. You cannot get a pilot’s license until you turn 17.”
“Alright, but can I at least be a student pilot for the summer?”
“Sure I’ll even teach you myself.” They shared crooked grins as they finished their cones. When they were leaving the store Jen, barely controlling her voice as it trembled trying to suppress a chuckle, asked him, “Dad do you think the boys at college will think I have sex appeal?” She fought to keep the serious look on her face.
“Just get in the car young lady.”
They drove off with the top down laughing and enjoying their time together.