“I didn’t know today was your birthday.” The radio played the late afternoon R&B station. “Sweet Dreams/Beautiful Nightmare” plays in low volume in the background. “Yeah, it’s okay.” Birthday balloons float in the backseat. Conversations with her father never seem to last more than five minutes. After all these years they didn’t know each other well. His hairline has receded, grey hairs started to form, and he’s gained much more weight. She sits in the passenger seat remembering the caring young man she knew. He’d pick her up most afternoons from primary school in his 2003 Lexus ES that smelled like black ice air freshener. Back then he cared, and he was her superhero. The dark-skinned boys with their maroon school sweaters steadily teased her about her greasy skin in the yard when 3 pm came. Her dad standing tall and slender at 6’5 would tower over the other parents, and the schoolboys would go quiet. “That’s my daddy!” His excitement matched hers back then. Summers were special because everyone in her house seemed happier and that’s when she got to see her dad more. When the cold weather returned, people’s mood harmonized with the miserable weather. Her parents declared war on one another and things changed in 2005. Now he drives a white van used to pick up passengers from Oxford Street to their destinations as far as Northolt, where she lived. “I won’t get paid till next week; I’ll drop a hundred pounds in the box.” She knew better than to believe this even if it’ll help with uni books.

The resemblance Jared shares with his father is often overwhelming to Dana. His skin is dark, even-toned, with no acne. He has the same almond-shaped eyes the three all had in common. Except she didn’t live up to the height they were granted. If only he got to ride with him in the 03 Lexus on a rare, clear, sunny-sky summer day in London, assisting dad with the stick shift. After all, most boys in this town learn to drive stick from their dads. But when 05 came, Jared was only 3. His memories are dim compared to hers. But just like her father, conversations with her brother are small-measured. Dana walked through the door with Hallmark cards and small stuffed bag gifts from her uni mates. Samantha made her a small baked sponge cake with whipped cream and her favorite strawberry paste. She told Jared about seeing her dad driving by on her way to the Oxford Circus station bound to West Ruislip. His face was emotionless, insisting on not making any eye contact with her, “Anything to do with me?” They often get into arguments, bickering about things siblings usually would but at times they’d go to the extreme. One time they argued in the kitchen, loudly raising their voices. Jared intentionally bumped shoulders with Dana to get past her. She pushed him, and he reached his hand around her neck, nearly choking her.

Reflecting on her birthday in her small room left of a brown brick terraced home a mile away from Shoreditch, where a young man named Eric offered to take her later in the evening. Eric was average height, slim, had long straight black hair midway to his back, and frequently wore loose clothing with eight-eye Dr. Martens. Eric’s side of town in Hackney wasn’t the quiet middle-class neighborhood she grew up in. These streets her mother begged her to avoid was often walk and talk routes with Eric. He wasn’t the type she’d typically be attracted to, but he showed interest in her and cared about the arts in the same way Dana did. Just two days ago in the shared lounge of UAL, she shared a message Eric sent her about taking her to dinner with Samantha who suddenly recalled that only a few months ago, he randomly messaged her online asking for her number. She went on about how she didn’t respond to him then her thoughts on Eric had shifted from her friend’s unwanted input. Dana always had a crush on him in secondary school. Back then he wore baggy jeans, kept his hair cut low a in Caesar style and listened to rap music. Now he’s sitting with her at the local coffee brew across from her Uni discussing musicians like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Jimi Hendrix all while wearing thin-wired frames on his face. She enjoyed Eric’s company and conversations but couldn’t understand if he was genuine. He only went for the lighter-skinned girls with straight long silky hair in secondary school. What made him interested in her now?

It was close to 7 pm; the sun had already gone down at four. She should’ve been in a cab on her way to Dishroom. Eric received a notification alert on his wait at the Liverpool station, “So sorry. My dad surprised me. Let’s meet next week?”

Ashley McLean is a visual artist from Queens. Her short story was inspired by a brief time she spent in London. Ashley’s essay, “A Painting Turned To Words” is also published in this issue. Ashley has this to say: “‘Absent’ was drawn from my own childhood experiences, and male relationships in my life. It was very important to me for the reader to feel the story in every sense possible, whether through my describing a smell or the weather in a particular city. Although I’m from New York City, I chose London, because I didn’t want it to be completely biographical, and it allowed me to exercise my imagination further.”