I covered the twelve feet from threshold to table in three strides. “I know you’re mad, Jess.”
Jess slipped his glasses to mid-nose and shot me a look.
I straddled a chair, held my fist above the table and, one finger at a time, released my treasure. Metal keys skidded across the polished oak.
“What the hell, Eric?” Jess’s chin jutted towards the keys. “All week you’re withdrawn. This morning, without a word, you disappear. And now, without even talking to me, you buy a car?” He tapped the ash off his cigarette, raked nicotine-stained fingertips through his untameable hair, and stared into his tumbler of scotch.
“When you hear my story, Jess, I’ll be forgiven. I promise.”
Jess raised his Macallan’s in mock salute. He paused to savor his drink before speaking. “I’m listening.”
I slid my hands across the tabletop toward him.
“Jess, I saw Owen. I saw my father.” The words tasted bitter on my tongue. In our almost five years together, I’d never talked much about my father except to say that we were estranged, end of story.
Jess pushed his scotch to one side. He leaned back, tilting his chair on its hind legs.
“You know, doing that can ruin … ” I stopped myself.
Jess raised one eyebrow, but he lowered his chair and slid it back toward the table.
“Go on.” Jess sounded reluctant to let me off the hook, but leaned forward to gently trace a fingertip down my forearm. The edge of the tabletop cut into my elbow; I didn’t move.
I began to tell my story. “Owen was, and still is, a top-notch attorney, but he was a lousy father, Jess, and he wasn’t much of a husband to my mother either. Women had their place in his life, but they were bit players on his stage. Children were relegated to the wings. He was never comfortable around children, his own in particular. In his world, a child’s purpose was to validate virility and grow-up to fulfil the family’s ambitions. From early boyhood I was a disappointment. I hated Boy Scouts and refused to participate in sports. In high school I excelled in fine arts, not economics, and showed no interest whatsoever in pursuing a career in law. I joined the drama club and the young Democrats.”
The corner of Jess’s mouth twitched; the birth of a smile. He tapped another Gaulois out of the pack. I took the opportunity to stand up while he lit his cigarette. I needed to move around a bit.
“Appearances were everything to Owen, and he was embarrassed by my lack of overt masculinity. His benign disappointment in me turned malignant after my high school graduation. We were in San Francisco. Mom dragged my father and me into the hotel boutique to see an evening bag. It was pleated red satin, very expensive. Mom turned to me and asked if I thought the bag would complement her new, red cocktail dress. My reply was, ‘Mom, it’s elegant, but are you sure it’s the right shade of red?’ My mother, God rest her accepting soul, didn’t skip a beat. She simply gave me a hug and said she would bring the dress into the shop to check the color.
“My father, however, was another story. I saw the veins budge in his neck. His fists opened and closed. He reeled around and – his expression – I will never forget it, Jess, disgust, revulsion, recognition. His jaw was so clenched, he could barely speak. He hissed through clamped-shut teeth, ‘the right shade … only a GD faggot would care about … ,’ and he strode out of the shop, leaving my mother and I standing there.”
Jess dimpled when he smiled. “Ahhh. Your coming-out party.”
“The following week, Dad shipped me off to college for summer classes. That was eight years ago. Mom passed away during my sophomore year.” I drew in a deep breath before continuing.
“It’s not like I was tossed penniless into the street, but my father never contacted me again. I did see him at my mother’s funeral, but even then he spoke to me just enough to avoid speculation and gossip. Then last week, out of the blue, he called. He wanted to see me. He would make it worth my while. He would send a car early on Saturday, which was, of course, this morning.”
Jess rubbed his thumb along his jaw line and, lips compressed, gave me a sidelong glance.
I laid my hand over his. “I’m sorry. I just had to do this alone.”
Jess shrugged, pulled his hand away, and stubbed out his cigarette. He refilled his glass and, holding it with both hands, nodded at me to continue.
“Today I was greeted with hearty back-slapping and hand-shaking. ‘Dad’ said the past was a closed door that should remain closed. Turns out, the old fart is remarrying. She’s a youngish liberal with two preteen girls, who are her world. I realized that Owen needs me as Exhibit A, proof of his parenting skills and progressive thinking. He wants to keep a lid on our estrangement and his bigotry. Either could be a deal-breaker.”
I scooped up the keys.
“And, to make amends for the missed birthdays, Christmases, and college graduation, Daddy compensated me with a red, 2012 Subaru BRZ.” Never subtle, I shrieked, tossing the car keys into the air.
Not prone to theatrics, Jess reached up and high-fived me.
“I let Owen blather on and then said, ‘So, I show up, testify to your being a wonderful father, and then disappear after the wedding. You’ve already lined-up a private boarding school for her brats I assume?’
“You should have seen him, Jess. The old man puffed up like a beta fish and bellowed, ‘Now see here—’ I smiled, turned him toward the mirror, pointed to his enraged face and said, ‘Now THAT, Daddy, is just the right shade of red.’ ”
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Lynn Nicholas’ stories have appeared online in LongStoryShort, Rose City Sister’s Flash Fiction, and she recently won a contest on WOW! Women on Writing.
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