Bailey is stuck in a world becoming evermore confusing. When things feel so right, she feels so wrong. Even when things seem so positive around her, Bailey feels something is horribly wrong beneath the surface. It may be the beginning of a winter slump, but perhaps there is more to it than that…
Winter. I can't exactly say I hate this time of year. The snow had picked up a bit outside, but it still wasn't sticking. Wood popped and crackled behind me; a roaring fire wrapping my body in blissful warmth. I had taken up residence on Nathan's living room floor, using the coffee table as a convenient eating area. He sat across from me, using the couch as a backrest, while his mother sat to the side in a chair. She continued to fill my head with embarrassing tales of Nathan's childhood.
Elbows on the table, hands propping my chin up; I listened with a bemused smile upon my face. Every so often I would catch Nathan's eye. He was quick to try and hide his embarrassment. I'd never seen him shy like this before. Once in awhile he would deny his mother's story, claiming it happened another way, but never elaborating. It had been so long since I'd felt genuinely good about just being in the moment. There were no expectations, or hidden agendas here.
"And he thought he got away with stealing the cookie, but the next thing I see is him running across the yard with his pants half down, dragging the neighbor's dog behind him. The dog wanted it more than Nathan did!"
My body shook with silent laughter as Mrs. Riley finished her latest story. Nathan's head fell back onto the sofa. He waved his napkin in the air a few times like a white flag, and then tossed it onto his plate. I slid my left leg out, beneath the table, and tapped my foot against his thigh a few times. He quickly snapped to attention, and his face came back into view. I had stopped laughing by then, but for some reason couldn't stop smiling at him.
"Well…" Mrs. Riley stood from her chair and started gathering our plates. "I think I've embarrassed my boy enough for tonight."
"Yeah," Nathan said. "Gotta save more for Bailey's next visit." He spoke to his mother, but his chocolate brown eyes were still locked on mine, as he subtly shook his head.
"I rather enjoyed the history lesson," I said, teasingly tapping Nathan's thigh again with my nylon-clad foot. "I learned quite a bit."
"Unfortunately I have to save some for the relatives coming to visit," Mrs. Riley said with a slight laugh. She turned to make her way to the kitchen. "I picked up a couple of movies you two can watch. One might be PG-13, but I won't tell on you, Bailey, for watching it." She came back into the living room with a smile on her face. "Make sure you get enough blankets, and don't forget to put the fire out."
"I won't," Nathan said, as his mother passed by us. "Goodnight mom."
"Goodnight," she said, before turning to me. "Goodnight Bailey. I enjoyed our evening."
"Me too," I said, taking my focus off of Nathan for the first time in the past ten minutes. "Goodnight Misses Riley."
We both waited a few minutes before saying anything. It had been so easy to look at Nathan all night, and now all of a sudden I felt timid being alone with him. There wasn't any pizza in front of me to pick at. I had a little bit of Coke left, but I really couldn't display interest in that. Apparently Nathan's mother had filled that awkward gap for the both of us. Even Nathan was at a loss for words. A few minutes passed of nothing but crackling, popping wood.
"I'm sorry your mother embarrassed you."
"What?" Nathan looked away from the fire.
"With all of those stories," I said. "My mother's the same way."
"Oh," Nathan said, with a slight chuckle. "I'm so used to that. I mean, it's a bit embarrassing, but I figure every kid has had stupid moments like that in their life."
"Some of us are still having them," I muttered beneath my breath. I slid my left hand under my wavy hair, and rested my head sideways on it. "Tonight was fun," I said. "I needed to get away from my house."
"You say it like the night is over," Nathan said. "It's only eight."
"I just meant…" I looked down at the coffee table. "It's not that much fun at home right now."
"This will probably sound like a dumb question, but is everything okay?" He paused for a moment, studying me. "Like… okay, okay?"
"Things haven't been okay ever since Tom married my mother," I said. "He's just… not right."
"Like not right for my mother. Not right to be a father." My eyes rolled up to meet Nathan's gaze. "He's just not right for anything."
"I wish there was something I could do," Nathan said. "If you ever need to get away from him, you can come here."
"Thank you." I offered a half-smile to him. For a lingering moment the room filled with silence again. Nathan's gaze went back to the fire. "You're a good friend Nathan."
Nathan's stare remained focused on the fire. "I care about you Bailey."
I let those words sink in for a long moment. Suddenly I felt all of the emotion from earlier building inside of me. I didn't cry this time, though it felt like I would burst into tears at any moment. That's when I realized why I cried before. It wasn't about some silly present that Nathan gave me. It was the fact that he cared enough about me to make the present so personal. He actually related it to the problems I'd been facing, rather than just picking out something I might like.
"Does Justin think I'm screwed up?"
"What?" Nathan's eyes shot over to look at me. "No. Where did you…" He breathed in a deep sigh. "You overheard the guys talking about you."
I nodded silently.
"Those guys…" The fire popped, collapsing an otherwise awkward silence, and one of the remaining logs in the fireplace. "They don't know what they're talking about."
"Do you guys ever…" I mindlessly tapped my foot against his thigh. "Do you talk about me?"
"I guess that depends," Nathan said, returning his solemn stare to the fire. "We talk about you from time to time. I know Justin's concerned about you, but he doesn't think the same as those other guys."
"Don't you think he should know what they think?"
"Do you want to tell him?"
I shook my head in silence, though he wasn't looking at me. Even if I did want Justin to know, I didn't want to break it to him. That was like coming between him and his boys, or whatever you wanted to call it. Nothing good really ever came out of doing something like that. They would probably turn vengeful on each other, and I'd make it worse for everyone. No, I didn't want that at all.
"So what do you talk about?"
"Me?" Nathan asked, as if his life depended on the answer. "I don't know. It's not like we talk about you all the time, or anything like that."
"Well I'm not expecting that," I said, letting a smile slip into my words. "You said you talk about me though."
"I've mentioned things I like about you," Nathan said. "That sort of stuff."
"Like what?" Suddenly the fire behind me seemed to be warmer. I anxiously wanted to know where this conversation would take us.
"Well I think you're fairly smart for one thing," Nathan said. "And though it made Justin a bit on edge, I have mentioned that I think you're cute."
My eyes grew wide with terror as I looked at him. "You told my brother you thought I was cute?"
"Well yeah," Nathan said, now turning to face me. "You are. I mean, it wasn't just something I came out and said, but I mentioned it in passing."
I peeled my eyes away from him as that awkward silence drifted between us yet again. Now I really didn't want the conversation to continue. This moment didn't feel right. We needed space between us and quickly. Something needed to distract us from this moment before I… I felt Nathan's hand on my foot. He held it softly, but firmly. Our eyes locked in a silent stare.
"Why don't we talk about something else?" he asked.
"Of course," I said, my voice shaking.
"Or watch a movie, or something," he said, glancing at the fire. "I just…" He sighed. "I really don't care what those idiots had to say today."
"I'm sorry I brought it up," I said.
"It's okay," Nathan said. "Just…" He looked right at me now. "Justin doesn't think the way they do, and neither do I."
"You don't think I'm screwed up?"
"Well of course," Nathan said, but a giant grin on his face lightened his comment. "You're all kinds of screwed up, Bailey, but that's the interesting part about you."
I pulled my foot from his hand, and playfully kicked his leg. As I shot him a phony glare, his eyes got wide with amusement. Suddenly his hand latched onto my ankle, this time with a much firmer grip. My mouth dropped open, as Nathan grinned, and started to pull me under the table. Before I could get away, he had me at his mercy, and started to tickle my foot relentlessly. I cried out my surrender between fits of laughter.
Being halfway beneath the coffee table, I couldn't get away from Nathan. I tried to push him away with my other foot, but he managed to trap both of my legs. Like an alligator with it's prey, Nathan twisted me around, until I was forced onto my front. Now he had complete and total control of my feet, and ruthlessly let his fingers dance across my soles. I squirmed, trying to get away, as my laughter brought me to tears. There wasn't even anything for me to grab hold of to turn back over.
"Nathan…" His mother's stern voice brought me much needed time to catch my breath. "Let the poor thing go."
"He started it," Nathan said.
"Well I'm ending it," his mother said. "Look at her. She can't even fight back."
"Well she deserved it," Nathan said, letting me go.
"No I didn't!" I said in a pout, as I struggled to get out from under the table.
I managed to recover from being Nathan's captive, but hadn't fully recovered from what he did to me. My face felt flushed and was probably red with embarrassment. It still felt like he had a hold of me on certain areas of my lower legs. My feet felt tingly and slightly rubbed raw from his fingers. Even my body felt fatigued from the struggle and the laughter. The whole thing had been strange, both in experience, and in light of our brief conversation before it.
However, I was no longer thinking about what had just transpired. My mind had moved on. It was now focused on the rather convenient interchangeable usages of the male and female pronouns used by Nathan and his mother. My gender went from he to she in less than ten seconds. It seemed to be almost contagious. The instant his mother used the pronoun she, Nathan had switched from he to she.
"I brought you down some pillows and blankets," his mother said, "since you'll probably forget. You can camp out down here tonight." She smiled as she tossed everything onto the couch. "I'd tell you to make yourselves comfortable, but you two seem to be comfortable with each other already."
"Mom…" Nathan said, as he stood up.
"Do you need something to sleep in, or will you be alright?" his mother asked, looking directly at me.
"No thanks," I said. "I'm fine Misses Riley."
"Well, I'll just let you two be," she said, as she turned to go back upstairs. "You kids behave."
Nathan looked over to me, but I quickly hid my face from him. My face burned like the fire I found myself staring into. Behind me I could hear Nathan shuffling things around. The awkwardness had returned to the room in full force. His mother had called attention to the obvious. She saw exactly the same thing that Justin's football buddies had seen. There was clearly something between Nathan and me.
"You okay?" Nathan asked. His voice was barely audible.
"No…" I said, as I slowly turned to face him.
Tears were streaming down my cheeks now. Nathan stood there, looking at me in a strange way. I gasped in three short bursts of air, and suddenly I couldn't control my emotions. As Nathan came around the table, I started to turn away. He stopped me from turning. For a moment he stood in silence, gazing into my eyes. Then he pulled me into his arms. With what little strength I had left in me, I tried to push away, but Nathan just pulled me in tighter.
"I'm sorry," Nathan said. "I was just messing around."
I shook my head against him. "It's not that."
"It's okay," he said, after several minutes of silence. "Let it out."
"I'm sorry," I said, gasping for air.
"Don't be," Nathan said. His hands ran up and down my back. "I'm here."
I buried my head into his chest. My arms dropped to my sides. "I'm so confused," I mumbled into his shirt.
"I understand," Nathan said quietly.
"I don't," I said, shaking my head back and forth against him.
I continued to cry. Nothing seemed right anymore. Nathan had always been the safe bet, but now even that confused me, and he no longer offered anything to alleviate the confusion. He had no words of wisdom tonight. There seemed to be nothing in my little world, at that moment, that made any sense. I had been bombarded with so many things in the last few months. They all tugged me in different directions, but they had the same destination. Slowly and methodically, they all pulled me into a dark pit of confusion. I had fallen down the rabbit hole.
My fit continued. It became tiring, and filled me with so much exasperation that I wasn't sure I wanted to continue the pleasant evening I'd been having. Twice this year I had broken down into complete emotional exhaustion, and both times it had been in front of Nathan. I could feel his shirt turning warm and moist around my cheeks. The tears would not stop; like a valve had been broken inside of me, they continued to flow uncontrollably. I cried, and then cried some more; a selfish display that had probably ruined the night for Nathan.
He simply stood there. As my body grew tired and limp, Nathan held me up. His firm arms wrapped around me, giving me support. I could feel one hand on my back, and another on my head. The latter gently petted my hair. Nathan didn't speak a word. He just held me. Between him and the fire, I collapsed into a wonderful pocket of warmth that seemed set apart from the rest of the world. And I cried.
I really have no idea how I ended up on the floor. Call it an out-of-body experience, but somehow I woke up next to Nathan. The fire had long since been put out, and the room had a stiff morning chill wrapped around the lingering smell of ash. It was impossible for me to be cold though. Not only did the sun filter in softly through the thin white drapes of his living room, but there next to me was the warm body of Nathan Riley.
It would have been nice to stay there all day. I felt safe again. Even though I had ended up under a mountain of covers, next to one of the only boys I've ever had mixed feelings about, I still felt safe. Despite having mysteriously lost my jeans somewhere in the middle of all of this, and seeing them neatly folded on the arm of his couch, nothing could really send a signal of danger to my brain. I only felt comfort, and perhaps that is why it felt so uncomfortable to stay.
I'm sure I left Nathan's poor head spinning that morning. He had barely awakened himself, as I was running around the living room frantically collecting my things. His mind was probably still trying to grasp how I had had a good time, but was in such a rush to get out of there. Not trying to be cruel, but not wanting to stay, I tried to make it as less complicated as I could. Avoiding the tough question he posed, asking me if I was okay, I gave him the best answer I could that would thwart any further discussion. I hardly gave him an excuse.
"I have to get home," I said. "My mom is probably expecting me."
"Sure," Nathan said, as he held open the front door. "No problem." The bitter cold outside felt like a slap to the face. "Hey…" Nathan reached out to gently grab my arm. "Stop by sometime?" His voice still sounded groggy. "You know… during the break?"
"Count on it." I gave him smile, and nodded thoughtfully. "Merry Christmas, Nathan," I said, as I stepped into him, and flung my arms around him.
"Merry Christmas," Nathan said, as he returned the friendly embrace. His hand casually reached up and brushed my cheek. "Take care of yourself."
"I'll be fine," I said, as I slipped away from him. "I'll see you soon."
"Bye," he said, sounding somewhat saddened by my departure.
For some reason I felt ashamed walking away from his house. Part of it was my haste in leaving, but the other part came from what happened the previous night. I had opened up to a boy in a way I would never had considered with any other male. He had seen me vulnerable before, but this time I had admitted my vulnerability. It felt different to me, and I had to reevaluate my thoughts. I really needed a complete system reboot, but I saw that opportunity quickly remove itself from the equation.
Only a few houses away, sitting in our driveway, was Tom's truck. He had come home, as I had expected. What I didn't expect was for him to stay the night. My pace slowed. My heart rate quickened. It steadily became harder to breathe outside in the cold winter air. Thoughts raced in my head, taking me to variations of conversations that might be before me. Would I be the next thing he would put his fist through?
For the second time in less than a day, I could not grasp how I had gotten myself from one location to another. Somehow I had managed to make it to my front door. I don't even remember getting my key out, and I definitely don't remember unlocking the door. The knob turned slowly in my hand, and the door gave that familiar brushing sound as it opened. Without even realizing it, I had stepped inside, and was closing the door.
Tom's familiar voice carried down the stairs. It sounded calm, even relaxed. I slowly locked the door, now wishing I had not come home at all. For a small moment I wished I could turn silent and invisible. I imagined casually strolling to my room unnoticed. That's when I heard movement, and Tom's shadow appeared on the door. I turned, following the shadow up the stairs, to meet Tom's eyes gazing back down at me.
"Hey kid," Tom said.
His voice remained calm. He held his head down slightly, and looked at me with a solemn expression. Concern showed in his eyes. His shoulders were slumped, with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his ratty jeans. With his relaxed stance, he looked entirely passive. He almost looked apologetic, though I had serious doubts I would ever hear an apology. Tom wasn't that type of man.
I must have looked like a deer in the wilderness; ready to jump and run from any threat that came my way. Though I knew there was nothing to apologize for, I still felt the urge to say I was sorry to him. It wasn't how I truly felt, but Tom had a way of making everyone else around him feel guilty. My hand remained on the door handle. The thought to turn it and bolt must have entered my mind a hundred times in that short moment.
"Can we talk?" Tom finally asked, as he gestured with his head toward the living room.
I shifted uncomfortably, still holding onto the door handle behind me. A single word had not escaped my lips, and I think for a moment I had even held my breath. For all intents and purposes, the man at the top of the stairs had become my worst enemy. I wasn't about to make any of this easy for him.
Tom tucked his bottom lip in briefly, and then nodded silently. He let out a long breath of air, and slowly pulled his hands from his pockets. My hand grinded against the door handle, as I watched him take a step down the stairs. Suddenly he stopped. He eased himself down to where he was sitting at the top of the stairs. His gaze reluctantly fell to the floor, and then back up at me.
"Bailey…" He let another sigh escape his lips. "I don't want you to be afraid of me." His head tilted to the side. "What I did was stupid, and I want you to know I would never do anything to hurt you." His eyebrows raised. "You understand that, don't you?"
I returned his question with a distrusting look, and another uncomfortable shift of my body against the door.
"Will you at least talk to me?" Tom asked. His hands moved up to motion imaginary words passing back and forth between us. "This would be easier if we could communicate, and reach some understanding."
"Why?" I blurted out.
"Why should I make anything easier for you?" I asked. "You've never made anything easy for me."
His hands dropped down to grasp the corner of the top stair. "Maybe that's true," he said. "I've been a bit hard on you." He continued to look at me sincerely. "I just want to protect you."
"Protect me by keeping me from my friends?" I asked. "Or forcing me to wear panties? Steering me into a world of confusion, while I was just having fun with my girlfriend?"
"Wow," Tom said, leaning back slightly. "When did you grow up?"
"You forced me to," I said, slowly sliding against the door, down to the floor. Tom started to stand up. "Don't," I said, catching him off guard. "Don't come closer."
"Okay," Tom said, as he sat back down. "I'll stay up here, if we can keep talking."
"She's in the bedroom," Tom said. "Justin is still out with his friends." He let another sigh escape him. "I just wanted to talk to you."
"Are you ashamed of me?"
"Honestly," Tom said quietly, "I really don't know how to process any of this. I was raised with a different train of thought, and I'm honestly finding it hard to change my views." He paused for a moment. "I'm not ashamed of you though. I'm just scared for you."
"Scared for me?"
Tom twisted himself around, and rested his back against the wall. His head tilted toward the ceiling, and a long drawn-out breath filled the silence in the room. "Several years ago, before I met your mother, I was married to my first wife. Her name was Margaret, and she and I had a child together; a boy. We probably married way too young, and neither of us knew the first thing about raising a kid." Tom's head slumped forward. "Truth be told, I probably still don't."
I pulled my knees to my chest. The cold metal door could still be felt against my back, but I had chosen safety over comfort. I still didn't trust Tom. Cautiously, I watched him struggle for a moment with his story. About ninety percent of me was still ready to jump up and rush out the door. The other ten percent was split between wanting to hear what he had to say, and wanting to return to my room at some point.
"He was a little older than you, when we both noticed him starting to drift away," Tom said. "He just became completely withdrawn, never wanting to do anything with us." Tom's gaze remained on the floor in front of him. "I started to worry. I started to force him to do things; involve him with his family. I thought he was depressed, and I wanted him to know he was loved."
"What was wrong?" I asked; my interest in Tom's past growing.
"No matter how much we involved him in our lives," Tom said, "or tried to show him our love, he continued to fall away." Tom lifted his fist to his mouth, and sat in silence for a moment. "I started to get impatient. I started to snoop, thinking it was drugs. Only…" He paused for a moment, as if to collect himself. "Only what I found, at the time, I thought was far worse than drugs. At my age, with the way I'd been raised, I just couldn't accept it."
"What did you find?"
"Love letters… They all started normal, like any love letter would," Tom said, taking another long breath. "But then they started talking about how pretty my son was. How they liked his feminine nature, and how giving he was when they made love." Tom paused, shaking the bit of anger away that had crept into his voice. "I'm sorry. You didn't need to hear that."
"I'm old enough," I said. "You were mad that he was having sex?"
"No," Tom said, shaking his head. "I mean, in a way I was. He shouldn't have been having sex that young." Tom looked down at me. "And neither should you or your brother, mind you."
"I'm way too young for that," I mumbled.
Tom chuckled. "I'm glad to hear that." His demeanor slowly diminished to a solemn nature again. After a moment, he finally decided to continue his story. "It wasn't what he was doing, or even the comments on his effeminate nature that bothered me. It was who he was doing it with." Tom sighed once more. "You see… all of the letters were signed by the same person; a boy named Roger."
"Your son was gay?"
"Yeah…" Tom muttered, letting out a half-hearted breath of laughter. "I couldn't accept it. I could not, for the life of me, cope with my son being gay." He turned his gaze away again, back to the carpet beneath him. "Looking back now, it was the most petty thing in the world. It shouldn't have mattered, but I let it matter. I let it rule the way I treated him."
I watched Tom sit in silent solitude. Not daring to get closer to him, but wanting to somehow bring him out of his current slump, I offered up the best thing I could; more conversation. "What happened between you guys?"
"At first, I wanted to confront him," Tom said. "But then I thought it would drive a wedge between us. After all, I wasn't even supposed to know about his secret love life." Tom shook his head. "The things I said around him, and the way I viewed homosexuality, was the whole reason he kept it a secret in the first place." Tom glanced down at me. "So I tried to keep him closer to Margaret and me. I kept him busy, thinking that maybe it would put too much distance between him and Roger."
"You tried to break them up?" I asked.
Tom nodded. "It didn't work though. They found ways to see each other, and I found more letters." Tom sighed yet again. "That's when I tried to cure his effeminate nature, thinking it would make him less queer." Tom turned to look at me. "I tried to make him do 'manly' things, thinking it would make him act like a normal man."
"Like you did with me…" I said quietly, as my own gaze went to the floor.
"I don't know why I did it," Tom said. "It didn't work then, and I'm sorry I tried it on you. It's all I could think of."
"You don't need to fix me," I muttered.
"I know," Tom said. "You made that clear at Thanksgiving." A slight pause left an awkward silence lingering in the room. "I might have been mad at you that night," he finally said, "but I think I was more angered at seeing my own failures again. I shouldn't have asked you to stop being who you are."
I quietly observed the unmoving floor beneath me. "Did he resent it?"
Tom let out the biggest sigh since we had started talking. "My son…"
I looked up to catch Tom's eyes. They were watery, and he looked ready to burst into tears. He struggled to look at me, and eventually had to turn away.
"My son is dead," Tom finally said. He took a moment to clear his throat, and collect himself. "I couldn't let it go. I couldn't let my son be gay." For a long moment, Tom sat in silent contemplation, before finally finishing his story. "I realized nothing was working, and so I confronted him about it. I told him he couldn't see the boy anymore, and I made sure of it by moving us to an entirely different state."
"That's horrible!" I blurted out.
"I'm the last person who needs to be told that," Tom said, trying to hide the pain as best he could. "I drove him into depression, and ultimately…" Tom looked at the ceiling. "He was so passionate. I mean, he was everything that queer said he was in those letters, and I just couldn't let him be."
"He killed himself?"
"Bailey…" Tom straightened himself on the top of the stairs, so that he looked directly down at me. "If I have ever done that much harm to you…" He cleared his throat once more. "If I've made you feel that hopeless, then I'm sorry. I don't ever want to cause another person to go through what I put my own son through."
My chin rose slowly. Tears filled my own eyes, and I could barely look away from my stepfather. For a long moment, we sat staring at each other. Silence filled the room. In the distance I think I heard my mother cough, or maybe even cry. I wasn't sure anymore. It seemed to be just me and Tom in this small little world. How could this man even live with himself? He had done all of this before, and it ended up killing his own son.
"You… made me… feel…" My voice came out staggered; filled with rage, confusion, and perhaps the same passion his son had. "So… worthless."
Behind gritted teeth I prepared an onslaught of the harshest words in my vocabulary at the time. I wanted to make Tom feel worthless. I wanted to tell him how awful he was as a parent, and how he should never have been able to bring a child into the world. Only… I didn't say another word. There was already too much pain in the man's eyes.
"I'm sorry," Tom said, his voice nearly a whisper. "If you'll let me, I want to try to make it up to you."
"Can you magically erase the last six months?" I asked, with a half-hearted laugh.
Tom offered a slight, but knowing smile. "I can't do that," he said. "But maybe we can start this all over."
"I don't think I want to go through it all again," I said.
"Oh, no," Tom said. "I meant the way it's been handled. We can toss out the playbook. Start all over. Build everything from scratch."
"Is everything about sports to you?" I asked, letting a smile slip into it.
Tom smiled a bit bigger now. "If you don't like sports, then we can do something else."
"I like some sports," I said.
"Oh?" Tom leaned back. "What sports do you like?"
For the rest of the morning, Tom and I talked. He sat at the top of the stairs, and I sat at the bottom. We talked about everything, from sports to politics, and from school to my gender identity. It was the first real conversation we ever had together since he had married my mother. Neither one of us moved from our safety zone, but it seemed like we were growing closer. Our talk went on for hours, until a phone call eventually broke it up.
"It's for Bailey," my mother whispered to Tom from around the corner.
"Who is it?" I asked, still not moving from the bottom of the stairs.
My mother finally came around the corner, showing herself for the first time that day. She looked tired, but altogether happy. I imagined she had a long conversation with Tom the night before. "It's Tawny," she said, with a bemused smile.
I sat still for a moment, contemplating having to go through Tom to get to the phone. As if reading my mind, he stood and removed himself from the staircase.
"I'm going to take a shower," he said quietly, before disappearing down the hallway.
I quickly gathered myself up off the floor, and rushed up the stairs. My mother lingered near me, causing me to shoo her away. Once I thought everyone was out of earshot range, I held the phone up to my ear.
The voice of a very excited Tawny greeted me on the other end. I couldn't do a thing to calm her down. Normally she was cool and collected, but at the moment she was a completely different Tawny. She seemed more like Megan, when Megan talked about all of the things she did with the popular kids, or like Danielle going on about the latest popular television show. It didn't seem to fit her character at all, but as I listened to her more, I started to enjoy this new side of Tawny.
Ever since I had met Tawny, I always felt a strong connection with her. We hardly ever saw each other outside of our group, or school, but we seemed to have something going between us. I could talk to her about nothing all day, and our conversation seemed to go on for hours, but in reality only lasted about ten minutes. Tom shutting the shower off, quickly snapped me back to that reality. I confirmed my plans with Tawny, and listened as she grew even more excited. Then she asked me a rather poignant question, which didn't seem to weigh too heavily on me at the time, but seemed to set the mood for the rest of my Christmas break.
"So…" Tawny said over the phone. "Boy or girl?"
I thought about it for a huge amount of time; all of two seconds. "Girl," I answered in a rushed voice. Tom would be out of the bathroom soon, and I wanted to avoid him.
"Cool," Tawny said. "I'll tell my parents a girl friend is coming then."
"Uh huh…" I said, not paying much attention to her now."
"Hey," Tawny said. "You okay?"
My attention snapped back to the phone like it was a monster that had grabbed hold of my ear. "Huh?!"
"Are… you… o… kay?" Tawny asked, sounding rather sarcastic.
"Yes," I said. "I'm good. I just have to go now."
"Okay," Tawny said. "I guess I'll see you later."
"See you then," I said, to which we both hung up the phone.
"So…" my mother said, coming down the hallway. "What was that all about?"
"As if you didn't know," I said, giving my mother a wary look.
"Indulge me," my mother said with a smile.
"I changed my mind about going with Tawny," I said, reluctantly.
"Where are you going?" Tom said, as he walked up behind my mother.
"Ballet," my mother said, making it sound more magical than it really needed to be.
"Ah," Tom said, simply turning into the laundry room. "Nutcracker?" he asked, as he came back out into the hall.
My mother simply nodded, as she continued to smile at me. At least she acted as a temporary buffer between the two of us. Tom came up even closer behind her, and simply looked at me over her shoulder. I still felt uneasy about being near him. Especially with the vision of his fist going through our wall fresh in my mind. However, at the moment, he had a goofy grin on his face to match my mother's smile.
"Wait…" I said, looking at Tom. "You're okay with it?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" Tom asked, rhetorically. "Won't kill you to see it at least once in your life. It didn't kill me." He turned to walk back to the bedroom. "But I would like you home afterwards for Christmas Eve dinner."
"I agree," my mother said; her smile now a firm, solemn stare. "You can hang out with your little friend for a bit, but please be home for dinner." She turned to walk away.
"Mom," I said quietly, stopping her in her tracks. I waited for her to turn and face me. "I don't know what to wear."
"Just wear something nice," she said, as if it were as simple as that. My lack of movement demonstrated that it wasn't so easy. "Oh…" She studied me for a moment. "I suppose you'll need a bit more help than that."
"I'd just wear a sweater," Tom said, from the bedroom. He poked his head out the door. "A lot more comfortable than wearing a stupid suit."
My mother continued to look at me, as if reading every expression on my face. "Tom…" she finally said. "I don't think this is a dilemma about sport coats and ties."
Tom walked out into the hallway again. A confused expression littered his face, until finally, after a few moments of staring at me, a light bulb came on in his head. "Ah," he finally said, nodding his head. "I get what you mean." He looked at me a bit longer. "I honestly don't know…"
"I'm sure we can find something," my mother said. "You have some nice dresses."
"No," Tom said, causing my mother to turn. We both looked at Tom, as he stood on the other end of the hallway.
"No?" my mother and I both asked in unison.
"I…" Tom looked both of us over. "I've been a jerk. Probably for too long." His hand snaked up to rub the back of his head. "I know it's not much, and probably won't even begin to make things right between us, but I'd like to…" He looked down at me, his lips forcing themselves into a reluctant smile. "Bailey… Would you let me buy you something nice to wear for your first ballet?"
I couldn't even begin to find an answer to his question. As my mother turned to face me, and Tom continued to stare, I simply sat there dumbfounded. "Um…" My voice worked, but my brain wasn't at the moment.
"I'd like to try to make this work," Tom said. "Consider this as me investing in who you are. What do you say? A nice dress? Shoes?"
I looked up at my mother. She gave me one of those looks that said it was my decision, but I should probably take a chance and go for it. To be honest, I couldn't disagree with what Tom had put on the table. New clothes did have a certain appeal to me. I looked back at him. He looked sincere, and even slightly hopeful that this could be a big turning point between us. However, we had done this before, so I decided to approach it with caution.
"Huh?" Tom look at my mother. "Yeah, of course. We'll all go," he said, looking back at me. "Whatever you're comfortable with." He gave me another sincere smile. "Please?"
I took a deep breath, wondering if I could eventually trust this man again. "Okay," I finally said, confirming it with a nod. "I need to change though."
It felt weird. Tom sat with my mother in the front seat of his Chevy Caprice , while I sat in the back. Were we just pretending to be a happy family again? I stared at what little snow there was, as it flew by in a blur past my window. It reminded me of the dream I had a long time back. The dream where my family drove me out to the middle of nowhere, and left me with strangers. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn't actually an asylum they left me at in my dream. I wondered if this was the day I would be abandoned. Dreams do sometimes come to fruition after all.
I smoothed my pleated plaid skirt over my black tights. At first, I didn't even want to dress as a girl, but figured I should if I was trying on girls clothing. After all, I had pretty much locked myself into going as a girl with Tawny. My mother had suggested I wear something easier to slip in and out of, and I had taken her advice. However, now, as I looked myself over, I appeared more like a schoolgirl; complete with my Mary Jane shoes and green sweater.
I had refrained from as much conversation as possible. For many reasons I wanted to keep up the illusion of distance between Tom and I for a while. So I watched the scenery on the way to the mall. I listened to Tom bridge the awkward silences with talk about his job; how he and a new partner were considering taking things in a different direction. My mother returned his chat with her own, talking about how her workload might increase next year. They discussed Justin briefly, and then asked me if I was excited about school next semester. I gave the usual "not really" reply.
In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea to go shopping for a new dress right before Christmas. We had a horrid time finding a parking spot, and Tom insisted on walking in with us. I figured it was his way of demonstrating how unashamed he was of me. Although he didn't account for my mother and I walking about two blocks in the cold while wearing skirts. Eventually, however, we did make it into the mall alive.
Perhaps the worst fear I had when dressing, was the possibility of someone I knew finding out before I was ready to show them. Nothing instilled that fear more, than going out into a public place with my parents. With friends, I could be passed off as someone's cousin. However, if anyone recognized my parents, and then put me together with them, that would be the end. It was like an instant surrender, knowing there would be no way to deflect the oncoming barrage of questions. I actually tried to avoid the situation when possible.
Fortunately for me, there were certain times of the year where I could get away with it. Halloween had perhaps the most solid defense of any holiday. However, as we walked through that crowded mall, three days before Christmas, I could tell that everyone had become so self-absorbed with last minute shopping. They had enough worries than to think about a strange little boy, dressed as a girl, fighting their way through the crowd. I felt uneasy, but I also felt quite confident that nobody would recognize myself, my mother, or…
The three of us spun instantly toward the male voice. As soon as I saw him, I recognized Jack; one of Tom's poker buddies. He hardly glanced at my mother, but he took a longer, more interested gander at me. It was as if he recognized me, but then didn't want to believe it was true. Tom's friends had never seen me dressed as a girl, but they certainly knew what I looked like. This was the first time I had been clearly identified by someone via my parents.
"Hey Jack…" Tom said, and turned back to us. "Why don't you two go on ahead. I'll catch up." His lips curled into a nervous smile.
My mother tugged at my arm. Eventually she had me turned around, and walking away from the two men. After a quick glance at the stores we passed, I suddenly realized where we were. The familiar booth displaying sunglasses, the mixed smells of scented candles; they were all bringing back memories. That's when I looked up and saw the familiar bright pink and blue neon sign. We were headed right to the front door of 'Tweens.
The layout of the store seemed all too familiar. Racks and tables of clothing displayed different seasonal wear, but it all felt the same. I knew where the changing rooms were, and even where the sales rack sat. It now had a few of the autumn items that I modeled hanging there for half off. This would have been the last place I would think about getting an outfit for the ballet. Apparently my mother felt differently about it.
"Welcome to 'Tweens," a familiar voice said from behind us. "Is there anything I can…"
As I turned toward the voice, I instantly took in the girl's brunette hair; done up in tight curls. Her bright blue eyes lit up. Her lips danced to a pleasant smile. The look she gave me was one of recognition and friendliness. I smiled back nervously, not sure of what to say.
"Well it's certainly nice to see you again, Bailey," Casey said.
"You remember me?" I asked, with a hint of surprise in my voice.
"I tend to remember the models that I like," she said, giving me a wink. "Where's your partner in crime?"
"I'm actually with my mother today," I said, offering a nodding gesture behind me. Only, as I turned to look, I noticed my mother had wandered off to look at clothes. "We're just looking…"
"Well just let me know if you need anything," Casey said, bringing my attention back to her. She leaned in closer, so that only I could hear her. "Maybe we can work out a discount if you agree to come model again."
"I…" I gave her another nervous smile. "Sure… I wouldn't mind doing that again."
"Then maybe we can arrange something while you're here," Casey said, straightening herself. She glanced over my shoulder. "I think your mom found something."
"Oh," I said, turning back to look at my mother. She had a red dress off the rack, and was looking it over.
When I turned back to say something to Casey, I realized she had gone to help someone at the register. I took a quick glance out into the mall, and saw Tom still talking with Jack. I wondered if he was trying to explain away my existence. When Jack glanced around Tom at me, I just knew something had been said about my appearance. Either there was curiosity, or perhaps utter disgust, but he had to be thinking about it in some way.
I decided to let it slip completely out of my hands. Nothing could be done about it, other than Tom telling boldface lies. I knew I couldn't do anything. The best I could do was pretend everything was fine. Not that anything felt fine. I mean, some things felt fine, but there was this huge feeling of something simply being off. Something, somewhere in the universe, made me feel that this new Tom was different; but not in a good way. I just couldn't put my finger on it.
"What do you think of this one, Bailey?"
My attention was snapped away from my stepfather, to focus on my mother. When I saw the dress she held up, I at least found comfort in knowing one thing was completely wrong. I eyed the elaborate dress, covered in bows and frills. It seemed to have everything but bells and whistles. My mother's smiling face peaked over the shoulder. The only way the dress could get any worse, is if it actually did have the bells and whistles. I shook my head defiantly, and stormed toward my mother.
To be continued…
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