the old bucket list before their move out to California;
meanwhile, in chapter 16, an unexpected call from Matt's
mother Joanne forces Matt to consider traveling back down
to his hometown to confront some demons from his past.
Reaching the Point
of No Regrets
Chapters 15 & 16
Copyright© 2013 Drew Miller
All Rights Reserved.
Image Credit: Picture purchased and licensed for use from 123rf.com. The model(s) in this image is in / and are no way connected with this story nor supports nor conveys the issues and situations brought up within the story. The model(s) use is solely used for the representation of looks of the main character(s) of this particular story. ~Sephrena
Now we had a goal: California. It was nice having a goal, even though it appeared at times to be a seemingly insurmountable more than two-thousand miles away. It made the long hours at work bearable. And boy did we work and work some more! I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have an effect on our relationship. Sometimes I felt we were more like roommates than a couple. The only thing that helped me get through those difficult times was the engagement ring that reminded me of the wedding waiting for me sometime and some place in California. It was still TBA, but I felt it was a certainty like the rising and setting of the sun every day.
By summer, the long work weeks and thrifty living were paying off. I was about to add another zero to my savings account. I looked at my balance and realized there was a tradeoff. It was either save up money for moving out to a more trans-friendly community, or save up money for my sex reassignment surgery. I decided to put the SRS on hold; after all, I’d waited this long. The trip out to Trinidad Colorado would just have to wait.
Sometimes I longed for the infinite leisure that I perceived summer vacation to be when I was a kid. Now life was just one unending school year. However, I did have a mini summer vacation of sorts coming up. The tension eased in my body when I thought about the annual street festival on Main Street that was imminent. I looked forward to walking hand in hand with my soul mate. I looked forward to splurging a little bit.
Matt and I bought a gift for Samantha for her upcoming birthday at the street festival, a ceramic sculpture with Virginia’s state bird perched on a Dogwood branch. However, we may have purchased the gift early, but it was mailed out just under the wire the first week of September. Apparently it had arrived just in time too. I was cooking dinner the evening of her birthday when she called.
“Hi Samantha!” said Matt, picking up his cell phone. “Happy birthday sis! Did you get my card and the package?”
“Yeah, I sure did. Just in time too. It’s a wonderful gift. I love my little Virginia bird!”
“Katie helped me pick it out.”
“Tell her from me that she has really good taste!”
“I will. So how are things going? Is your hubby still entertaining the idea of opening his own restaurant?”
“Still thinking about it when he’s not slammed at work. I’ll let you know when the grand opening is!” she joked. “Maybe you guys could fly out for the opening night.”
“Well, we might not have to fly out. Katie and I have got some news. We didn’t want to be premature until we knew we were going to be able to swing it.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense bro. What’s your news?”
“We’re going to move out there!”
“Yeah. We’re thinking about San Francisco.”
“That’s wonderful. We’d be neighbors! No more Christmases consisting of only cards and long distance phone calls.”
“We’ve set a tentative move out date for early spring, but we’ll see. It all depends on how quickly we can find a place. I’ll have to fly out soon and start lookin’ at places.”
“Nonsense. Nonsense! I’ve got this real estate friend who could hook you up with a nice place. Talk about serendipitous, huh?”
“Yeah, but our price range is pretty narrow.”
“No worries. There are a lot of secret steals here and there if you know where to look.”
“I don’t know what to say sis?”
“You’ve always been there for me. I’m happy to do it for you.”
“You’re the best Samantha. Katie will be thrilled.”
“Is she around? Can I talk to her?”
“She’s in the middle of pulling something out of the oven. Here, I’ll put you on speaker. Give Samantha a shout out babe.”
“Hi Samantha! Happy birthday!”
“Thanks!” said Samantha. “Is she still working the same job?”
“Yeah. She’s tried to find a higher paying job, but with her situation, you know how that is…”
“Unfortunately, all too well. Do me a favor: tell her to keep her chin up. Things are a lot different out here. Did you know that you can actually get a health insurance policy out here that covers hormone therapy?”
“Really?” he said.
“It’s not cheap, but it can be worth it.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’ve gotta go here shortly. I’ll shoot you a text after I talk to my friend and then she can send you emails and stuff. Okay?”
“That’ll be great. Once again, thanks sis.”
“No prob. Talk to you later. Love you. Bye.”
“Love you too Samantha. Bye.”
He waltzed over to me and put his hands around my warm waist. “I’ve got some good news! It looks like we’ll be able to find a place easier than we thought. Samantha knows this real estate agent.”
“That’s great,” I said. “One less thing.”
With Matt’s loving arms still wrapped around me, I looked out the window at the subtle changes to the landscape. Hints of fall color were beginning to show themselves.
“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” I said. “I’ve never been on the Blue Ridge Parkway during October. Since we’ll be moving and I don’t have any relatives out here, who knows when we’ll be back. Who knows when we’ll see fall again?”
“Let’s do it and check it off the old bucket list.”
We hopped on I-81 north toward 64 for the two hour plus drive. We left at 7:00am sharp on a very chilly morning under a perfect cobalt blue sky. The drive out was scenic enough. The engine hummed loudly as we ascended the last climb, the top of which nearly marked the halfway point back to my hometown.
“There it is,” I said. “Exit 99. Good old Skyline Drive.”
We headed toward a couple of familiar yet welcome eyesores. Matt pulled the car onto the crumbling parking of the convenience store.
“You want anything?” he asked, stretching his back.
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
I looked at all of the cars parked in front of the abandoned motel, a former Howard Johnson if I’m not mistaken. I noticed a lot of cyclists with eager faces putting on their arm and leg warmers, ready to confront the cold rush of air after making the long ascent to the overlook. I couldn’t help but smile at their eagerness, for I could certainly relate. One time in August, I tried doing the Blue Ridge Extreme century ride, but I never even made it up the final climb past Wintergreen. My legs cramped up right after Crab Tree Falls.
I sighed at that realization. But I took solace in the knowledge that although I may not have finished that brief journey, at least I was on my way to finishing the most important journey of my life.
Matt returned with some OJ and we headed south on the parkway. The engine hummed even louder as the car wound its way around gentle curves, passing one cyclist after another, some rocking back and forth as they struggled to finish the forty-five plus minute ascent. Gravity pushed against them. My seat pushed against me. Hard earned sweat from their chins dampened the pavement as their warmers became increasingly unnecessary while I turned up the car’s heat. Their struggle against reminded me of my own struggle.
I’ll tell you, I had never seen so many cars! In fits and starts, we made it to the top after covering about ten miles of road, barely beating some of the cyclists that were hot on our heels. We stepped out and made our way to the railing and took our own pictures, trying to cram the vast undulating beauty into our small camera.
“Pictures just don’t do it justice, do they Matt?”
He shook his head. Even the panoramic views in one of the artist’s tents back at the street festival didn’t fully capture the feeling of awe I felt as my untrained eyes tried to find the perfect angle.
“Do you want to do the loop?” I asked. “I mean the loop out to Crab Tree Falls and up to Montebello?”
“How far is it?” he asked.
“About 72 miles round trip,” I said matter-of-factly.
“We’re off today. Might as well get our money’s worth.”
“Good. We can get something to eat at the country store.”
“Better get some gas first.”
“That’s perfect! We’ve got to go back down that hill anyway.”
We filled up next to the dilapidated motel and were soon on our way. This time, the first few miles were downhill.
“Good God!” said Matt. “I can’t believe anyone would wanna fly down this hill on their bike! How fast are they going do you think?”
“Over forty in parts I imagine. Not overly fast.”
“Until somethin’ goes wrong like a blowout and you hit the deck.” He shook his head. “They’re a different breed I guess.”
We cruised past the road to our right that led up to Wintergreen, where if you were a cyclist crazy enough to climb it, your nose was treated to the burning smell of brakes.
We encountered a few cyclists on the five mile climb to Montebello though. This particular climb was a completely different beast than Wintergreen. It didn’t kick up to a ridiculous and relentless gradient that causes cyclists to question their own sanity as they suffered through it; instead, it was twisty and turny and up and down. Even though this climb was much more forgiving, a couple guys were struggling.
As we approached them, I smiled and looked at Matt. “Go ahead and slow down,” I said.
He glanced over at me with a puzzled expression. “Why? You’re not getting’ car sick are ya’ babe?”
“No. Not at all. Just do it.” He slowed down a little and I rolled down the window. “You’re doing great guys!” I shouted. “Hang in there! You’re almost there!”
Matt glanced at the rearview mirror just after we passed them. “I’m not sure how much that’s gonna’ help. I don’t think I saw either of those guys smile.”
“Well, I just figured it would be nice if they heard some encouraging words instead of the usual expletives.”
“Hmm. Well, they better not get used to it. They’ll probably hear some more expletives before they reach the top. Not much of a shoulder on this road.” He shook his head. “Better them than me. I for one wouldn’t be caught dead on this road.” He sighed. “Like I said before, different breed I guess.”
I acknowledged him with a sheepish half smile. “Must be.” Shortly thereafter, I smiled as we came around a bend. “Aha! Well if they need to rest, they can stop here and join us.” I motioned with my left arm. “Go ahead and hang a left Matt. This is the spot I was telling you about.”
“So this is the famous Crabtree Falls,” he said.
We stepped out and stretched in the still air, but it wasn’t long until I was zipping up my jacket.
“Brrr!” I said, as a pocket of cold air drifted past us.
“Feels great!” said Matt. He stood there with arms akimbo and breathed deeply the clean crisp air. “Wow. I wish I could’ve grown up around here. You could definitely do worse than Virginia.”
“Maybe after someone experienced the Blue Ridge they came up with the slogan ‘Virginia is for lovers.’”
We smiled and held hands.
Matt said, “I bet the folks in West Virginia were pissed we thought of it first. But at least John Denver gave them Country Roads. All we’ve got is ‘carry me back to old virginie.’”
“Country Roads. I love that song.”
“I bet Samantha thinks California here we come is pretty good too.” Matt let out a sigh and drank in the idyllic scene before turning his attention back to me. “Indeed. California here we come.”
We finally tore ourselves away from the beauty when our stomachs started to growl. We hopped back in the car and drove the rest of the way up. At the top of the climb we hung a right and in a matter of seconds, we were there. We parked adjacent to the store, across the street from the glassy surface of the deep blue pond.
We bought some sandwiches and drinks at the Country Store that was just as well stocked as the pond across the street no doubt. We sat and ate in the unnecessary shade of the porch with the thermometer reading over five degrees cooler than back at the base of Crabtree.
We traded the cold shade of the porch for the cool sunshine warming the steps. As we rested and nibbled, I watched a couple of cyclists soft pedal into the parking lot. They dismounted and I watched them talk and laugh as they rolled their expensive carbon fiber bikes toward the porch. They seemed to be enjoying themselves more than us, as if the rest of their journey was mostly downhill; meanwhile, I let out a big yawn as if I had ascended Crabtree sans car.
“Tired already after a long hard ride in the car?” teased Matt.
I smiled at him. “It must be the fresh air.”
“Must be. I don’t think I’ve ever breathed in such clean air before.”
Soon, that fresh air was rushing past us once more after we reluctantly abandoned sunbathing in the late morning sunshine and got back on the two lane road. We overtook a few more cyclists and I watched them intently as they disappeared behind a hill. The last I saw, they were out of the saddle and rocking back and forth once more. I don’t know why, but I somehow envied them.
The parkway wasn’t any less flooded after we looped back around and headed north. The picnic areas were flooded to capacity. Lovers on blankets dotted the hill sides, and the overlooks were weighed down with people from all walks of life.
I pointed to a husky cyclist seeking respite on the side of the road. He was busily trying to shake his legs back to life despite their incessant protests. “I hope he makes it to the end.”
“He’s got a tough slog alright,” said Matt. “Better him than me. You couldn’t pay me enough to tackle all these climbs.”
We came full circle, returning to the overlook. We stepped out and admired the sun drenched valley, so similar to that of morning, yet so different.
It’s a strange phenomenon knowing when it’s time to go. Maybe that’s what the crow was trying to tell us when it flew overhead just moments after we maneuvered ourselves into prime viewing position, that it was time to go before the trees stood naked, before Mother Nature repainted the bright canvass before us with bleak grays and browns. The bird’s harsh call sent ripples through the tranquility and I felt a twinge of sadness. Then, a cool breeze picked up and I pulled my jacket closer to my body. I looked at Matt, and he forced a smile. I could see in his eyes that he knew it was time to leave. He heeded the crow’s warning just like I did.
During the descent, the oasis of crisp and clean air at Montebello was replaced by the acrid smell of exhaust with a hint of the smell of burning rubber.
We reached the base and Matt topped off the tank in front of the same convenience store and then checked the fluids and topped off the antifreeze. He moseyed on around from the front of the car and eased his body into the seat. Then, the driver’s side door shut with a finality that really drove home the point that I would probably never see this place for years to come, if ever again. But it was okay, for I resigned myself to getting back into the daily grind just like the cyclist resting by the side of the road had probably resigned himself to dragging his fatigued body across the finish line, wherever that may be.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway was almost the last straw for our car. It was late at night in the middle of November, and I was sitting on the couch wondering where the heck Matt was. He hadn’t texted me or anything.
At the sound of an approaching vehicle, I set my book down and walked over to the window, hopeful once more. Peering through the slats of the blinds, I saw a tow truck pull up in front of our apartment.
I walked outside to the sight of Matt shaking the driver’s hand like they were buddies. They were both trying to laugh off the incident. But I wasn’t laughing. My heart plummeted in my chest and I wondered if this was going to delay our trip out west.
I rushed over and surveyed Matt’s face for any hint of how bad the damage might be to the car, but he was remarkably calm and collected as usual. I took a deep breath, looked at Matt, and then crossed my arms. Bracing myself for the worst, I asked, “What happened?”
“Blown head gasket,” he said, pacing around with his hands in his pockets. “Coldest night of the year so far. It figures I guess. At least now I know why I had to keep topping it off with coolant.”
“Where’s the car?”
“At the garage.” He motioned with his head for me to come inside after the hum of the tow truck’s diesel engine started to fade.
The warmth of the natural gas heat that the apartment afforded us was of little comfort all of the sudden. We sat in silence for a few moments. I rubbed my hands together while Matt stared at a spot on the carpet.
I was the one who finally spoke up and acknowledged the elephant in the room. “How much will it cost to get it fixed?”
Matt didn’t shift his gaze. He took a deep breath and then spoke softly. “We’re lookin’ at least two grand to get the coolant cleaned out of the valves and everything and re-machine the gasket.”
“Two grand? Oh my goodness.” I glanced at the calendar on the wall. “Talk about bad timing.”
“Yep,” he replied. “We’ve got two options: Have the work done, or shell out at least four grand on a used car.” He shook his head and let out a groan. “Damn aluminum head gaskets. Give me an old Ford truck any day from back when they used good old cast iron.”
“Does mine have an aluminum one?”
“Yep. Just like most foreign cars.” He scratched his chin for a few moments. “Oh boy. This is going to be fun. Now I’ve got to figure out how to get to work.”
“What about the bus?”
“That’s fine during the day, but I’d have to get a ride back at night.”
“Well then, maybe we can do it this way: since I work late, I can probably swing by there and pick you up.”
“That might work sometimes, but you know how you tend to put in overtime.”
“What about someone from work?” I reasoned.
“There’s a guy that lives out this way, but his days off are different from mine most of the time. I guess I’ll just have to take a Taxi every now and again until we get the car fixed…Can you give me a ride tomorrow? I want to take a look under the hood with the mechanic to make sure there’s not anything else wrong with it. I don’t want to be surprised with a phone call.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Thankfully, there weren’t any surprises the next day. Matt was close. The work was going to cost $2500. It was a significant chunk of change of course and I thought thank God for our savings. But that thought was tempered by the realization that SRS would be set back even further. I just couldn’t seem to get ahead.
Sadly, the incident with the car represented a kind of high point. Things went downhill from there. I swear, if my dad didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. He was going to fly out for Thanksgiving, but he contracted the norovirus just days before. Then, on Christmas, I only got to spend half a day with Matt because I had volunteered that night to come in and help get everything ready for the after Christmas sale. And so it was for New Year’s Evening as well. I just couldn’t seem to get out of work. Like Sarah, I was a big pushover it seemed. During these trying times, the dream of California felt about as realizable as reaching the horizon.
Like a recycled script from my youth when I used to pray for snow as much as I prayed to wake up as a girl, the warm dreariness that had visited over the holidays persisted into the new year. January was just downright depressing, more depressing than usual. But the weather wasn’t the only contributing factor to a serious case of “dead of winter blues.”
On an unseasonably warm late January night of 2015, I was in the kitchen when it happened. The phone innocently rang and I picked up.
“Hello? Oh, hi Joanne. It’s good to hear from you…What’s the matter? Oh my God! When did it happen? I see…I’ll let him know to call you when he gets back.”
I returned to the empty living room of the lonely apartment along with my new burden. I collapsed on the couch, keeping a watchful eye on the door.
Matt had run to the convenience store to grab a few things for breakfast to tide us over until we hit the store later in the week, but now I found myself wishing he had never gone at all, that he had been the one to pick up the phone and hear the disturbing news. Every second that passed without the muffled sound of footsteps outside the door followed by the sound of the key gliding into the lock was awful.
Then I heard it. I bolted upright as if a clap of thunder had roused me from a deep sleep instead of just the key zipping in and out of the lock. Matt walked through the door wearing his long sleeved t-shirt and canvass shorts and greeted me with a smile.
“Hey babe,” he said. “Can you believe the weather? Kind of reminds me of back home.” He put the milk away and sat down. “What’s the matter?”
I just sat there for a few seconds with my hands folded on my lap, continuing to wear a blank expression on my face before I spoke. “Um…Your mom called. She needs you to call her back as soon as possible.”
“Oh my God! Is she okay?”
I patted him on his thigh. “Your mom’s fine. It’s your dad…She needs to talk to you about him.”
He raised an eyebrow and slumped in the chair. “What happened? Did he finally die and do the world a favor?”
“Just call her. I think…I think you need to hear it from her.”
In an acquiescent tone, he said, “Alright.” He nervously tapped his fingers after he hit the send button. “Hi mom. Katie said it was urgent. So what happened to him? A stroke…Uh huh. Which hospital? Okay. So you’re there now…I see. Does Samantha know? Do you want me to call her or… Yeah, you’re right. Maybe it’s better that she hears it from you. Okay…Look, that’s asking a lot. I don’t know if I want to do that…Yes, I know what the good book says about forgiveness. Jesus may forgive him but…” He bit his lip after his mom cut him off. “I’ll think about it. Okay? Bye mom. Love you.” He cradled his head in his hands, remaining silent for a while before he finally lifted up his head with a slow and deliberate effort and confronted me with a drained expression. “She wants me to pray for him. Can you believe that? After all he’s done. Why is it that everyone preaches forgiveness when a person has a serious illness or is near death? Just because he’s an old hard drinkin’ and pack a day smokin’ bastard doesn’t make him any less of one just because he’s rung in over thirty more New Year’s than me.”
I remained silent. I couldn’t even fathom how conflicted Matt must have been. Christian upbringing was telling him one thing, but his worldly bitterness was growing as the phone call dredged up painful memories.
He slowly walked to the fridge and lingered in front of the open door. He grabbed a beer and ripped off the cap. I think he practically downed it in one swig.
Not even taking his eyes off his beer, he said, “I’m going to go for a walk.”
When he got back, he sat back down on the couch. I could tell he had been crying, but I knew him well enough to let him be. At that moment, he was content with being wrapped in the blanket of his anger and sadness instead of having my arms wrapped around him.
Instead of turning to me, he turned to the only person who could truly empathize with him, someone who was still two time zones away. He called Samantha and they talked for almost an hour; meanwhile, I went into the spare bedroom and sat at the desk, trying to distract myself with one game of solitaire after another.
When I heard a gentle knock on the door, I swiveled around in my chair and faced the door that was still ajar. “Come in.”
But Matt didn’t immediately accept my invitation; instead, he lingered for a bit. He leaned against the door casing with his arms crossed. With eyes focused downward he spoke in a low monotone. “I’ve decided to go. I’m not exactly sure why…” He shook his head.
“Is Samantha going to…”
He shook his head once more. “I think that’s too much to ask. She’s been through enough.”
“When are you going to go?”
“In a couple of days. I want to make sure someone can cover my shifts.”
“Do you need me to come with you?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want. I’m going to fly out just to fly back the next mornin.’”
“I think I’ll go. I’d like to see where you’re from. I really would. And I wouldn’t mind seeing your mom again despite the circumstances.”
“Alright,” he said, nodding his head. Then, he shuffled in and sat down in front of the desk. “I guess I better start lookin’ at flights.”
We hardly spoke on the plane. After we touched down in Dallas/Fort Worth, the gulf remained between us. Other than the occasional “do you want me to turn down the heat?” or “could you turn up the radio?” questions, he was silent, his hawk-like eyes surveying the road ahead.
In the hospital parking lot, Matt sat there for a while with his hands resting on the wheel. For a little while, I thought he might change his mind and we’d be sharing a long uncomfortable silence back in our hotel room. But he finally summoned the resolve.
The way he walked across the parking lot was tired and slow. I remained silent as I walked by his side.
When we were a mere ten feet from the sliding doors, he stopped. With arms akimbo, he looked up and scanned all of the lit windows, perhaps searching for his father’s room. Then he shook his head in the same futile manner as back at the apartment on that terrible night.
Looking over at me, he said, “I still don’t know why I’m doin’ this. Maybe we should just go. I mean, who knows if he’ll even recognize me.”
“Okay. If that’s what you feel you need to do. But before we get back in the car, I’ve got to ask you one thing: do you want to see him now or at his funeral?”
He remained silent for a minute or so after glancing back at the car. Then he gazed up at the lighted windows once more before speaking in a softly determined voice. “Let’s go.”
We took the elevator to the third floor and made our way down the hallway, past the nurse’s station toward the room of a man who didn’t deserve the title of father, a father my boyfriend hadn’t seen in over a decade.
He gripped my hand tighter as we got closer, hesitating before we got to the door. The sound of the heart rate monitor drifted into the hallway.
We walked in and I sat in the chair in the corner while Matt assumed a place by his father’s side. The first thing that struck me was how old his father looked. He was in his early sixties but he looked like he was in his seventies, and his cloudy eyes made him look ancient.
Matt crossed his arms and cleared his throat before he addressed the confused searching eyes of his old man. “I don’t know if you can understand me or not or if you even remember who I am. So much has changed and I know you’re probably wonderin’ why I’m here. I’ve asked myself the same question many times on the plane ride down here. Maybe it’s because this might be the last time I’ll be able to see you before the good lord sees fit to call you home, the last time I’ll get to speak my mind. First off, I don’t think I can ever forgive you for what you did that night all those years ago just like I know you’ll never accept Samantha. I’ve been real angry for a long time, but now, seeing you like this, I don’t what to feel. It seems your actions have brought their own punishment. I’m not sure if God had a hand in it or he just let you be, knowing this day would come, knowing you’d eventually reap what you sowed. I kind of feel sorry for you because you’ve missed out on so much. We haven’t been missin’ out, Mom and Samantha and me. Now I’m kinda’ sad for you just layin’ there… I suppose I should fill you in on some things. Samantha got married a year and a half ago. My fiancée and I attended the wedding. That’s her sittin’ over there. Her name’s Katie and I’ve never been happier. We’re plannin’ on movin’ out to California to be closer to Samantha among other reasons. We’ll be gettin’ married ourselves soon, just as soon as Katie has her surgery, the same kinda of surgery Samantha had. Now I know what you’re thinking, but I don’t care. Katie’s a wonderful person just like Samantha and that’s all I care about. That’s all that matters in this life…Well, I guess that’s about it. That’s basically all I came here to say.” He turned his attention to me for a few seconds. “Katie, do you have anything you want to say before we go?”
I nodded my head, stood up, and moseyed on over next to Matt, never once breaking eye contact with those lifeless eyes of Matt’s father. When every deep line of his furrowed brow came into view, I grasped Matt’s hand. His father averted his gaze somewhat when I spoke. “Mr. Roberts. Your son is the kindest, most loving, and most down to earth person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I love him as much as I believe you do deep down, as much as you love your other child deep down. I hope you get better and have a change of heart and come to our wedding.”
But instead of a change of heart, Matt’s father chose a change of scenery. He stirred ever so slightly. Resting his left cheek on the pillow, he stared at the wall and remained silent. I looked up at Matt. Matt just let out a deep sigh before he motioned for me to come with him.
Matt’s body was as stiff as a board as we walked down the hall. I sensed every ounce of tension in his exhausted body while I held his hand. I could tell he was making a heroic effort to fight back tears.
We reached the waiting room where Joanne was among the few visitors. Matt must have been an easier read than the magazine that Joanne had on her lap, for she sprung up out of her chair and walked toward him with outstretched arms. They embraced and he nuzzled his head against her shoulder and cried. I hung my head. I had never seen him this shaken up, not even that night after his performance when we had pie together and he recounted his sad tale.
“You gonna be okay son?” said Joanne.
He looked into her faded brown eyes and then into mine. He forced a smile. “Yeah momma. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
“Thanks for coming Katie,” she said. She gave me an equally warm embrace and I almost found myself crying as well. “You two take care now.”
“Now don’t forget to call me once you get back safe and sound. Okay? You know how I worry.”
“I won’t forget,” he said.
One quick wave later and we were past the sliding doors.
We hopped in the car and hit the road. He drove of course. I had no idea where we were. We just sat there with the radio playing low. I distracted myself by staring out the window at the fading light, looking as far across the flatness as I could see.
“There’s my old High School,” he said, pointing to his left.
The car slowed down and he pulled off onto the shoulder. He got out and leaned against the tilted vehicle. I got out and joined him. A dry breeze kicked up behind us.
“That’s one huge football stadium,” I said. “Did you play?”
“Yeah. I did for a while.”
“Did you get injured or something?”
“No. I was pretty good actually. I like football, but the coaches managed to suck all of the fun out of it, so I quit. You should have heard my dad go on about it. It was like someone died.”
“You’re a bit of a contradiction,” I said. “You like football and acting.”
“In my house, drama class was out of the question and at school too. If I would have joined, the players and most everybody else would have made sport of me quite a bit I’m sure. I didn’t want to become the queer drama kid.” He let out a chuckle. “Plus, I didn’t want to lead on any of the guys in the closet.”
Just then, the wind changed direction, sending a pleasant aroma our way.
He looked at me and smiled. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m not sure if it’s still there, but there’s this little place down the road. It’s not much to look at, but they used to have the best burgers and fries.”
“Sounds good. I’m tired of fast food chains.”
The place was humble to say the least. It was like a shack. There were picnic tables on either side with about as many layers of paint on them as the building itself, telling a story of over a quarter century of countless high school students hanging out on summer evenings as they pondered what to do in desolate sprawling suburbia. I could hear talk of football games won and lost and talk of those to be won during the fall, and I could hear faded conversations of high school sweet hearts longing for the day when they turned eighteen and could get out of this town.
As we stood behind a thirty something couple with their small children, I wondered if they once sat on one of those picnic tables of a color now hidden deep down and talked of their dreams of eloping.
The kids smiled at me before they sat down at one of the tables after their parents placed their order. I reciprocated with a fond smile and wondered what it would like to have kids of my own. I felt sadness as the woman turned around and revealed a swollen belly, reminding me of something I could never do no matter how much money I had and no matter how much I hoped and prayed. I so wanted to be a mommy one day.
As we ate our double burgers and fries and sipped on our chocolate shakes, Matt looked over at the happy family and smiled as fondly as I did.
“I wish we could have kids of our own,” he said.
Tears began streaming down my face like they did when I was five, when my mother tried to console the inconsolable wreck I had become after she explained to me that only girls get to have babies.
“Oh God. I’m sorry Katie. I didn’t mean to…” He gently grasped my hand and stroked it.
“It’s okay. We can always adopt.” I tried to look past the unfairness of life while I wiped away the tears. “I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful father.”
“I’m not sure if I’m ready for that kind of responsibility yet.”
“My dad always told me that no one ever feels ready. You just have to dive right in and muddle through sometimes.”
“I guess. But I want to do better than muddle.”
“You will honey. You will. We both will one day.”
Back in the hotel room, Matt downed a couple of beers while we watched some television. He was nursing his third beer when his phone beeped. He ignored it for a few moments before checking the number.
“It’s Samantha,” he said. “I think I’m going to get some air and give her a call.”
I let him go off alone. I stared at the television that was now muted during the commercial break that coincided with his need for solitude. When he came back inside, I could tell he had been crying again, but I just smiled an empathetic smile and gave him another hug. I think I misread his eyes, eyes that seemed to be longing for something more than a hug, for when I closed my eyes and pressed my lips against his, he didn’t immediately wrap his arms around me.
Pulling away ever so gently, he said, “Not tonight Katie.” He gently shook his head. “I’m just not in the mood.” He looked over my shoulder at the bed. Yawning, he said, “I’m exhausted. Think I’ll hit the sack.”
He walked into the bathroom and shut the door; meanwhile, I changed into my pink slip and studied myself in the mirror, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering why he no longer found me desirable.
Those feelings lingered while we cuddled in silence.
I thought he had drifted off to sleep until he pierced the dimness, cutting off the stream of racing thoughts in my mind. “I’m never going to be like him.” He put his hands under his head and looked over at me. “I’ll love my kids no matter what. Black, white, straight or gay, it doesn’t matter. I’ll love them just the same.”
“I know you will. I know you will,” I reassured.
He kissed me on the cheek. “Good night Katie.”
“Good night Matt.”
To Be Continued...
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