My old man had apologized, sure, but I couldn’t swallow it. I looked away from him and a hefty silence that weighted down on us settled. I ran my tongue over my teeth and searched my brain for something to say – anything. Finally I muttered, “Nice weather outside.”
“I wouldn’t know,” he answered, “Haven’t been out in over a week.”
Damn it, AJ, I thought bitterly at myself, Make it a little worse why don’t you? “Sorry,” I muttered.
“No, I mean, it looks great,” my father said, “It’s a bit – je no se quois - in here.” I looked up at him and he smirked. “C’mon,” he said softly, “Not even a smile?”
“Isn’t this awkward for you at all?” I asked point blank instead of answering him.
He sighed, “AJ… Yes, of course it is… and you know, I’d almost venture to say it’s more awkward for me than it is for you, but –“
“Seriously?” I demanded, interrupting his ‘but-‘. “You think that you have it harder in this situation than I do?” I snorted loudly.
He nodded, “Yeah, actually,” he said, “I do, and you know why? Because I’m at your mercy. I want nothing more than to be able to just be calm and happy and enjoy your company, but I’m terrified of being rejected by you, Alex.”
“Rejected by me like I was by you thirty years ago?” I snapped.
A look of shocked pain filled his eyes, but he didn’t skip a beat, “Yeah, probably,” he said, “So here I am, on my belly, waiting for a hand out of some compassion from you, practically begging you to let me have another chance and I can’t help but feel like you’re here because your mother made you be here or something…” Bob shook his head, “Alex, I want to be a father to you. In these few days that I have remaining on this fucking earth, I want to try to right some of the wrongs I’ve done… undo some of the pain I’ve caused…”
“No fucking apology is going to fix that, dad,” I snarled, my voice rising in sarcasm on the title. I stood up quickly, making the chair rock, threatening to fall down. I pointed at him, “You walked out, you abandoned me, you left me standing there watching you, waiting… Waiting for my father to come back, waiting for a normal family to magically appear. You know what you left me? You left me my mother’s shell. Her heart was shattered by you, our lives were fucked up because of you…
“Do you realize how hard she worked to feed me?” I continued, on a roll, “How hard she worked just to keep me in clothes? You know how much bullshit I went through at school, defending her honor? Defending myself?” My voice was loud – too loud for a hospital, but I couldn’t stop it. He was staring at me in horror, and some sick part of me felt glad that I was upsetting him. “I had to listen to her crying every night because of you. I was a child and I learned how to be a grown up really fucking fast. I grew up listening to people say bullshit about her and about me and about why you weren’t around, about why you didn’t love me. And I was fucking stupid enough to try to defend you- yes, even you!”
“Alex, I –“
“No! Listen to me. I got called a fag, I got beat up for my passion in drama and music. You know why I loved music so fucking much? Why I am who and what I am today? Because of you. But don’t go puffing up like no fucking peacock, because this ain’t something you should be proud of. You know why I loved it? I loved it because it was the only place that I could run to that I didn’t have to be the bastard son of a fucking, no good, low life, alcoholic asshole,” I hissed, “Who didn’t even have the balls to be a real man.”
Bob hung his head, tears pouring from his eyes… but I had no mercy.
“Rochelle was wrong,” I said quietly, turning away so that he wouldn’t see as I swiped at my own tears before I faced him again, our eyes locking, “I’m not afraid of karma, I’m not afraid of you leaving – dying or whatever. I’m scared that I’ll end up like you, always leaving.”
I stood there, panting, my heart pounding against my rib cage, exhausted from the outpouring of emotion. I felt like I’d just run a marathon across the state of Florida. It was all shit I’d been holding in, bottling up deep inside my gut, and it’d finally rushed out, unstoppable and damaging. I clenched and unclenched my fists, and waited for a reaction, waited for him to get pissed back.
But he didn’t.
“You’re right,” he said quietly.
“I didn’t have the balls to be a real man,” he clarified, “I was a no good, low life, alcoholic asshole.” Bob nodded. “I ran off on you and on Denise because I was afraid and I was selfish and stupid.” He shook his head, “And you’re nothing like me, Alex… ”
I swallowed the lump in my throat down. “Yeah I am,” I said thickly, “I left the other day…” I gestured toward the door.
“Yeah, sure you did,” he said, “But you also came back.”
A nurse bustled into the room at that moment, dragging the upright blood pressure machine. She grabbed Bob’s arm and started wrapping the band around his biceps. I moved away, my back against the wall, as she stuck the E.T. finger clip on his right hand and jiggled the bag of chemotherapy chemicals with the palm of her hand. She spoke rapidly and her hands moved around over him, checking various vitals and chatting away. He stared over her shoulder at me, as though willing me not to use the opportunity to bolt, almost begging me with his eyes.
When she was done, she smiled, apologized for interrupting, and turned, leaving the room in as much of a flurry as she’d entered it five minutes before.
My father looked at me. “I respect you for coming back,” he said, as though she’d never come in the room. “You’re braver than I ever will be.” This felt like a gigantic compliment coming from a man with a chemo IV stuck in his wrist, regardless of who it was and where he’d been in the past.
“It’s selfish,” I stated, “My motive.”
“Does it matter?”
“No less than you coming back in 1999 for selfish reasons did,” I stated.
He hesitated, clearly trying to decide how to take that. Finally, he said, “I was proud of you.”
“And a little broke,” I shrugged, “It’s not a big deal. You weren’t the first glommer that entered my life.”
“Glommer?” he asked.
“Fair weather friend,” I said, “User. Mum used that term a lot for the people I hung around with in that era…” I shrugged, “You weren’t the first, nor were you the last. You just were the one who hurt the most when you stabbed me in the back. That’s all.”
We stood in silence a long moment. Finally, he said, in a quiet tone, “I was in a bar the first time I heard. It was early yet, and I was waiting to meet a woman. I had a Heineken and a plate of peanuts and there was MTV on the screen, up in the corner…” Bob’s eyes had glazed ever so slightly as he remembered what was clearly a very vivid memory. “And I saw you. I stared at the TV, my bottle halfway to my mouth, gaping up at what I was seeing. There’s no way, I was telling myself over and over again, but there was no possible way to deny who you were. You looked exactly like I did in high school – well, with more tattoos and piercings and all. And you were so happy and so proud… You were singing, and there were fans and there were bright lights and excited people and someone in the bar squealed and pointed and said, Look, it’s the Backstreet Boys. The next thing I knew there was a small crowd of girls, standing around, staring up at the screen. Someone made the bar tender turn it up and I could hear you…” he paused, then he sang, ever so quietly, “Quit playing games with my heart…”
I stared at him. I had no idea what TV performance he was talking about. I mean, I think Quit Playing Games was one of our most over played songs ever. We sang it on every program we visited for a long time. It was the song that made us us in the United States.
“And I was sitting there, listening, and I felt so…” he closed his eyes, “Ashamed.”
I’d expected proud. “Ashamed?” I asked, surprised.
He nodded, “Because I walked away. I didn’t dare to claim you there, I didn’t dare to say a word, I was too scared they’d ask why I wasn’t there, at your performance. I was terrified of having to explain I was the father, the one who walked out on you… Of you I was proud… of me I was ashamed.”
I looked at my sneakers.
“See, Alex, you lived without a father all these years… but I lived with the guilt of not being a father all this time.”
“Well whose fault is that?” I demanded.
“My own,” he admitted.
I thought this over for a long moment.
“Alex…” he begged, “Please, come back and sit down.” He waved to the chair at his side.
I shook my head, “No… No, I think I’ve had enough for today,” I answered. I started toward the door. I felt overwhelmed, I needed Rochelle.
“Wait,” he said, “Alex?”
I froze in the door and turned slowly to look at him. “What?” I asked.
“Will you be back?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said, and then I left the room quickly, before he could say anything else.