the following is fiction.
fiction — though rarely factual — is often True.
the next thing was a pause. i know it was probably only a split-second, but it felt like an hour. as all blood rushed to my brain, i feared whatever look i must be giving her. my brain scoured for social info on how next to proceed. nothing instinctual was there.
“what are you doing here?” was all i came up with.
“…grocery shopping,” she answered, acknowledging the obviousness of it. good job.
“well, yes, but…” still reaching… “…i mean, do you live here?”
she laughed. “i knew what you meant.” yes. that. is exactly what i meant. yes. “no, just visiting mom and dad.”
“yep. same here.”
“i saw on Facebook where you’re in Nashville now?”
“oh okay, how are you liking that–”
k, ima just skip ahead to the part where i hate being alive and want out of this conversation as quickly as possible.
it’s not her. she’s a lovely human being, as she always was. but we broke up like fifteen years ago, and i haven’t spoken to her in person in about ten years or more. so it was just awkward.
we grew up in the same small town. we met in junior high. we had dated for about two years, most of that long-distance. we started dating in high school, but attended colleges at opposite ends of the state. cell phones were just sort of becoming a thing at the time, and my parents got me one. so on nights and weekends we would talk, talk, talk.
we talked about lots of stuff. we talked a lot about religious stuff. i was busy with the Christian Student Center. religion was sort of a seasonal thing in her family, so she was interested in taking it to the next level. i’d like to think that our conversations about spiritual things drew her closer to God, even though i cringe when i think back to some of the things we talked about. i’m such a different person now. i’m sure she is as well.
the truth was palpable. we had gone our separate ways, and while there were no hard feelings, i just really didn’t have anything to say to this person any more. our lives no longer had anything in common; she might as well have been a complete stranger.
it was awkward, and i wanted it to take a turn, quickly. which it did.
i saw her look over my shoulder. i turned to follow her gaze and my found myself looking into the eyes of a tall, nicely-dressed man. taller than me. nicelier dressed than me. better looking than me. more hair than me.
“this is my husband.”
offfff course he is.
“hello, husband.” i’m sure probably actually said his name at the time, but whatever. i shook his hand, and some giant class ring (or Super Bowl ring or king’s signet or something) dug into my fingers as he gripped strong. i tried to politely make how ever much eye contact you’re supposed to make to be engaging but not weird. probably did not accomplish that.
then i noticed this little one hiding behind one of his pants legs.
“and this is our son, Louie.” Louie was TERRIFIED of me. dunno if it was the beard or the hat or what. he was eyeing me from behind his dad’s leg, probably thinking that i couldn’t see him.
“hey buddy!” i plastered on a giant smile — half fake, half actually glad i didn’t have to talk to either of his parents any more for a second. he was having none of it. he slinked back even further. suddenly it really bothered me that this kid didn’t like me. so i tried everything i could think of — a little peek-a-boo, some little tickling/”i’m going to get you” kind of maneuver. i mean let’s face it, if a child is terrified, putting on a creepy smile and telling him “i’m going to get you” should really smooth things right over. i never saw the bottom half of this kid’s face. he just stayed buried in his dad’s slacks.
they made some excuses and i shrugged it off with some self-deprecating remarks that ended up sounding more pathetic than funny, and then — thank the good Lord — they left.
as soon as they rounded the spices, i immediately thought about what an idiot i was for trying to make that kid like me. who cares? that kid’s never going to see me again. if i had completely ignored him, it probably wouldn’t have been seen as rude, and undoubtedly Louie and i both would have preferred it. i mean, this kid has no relation to me whatsoever.
now, i suppose one might point out that maybe i had some spiritual influence on the kid’s mother years ago, and that has been handed down to this kid. but let’s be honest. no one is telling this kid about the creepy grocery stranger’s role in his spiritual development. the kid is 6, and everything he knows about life comes from mom and dad. mom probably doesn’t even think about how we talked about spiritual stuff years ago. any of those discussions are long buried in the foundation of what is now a self-sustained building that’s got a whole lotta “not much” to do with me.
this is why the phone call was so incredibly strange.
“i assume that you are aware of the passing of…”
i wasn’t. car accident. it was quick and brutal. they were gone. Louie was at his grandparents’ at the time.
i tuned back in when i heard, “…named you as his sole guardian.”
“wait, i’m sorry, what?”
“in the will. they have named you as Louie’s sole guardian. this is why we’re calling you. we need to make arrangements…”
my mind trailed off again. was this woman crazy?
i stood near baggage claim. down the corridor, i saw an airport employee walking with a young boy. i couldn’t really remember what he looked like. i hadn’t even seem all of him, but i assumed it was Louie.
“he’s all yours now!” the bubbly flight attendant had no idea how frighteningly true that statement was.
“hey buddy.” he didn’t even look at me. he didn’t seem to be afraid of me, but he still didn’t want a thing to do with me. i assumed he was probably still grieving and convinced myself that it was probably best to just leave him to his thoughts. looking back on it, what he probably needed was some comfort and reassurance; i know i did.
the next few weeks were not much different. can you imagine trying to take someone else’s child and make him your own? i don’t know about you, but i come from a long line of parents. and yet, i’ve never been one. and this situation is so crazy, i couldn’t even get proper advice from people.
i tried discipline, i tried doing things his way, i tried being the “fun dad”, i tried giving him space… everything kinda worked in little ways, and everything was a huge disaster in other ways. it was completely stressful. i didn’t know what to do. and Louie was no help. i really did want it to work, but Louie didn’t. he just wanted me to go away. i had all kinds of different ideas than his parents, ideas that were central to who i was… i couldn’t just give them up. but, he was kind of the same way, right?
how do i talk to this kid? how do i see life through his eyes? how can i show him that i care about the best for him? how can i show him that it was a long line of out-of-control events that brought us here, but i desperately want to be a part of his life now, because if not me… then who?