The rusted reds of fall show through the leaves of trees. The sky is gray, cold. The sharp air brittles you and the winds are wild.
It’s been a while since I’ve been up north. I forgot what it’s like to see the world change, to see the seasons. You get used to the hurricanes and the humidity down south and forget what a real fall feels like.
I wish it were nicer out.
I wish it were sunny, and cool, and green, just like I imagined today would be. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited. I get to see him today. After so long I get to see him and nothing’s getting between us. Not her, not her new toy and his money, not me…not anyone.
From the curb I see all the other hopeful eyes watching the road. Parents waiting and watching for the big yellow bus to bring their little hopes back home. I remember riding the bus. I never had anyone waiting for me at the stop though.
Bus stops are crazy. I never noticed it before. There’s a certain feeling in the air, like you’re holding your breath. It’s anticipation, it’s anxiety, and it’s happiness all rolled up in one on a cold afternoon.
I was up this morning an hour before my alarm clock went off. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about today. What I should bring, if I should bring anything. But then I wasn’t sure what he likes now. If he still likes toys. If he does, what kinds of toys would he like? I don’t want to get him a baby toy he’ll never touch and wish I hadn’t even bought in the first place because then it would just be a waste of money. But it’s pathetic to worry about money. It’s not about the money. All these years I never paid a cent. I was never court-ordered to write a check any month of any year. I never even had the balls to check up on the kid. I owe him.
No, I decided not to get anything, but not because of the money. I’ll take him shopping instead and he can pick out anything he’d like. That’ll be great. I never had anyone do that for me. It’s got to feel pretty good to have someone buy you anything you want.
The cool sharp air wisps by and whips me in the face with a chilling iciness. The dry, dead leaves dance diligently along the street and in the front yards of the apartment complexes. It’s cold out, too cold. Damn, why couldn’t it be warmer?
I was supposed to be here at two, but I got here thirty minutes early. I didn’t want to be late. I’ve been late his whole life. Can’t be late anymore. I walked down here first thing in the morning; just making sure I had the right spot, and then walked into town. I forget what towns are like, with the small strips and diners and tiny second-generation stores. I grabbed a bite to eat at a small diner and then walked around town all day just trying to kill time. I came back to the bus stop again and haven’t moved from the curb I told him I’d be sitting on when his bus pulled up.
Sitting here I wonder what he looks like now.
Will he even remember me? Does he have my eyes? Denise said he does, but I don’t know. She might’ve just been lying. She does that. Lie. Just about every time she opens her mouth.
I guess I’ll see if he remembers me when that bus stops and I pick him up right here. Just like I promised.
I hope he recognizes me.
I hear nearby chatter. I glance back over my shoulder and watch the parents flocking towards one another. A few are sitting on a bench reading to themselves, but most are huddled in their little group. They’re the regulars, just part of the community picking up their children from the bus stop. I’m not from here. I’m not from their community. I don’t go to the plays and I don’t volunteer to chaperon on field trips. I don’t know the other parents and waste ten minutes of my life talking to other kids’ Vodka-drowned fathers and Prozac-dulled mothers.
I don’t have any “little ladies” or “special guys”. I’ve never even done this before. Looking back at them, the bitterness bites into me. They’ve known their kids their whole lives.
I get to my feet and shove my hands into my coat pocket. Hot needles stab my skin. My nerves are shot. I could use a smoke. But I can’t. I quit last week. Last week when I decided that it was time to meet my son and be a man for once in my life. Last week when I took all the cigarettes I had and tossed them away forever. I only kept one, one little smoke just in case. It’s right where I can get to it; front coat pocket. I take it everywhere with me, but it’s off limits. It’s just a reminder, that’s all.
I fight the urge to pace and glance at the other vigil waiters of the bus. They’re here for their kids. Well that’s fine. I’m here too, maybe a little late, but I’m finally here. I’m here for Jake.
Just like that I hear suspensions hiss and brakes squeal.
An aged, not-so-yellow school bus comes down the street. It’s my bus, Jake’s bus. I know it in my gut. It slows and stops right on the corner. Right where Denise told me it would.
I get to my feet, my heart pounding. I taste chalk. I think my knees are going to buckle. What am I doing here? Even in the cold my palms are sweaty. I wonder if his palms sweat like this when he gets nervous. How great would that be? If his little hands were just like mine?
The yellow metal rod swivels forward, the stop signs flare out and red lights flash. The doors screech open and I watch the little bodies start their descent down the steps. One by one the children are released from the educational prison they’ve been confined in for the last seven hours.
Some kids race to their parents. Some travel in pairs, holding hands and keeping their heads down. A few are screaming, shouting joyously, and teasing others. There’s some that look lost and confused and harmless, searching for their parents who are waving them over. I see them all as I look for the only one that matters.
“He’s wearing a red jacket.” That’s what Denise said. She said, “Look for a red jacket. He’s got short blonde hair, just like you used to have when you were a kid.” That’s what she said to me this morning on the phone. I hope she didn’t lie.
It seems like all the kids are off the bus when I spot it. A red jacket. A crimson flag draped across the shoulders of my brave little guy.
He’s the last one off the bus. His head’s down, his little brow wrinkled and heavy. I know right away he’s my Jake, my little guy. His hair is short. I used to have it like that. He looks just like me, just like Denise said this morning. She wasn’t lying. She really wasn’t lying.
Just like that I’m lost in nerves. I thought about what I’d do all day. Whether I’d wave to get his attention, whether I’d cry out his name and run over and pick him up and twirl him around like I’ve thought about doing countless times back home just like you see in the movies.
Instead, I just stand there with my hands in my pockets.
The little guy walks down the sidewalk, head down the entire time like some solemn little monk. Finally he stops and looks at me standing in the grass along the curb.
His eyes are green. Like mine.
“Hello.” He mumbles.
I can’t feel anything. My heart’s beating too fast. There’s a lump in my throat that starts to rise, but I smile and shove it back down. I wave awkwardly, wishing that I felt comfortable to do more. Maybe to hug him, I wish we were close enough so that I could hug him.
“My mom said you’d be pickin’ me up today.”
I walk up to Jake and look down at him, his eyes locked on mine. He’s short, smaller than a few of the other boys I’d seen get off the bus. He’s scrawny too, like his mother was.
“I know. I promised I’d be here.” I can’t stop smiling. I’m here. I’m finally here just like I promised I would be.
“Can we get going? It’s cold outside and I don’t want to catch a cold.”
It makes me grin. He sounds like his mother. I know the kid’s smart.
We start walking down the sidewalk. I glance back at the group of parents that I had been watching. All of their kids are there, picture perfect on the surface, but no less screwed up than anyone else’s. I see their kids, and the bitterness from before makes me spiteful. They can keep their little brats; I’ve got Jake.
At first I’m a little reluctant about what to say. I’ve never really been around kids before, but I do know that I hate when people talk to kids like they’re idiots. I was pretty smart when I was little, and Jake seems even smarter. I decide to talk to him like a person, what else can I do?
“So what grade you in, Jake?” I ask.
“Third,” He keeps his head down, watching the cracks in the sidewalk and trying not to step on any. “I’m in third grade now.”
“The third grade, huh? Wow. How’s that going?”
We keep walking and walking down the block to nowhere in particular.
“I’ve been waiting to see you all day. You want to go grab something to eat?”
“I’m not really hungry.”
“Alright,” I think about the couple of toy stores I passed by this morning. “Hey, do you want to go walk around town?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’ll see something you’d like. Something cool.”
“It’s cold out. I don’t like to walk around in the cold much.”
I notice Jake’s little jeans and the layers of clothing on under the red jacket. His little blue backpack bobs up and down on his back as he holds the straps with both his hands like he’s hiking. He doesn’t look cold. He’s got enough clothes on to keep him warm even if the temperature fell twenty degrees.
I look down at that little quiet face and I can see it there, just like I was afraid of. After all these years, after never making the attempt, all that’s left, is an uncaring bitterness. I brought it on myself. I deserve it. I wish I didn’t.
I can’t give up though. I didn’t come up here for nothing. “Hey, we can go back to my hotel for a bit if you want. I’ve got some soup. That’ll warm you up, right? Your mom says that I can have you all afternoon.”
Ignoring his tone is worse than hearing it. It weighs it down, makes it heavier to bear.
“Yeah,” I try to sound unaffected, “All afternoon. It’ll be fun, right?”
Jake returns to watching the sidewalk intensely as we walk.
This anxiety in my chest starts to build up. I try shaking the doubt, the anger, and the fear, but it’s rooted itself as I watch the disappointment in that tiny boy.
Did I miss my chance? Third grade. Jake’s in the third grade. He’s turning eight this year. Is that too old? Did I miss too much of his life to ever be a part of it? Eight years old. I was eight when my father drank himself to death by falling down the stairs and breaking his neck. I was eight when my world changed and I met a little girl at school who liked me and took pity on me for losing my father. I was eight when she kissed me for the first time, a quick peck on the cheek outside of the park one day in August. It was when I was eight that things started looking up, when I didn’t feel so alone.
But Jake isn’t me. He may look like me, he may have my blood, but he’s not me. He’s his mother’s son, not ours, not mine.
“What took you so long?” Jake asks.
“What took you so long?”
“What do you mean, I was on time. Just like I promised I’d be.” It was one of the few promises I’ve ever kept. That has to mean something. What is Jake talking about?
“Frank asked my mom that last night. He asked her what took you so long.”
I swallow back my anger. Frank, Denise’s husband; someone other than the little boy she pitied, and kissed, and dated, and loved, and dreamed with all the way up through high school until they made a mistake and she dropped out and that little boy she pitied and kissed, ran away from the responsibility he couldn’t handle. Frank was the man I never was.
“I don’t think you should worry about what Frank and mom talk about.” My throat is rough from the nerve of that asshole talking to Denise about our business with our son. How many times has he planted his own thoughts into Jake’s mind? Frank’s been around for five years, that’s five whole years to brainwash my son to think that I’m the enemy and that Frank’s the messiah.
“But what did take you so long?” He looks up to me when he asks it. He wants to know, even if he’s not old enough to realize he doesn’t really want to know.
He doesn’t want to know that I ran away because I was young and naïve and insecure and pathetic. That I thought that having a kid would only hold us down and ruin my dreams of becoming something. That I had already made plans to move and that Denise would have to abort because her parents would disown her, and mine would kill me. Jake doesn’t want to know the truth. That I abandoned the little girl I’ve known since I was eight, the first girl I kissed, and touched, and made love to.
Jake doesn’t really want to know that the reason it took me so long to finally come see him after eight long years is that I finally woke up and realized I wasn’t anything other than some loser working as a manager in a supermarket, and that what’s really important is family. That after years and years of attempted relationships I could never stay with anyone long enough because it didn’t feel right. I became cold and numb inside in my pursuit of a life I’d never get and none of the women I dated could stomach to stay with me. The truth hurts too much for Jake to know it.
“I’ve been in Florida. That’s far from here.” I try to lie. “I’ve been working too.”
“Mom says you were scared. That’s why you took so long.”
I get in front of Jake and kneel again. I hold him by the arms and look into those small green eyes. The lump in my throat stops me from telling him that I was scared. That I was terrified of going back to the tiny thing I abandoned, to admitting my failures and picking myself up. I can’t even tell him that I’m still so scared.
“I’m scared sometimes.” He offers. “So…I understand, I guess.” Those tiny green eyes look back down at the sidewalk.
My eyes are burning. I force the lump down in my throat and wish with all of my heart that this little boy could see everything I’m feeling.
“Listen, Jake. How about we just go into town? We can get some ice cream or hot dogs. We can get to know each other. We can—”
“I have allergies. I’m not allowed to have dairy or gluten.”
Something inside of me shatters. A cold wind blows and catches the fragments, taking them away forever. They turn to dust with the red rusted leaves.
My little guy is standing right in front of me. I’m holding him, touching him, and looking into his eyes. I can smell the shampoo in his hair. I can count the number of freckles on his nose. But he’s just as far away as he was his whole life. He’s not my little boy. I am his father, but no more of a father than a stranger on the street. There’s a hole in my chest and I realize this was a mistake.
I wish I hadn’t come here.
A blue BMW pulls up to the curb alongside us. We’re three blocks down from the corner bus stop. Three blocks was all it took to ruin everything.
The car catches Jake’s eyes. “That’s Frank’s car.”
I get to my feet, the anxiety choking me. I was supposed to have Jake all day, Denise promised.
The car door opens and the driver gets out. It’s Denise. I see that her long blonde hair is now cut short and styled. The designer slacks, and blouse, and jacket all come from Frank’s salary. She looks gorgeous, but not as beautiful as I remember her. Not as pure and innocent. But I guess it’s my fault. I stole her innocence, her purity.
“Mom,” Jake says with something in his voice. That something is emotion, real and pure. It’s the caring and the eagerness of seeing a familiar face of someone you know. There’s love in his voice, a gleam in his eyes. Everything he didn’t have for me.
No love. No gleam.
“Honey, get in the car.”
Jake stares up at me and I stare down at him, the stranger with my eyes and my hair.
“It was nice to meet you.” Jake says politely, like he was taught.
I fight back the tears and try to not to let the kid see them. I won’t let it out. What’s the point?
I force out words. “It was nice seein’ you.”
Jake puts out his hand and I shake it, my hand trembling. His hands are cold and clammy and I linger as he turns and walks away. I forget to breathe.
I watch him get into his stepfather’s car, leaving his biological one standing on the sidewalk.
Denise walks over to me. The perfume she has on smells expensive, it smells horrible. I remember how she used to smell and I remember holding her.
“I’m sorry, Brian. Frank’s mother slipped in the shower and shattered her hip. I had to pick up Jake so that we can meet Frank back at the hospital. His grandmother wanted to see him.”
I’m looking past her at the little boy sitting in the passenger seat of the blue BMW with his little red jacket and tiny blue backpack in his lap, waiting for his mother to leave his father behind.
“You understand, right?” Denise asks.
I feel her looking at me and so I stare back, still fighting the tears. I bury my fists in my coat pockets.
“Brian, stay a few more days. The weekend’s coming up. Maybe you can come over to the house and we can all spend a day together.”
I have nothing to say and so she says something.
“I’m so sorry. I know how badly you wanted this.”
My skin feels like it’s cracking and burning away and I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be anywhere. “I’ve got work tomorrow. I can’t stay for the weekend.”
I watch the pity in Denise’s eyes, the same pity she had as a little girl, fade away. “Dammit, Brian. I’m trying to help you. You called me, remember?”
“God, I should’ve listened to Frank. He said this was a bad idea. It’s been eight years, Brian. What the hell took you so long?”
It’s cold outside on a fall afternoon. I’m numb as I watch her get into the car. As they drive off, I catch the tiny pair of eyes—my eyes—watching me from the passenger seat.
They leave me this time.
I wish I’d done things differently. I wish…
The dry, dead leaves crack beneath my feet. I decide to walk back to my hotel. I reach into my front coat pocket. The lighter on my key chain still works. I light my cigarette, my reminder. I wanted it. Why shouldn’t I get what I want?
You run away from the most important thing you’ll ever do and eight years later, you try to go back to something you never really had.
I head back to South Florida, back to the nothing that I have.