This is the first of a two-part story. Check back tomorrow for the second and concluding part. Copyright is held by the author.
ONE. TWO. Three. The tower of small yellow plastic cups almost collapsed like a building being hit by a wrecking ball.
“Quite a creation you have there Robbie.” Chelsea held a steaming pot of coffee in one hand while the other reached down to help the table. “I thought you fixed this yesterday?”
“I did.” I looked up through my sunglasses and tipped my baseball cap back, attempting to appear polite. I always tried to be pleasant in social situations. The simple fact was I disliked talking to people. Instead, I pretended to look at the person speaking while finding something just beyond them to focus my gaze. The trick worked most of the time. Today I noticed a yellowed stain on one of the ceiling panels. Could be water damage. I made a mental note to mention it to the manager, or get mom to. Should be easy enough to fix.
Though older, Chelsea was somewhat pretty, in a faded housewife way. There was something different about her hair today. Grey streaks broke through the dull rust colour making her face look paler than usual. Just a few weeks ago she had bright copper hair. Different enough that even I noticed the change. It suited her. But what would I know? My hair has thinned out these past couple of years. Not that I have seen it lately hidden beneath my customary cap.
“You’re here early today.” She poured the coffee into my empty white mug, the blackish liquid filled to the top. Her hands were more freckled than a few days ago too, another difference. I don’t like change very much. It was hot this past week, blazing hot. A kid screamed in the back corner and I piled another creamer on the tower.
“It’s busy in here today, back to school shopping. Too loud for you?”
She reached for my arm, but I drew away. The metal chair dug into my back. Little white clouds puffed from the mug disappeared into the air-conditioned room.
Chelsea gripped the handle of the coffee pot throwing me a pitied smile. “Don’t worry, it will calm down by mid afternoon. Good for important conversations.” As she moved away, I wondered how much mom had revealed. Once the floodgates of confession opened mom turned into a weeping tragic figure, telling everyone her life story and, of course, my part in her story.
I had forced myself to leave the house this morning. Usually, I hide from the summer sun, opting to stay in my workshop or catch up on old movies — a leftover lifestyle habit for those of us who worked nights. But I was drawn out today. I felt a tight knot deep in the pit my stomach. It was hard to focus on anything with the kids running amok between the silver backed chairs and tables. Most families are back from their glorious summers away at northern cottages or sandy beach-filled lives.
Chelsea wiped the table beside me. “Hey, how are those boys of yours? Almost grown now I expect.”
Bless her heart for trying to distract me. She knew how nervous I was watching the families coming and going. “Coming to visit next week. Mom’s very excited,” I said picking up the water glass.
“Well, she gets to be a grandparent again.”
I looked down at my watch. The minute hand crawled dot by dot. I was here much too early.
“Want a sandwich or something?” Chelsea asked frowning at a screeching child as her mother denied her another donut.
“No thanks.” I started a second tower. My leg twitched. It felt like ants were running around inside my skin. Even inside Mo’s Diner, the scorching light seeped through the large windows that faced the busy parking lot. There was no escape from it. Every year the summer and heat waves were longer and longer. Thank God I fixed the air conditioning back at the apartment. Last time I had to bail to mom’s place and neither of us had been happy sharing her small bachelor at the senior’s building.
“Is your mom coming today?”
“No. She’s out. Shopping.” I had resorted to one or two word answers. I picked up one of the containers. It dropped to the floor. Picking it up, I noticed Chelsea’s freckled legs, lobster red below the pale pink skirt. “You should wear sunscreen.”
She looked down. “I guess I overdid it a bit. I just love this heat. I should have been born in Florida.” She sighed.
My heart raced as she put the coffee pot down on the table and the tower trembled.
“Careful there.” She chuckled. “It’s going to look like the leaning tower of Pisa.” Not that I would know what that looks like. Are you sure I can’t get you anything to eat? You look a little . . .” She trailed off and put a manicured finger to her lips. “You look nervous.” She stared, waiting for a response, her hand on her hipbone. The pink-cuffed black uniform top stretched tight across her chest. My heart started beating too fast and I grabbed the hot mug, taking a big long drink of coffee and hoping she would leave. My taste buds were seared away.
“Well, meeting your birth father for the first time, it’s a big deal. You seem to be holding up okay.”
I clamped my lips together. Shit. Mom told her everything. I nodded hating that she knew all our business. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My mother was now all into confessions. After years of secrets, they tumbled out of her like a waterfall that never stops. Except this time, they were also my secrets.
I shook my head at Chelsea’s question and picked at my cuticle. It started to bleed.
“Okay. I’ll leave you be. If you need anything just holler my way. I have the day shift today. I told your mom I would be here.” She waved at me and went to greet another customer.
“Thanks,” I mumbled and looked at the two people that Chelsea greeted, a woman and her son. The kid was a bit pudgy, with large glasses. He grabbed his mother’s hand, looking around the room with his shoulders hunched, cowering from some unseen force. It was a familiar stance; one I knew well. That kid could have been me, standing next to my own mom, waiting for the next blow from the kids who called me piglet, or the customary swat from my dad, or rather the man who pretended to be my dad for the first 12 years of my life.
Part of me wanted to go over to the boy, tell him to buck up and tell his mom to pay attention to her kid. He looked miserable. With his shirt disheveled and his glasses a bit crooked, he looked nervous grabbing his mother’s hand. She looked kind, the sort of distracted lady who probably excused a lot of the behaviours her son exhibited, blissfully unaware of how bad it had become for him. I bet he didn’t tell her anything, knowing her reaction would be worse than dealing with things by himself. In his own way, he was protecting his mom from the awful truth. I knew that boy. That boy could have been me decades ago.
The day I knew something was not quite right with Pat, the man I had believed to be my father, had been the first day of grade one. Mom, having to work a morning shift, begged Pat to walk me to school. He had grumbled about needing to sleep, but he did it. Pushing me awake, feeding me breakfast until soon we were walking side by side to school. It was easy to ignore the warning signs that morning, thinking only of my grandiose dreams of starting school. The friends I would make. The teacher I would have. At six years old, I already knew what set Pat off, but I had been excited to be going somewhere that was bright and sunny, where you could go outside and play instead of a dark room where the green glow of a muted television was your single light. Home was a place where only the quietest voices were allowed because one parent was always sleeping.
“Welcome Robbie!” My teacher had chirped when we walked into the classroom. Her young, happy face and curly brown hair bounced with genuine excitement. She was beautiful. “You must be Robbie’s father?”
“Yeah.” Pat had answered ignoring the outstretched hand.
“Your wife was lovely to meet at the orientation. She mentioned she might be working today. I’m very happy to be able to meet you too.” She chattered away like a cartoon princess and I imagined bluebirds swinging by to land on her shoulder. Pat didn’t like it. I could tell by the set of his jaw.
“Robbie must look like an uncle perhaps? Wherever did he get those gorgeous blue eyes?”
Pat narrowed his inky eyes at the young woman. “None of your god damn business what our family looks like. Keep you fucking comments to yourself and just do your job. Robbie, get in there.” He had shoved me into the classroom and turned away stomping down the hallway. The other children stood, staring at the use of so many curse words in a single sentence.
The poor teacher had looked stunned. She never again mentioned my blue eyes, in fact, she rarely looked at me at all those first few weeks until my mother came in with a plate of cookies for the classroom, apologizing for Pat’s behaviour. But by that time my fate had been set; I was the outcast.
The bell rang at the front door of the diner and I caught my breath. An older man walked into the room. My heart raced.My head itched as drops of sweat dotted my forehead. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t breathe. My tower toppled over as I gripped the table too hard. I wanted a drink, badly. Two years of sobriety out the window. There was a bar down the street. I could go there, hide, and drink beer after beer until he left. What was I thinking, trying to do this?
A young woman walked in behind the man, chatting on her phone. The old man grabbed the chair behind me. His hands trembled. The girl glanced my way as I sat, stiff and straight in the chair, unable to move.
“Grandpa, let’s ermm . . . go sit on the other side of the room.” She steered him away from my table.
My mind reeled. He was much too old to be my father. What was I thinking? My breath returned to normal and I closed my eyes. My heart rate slowed down, it was not my birth father. Thank god.
Bending over, I picked up the creamers and set the intact ones back into the small white bowl. A white runny substance trickled like a crack on the floor from a few of the opened containers. Chelsea came over, a fresh glass of water in her hand. My table was covered with glasses.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get them later. Here, want some water?”
I took a sip. The iced drink burned my heated lungs. “I . . . I think I need to go.”
“Why? Because of the creamers? Don’t worry about it. Some kid just dumped chocolate milk in the corner, on purpose. This is nothing.”
I pushed back my chair. I couldn’t do this.
“How much do I owe you?”
She tore off the paper bill. “Just for the coffee and toast.”
“But I drank more than one cup.” I protested but she held her hand up.
“Forget about it. Maybe you’ll come back later.” She set the bill on the table and walked over to the old man and his granddaughter. Her skirt hugged her hips accentuating her curved bottom. Chelsea turned catching my stare and winked. My cheeks flamed and I grabbed the bill and dug into my pants pocket for some cash. I threw a $10 bill on the table like it was on fire and walked towards the back of the diner to the washrooms. Pushing the door open, I was relieved that the room was empty. Just to be safe, I lugged my big frame to the ground and peeked under the stalls. No feet. I was okay for a minute. I stood up and leaned on the white porcelain sink, watching as the tap dripped onto the rusted drain. I counted them, one, two, three. Only after the fifth drip did I look up at the mirror and was glad to see no pinkish hue on my cheeks.
A tired looking man looked back at me; his sky blue eyes wrinkled at the corners. His worn baseball cap sat a little too far back on his large head so I could see his generous forehead. He had lost weight but still carried a belly. It was proving rough to get rid of that beer belly, but I tried. I barely recognized the man in the mirror. What a difference between Pat and I. He was a wiry, man with olive skin and jet-black hair. By the time he died, I was twice his size. One upon a time, when I had hair, the reddish tinge was an oddity in our family. No one else had it. Not him. Not mom and not my sisters, who looked every bit like their father. I always felt different. Out of place. It got better when mom finally left Pat when I was 13.
She had caught him thrashing me with his belt one afternoon. Seeing her awkward, short, already acne-covered son cowering in the corner, her daughters watching the show too terrified to move, had been the last straw for her. After years of enduring his episodes of mania and cold detachment, she would not tolerate physical abuse. At last she believed me. The funny thing was he had rarely struck me after I turned nine. Choosing to belt me with cruel words and insults instead, but something had set him off that day. The girls had never seen him hit me before, didn’t believe me when I told them how he used to cuff my head when they were babies. He never hit them, treated them like precious jewels. Mom had packed us all up and left that same day. I have to give her credit for that.
The girls eventually went back, not liking the small apartment and not quite understanding why we left. It broke mom’s heart but she never let on. Instead she spent the next few years trying to make up for years of abuse, but I was already too damaged. It would be many years until I finally sought help for my anger, and for the anxiety that I drank away each night. Only after Pat was gone from our lives forever and I finally learned the truth, did life get better.
But today, all the therapy, the rehab, the effort of the last few years stared back at me. I looked drained. Did I want my birth father to see me like this? What if he took one look and all he saw was the ruin of my life etched on my face. I craved a family or at least an understanding of where I came from. To look around and see people I recognized as my own. No, I couldn’t do it. I pulled my cap down, covering my eyes and threw open the door. I leaned on the door letting it hold me upright. Through the glass windows, a tall older man with grey hair, glasses and a beer belly peered into the diner.
To be continued tomorrow.