“Leonard PLEASE I am begging you, play with your gadgets later and GET READY!”
My wife, Roberta, is always fussing at me when I’m in my “tech zone”. But I guess I can’t blame her this time. It’s our first holiday as an “extended family” and I know she’s eager to make a good impression. Our Tommy won’t care, and that bride of his, Leah, is an absolute sweetheart….it’s meeting her parents that’s got Bertie in a tizzy. Our first encounter only included her mother, Ramona, at the wedding ceremony. A reserved and stern woman, I was left with the conclusion Leah must have gotten her warm and sunny disposition from her father. John was a 25 year Marine Master Sergeant and was deployed at the time of the ceremony, much to controversy from Leah’s family. I served, but only as a private for 2 short years, just before Tommy came. All I did was mostly tank repair, but it was rough. That’s why I’ve got to admire the man, it’s one hell of a hard life, and missing your daughter’s wedding must not have been easy. But from what Leah’s told us, he’s always left his girls provided for, even after he and Ramona got divorced.
I stumble up the basement stairs, and glance over to my wife in the kitchen. Her deep auburn hair is thrown haphazardly in rollers, as she puts the finishing touches on her pecan pie. Her specialty.
“That smells wonderful, sweetheart.” I call to her, with a smile.
“Hm? Oh than…hm” She grumbles back, engrossed in her baking.
I start up the stairs to the bedroom to change. Bertie’s laid out a maroon argyle sweater for me, and a pair of black dress pants and shoes. It’ll compliment her own maroon sweater-dress perfectly. She has always had an eye for these sort of things. It’s scratchy, but I dare not complain. Today means so much to her, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. What did I do to deserve such an incredible woman? Hell, an incredible life! We’ve been through hell and back, a large majority being my fault, but I wouldn’t trade my life for the world right now. I only hope she feels the same.
“LEN…Oh. You’re up here! And you’re dressed! Thank you THANK YOU!!.” She exclaimed, giving me a tight squeeze.
“Of course darling. How’d the pie come out?”
“It’s…acceptable. OH I hope John doesn’t have an allergy!! Maybe I should have made apple instead? Do you think it’s too late to….”
“Bertie, sweetheart, everyone LOVES your pecan. I wouldn’t dream of apple! Come now dear, deep breath, they’ll love it.”
“Lenny you know I’m just a nervous wreck. Leah makes Tomtom so happy…And I know not even pie can thaw that ice queen mother of hers…but there’s still hope with her father! I just want to make a good impression. I want our son to be as proud of us as we are of him. Good God it's almost 4! Let's go, we have to go, I just have to, no wait let me… "
" Sweetie.. " I motion to my head to indicate her rollers, still holding her curls in place.
" SHIT… I mean… Ah hell… " she exclaimed.
"No worries." I say, putting my "super husband" face on. "I'm going to pack up the car, and let Tommy and Leah know we're on the way. You finish getting ready and I bet we finish right on time. And hun… Maybe don't call him Tomtom at the dinner table."
We pull up to the white, two story, ranch home just as the clock hits 4:30.
" See? " I say, smiling at Roberta." We're right on time."
She pulls down the visor and lifts the mirror to meet her face, checking for lipstick on her teeth, and sighs.
"Do I look okay?" She asks with hesitation in her voice.
"Beautiful, as always." I remind her.
I sometimes hate how insecure Bertie is about her appearance. Gorgeous, wavy, auburn locks, a stunning hourglass figure, and a face that would make a woman half her age jealous. Then I remember, I am to blame for many of those insecurities. What a fool I was. But that’s ancient history and now, I try my best to remind her of her beauty every time I catch her looking at herself with doubt.
I hand her the pie, and we approach the solid oak door together. As I raise my hand to knock, it flies open prematurely.
"Mom! Dad! Hi!" Leah exclaims, throwing her arms around Bertie and I.
"Hey guys, right on time." Tommy says, before gingerly inviting us in. “I was just heading out to grab the ice. But I leave you in very capable hands” He winks at Leah before stepping out.
A familiar, raspy voice sounds from the other room.
"Come now, Leonora, I'm sure Mrs. Hanson would much prefer you call her Roberta."
"Oh no! I've already been bragging about my beautiful new daughter, mom seems only fitting! Unless it makes you uncomfortable, Ramona?" Bertie chimes in, meekly.
"Hmf. " she grumbled.
"Please excuse my mother, she's just had a long flight and is just a little tired, that's all. Mo...Bertie, would you help me in the kitchen a moment?" Leah takes my wife’s hand and leads her away, and I am left with the Ice Queen.
I take a seat across the room, painfully aware of the awkward tension.
" So, how was your flight Ramona? "
I fumble for small talk.
" Poor, thank you very much. The only upside was my no good ex-husband deciding to take a separate flight after finding out we'd be on the same plane. I don't want to see him any more than I have to"
I swallow, hard, trying to avoid stepping on her toes.
"Ah, so John WILL be joining us? I hadn't seen another vehicle so I…"
"LATE. But what else is new. Probably found some trashy slut at the airport and asked her to join the mile high club. Or him. John will sleep with anything that has a pulse." she scoffed
"I… Well… I surely hope he had a safe trip. I'm going to see if the girls need any help"
She rolls her eyes and shoos me away with her hand, sipping her chardonnay.
I walk nervously into the kitchen.
"Hey ladies, thought you might need a hand, how can I help?"
Suddenly the doorbell chimes. Speak of the devil.
“Sure!” Leah exclaimed. “Grab the door? That’ll be daddy!”
“Of course” I smile, walking toward the door. I swing it open, immediately extending my hand to the salt-and-pepper haired gentleman outside in the snow.
“Hi there! You must be John. I’m Tommy’s father…”
“LEONARD???” He exclaimed, his jaw hanging wide open.
I was taken back…I didn’t recognize this man at all. I study his face and suddenly, it dawns on me. But no. It couldn’t be…that was 20 years ago... Please don’t let it be…No…
My face flushed. I felt my blood burning hot. But he was cool…calm…HOW?
“Damn, Little Lenny…how long has it been?? Twenty years, at least! Get in here!”
He caught me in his arms, tightly, and without warning. These arms…waves of familiarity rush over me. Then shame. I shove him back. His eyes fill with hurt.
“I…I’m sorry John. It’s just been a long time.”
“What are you ol’ geezers doing out here, you’re letting that wonnndeerrffull turkey smell out!” Roberta snuck up behind me and wrapped her arm around my waist.
I clear my throat, and see his face flush and wince a little. Then he seems to wipe it away like it was never there. A famous move of his.
“Hello! I’m John, father of the bride! You must be Bertie. Leah’s told me so much about you!”
“I am! Come on in stranger! Don’t let this big lug intimidate you!” She nudges my ribs.
I’m still frozen there, in the door way, in utter disbelief.
As I step inside, everything is buzzing. John is in the kitchen, greeting his daughter, Bertie is still on my arm and I can’t seem to come back to Earth.
“Honey…are you okay?” She’s noticed. Damn…think…
“Yes dear, just a little headache. Forgot to grab breakfast with all the…uhm. Excitement. I’m going to check the bathroom for some Advil.”
Yes, perfect. I break free from her arms and make a B-line for the upstairs. At least I’ll have a few minutes to figure this out.
John…oh my god this can’t be happening. WHY of all people did it have to be him? All my shame, all my mistakes, come flooding back. I shut the bathroom door, lock myself in, and drop to a heap on the floor. Pull it together Leonard…come on...strong face. This is a family day. A good day, for new and happy memories. The past is in the past. I splash water on my face. It’s cool against my burning hot skin. Deep breath. Nobody knows but me and him…He won’t say anything…would he? No. He wouldn’t dare. I’ve got to talk to him. Get him alone so I can explain myself and nip this in the bud. Okay, I’ve been in here too long, don’t want anyone to come looking…Alright. I’ve got this.
I descend the stairs to a commotion in the living room. Oh boy…looks like Ramona got to John before I could.
“I’m NOT saying you were a bad parent, I was simply implying a GOOD parent would have been here on time. Especially one who has missed as much of our child’s life as you have. You’d think a military man could keep time better. Trouble getting it up in the airport stall for the Starbucks barista? Take a bit longer than you’d expect? Hmph.”
“Ramona enough. My personal life stopped being any of your concern the moment you filed for divorce. Even if it were, I assure you my being late was absolutely unintentional. Like I told Leah, the Kennedy was backed up for MILES in holiday traffic. I tried to avoid that by catching an earlier flight but it turns out my cretin ex-wife can’t bear to even be on the same plane with me.”
“Right John. Blame all your short comings on me, as always” She rolls her eyes and takes another large gulp from her glass.
“Mommy, daddy, could you please, pretty please, just for today, behave yourselves? You’re making Mr. and Mrs. Hanson uncomfortable. Nobody wants to hear you fight.” Leah chimes in from the kitchen.
“Better with her than me” I can’t help but think. Bertie takes a seat on the recliner to try and help Ramona retract her claws, and I head toward the kitchen to help Leah. But of course, John came through the other entrance, probably hoping to avoid getting scratched all together.
“There’s my perfect helpers. Daddy, scotch is in the cupboard above the stove. I got it special for you. Lenny, would you mind putting the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes for me? I’ve just got to finish…”
The phone on the wall starts to ring, and Leah stops short to answer.
“Hey hun! I was just wonder…Oh my god are you okay?? No, stay there, I’m coming. No worries”
She hangs up the line. “The gas station was out of ice, so Tommy had to go into town and spun out on the ice, and now has a flat tire. I have to go get him, we’ll have to have the car towed. UGH!” Leah sighed, still clutching the breadcrumb bowl for the green bean casserole.
Bertie peaks in from the living room, like I knew she would. Her family owned an auto-body shop for years, and she was the go to handy girl. “I’d be happy to come help! I put a spare in the garage when we worked on the car last summer. We’ll get it changed in a jiffy. The boys here, and Ramona of course, can get the sides prepped and in the oven, I’m sure!”
“OH NO!” Ramona storms in “You are NOT leaving me here to endure that man’s presence. I am coming with you. I can…hold a wrench or something.”
Bertie’s face flashes in panic before she replies “Uh. Sure! But I’m sure I’ll be okay. You can sit in the car though! Let’s go!”
And just like that, John and I are alone. He wastes no time. He comes up behind me and wraps around me, pressing his body to mine.
“Lenny…I missed you so much. Why didn’t you write? Or call…I never thought I’d see you again, then to reunite like THIS!”
I pull away. “John. Please. Listen and please stop this. I was a child then. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I enlisted I was scared, and I felt alone and confused. It was my first time surrounded only by men, and my head was a whirlwind of emotion. My body responded in ways totally new to me. I never expected fall in love there.”
I pause, and finish the sweet potatoes, then put them in the broiler. Then continue.
“Especially not with my Sargent. And it was magical and wonderful…but I was committed to Bertie. And I lost track of that. I’m so sorry if I hurt you, but I realized this is not the life I wanted, or the man I wanted to be.”
“But everything was perfect. That long year we spent in eachother’s company was everything to me. Then one day I wake up and you’re gone! You said you were taking another extension…you said you wanted me.” He replies, practically begging.
“And I did. Very much. In every way. But when I called Bertie that night you and I spoke, to end things…She told me she was pregnant…”
I top off the green bean casserole and put it in the hot oven, and continue.
“It must have happened when I went home that weekend for my father’s funeral. She was trying to comfort me and we made love. We made Tommy. I couldn’t back out. I realized my commitment is to my family. And I had to come home.”
“Leonard I left Ramona for you. You realize that, right?? I left my wife to be with you. I risked my JOB and my rank to be with you.” He defends.
“Don’t you dare put that on me. You and Ramona had been rocky long before our affair. You told me the entire year after Leah was born, she was frigid. As far as your job, I know damn well I am not the first Private you dropped your pants for, and sure as hell know I wasn’t the last.”
“Sex is not love, Lenny. I loved you. Yes, it was sex at first…but it was so much more than that. At least for me. I have never stopped thinking about you. Never. I couldn’t find you. I thought something happened to you. It absolutely broke my heart.”
He takes a breath, before digging out the dish for the cranberry sauce, then starts again.
“You’re right about Ramona and I, I’ll give you that. And I know that’s my own fault, my infidelity took a hard toll on her and nothing I do will ever make that alright. But my marriage was loveless. Leah was a happy accident from a night we were both drunk. I don’t regret her for a moment, I thought she might even bring Ramona and I closer together, but it seemed we only grew further apart.”
I slam my hands on the quartz counter top. “But don’t you understand? That’s exactly what I was doing to Bertie. I DO and did love her, very much. I couldn’t do that, I had to make the right choice. I loved you too, John, but sometimes love is not enough. It’s the past now. None of it matters. I have a wonderful wife and family that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I’m done dancing with the ghosts of my past. It’s done. Please help me set the table. They’ll be back soon”
I look up from getting the silverware sorted long enough to catch a glimpse of the tears forming in John’s eyes, before he quickly wipes them away. I sigh.
“John. I’m sorry. Truly, I am. But you had to know this would never work. You had to see…”
“I understand. I’m sorry. I’ve just been holding on all this time in the back of my mind, and now I know. Forget it.” He chokes out, before taking the plates and napkins into the dining room.
My heart aches. I follow closely behind and put my hands on his waist. As he spins around in shock, I put my hands on his face, in his silvered beard, and press my lips to his. His hands shift up into my hair, as we melt together. We pull apart slightly and press our foreheads to one another. “I’m sorry…” I breathe out.
He takes my hands “Don’t be. One last kiss goodbye, before we close this chapter. Thank you.”
A smile creeps up my face as we embrace, until the timer rings, bringing me to my senses
“That’ll be the turkey.”
Before I could reach the timer to turn it off, the lock on the door clicks, and breaks the bubble on our world together.
“We’re home!” Leah calls.
Bertie smiles as me, as I pull the turkey out and set it on the counter. “Well, the turkey appears to still be in tact!” She giggles. “Did you boys behave yourselves while we were gone?”
I smooth my sweater and John clears his throat. “Something like that.” I replied with a grin. I kiss her gently on the cheek. “Now let’s eat.”