The phone rings continuously. He had constantly threatened to do this and go completely off-grid, but I never thought he would actually do it. Jack had been my best friend when my father passed away unexpectedly. Now, I was staring down thirty and a divorce, and I needed him. I hang up, knowing continuing to call will be pointless. Now, I have only one option: make the three-hour drive and hope he still lives at the same house I spent countless hours in. In the past week, I have tried calling a dozen times and sent several emails without an answer. I clumsily throw a couple of days worth of clothing into a duffel bag, and I am out the door. I throw the bag onto the passenger seat of my beat-up Kia Spectra, the first car I ever owned, and back out of the parking spot at my apartment building.
My eyes glaze over halfway through the drive, consumed by every bad thing that could have happened. I knew there was a possibility Jack was dead. If he had gone off the grid, no one else might find him, and it would fall to me. That was only if he was still in the same place. If he wasn’t, well, I knew there would be no way I would be able to track him down. He would be another person lost to me over the years. It is partially my fault. When I married Evan five years ago, I stopped reaching out and poured myself into the marriage. Neither of the men in my life liked the other; at the time, I had thought it was best to keep them separate. Now, though, I long for that connection. I long to hear my best friend’s voice again.
The GPS yells at me to turn onto the backroad leading to the house I fell in love with all those years ago. Jack has been a part of my life for seventeen of my thirty years. I spent countless hours avoiding my mother or figuring out the meaning of life on the front porch or on the couch. Though it is a long shot, I hope he will have the answers I need. I am spiraling into depression. I’m not sure there is any saving me now. I’m not sure I want to be saved. I’m not sure the world is better with me in it.
The road curves, and I speed through it, longing to reach my destination. Jack was never a prepper, but he never liked people. If you looked up antisocial in the dictionary, his picture would greet you. Showing up unannounced is a risk, but I’m willing to make it if it means seeing my best friend again. After what feels like an eternity, I pull into the familiar driveway. I can feel my heart racing, the anxiety building in my chest. I slowly breathe through my nose to the count I have memorized. It doesn’t help. I step out of the car, prepared to be greeted by an angry Jack, but nothing happens. I decide to leave my duffel in the vehicle. In all likelihood, I won’t be invited to stay. I reach the front door, take another steadying breath, and ring the bell. I am startled to hear the chime.
I am about to give up hope when the door opens, revealing an older Jack. Outside of a few new wrinkles, the man looks the same gruff person I befriended all those years ago. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding, taking in the sight of him. “Hi,” I say, knowing it isn’t enough to make up for the years I cut him out of my life.
“Catherine?” Jack looks stunned at my presence, almost as if he can’t believe what he sees. “What are you doing here?
I can’t help but laugh. “Well, I tried calling.” I don’t know why I say it, but it’s the first thing that pops into my mind.
It is Jack’s turn to laugh as he opens the front door wide for me to enter. “Well, come on in. You look good. How are things going?”
I step inside and take in the familiar entry. The house is on two levels. The downstairs is the garages and rec room, and nothing has changed. Upstairs is the living area, complete with a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms. I hope I’ll be invited to stay in the guest room, but I’m not pushing my luck. “Well, I see nothing has changed outside of you not answering any form of outside communication.”
“Oh, a lot has changed. I’ve cut everything. I don’t have a phone or a computer, and I have limited electricity dependency. I installed solar panels a few years ago. Really, the only connection to the outside world I still have is cable television, and that is more for the news than anything else.”
I want to say I’m shocked, but I thought that was the case before I even arrived. “I figured as much when my calls and emails went unanswered. I’ve spent the past week trying to get ahold of you to no avail. I was worried I’d drive here just to find you long gone or dead. I’m not sure which would have been worse,” I admit. I curse myself because I can feel the tears beginning to form. I hate what I’ve done to this man and feel guilty for showing up out of the blue. Jack probably had no desire to see me again, and fear begins to creep inside me.
“Look, I can go. You have always done more for me than I deserve, and it isn’t fair to show up back in your life. I’m sure you’ve been much happier without me dragging you down.” I turn to head back out the door and drive back to the small apartment I’ve currently rented. As much as I hate being alone, I know it is Jack’s preference. I’ve interrupted it.
Before I can make it outside, Jack’s voice stops me. “You are always welcome here, whether I know you’re coming or not. I’ve told you that before, and nothing has changed. Why don’t you come upstairs and tell me what is going on? I know you. You’ve got a look of terror, guilt, and loss broadcast on your face.”
The tears fall then, and before I can react, I am in his arms, enveloped in a tight hug. I can’t speak for several minutes, lost in the emotions I’ve denied for the past few months. Once I regain composure, I nod and head upstairs to the couch. “I don’t have much to offer you to drink. I was going to do a store run tomorrow. But I can offer water and a bit of Apple Juice.”
I shake my head while my brain tries to figure out where to start. I wait for him to join me on the couch, the only seating available in the living room, and then I sigh. “Jack, I owe you an apology. I should never have stopped reaching out, ensuring you were doing alright. There are a lot of reasons I made the decision I did, but none of them are good, and they all feel like excuses. I know there is nothing I can do or say to make up for it, but I really am sorry.”
I wait for the reprimand, the anxiety and fears from childhood trauma. Jack has never been the one to do so, but this is the first time I’ve given him a reason to. Now, I have. I wait for him to tell me to get out and never return, but it doesn’t come. Instead, he looks me over before saying, “You aren’t the only one who owes an apology. I made the same choice. We both thought we were doing what was right, and I will never fault you for that. But, I don’t think that is what brought you to my front door. What’s going on?”
This is the part I don’t want to tell. I don’t want to relive the hurt and anger I’ve had to deal with, but I can’t withhold it. “I’m divorced. Well, in the process of getting a divorce. Evan had a six-month affair and then chose not to work on the marriage when I gave him a chance. I moved into a one-bedroom, rundown apartment I can barely afford, and I feel like I’m losing it. Never thought this was how I would bring in my thirties.” The words are cold, but if I add emotion, I will fall apart.
Jack is silent for a long while, staring into my eyes. “I’m sorry, honey,” he finally says. I hate the pity in his voice and involuntarily cringe. For the past few months, all I have gotten is pity.
“I don’t want your pity, Jack. I just…” I stop, unsure of how to continue. I shake my head, trying to clear the thoughts swirling around my head. “I just want to know I’m going to be okay because it doesn’t feel like I will right now. I’m struggling. I’ve recently wanted a hug from my dad, and I can’t get that. I cut you out and thought you would never want to hear from me again, let alone invite me inside to talk. I just want something to feel normal again.”
“I don’t pity you, Cat. I’m sympathetic. I know what you are going through. I’ve been there. I’m not your father, but I’ll always be here to hug you and pick you up when you need it. This is as much your home as it is mine, no matter what. You’ve always got a place here, no matter how long we go without talking. Eventually, I hope you understand that,” Jack says softly, and I can tell I’ve wounded him without meaning to. I’m good at saying the wrong thing and hurting people without intent. “You’re stronger than you think, and I know you will get through this. I’m here to help in any way I can. I’ll get another phone if staying in touch will help.”
I can’t help the laugh that escapes me. “You’d really do that for me?”
“I would. I’ll go out tomorrow if you want. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. We’ll get you through this. Did you want to stay the night, or are you heading back? I worry about you driving these back roads in the dark.”
“I’ve got a bag in the car,” I say, genuinely smiling for the first time in years. “Thank you, Jack. I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you, but thank you.”
“Awww, honey, you make it easy. Let’s go get your stuff.”