Today is a miserable December afternoon, like it is pretty much every year on my birthday. The air is chilly enough to make your hands numb, but not quite so cold that the rain pelting the porch roof can turn to snow. I’ve been sitting on these wooden stairs since the sun came up this morning, and I haven’t moved since. You might be wondering why I’m wasting my special day sitting on a porch and freezing my face off instead of eating cake and opening presents. Well, it’s kind of a long, story, but if you’re willing to stick it out, it all started when I was twelve years old.
“Jason, honey, it’s time to get ready for school!” I pry open my eyelids and stifle a groan.
“Coming!” I yell in a voice still thick from sleep. I don’t get up right away; instead, I allow myself a few more minutes of warm bliss and try to grasp the disappearing fragments of my dream. I had been dribbling down the basketball court, 10 seconds on the clock and our team down by a basket. With a flying leap I sent the ball soaring through the air and swished a three pointer, winning the game for my team. I had just been in the middle of a victory parade when I was awakened.
“Jason, I mean it!” my mother said from downstairs. “If you’re not down here in two minutes…” I leapt from my bed, sending my perfect shot scattering into wherever forgotten dreams go.
Exactly two minutes later, I slip into my seat at the breakfast table. Mom slides a plate of fried eggs and toast in front of me and ruffles my blond hair.
“It’s about time.” She says smiling. I glance across the table and see Dad, his ankle propped up on his knee, reading the paper and sipping coffee.
“Hey, Dad.” I say casually. “You gonna come to basketball tryouts this afternoon?” He looks up from his paper and stares at me for a second. I can tell he had no idea what I just said, so I repeat the question.
“Today’s the first day of tryouts, and I was wondering if you were going to come watch.” This registers and he thinks about it for a second. I know what the answer will probably be, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, right?
“Sure, Jase, sure.” He replies, pushing back dark hair with his hand. “I’ll try to be there.” My mom looks at me with her beautiful brown eyes and purses her lips, which is an expression meaning don’t get your hopes up. But before I can say anything in response, I hear the bus pull up. I spring to my feet and grab a piece of toast for the go. Mom gives me a peck on the cheek and Dad grunts a goodbye as I head out the door.
“So, is your old man gonna be here?” Caleb asks. We were sitting on the bleachers waiting for the coach to finish role call. Caleb Carl has been my best friend ever since kindergarten when I stole his lunchbox. He’d never met his dad so he saw mine as a sort of replacement, despite the stark contrast of his dark skin to my white face.
“He said he was going to try.” I answered as I retied my shoes. He gives me the same look my mom bestowed on me this morning and I shrug.
“I like your dad and all,” he continues, “but you and I both know what to make of his ‘I’ll try’ routine.” That’s what’s so great about Caleb. He’ll always give it to you straight without hating on you. Just then, Coach blew the whistle and we jogged onto the court.
Through the entire practice I was watching for Dad, scanning the parents sitting on the gym bleachers for the familiar dark hair, tall frame, and grey business suit. When he still didn’t show at half time, I came to terms with the fact that he just wasn’t going to be there. But I kept waiting. I could tell the sun was sinking when Coach blew the whistle signaling the end of practice. Breathing heavily, I plunked back down on the bleachers. I had just taken a huge gulp of water when someone called my name. I allowed myself a spark of hope as I looked up, but quickly smothered it when I saw that it was Coach gesturing for me to go over to him.
“Yeah, Coach?” I said, jogging over to him, bottle still in hand. He studied his clipboard for a second, then addressed me.
“Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Lopez,” he started. “You and your friend Caleb are good at ball, but you seemed distracted today.” He finally lifted his gaze up at me, subtly scrutinizing my expression.
“First day jitters, I guess,” I say lamely. I can tell Coach isn’t convinced, but he lets me go with a wave of his hand.
“Dude, I’m really sorry,” says Caleb, sitting down next to me. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk, so I just shrugged and stood up, collecting my bag and making my way to the door. I peddled down the street, the cold wind biting my sweaty flesh as I sped home. In an effort to keep my mind from drifting to disappointment, I turned my gaze skyward to the angry gray clouds choking out the last of the evening light.
“I’m home!” I let the screen door slam behind me as I enter the house and allow the warmth of the heater to envelop me. I can hear Mom in the kitchen and the smells of baked chicken wafted on the comforting air.
“Hey, honey!” answered Mom from her spot by the stove. “How was school?” I staggered into the kitchen and flopped down on one of the wooden chairs by the window, my legs exhausted from the day’s trials.
“Oh, you know. Same old stuff.” I replied. “We had basketball tryouts today.” I said casually, hoping that maybe she forgot about my request to Dad that morning.
“Your father wasn’t there, was he?” she asked, noticing the dejected expression.
I nodded silently, then, not wanting to endure one of her ‘sympathy talks’, I stood and muttered something about going to wash up.
Only when I had climbed into the shower did I allow my mind to wander. The steaming hot water seemed to rinse away all the tension I had built up on the bike ride home from practice and all the sudden I was exhausted. Why does he never come? I thought. Is it something I’ve done? Does he not want to be around me anymore and then lies so he won’t hurt my feelings? I watched as the water swirled down the drain. Thinking about my father made my head ache too much, so I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the water envelop me.
“So, Brian, how was work today?” Mom was always the conversation starter in the family, and this question broke the bubble of silence surrounding the dinner table.
“Hmm?” mused Dad, who, once again, was absorbed in his paper.
“I said: ‘How was work today?’” Mom was straining to keep her cool, I could tell. She knows how important it was to me that Dad was at tryouts today, and she’s trying to jog his memory without blowing up.
“Work?” Dad repeats, “Oh yeah. Work was fine.” He didn’t say anything more and shifted his gaze back down to the news.
“You didn’t have any other obligations this afternoon?” Mom’s tactic has now switched from conversational to interrogating. My parent’s fighting goes in stages, making it easy to detect when one is going to erupt.
“Mom,” I intersected, sensing the tension silently pleading her to let it go. Again.
“No, Jason. This is one time too many.” She gave me a look that said: This conversation is not up for discussion. I slumped in my chair and sigh and waited for Vesuvius to erupt.
“Brian,” started Mom. “Brian, can you put down your paper for a minute?” he didn’t move. I cringe. “BRIAN!” Mom was yelling now, but I’m not sure that Dad knew that he’s actually the source of her fury. Finally, he spoke.
“What’s up, Rachel?” he said coolly, still not making eye contact. Now Mom’s had it and she ripped the newspaper from his hands and tore it into six clean pieces. As the pieces floated to the ground, I sensed the spark that will ignite the fire.
“Hey!” He exclaimed, standing so fast his chair toppled over. “What was that for?”
“I don’t know if you’re aware,” Mom started, "but you made a commitment to your son to be at his practice today, and you didn’t show.” Her face was beet red and she was breathing hard.
“So, you shredded my paper?” he questioned, exasperated.
“It’s not just this one time, Brian.” She continued, sadness filling her voice and eyes. “It’s last week, at Career Day. It’s last Halloween at his party. When was the last time you even told him you loved him? You haven’t even made an excuse for not being there!”
Dad said something snarky back, but I don’t hear. They’re so busy yelling at each other that they didn’t notice me slip out of my chair and made my escape. Once in the safety of my room, I buried my head under the covers in an attempt to drown out the sound of my parents screaming match. I hated it when they were like this, but it had been happening more and more.
I think I fell asleep eventually, because when my lamp switched on my mind felt blurry and I didn’t immediately recognize my father sitting on my bed next to me.
“Hey, Jase.” He said softly, a small smile on his face. “I’m sorry I wasn’t at your practice today.”
“It’s okay.” I whispered unconvincingly.
“No, it’s not.” He replied, leaning forward. “I told you I would be there and I wasn’t.”
I shrugged, not meeting his gaze.
“I just,” His voice cracked. “I just wanted you to know that it’s not your fault.” In the lamplight, I saw tears glistening in his eyes. “I promise that I will be here for your birthday.” And with that, he got up and left the room, closed the door behind him. I heard Mom ‘s muffled voice, then the door slammed and the car’s engine purred to life.
The next morning, he was gone.
Now I’m 18 years old, a senior in high school. Mom never told me where my dad went after that night, but I did some research and figured out he met some girl in Rialto and they’ve got a family now, even a son. I haven’t seen him since. Still, every year, on December 8th, I sit on the porch, waiting for him to fulfill his promise. Waiting for him to come home.