Eli slowed to a stop. ‘I know it’s family,’ he said, ‘but that demands a do-over.’
I slid out of the car – again – and walked over to grab the paper, tucking it under my arm. Then I crept up as slowly as possible to the porch, trying to be quiet as I bent to slide it onto the perfect center of the mat. Just as I did, though, I heard my dad’s voice.
‘… just my point! I wanted you to have what you wanted. But what about what I want?’
I shrank from the door, backing down one step as I glanced at my watch. It was almost three A.M. Entirely too late for most people to be up, unless something bad was happening.
‘Are you saying you don’t want the baby?’ Heidi said. Her voice was higher, shaky. ‘Because if that’s true…’
‘This isn’t about the baby.’
‘Then what is it about?’
‘Our lives,’ he replied, sounding tired. ‘And how they’ve changed.’
‘You’ve done this before, Robert. Twice. You knew what it was like to have an infant in the house.’
‘I was a child myself then!
I’m older now. It’s different. It’s…’
Silence. All I could hear was Eli’s car, the engine murmuring behind me.
‘… not what I expected,’ my dad finished. ‘You want the truth, there it is. I wasn’t ready for all this.’
All this. Such a round, all-encompassing term, as wide as the ocean, which I could also hear, distantly – the real waves this time. But even with all that vastness, it was impossible to tell what, or who, it really included. It seemed safest to just assume everything.
‘This,’ Heidi said, ‘is your family. Ready or not, Robert.’
I had a flash of all those cul-de-sac games I never really played, but knew the rules to nonetheless. You hide: whoever is It counts down, and then – ready or not! – they came looking for you. If they got close, you had no choice but to stay put, hoping not to be found. But if you were, there was no wiggle room. Game over.
I could hear my father starting to say something, but I wasn’t a child this time, and didn’t have to stay and listen. I could leave, disappear into the night, which was vast, too, wide and all-encompassing, with so many places to hide. So I did.
‘Forgive the mess,’ Eli said, reaching inside the dark room for a light switch. ‘Housework is another one of my failings.’
In truth, his apartment was simply plain. One large room, with a bed on one side, a single wooden chair and TV on the other. The kitchen was tiny, the counters bare except for a coffeemaker, a box of filters beside it. Still, I appreciated his efforts to pretend otherwise, if only because it meant we weren’t talking about the fact that I’d pretty much lost it only moments earlier.
I thought I’d been fine as I backed away from my dad’s house, walking across the already dew-damp grass to the truck. Fine as I slid in, picking up another paper to throw. But then, Eli had said, ‘Hey. You okay?’ and the next thing I knew, I wasn’t.
It’s always embarrassing to cry in front of anyone. But bursting into tears in front of Eli was downright humiliating. Maybe it was the way he just sat there, not saying anything, the only sound my hiccuping sobs and loud sniffles. Or how, after a moment, he just drove on, throwing papers at houses while I looked out the window and tried to stop. By the time he’d pulled into the dark driveway of a green split-level house a block from the boardwalk, I’d gotten calmed down enough to be racking my brain for some way to play the whole thing off. I was thinking I’d blame sudden-onset PMS, or maybe my devastation at sucking so entirely at paper delivering. Before I could say anything, though, he cut the engine, pushing his door open.
‘Come on,’ he said. As he got out, I sat there for a moment, watching as he began to climb a narrow flight of stairs beside the garage. He never looked back to see if I was following him. Which was probably why I did.
Now, he shut the door behind me, then walked over to the kitchen, dropping his keys on the counter en route to turning on the coffeemaker. Only when it began to brew, the smell wafting toward me, did I go to join him.
‘Have a seat,’ he said, his back to me as he bent into the fridge, rummaging around for something. ‘There’s a chair.’
‘And only a chair,’ I said. ‘What do you do when you have company?’
‘I don’t.’ He stood up, shutting the fridge. He had a stick of butter in one hand. ‘I mean, usually.’
I didn’t say anything, instead just watching as he pulled a saucepan out of a cabinet, sticking the butter in it before placing it on the stove. ‘Look,’ I said as he turned on the burner, ‘what happened back there –’
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to talk about it.’
I was quiet for a minute, watching as he melted the butter in the pan, tipping it from side to side. It was just another courtesy that he’d given me this easy out, the chance to move on, and I thought it was a gift I’d take, and gratefully. Until I heard myself say, ‘Remember how you were asking me what I’d failed at, earlier?’
He nodded, jiggling the pan over the stove. ‘Yeah. The social thing, right?’
‘That,’ I said, ‘and keeping my parents together.’
It wasn’t until I said this that I realized it was true. That I hadn’t blanked out at this question earlier so much as thought of an answer I couldn’t say aloud. At least until I’d overheard my dad and Heidi fighting, and it all came rushing back to me: those awkward dinners, with the picky little arguments, the unsettled feel of the house as the hours went on and on, closer to my bedtime. The way I learned to stretch the night all around me, staying awake and alert to keep all the things that scared me most at bay. But it hadn’t worked. Not then. And not now either.
I blinked, feeling a tear roll down my cheek. Three years of total stoicism, blown in one night. Talk about humiliating.
I looked up to see Eli watching me. He’d taken out a box of Rice Krispies at some point, and instead of looking back at him I focused on the faces of Snap, Crackle, and Pop, all gathered happily around a big cereal bowl. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, because for some reason, even with these cartoon distractions I still seemed to be crying. ‘I just… I don’t even think about this anymore, but then when I went to throw that paper, they were fighting, and it was so…’