I was lying in bed, and the muffled tones of my parents voices drifted through the heat register.
“What about them?” I heard Dad say.
“Oh, Dirk. You know that this isn’t about them. Don’t drag them into it.”
I could tell she was smoking, barely heard the exhale.
“Well, how the hell you think they’re gonna’ receive the news?” Dad sounded upset, but the way he did upset, that familiar way he shrugged off any emotion. Not something I could do, even when I wished I could.
“I’d be stupid if I turned down this opportunity,” Mom reasoned.
My heartbeat crept into my throat during the long pause.
“But Los Angeles, Miriam? It might as well be Tahiti.” Dad got up, could tell by his footsteps, probably retrieved another beer from the pantry. Everything in our two- hundred year old farmhouse creaked, even the curtains. “Christ, I don’t think there’s a direct flight from Manchester.”
We’d moved to New Hampshire during the Reagan boom. Dad excelled at finance, the stock markets soared in the early 80s before my brother, Bear, and I were born. Mom played cello with the New York Philharmonic, and they enjoyed the trappings of an upwardly mobile urban lifestyle. Their introduction to New England came when Mom took a summer teaching gig at Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1984. Every year following, during the orchestra’s hiatus, Mom and Dad would leave the city and play in New England’s finest jewels: camping in Acadia National Park, hiking Mount Kathadin, boating on Lake Champlain. When Dad pushed to expand the family, Mom rescinded. Despite her protests, Bear was born in 1989. His name isn’t Barry as one might assume, it’s Brian. But I couldn’t say my r’s, so his name became Bwyan. I had a stuffed bear that I slept with, so I called my brother Bear one day. The name stuck, and he grew into it.
The voices below became more stifled, lower. I kicked off the patchwork comforter, feeling a tinge of perspiration, wondered if Bear was already asleep. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table. 11:35. I decided to check. Tiptoed to the door which was already ajar. I didn’t like it entirely closed, couldn’t fall asleep if my room was pitch black. Bear was the opposite, his room was always like a cave.
I opened his door and it creaked. The dank odor of sweaty socks and musty coolness greeted me as I stepped into the darkness. “Bear?” I whispered, trying to be heard over the creaky window fan. His bed was on the far side of the room. For just a flash, my forearm hair’s raised, imagining his body not able to be roused. I cleared my throat, choking back the fear.
“Bear?” I repeated, slighty louder.
“It’s Randy, Bear. Ssshhh.”
“What the f, Randy?” He sat up, his night light clicked on. “I was totally asleep, man.”
I realized that I was only wearing boxers, felt awkward, wanted to run back to my room. Bear must have seen the look on my face.
“Come here,” he sat fully up, patting his bedspread.
I did what I was told.
He rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on?”
Suddenly I felt foolish, like a child, my insecurities circling in the air. I felt I could burst into tears; instead, I swallowed hard. “Mom’s leaving.”
Bear squinted, lay back against the headboard of his four poster bed. “What makes you say that?”
“I overheard them talking in the kitchen tonight. She’s gonna take the job in L.A.”
I fiddled with the raised pattern on Bear’s heirloom blanket, tweaking it so hard I could make a hole.
“Hey, stop messing with that,” Bear said. “Did she say when she’s leaving?”
“I came in here before they’d finished.”
Bear looked at me. “Come here,” he said, patting the empty spot beside him. “Lay
Again, I did as I was told. Lay beside Bear, staring at the stippled ceiling, felt numb. It wasn’t the first time she’d left, I reasoned. There was the time when Bear was 12 and I was 10, she’d moved to Boston to be closer to her job. The commute was killing her, she’d reasoned. That only lasted a year. But it was the only year my grades plummeted.
I closed my eyes and sensed the heaviness of my brother’s body next to mine.
“It’s okay,” Bear mumbled, as if he’d read my thoughts.
I rolled away from him. Wanted to say, oh yeah? What about when you leave for college this summer? What about Dad? I’ll be left to deal with him. Bear turned off his light and I felt his arm wrap around my waist, pulling me closer.
As I was falling asleep, I thought I heard the hushed sounds of Bear crying, but it might have been a dream.
By July, Mom and Bear moved to Los Angeles. Dad wasn’t home a lot, and when he was, he buried himself in books and booze. The rare conversation we had would go something like this:
Dad: School okay? Me: Yup. Dad: Got a girlfriend? Me: Nope.
We were like two tropical storms building toward different destinations. I missed Bear like hell, mostly the way he picked on me, or made bad jokes about our teachers.
Mostly I was just bored. Then one night, Dad actually appeared in the kitchen. I’d just started my favorite Swanson’s TV dinner: salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peas.
“Spoke with your Uncle Chuck today,” he said. Took a swig of Molson’s.
“Oh?” It wasn’t like they never talked. “How’s he doing?”
“Says he could use some help on the farm.” Uncle Chuck lived in upstate New York. Had beef cows and boarded horses.
“You trying to get rid of me?” I couldn’t look at him.
“Of course not, son. Just wondering if you wanted a little adventure.”
Working on the farm didn’t sound much like an adventure. It had been ages since I last saw Uncle Chuck. He was dad’s youngest brother, and there were some wild stories I’d heard over the years at those rare family reunions: Ladies man. Trouble with a capitol T. He never came to a single one.
“What about you?” It was an odd thing to ask, given that I hadn’t seemed to care since the day Mom and Bear left. I never once asked Dad are you okay? How are you doing? Just wasn’t our thing.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. Finished his beer and opened another.
I wasn’t the kind of kid to just jump. So, I said, “Let me think about it.”
Later, long after dad was snoring on the couch, I called Bear. “What should I do?”
He said, “Sounds fun. Would get you out of the house. You know if I had the bucks I’d fly you out to L.A. buddy. It’s amazing. The beaches and…the babes. Holy cow.”
I swallowed my jealousy. “Sounds nice. How’s Mom?”
“I rarely see her. She’s busy as hell with her job and getting settled. Plus, I’m near the UCLA campus. It’s in Westwood. She’s lives in the Hollywood Hills.”
“Uh huh.” I said, pretending I understood what that meant. I only knew Beverly Hills from that dorky TV show. “So, you think I should go? To Uncle Chuck’s?”
“Why not? What does Mom say?”
“I didn’t tell her.” Mom called almost every night, but after the first week, I didn’t get on the phone most days. I’d hear Dad answer, and could tell if they were arguing from the level of his voice through the heat register.
“Do it, Randy. Could really be a great time. Would get you out of that house, and you might even have some fun. Eww, imagine that, you having fun?” he joked.
“Bear, I’m worried about Dad. He never eats, just drinks.”
“That’s been going on for years. Just focus on yourself. I’m telling you, this farm option looks better and better.”
“It’s like our whole family is just-”
I heard him sigh. “Yeah, we’re not your typical picture postcard. But, you’re gonna be 16 in a couple of weeks. You have the whole world before you. And if you keep up your grades, you are, right?”
“I am, yeah.” I maintained an A average, just barely. Somehow made Honor Society every year.
“Good, because then you can apply to the colleges you really want. Come out here. We’ll get a place together.”
“Listen, I have to get going. My room-mate needs the phone. Call me when you decide about Uncle Chuck’s.”
The day I flew to Rochester was gray and overcast. The plane was tiny, I actually had to bend over to walk down the aisle. The seats were so small that the man in seat 6B had trouble fitting into one.
Turns out Uncle Chuck liked beer, too. Only he drank Genny Cream Ale. And unlike Dad, he’d offered me one. I pretended to drink it. Tasted watered down, like sun tea mom tried to make one summer. Got the ratio wrong.
Uncle Chuck’s ranch house was a typical one-level built in the seventies. He’d had the original farm torn down. “Shoulda seen it, Randy. Place was decrepit.” He took me on a tour. “Got about a hundred head of Herefords. “He nodded over the gate toward the barnyard. “This time of year the herd’s out to pasture. We only feed ‘em in the evening.”
A strong odor of manure mixed with the sodden smell of the barn. Swallows darted across the sky, their blue bellies lit up as they searched for bugs. I could hear peepers in the pond.
Later Chuck made dinner: t-bone steaks on the grill, and skewered peppers and onions. He even made a salad.
“I haven’t had one of these since Bear and Mom moved,” I said. I ate like it was my last day on earth.
“Slow down, you’ll choke.” He smiled.
I had a feeling this was gonna be fun.
“You like to fish?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Got a pond full of smallmouth bass. And there’s a trout stream in Ponderosa Park if you prefer that.”
“I wouldn’t know the difference.”
He smiled again. “We’ll do both.” He kind-of stared, so I looked at the antique hutch.
“You kind-of look like your mom.” Everybody said that. Usually didn’t bother me, but for some reason I felt weird. “You pissed off at her?” He used a toothpick on his molars.
“A little. I mean, it’s complicated.”
“Not really. She left. And from what your dad said, she didn’t take a contract like she had in Boston.”
I’m not sure why I felt like defending her, but I did. “It was a great career move.”
He paused. Did that staring thing again. “Career move? It’s your fucking father,
It took all I had to sit there. My breath came in spurts. He must have noticed.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean- you poor kid. Listen, forget I said that. You want more steak?”
I nodded. I was full, but I wanted to change topics.
“‘C’mon, kid,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Let’s get you more eats.”
I followed him out to the kitchen.
While I did the dishes, a mustang pulled up. I ran out to look closer. It was a red convertible with slick tires, and I’d heard its engine purr before the driver shut it off.
“Nice car,” I said, still inspecting.
“Thanks, he said, getting out. “I’m Lee.” He held out his hand.
We shook. I noticed his watch. “Randy.”
“I know, Chuck told me all about you.”
That was strange. What did my uncle know about me? “Oh.”
Then Chuck came out on the porch. “Hey, Lee. How’s the hot rod driving today?”
We walked toward the house. “Like magic,” Lee said.
We watched a Lifetime cable movie about a waitress who gets pregnant then forced to marry another man when the father of the child splits. It was sappy, mellowdramatic.
Uncle Chuck and Lee sat on opposite ends of the couch. Lee had his cowboy boots up on the coffee table. They drank a couple of beers. Not the six-pack Dad polished every night.
During a commercial, Uncle Chuck said, “I got you a cell phone. That way you can call your Dad, or your brother whenever you want.” I pretended not to notice he didn’t mention mom.
“Thanks.” Cool! I’d never owned a cell phone.
“It’s in your room. I can show you how to use it in the morning.”
Lee got up, went to the bathroom.
Uncle Chuck got this serious look on his face. “Lee’s gonna stay over.”
“Okay.” I thought it was better if he didn’t drive, the beer and all. “Do you want me to sleep on the couch?”
He smiled. “No, Lee sleeps here often.”
I forced a smile. “Oh, so-”
“He’s my partner.”
I heard the toilet flush. Nodded, the shock felt like a punch in my stomach. I had no clue what to say. A rug commercial was playing, the song was super cheery.
Lee sat back on the sofa. “So, did ya tell him?”
Uncle Chuck nodded. “You okay, Randy?”
“Yeah, fine.” I looked at the TV wondering what to do. It’s wasn’t such a big deal. I wondered if Dad knew?
“Both of your parents know,” Uncle Chuck said.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Lee said.
“He’s pretty sheltered,” Uncle Chuck said.
“I am not,” I blurted. It came out louder than I’d intended.
“See?” Lee smiled. “Kids are different now than they were when we grew up.”
“He’s not some kid. He’s my nephew.”
I faked a yawn. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m pretty tired.”
Uncle Chuck stood up. “I’ll show you your room.” We walked back through the kitchen to an area off the family room. He switched an overhead light on. The room was large with nice decorations. The bed seemed huge. There was a bathroom attached, without a door.
“There are fresh towels in the bathroom.”
“Looks nice, “ I said.
“I hope we didn’t shock you. It’s just, well, you’re gonna be here for a few weeks. I wanted to wait, but Lee was insistent on telling you.”
“How long have you and Lee-”
“Three years. We were friend before that. It became something else.”
I sat on the bed. “You’re the first person I know who’s gay.”
“Lucky me,” he joked. It broke some tension.
“There is this kid in my class, James. Gets picked on horribly by the jocks. He’s really girly. Nothing like you guys.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I just assumed James is gay. But I kind-of avoid him. Even though we’re in all the same classes.”
“Sounds about right,” Uncle Chuck said. “Listen, you’ve had a long day. Sleep well.”
“Yeah. I’m glad I’m here.” I wasn’t just saying it for him. I’d meant it.
“Me, too. You need anything, come knock. The TV’s over there.” Showed me how the controls work. “We’ll get your phone hooked up after breakfast. I’m making berry pancakes. We pick the berries on our farm. I’ll show you where they grow.”
“Yum.” I wondered if Lee lived there when I wasn’t around.
“Give me a hug,” he said. “Good night, Randy.”
“Night.” Once he’d left, I sat in bed, looked around the room. What would Bear think? My eyes got heavy so I snuggled into the cozy bed, fell into a deep sleep.