by MJ Mink
I did not expect Peter to return here after his dinner date. I had thought that perhaps he would see the young lady home. If he did so, he did not linger with her. I heave a small sigh, wondering if grandchildren will ever be in my future. After all, I am not getting any younger.
I retrieve my hat and place it on my head, so that Peter may see that I have taken his suggestion. I believe the delicately feathered fly adds a certain...flair...to my attire and am certain that Peter will approve.
"Pop, you here?"
He rushes into the room at his usual pace, then skids to a stop very close to me. His eyes narrow, and I see suspicion in his hard stare.
"You goin' someplace?"
It returns, the distrust I have felt many times since my return. I shake my head and remove the hat, placing it on the table as I resume my task of grinding seeds into paste.
"Hey, you put the fly on your hat! Lookin' good, Pop." He turns the hat around in his hands, smoothing the feather.
I dip my forefinger into the paste and taste it. It is grainy and it must be smooth, so I again take up the pestle and return to work.
Peter places a white container on the table. "Brought us back some Mexican fried ice cream." He runs his finger across the top of the carton. "So you really weren't going anywhere?"
I do not reply, for I have already answered this question.
"You just wanted to show me the fly." Peter tosses my hat back on the table and peers around my shoulder. "What're you making? Nothing I want to taste, I'll bet."
He waits for a moment, then paces away, bored, and I wonder why he is here if he does not wish to be.
"Your dinner, it went well?" I ask casually.
"It was just a dinner, Pop," he answers, opening the French door and taking a deep breath of cool air. "Did you have me proposing to Mel already? Yeah, I suppose you did. Give me a break, okay? I'm not ready to get married yet."
My son asks many questions, yet he does not always wait for answers. In any case, he has perceived the intent of my words, so I do not pursue them.
He returns and leans back against the table, folds his arms, and watches me work. "I had a good time camping. Maybe we can do it again."
"Only if you promise not to set our breakfast free." He grins.
I look at him and smile, but make no such promise.
There is a short, peaceful silence. I know it will not last long.
Resigned, I put down the pestle and face Peter. His dark eyes become clouded, and I see he now broods...for what purpose I cannot discern, but I believe it is something that involves the darkness inside him. I place my hand on his shoulder. "Yes, my son?"
He shrugs it off and moves away. I link my fingers together, watching him. His tension is not as great as it was several days ago, but he is ill at ease.
"I know we talked about why you left, about your path." He punctuates the statement with sharp gestures of his left hand. While I watch, it curls into a fist. "But you never really told me what it is. Your path, I mean."
It is not yet time for my path to be revealed. But he will not accept such an answer. I tilt my head and consider how to reply.
"You don't want to tell me," he declares flatly. "Okay, that's fine. It's none of my business, I know. Let's talk about something else. What did you say you're you making?" He returns to the table, lifts the bowl and sniffs. "Yuck," he comments, but will not look at me.
If someone else were cruel to my son, I would know how to comfort him. But his cruelty to himself is difficult to soothe. I lay my hand on his cheek and turn his face toward me. He blinks, closes his eyes, then looks at me. In his gaze, I see a plea, and as I watch, I see that what I thought to be suspicion is truly the deepest form of trust.
He thinks I have an answer to every question, but I do not. I can only reveal that which I am usually reticent to speak, my true feelings. "My son, you are precious to me."
"Oh, yeah?" His tone is defiant, but he does not shrink away. "Is that why you left for six months?"
"Yes." His eyes widen slightly. My thumb rubs his chin. "And that is why I returned." Leaning forward, I brush my lips on his cheek before releasing him.
Peter blushes and smiles. For once, he does not disagree. "Yeah?" he asks again, teasing this time.
"Yeah," I respond, poking at his chin. He ducks, shakes his finger at me, and laughs. He pulls up a stool and sits beside me.
"I thought maybe you came back because you really liked this city."
"I do not like cities," I surprise myself by declaring.
Peter leans back. "Whoa, Pop! I've never heard you say that you dislike anything!"
I shrug, chastising myself for such a bold statement.
My son's strong fingers play with bottles on the shelf above the table. He opens one and smells the contents. "This is nice. What is it?"
"The Chinese equivalent of saltpeter," I tell him mildly.
He hastily corks the bottle and returns it to its place. He clears his throat, shifts on the stool, and says nothing for many seconds. "You came here because of Sing Ling."
I do not sigh, though we have spoken of this many times. "Yes." I know what his next question will be. I have answered it over and over, but evidently not directly enough to satisfy my persistent son. "And I stay because of you."
I continue my work, aware that I am grinding the herbs too fine.
Why does he not believe my words? Exasperated with both my son and myself, I push the bowl aside. "Peter, for what other reason would I stay here? For Lo Si? For your friends? For your--family?"
My words shock me; I have never faced and accepted the bitterness in my own heart. I bow my head, ashamed that my son should hear such weakness from me.
"I believe you, Pop. I just wanted to hear you say it again."
Surprised, I look at my son. He is smiling. He did not hear the petty jealousy or the accusation in my questions. "Ah," I murmur with relief, reaching for the bowl again, adding softly, "I stay here for you."
He grabs my neck and pulls my head down, kissing my forehead. Then he stares at the table. "Dad, did you mean for that stuff to turn into pea soup?"
I look into the bowl and see that my son is correct. My salve has become an oral medicine... which will not be effective. "Certainly," I answer loftily, and he laughs.
"Right! C'mon, let's eat that ice cream before we have to drink it."
Hiding my smile, I watch my son fetch bowls and spoons from the kitchen, pleased that he is content to be with me. I think that our fishing expedition was a success. We did not catch fish, but we have grown closer in trust, and that was truly the purpose of the trip.
We sit at the table, and I spend the rest of this beautiful fall evening
listening to the stories of my son.
* * *
Sometimes my life is too complicated. Hell--it's too complicated all the time! Here I sit, another night, another father, another dinner. Two families that I try to keep separate...which isn't difficult. I know I shouldn't let my thoughts go in this direction... but my pop is nothing but kindness when it comes to Paul...how lucky I am to have two fathers, to have had people to love me, on and on. Paul, on the other hand, can't seem to resist every opportunity to take a potshot at my dad. I never dreamed he'd say anything to Pop's face, but he must have, judging by what my father said last night.
Pop looked like he'd shocked himself. He shocked me, too, which is why I didn't let on that I'd heard the pain in his voice when he referred to my 'other family'. A father to take his place, a mother to take Laura's place. I wonder if he broods about that a lot.
I wonder if that's why he left?
The idea almost takes my breath away. Maybe he thought I didn't need him. Christ, nothing could be further from the truth! I'll have to show him more often or figure out a way to--
"Son? Your mother's talking to you."
My mother's dead, I answer silently. I knew it was a mistake to dwell on this family stuff. I blink and look at Paul, then shift my gaze to Annie. "Sorry."
"That's all right, Peter," Annie says in the placating tone that means she's heard the edge in my voice. "I was just saying that I'm glad everything turned out so well, that neither you nor your father were hurt."
"We would have been if Pop hadn't rappelled down that cliff. I still can't figure out how he did it."
"Another Shaolin miracle from the master," Paul says lightly.
I ignore him and saw a piece off my steak.
"Well, thanks heavens he was there," Annie interjects quickly. "Did you have a good time before that?"
"Sure." I chew a few times and swallow. Pop always seems to know what I'm doing; I wonder if he knows I'm eating meat right now? I push the rest of the steak aside and focus on the green beans. "We're the perfect team. I caught the fish and Pop set them free. We had vegetarian cookouts."
"I'll bet you're glad to have a steak tonight," Paul says heartily. "There's more when you finish that one."
"No, thanks." I devour the fresh green beans and wipe my lips on the napkin. "I'm cutting back, don't eat as much meat as I used to."
"Your father's influence?"
I send Paul a warning look. "It's a Buddhist thing."
"It wouldn't hurt you to cut back either, Paul," Annie says brightly. "You know what the doctors say about red meat. Peter, honey, how about some apple pie and ice cream?"
"Sure. I'll get it." Steak, apple pie, ice cream--what's next, the star-spangled banner? It's like they have to keep reminding me that I'm American, not Chinese. They don't understand that I have one foot in each world.
"No, you two sit."
We both watch her leave.
The silence lengthens between me and Paul. There's no important case we can talk about. I'm not a teenager any more, asking hesitant questions about girls and cars. Or female baseball players who drink beer and drive fast cars....
"Share the joke, son," Paul says.
I shake my head and reach for the glass of burgundy. "Just something my father said."
Paul puts his elbows on the table and steeples his fingers. "And what words of wisdom did the master share?"
I look across the table, giving him the look that usually makes people back off. He doesn't blink.
Annie returns with a tray. I stand and take it from her, placing the generous helpings in front of each of us. I force myself to sit down again and to keep my voice steady, trying to be in control the way my father would be.
"Paul, I don't appreciate the sarcastic remarks you--"
"I'm never sarcastic."
"Let me finish." I look him in the eyes. "The sarcastic, mocking remarks you make about my father. He doesn't deserve them. He's been nothing but kind and generous when it comes to you--to both of you. I'd like you to...to stop."
"Dear," Annie begins again, "I'm sure Paul doesn't mean things the way they sound--do you, Paul? Peter, your father is a wonderful man, and we feel nothing but fondness for him."
"Yeah?" I challenge. "Is that why you never invite him here? Two years--and you haven't invited him! This was my home, I'd like to share it with him, but you won't have him here." I stand, crumbling the napkin in my grip. "I'm going to take him to the next reunion at the orphanage, because I want to fill in those years he missed. I'd like him here--I want to show him my room, where I went to school, played hockey, all that stuff-- Damn it, you invite near-strangers, and you won't invite my father! What the hell is your goddamn problem--"
"Peter, that's enough!" Paul stands, too, gesturing toward Annie. "Apologize to your mother."
"She's not my mother--and you're not my father!" I know I'm going too far, but I can't stop now. "My mother's dead and my father's in Chinatown. Which is where I should be." I throw down the napkin, pushing the chair away.
And freeze when I see that Annie's crying. "Shit," I mutter under my breath. "I'm sorry, but...Annie...Mom," I add awkwardly, "I didn't mean...."
"Of course you did," she sniffles when my apology trails off. "And you're right, Peter. So many times, I meant to invite him, but...." She lifts her head and looks toward Paul.
He stares at the table and re-seats himself. "It's hard for me, Peter. Hard to acknowledge who he is."
"Well, it's hard for him, too," I mumble. Slowly, I sit down.
"I imagine it is." He raises his eyes and gives me the sad smile that has always made me feel guilty. "But he has a real claim to you--blood. I have nothing...but the years we spent together."
Jesus, I feel like a bone caught between two fighting dogs! I stare at the apple pie that's swimming in a pool of melting vanilla ice cream.
"Honey, we'd be happy to invite Master Caine to dinner. How about a week from Saturday? The girls will be here--it will be the whole family. Paul?"
I glance at him through half-lowered lashes. He nods. "Fine with me. And I promise to be on my best behavior, scout's honor." He holds up three fingers and forces a smile. "Is that all right with you, s--Peter?"
"Yeah, sure, that's fine." I dig into the pie, hoping I'm not making a mistake by bringing my two fathers together. I don't want my pop hurt any more, but I don't want to hurt Paul either. He was there for me when I needed someone, and I'm grateful for that. He can't help it that he's not my real father.
Annie starts to talk about Carolyn and Todd, and I respond in the right places, letting the storm blow over. I'm sure the dinner will go fine. Civilized, quiet, gracious--after all, what can go wrong at a simple dinner?