Ties That Bind

by Liz Gregg

I feel like I'm on display.

The shades are open and the lights are on. But the sun has set on another day in the charmed life of Peter Caine, so I get up and close the vertical blinds.

I start to take a half-hearted sip of beer, but set it back down without drinking. Don't want to drink, don't want to sleep, all I want to do, can do, is think. About how my life has veered on this crazy detour through the middle of the Twilight Zone. I mourned him for fifteen years, more than half my life, but my father...my teacher...my future...hadn't really been dead at all. Justgone. Missing in action. Touring the country like some wayfaring wanderer, while I spent the toughest years of my life alone.

Okay, Pete. Gotta stop thinking about this. I lean back and take a deep breath, swallow the anger, pretend it's not there. Mind control. If I don't think about it, it doesn't exist.

Memorial Day is winding down. Last year was a piece of cake. I went to the Blaisdell's barbecue, had a beer, and ate a hot dog. End of a typical, no-brainer holiday. Paul had Annie, and Annie had the girls. Yeah, they were always happy to see me, but I seldom felt responsible.

Like I do for my Father. That's why I invited him to Strenlich's barbecue. I felt responsible for his...I don't know...happiness, I suppose. It really hurt when my father said no. Hurt so much it surprised the hell out of me. Christ, I wish I knew why he didn't want to be with me. What big plans did he have that were so important? More important than being with....

Give it a rest, Pete. Your Pop's alive. It's what dreamed about, right?

My head is pounding, the beginning of a wild headache and another sleepless night.

I decide to hit the sack. Who knows what he had to do. Who cares. Not me. Ha! Yeah, I have to laugh because even I recognize the absurdity of my thoughts. I start to walk to the kitchen, but stop when I feel something indefinable stir the air around me. I hear the gentle rap of a fist on painted wood. I shrug off the eerie feeling and go to the front door.

"Hang on to your hat, I'm coming," I yell, annoyed. I'm not in the mood for company. I open the door, and the imposing presence of my father floods my reality. My stomach does a cartwheel, while the burger I ate thuds like a dropped bowling ball.

Dad!" It's really him. I try to recover and step back. " Come on in."

I'm tired, I don't want him to be here....Yes, I do!...hell, I don't know what I want anymore. I didn't expect this, though. I wonder, does he think I should be happy because he tosses me crumbs of his time?

We both walk in. I immediately plop down to the security of my well-worn thinking seat and suggest he does the same. He stands, saying nothing, his eyes burning into me. Finally, he speaks.

"Peter, you are in pain."

My headache. I realize I've been holding my breath, and exhale. "No, Dad, I'm not."

He looks at me, cants his head slightly, and presses his lips together. Why do I even try?

Closing my eyes, I say, "All right, what I mean is that it's nothing. I'm just tired."

"Ah. I thought we might talk, but perhaps now is not a good time."

This afternoon would have been better, but-- No! Don't go!

"Sure, it's as good a time as any. Please, Dad, sit down." Then something about his words, my words, make me flip back the pages of my memory, and I remember our earlier conversation.

"Wait a minute." Before he can sit, I stand and face him, impulsively reaching out to touch his arm. "I thought I told you I would be on duty tonight."

He shrugs and says, "I acted on a...hunch."

"A hunch?" A little late for hunches, Pop. I sniff and fold my arms against my chest. "Yeah, well, you're right. They had a surprise for me. Marty covered my shift. He was under this mistaken impression that my father would want to spend the day with me." I heard my voice and cringed inside. I meant to sound cool, calm and collected, but wound up sounding like a bitter, spoiled brat. I don't know what's happening here, and I suddenly feel like my apartment is a four-by-four cell. I walk to my train board and move a few pieces of landscaping.

"You are angry because I did not go with you?"

"Hell, no." I stretch the truth. "It was Strenlich's idea to invite you in the first place."

I try to ignore the throbbing tension between my eyes, the sudden pressure clamping down on my chest. I stop pretending to rearrange miniature trees and lean over the board, gripping the edges with both hands.

Before I can take a breath, my Dad is standing next to me. "My son--"

I twist my head sharply and our eyes lock. "What? What nuggets of mystic wisdom from my past are you going to sling at me now?"

"Peter!" I've hurt him. His voice is so sharp, it slices clear through the thick haze of my anger. He's furious, just like me. Unable to speak, I stare at him. With startling clarity I realize my rage has grown so strong over the years that it has shoved my sadness tight against my heart so that it burns me all the time. The ties of anger that bind us together loosen their biting grip when I learn that I, too, can inflict pain.

The feeling is incredible, and for a moment I am powerful. "That hurts you, doesn't it. That I'm not in awe of your every word. Like I was--"

Like I was long ago, before.... I feel my throat constrict as my grief and fear pour through the opened wounds.

"Peter," he whispers, his anger gone.

I try again. "Like I was...." My voice cracks, the words come out strangled. "When I." I choke on the released anguish. I can't finish; my body tenses with a massive effort to hold on, not to cry, not in front of him, not now.

Haltingly, gently, my father reaches out--oh my God, he's going to hug me. I don't think I can take it. I'll lose it -- and he gathers me close in his arms and holds me tight. I keep my arms stiffly at my side, wanting this, but so scared, still alone. He presses my head against his own warm shoulder and finishes for me.

"When you were a boy." And I know he understands. I'm not ashamed as my tears spill out. Yes, when I was a boy, and you left me. Alone. He soothes me and strokes my hair. I accept the comfort of his touch. This marks the first time since our reunion in the hospital that I let him see me cry. I shift and test the strength of my father's embrace. It is unyielding. He pulls me closer, and I'm reassured. At least my momentary nervous breakdown won't scare my old man away.

The bindings of anger tighten once again, securing the ache firmly in my heart.

Taking a deep breath, I push away. My dad senses my change of mood and steps back. Our eyes meet. "How can you be here?" I ask, almost in a whisper. "How can this really be you?" I touch the face of my dreams. "Where have you been?" Who am I now.

My Pop takes my hand, squeezes it, and seems to think intently. "The answers you seek are not simple ones. Even the real questions are not easily identified." My anger surges, I look away, but he continues, "It will take time, my son. We must be patient. The answers will come."

I think, here we go again, but then I look in my father's eyes. Unlike his spoken words, I see the love, direct and powerful, and like one of his mysterious potions, it cools the heat of my temper.

I hear a voice blurt out, "Will you stay here, just for tonight? Sleep on the couch."

His responds instantly. "I will stay, my son."

My spirit soars at the quickness of his answer. I had expected a long hesitation, another rejection. I smile from my heart and watch him accept it like a prize.

I hastily scrub the fallen tears from my face then briskly rub my father's arms. "Good!" Wrapping one arm around his shoulder, I say, "I'm starving. How about you? You still eat, don't you?"

Not waiting for an answer, not even caring, I lead him across the room. "Let's see what we can find in the kitchen. I'm warning you, though, it's a scary place." I'm happy. I feel like a kid again, but I don't mind. Arm in arm, my pop and I, we head to the kitchen.

To Sequel, An Apple a Day