“So how’s it goin’, man? I ain’t seen you in a minute.” Chris reached across the table and placed a hand on Deuce’s neck, running it over the top of his son’s head before pulling it back. “You need a haircut.”
“I’m good,” Deuce said, ducking away from his father’s touch.
The last time he’d seen his son, he was sobbing into his shoulder, and since then, though they’d talked on the phone and emailed, things had been a little distant between them. Chris could only guess at what his mother had told him about the fight and didn’t want to know. All he knew was that he regretted anything he’d done to escalate things and cause embarrassment to his son in front of his friends. No kid should have to see that—the aftermath of his parents going at it like a couple of ‘hood-rats.
“Things okay at home?”
“Things not okay at home?”
Deuce was looking everywhere but at him, and Chris struggled against a rising sense of something close to panic. In a couple weeks his son would be seventeen. He was choosing among colleges and had just last month taken his PSATs. Only two of the schools he talked about were even on the East Coast. Soon he would be gone and the influence that Chris hoped to have as his father would be attenuated, replaced by coaches, friends, professors, all of whom would see his son more often than he did. Suddenly, all the time he’d squandered became clear to him—years and years of wasted time that now seemed to have passed in the blink of an eye.
The only reason they were seeing each other now was that Chris had followed his lawyer’s advice and set up a ‘date’ with his son, meeting him at a Chinese restaurant near his house. When Chris walked in, Deuce was already there, sitting at a table and texting. Staring down at his phone, Deuce looked … like him. Now, he kept glancing at the phone, restless, like there was someplace else he’d rather be.
“That’s all you got to say?” Chris asked, feeling a glimmer of impatience. “A’ight?”
Deuce looked up at him, their eyes meeting for the first time. “I don’t like having to lie to my Mom, that’s all.”
Chris leaned back. “No one told you to lie to her.”
“Then why you don’t just come to the house? Why we gotta be all hush-hush about going to get something to eat?”
“I didn’t tell you to …”
Deuce made a scoffing noise and looked past Chris’ head, outside to the parking lot of the strip mall.
“Okay,” Chris said finally. “You’re old enough, so I won’t bullshit you.”
Deuce looked up, interested now, probably because the curse-word told him that finally his father was going to level with him, man-to-man.
“Your mother and I have a disagreement about how often I see you. She was…concerned about the time I took you away, that maybe I was trying to really take you away. From her.”
Deuce nodded and took a breath. “Yeah,” he said. “She asked me a lot of questions about Robyn. And about whether I wanted to go live with you and stuff.”
Chris leaned forward. “Do you?” he asked. “Want to come live with me?”
Surprising even himself, Chris was hoping that Deuce would say ‘yes’. He’d given up so much already. Thrown away so much. He could barely remember what Deuce was like at Jasmin’s age, and recalled nothing of when he was an infant. After a year at college, Deuce would come home and his voice would be deeper and more masculine. He would have begun to form his own ideas about his life, and not rely so much on his parents. He would have slipped away.
Chris ran a hand over his chin. “Forget I asked you that. That wasn’t right of me to ask you.”
Their waiter finally showed and they both ordered. Chris got an appetizer because he knew that once the main course was done, he would have to let his son go home, and there was no telling when he might see him again.
“I …would come live with you,” Deuce said haltingly. “But …”
Chris watched as Deuce shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable. Scratching the back of his neck, Deuce’s eyes dropped.
“She’d be too lonely, Dad,” he said finally.
Chris leaned back and his throat tightened. He didn’t know whether it was the knowledge that his son wanted to live with him; or whether what moved him was that Deuce was such a good kid that he wanted to make sure his mother was okay.
“She’s got Andre,” Chris ventured.
“Nah,” Deuce said. “Not really. They fight all the time. Dre … sometimes he don’t even come home. I think he stays over in Queens with his brother or something some nights. They’re not … that’s not going to work out.”
Chris couldn’t say the news surprised him. He’d only twice briefly met Sheryl’s husband Andre, and his impression was of a man who got by on ‘pretty’ all his life. Good-looking, strapping and charming, he’d probably been taken care of by women for as long as he could remember, if not before. Sheryl had to have looked like the Holy Grail to him—beautiful, sexy and with access to more than enough money to take care of them both for the rest of their lives.
But that had been true for only as long as the money tree was shedding leaves. And it no longer was.
Last year, Chris had settled on Sheryl a sum that was not small by most measures. It was enough to take care of most people for more than a decade, if they lived a modest, middle-class lifestyle. The amount sounded like a windfall, but only to people who didn’t understand money and how it flowed. After taxes, monthly expenses, and the occasional ill-advised purchase, it could be gone in a flash.
If Chris’ guess was right, Sheryl and her husband were only now beginning to realize that. When Chris first wrote that check, they probably thought they were rich. Now reality was setting in and they had begun to see that at best, they were upper middle-class, and more likely, given the high-dollar area they lived in, they were just getting by.
“I’m sorry to hear that things aren’t going well,” Chris said. And he meant it, if only because Sheryl was the kind of woman who, when she was unhappy, felt compelled to spread it around.
Deuce shrugged. For a moment, he looked heartbreakingly adult. “I’ll tell her I want to come see you, though,” he said as though offering Chris a consolation prize. “I know you must be lonely too. With Robyn and the baby gone.”
Chris made a sound that was neither confirmation nor denial.
He did miss Robyn and Caity, and Skype and phone calls were sorry substitutes. There had been that one evening when she called him, and her voice was thick with tears; and Chris knew from the lateness of the hour that she had probably not been sleeping. She was on the verge of saying that she wanted to come home. He could feel it, even through the poor connection and across the distance; and he heard it in the faintness of her voice.
It was the moment he’d secretly been waiting for—when she would change her mind and come back so they would start their lives together. Everything inside him wanted to go to her, just fly over there and pack her, his daughter and mother-in-law up and bring them back where he believed they belonged.
But Chris knew it was only a moment. He’d had a few like that himself when he’d moved to Germany for a couple months back in the day and found himself surrounded by people who didn’t look like him, who spoke a terse language that he didn’t understand. And he felt it again when he once spent six weeks in Paris for work leaving a pregnant Robyn behind, the loneliness for her had been a physical pain.
But this time, just the knowledge that Robyn missed home had given Chris the will to do what he knew he needed to do; and what she ultimately wanted him to do—help her feel strong enough to stay. So he talked about any and everything he could think of, distracting her from the distance, babbling like she sometimes did, until at the other end of the line he heard her slow, even breaths and realized she was asleep.
“I don’t want you to do anything to make your mother mad,” Chris said looking at Deuce. “So I’ll call and tell her when you ‘n’ me are hanging out, so you don’t have to get in the middle of that.”
Deuce sighed and nodded, his features visibly relaxing.
“I’m sorry I made you lie to her.” Chris added. “Even if I never asked you to lie, when I asked you to come here without me talking to her first, that was wrong. So I’m sorry.”
“Why … y’all fight like that?”
Deuce nodded, and Chris considered his words.
“The truth is that while both of us always loved you, we never…we never really loved each other. Not like a man and woman are supposed to love each other when they make a baby.”