He woke one night, late in a summer evening, when school was out for the season.
There was talking in the living room, his mother on the phone. Sounded serious.
Bleary-eyed he walked into the living room wearing a pair of blue jeans, a
groggy expression and bed hair. His mother was just hanging up the phone. Her
face was puffy, eyes red. "What's wrong?" he asked, certain that this
was not normal. But he couldn't be sure. He hadn't been living with his mother
for a long time.
Parents divorced when he was still a baby and he'd spent most of his life with
his dad, hearing stories about his drug-using whore of a mother who couldn't
cut it as a parent. Years down the road he finally learned that she was human,
just like anyone else, and wanted to live with her, to discover who he was and
where he came from. It was a hard decision and made waves in his family, but
he stuck with it. Now, just three weeks after having moved from one state to
another, he had woken up to find this stranger, his mother, crying after a phone
She smiled weakly. "Another box closed, is all," she said. He looked
puzzled, not sure what she was referring to. "Pandora's Box," she
explained to his unasked question. He nodded, knowing about the legend of Pandora's
Box, but it still didn't quite answer anything. Not really. But he was smart
enough to stay silent. She would tell him or she wouldn't. It was her business.
"There's three of them in my life," she went on. "The first
one I closed years ago. I just closed the second one."
"Oh," he said quietly. "And the third?"
"An old one," she replied blandly. The way she said it made her sound
and look a lot older than her actual thirty-eight years of age.
"Still working on it."
He was quiet for a moment. Decided to take a seat on the sofa, across from
her in the recliner she preferred to call the "Captain's Chair," a
Star Trek pun. He watched her light up a Kool. When she blew out the first puff
of smoke, he asked, "Want to talk about it? I mean, since I am
going to be living with you... well... might it be something I should know about?
Will it get in the way of... things?"
It was her turn to be quiet now. This time, longer than he had been. Finally
she took another drag from her cancer stick. "It has to do with you..."
she started. She didn't finish, not immediately. He stayed silent. How in the
world could he be her last Pandora's Box? Or maybe he wasn't the
actual problem, but only a part of it.
"If my being here is going to cause problems for you-"
She cut him off. "It's not that. You can't begin to know how long I've
wanted you here. In my life. I've spent the better part of the years since I
divorced your dad just screwing up. But I never stopped wanting you or your
brother. I love you. That's not the problem."
"Then what is it?" he asked.
She was thoughtful for a few moments. "You've probably asked yourself,"
she said cryptically. "Hell, you've probably already figured it out. You're
just too... stubborn to admit it to yourself."
Somewhere in the middle of this perplexing conversation, the lights had gone
out and someone had rearranged the furniture. He felt lost and totally in the
dark. In way over his head with something. "I don't think I follow you,"
"Son... have you ever wondered... I mean... who do you look like more?
Me or your dad?"
Now there's a stumper. And, it just so happens, it was a question he'd asked
himself only twice in his short life. Fifteen years on Earth and it only came
up twice. Once when he was eight and again last year, just before he'd decided
to move with his mother, before The Process began. The thing was: he looked
like neither his mother nor his father. Cursory similarities,
he guessed, to his dad. Brown hair. Brown eyes. But his dad was over six feet
tall, robust and healthy looking. He, however, was small, scrawny, with a totally
different look in his eyes than anyone else in his family line. People sometimes
said that he looked like his brains were in front of his eyes, processing everything
before he actually saw it. No one in his family was like him in any way.
He remained silent, unable to answer the question definitively. The third option,
"neither," hadn't been offered.
He wanted to talk to him, to hear his voice. To see his picture. To meet him.
To learn about him. He wanted to know him. His mother had his
"new" uncle's phone number, which helped in getting the man's number.
He called him and got an answering machine instead. A phone call like this was
hard enough, but to be fifteen years old, call a man he hardly knew and tell
that stranger that he had a son somewhere, out there in America... Kansas never
seemed so far away to Dorothy.
He left the message anyway. What else could he do? Hang up? He had to know.
Had to at least try. He owed himself that much. And what about...
him. That guy his mother showed him a picture of, his true father.
It had only been 24 hours and he was still trying to wrap his shell-shocked
brain around the concept.
I have... another father. Another father? Not a dad.
A father. Different story.
Was he angry? Was he hurt? He had been lied to all these years, everyone had.
His older (now "half") brother had known but kept silent the whole
time. His mother's Pandora's Box had some far-reaching implications. Hell of
a big pebble to drop in a happy little pond. Damn near the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.
The Father called a week later, just as confused as his son. They talked, skirted
some issues, touched on others. Danced around this dead fish that was lying
on the floor as they talked about what they did, who they were. He's a private
investigator. When the young teen was 12 he had fancied himself wanting to be
a P.I. That was when his father had actually taken on that line of work.
They used the same words, spoke the same ways. The twenty-year-old photo he'd
seen of the man was frighteningly familiar. It was like looking at a photo of
himself in a 70's brown leisure suit at someone's wedding, at his parents' wedding,
before he had even been born.
They met later that year. A trip back to LA, a place he'd been born in and hadn't
seen since he was seven. New Year's and Christmas Vacation. He met him in the
airport. He looked like Sam Elliot without the gray hair and grizly demeanor; shorter body, more
mass, sunnier disposition. Blue jeans and a brown leather jacket. Athletic and fit. "This is what
I'm going to grow up into?" he thought to himself. The airport terminal
had been full of people, but picking out his father, not having seen a current
picture of him, had been simple. It was the eyes, of course. Eyes that looked
like their owner's brains were sitting in front of them, processing everything
before he saw it. His own eyes, sitting in someone else's skull.
In a way, it was like coming home, but not quite.
They were identical. Carbon copies of one another, one in his forties and the
other still in high school, but you could look at the pair of them and know.
He was his father's son. He rode his first motorbike on the way back to his
father's apartment. A Harley. Scared and fast and new, his arms wrapped around
his father's waist. It felt like a metaphor for something.
He met his half-brother that same day in December. Turns out he and his brother
had played together when they were little children, back when his dad still
lived in LA. People used to comment that these two boys got along like they
were brothers. Truer words had never been spoken, but only the mother knew for
sure. And said nothing.
Years went by. A few phone calls, some letters. Nothing significant. He was
a loner by nature and figured that his father was the same way. It only made
sense. They were similar in every other way, after all. But it was still difficult.
He had so much to say, so many things to ask, so many years to... it was like
learning, for the first time, that a major portion of who he was
had been missing. A hole that hadn't been there, not really, was finally so
real that it couldn't be ignored. Everything reminded him of it, of him,
of his heritage.
His relationship with his dad turned out fine. Nothing changed
between them, not even names. He held his dad's last name and didn't want to
lose it. It was part of him, just as much a part of him as the "who-ness"
of his father wasn't part of him. One of his first and most powerful
lessons in love was learning that love between two people, if it's honest and
true, doesn't change, no matter what. His dad still loved him. And he still
loved his dad. As far as he was concerned, his dad was his hero, the only "normal"
product of this sordid mess. Every red-blooded American son should see a hero
in his dad.
It certainly helped to explain why they had such a hard time relating to one
another, though. It answered all kinds of questions, mostly personal ones. Facts
about himself were unfolding every day, now armed with this Truth. Having faced
it, he guessed that he could face any Truth which might come his
way in the future. He guessed right. From that day on, the day his mother closed
her last Pandora's Box, nothing surprised or shocked him. Not even war. Death,
birth, miracles, successes, failures... none of it really impressed him much.
Nothing could turn his life any more upside down than it already was, and would
continue to be for the rest of his life.
More years went by. He went back to his dad's family after high school graduation,
moved out on his own, started his own life. "Living life on Life's terms,"
was how he put it. Had a job. Got an apartment. Dated women. Had sex. Got engaged.
Got disengaged. Almost had a child in the same fucked-up way his mother
had conceived him. Not quite an affair, but definitely not within wedlock.
He learned to forgive his mother for her adultery. How could he not? He liked
being alive. He liked himself, on the whole. Not forgiving her would be in direct
opposition to his own like for life. If not for her mistake, her indiscretion,
he wouldn't be here. And he liked it here. Mostly. But something was lacking.
His father left LA. Moved to the same city that he was living in. Family was
there, for his father. This family he had grown up most of his life thinking
of as mere friends of the family, who turned out to be his real
family. More complication and confusion which took him some years to figure
out. It significantly reduced his dating pool, that was for sure.
The father was hard to get in touch with, even though he was in town and easier
to see. Some awkward family gatherings. Feeling more like someone on the outside
looking in, like an impostor rather than an honest member of the family. Between
two worlds. There was his dad's family, whom he couldn't relate to at all and
never had been able to, and then there was his father's family, who couldn't
really embrace him because there was this gulf between them. Time.
Truth. Knowledge. Experience. Togetherness.
A startling realization came to him one day: he was alone in this world. He
had no family to speak of.
He had a last name. He had memories and experiences with a family that he'd
always felt out-of-place with. He had blood ties. He had friends. He had faith.
He had four parents instead of the normal allotment of two that
most other people get in this life. More cousins and grandparents than he could
put in his address book. More names and faces to be kind to instead of ignoring.
More reunions. More everything. And less of the thing he desperately
sought. His father still avoided him. Not intentionally, he felt, but... he
couldn't quite put his finger on it. He wasn't stupid by any stretch of the
Knowing that he had been conceived under less than ideal circumstances was
probably putting his father through all kinds of emotional turmoil and hell.
A living reminder of one night's indiscretion. A living reminder that will one
day get old and gray and have kids and will, one day, die long after his progenitor.
A prodigal son to the Nth degree, one that can't be ignored but, somehow, must
No one likes to have conversations with their personal baggage. Not when it
responds back to you. And asks questions. And calls you. And looks at you with
those eyes which look just like yours.
But those years slipped by them, like a thief in the night, unseen and unknown.
They became evident after the fact, like waking up to find your stereo gone.
You can't get them back. They're gone. The father, as much like his son as he
was, had no basis upon which to relate to this young man. No lessons to teach
him. No wisdom to bestow. No memories that they can share in common. Nothing
in common with someone he has everything in common with.
Uncomfortable. At best. Unbearable. At all times.
He got a call one day. His father on the other end of the line, back in LA.
Just checking up to see how you're doing, he says. It's been four years since
a single word had been spoken between them. When last they met it had been kind
and gentle and friendly. That's what they were now: friends, who happened to
be father and son. Acquaintances, actually, but to say so out loud would sound
a bit harsh, no matter how true it was. The phone conversation didn't last long,
on the inside of thirty minutes. Four years in thirty minutes.
Is this what I have to look forward to? he asked himself silently as he hung
up the phone. Is this what I'm going to grow up into? A man who calls his son
once in four years out of... what? Guilt? Curiosity? Doubt? Fear? What was the
point of that?
A subtle thing begins to stir in him. A voice, belonging to his father. A voice
which is almost a whisper, sounding more disappointed than cruel, which is more
cruel than anything, really. It says:
You're not my son. You're me. Younger, smarter, in some ways wiser. But you're
me. And I'm very unhappy with me for the things I've done. You're not my son.
And I can't talk to you.