Jim woke with a start. He’d tossed and turned before falling asleep, but once asleep, he’d slept deeply. Not long before waking, however, his dream had been vivid, as real as his dreams ever became. He was with Tristan, the busboy, and someone was chasing them through a woods. It was twilight and hard to see. Tristan twisted his ankle and fell, crying out, his voice soft and breathy and resonating somehow with Jim. Soft and breathy, but somehow still vibrant. Jim stopped running, urging the boy to get back up, urging him to keep running despite the pain, but Tristan just lay on the ground, those huge sad eyes staring up at him, saying nothing other than with his eyes, those beseeching him to help, to protect him, to keep him safe; but the boy himself was making no effort to clamber back to his feet, voicing nothing of the fear Jim was reading in those eyes. Danger was nearing. Jim found himself stepping over the boy, standing over him, facing back where they had been, facing toward what was coming. Jim’s heart racing…
He woke, startled, disoriented, adrenaline still flowing, his hands clenched in fists, his breathing rapid and shallow.
It took him several minutes to calm himself. The dream was still real to him, the danger still coming, his senses alert. He kept looking around for either peril which seemed to still exist or to see where Tristan was; he wasn’t sure which.
Eventually, he showered, though he remained edgy throughout. It was only over his first cup of coffee that his usual calm returned.
That was when his phone on the table next to him vibrated, and somehow remnants of his dream caused him to jerk in reaction. He grabbed the phone, then picked it up and looked at the number. His heart started beating faster again, although for a much different reason.
He hesitated to answer because of the person who was calling. His dream was still with him, and he didn’t feel prepared to take this call. Not from her.
It was his ex-wife. Just reading her name, seeing her number, was enough to set him off at the best of times, and this, now, certainly wasn’t that.
The phone continued to vibrate, and he had to think whether to answer it or not. It wasn’t a hard decision, however. His ex-wife was not to be denied when she wanted something, and right now she wanted to talk to Jim. He knew it would be much more expedient to acquiesce now than put it off. Get it over with. It would happen either way, and her rancor would be heavier if she had to keep calling.
“Jim. I’ve had it. Completely had it. Jordon is driving me out of my mind. So, I’ve decided it’s your turn to deal with him.”
“Huh?” OK, it wasn’t a great response, but Lydia was on one of her frequent steamroller rides, and Jim often became flustered when she was in a mood. “What’s he done?”
“He’s a teenager! That’s what he’s done. He refuses to even try to get along with John, and John, well…there’s no need to go into it. I’m sending him to live with you.”
“What! Hey, wait a minute. You’re the one who fought tooth and nail to have him. You’ve got him; you restrict even emails from either of us—no pictures, no word, nothing. Now, suddenly, without warning or notice, you’re going to just send him to live with me—out of the blue?”
Jim knew he was going off on a rant, but years of frustration were erupting, and he had no desire to stop the spewing.
“You have custody, Lydia! He’s yours legally. You can’t dump him on me. It doesn’t work that way! Besides, what will he feel about this? I’m sure he’s made a life there. Friends, school—he has to be involved in lots of things. Where’s all this coming from? And who’s John?”
“That’s not your concern. Why shouldn’t I send him to you? He’s half yours. And I’ve had it with his surliness and lack of communication and…and…I’ve had it. That’s all. So I’m sending him.”
“No, Lydia, you won’t. And I’ll tell you why not. It’s because I know you. You’ll send him here, he’ll settle in, and then you’ll change your mind. You’ll decide you don’t want me to be happy with him, or you’ll dump John like you have the rest of your men friends, assuming that’s what he is, and then you’ll be lonely or horny or whatever. It’s what you do.”
Jim stopped briefly to take a deep breath, and wanting what he’d said to sink in, for her to actually hear it. After a pause, he finished with, “You’re never happy with the status quo, no matter what it is. You’re always wanting to change it, and you don’t care whose toes you step on or whose feelings you hurt, even if they’re your son’s. I think you like stepping on toes, showing you can.”
She started to speak, but he simply kept going, speaking over her futile attempt to argue. He was on a roll and was not to be denied.
“I can see you’re going to treat him like a ping-pong ball, send him here, then grab him back. So no, you can’t send him to me. You do, I’ll call the judge and tell him you’ve abandoned your child. He’s in your custody—your responsibility, your problem. You can’t just ship him wherever you like and be done with what you now have. You’ll probably get fined or jailed or whatever punishment they decide you deserve, and then they’ll send Jordy right back to you.”
Jim’s voice had been getting louder and louder. Now it reached its peak.
“I’m not going to let you put him through that. So no, you’re not dumping him
on me to scratch some temporary itch you have. That’s the end of it.”
There was silence on the phone after that. Silencing Lydia was rather like turning off Niagara Falls. Although, when Jim came to think of it, that had actually been done some decades earlier. So maybe this was rarer.
A full minute went by, and he was about to simply hang up, but then she spoke. “OK. I’ll go to court and have custody changed to you.”
“Hah! That’s you all right. You’ll just do what you want. But not this time. You can apply to the court, but they won’t grant a change unless they see a reason for it, not if I don’t agree to take him. You don’t have much say in the matter to tell the truth, and you definitely can’t decide what to do with Jordy unilaterally. Your control over me ended with the court’s original decision. You wanted him, you got him, and unless I agree, you’re stuck with him.”
In a much different voice, after a moment of thought, Lydia said, “OK, Jim, if I agree to sign over custody—well, apply to the court for a change of custody—will you take him?”
Amazing. She was really desperate, pleading! Lydia never pleaded. That steamroller he’d envisioned was her style. Jim couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard that quality in her voice. This wasn’t the Lydia he knew, and it gave him a moment of pause. Just how bad had Jordy become?
All he knew, however, was that he and Jordy had been very close when the boy was growing up. The divorce had been hard on Jordy, and Jim had fought Lydia for custody, thinking he’d be a better parent for him than she would be—her main focus then and forever would be herself—and that she was fighting for custody only out of spite. He knew she hadn’t wanted Jordy; she simply hadn’t wanted Jim to have him. It had been simply a contest to her, and she’d wanted to win it.
That had been five years earlier. She’d won custody. They’d been assigned a woman judge. Jim’s attorney had shaken his head over the appointment and cautioned Jim to prepare himself for a decision that he would not like. During the proceedings, Jim had seen why. Whatever he said in that courtroom, whatever evidence was presented, hadn’t made an iota of difference. Jim lost custody and didn’t even get much in the way of visitation rights, and when Lydia decided to move out of state shortly afterwards, taking his son with her, Jim even lost the little contact he had. He hadn’t seen Jordy even once in the last three years.
Jordon had been 12 three years ago—a handsome kid but with worried eyes. They’d spent a day together then. Jim had flown all the way out to California just to see him. The day had been awkward. The boy had grown from ten to twelve and had become someone who was almost a stranger. The tight knit bond they’d had wasn’t there any longer. Jim had tried, and he’d seen Jordy looking at him in a way that Jim interpreted to mean the boy was looking for what he’d lost as well. But two-plus years with no contact was a long time for a boy that age. Things just hadn’t been the same between them.
That one day had been all they’d had. There’d been no visits, no phone calls, not even a letter or an email since. Jim was sure that was Lydia all the way. It reeked of Lydia.
Now Jordy was 15, almost 16. What was he like? Boys change with puberty. Jim had no idea who he’d be. But he was Jim’s son, and Lydia didn’t want him, and Jim didn’t want his boy living in a situation like that. Jim realized he still loved him; he simply didn’t know him. He loved the boy he’d known. That boy had loved him back.
Accepting custody wasn’t a difficult decision to make. There’d been a hole in Jim’s life ever since Jordy had been taken from him. He had no idea if having him back would fill the hole. What he’d be getting back wouldn’t be what he’d lost. That boy was no more. But still….
“Lydia, OK, listen to me. This is how it’ll work. The only way it’ll work.” He paused, making his point even while expecting an argument; one didn’t dictate to Lydia without both venom and reprisals in return. That he didn’t get either back here and was met with silence was a sign of the degree of her current predicament. “You will have your lawyer send the waiver of custody papers to me, I’ll get them registered here, and the court to assign me full custody. I’ll have Garlen—you remember my lawyer I’m sure—help me, and I doubt it will take long. Once I have that, I’ll notify you and you can put Jordy on a plane—with all of his belongings that he wants to carry with him; the rest you will ship.”
“Agreed,” she said, her voice back to normal, which meant tinged with anger and bitterness. “And make it sooner rather than later. No delays.”
Lydia was an unhappy person and reveled in sharing her negativity. She loved drama, screaming, and most of all, getting her own way. Jim just shook his head, remembering it all. Remembering that giving in to her was always the way, the only way, to get any peace. Giving in at the expense of his own happiness and self-regard.
“No delays on my part,” he said. “You have to start the process. How soon this all transpires depends on you. Good bye.”
Jim ended the call, then smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he, rather than she, had ended a conversation with him smiling. Or being the first one to disconnect, either.
He sat at the kitchen table, just feeling the moment. His life was about to change, he realized, and assessing how that made him feel, he realized he was both excited and happy. What would Jordy’s reaction be? If he were Jordy, he thought, he’d be ecstatic getting away from her but also pissed that he had no say in the matter. Jordy certainly had a life where he was now. How would he feel with it ending very abruptly and having to move back to a place and a father he had memories of, but nothing else?
Since Jim’s marriage had broken up, he’d lived alone. He wasn’t particularly happy about that, and he realized some, or a lot, of his bouts of depression came from loneliness, but that was balanced by the happiness he felt at not having a nagging wife criticizing him for everything he did and didn’t do, a wife no one could ever make happy. Since the divorce, he’d become adept at taking care of himself. Washing clothes, changing the bed linen, vacuuming, shopping and all the rest were done without thought now. And without a smidgeon of criticism. They were just a part of his life.
What Jim didn’t do much of was cook.
It wasn’t that he hated cooking. He actually was a fair hand at it. But what he didn’t like was spending time making a great meal that was a meal for one. Cooking for himself rated a big ‘ugh’; sitting down to a meal he’d worked hard on simply focused his thoughts on how alone he really was. He ate out a lot to avoid that feeling of isolation.
Thinking about it, he realized this was just one of the things that would soon change. Taking a teenaged son out to restaurants several times a week wouldn't be healthful, and it would be robbing both of them of intimate times together. Sure, they could talk at a restaurant, but it would not be a relaxed setting, and there’d be interruptions from waiters and busboys and such—a thought which brought Tristan to mind, a picture he pushed away as soon as it appeared. He wanted to reestablish the closeness with his son they used to enjoy, and that would be much more difficult in a restaurant than in their own kitchen. No, he’d have to start cooking again. And doing a lot of other things he hadn’t done in a while.
Top of the list would simply be caring about someone other than himself.
He couldn’t wait for it to happen.
Jim stood at the bottom of the escalator, close to the baggage-claim carousels, alongside a couple hundred other people waiting for the deplaned passengers to descend. Jim once again rued the age they were living in, where no one was trusted, no one felt safe, and something as simple as waiting for passengers at their gates in the airport was no longer permitted by a safety–first government policy. Sure, this was a minor inconvenience, but it spoke to the state of the world in a much louder way than many other inconveniences did.
He scanned the people getting on the moving stairway. Several planes had landed at about the same time, and there was a mass of people lining up to descend. So far, he hadn’t seen his son.
As the minutes passed, he began to wonder if he’d missed him. And even to wonder if he’d recognize him. How much had Jordy changed? Boys of almost 16 certainly didn’t look like 12-year-olds, did they?
The crowd at the top of the escalator had thinned, and Jim felt a prickling of worry. Then, just stepping on the top descending step, he spotted Jordy. Even if the young man bore little resemblance to the almost-teen he hadn’t seen in three years, there was no mistaking him.
Jordy was large. Jim was, too, so that shouldn’t have surprised him, but subconsciously he’d been looking for an only slightly larger boy than the one he’d last seen. The version of Jordy he was expecting would have been thin, as he’d been at twelve—perhaps wiry was a better descriptive—a little tall for his age, and have long, blond, flowing hair. The young man getting on the escalator was much larger than that, almost as tall as Jim’s 6-foot, 3-inch height. He wasn’t thin or scrawny, but wasn’t bulky, either. Jim carried 225 pounds, and it looked fine on him. While Jordy was certainly over 6-feet tall, he still had a boy’s build. A fit boy. Slender, not skinny, and thicker than the label wiry would imply. In fact, he had wide shoulders and didn’t appear the least bit fragile.
Jordy’s face was no longer the very cute one Jim remembered. Instead, the young man was handsome, presenting a face that, while not yet entirely mature, was moving in that direction. He had Jim’s blond hair, although it was a strikingly brilliant yellow compared to Jim’s faded, brown-tinted hue. At 12, Jordy had worn his hair short, a buzz cut during the summer and a boy’s regular haircut, whatever the current style then was, during school sessions. Now it was way shorter than that, much shorter than Jim’s long and flowing hair, which extended halfway down his neck and curled over his ears. Jordy’s was just long enough to comb, although, in keeping with his age, no evidence existed of a comb ever having touched it. It was a messy disarray but still managed to look perfect, as if the mess was arranged exactly how it was supposed to look. And it did look good.
Jordy’s face had matured since Jim had last seen him. It was thinner now, a little more angular, the cheekbones more prominent.
It was the smile that topped off his appearance, though, and what caught at Jim’s heart. It was a radiant smile that appeared when Jordy spotted him. Jim could hardly wait till the boy stepped off the bottom of the escalator. The crowd had thinned, and the two were both moving toward one another without restriction. That smile had erased all doubts Jim had been feeling. Both of them opened their arms and were immediately hugging.
They held it for a moment, and then Jordy whispered, “Dad!”
That caused Jim’s heart to lurch and tears to threaten his eyes. “So happy to see you, Jordy. So, so happy you’re here.” Jim gave him a final squeeze, then stepped back. Jordy let him go, though trailed his hand on his dad’s arm as he moved away. His eyes never left Jim’s face.
“Dad,” he said, his voice sounding a bit gravely, filled with emotion. “Dad, I’ve been thinking about what to say to you ever since Mom told me I was moving back here. Let me say it now or I’ll never have the courage again.”
He took a deep breath, then said, “Last time we were together? In Huntington Beach? Afterwards, when you left, I… I cried when I went home. I was 12, and I’d learned how not to cry, but I did then. It was because of how I felt. I wasn’t nice to you. Not how I wanted to be. It felt funny seeing you. I was just messed up. I missed you so much when we left, and you never wrote or called, and I was mad about that—and hurt—and seeing you brought it all back, and I didn’t quite know what to say or how to act. All that awkwardness when you were trying so hard! I saw in your eyes what I was doing to you. I wanted to apologize so much. I just couldn’t! I more than messed up. But what you saw wasn’t what I felt. So I’m telling you now and apologizing, just a few years too late!”
Jim stepped in and took him in his arms again. “That was years ago, Jordy, and now we’re together, and we’ll be together. I did write you. She intercepted everything. I never had your email address. She said you didn’t have one, and though I doubted that, I didn’t know how to get it. I even called your grandparents, but they just hung up on me. But, that’s all behind us. You’re here now, and she can’t get you back. I’ve been worried, so worried, that you didn’t want to come. That you’d be leaving the life you’d built for yourself there. That you didn’t want to come back here. Didn’t want to live with me.”
Jordy extracted himself from Jim’s embrace. “We’ll talk about that,” he said. “It’s a long story. But believe me, I’m happy to be here. The rest is just details. Let’s get my bags.” He gestured at the carousel where a crowd had gathered.
Jim was left standing, watching his boy moving toward the conveyor, walking with confidence. After what had just happened, he realized he wasn’t going to be taking care of a little boy, leading him, instructing him, protecting him, watching him grow up. This boy, this young man, seemed to have already done most of that. He looked perfectly capable of taking care of himself now. He’d just made a decision—OK, a rather trivial one—simply to collect his bags, but he’d then acted on it with no thought to whether he should ask permission, to talk about it, to ask his dad to come with him. He’d just done what needed to be done. On his own. Nope, this boy was no uncertain 12-year-old.
But he’d also told Jim the one thing that was important: he wanted to be here. He wanted to be with Jim.
Jim couldn’t be happier. And at the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder why Jordy was happy with this. He had to be leaving friends and a life behind him.
Jim trailed Jordy to the baggage carousel. “How many bags are there?” he asked.
“Two large ones, Dad. Everything else has been shipped. I didn’t trust her to do that after I was gone. I packed everything I wanted and took the boxes to FedEx myself yesterday.”
A warning light came on, blinking, and a horn sounded, and then the carousel started moving. The two moved to where there were no people blocking their access to the conveyor and waited, watching the suitcases as they journeyed past. Soon, Jordy said, “That’s mine. And that.” He grabbed one, and Jim grabbed the matching one right next to it. They were large, and they were heavy! Jim realized Jordy had picked his up without any of the struggle Jim had picking up the other one. He told himself he’d just grabbed the heavier one. But he wasn’t sure. He had no idea how strong Jordy was or most anything else about him. He decided it would be great fun learning all that.
“How are you?” Jim asked when they were walking to where he’d parked. “Emotionally, physically, psychologically….” Jim grinned, and Jordy did, too, after glancing at his father. Jim had seen a lot of himself in Jordy when he was younger. He’d seen his own grin, one he’d seen enough times in photos that had been taken over the years, and recognized it now on Jordy. Not only did he recognize that Jordy’s face rather resembled his, but his grin did, too.
“I’m a little stunned,” Jordy answered. “I didn’t know this was happening till a couple of days ago. Suddenly, I’ve left the home I’ve had and I’m here. Bam! Just like that. What makes it OK, though, is that I wasn’t happy there, and I love you. So it’s all good. Just’ll take awhile for me to get used to it, to sort myself out.”
“That’s good,” Jim said. “I couldn’t be happier having you with me. If you were worried at all that I somehow wouldn’t want this, put that in a hole and bury it. I love that you’re back with me again.”
On the ride home, they chatted. Jim asked him whether he’d been happy living in California.
“I liked where we lived a lot. Huntington Beach is great. I surfed a lot; you probably didn’t know that.”
“I don’t know anything, really,” Jim said and realized there was some bitterness in his voice.
Jordy heard it, too, and Jim guessed that was why his son said what he said next. “I liked California; I didn’t like living with Mom. She mostly ignored me. It got to be I spent a lot more time with my friends and at their houses than I did at home. She never even asked where I was! And then there was John.”
Jim wasn’t that interested in hearing about John. He did want to know why Jordy didn’t seem disturbed about leaving his friends and the life he’d made there that he’d said he’d liked. Jim had no reason not to ask about that, so he did. “You’re leaving all those friends and your school and everything. I don’t understand why you’re not upset about that.”
Jordy grimaced, which Jim caught out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah, that does suck,” he said. “I had some really good friends and some great times there, too. But my life was more than that. Those were good times when I was out of the house. But I lived in the house, too. That was a big part of my life, and it was ugly. Coming here, I’m away from that. I can make new friends here; I’ve never had any problem doing that. School is school, and I won’t have any problem fitting in here. I won’t be able to surf, and I’ll miss that, but I’ll have four seasons to enjoy here instead of one. I always liked the snow.”
“So, what didn’t you like at home? Her boyfriend? What about him?” OK, Jim really didn’t want to hear about him. When his divorce was still new, Lydia had sent him any number of emails about any number of men she’d hooked up with, really nasty ones, detailing all she was doing, all she was doing, especially in bed, and how all these men outperformed him financially, physically and sexually. How they were more innovative, imaginative and superior in every way in bed. Her purpose was obviously to hurt and humiliate him, and he learned quickly to disbelieve what she wrote and then not to read the emails at all.
He no longer had any feelings for Lydia. He didn’t care what she did or with whom she did it. But he did want to know how she and her boyfriend had affected Jordy’s life.
Jordy was watching the scenery. They were still outside town; the airport was located well away from the city itself. Jim wondered if Jordy recognized any of it. He’d left when he was ten. Some of what he was seeing should still look familiar.
The moment of silence stretched out long enough for Jim to find it a little uncomfortable. Then Jordy shifted his eyes to Jim. “I’ll tell you about John, but not now. Now, I’d like not to think of him and her any more for a bit.”
“OK,” Jim said quickly. “So, how was school?”
Jordy’s face and voice lightened. “School was fine. Everything about my life that didn’t include home was fine, except for missing you. I got better than just decent grades, even though the schools there were harder than here. More crowded, stricter discipline, more rules, but the kids themselves—most of them—were super nice, and as long as you stayed out of trouble you were fine. I’ve never been a troublemaker.”
“What were your favorite subjects?”
He grinned. “I love math. They actually moved me up. I took advanced algebra in summer school.” He took a quick look at me and said, “I went so I’d be out of the house every day. But I took advanced algebra so I could get into pre-calculus this year. I’ll take calculus as a junior, then maybe first-year college math as a senior if they offer that program here. That’s what I was going to do there.”
“We’ll check it out. Our city college is located close to the high school. They might have something like that. What about sports? You involved in anything other than surfing?”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “I played football. JV because it’s only juniors and seniors on the varsity team. The school had twenty-five hundred kids in it! You know, a large town in this state might have fifty-thousand people in it. Many of the suburbs of Los Angeles, ones no one from outside California had ever even heard of, are bigger than that. A large city there will have a population of two-hundred-fifty thousand, four-hundred-fifty thousand, whatever. There are lots of enormous high schools, and sports are very competitive. By having two football teams, my school made it more fair for the older kids who wanted to be on the team and get on the field.”
“Were you any good? Did you play a lot, or sit on the bench?”
He grinned. “You want me to toot my own horn?”
“If there’s any tooting to do, sure. I’m proud of you because you’re you. I don’t need anything else. But I want to know all about you. The good and the bad.” Jim took his eyes off the road long enough when he said the last bit just to see how Jordy’d react. Jordy was looking back at him, and Jim saw a shadow cross his eyes. But then Jordy was back to looking at the road, and his answer came easily enough.
“I played a lot. We played a spread offense, and I was the H-back. Do you know what that is?”
“I think so,” Jim said. “Sort of a multi-purpose back who either runs pass routes like a flanker or takes pitchouts or handoffs from the QB and runs the ball.”
“You got it!” Jordy sounded cheerful at that. Jim thought he sounded happy that his father knew something about football. But Jim didn’t think Jordy should have been surprised about that. They’d watched their state university team on Saturdays and NFL games on Sundays on TV together while Jordy was growing up—and a few major-college games, too.
“Well, that was me,” Jordy continued, “an H-back. I really don’t like, uh, tooting, any kind of bragging about anything, but it’s just stating fact to say I was pretty good. I was named to the first-string all-conference junior-varsity team, one of only two freshmen in the entire conference that made it.”
“Wow! You going out for football here, too?”
“Yeah, maybe I can make the team here. You don’t know when tryouts are for the high-school team, do you? They may have started practices already.”
It was the middle of August. School would be starting in two weeks. Jim guessed the high-school team would already have had tryouts, already be practicing. Still, they probably had a way of accepting late transfers to the school, especially if the transfer students were good athletes. Sounded to him like Jordy was just that. His son, the athlete!
Jim told him that there was a junior-varsity team and a varsity team, but there were some sophomores on the varsity team. The school was much smaller than the one in California.
When they arrived at Jim’s house, Jordy walked in carrying both bags. Jim had reached for one and Jordy’d said, “I’ve got it,” and yanked both out of the trunk. He didn’t even grunt. He stood in the door, looking at what he could see of the house. Jim hadn’t done much with it since the divorce. His attitude had been, when you’re single and not much on interior decorating, don’t really care what your place looks like, why start changing things around when there’s no reason to? He’d initially gotten rid of all reminders of Lydia, but just left the rest like it had been. What Jordy was seeing was what had been there when he was growing up in that house.
Jordy looked around and finally settled his gaze on his father. He only said one thing, but he said it with a great amount of relaxed contentment in his voice: “Home.”