My Dad’s birthday was in the middle of June. After a three-day drive, Nick and I made our grand return to the land of Oklahoma.
It was hot. Not just hot, but humid, sticky, and uncomfortable. Despite having the AC blasting, there was no escaping the climate. And we felt it. After years in a much colder, wetter place, that uncomfortable sweat-provoking weather was intense. I spent most of my days behind a grill, but even I couldn’t stand how bad it was.
“We’ll make this work. It’s not all on you,” Nick said as we pulled up to my father’s house.
Dad moved, so I was unfamiliar with the new house. From the outside, it seemed smaller than the one I remembered. There were a bunch of cars already in the driveway, so I had to park down the street.
“I know,” I said, cutting off the engine before Nick and I got out.
“They’ll probably try to make you feel guilty and belittle what we’ve made for ourselves, but try to remember we’ve been ok. We might have struggled a little while, but we’re not drowning,” Nick tried to prepare me for what we came for.
“I know,” I repeated.
“I know you know, but being here could make it easy to forget,” he added as we walked up the street.
“You’re scared shitless, aren’t you?” I asked.
“I’m about to meet your dad; of course, I’m scared,” he said.
For a moment, I started to hold his hand. I contemplated the idea of putting an arm around his shoulder, walking behind him, beside him, or on a diagonal. The thought of being seen together as “together” scared me. How was it so easy for those old fears to come rushing back? When we made it to the front door, I knew Nick could feel the awkwardness just as much as I did.
“You made it!” River said after opening the door for us.
Nick and I were past the point of no return.
“You didn’t leave much of a choice,” I remarked.
My brother made it clear how much everyone supposedly missed me. I had to see it for myself.
As we stepped inside, it shocked me to see how many people were crowding the house. The Stout family was small. Outside of my brother’s and dad, I could hardly count five other relatives I knew growing up, but none of them were present that night.
“Why are all these people here,” I asked River before he could leave me to mingle.
“No one has seen or heard from you in two years. I told a few of your old friends you were coming back, and they told people who told more people,” he explained.
Looking around, I had already been noticed by a few faces.
“Do they know...” I asked almost in a whisper, but my brother only laughed.
“Know what?” he said.
“Don’t play dumb,” I snapped.
“No, no one told them about your boyfriend, but I guess now you have to,” he said, finally leaving Nick and me.
I turned around, expecting to find Nick behind me, but he had already gotten lost somewhere in the crowd.
I was by myself.
The night went painstakingly slow. Though I remembered plenty of people, I wasn’t ready to face most of them. Guys from football, a couple of girls I dated, even my old coach were eager to see me, but the conversations I had with all of them were shallow at best. I wanted to catch up, but I couldn’t explain why I dropped off the face of the earth for two years.
There were rumors.
People assumed I joined the army. Some thought I went overseas. Quite a few of my old friends had the idea that I’d been in rehab. Everyone thought of me, but no one once tried to reach out. It wasn’t like I changed my phone number.
They thought I needed space. They thought I needed time. I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t fragile. Maybe I was desperate. Perhaps I lost and fucked up so many times I needed things to work. I needed something to work. Regardless, I didn’t think I let people see. My cracks must have been on full display.
They treated me like I went through a life crisis. In every conversation, they subtly asked if I was ok. They asked if I had still been drinking, fighting, or getting myself into dumb shit. My old friends, they were nice and careful about making their concerns known, but they were concerned.
God, was I so fucked up? Had I fucked up so royally, no one knew I missed them? No one knew how much a phone call would have meant. No one knew how much a phone call might have helped. And worse, because they were too afraid to approach me, they created stories and assumptions about how terrible I must have been.
To be fair, they had cause for all their ideas. Had I remained the Meat Head I was in high school, I might have been worse than all their assumptions. But no one knew how much I changed. No one knew why I changed.
No one knew about Nick.
I always assumed I distanced myself when I got with him, but had I already been driving wedges between myself and everyone else.
It was my dad’s birthday, but I hadn’t seen him yet. Where the hell had Nick gone?
River and Alex started moving people toward the kitchen. It was time to sing Happy birthday and cut the cake. While everyone else moved around me, I stood in place, searching for my boyfriend. What I found was the exact opposite.
“I think we should talk,” my father said as we stood, finally, face to face.
He looked the same as I remembered. Same Devil’s Sharp suit in blue, because everyone loved blue. He was old, but his face was mature, not saggy. His hair wasn’t what it used to be, but for a man turning 47, it could have been worse. But that crippling glare I always saw him with when I imagined him in my head, it wasn’t there. There wasn’t any hostility. All I could see was sadness even as he offered his signature dealership smile.
Who was that man standing in front of me? He wasn’t the villain that motivated my fears and ambitions. He was just a man happy to see his son, and perhaps, sad that it took so long.