When I got home the house was quiet. I bounded upstairs and grabbed a tee and underwear before taking a much needed shower. Sweat is nasty when it's all dried out on your skin. Once clean I retreated to my room to find some joggers before heading to the kitchen to see what food I could find. I was wondering if there were leftovers from dinner or if I'd have to whip up some pasta or something. I opened the fridge and nearly jumped out of my skin when my dad spoke.
“Jesus!” I whipped around to find my dad approaching from beyond the island that separated the kitchen from the living room area. “Way to sneak up, Dad!”
He smiled grimly and something seemed off about him.
“Dad? Is something wrong?”
He seemed to struggle for a moment and then let out a sigh. “Yes. I need to speak with you.”
“What did I do?” I asked, mystified.
He let out a tired sound, somewhere between a sigh and a moan. “It's not you, son. It's me.”
I moved up to the island, while my dad took up the other side and placed his hands, palm down, on the marble top. “What's wrong, Dad?” I'd never seen him like this, even when he'd lost his job.
He pursed his lips lightly and a tremble ran through them. He seemed to be trying not to cry. “Um. Look, this is going to be awkward and painful no matter how I say it,” he said and looked up at me. “I had an affair.”
I stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. “You...what?”
He bobbed his head and his eyes filled and he rubbed his chin. “I did. I...cheated.”
I was stunned. I felt like I'd been clobbered over the head and nothing could go through my brain to be processed. I just stared at my dad, my jaw moving slowly, making no sounds. This was the steady, boring if dependable accountant who'd been the calm voice of our family since I could remember. The stabilizing influence to my mother's more...outgoing attitude.
“There is a lot you need to know,” he said, his voice breaking. “But first is I want you to know your mother and I will keep you here as long as you need a home. It'll be a provision of the divorce.”
“Div-divorce?” My mind slammed into gear and just as quickly fell out. I stumbled back from him, and my butt banged into the counter behind me, then my head hit the cupboard door. It hurt – a bright pain that sliced through my shock. “Divorce? You guys...our family. What. The. Fuck!”
He looked away from me. “You have every right to be angry.”
“Oh, thanks!” I spat. “A divorce? How could you do this to us?” Anger built, along with fear, anxiety, and frustration, until everything came out in one ear-shattering scream. “What the fuck have you done?”
He frowned and wiped his eyes. “I'm sorry, Derry.”
“Sorry.” My tone had switched entirely to something flat. “You're sorry. You just killed our family, and you're sorry.”
He nodded his head. “More than you know. I'm going to let you process some of this-”
“Process. That's great. I need to process how you fucked us all over.” I paused, and a whine entered my voice. “I thought we were happy. I thought you guys loved...love-”
“We do, Derry,” he said. “This is all on me.”
He sucked in his lips, looked down and then up at me. “The reason my company – former company – is in a financial death spiral is that they were cooking the books for Sinclair Pharmaceuticals. You heard about some of that in the news, no doubt.”
He sighed. “I met someone there, while we were digging through options and trying to salvage both companies from the people who'd been embezzling.” He looked up. “Her name is Linda Kaniecki.”
My heart stopped. I tried to draw breath, but it felt as if there was none to be had. I looked away from my father, seeing nothing. Everything came to a halt – breathing, moving, thinking – none of it mattered. It was one shock too many, perhaps, and my system overloaded. One thought stood out.
My father had slept with Jack’s mother.
I was shaken from my stupor by my father holding my shoulders, shaking my body, and saying my name sharply. I pulled myself from his grip and stared at him, seeing not my parent but someone I didn't recognize.
“Derry, please,” he said, his tone filled with desperation.
“Fucking up one relationship wasn't enough for you?” I asked, my voice shaking. “Now you're destroying mine, too?” Tears stung my eyes and I pointed a finger at him. “Fuck you. Fuck you to hell, you cheating bastard.” I turned and left him, sprinting up the stairs that had fascinated me as a child as they simply sprung from the wall – floating stairs – and into my room. I closed my door and leaned against it, then locked it and resumed holding it firm with my body.
My mind raced. What was I going to do? What was Jack going to think? Had my father seduced her? Or had she come onto him? Did it matter? Oh my God, did Jack even know? My thoughts spun in circles, whirling about as a tornado of ideas that became more disjointed and unlikely the longer I stood there. I crossed the room and dug my phone from my bag and was on the verge of telling it to call Jack, but I stopped. What would I tell him? Should I say this? Over the phone? I paced back and forth, mind racing. I needed to tell someone, but I couldn't call Jack. Not yet. Instead I called Delia. She was used to drama; she'd help me.
“Hey,” she said on the third ring. “Home from practice?”
“My dad cheated with Jack's mom,” I blurted and put a hand to my forehead. Get a grip!
“Whoa, what? Back the hell up. Where are you getting this from?”
“My dad,” I said, resuming my pacing and running a hand through my hair. “I was trying to get some food and he comes up and he's telling me my family is over. He's divorcing my mom, he slept with Jack's mother, and I don't know what to do about anything!”
“Okay, okay, breathe!” she commanded. “Just slow down a second and breathe. Slow. Down.”
I realized I'd started to hyperventilate, and I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing. I thought of Jack and how he looked in that special moment of just being himself that had felt so epic to me. I opened my eyes.
“Okay,” I said, my voice unsteady. “I don't know what to do about any of this.”
“Well, you're not going to lose your shit for starters,” she said flatly. “Your dad fucked up – or your dad and Jack's mom. They are adults doing fucked up adult things. You will be okay. Your mom will need you – I know mine did when my dad walked out.”
“Yeah, you're right,” I breathed. “I don't even know where my mom is.” I suddenly felt stupid and self-centered.
“”She's probably dealing with your dad,” she opined. “Is your dad moving out?”
“I don't know,” I said and collapsed onto my bed. “He said I'd be living at the house as long as I needed to – but what that means, I don't know.”
“Okay, well...at least the fucker isn't trying to make you move, too.” She sighed. “I'm sorry, Der. Have you talked to Jack?”
I snorted. “How do I do that? Hey, Jack! Did you hear our parents cheated – with each other? We're almost related.”
“Don't be a dick. It won't help,” she snapped. “Fact is you don't know how Jack will respond. Do you blame your dad or his mom?”
I sighed and deflated. “I don't fucking know.”
“Well, maybe he doesn't, either. Maybe you're the thing he needs now to make things...make sense.”
I thought for a minute. I wanted to see Jack. I wanted him to hold me so I could feel that something was still real. But I needed to check on my mom. I needed a list of priorities. “I have to go find my mom.”
She let out a small breath, maybe one she'd been holding. “Okay. I'll be up.”
“Thanks,” I told her with sincerity. Sticking my phone in my pocket I strode to my door and opened it, heading back downstairs with purpose. My father was in the living room, but I bypassed him and went right to their bedroom, only to find it empty. I returned to the living room to find him sitting still, watching me.
Slowly he said, “She went to your Aunt Kate's. She needed some space to think.”
I approached him slowly. “About what?”
He sighed. “I don't know, Derry. Probably about how the whole world just changed for us.”
I looked away from him. He looked beaten, and I didn't want to feel sorry for him, but I couldn't help it, seeing him like that. He was in the living room where we'd had Christmas presents and movie nights. It's where we had family conversations, where everything good and bad got processed. It was the history of my family in one room. Priorities. I knew where my mom was, now it was time to try and figure some shit out.
“What did you mean about me living here as long as I needed to?”
He wrung his hands together helplessly. “It's one of the few things your mother and I agreed on, once we decided we were going to divorce. You're going into senior year, and we wanted to do what we could to let you finish. If you go to college locally then we'll work that out.”
I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. If he took responsibility or laid the blame on Jack's mom, what did it change? I couldn't help myself, though. Maybe I have some streak where I just want to be punished.
I sat across from my father and asked, “Why?”
He sighed and hunched a bit. “It's a bunch of different things that all came together at the worst time,” he said slowly. “I'd been working too much, and with me not at home your mom was working more as well. We weren't communicating like we used to.” He paused and looked up toward me. “We'd been growing apart for some time. Not to the point I think either of us was worried, but I...it came as a shock to us both just how far we'd drifted from each other.”
“I didn't notice anything,” I said, sounding petulant to myself but unable to do anything about it.
He smiled weakly. “Why should you? We're busier than ever – work, school, your relationship, your singing, and that's not to mention that Mom and I have our own stuff going on.” He shook his head. “It's not a clear line where you say 'Whoa, things have changed,' Derry. It's more like...a sudden realization that things changed, and you feel the loss, but...are bewildered as to the when and why of it all.”
I looked at him doubtfully. “But...why, Dad?”
He sighed. “There was a team working on the Sinclair account. Regulators came in and started to sniff, and the owner sent a crew of us in to figure out what was going on – an audit. What started as a routine checkup on a client account uncovered a massive fraud – one that could sink both companies. Professionally I'd never be able to wash the stink off myself from just having been employed at a company with the reputational beating we had coming.
“Linda was the...the main point of communication for the inquiry that I was in charge of. We both felt the stress of trying to save the companies, our reputations and livelihoods. We had people pressuring us to make things go away, to hide things and try to cover the situation up until the regulators were gone and we could do mathematical calisthenics to recover from the fraud.”
I waited, dread coiled in my stomach.
He looked down at his clasped hands. “Linda wasn't happy at home. I realize now that I wasn't, but then it was too late. When I should have come home to my wife with the realization we'd grown apart and needed to either mend things or let each other go, I did the exact wrong thing and took comfort elsewhere.”
I wanted to yell, or I had. Instead I felt tired. Anxious and disappointed. Sad beyond belief.
“Derry...It's important that you know how deeply sorry I am that I've hurt you and your mother.”
“Isn't that...I mean, why do you care about hurting mom?” I asked softly. “Didn't you know it would? Didn't you...I don't know. Wasn't it a choice?”
He nodded slowly. “Just because things weren't good between us doesn't mean I set out to hurt her. I'd say we were more...drifting than we were trying to be awful to each other.” He paused. “Yes, it was a choice. A choice made with little to no forethought, something that happened in secret and has caused a great deal of grief already. Something that has cost me the chance to repair my marriage and cost me the esteem of my son.”
I wiped my eyes and rubbed the back of my hand on my forehead.
“Do you know that as a father, I always wanted your respect? That it was important to me that my son approved of who his father was?”
I looked up at him. “What are you talking about?”
He smiled sadly. “When you were little you thought I could do anything. Didn't work? Get Dad. Got hurt? Get Dad. Needed help? Get Dad.” He sighed wistfully. “As you grew older you began to see me as more human. I went from knowing it all to knowing a lot to you wondering how I managed to breathe on my own without instructions,” he said with a chuckle. “You were such a jerk at twelve.”
I let out a bark of a laugh. “Yeah. I guess I was.”
He bobbed his head for a moment. “But then things started to swing back. You started to ask me things again. You started to think, 'Well, maybe my old man does know a few things', and I felt like I was headed the right way as a dad.” He let out a shuddering breath. “Now I've screwed up in one of the worst ways a person can.”
He shook his head slowly. “Derry. I know you very well – like a father should love the person that brought him joy for every year he's been alive. So listen to me when I say this,” he said quietly, yet firmly. “When you get angry you snap, but that flame goes out almost immediately, and then you think. You have every right to pass judgment on me for this, for what it's going to cost you. You have every right to be angry. But...in the coming days and weeks you're going to have to decide for yourself if that's it. If everything else we had isn't worth saving.
“I don't say this to guilt you into keeping me in your life, Derry. Just...when you're able, when it doesn't hurt quite so much, I hope you can see me as a flawed person who made a huge mistake. But I don't want that to be what defines what we mean to each other for the rest of our lives.”
I thought on that for a minute. “What now? Are you moving? Is mom? What about Jack's mom?”
He let out a deep breath, not quite a sigh. “Your mom and I will talk more. Right now she wanted some space and it was my responsibility to tell you what was going on. Beyond that, I don't know.” He hesitated. “As far as Linda goes...she's supposed to be telling her husband tonight and asking for a divorce.”
My mouth felt dry. “Are you two...and what about Jack?”
He licked his lips. “She's supposed to tell Jack. Linda and I...aren't going to be a couple. This situation is no way to build a relationship – nothing good is coming from it.”
I covered my mouth and nose with my hands and rocked back and forth a little. “Jack's going to lose it.”
My dad nodded tiredly. “Yeah. It's going to be rough.”
“I should go over there,” I said quietly and looked at him.
He hesitated and then nodded. “Maybe you should.”
I waited a beat and then stood. “I hate that you did this. I hate all of it. I've never been madder or more...disappointed,” I said softly as his eyes filled with unshed tears. “But you're still my dad.”
Huge drops rolled down his cheeks, and he nodded. “Yeah. I am.”
I didn't want to hug him, but I felt like we both needed it. It was a scary feeling to hold him and to feel him shaking violently against me. His pain and regret were palpable. Not enough yet to consider forgiving, but it was undeniable. Who would I be to not give him the tiniest bit of comfort, especially when I desperately needed it myself. We parted slowly and he patted my upper arms before we broke contact.
“I'm going to go over to Jack's. I need to see him and he...might need me.”
My dad nodded. “If he's good, he needs you. If he's smart, he'll know it.”
Despite my troubled feelings toward my dad, I still felt pride flare in my chest at his words. I went up to my room and looked around for a minute for my jeans and retrieved my wallet and keys. My mind went blank and I stood still, thinking I needed something else, but not being able to form any ideas about what it might be.
Phone! I jerked into motion, hunting for my phone. I slipped that into my pocket but still felt like I was missing something. I glanced around the room and eventually looked down. Oh. Shoes. Right. I pulled on fresh socks, slipped on my sneakers and headed downstairs.
“Derry,” my dad said, standing in the living room.
I turned to look at him.
“Drive safe. It's late and people are weird on the road at night.”
I paused a beat. “Okay.”
We looked at each other for a moment, and then I turned and went out into the night. I took my time driving over to Jack's, though I didn't know what the big deal was. I couldn't help but drive a bit faster than usual, but I arrived in one piece and without getting a ticket. I climbed from my car and caught a flash of myself in the side that made me pause and look down at myself. Tee shirt and joggers. Fucking slob is what I look like. With a sigh I walked up to the front door and pressed the bell. Moments later the front porch light came on and Jack's dad was standing in the doorway looking tired – like his soul was tired.
“Hi, Mr. Kanieki. Is Jack still up?”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “He's probably drawing you in some exotic locale as we speak. Come on in, Derry.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling a flush from his insinuation. His dad was cool, always had been with our relationship. I made my way through the house with a feeling of unreality – of being welcome and yet being alien. I found Jack in his room, sitting at his desk and working on his art on his computer. I'd found this used pad that connected to a PC that could be used for drawing, and he'd taken to it with amazing skill.
Well, amazing to me.
I stared at his back for a moment, thinking to myself he looked so calm and focused. He also looked ridiculous in a loose white tee shirt and pajama bottoms, but at the same time my chest swelled to see him. Jack turned and looked pleasantly surprised. “Hi!” he said, climbing to his feet.
I didn't say anything. I was just happy he wasn't upset at me. As I fell into his arms and pressed myself to him I felt a relief wash through me like a cold mountain stream, sluicing away my stress. He wrapped his arms around me and I relished his warmth and scent. We stood like that as seconds passed into minutes. He turned me slowly side to side and rubbed my back and I could almost put the events of the evening out of my mind completely.
It hit me then: he wasn't upset, not even a little bit.
And then came the realization: he didn't know.
The warmth in my chest flushed down a bottomless hole that opened up in my stomach. His mother was supposed to tell him! My dad had said...he wouldn't lie, would he? Why would he? That made no sense, but the thought burned the back of my mind like an accusatory finger. He'd cheated, why not lie?
“I'm really happy to see you, but why are you showing up so late?” Jack asked. In response I pushed my cheek against his and shivered, his warmth no longer enough to ward the chill of what I felt I had to do.
“I had to see you,” I said into his ear. “I thought you might need me or...be angry with me.”
“With you?” Jack asked, jerking his head back and pushing me out, holding my upper arms. “Why would I ever be mad at you?” He squinted one of his eyes a bit comically. “What have you done?”
I shook my head. “It's not me. Um. Is your mom home?”
He tilted his head to one side. “My mom? Uh, she was home all night, I think.” He paused and lowered his voice. “Drinking again.”
Maybe she'd decided to drink rather than confront her life. “My dad talked to me tonight,” I said slowly. “I needed to see you. To talk to you.”
“Okay,” he said with concern. “What's going on?”
I pressed my lips together and fresh moisture welled in my eyes as I thought about how much this was going to hurt Jack. Damn his mother for not doing this one thing!
“First, my parents are divorcing,” I said.
“Oh! Oh, no! I'm so sorry, Derry,” he said with just a ton of compassion in his voice. “I can't...well, I guess I kind of can imagine. You know how distant my folks are with each other.”
I nodded. “Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg,” I said. “My dad cheated. With your mom.”
I could see the shock hit him, his features still and then slowly going slack. “Wh-what do you mean? How? When?”
I related my father's story about the embezzling at Sinclair and how my father's company was going down the tubes because of it, and how the two of them had come together. “And my dad said that your mom was supposed to tell you tonight. But I'm guessing...?”
He shook his head slowly. Then his gentle face grew hard and yet harder still. A red flush built from his neck like an old cartoon, making me hysterically wonder if his head would explode. He pressed his lips together. “It makes so much sense. Dad has been like a zombie the last few days. My mother has started two or three conversations, but like...awkward talks. She didn't seem to know what she wanted to say. God damn it.”
He darted from the room, and I stood there, unsure what to do. I should follow him – but no, I shouldn't. What if he doesn’t want me to see him fight or to listen? I dropped that idea when I heard his voice from the other side of the house. I paced aimlessly in his room, trying to still the quake in my heart as the situation unfolded. Jack’s mother screamed back at him, and I heard his father's calmer, more deliberate tone. The words were too soft to be understood; I just had a sense of tone and volume.
I glanced around Jack's room – he'd framed the picture he'd drawn of me at my poolside. I never thought of myself as that attractive, but I had to admit the guy drawn on the deckchair was hot, and he'd been me. It just bent my mind to think Jack looked at me and saw that. I looked away, toward his desk. His pencils were in a wooden case beside his sketch pad, which was open so he could see it as he worked on the computer.
Jack loved to draw. He'd sketch something and then go home to redo the sketch on the computer, partly because he loved art and partly, he said, because he needed the practice. Curious and needing a distraction, I crossed the room to look at his screen. I recognized the scene immediately: I was on stage, caught mid-step in a dance; in the foreground was Elliot at the baby-grand, his fingers an artful blur on the keyboard. I sat down in Jack's chair and, for my own sanity, fell into his work to block out the madness of his family imploding.
I'd be here when he came back, and if he still wanted me, I'd give him everything I had.