Despite my schedule and the specter of final exams in a month, I had gone home for spring break. I always did - I was too poor to afford the trips that a lot of my classmates managed to make, whether to beaches in Mexico or skiing in Colorado - but, honestly, I didn't mind. I hadn't seen my dad since Christmas, and I could use a week of uninterrupted time to get current on all my work.
And I had something I wanted - needed - to tell him. A couple of things, actually.
On the way up to Cincinnati (through Uber, I'd found a ride with a pre-med major named Carrie from Dayton), I debated when and how, exactly, to tell him. The brave man, I knew, would do it on day one, and put up with the fallout face-to-face. The coward would put it off until the very last moment, maybe even while walking out the door, and hash it out via e-mail or - more likely - stony silence.
That would have been easy enough, I thought.
But that wasn't who I was, or who I wanted to be.
I did it the first night, over a meal of veal kebab and iced tea. My father didn't drink; I assumed he knew that I did, but I knew that it would bother him a bit if I did, so I abstained … and, honestly, it might be better if I did this thing sober.
My father liked to cook and was good at it; he'd had to learn after my mom passed and had to feed a household of four hungry boys … and found that he not only had a talent for it but also enjoyed it. We sat on the back porch of our little brick foursquare house in Mount Auburn, between the university and downtown. It was just the two of us; my brothers had pretty much scattered over much of the Midwest after college.
We were done eating. My father had - much to my surprise - gone into the house and come back out with a bottle of something and two glasses, proceeded to pour us each a bit of it, handed me a glass. I took a sip; it was a sweet, orange-flavored liqueur, but it had a kick to it.
"I didn't know you drank," I told him.
He shrugged. "I do, sometimes." He grinned. "Don't tell the Pope."
"Uh, we're not Catholic …" Nominally Muslim, but not practicing. Me, definitely doing and thinking things that would scare the priests.
"You know what I mean."
A silence - not uncomfortable - stretched between us. Finally, I knew I had to break it. I sighed. "I … have something to tell you, baba."
He turned to me, smiled. "I thought you might."
His answer took me by surprise. "Oh?"
He shrugged again. "You've been quiet - well, even quieter than you usually are - all evening. I figured something had to be up."
"Well, I …" didn't know how to start, how to say it.
He reached out, grabbed my hand. "You can tell me anything, Omer. I want you to know that."
I took a deep breath, let it out. "I … okay … I'm … well, I think I'm going to have to give up the wrestling."
His eyes narrowed and he leaned back in his seat, letting my hand go. "Oh?" He looked surprised in turn, made a weird face; had he been expecting some other kind of news?
"Yeah. I … well, I think it's time. I mean, I'm going to be starting graduate school in the fall and as busy as I was before, it's going to be ten times worse. I just … well, it's not … it's not what I want to do, baba. I'm sorry."
He looked disappointed, then he managed a smile … but I could still see a hint of something in his face, a sadness. All of us - he, his father, my brothers and I - had wrestled; they had all given it up at some point or another, as they got married, careers took off, children were born, or something as simple as age made that choice for them. I knew that my father hoped that I, his youngest, would take it the farthest, knew that he had dreams of me going to the Olympics, one day, of watching me up there on the podium while they hung a medal around my neck.
"Are you sure, Omer? Have you thought this through?"
"I am, baba. And … I have thought through it. It's … it's just not where I want to be."
He reached out, tapped me on the side of my head. I smiled. "You were always the smartest of us, I think. Your mother knew that."
"I don't want to disappoint you, baba . I just -"
He reached out, put a hand on my forearm. "You aren't. You never have, Omer. You must know that."
Well, wait until you hear the rest of it, I thought. I opened my mouth "There's something else, baba. Something else I need to tell you."
He sat back in his chair again. I opened my mouth to say the rest of it, but he held a hand up, poured us each another bit of the liqueur. Suddenly, a wave of something overtook me and I couldn't hold back the tears, felt one sliding down my face, then another, and another.
My father watched me cry, reached out a finger, traced it gently along my jawline. "There is nothing more you need to tell me, Omer." His voice was soft and quiet, gentle.
"Baba, I -"
The finger went to my mouth, silencing me. "There is nothing, Omer. I know. I know what you're going to tell me."
How can you know this? I thought.
He sighed, went on. "Your mother said something to me, once, when you were little. I didn't believe her then. I mean, how can one know that about another person, especially one that young? I told her she had to be wrong … but, then, I started noticing, started seeing what she was seeing. And I could tell that she was right."
I dabbed at my eyes. "You never said anything."
"I know," he answered. "And I should have. We should have. But then the accident happened, and she was gone, and you were so terribly hurt and trying to get better, and then you started in with the wrestling, and I … well, I suppose I thought you had changed, that you weren't that, any more."
"I wish I weren't, sometimes. It would have made it all … easier."
"But you are, Omer. It is part of what you are, as I am a part, as your brothers are a part, as your mother is a part of you. You can be only what you are."
"I wish it was … I mean, I feel like I'm …"
My father stood up, at that point, came over to me, hauled me up to stand in front of him. He looked at me for a long moment, and I at him. Then, he drew me to him, hugged me tight. We stood like that for what seemed like a lifetime, like an eternity.
He whispered in my ear. "I would not have wanted it any other way, my son. I want you to be anything you want to be, or have to be. Most of all, I want you to be happy."
I cried some more, then, unburdening myself to him, a lifetime's worth of fear and pain and worry and more than a little self-loathing.
"I love you," he whispered in my ear, at some point. "I have always loved you, my son. I will always love you."
"I love you, too, baba."
Presently, he let me go and we sat again across from each other. I dried my tears; my face felt hot and puffy, not my own.
He smiled, and in that smile I found a kind of benediction. "I just want to know one thing," he asked me.
"What?" I responded, imagining any kind of question.
He reached out, again, took my hand in his, squeezed it, brought it to his lips, kissed it … and I thought I might lose myself again. "Is there someone?" he asked.
Nothing but the truth, at this point, would do; I understood at least that much … and I wished that I could tell him what he - and I - wanted to hear. "No, baba. There isn't."
He reached out, traced a hand along my scalp, my face, down across my breastbone. Tracing the faint path of it in my skin, graven there fifteen years and a lifetime ago, a meandering line - like the map of a terrible kind of river, a river of pain and loss - in a kind of pale reddish-purple color. "Is it because of this?" he asked.
"No," I answered. "Yes, maybe, a little, but …" I swallowed past a lump in my throat and the salty tang of new tears. "Not just that. A lot of things, but …"
"There will be someone," he answered. "There will be."
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