Friday, February 12, 2016

#FlashbackFriday - Short Story- "Guilt is a Gift Best Given Away"

Photo Courtesy of wallpaperup.com


Guilt is a Gift Best Given Away 

by: Jennifer Patino 

Isn't it funny how sometimes you can remember things to the finite detail and then other times you can't remember a single thing?  I had felt that way my entire life.  I remembered running into Rhonda at the store the other day.  But I couldn't tell you what color her sweater was.  I could remember my father.  His dark hair, his green eyes that matched mine, and his button of a nose that so many of my family members told me I got from him.  But I could never remember his funeral.  He died when I was almost three.

Mama didn't like to talk about him.  "It's too painful to dwell on, Samantha."  she'd say.  But there were times when I'd wake up from a dream of him reciting Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" to me.

"Sam I am.  You're my little Sam I am."  He smelled of cedar wood.  And then I'd always wake up.

*


"Sam."  Kody was saying.  "Sam?"

"Wha-"  I was still half asleep.

"You were talking in your sleep.  Again, might I add."

"Sorry."  I sat up and rubbed my eyes.  What day was it?

Kody got up out of bed and asked me if I wanted French toast for breakfast.  I nodded but rolled back over with the intention of going back to sleep.  It was Sunday and Mr. Briggs said he didn't need me at the store today because he was planning on closing up early anyway because Sundays were starting to get slow.  Finally, a day off.

I started to smell the aroma of Kody's awesome French toast and decided to get up.  I strolled into the kitchen to find that the coffee pot was already going.  I glanced at the microwave clock.  It was 8:45am.

"Ahh, good.  I didn't want to have to try to get you up when it was ready."  He kissed my cheek and I sat at the kitchen table and flipped through one of those random free newsletters that comes in the mail every once and awhile.  I had looked through it about three times and it still didn't get any more interesting.

"So, like Dr. Seuss much?" Kody asked me.

"Huh?"  What was he talking about?

"You were quoting "Green Eggs and Ham" when I woke you."  he laughed.

"Oh...I don't know.  I guess so."  I didn't like talking about my father with Kody.  His was alive and didn't give a damn about him so the mention of the word father was sort of a sore spot for him.

Kody set a plate of French toast in front of me, lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar.  "Breakfast is served, madam."  Then he made two cups of coffee and sat across from the table at me.  Our kitchen table was a plastic lawn table with two matching chairs with a tiny vase with a fake orchid in the center.  We didn't care though.  We didn't need much, nor could we fit much in our tiny apartment.  I had lived with Kody since I was sixteen when Mama decided to remarry and didn't want me interfering with anything.  "That boyfriend of yours is nice and has his own place.  Move in with him."

Kody couldn't have been happier.  I already had the job at Briggs so I helped out as much as I could until I graduated high school.  Then, even though I protested, he insisted I take advantage of the money the government was going to give me to continue with schooling.  The local community college offered a university level teaching program and that is what I had always dreamed of doing.  I'd be teaching kindergarten in about another three years at the rate I was going.  I had enough left over from financial aid to help out with the bills and my job at Briggs part time gave me some personal spending money.  Kody worked in construction and even though it was hard work on him it was full time and he seemed to like it.  Kody had to drop out in the tenth grade because his father kicked him out.  His mother refused to stand up to him so he basically disowned both of them and moved in with an older friend of his who hooked him up with the job.

I had known Kody my entire life.  We waited at the same bus stop for as long as I can remember.  We became friends when I was in second grade and he was in fourth and some boys on the bus were picking on me.  I soon became known by those boys as "Kody's little girlfriend" but I didn't mind and neither did Kody.  He even asked me to go to his eighth grade dance with him and that is when I received my first kiss.  When he entered high school it was difficult for him having a girlfriend who was only in junior high but we always looked towards the future saying things like, "When you're eighteen, I'll only be twenty" and so on.

I was upset to learn that Kody had dropped out but he assured me that it was for the best.  He needed to earn money to get out on his own and by the time he was old enough to get his own place he had a ton saved up.  I didn't see him much while he lived with Keith because he was in his thirties and although Mama didn't mind Kody at all, she had issues with me hanging out with such an older man.  But here we were, nineteen and twenty-one and living like a married couple.  And contrary to the popular belief about couples, we never fought.  We were both too laid back for that.

"How is it?"  Kody broke my train of thought.

"Delicious as always.  So, what are we doing today?"  I felt like window shopping for some reason.

"I vote we stay in bed all day."  he gave me a devilish look.

"No way.  I vote we go down to the flea market."

He pouted.  "All right but can we walk there?  That's always more fun."

"Sure.  I'm going to take a shower."  I jumped up and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"Need some help?"

I ruffled his hair and laughed.  "It's my day to shave my legs, dear.  I doubt you'll want to be around for that."

"Sounds hot but I'll pass."

I loved this man.  I really did.

*

It was about a half hour walk to Tom and Martha's Market.  Tom and Martha opened the thing before Kody and I were alive probably.  There was always something going on there on weekends.  Today, there was a young man playing acoustic guitar and telling his life story in between each song on the main stage in the center of the market.  Kody and I listened for a bit before continuing our journey through rows of stores and stands filled with things we couldn't buy.

"I'm hungry."  Kody said as we were in the used book shop.

"Oh, come on.  We just got here and this is my favorite store!  I wanted to pick a book out.  You did say I could get something small, right?"

He pouted for probably the fifth time that day.  "Ok.  How about you meet me in the food court?  You always take so long and if I don't eat soon I'll pass out."

"Good deal.  See you when I'm done."  And with a quick kiss he was off.

I browsed title after title and finally decided on a collection of Lord Byron's poetry for fifty cents.  A good buy if you ask me.  The book was tattered but I loved that.  It gave books character, I thought.

I paid and then set out to find Kody.  The flea market wasn't as busy as it usually was on Sundays.  I passed by the acoustic guitar boy again too.  I think he was on his high school years now in the chronology of his life.  The song he was singing was about a girl.  The girl's dad hated him and I felt sorry for him.

I spotted Kody sitting at one of the small tables.  He had two steaming cups of coffee sitting in front of him but I saw no sign of any food.

I sat down.  "Geeze, that was fast."

"I don't know.  I got here and kind of lost my appetite I guess."

"Are you feeling alright?"

He didn't answer for a long time.  "Oh, yeah.  I just got us some coffee."  He slid the other cup towards me.

"So, I got a Byron book for fifty cents.  That shouldn't put us too over budget now will it?"  I laughed but he just looked away.  Something was definitely not right here.

"Let's get out of here, ok?"  he said.  I nodded.  Kody was the type of person who spoke about things when he wanted to.  There was no trying to pry with him.  When he wanted me to know about it, he'd tell me.  I'd just have to wait and worry about it later.

*

I waited three days.  Kody got weirder and weirder.  He barely talked to me and when he did it was like he couldn't even look me in the eye.  I started to get the feeling that he was hiding something.  Maybe he ran into someone at Tom and Martha's that stirred up bad memories.  Maybe it was an old girlfriend.  I didn't know.  All I knew is that I was dying to.  I finally got up enough nerve to confront him when he came home from work one night.

I cooked spaghetti.  It was his favorite and I even made him my famous garlic toast that he would devour by the pound if he could.  He came in looking tired as usual and he still had that faraway look in his eye.

"Oh wow."  he said.  "What's the occasion?"

"Nothing special.  I was craving Italian I guess."

"Lucky for me."  He sat and we ate in silence.

When the food was gone and the dishes were cleared and washed we sat down on the couch to catch the evening news.  It was a ritual.  It made us feel like old people, but we liked knowing what was going on in the world no matter how depressing it was.  It was during a commercial that I finally spoke.

"Hey?"  I started.

"What's up?"

"I want to know what's been going on lately."

"What do you mean?"  he seemed nervous already.

"You've been.....I don't know.  Distant, I guess?"

"Work is tough this week."

"Work's always tough and you still talk to me."

"I'm talking to you now."

"Why can't you look at me?"

He turned and stared at me.  "I can."

I sighed.  "Ok, Kody.  Ever since the flea market you've been acting very weird.  What happened?  It had to have been something there."

"Look, Sam.  I told you.  I'm just stressed about work, that's all.  I'm sorry."

"I thought we were supposed to trust each other."  I was pissed.

"I do trust you."

"Yeah, but right now I don't trust you very much when I know that you're lying to me."

I stood up and headed towards the kitchen.  Our first fight.  Brilliant.

It took awhile but he was behind me.  I was drying the dishes.

"Sam."

I turned to face him.

He looked like he wanted to cry or something.  Confusion ran through my head like a gerbil on one of those metal wheels.

"Come sit down."  He led me to the kitchen table.

He folded his hands and rested his chin on them and stared out of the window.  I didn't know what to expect.  He looked so unnatural that I was starting to wonder if this was the end.  Sounds drastic, I know.  But Kody and I knew each other way too long.

"What happened?"  I was biting back tears.

"I saw your father, Sam."

I let his words sink in.  Had Kody lost his mind?  I know I didn't talk about him much but he at least knew enough to know that he was dead.  I wanted to laugh.  But only out of hysteria and relief.

Kody did something I had never seen him do before.  He started to cry and he was crying like a little baby.  I was so shocked I couldn't even move.

"Sam.  I'm sorry.  Please forgive me,"  he choked out in between sobs.

"Forgive you for what?  Kody, I am so confused right now."

He pulled himself together.  "I know.  I'm so sorry.  I have to tell you something."

"Well, tell me then."

"Your father is not dead Sam.  He left you and your mother when you were a baby and your mom just told everyone he was dead.  My mother knew the truth though.  She made me promise to never tell you a word of it.  I forgot all about it until last Sunday.  I saw him.  He was sitting in the shop where I got the coffee.  It looked just like your picture of him but older.  I swear Sam it was him.  And I'm so sorry."  He lost it again.

It felt like a freight train had landed on my chest.  I didn't know what to think.  A part of me wanted to cry but another part of me wanted to break something.

I stood up and went straight for our bedroom.  This time, Kody didn't follow me.  I opened my shoebox full of pictures, cards, and anything else I felt was worth keeping and right at the bottom was the one picture I had of my father.  I stared at it before bringing it back to the kitchen with me.

Kody was staring out of the window again but he wasn't crying.  I set the picture in front of him.

"You saw this man?  This man who is supposed to be dead.  This man who you and everyone else have led me to believe was dead for my entire fucking life!"  I rarely cursed.  Kody knew that and opened his mouth to speak.  "No!"  I did not want to hear it.

"Sam-"

"Just stop it.  I'm going to my mother's."  I got up and grabbed a jacket leaving him to stare at the photograph.

"Sam, wait!"  He grabbed my arm.  "Let's talk first."

"There's nothing to talk about Kody."  Tears stung my eyes.  "I need to speak with my mother."

He closed his eyes but nodded.  "Please don't hate me."

I didn't say anything.  I just grabbed my pocketbook and slammed the door shut behind me.

I drove to my mother's house faster than I had ever driven in my life.  I was relieved to see that James, her new husband, was not home.  Or at least his car wasn't in the driveway.

I burst in, not even bothering to knock and there was my mother puffing away on a Virginia Slim and drinking what was probably vodka and cranberry juice.

"Samantha!  How nice of you to drop by!"  She slurred her words.  Montel was on the muted TV.

"I need to ask you something."

"Oh, sure.  Have a seat honey.  How's Kody doing?"  She extinguished the cancer stick and half smiled.  Her eyes looked like she was having trouble keeping them open so I wondered if it was the right time to be doing this.

"He's fine.  Mom, I need to ask you something."

"Ok, what?"  She leaned back and took another sip from the glass.

"It's about my dad."

"Oh, honey.  You know it's too painful to talk about.  He died so long ago and at such a young age I just-"

"Bullshit!"  I was in her face then.  "He's alive.  He never was dead.  Kody knows and he saw him and told me.  You've been lying to me my whole life!"

Her mouth shaped into a perfect 'o' and she just sat in silence, taking it all in.  After some time, she pulled out another cigarette.

"Samantha.  You must understand."

"Understand what?  That everyone has been lying to me about him for my entire life?  I can't even begin to believe this."

"He left!  What did you want me to do?  I figured you were too young to remember him anyway.  Kody's mother was the only one I told the truth to.  I didn't want the whole town to have more shit to gossip about me.  We were better off without him.  Trust me."

"That's not the point, mom!  You could have just told me that instead of telling me he was dead!  I mean, at least I'd have some idea of what kind of person he was and would decide for myself if I wanted to find him or not.  I just don't believe it." I was crying now.  How come I was the only one not crying about this?

"What do you mean?"

"Sam, he told me to tell you he was dead.  He said he never wanted you to come find him later or anything like that.  He said he was gone and gone forever.  So he might as well have been dead.  So I told you that.  I didn't want to put you through the pain of knowing that too."  She sobbed uncontrollably.

"So, did you know he was in town then?"

"I had no idea.  Are you sure it's him?"  She seemed serious now.  Maybe even afraid.

"Kody swears to it.  He's seen the picture.  He was at the coffee shop in Tom and Martha's."

"Sam.  Don't go searching for him.  Chances are, he's only passing through.  He hated this town.  He told me he'd never spend more than a week here ever again.  And if he could avoid it, he said he'd never come back."  She rose and wrapped her arms around me.  "Oh, Samantha.  Please forgive me."

I sighed.   I think this was the first time my mother ever hugged me.  When she pulled away I stood up.

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know right now.  I just need to be by myself."

"No, you don't have to.  You can stay.  We'll talk.  We'll talk about anything you want to talk about."

"Not right now.  I just need to be alone."

"Samantha."  I was already heading towards the door.  "I love you."

I stood in the open doorway for a second.  "I love you too, mom."

*

Tom and Martha's closed at nine.  I had at least an hour to sit and have a cup of coffee.  Where was the acoustic guitar boy when I needed him?
I walked slowly through the flea market not really sure why I decided to come here anyway.  It wasn't out of hope, that was for sure.  What would I say to him?  "Hi.  I'm your daughter?  Why did you leave me like that?"  Would he remember the Dr. Seuss books?  Would he cry and be the third person that day to utter those three words that I was really starting to hate?  “Please forgive me.”  Would it be like that?  It suddenly became clear to me why I couldn't remember the funeral.  It was because there wasn't one.  It also dawned on me that his grave site didn't appear to exist either.
Approaching the coffee shop, I looked inside and low and behold there was my father.  Or what could have been my father.  He was sipping out of one of the shop's styrofoam cups and reading what looked like that day's newspaper.  I watched him for a bit and then with no hesitation walked towards him.  At the last second, I decided not to even bother talking with him, I just got in line for a drink.  
"Can I help you?"  The high schooler behind the counter needed to cut his hair.

"Mocha latte, please.  The biggest size you got."

"Certainly."  He rang me up, took my money, and headed off to make my drink.  I could see my father out of the corner of my eye.  He had set the paper down and was staring off into the crowds that passed by.

"Thank you."  I said as the employee handed me my cup.  I turned to sit at a table.

"Are you finished with that, sir?"  I asked my father.

He snapped out of his daze.  "Oh, yeah.  Sure.  Go ahead."  He handed it to me.  It was the same voice that haunted my dreams only with some years added on to it.

"Thanks."  I sat and pretended to flip through it.

It didn't take me long to realize he was staring at me.  Was this it?  Was this my Oprah Winfrey show moment to have some sort of teary reunion with the man who had a part in my birth and who I believed was dead?  "You new around here?"  I asked him.

"Just passing through.  I lived here many years ago and figured I'd stop on the way.  Not much has changed."

"I've been here my whole life."  I said.  "I don't think much has changed either."

"You look familiar to me."

"I don't think that's possible."  I tried not to sound bitter.

"You just look like someone I used to know.  She's old like me now."  He laughed.  "Maybe you've heard of her. Sabrina. Sabrina Dombrowski?"

That was my mother he was talking about.  At that point I knew that it was him.  I had doubts up until this point.  I acted like I was thinking about it.

"I think it's Sabrina Sanders now."

He laughed.  "She got married, eh?  I can't even believe it."

"She moved though.  Her husband was rich or something.  How did you know her?"

"Old high school friends.  It's probably better that she moved.  She hated this town."  He laughed at his memories.  "Any relation?  You two look awfully alike."

"No.  My mother knew her.  She used to babysit me."

"I see."  He seemed to be deep in thought again.

I got up and handed him his paper back.  "I gotta get going."  I said.  "It was nice to meet you.  Thanks for the paper.  And good luck on your way to wherever it is you're going."

He put his hand up to say thank you.  I looked at him for a minute.  In the time it took for us to have this conversation, that is how long it took me to realize that I had no desire to tell this man who I was.  He left and he left a long time ago.  There was no need to add anymore heartache to myself or to anyone else I knew.  I had survived almost twenty years without him and I could survive another twenty without him too.  He didn't deserve to know how well I was doing in my opinion.  I turned and walked out.

"Miss?"  He called after me.

"Yeah?"

"Sabrina....did she have a daughter by any chance?  I thought I heard something about it."

I paused.  "Oh, yeah, she did."

"Did you know her?"

"I did.  We were friends back in school."

"Oh."  He bit his lower lip.  "What happened to her?  Is she in college or something?"

Without a regret in the world I said, "No.  She died.  Some kind of boating accident.  It was really sad."

His eyes grew wide.  It looked like he might start crying and I really couldn't take much more of that today.  He nodded slowly and said, "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Goodbye, sir."  I said and he waved and I was gone.

*

When I arrived home it was a little after midnight.  After leaving Tom and Martha's I drove to a gas station and bought a pack of cigarettes and then drove down by the lake and smoked nearly the entire pack.  I hadn't smoked a cigarette since I was twelve but right now seemed to be as good a time as any.

Kody was waiting for me.  He held me for a long time.  "Are you all right?"

I nodded.  Then I started to cry.  I didn't really know why.  I guess I felt that all day long everyone was crying for me.  Now it was my turn.

We sat on the sofa in silence except for my sobbing.  I decided I wasn't going to tell anyone about my encounter with my father.  After all the secrets that have been kept for all these years, I figured it was my turn to keep one too.  It didn't matter anyway.  It was between me and him.  He would most likely never be back now that he was under the impression that my mother had moved on and that I was dead.  I didn't feel guilty for making him feel the way I did all these years.  I probably should have, but I didn't.  It was my turn to go on with my life.  It was now my time.

I never dreamed about my father again.

The End

(Author's note: This was written sometime in 2005.) 

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