Once a week, we take Dad to his favorite restaurant. Tonight, he dresses up to impress the waitress. We always sit in the same booth because they pretend to flirt with each other. The waitress greets him by name. “George, you’re all dolled up tonight. Do you have a date after dinner?”
“I might have. What time do you get off?”
During dinner I tell Dad that his suit against the nursing home could take two or three years to make its way through the courts. “The back and forth among the lawyers will be a constant reminder of the nursing home and Mom’s death.” Did he want the anger and regret to overshadow the remaining years of his life?
“Sometimes you must do what’s right.”
“I’ll support you, but I don’t want to see you aggravated when it doesn’t go your way.”
“That’s what you said when I contested my ticket.”
“What ticket?” Leslie asks. “When was this?”
Dad launches into the story of the minor accident he’d had in the crowded supermarket parking lot two months ago. The other car had already passed behind him. “I looked in the rearview mirror. No one was there, so I started backing out and bam! I hit a car. The damn fool was in my way.”
I’ll admit that Dad has a point. The other driver was a damn fool. Instead of waiting for Dad to leave, he started backing up to prevent anyone behind him from stealing Dad’s space.
“What happened next?”
“It was dark and raining, and I wasn’t about to get out of my car. The cops said I was at fault. I explained that the other guy was reversing out of the blue. The cop gave me a ticket and said if didn’t like it I could take it up with the judge.”
“He shouldn’t have spoken to you that way. How old was the other driver?”
“Old enough to know better.”
Dad had stewed about this ‘injustice’ for two days before I stopped by to visit. He was determined to fight the ticket. “It wasn’t my fault. It was dark and raining—”
I appeal to Leslie. “All I said was I didn’t think that would carry much weight with the judge.”
“—and he got in my way. I wasn’t paying a surcharge on my insurance for the next six years!”
“I only reminded Dad about what happened to Mom. Bring attention to your age and the Registry could make you take the driving test again.”
From Leslie’s expression, I can tell she thinks requiring Dad to retake the driving test may solve our worries about his driving.
Dad had made up his mind and I gave up. That was the last I’d heard about the ticket. Now as he tells Leslie the story, I learn he had to reschedule his appearance in traffic court twice because of doctor appointments.
“When I called the third time, a nice lady answered the phone. I explained I wanted to contest a ticket, and she asked how old I was.
““Oh, dear,” she said. “You don’t have to come in. We’ll take care of it here for you.” And they did.” Dad pulls an envelope from his pocket and flaps it triumphantly in front of me. “Case dismissed without prejudice.”
I imagine he’s told the story to all his neighbors: “My son said I couldn’t win…” I wonder how long he’s waited to tell me.
“All I’m saying is I beat the ticket. Who says I can’t beat the nursing home?”
The waitress stops by with the check. “Have a good evening, folks.”
I hand her my credit card.
Leslie looks from one of us to the other. “I think you’re comparing apples to oranges but,” she pauses, “we’ll see what happens.”
When I pay the bill, Dad cranes his neck to look at the credit card slip. “Make sure you leave her a good tip.”
“I always do.”
We return to his apartment. I carry in two boxes in which to pack the teacups. Leslie is taking a bedside table from Mom’s bedroom that Dad told Elaine she can use in her new apartment.
“You’re sure you don’t mind, Dad? You might find a need for it.”
“Elaine is welcome to it. I have more tables than things to put on them.”
Before we leave, he takes us into his bedroom where he keeps a file cabinet. “All my financial information is here.” He picks up several papers stapled together from the top of the cabinet. “Here’s a summary explaining what’s in each folder. I don’t have much to leave you, but at least you can take your families out to dinner. My treat.” He grins.
Leslie protests. “Don’t worry about us. You spend every nickel you’ve got on yourself.”
“Rachel and I tell our kids not to expect us to leave them anything. We’re spending our last dime on the taxi to the funeral home.”
Dad replaces the papers on the cabinet. “Everything is left to you two. You can decide if you want to give anything to the kids.” We walk back to the living room. “It was a relief to get everything down on paper. It was weighing on my mind.”
Leslie and I soon leave. She’ll call Dad tomorrow. “We can schedule our next dinner.”
Walking to our cars, Leslie says, “I’m glad he’s got everything organized, but I hate talking about it. I hope Dad isn’t giving up.”
“We should try again to convince Dad to go to the senior center. He might meet someone who likes model railroads and they could set it up. That’s better than letting everything collect dust in the basement. And if he donates his trains to the center, he’ll have a tax deduction.”
“You’ve certainly thought a lot about this.”
“He’s alone all day. Having a couple of friends might give him a new lease on life. I don’t think he has anyone.”
Leslie raises her eyebrow the way she does when she wonders what you’re getting at. “Suing the nursing home seems to get him excited.”
“You know what I mean.” I try to defend myself. “Don’t you agree? We can only guess what he’s feeling: a widower, in poor health, alone. There might be a support group at the center. Or another man he could talk to. Someone who’s dealing with the same issues—”
“Are you nuts? I’d like to be a fly on the wall when you suggest to Dad that he might want to unburden himself to a stranger.”
“I know. It sounds like a premise for a comedy series: How My Father Met A New Best Friend.”
Leslie looks at me with surprise. “Did Mom tell you what she thought?”
“Depends on what you’re talking about?”
“Mom said something to me about a month before she died. Dad was late arriving, so I was alone with her. She seemed more lucid that day than at any time in the last half year. Guess what she told me?”
I shrug. “She was smoking pot?”
“Mark, I’m serious.”
“So am I. The inmates would be a lot happier if they got high.”
“Anyway, guess what she told me.”
I have no patience for this kind of game. “How would I know what went on in her mind?”
Leslie lowers her voice as if afraid someone is listening between two cars. “She told me that Dad was having sex with his boyfriend!”
My jaw falls open. “Are you kidding?”
“Honest to God, that’s what she said. I asked her twice to make sure.” Leslie smacked my arm. “Don’t laugh, I’m not joking. She told me Dad goes off for dinner and sex with his boyfriend and doesn’t tell her. She was indignant because she thought I didn’t believe her.”
“Believe her? I’m only relating what she told me. She thought I already knew about it.”
“Did she tell you the name of Dad’s…uh…lover?” I try to be serious, but I fail.
“No. She repeated what she said, but then clammed up when I began asking questions. She thought I didn’t believe her.”
“That’s all she said.”
“I couldn’t steer her back to the subject.”
“She never said anything like that to me.” This must be a mother-daughter dynamic, thank God, but I wanted more details.
“It’s probably another of her delusions.” Leslie sounds like she’s trying, but hasn’t yet, convinced herself. “All I can say is good for him. If he has a boyfriend, then go for it. At least he’s having fun. He deserves a little joy.”
I’m grinning at myself in the mirror while shaving when Rachel comes in to use the hair dryer. “Is it something about me?” She turns around to inspect her hair in the mirror. She adjusts the collar of her blouse, then looks closer at my reflection. “What’s so funny?”
“It’s nothing about you.” She acts like I’m full of it. “It’s not. It’s something Leslie told me.”
“When you took your father out for dinner?”
I swish the razor in the water, then hit the plunger. “After we dropped him off.” The water drains leaving behind a whisker and shaving cream scum.
“Make sure you rinse the bowl.” She hangs up the hair dryer. “And look at that drain again. The sink takes forever to empty and drives me crazy.”
“It’s gurgling. Don’t be so impatient. I’ll use more of that chemical stuff and let it sit all day.”
“If it’s still slow, use the snake.”
“You mean what the lady said to her gynecologist—”
“Very funny.” Rachel is on her way downstairs.
“Wait,” I call to her. “Let me tell you what Leslie said.”
“Tell me at breakfast. I’m in a rush today.”
By the time I shower and dress in my casual-Friday clothes, I hear “Don’t forget the drain” and the front door closing behind her.
When Leslie told me what Mom had said about Dad, she wasn’t happy when I laughed. I shouldn’t joke about Mom’s off-the-wall stories, but that one takes the cake. Considering her dementia, Leslie and I put it down to Mom being Mom.
Over the next few days, I concluded that Mom was projecting her own loneliness, desires, and regrets on Dad. Perhaps it had something to do with the man she kept sitting next to. These impulses, hidden away, rise to the surface in old age, undisguised as if dissembling is too much work at this time of life. As if worrying about what other people think is no longer important.
This evening Rachel and I do not eat dinner in front of the TV. Instead, we sit at the kitchen table eating like civilized people. And talking.
“Didn’t you want to tell me something Leslie said the other day?”
I begin laughing anticipating Rachel’s reaction. My giddiness is a combination of stress from work, lack of sleep, and the story I’m about to tell her. I try to stop, but every time I think about Leslie’s story, I start again, like stumbling down a sidewalk unable to use my feet to stop the acceleration.
Rachel gets up from the table to clear the dishes. “Honestly, Mark. You worry me sometimes. I have a sense that what you’re about to tell me isn’t the least bit funny.”
Her rebuke sobers me up. “Sorry. I’m overtired. Mom told Leslie that Dad has a boyfriend.”
Rachel stares at me as if I’m a lunatic. “Boyfriend? She said, boyfriend?”
“That’s what Leslie said.”
“She must have misunderstood. Your mother didn’t speak clearly.”
“She asked her to repeat what she’d said, and Mom repeated the story again. She insisted that Mom was quite clear.”
“You don’t think there’s any truth in what she said.” When I don’t answer, she adds “Or do you?”
“What? No. Are you kidding? He’s eighty-eight years old. I can’t picture him running around with a thirty-year-old bodybuilder.”
“Why not? One of the gay nurses at the hospital has a sugar daddy. Women don’t have a monopoly on older men. Besides, it doesn’t mean this friendship is sexual. More likely it’s an exaggeration in your mother’s mind. She might have misunderstood something he’d said. Or maybe it’s a suspicion she had.”
“That’s a doozy of a suspicion. And when would he have had the time? He spent most of the day sitting with her in the nursing home.”
“Who says it’s happening now? Your mother wasn’t living in the present. The past was more real.”
“You think she was talking about something that happened twenty or thirty years ago?”
“I’m not thinking anything. I agree the story sounds crazy, but something caused her to mention it. Did Leslie say what they were talking about at the time?”
“Nothing to do with that. She said Mom brought it up out of the blue.
“Something triggered it.”
“I can’t picture Dad cavorting with a gym rat with abs that won’t stop—”
“Stop making jokes. For all you know it was a platonic relationship.”
“Yeah, but his boyfriend still has a tattoo on his bubble butt.”
Rachel arches one eyebrow. “Are we talking about your father or is this your fantasy?”
“Ha, ha. Funny.”
“Then stop twitching your leg. You act like you’re all excited.”
Two hours later, Rachel and I are in bed discussing her plans to visit her college roommate in New York. After a long silence, I assume Rachel has fallen asleep, her breathing is quiet and regular. I roll over, plump my pillow, and turn on my CPAP machine. The air pressure comes on and I take a deep breath to prepare to drift asleep.
It’s no use. I keep replaying what Mom told Leslie. For the first time, I wonder if my father might be gay. I’m awake for another hour, my mind shuffling through memory after memory. I keep putting two and two together but keep getting five.
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