There are things in the world that you know exist but which you never expect to see in your own life. Some of these things are mundane, like packaging errors that end up giving you an extra of something you ordered online. Some of these things are horrific, like leftover explosives from a war before you were born detonating in the farmland outside of your town. Most of these things are in-between.
He came home from work early. Things had been slow this week, and they were cutting hours. Normally he would have stayed, fighting for his time and his pay, but his wife had seemed sad this week, and she’d said off-hand that she wished he was home a bit more. A few hours wouldn’t make much different, he supposed, but it was something he could try to do for his family.
He had known his wife was upset about something, even though she hadn’t mentioned it. He liked to wait until she came to him about things that were bothering her, because in the past, when he’d approached her, it had never gone well. She took time to be ready to talk about her problems, which was okay by him.
He had known something was wrong, but he hadn’t expected to find her sitting on the floor outside of the bathroom, elbows on her knees, head in her hands, crying. She hadn’t heard him come in. She looked up at him in surprise, and, unexpectedly, trepidation.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. He was a tall man, strongly built from years of work, with broad shoulders, calloused hands, a maybe a bit too much gut. None of that mattered when his wife cried. It all melted away, leaving him feeling weak and insecure. Awkward. He didn’t know what to do with his hands.
She shook her head. He frowned. There was something wrong beyond her tears. She took a breath, paused, then took another breath — he could see she either didn’t know where to start, or didn’t want to tell him at all. He knelt beside her, taking her hand in his.
“Come on, babe,” he said, rubbing the backs of her hands.
She pointed at the door to the bathroom, where he could hear the shower running. “He went on a date,” she said. She pulled one hand from his to wipe away her tears.
“What?” His heart skipped a beat. His brow furrows with concern. “You… Why didn’t you tell me?”
Hundreds of thoughts seem to rush through his head in a flood. She hadn’t told him. His son hadn’t told him. His son had never even talked with him about the girls he was interested in. Now he had apparently gone on a date, and nobody had thought to tell his father. Worse, it seemed like they had actively hidden it from him.
She shook er head again, withdrawing her other hand. She covered her face so that she didn’t have to meet his eyes. “He didn’t want you to know.”
This cut deep. It’s like they’ve taken an ice-cold knife and opened up his chest, revealing his raw, beating heart, which begins to freeze over at the touch of the cold steel. He stood up, squaring his shoulders, because he didn’t want her to see that she had hurt him, even though he knew she knew. Men aren’t supposed to show things like that, after all.
He knocked on the bathroom door. From inside issued his son’s voice, dampened by the door and the ambient sound of the vent fan and the shower. “Just leave me alone for now, mom.”
“It’s your father,” he said, and though he tried to sound kind, he felt immediately that his voice had been hardened by his own pain into something more closely resembling anger.
His son didn’t answer. He didn’t know what the boy was going through, but it frustrated him that nobody will tell him. He let himself feed on the frustration. It’s a better emotion than hurt. It felt safer, somehow, even though he knew it to be more dangerous. Without saying another word, he opened the door to the bathroom and stepped inside, shutting it again behind him.
Steam cloaked the room, fogging the mirror and fuzzing away all sense of clarity. The boy had the shower turned on hot, almost masochistically so, or the vent would have pulled more steam out of the room than this.
“Dad!” his son said. “What are you doing? I’m in the shower!”
“Relax,” he said. “I can’t see anything through the curtain. I need to know what’s going on.” The room was hot, and he began to sweat almost immediately. He sat down on the toilet, lid down. “Talk to me, son. Your mom said you went on a date.”
There was a pause, one that felt as deep and open as a canyon, before his son answered. “I did.”
There was no joy in the admission, only fear and hesitation. “Why didn’t you tell me, son?”
He was afraid of the answer, though he didn’t want to think about why. There were suspicions floating beneath the surface of his mind, just deep enough that he could pretend to be unable to perceive them. They were things he had denied seeing all his life, things that he knew were possible but which he thought he would never have to deal with. They were problems for other dads, and other sons. Not him and his.
“I was afraid of what you’d think.”
There was no reason for his son to fear that. He’d been encouraging him to find a girl and go on dates for years. Since middle school, even, though his wife hadn’t been nearly so excited about the prospect. Neither had his son, until now, apparently, and now all the hints said it hadn’t gone well at all.
“Why?” he asked, though he didn’t want to know the answer. This wasn’t supposed to be a part of his life. His life was supposed to be good and right and easy. His son was supposed to be normal and happy.
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Tell me, son,” he said, even though every instinct in his body screams at him not to say it. He wanted to stand up and walk out of the room, to slam the door and leave his son and wife to deal with this on their own. Instead he sat, bracing himself by clenching his fists so tight that the knuckles shone white in the blurred, foggy light.
There was another pause, one that seemed to stretch all the longer, laced as it was with the feeling of pent anxiety. “It wasn’t… My date wasn’t…” his son began. Another short paused followed this, before he blurted, quickly and painfully, “My date was a boy.”
Now it was the father’s turn to uphold the silence. His knuckles clenched tighter and tighter until he couldn’t take the pain any more, then he lashed out, left fist slamming into the wall. The crunch resounded through the bathroom, dampened by the steam and by the blood pounding through his ears.
Anger. He was beyond angry, he was furious, but he wasn’t mad at his son. He was mad at himself for not seeing it sooner. He was mad at himself for not being able to fix his son, or instill in him what it meant to be a real man. He felt like he had failed him, like he had failed to teach him some important lesson.
“Dad?” His son’s voice, from the shower, sounded so weak and pathetic. He was afraid.
Now he felt that he had failed his son again, with his anger. He never wanted his son to be afraid of him. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” his son said, too quickly.
“Tell me,” he growled. He took a breath and managed to say, a bit more calmly, “I want to know.”
“We went to a restaurant,” his son said. “We didn’t think… I didn’t think anyone would even notice us, or care. But they did. A man poured his drink on me.”
In all the years he had been a father, he never wanted to cry more than in this moment. He hadn’t cried in years. He didn’t know if he even remembered how. It had always felt like there was something there blocking the tears. Now water trailed down his cheeks, and he didn’t want to know if it was sweat or tears.
He stood, unsure of himself in a way he hadn’t been in years, and letting it show more than he ever allowed himself. His fist ached from punching through the wall. He grabbed a towel from the cabinet. “Turn the water off,” he said gruffly.
“Dad?” His son’s voice shook, but he listened. The sound of the shower stopped, and now all that accompanied them was the drone of the fan.
The father, eyes closed, pulled the curtain aside. He held the towel out in one hand. “Cover yourself.”
He gave his son a moment to follow through, then opened his eyes. His son stood before him, wet and thin, his hair plastered to his head. The boy looked so small and weak, so unlike the man his father had wanted him to be. He was shaking. His hands grasped the edges of the towel to make sure it didn’t fall.
In that moment, something broke within the father. He reached forward with both hands, leaning over the edge of the tub, and grabbed his son’s shoulders, pulling him close. His son tensed, at first, his arms going stiff. Then he realized his father’s intend, and gave in to his embrace.
Water soaked the father’s shirt, but he didn’t care. “I’m sorry, son.”
“If anything like that ever happens to you again, you tell me,” he said, squeezing him even tighter. “I don’t care who it is. You tell me, and I deal with them. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” his son said quietly, his voice somehow ever weaker than before.
“Good,” said the father, holding him close still. “Good.”