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|When I was little, my dad was my hero. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.
He was a star athlete all through high school and college, running sprints on the track team, and excelled professionally afterwards as a successful businessman. It was only natural for him to expect the same out of me. Therefore, I spent most of my childhood attending countless practices for the usual Little League baseball, pee-wee football and youth soccer teams. I wasn’t really good at any of them, but my dad was always there cheering me on from the sidelines, congratulating me for a hard-fought game no matter how it ended. Later, when I expressed my interest in music instead of athletics, he supported me just the same, attending every one of my concerts, even though he didn’t know what was going on half the time.
He was the dream father, but when I was in middle school, that all changed. For reasons I could never understand at the time, my parents began fighting. At first, they were just heated arguments, but those spats quickly grew into screaming matches. My dad spent less and less time with me, seeking refuge at work rather than at home. Finally, the situation came to a head when my dad suddenly walked out one night during my seventh grade year. No fanfare, no announcement; he just packed a suitcase and headed out the door. I looked to my mom for answers, but received none. I don’t know if she wouldn’t give me reasons or couldn’t, but she immediately began picking up the pieces and went about her life as if nothing had happened. Once the divorce was final, she seldom even mentioned his name.
I found out later that my mom had suspected my dad of having an affair, an accusation he profusely denied. And after nearly two years of wrangling, my dad caved in and gave up. I spoke to him a few times soon afterward, but now it had been almost three years since I had last heard from him. And frankly, I was beginning to care less and less about him, just like my mom.
So you can imagine my surprise – no, shock – when I heard his voice on the other end of my cell phone. He was in the area, attending a convention in DC, and wanted to meet me for pizza or something. My first instinct was to hang up or tell him to go shove it, but a part of me knew that he still cared about me. You see, even though I wanted to forget him, I would never – could never – forget how good of a father he was to me growing up. I owed him that much.
So, we set the time and the place. I asked if I could bring a friend – JP – and he agreed. Really, I wanted my boyfriend there for moral support. I figured it would be a lot less awkward if someone else was there with my dad and me. And there was no one better than the person I trusted most.
Less than an hour later, JP and I walked into the pizza parlor and searched for my dad. I spotted him sitting by himself at a table in the room crowded with happy families. How ironic, I thought to myself. Being half-Swedish and half-Italian, his stature had always been tall and strong with sharp, dark features, but the four years since the divorce had started to take their toll on my father. His slick black hair was beginning to turn gray, his chiseled face displaying the first few wrinkles of old age. His body still showed the athletic strength of his younger days, but I noticed he had lost quite a bit of weight.
JP, having heard only a little about my relationship with my dad, sensed the rest and secretly squeezed my hand in reassurance. I took a deep breath and walked up to the table.
“Hi, dad,” I muttered.
“Hi, Matthew,” he answered, standing up and coming forward. He moved to give me a hug and I meekly held out my hand to shake his, resulting in that awkward dance when two people are unsure of how to greet each other. We decided to just shake hands. “You’ve grown up,” he remarked softly. “You look good.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, smiling laboriously.
“This must me your friend,” he said, gratefully re-directing his attention to JP.
“I’m JP,” my boyfriend introduced himself cheerfully, offering one of his muscled arms to my dad. The tension lifted immediately as he spoke. My dad took his hand, expressing his surprise at what was no doubt a very strong handshake.
“Dang,” he observed, “you seem really strong.” There was no hiding JP’s buffed body anymore. He was wearing a T-shirt that was a touch too small for him, his arms and chest filling it solidly. (“I’m going to have to get new clothes again,” he had told me when he put in on). “You look pretty built for an 18-year-old.”
“Actually,” my boyfriend blushed, “I’m 16.”
My dad’s eyes nearly flew out of their sockets. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “What do they feed you kids nowadays?” After we sat down and ordered drinks, the three of us had a genial conversation about school and sports. He smiled warmly when JP bragged of my accomplishments in crew. He was proud of me; I had become an athlete after all.
Every now and then, my dad would glance over at me and I would catch in his eyes a glimpse of sad reminiscence. He regretted not being there during the most important years of my growing up, but knew there was no way he could truly give it back to me.
When the waitress came, my dad flashed me a look of disbelief when I ordered two pies. “Believe me,” I said, “wait ‘till you see how much this kid can eat.” JP turned red when I peered over at him. Sure enough, my boyfriend ate nearly an entire pie himself…and I had the feeling he was even holding back! My dad just shook his head.
“If only I had that kind of metabolism again,” he commented.
Finally, after we were all stuffed, – or at least my dad and I – JP excused himself and got up to go to the restroom. My dad looked back over to me and smiled. “That JP’s a great kid. Your mother always said you had good taste in friends.”
I paused, not sure whether to chance the relaxed atmosphere so far. “Have you talked to her lately?” I ventured. I knew it was risky bringing her up, but I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Actually,” my dad answered, leaning forward and calmly placing his elbows on the table, his hands holding his chin, “I called her the other night.” I looked up suddenly. They hadn’t spoken since the divorce. “I wanted to tell her what I’m about to tell you. That’s why I asked to meet.” I peered into my dad’s eyes. Even though I had inherited my mom’s coloring, everyone always said I had my father’s eyes. Deep, sensitive eyes, JP would tell me, that were powerful enough to brighten a room and soft enough to suck you into them. Right now, his eyes were so muted, I could barely see any emotion; he was nervous.
“I’m getting remarried.”
My heart fell with a thud and my mouth dropped open slightly. No. For four years, I had let myself hope that, although the chances were slim, I’d be able to see my parents back together again. I wanted our family to be the way it used to be – happy, loving, supportive of each other. Now, all that hoping went right out the window with those words. I was speechless.
“Her name is Joyce,” my dad went on. “I met her on one of those Internet dating sites. She’s a really nice woman and…”
“Why?” I finally let out.
“What?” My dad looked at me in slight shock of my reaction, his planned speech interrupted.
“Why?” I repeated. “Why now?” I knew the question sounded stupid, but I couldn’t think of any other way to say it.
“Matthew,” he started speaking more softly now, “You know your mother and I have not gotten along and I’m tired of trying to compromise with her.”
“Compromise?!” I blurted. “Dad, mom is not one of your business deals.”
The look on his face told me that he knew his word choice was poor. “I know you want us to be together again, but it just isn’t going to work out. Your mother is too stubborn.” I silently agreed with him on that, but didn’t let on. “And I’m not going to wait around for her to decide what she wants.” I was staring intently at him. His voice wavered a little as he defended his words. I couldn’t understand.
“How could you just give up like that?” I asked, my own voice quivering with anger.
“I’m not giving up,” he pleaded, “I’m moving on. Joyce is someone who…”
“She gives you attention,” I interjected. “Is that it?”
“Matthew, no, I…” My dad was straining to find any words now. “She’s what I need right now to get my life back on track.”
I looked down at the table and slowly shook my head, clenching my jaw. “And what about my life?” I asked with a quiet fierceness. “Do you know how hard it is for me to go through high school without you? Do you realize what it’s like for me to not see you at my concerts and regattas?” My eyes were beginning to well up and I was struggling to blink back the tears.
“Matthew,” my dad said apologetically, “I’m sorry I haven’t been there the last few years, but I will always be your father. You must understand that.” A long silence followed as I let those words settle inside of me. He was right, but that vague promise wouldn’t make up for his absence. “Anyway,” he continued cautiously, “the wedding’s in September. I was going to ask you if you would like to come.” “No,” I answered bluntly before he even finished the question.
Realizing that that was the only response he was going to get out of me, he looked away and began fishing his pocket for his wallet. “Well, I hope that you will reconsider,” he said dejectedly. “I would really like you to be there.” He laid the money on the table and began walking away. Then, he turned around and squatted down next to me. I refused to look at him.
“Let me offer you some advice,” he spoke solemnly, but with the fatherly care that I had missed. “When you meet the girl you want to spend the rest of your life with, make sure it’s not just because she’s pretty or has a great personality, or even because she gives you attention. Make sure it’s because you really love her.”
It wasn’t the most poetic thing I had ever heard, but it echoed through my head. Make sure you really love her. How could I tell him that I really was in love? How could I make him realize that I wasn’t making the same…mistake he did? As my dad stood up and walked out of the restaurant, I hung my head, trying to keep from crying.
I don’t know how many minutes I sat there remorsefully, but I didn’t notice JP had returned until he spoke. “Your dad left already?” I looked up at him and could tell he instantly saw the look in my eyes. “What happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I mumbled.
“Come on,” my boyfriend placed his hand on my shoulder and urged me up. “Let’s go. I’ll drive. I have my license now.”
The ride back to his place was dead quiet. He was deeply concerned for me, but he knew that I wasn’t quite ready to let out my thoughts yet, even to him. When we did return, JP brought me down to the basement and sat with me on the couch, my head nudged against his round shoulder. He combed my hair with his fingers, silently comforting me with his touch. Finally, I spoke:
“What?” he responded. “What have you to be sorry about?”
And then I spilled everything. I opened my head and purged everything that was inside. JP had known about my parents’ divorce, but nothing more. He had never asked, knowing that it was a sensitive subject to me. But I no longer kept anything secret from my boyfriend. I told him about how good of a father my dad had been to me, how we were so close when I was little, how my mom erased him from her life. Everything. All the while, he just sat next to me, listening intently, taking in everything I offered to him. When I was finished, streaks covered my cheeks from crying, my throat was sore. JP peered at me with his gorgeous, blue eyes. He looked down at the floor for a second, shifting his jaw, and then replied:
“I want to show you something.”
With that, he pulled me off the couch and led me into the back room. The pictures documenting his growth – we had christened it “The Wall” – had now spread to a second side of the room, a literal shrine to the growing god that was JP Maloney. Every time I walked in there, no matter how many times I had seen it, I was blown away. But that was not what my boyfriend wanted to show me. Instead, he walked over to the cabinet in the far corner, opened a drawer and pulled out a photo album. Handing it to me, he said, “Here, look.”
I puzzledly opened the cover to the first page. On it was a photo of a kid that looked like Ryan, only much younger and – no, it couldn’t be. “That’s my brother when he was in fifth grade,” JP explained. I was shocked. Ryan had been fat as a kid? It just didn’t seem possible. He was wearing only swimming trunks and the picture was taken at the town pool. The face was the same – the gleaming, green eyes that hypnotized you upon sight – but rolls of fat dripped off his body. “That’s my brother before he became popular,” JP went on. “All through elementary school, he got picked on because of his weight. He hated it.” My boyfriend smiled. “But he was my hero. We were really close, my brother and I. We did everything together. I looked up to him so much.”
JP turned the page. There was a second picture of Ryan, now a little older and considerably thinner. His face was beginning to show the features that it held now. “Then, for some reason, he started working out the summer before sixth grade. His body took to it pretty well. The fat just melted off his body and he started building muscle real fast.” He turned the page and revealed another picture. “This is him two years later,” JP pointed. Ryan at 13 looked amazing! The fat was all but completely gone, his arms were solid with muscle, his chest was big and round, his stomach was ripped.
“I couldn’t believe how my brother had changed,” JP remembered. “And I looked up to him and respected him even more.” A couple more pages and Ryan began to amass more and more size, becoming the Adonis that made him a legend. “But he changed in another way, too,” he continued. “By the time he got to high school, he was a full-blown jock. He had new friends, new hobbies, girlfriends. He started spending less and less time with me. He was popular. He didn’t have time for his dweeby little brother.” I looked up from the book into my boyfriend’s eyes. They seemed sad and I realized what he was trying to tell me.
JP’s relationship with his brother was almost exactly like my relationship with my dad. They were both once strong and thriving, but were now cold and nearly non-existent. And I could read in his eyes at that moment that he had the very same desire I did – we both wanted that relationship back, but we were afraid to try, fearing that it would make the situation even worse. My mouth opened in revelation. “Oh, my God,” I exclaimed.
“See what I mean?” he asked, looking at me with a somber expression. “But now, you have hope.”
I looked at him questioningly. “What do you mean?” JP closed the album and placed it back in the cabinet drawer.
“What your dad said tonight,” he started, his back still facing me, “he wants that relationship back as much as you do.” Then, he turned around, his jaw clenched in frustration. There was something else. “But Ryan doesn’t. He doesn’t care about me anymore.”
“JP,” I took his hands in mine, “you know that’s not true.”
“Part of the reason I started working out,” he explained forcefully, “was to be like him. I figured if I rose to his level, he’d start paying attention to me again.” JP blinked a few times and bit his lip. “But the bigger I got, the more I realized I wasn’t rising, I was falling.” I furrowed my brow, trying to understand what he was saying.
“Ryan is nothing like he used to be. When he was…fat, he was caring and kind and the best guy to be around.” He took a heavy breath. “Now, he’s a jerk and the only things he cares about are sex, himself and his cock.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” I assured him. “I’m sure inside, he’s the same person he always was.”
“He’s not!” JP screamed and ripped his hands away from mine. My mouth dropped open in shock. This was the first time I had ever heard my boyfriend raise his voice. It scared me. He was smart. If there were any reason as to why he would really believe that about his brother, there was something more to it. I walked up behind him and wrapped my arms around his chiseled torso, cupping my hands around his meaty pecs and resting my chin on his broad shoulder. I immediately felt his breathing relax.
“It happened last December,” he described, more softly now. “I was walking past his bedroom one night after working out when I heard noises.” JP gulped and I could tell this was a hard story for him to tell. “I peeked in and saw my brother standing in front of the mirror…his fucking cock in one hand…and,” he hung his head down in humiliation, “and his other hand feeling up his chest.” My boyfriend turned around toward me and his eyes looked for the first time like they were going to shed tears. “My brother was jacking off to his own body!” he cried, his voice cracking with emotion.
I took JP in my arms again and hugged him. He instantly enveloped his muscular limbs around my chest. “That’s when I decided I no longer wanted to be like him,” he sobbed. “And when I decided to come out to you.”
I raised his head so that I could look directly into him. “Is that why you asked me that one day in the car, if I thought you were being too cocky?” I asked softly. He nodded.
“I knew that first moment I saw you that I was in love,” JP went on. “And it began to dawn on me that I had something to work for. I had something Ryan didn’t.” I knew what he was talking about.
“Me,” I said. He nodded again.
Now it all made sense to me. JP wanted so badly to have the same relationship with his brother that he did when he was little, he was willing to change his whole life for it. But that change only pushed his brother farther away from him. That’s how he needed me. I had always wondered why he was so special to me. I knew he loved me, but I always got the feeling that he needed me as much as I needed him. And now I knew why.
JP needed me to help tear down the wall that stood between him and his brother…just as much as I needed help tearing down the wall between my dad and me.
“You’ll always have me,” I reassured him, whispering in his ear. “I’ll never leave you.”
“I know,” he replied.
And the two of us stood there, embracing each other, closer and more in love than ever before.
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