"Where you going, John?" Noel asked.
"Uh, nowhere, just outside to make a phone call," he said.
"I guess I wasn't aware you knew how to turn your cell phone on," Noel said.
"You're hilarious. I'm sorry I'm not like you guys and do nothing but talk all day. I don't have that much to say."
"So, who are you calling?"
"None of your God damned business, Noel, that's who. I didn't realize making a phone call was going to result in the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition."
"Settle down, John," Claude said, patting him on the shoulder. "He's just curious. You can't blame the kid."
"I don't ask anyone else who they're calling. What the fuck business is it to him who I'm calling?"
"It's not, man, settle down. He's right, though, and as you pointed out you don't use the cell much. So he's just curious."
"Yeah, well, didn't he get taught curiosity kills cats?"
Claude chuckled softly, drawing John away from the group.
They'd been at a release party for a friend of theirs latest album. They'd toured with Shooterz about two years ago and this release was expected to be their most well received to date. The party was ridiculously lame, though, so John had been ready to leave about three hours ago.
Lameness led to him thinking about things other than being here. Things other than here led to him wondering if Melissa was in school yet. That led into wondering if she was even home yet. Claire seemed to think she'd come back when school started, or at least that was the assumption John had. He supposed she could get to the high school just as easily from her parents' house same as she and her brother did years ago. Thinking about Melissa and whether she was home yet led to him thinking about Claire. He thought about her a little more than was probably healthy given she'd given absolutely no indication she had the remotest desire to have any contact with him.
Oh, she'd been polite on the phone the last couple of times they'd talked, but she hadn't gone out of her way to extend the conversations. John wasn't a huge conversationalist by any means. There were things he was curious about, but he wasn't even sure it was his place to ask about them.
"John," Claude said once they were outside. "It's a party, no need to be moody."
"But it's okay for him to insult me?"
"He's not insulting you, John. He was joking."
"Yeah, by making fun of me."
"Okay, maybe, but that's not insulting. We spend days on end together, you need to lighten up or he's going to quit."
"We did fine without a keyboard player."
"Okay. What the fuck are you on?"
"I'm not on anything!"
"Did you and Jeanie call it quits or what?"
"Yeah, funny thing that. I got back from Illinois and suddenly felt as though I was lying to her."
"You've never felt that before?"
"As if I was lying to a woman? Or are you asking me if I've felt as though I was lying to you?"
"Well, I am kind of curious about me, but I get it. So, we'll ignore me and Billy and focus on the woman you'd been at least remotely steadily seeing for a couple of months there. Noel probably thinks you're calling her, in fact, which may be why he was teasing you."
He hadn't had a real serious girlfriend in a while. Not one that warranted phone calls from cell phones anyway.
"I don't know. I didn't even know what the fuck to tell her."
"Yeah, I told her we probably shouldn't see each other."
Claude scoffed at that, making John wonder what that was about. "You don't think she'd understand?"
"Understand that I have a seventeen year old daughter who I hadn't seen until almost two months ago ever in her life? Yeah, I'm sure a woman would be real understanding about that. Or the part where I've been sending the kid support for the past seventeen years but haven't really thought about the fact that my doing that might mean I actually have some rights."
"You didn't want rights," Claude said, sounding cautious. Cautious about the statement or about pissing John off further he'd probably never know. Fact was he'd never really thought about whether he'd have rights. It seemed pretty cut and dried to him. He'd been told to sign, he signed. What option did that leave him? Had he wondered over the years? Sure, once in a while, especially when Claude's kids were born. He probably wouldn't be human if he didn't. Claire's dad's words would swirl around in his head and that would be the end of any thought he gave until the next time.
"No," John said. "I'm not a monster, though. I mean, I know her birthday, and I'd think about her. I know when school starts give or take and I've wondered what grade she'd be in and if she liked school."
"Does she know that?"
"Considering I haven't told her that I'm her father, no."
"I thought you called her house a couple of times. You asked me about what size shirt I thought she'd wear."
Claude was quiet for a minute or two after that, processing no doubt. John could see the confusion there.
"So you haven't talked to her."
"No," John said. "She hadn't even gone back home the last time I called. I started thinking today, wondering if she was home yet."
"So, you've been talking to the mom when you've called?"
"If you want to consider five minute conversations talking, sure."
"What have you talked about?"
"Nothing! I mean, you know, fucking stupid crap. Books and shit."
"And you want to talk about more?"
John shrugged. "I don't know."
Did he? He really didn't know the answer to that question. There was a part of him that, yeah, he wanted to talk to her. He wanted to ask her questions and find out not just about Melissa but about her. Why had she waited years to marry the guy she eventually married? Why had she taken over a year to even say yes to him? Why didn't she marry someone before him?
"Have you tried?"
Claude laughed again.
"Is it Melissa you want to talk about or just more than surface things?"
"I don't know!"
"Ah," Claude said. "Is that who you were going to call?"
"Yes," John said, wishing he could say no.
"Well, don't let me stop you."
"Would you get married again?" John asked.
"Just curious. Would you do it again?"
"Oh, I'd like to say I'm done. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me. I don't know what three times means.
"Oh, I know the last one wasn't because of a divorce, but you and I both know we weren't on a path to a healthy relationship. Come on, I married her after knowing her four months."
John nodded a bit. Claude probably wasn't the best guy to take advice from when it came to women because he didn't think, he just dove right in for the most part. Three marriages wasn't all, he'd been engaged to someone in between wife number one and two and also between two and three. Paula was a little different because they'd known one another since they were kids. (Claude told John a story about Paula flashing him her panties when she was in Kindergarten and Claude swore then and there he was going to marry her.)
"Anyway, make your call, John, and know Noel is just giving you shit because you're not exactly a sharer."
"I never have been."
"No. Cut the kid some slack. He wasn't being insulting."
"Yeah, sure," John said. "See you Wednesday then?"
"Yup," Claude said.
Wednesday they were heading to Canada for four weeks straight. At least in the States there was a chance he'd get home, be able to do laundry and shit without spending an arm and a leg to do it.
He scrolled through his contacts until he found Claire's name as he walked to his car. He was kind of glad the party today didn't start in the evening. He would have been stuck there until real early in the morning if that was the case. He just hadn't been feeling it today. He was among the first to leave, though, so there was no saying how long the party would go.
'Hello,' a voice not Claire's said. John sighed softly, not knowing what to do. He assumed it was Melissa, but could be wrong he supposed. She likely had friends of her own.
"Hi, is Claire home," he asked, figuring asking for Claire was the safest bet.
'No. She went out for a while. Can I take a message?'
"Sure," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose a bit. "Just let her know John called."
'John? John Bender?'
'Hi, it's Missy.'
"Oh, hi. How are you?"
"Yeah? Did you have a good rest of your summer?"
'It was pretty nice. No complaints.'
"Did you do anything exciting?"
'No, not really. I spent most of last week at the hospital.'
"The hospital?" he asked. That didn't sound good. Would Claire call him today if something happened to her that required hospitalization? Probably not, he imagined. "Are you okay? Your mom?"
'We're fine. My best friend, Cindy, she got bucked off her horse and broke some bones. She had to have surgery and stuff.'
"Oh, that sounds pretty serious. Is she okay?"
'Yes. I teased her that she did it on purpose to get out of gym class for the year.'
John laughed softly at that. "That's one way of going about it."
'Yeah,' she said.
"I'm glad she's okay at any rate." All right was probably pretty relative, he imagined. Likely her friend's parents didn't see her as okay. "That was nice of you to spend so much time with her then."
'She did the same for me when I got my tonsils out.'
'Yeah. I kept getting strep throat. I'd take the antibiotics and it'd go away only to come back again, so the doctor finally suggested my mom have them removed.'
"Oh," he said. Funny, he'd gotten strep a lot growing up. Not like she was talking, but at least once a year it seemed like he had it. "They give you lots of ice cream for that, right?"
He chuckled softly at her enthusiasm. "Well, I don't know anyone who doesn't like ice cream."
'We start Tuesday.'
"You all ready?"
'I think so. A little nervous.'
'Yeah. I've already applied to a couple of colleges after I got my test scores, but I have to apply to tons more.'
"Oh, right. Well, I'm sure you'll get in wherever you apply."
'Did you go to college?'
He fought the urge to laugh at the ridiculousness of the question.
"No," he said simply. "No college for me. I went right from high school to what I'm doing now."
'Well, that's worked out for you.'
"Oh sure, but don't think I don't realize that college would have opened a hell of a lot more doors for me so I could have done something different."
'What would you have done if playing guitar hadn't worked?'
"Worked for my dad until I could get out of there."
'What does he do?'
"He's a mechanic."
'Oh,' she said.
"He's a pretty good mechanic, but unfortunately he was pretty crappy when it came to being a father so I'm very lucky that playing guitar worked out for me."
He realized she could be sitting there on the other end of the phone thinking the apple didn't fall from the tree as far as the type of father he'd been. Yeah, he imagined, his own father and upbringing was a reason he never challenged the Standishes. He honestly believed he'd have been better off with no father then the father he had.
"I shouldn't say that, I guess. We all do the best we can when we face things we maybe weren't expecting to face."
'Is that why you don't have kids?'
"Pretty much, yeah," he said, surprised she'd asked that question. "Anyway. Let your mom know I called, can you?"
'Sure. I don't think she'll be back until late tonight. She went on a blind date with my godparents.'
"Oh," he said. "Really?"
Why the fuck did that one sentence make him feel as if he'd been punched in the gut? What did that mean?
'Yeah. She wasn't too thrilled, but my godmother, Allison, is her best friend and convinced her that the guy is real nice and worth meeting.'
"Well, all right. She doesn't need to call me back or anything. I actually got the answer to the question I had."
"I did. You do well in school this year and everything."
'I will. Oh!'
'Thank you so much for the Jimmy Eat World T-shirt. It's amazing!'
He laughed softly at that. "You're welcome. I'm glad you like it."
'I don't want to wear it, though!'
'Then I'd have to wash it and their signatures would wear off.'
"Ah. Well, ask your mom about getting like a picture frame for it. I've seen some people do that with that sort of thing."
'Oh, good idea!'
Somehow he imagined she'd have come up with an equally good idea of her own.
'Thank you, though, really. Mom says you got her a B-52's shirt.'
"I did," he said, surprised somehow Claire would admit to that.
'I love them. When I was little I'd dance this stupid dance to Rock Lobster.'
He closed his eyes, leaning his head against his headrest a bit. Fuck, this was absolutely the worst fucking idea in the world to talk to her. Now he had this image in his head of a little girl dancing to that song. Only thing was because he had no idea what the fuck she looked like as a little girl he didn't have his little girl in his head, but just a generic little girl that could be anybody or anyone's.
Stupid. Fucking stupid. Why the fuck couldn't I just leave well enough the fuck alone?
"Well, I'm glad she liked it and you liked yours. T-shirts are easy to come by. I have to go, though, so just let your mom know I called."
'Oh okay,' she said softly. 'Are you … Will you call her again?'
"Not sure. We'll be in Canada for the next month or so, but good luck with your applications and everything."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com