"You're sure you want to do this now, hon?"
"As opposed to when?" John asked.
She really didn't seem to want him to go, and he knew it wasn't because she didn't want him to go somewhere without her. She was going out, too, with a couple of her friends.
Claire shrugged. Clearly that meant she didn't have an answer or her question was really just hypothetical. Or she knew something he didn't.
"You're the one who suggested I ask him to meet me for a beer somewhere."
"Well, yeah, around Christmas. You didn't so I just assumed you didn't really want to. I don't know."
"I didn't want to let something personal interfere with business. They've done their engagement pictures sitting so I feel more comfortable confronting him."
"Even if it means he won't use you for their wedding?"
"If that's what it means, well, I'm better off knowing that now, aren't I? I mean if my asking him what the deal is makes him rethink using me as his photographer well then that's his problem not mine."
"John," she said.
"What?" he snapped and she frowned. She looked a lot nicer for her evening out than he did. If he didn't know better he'd wonder who she was dressing for, but he knew it was just how she was. He, on the other hand, was perfectly content in his jeans and flannel shirt.
"I just worry about you, that's all. You like him."
"Would it really hurt just to have him as a friend and not worry about it?"
"Worry about it?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, you don't really know anything beyond a suspicion."
"Wouldn't you wonder? Want to know? Come on. What if someone's putting him up to it to get dirt on you through me? You know, buddying up to me so if we get into an argument or are on the verge of filing for a divorce he'd be one of the first to know."
"I don't think he'd do that. I really don't."
"You don't know, though. He's a nurse. He made it sound as if his parents may not be exactly thrilled with his career path. We don't know he's not cut off from them. They disowned one kid already."
"Because she got pregnant. And we don't know all of the details of that either. We only have Philip's version, which would have to be their version. We don't know her version. Maybe she chose to leave!"
He had to admit she had a point there. He'd probably never know the sister's version of things. Who knows what lies or slanted versions of the truth his parents filled their heads with over the years. It still seemed pretty harsh to disown your kid because she got knocked up, though. Wasn't that sort of ensuring she'd have a piss-poor life? Then he knew nothing about the sister's boyfriend. Maybe he was as well-off as the Taylors so it wasn't a step down for her. He hadn't gotten that impression, though, from the way Phillip spoke.
"How many people have you seen him hug?"
"Well, no one besides me, and you, I guess. I don't hang around with him or anything, though, John. He could do that to everyone for all I know."
"I don't think so and neither do you, you can't tell me otherwise. I do like him, enough to be friends with him. I don't do that easily, you of all people should know that. I guess that's why I have to do this. If I'm being setup for something or whatever I'd really like to know."
"I don't think he'd do that. I get the impression he likes you from what Christopher says."
"Really? Because your parents would've shown up to meet me randomly like his did? I mean if you'd been marrying someone else and come to me for your engagement pictures. And he really seemed surprised I didn't recognize their names."
"And that's another thing. Where does he get off asking your brother about me? You say he was never interested in you."
"He wasn't. We hung out his senior year. It's how I became popular so fast our freshman year. I knew him. We never dated or anything, though. He never once asked me out."
He hadn't known they were friendly like that, hanging out with the same group of people. It made sense, though, why she'd risen to the top so quickly their freshman year and stayed there throughout high school. She'd had an in by knowing someone already at the top. She hadn't needed much help. He had no doubt even without Phillip in the picture she would have accomplished the same amount of popularity because most everyone in school knew her brother. He was one of those guys who was not just immensely popular but wasn't an asshole.
"Then what's the deal with that? He suddenly has an opinion and the right to decide whether I'm good enough for you?"
"I'm sure that's not why he was asking, honey. Really. He was just curious about you. I mean, everyone was because we got married so quietly and they had no idea who you were. He just knew Chris well enough to ask him."
"It's still weird. I'm a big boy, Claire. I can handle it. I was just trying to be practical. If you haven't noticed I'm not exactly swimming in business at this time of the year. I didn't want to scare off a customer. I mean, I prepare for these leaner months. I'm not broke or anything."
"I know. I know you're not broke, too, I saw how hard you worked last summer. I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"I think my days of letting people hurt me are done. They have been for a while now."
"That's different and not at all the same thing. This is a potential friend."
"Potential being the key word here, Princess. I realize I'm not swimming in them as you are."
"That's my point!"
"Wow. Thank you. So I'm not capable of making them regularly, is that what you're saying?"
"What? That's not at all what I said! How did this get turned around into something it's not?"
"I don't know. You tell me."
She was mad, beyond mad. Probably on the verge of being pretty furious at him right now, but he was mad, too. She didn't get it. He thought she would. Sure she had an abundance of friends, but very few that she could actually trust. There was a reason she'd come to him last summer after the incident at the club she'd gone to. How couldn't she understand that he wanted facts before investing more time and energy developing a friendship? A real friendship not one based on a past life of drug use and petty criminal behavior that linked him to people.
"Fine. Go. Do whatever you want. You will anyway."
"Well, yeah," he said. "I didn't realize I needed your permission to go out. You can go out, but I can't. Is that it?"
"You don't! I have never said you couldn't go out. I'm going out tonight only because you are! Forget it. Okay," she said, walking away from him. He saw tears in her eyes, though, as she turned away from him. She went to the guest bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Chances were that meant she wasn't going to come out before he left because she never went into that bathroom. She was doing it to get away from him apparently.
"Claire," he said through the door a few minutes later when he was ready to leave. She didn't answer, which didn't surprise him completely. She was mad. He wasn't exactly sure what her deal was. She was the one who suggested talking to him away from Elizabeth! She agreed with him that the entire situation seemed weird. Had she changed her mind?
"Claire," he said, knocking lightly on the door.
"Have a good time."
"Don't. Okay. I know you're sorry and you didn't mean anything."
"Geez. Do I really sound like that? Come on," he said, settling his hand on the doorknob but he didn't try to open it.
"You're going to be late."
"He can wait."
"No, he can't."
"John, just go."
"You're mad at me."
"I'm not mad at you."
"You could've fooled me."
"Are you still going out?
"Yes, I'll be fine."
"All right," he said with a soft sigh. He debated about pretending to leave so she'd come out, but knew if he did that she'd get madder at him. He didn't want that tonight. He had enough on his mind since his mom had left a message for him at the studio earlier in the day and he had absolutely no desire to call her back. He would, though, because in the back of his mind was the fact that if she was calling him she needed something. He hadn't heard from her since she and Billy came to the house with the picture he'd drawn. Ronda hadn't been sure whether to pass along the message or not, but she'd done the (theoretically) right thing and let him choose whether to call her or not.
He waited for a few minutes, taking longer than necessary to put his coat on and find his keys hoping she'd come out of the bathroom before he left but she didn't. He sighed a bit as he left, pulling the door closed behind him. He hated leaving with her mad at him. They didn't argue often, which was surprising considering the circumstances behind them ending up married and living together. He supposed when he got home if she told him to sleep on the couch he'd know she was really mad at him and he shouldn't have left. He didn't speak female, so had no idea if she really wanted him to leave or not.
He met Phillip at a place of the other guy's choosing. John hated going to places by his house anymore. He couldn't go to many and not run into someone he'd been with before. A few, finding out that he was married, seemed to take that as some sort of challenge to see if they could be the one to get him to cheat. He wasn't sure where the pleasure was in that, but to each their own.
It was one of the reasons he seldom met Charlie and Glen anymore. It just wasn't fun and in his mind the point of going out for beers and burgers was to have fun.
He spotted Phillip's car and made his way inside, finding him in the seated eating portion of the place.
"Sorry I'm a little late," he said as he took his coat off and slid into the booth opposite Phillip. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell him why he'd been late, but he rethought that quickly. He didn't really think he was a plant, someone to buddy up to him in the hope of getting information on Claire, but he couldn't be too careful.
"No problem. I haven't been here long anyway."
"Huh?" John asked.
"You look, I don't know. Irritated? Mad? I don't know you well enough to tell exactly."
He shrugged. "It's nothing that won't fix itself."
"Positive," he said, not at all willing to admit to someone who knew Claire and her family that he'd left the house with her mad at him. That was all he needed. He could potentially go back to his parents or Christopher who'd tell Claire's parents who'd think. Well, they'd think a lot of things probably. He didn't think they wanted their marriage to fail exactly, but he knew they wouldn't be scarred for the rest of their lives if the two of them decided to walk away from things anytime soon. Before a baby came about anyway.
"You're not eating," Phillip asked after their waitress had taken his order but John hadn't ordered anything.
"Nah, I'll eat when I get home."
"If money's an issue…"
"No," he said quickly. "I'm just not real hungry right now."
"All right," Phillip said. "Everything all right?"
"I don't know. You tell me," he said.
"You have to know why I called you to meet me."
"I'd kind of hoped you just wanted to get a beer with me."
"Well, yeah, sure, but I'm really hoping you'll tell me what the deal is with your family."
"There is no deal, John."
"I still don't believe you. You seemed legitimately surprised I didn't know your parents' names yet not because you'd assumed Claire or her parents had said them to me."
He sighed, taking a sip of his beer. John did the same, watching him.
"I like you, you know."
"Okay," John said cautiously.
"I just want that said. I didn't at first. You were kind of an asshole."
"At your reception."
"You walked in on me kissing my wife!"
"Because I was leaving. I went there to meet you and I guess I really didn't think it'd be such a problem getting that accomplished."
"I guess I didn't think that many people would show up for a reception for a wedding that had already happened."
"Oh," John said. "I didn't mean that, though. Why'd you come there to meet me?"
"I liked you better when you wanted to talk about the Bears and Walter Payton."
"Uh huh," he said.
"That's why I showed up at your house that night. I was hoping I'd just caught you in a bad moment, you know."
"Yeah, hundreds of people who I hadn't a clue who they were. That was a bad moment."
"You married her!"
"I didn't marry the people at the reception."
"True," he said with a soft chuckle.
"Go on," John prompted.
"I found you rather likeable that night."
"You weren't so bad yourself," John admitted.
"Thank you. I get the impression you don't say that to many people."
"Uh no," John said quickly.
"It's hard to trust people when you spent the bulk of your life getting shit on by the people you were supposed to be able to trust."
"Have you seen your mom lately?"
"No," he said simply.
"That pretty much goes without saying the answer is the same, doesn't it? I'd have to see her in order to see him."
He was quiet, obviously thinking something through as he spun his glass on the table.
"I'm your uncle, John."
"Shut up," he said.
He hadn't a clue what he'd been expecting to come out of Phillip's mouth, but those words were not in the universe of possibilities. John stared at him. It was rude to do, he knew, but he was looking for some indication the guy was making fun of him, being an asshole. He saw no sign of that, but he didn't really know the guy well enough to say for certain.
"I'm pretty sure I'd know if I had one of those."
"You have two of them, actually. I have an older brother, remember? Wayne. He didn't show up at the reception. Mom and Dad thought it'd be easier, better if just I showed up because Claire and I were friends to some extent growing up."
"Say I believe you," he wasn't sure why he should. "That means. What? Your parents?"
"Are your grandparents," he said with a frown. John supposed that should have been obvious.
"Your mom is my sister. I don't really know her well or anything. I haven't even seen her since I was probably," he sighed and John could almost see him mentally counting back the years. "Well, three maybe. I really only know her from the pictures I've found of her over the years. Wayne and Erin remember her a little better."
John sat back in the booth then, regarding him. He was still looking for any indication the guy was shitting him. Except what did he have to gain? Then again, wouldn't John have heard something throughout the years about these people if he was telling the truth?
"I think I'd know if my mom had brothers and sisters, Phillip. Sorry, but I don't believe you."
"I understand why you'd think that. I mean, I don't, I guess. To think you're in your twenties and your mom never mentioned us. I can't say that doesn't hurt a little, but that's not really the point. Is it? That's why my parents came with me that day. They really wanted to go to the reception, to see you, but they were afraid your mom would be there, too, and they didn't want to cause a scene."
"Cause a scene? By appearing in my life after twenty something years of not being in it?"
"That was your mom's decision."
He scoffed. "Really? She was sixteen!"
"Your parents. My grandparents. They kicked her out from my understanding."
"Because she wanted to keep seeing your dad."
"My parents didn't like him. They made her choose."
"Obviously you found me."
"Only because you married Claire. We thought, your dad I mean, led my parents to believe he and your mom moved out of state."
"He changed their phone number. No forwarding information available. Mom tried to send a Christmas card, it came back undeliverable. There was no birth announcement in the newspaper to say you were even born. They had no idea when or where you were born. They weren't even sure you were born. They certainly didn't know you were a boy. They didn't know she married your dad either. Your grandparents, the other ones, were no help either I guess."
"How is that possible?"
"I have no idea. They assumed your mom didn't want to talk to them."
"Your parents know my dad's parents?"
"They know of them, sure. I don't think they've spoken since you were born, but I can't say for sure. Mom's never said."
"So they gave up?"
"Remember that story I told you, John? The night at your house. I told you about my sister. Did you listen? They wanted to adopt you."
"I remember," John said, thinking on that for a minute. "Fuck," he whispered. How different his life would've been if his mom had made the right, the smart decision.
"Your mom chose to run away pregnant. She didn't have to marry him!"
"And she was supposed to what? She was sixteen. She would've been sent away somewhere the last few months of her pregnancy anyway so even if no one knew they'd have known. I'm aware how those things worked back then. I had a friend at Shermer that happened to, in fact. The gossip about her was probably worse because she disappeared for the last few months than if she'd just stayed in school and let people see she was pregnant."
"You're defending her."
"Well, your parents kicked her out and disowned her from what you said."
"It was a long time ago. Things were different then. You know? Dad was," he sighed. "It wouldn't have looked right."
"Right. Have to protect the future judge's career."
"Well, yes, at the time. It was the sixties, John. Girls from our types of families didn't have babies without being married."
"She got married."
"Yes, to someone my parents didn't approve of. And no offense, but can you blame them? He's in prison, right? From what you said, well it was just a matter of time that happened. He probably should've been in prison a long time ago based on some things Christopher told me about the way you grew up."
"You do not need to be talking to Claire's family about me. I don't care who you are. You have no right to do that."
"I was asking about you. I wanted to find out about you, nothing more. He volunteered the information."
"Do your parents know?"
"No," he said softly. "I haven't told them what Christopher told me. They know about your dad's current living conditions, though, yes."
John was quiet, thinking over some things. Remembering conversations and arguments his parents had over the years that he'd been privy to overhearing. Sometimes they'd get so drunk or wasted on whatever their drug of choice was at that moment they'd forget he was there.
"What's your dad's name?"
"Sol," he said with a frown.
"I know that. I remember. I'm not a complete moron. I meant, Is it short for something?"
"Oh, yeah, Solomon, why?"
He shrugged. "I remember my dad talking about someone named Solomon."
"And it never occurred to you that Sol was Solomon?"
"No. Why would it? Jesus. I haven't seen my dad in four years and we didn't exactly have in depth conversations when I was living at home. He was arguing with my mom about something. I don't know what."
"When was this?"
"I don't know. God. Ages ago probably. Your mom's name never came up, but I remember the name Solomon for some reason."
"When my parents got the invitation to the reception they couldn't believe it."
"How'd they know it was me?"
"You're named after your father."
"I suppose," he said.
"They really didn't have any idea you were right here in Shermer."
"They knew my grandparents? The other ones?" he asked.
"I don't get the impression they knew them well, but yes. They went over there when Cindy got pregnant to tell them, you know."
"Did you know you're a Third?"
"What?" John asked.
"Yeah. That's your grandfather's name, too, my mom said. She was very surprised he named you after his dad when they didn't really get along."
"Huh," John said. "No, I never knew that."
"Doesn't your birth certificate say that? Your social security card? You had to fill out paperwork to start your business."
"I guess I never really paid attention to what they wrote."
"You file taxes, don't you?"
"Yes, but I have an accountant do them," John shrugged. "What is someone going to come arrest me for signing my checks as John Bender, Junior or something?"
"Well, no, I don't think so," Phillip said. "I really don't know. Is that how you sign your name?"
"Uh, yeah. Until about five minutes ago that was my name as far as I knew."
"Your marriage certificate?"
"Claire never mentioned it, but I guess I should look."
"No. Why should I have? I had no reason to question my name. My father never told me."
"I don't know," he said.
"So, what is it you want from me exactly, Phillip?"
"What do you mean?"
"So you guys show up twenty-two years later and what? What do you want from me? I think that's a pretty understandable question."
"I don't want anything from you."
"I think they, like me, would like to get to know you."
"A little late to the party, don't you think?"
"John. We didn't know!"
"Come on. Your dad's a lawyer. A judge. If they wanted to find us that badly…"
"On the other hand, John. We haven't heard from Cindy in close to twenty-two years. Would you have if you were my parents?"
"If I thought my daughter and grandchild might be in danger you can be damned sure nothing would stop me."
"They didn't know!"
"You said they didn't like him."
"What parent likes their teenaged daughter's boyfriend? Especially when that boyfriend gets her pregnant. Come on. Claire's parents are thrilled in her choice of husband?"
"Do they know?"
"Her parents? Do they know who I am to you?"
"No, not that I know of," he shrugged. "I mean, it's possible, I suppose. I don't know how often our moms really talk and, well, Cindy and John just weren't talked about so it's doubtful."
"You never answered my question. What do you want from me?"
"I did. I don't want anything. I showed up at the reception more because Mom and Dad didn't think they should. They figured if your mom was there she wouldn't recognize me since she hadn't seen me since I was basically a baby."
"They were curious. You showed up. You thought I was an asshole. So, why'd you show up at my house then?"
"Curiosity? I could tell you weren't comfortable so I thought I'd give a less formal and probably stressful setting a shot. I knew I was going to propose to Elizabeth and I knew you were a photographer. I legitimately didn't know your company name or the location so I thought it seemed like a convincing enough reason to show up on your doorstep."
"So I passed your test?"
"Well, no, I mean. Christopher talked about you as if you were a decent guy, so I figured it was just the night. Nerves or something. I don't know. You didn't know who I was obviously. I thought you might recognize my name, my last name, something."
"You know, it's funny you say that. I'm not sure I even knew my mom had a last name that wasn't Bender."
"No, I'm serious. I found a box once of some things of hers. I don't think there was much before she met the old man, though. She was a teenager in the few pictures that were in there."
"I think most of her stuff is still at the house."
"I just never thought to ask. I didn't care, you know?"
"No, you're not sure," he said.
"John," he said cautiously.
"Listen, it's great that you seem to think you can suddenly appear in my life and think I want you here."
"You were fine with me being your friend until about an hour ago."
"Sure, before I found out that you withheld a pretty important piece of information from me."
"Because I wanted to get to know you. I could've told you that night at your house, but I didn't. My fault, I guess."
"Okay. Well, you know me. Now you can forget me."
"John. Be reasonable."
"About what? Wanting you in my life? I've done just fine without any family in my life the past four years and now suddenly there's a whole shit load of you crawling out of the woodwork. It's bad enough I have a brother I need to figure out what the fuck to do with. I have you and your parents. I just don't even want to deal with it."
"So, that's it? You liked me fine but you're just going to tell me to get lost because of circumstances beyond either of our control? I mean, if we'd met otherwise, not at the reception this wouldn't even be an issue."
"It is an issue, though, isn't it? I mean, maybe if it was just you, but your parents show up acting all nice and impressed with what I've done."
"They were impressed! What's not to be impressed by someone who's done what you have with nothing to start out with?"
"They figured I was dead in a ditch somewhere I'm sure, unable to survive without their handouts."
"They did not. John, be reasonable. Have they offered you anything? They wouldn't insult you that way. They had three other children to raise. They were very young when they had Cindy. Mom was nineteen, but she and Dad were married. That's why they offered to adopt you, they wanted better for your mom than having a baby before she graduated high school. They gave Cindy a choice, an option, she chose to do what she wanted to do. What were they supposed to do? I mean, tell me what they were supposed to do to find you twenty years ago."
"I don't know!"
"I don't either. I won't deny maybe it could've been handled better, but I can't help that. I was just a baby myself. I'm not trying to be your uncle if that's what has you worried. I really just want to be your friend."
"Where the fuck were you when your sister was getting the shit beaten out of her? Where were you when I was? Where were you when I didn't have food to eat? Where the fuck were you when your sister was dragging her little kid around to bus stops because she had no working car? Snuggled cozily in your beds with fully bellies I bet. Sporting events and piano lessons, too."
"We didn't know!"
"You didn't want to know."
"I'm not my parents. Don't you get it? I didn't even know she had a kid until the reception invitation came. I didn't know. Erin and Wayne didn't know either."
"They know now?"
"Yes. Mom and Dad told us who you were. They weren't sure if Erin and Wayne got invitations, too, or if just I did since I was friends with both Chris and Claire. They didn't want them going. They really didn't want to cause a scene if your mom or dad were there."
"So that's supposed to make me feel better? Make me want uncles and aunts all of the sudden."
"No. I realize it's kind of late for that, but I'd hoped honestly you'd know me, us, better before you found out."
"I don't like liars."
"I wasn't lying."
"You withheld the truth."
"It's the same thing, isn't it? Lying and withholding the truth?"
"We just assumed they had some sort of falling out. You know? Bad boyfriend. We didn't know. Honestly, John."
The sad thing was, John believed him. He really did. That didn't mean he wanted to hear this shit tonight. He really didn't. He just couldn't handle it. He had no idea what the fuck his mom wanted. Claire was mad at him for coming here tonight and she was probably right he shouldn't have come. Then even if he didn't like the information he'd gotten that didn't mean he didn't want to know it.
"I hope we can continue to be friends, John. That's all I want from you. I can't speak for my parents, but I think you'll find they don't have an agenda either. They legitimately seemed completely taken aback to find out you'd been living here this whole time."
John shook his head and stood.
"I really have to go."
Fuck. He pulled his wallet out, but Phillip shook his head.
"I can buy your beer."
"I'm not implying you can't pay for it. Just let me buy your beer, will you?"
He sighed softly. He really didn't want to let him, but it was a beer it wasn't a car or anything. He pocketed his wallet again and grabbed his coat.
He didn't stop him from leaving, though, and for that John was grateful. He didn't want to stand here and argue with the guy. He just wanted to go home.
He wasn't sure when he got there if he was glad or not Claire wasn't home yet. She'd ask him questions and he absolutely did not want to deal with them right now. He just wanted to go to bed and deal with it all tomorrow.
"How was your night?" she asked later. She hadn't woken him up exactly. Not on purpose anyway. It was just habit for him to wake up when he heard noises in the house. He supposed sooner or later he'd get used to noises in the house made by someone other than him and not wake up anymore. He wasn't sure, though.
He scoffed softly. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," she said softly.
"Is everything okay?" she asked a few minutes later.
"Jesus, Claire. I just said I don't want to talk about it."
"I'm not asking you to talk about it. I'm asking if everything is okay."
"Everything's just great."
"You don't need to lie to me."
"Don't ask me ridiculous questions. Clearly if everything was okay I'd want to talk about it."
"Please, Claire, can you just leave it be for the night?"
"Yeah, sure. Sorry," she whispered.
"Nothing to be sorry for. I just really don't want to talk about it right now."
"I love you," she whispered, kissing his shoulder.
"Love you, too, Princess."
"I'm sorry I was…"
"Don't. Just. You're fine. I'm not mad at you or anything. As long as you're not still mad at me we're good. Okay?"
"I'm not mad. I was just worried."
"I'm just not used to it, you know?"
She slid an arm around him as she shifted against him. He grabbed her hand and brought it to his mouth to kiss it before settling back where it was to begin with. He just wanted her to know he really wasn't mad at her or anything.
"You had fun?" he asked after a few minutes of quiet.
"It was all right. You know, the usual."
He snorted softly at that.
"As long as I don't have to break anyone's cameras tomorrow…"
"Nope. You wouldn't do that anyway because you know you'd be mad if someone did that to your camera."
"Probably right," he whispered.
"It's not as much fun going out without you, though."
"Dinner tomorrow night?"
"Yes, really. Wherever you want to go."
"That's a dangerous thing to say to me."
"I'll take my chances, Princess. Wherever you want to go even if I have to put a suit on."
"That's a yes to the suit?"
He sighed softly and she laughed against his back, kissing him there.
"Night, hon," she whispered.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com