A scene from my novel-in-process called Finding Alexis.
The next morning I felt pretty good despite the fact of only getting a couple hours of sleep. The sun sent streaks of light across my bed as I checked the time on my phone which told me it was eight o'clock. I slid out from underneath the blankets and headed for the door, then remembered that I had a guest sleeping on my couch and it wouldn't be a good idea to wander out clad merely in boxers so I pulled on a pair of jeans and the nearest t-shirt.
I walked past the couch where Alexis was snoring loudly, yet another trait she'd inherited from me. I've been told by ex-girlfriends and roommates that the sounds I make at night can get as loud as a jackhammer splitting through concrete, and it could probably be attributed to the unholy amount of cigarettes I'd smoked over the years which reminded me that I needed to toss that pack into the garbage. I'd have to remember to take it with me when I left the apartment later, because throwing it away in my own kitchen trash can would amount to the same level of deterrent as putting it into the drawer of my nightstand. I wouldn't be needing them anymore, but 'need' and 'want' were two entirely separate things and I didn't want the damned things in the house.
So as not to wake her, I tiptoed into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. I looked in the refrigerator for anything resembling breakfast food and saw that there wasn't much. I didn't often cook for myself, and never for my friends because I had a desire to keep them. Most of my meals were delivered to my door in a box. I did remember that I had purchased a package of bacon some weeks back and found it was still there, in the meat drawer, where it probably would have remained for months had Alexis not spent the night.
"Down, Bernie," I said to my cat when he jumped onto the counter. The obstinate creature that he was, he ignored me and started sniffing around the raw meat. I picked him up and set him on the floor, which was a solution that lasted for about twenty seconds before he leapt back up.
"This isn't for you. You've got a dish over there with your food in it. I spent twenty-four dollars on that bag of Salmon Delight, so show some appreciation."
"Your cat's name is Bernie?" a sleep-laden voice from the other room said. I peeked out of the kitchen and saw Alexis sitting up on the couch, the blanket still wrapped around her. She was yawning and stretching, reminding me of Bernie after he'd wake from one of his naps.
"Good morning!" I called out as she put on her glasses.
"Not so loud, man, hungover girl here."
I smiled and told her the coffee was just about ready. I grabbed a couple of mugs from the cupboard and set them by the pot.
"How do you feel?" I asked in a loud whisper. God knew how many times I'd woken up hungover, a good number of them in the past year alone, so I knew very well how she felt.
I heard rustling and the next thing I knew she was in the kitchen standing beside me. She sniffed the pan of sizzling bacon, grunted in a way that didn't sound like displeasure, and took a seat at the small table by the window.
"You eat here a lot?" she asked with a giggle as she removed some of the clutter on the table. She set a pile of magazines and unopened mail on the floor, which immediately drew Bernie's attention because he walked over and sat on them as if they were a new piece of furniture constructed solely for him. Alexis reached down and scratched him behind the ear, which he loved, and he started purring as if it were the greatest feeling in the world.
"Hey, Bernie. I'm sorry that you have such an awful name," she told him as he pushed his head into her hand to let her know he agreed.
"Bernie's a fine name," I said as I set a mug in front of her, "Cream? Sugar?"
"Black," she said.
"There's a long list of great Bernies in the world. Bernie Williams, Bernie Mac, and Bernie Kosar to name a few."
"So, which one is he named after?"
"Burglar," I said, not that I thought she'd recognize the name. He was a fictional character of whom I was pretty fond.
"I see," she lied, "So, is that bacon ready?"
"Coming right up," I answered and went over to the pan. Little bullets of grease shot out and created polka dots on my shirt, so I transferred the bacon as quickly as I could onto a plate and set it on the table.
"Take as much as you want," I told her.
"Silverware?" she asked, and I dug through the drawer for a couple of forks. I grabbed a paper towel, as well, because my kitchen was devoid of many things that most people took for granted.
"Sorry, I only have one plate and it's currently occupied," I said.
"Seriously? You own one plate?"
"It's all I need. It gets dirty, I wash it."
"You have a single plate and yet a collection of about four hundred records," she said indicating the bookshelves I had next to the stereo in the living room. It was a valid point, though I got much more use out of my vinyl than I ever would a second plate. Those records were the product of years of collecting, scouring record stores all over Western New York. I was proud of my hobby and what I'd accomplished with it.
"Yeah, but what's more impressive, dishware or a copy of The Wall signed by Roger Waters?"
"Who?" she asked and I nearly lost my balance.
"Roger Waters. You know, Pink Floyd? Don't tell me you've never listened to The Wall?"
"I guess I've heard of it. They're old. I like newer music."
"Like who?" I asked.
"Tori Amos," she said, "Ani DiFranco. She's from here, you know."
"I'm aware. She's good, too. One of Buffalo's greatest contributions to the world up there next to Rick James."
"You like Ani?" She seemed legitimately surprised.
"You underestimate me," I said and walked over to the shelves. I pulled out a copy of Not a Pretty Girl and showed it to her. Her eyes widened as she took it into her hands, looking it over and admiring the artwork.
"I just have it on my iPod. Got it from iTunes," she said and I smiled.
"You miss a lot when you only get your music digitally. I love having the physical copy. I read the liner notes, the lyrics, everything. There's just something about owning a physical representation of the music you love, it's like a piece of it is yours."
"I never thought of it that way. I guess it makes sense. Can I have this?"
"Of course not," I told her as I took it from her and returned it to its rightful place, "Do you even own a turntable?"
"No, but you're welcome to buy me one. You know, to make up for all those birthdays you missed."
"Sure, lay the guilt on me."
She rolled her eyes and laughed. I grabbed my mug and sat down across from her. She looked at me with red eyes, and reached back to pull off the tie that was barely holding her ponytail in place before swiping her hand through her hair and letting it fall around her shoulders.
"You're free to use the shower," I told her as I sipped my coffee.
"That's ok, I don't have a change of clothes. Thanks for coming to get me last night. Sorry I was so drunk."
"It's fine. It's all part of the college experience. I'm glad you called, though. I'm glad I was able to help."
"Listen, about what I said. I was drunk."
I waved it off.
"I'm surprised you remember our conversation."
"I don't black out," she said, as if she'd had enough experience with alcohol to know how it did or didn't affect her. I was the same way when I was her age, though, a naive college kid who drank beer out of a plastic cup every weekend at house parties. It took me awhile to figure out my limits, and even as an adult I tended to exceed them on a regular basis.
"Fair enough," I said, "I just want you to know that everything you said is safe with me. I won't tell a soul."
"Thank you," she said, "You don't hate me for it?"
"For what? Being who you are? Of course not."
"You don't think I'm a bad person?"
She was looking at me, and her eyes gleamed with guilt-laden innocence that came from a lifetime of learning that the feelings she had were wrong, and that being gay was some sort of abomination in the eyes of God. I hated religion for that. I despised the way in which religion pressed down upon people a standard of living which was unattainable to the very basics of human nature.
"I think you're a fine person," I said, and I meant it, "We didn't really get to talk much about it last night because you passed out pretty quickly. That's what the fight you had with Marty was about?"
"Yeah, he thinks it's a sin."
"How did he find out?"
"I told him. It was right after graduation. We were out to dinner with my mom and he pointed out a gay couple in the restaurant that was holding hands and looking all cute. He said they were going to Hell. I got mad and blurted out that I was, too, because I was attracted to girls."
"The what happened?"
"He turned all red and walked away from the table. When he came back he told me to go with him, and we walked outside. He said it wasn't funny to make jokes like that, especially because I knew how he felt about that subject. I told him it wasn't a joke, that I liked girls, and he slapped me across the face. It shocked me because he'd never done that before, never raised a hand to me. He told me no daughter of his would ever consider spitting in the face of Jesus like I was. I told him I didn't want a father who would think of me like that, and that's when he told me I wasn't really his kid. He told me to enjoy my life of sin, got in his car and drove off sticking Mom with the bill.
I sat outside on a bench for what seemed like hours but must have only been a few minutes because Mom came out and asked me what had happened. I was crying. I told her what he said. She said he didn't mean it and to give him time. We went home and I cried some more. Mom drank some wine and we talked about it, and she said that she didn't care what I was or who I wanted to be with and that she'd love me anyway. I didn't expect that from her, because she never really showed any emotion toward me one way or the other. So, I asked her if what he said about not being my real father was true. The wine must have helped coax the answer out of her because that's how I found out about you."
"I'm not surprised at your mother's reaction. I've always known her to be a pretty open-minded woman. That's why we got along," I said. Denise and I had been part of a larger group of friends, mostly theater kids, which was pretty diverse. Back in the early Nineties it still wasn't commonplace in small towns like ours to be "out" but we knew which among our friends were, and we kept that secret for them because of the overall attitude people had. There were a lot of behind-closed-doors whispers, and a good amount of bullying, but for the most part we were able to keep the secrets of those few that were still in the proverbial closet. Denise was a big part of that, never judging and always standing up for the people she cared about.
"Yeah, she seems cool with it, but it's still pretty new to her. Nobody knew. I made sure of it. I wanted to wait until after high school to tell anyone."
"Are there still the same attitudes?" I asked, "I'd have thought that these days it would be more acceptable now that the majority of people have come around to the idea that homosexuality is a real, natural thing."
"But they haven't. It's still pretty taboo. You grew up in the same town I did, didn't you? It hasn't changed much. You live in the city now and things are different here. Your friends are more eclectic. More open."
I conceded that she was probably right. After college I'd stayed in Buffalo, having no interest in returning to a rural setting. I liked the city. I felt more at home in the concrete jungle than I ever had among the farms and pastures of my youth. I believed that being born somewhere didn't necessarily make it your home. Where some people loved being separated from their neighbors by cornfields, I thrived on the constant motion of the urban lifestyle. I got the feeling that Alexis shared that notion with me.
"I hope that he comes around," I said, "I think he will. Just give him time."
Was I telling the truth? I wasn't sure. This girl sitting with me feasting on overcooked bacon had become an important part of my life over a very short period of time. Since finding out I had a daughter, it was all I could think about. I'd been making plans in my head of the things I wanted to do with her, to show her. I wanted her to know who I was just as much as I wanted to know everything about her. Did I care about the man who had raised her? If I were to be honest with myself, the answer would have been no. He was nothing but an obstacle at that point, a threat to my relationship with this girl. What if they made up and she realized that she didn't need me? What if she suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of guilt about cutting ties with the man that she'd known since they day she was old enough to know anything at all and walked on out of my life? I was being selfish, I knew, but that didn't matter to me. I was entitled to be selfish. I didn't owe that man anything. He'd taken my rightful place as the father of this amazing girl and got to experience everything that I'd missed - her first words, her first steps, her report card, hosting sleepovers with her friends. It was my turn now, and I found myself terrified that he'd waltz back in and take it all away from me.
We finished breakfast and I offered to drive her back to the dorm but she declined. I was a few short blocks from the train station and that would take her right to campus. I told her goodbye and asked her to call when she was safely home, and she said that she would.