by the cowboy
A high school graduate catches up with his father the night of his graduation day.
Moonlight shines on the river. It's just Ellis and Essex; they sit in Essex's new Volvo XC90. The car is parked near the shore of the York river. Ellis is still in his academic dress, and underneath it, he has on a suit; it's modest, but still, it looks nice. Essex wears an expensive suit, designer. The windows to the car are open. The light from the moon, and its reflection from the river, wrap around everything.
"This used to be the spot." The night sings its song as Essex reminisces, "We used to come out here for hours."
Ellis tries to sound interested, "Oh, that's cool." In the distance, the water caresses the sand.
Essex laughs as memories come back to him, "I was wild when I was your age." Ellis doesn't know how to respond, so he just smiles. Crickets, frogs, and katydids sing. "So, how does it feel to be a high school graduate?"
Ellis thinks for a moment, "It feels weird if I'm being honest."
"Yeah. That's okay. You know, your first two years of college, you're not even studying your major. You'll just be doing general education courses."
"Oh. I didn't know that."
"Do you know what you want to major in?"
Ellis thinks of a lie as the moonlight continues to shine on the river, "I was thinking business."
Essex smiles at the thought and turns to Ellis; he warmly pats Ellis on the back, "I can tell you firsthand, it's hard, but it's worth the struggle." Essex turns back to the river, "I'm happy you didn't pick something like English." Essex doesn't look at his son; his mind only on the river and the memories it holds. Again, Ellis doesn't know how to respond, so he chooses to say nothing. He looks at his father for a moment; his eyes are filled with water. Essex continues to look out onto the river with a smile, "Do you want to walk along the shore for a little?"
"Sure." Ellis and Essex get out of the car. The sound of the water on the shore, along with the wildlife, fill the soundscape as they walk toward the shoreline. Essex can't contain his smile as he walks toward river. Ellis follows behind.
They reach the mouth of the river, and Essex looks back to Ellis, "So, what do you think?" The trees move calmly with the wind. Ellis looks at this sight, and just like his father, he starts to lose himself in the beauty of it.
"Yeah, I'll be coming down here more often."
Ellis looks down at his feet; little particles of sand sit on his dress shoes. He looks up at his father, "Since you'll be down here more often, do you think we'll see more of each other this summer?"
Essex thinks for a moment, "Maybe, I mean, I only come down here for work."
"Yeah, I forgot about that."
A frog hops onto Essex's shoe; he doesn't notice, "I was so proud of you today, 'Honors' Graduate Ellis Finney.'" Essex smiles. Ellis just laughs. "Tell me, you've got to be a little nervous about college, right? I know I was."
Ellis smiles, "Kind of. Me and mom are worried about how I'm going to pay for it." Essex doesn't say anything. The frog hops off of Essex's foot. The tiny particles of sand still lay on Ellis's shoes. The crickets, katydids, and frogs continue to sing in harmony.
"How're Sumi, EJ, and Emerson?"
"They're doing well. They ask about you all the time."
"Yeah, I miss them," Ellis tries to dust off some of the sand, "I'd love to stay with you guys for a week or so. I think that'd be fun."
"Yeah, maybe." Essex takes his phone out of his pocket; it's ten o'clock. Ellis just shakes his head. "I remember when I came to pick you up one time, from your mother's, and as soon as you saw me, you just started crying," Essex laughs, "Everyone looked at me as if I was crazy." Ellis smiles. "You just kept saying, 'I want mommy. I want mommy.'" Essex laughs; his eyes filled with water.
Ellis laughs, "I don't remember that."
"Yeah, you were only four or five years old." Essex smiles to himself and kicks some sand with his shoes. The trees along the river sway calmly with the wind. "Watching you grow up, that's been something special," Essex looks at the trees hoping to find the memories within them, "I swear, it felt just like yesterday I saw you every weekend in my apartment in Brooklyn."
"Yeah, a lot has changed." The crickets, the katydids, and the frogs continue. The water continues to kiss the sand. Some particles of sand still lay on Ellis's shoe. The frog that was on Essex's shoe hops somewhere in the woods. The moonlight shines on the river. "Dad, can I ask you something?"
"At what point in your life did you feel like you got everything together? Was there ever a point in your life like that? Where you could say, 'I've finally got it?'"
Essex thinks for a moment. The wind picks up and continues to move the trees. "Yeah. After I got my master's degree, that was the first time I felt like I was starting to get things together."
Ellis thinks for a moment as he looks at the sand, "You're the first person I've asked that's said that. Everyone else says they've never felt like they truly got it together." Essex just laughs. Ellis just looks at the river.
"It's really been thirteen years since Brooklyn?"
"I never realized how quickly time can slip away," Essex takes off his glasses and cleans them, "and how did your last season of volleyball go?"
"It went well. I was hoping you'd make it to at least one game."
Still cleaning his glass, "Yeah, me too. It's just, you know how that goes," Essex puts his glasses back on.
"Yeah," Ellis looks at his feet as he tries to hide disappointment, "so your new job. You like it?"
"I love it. It keeps me busy."
"That's awesome. Does it pay more?"
"It does." The water goes up and down the sand: rhythmically, beautifully, calmly. Essex takes a deep breath. This thought has been on his mind for some time now. "I paid your mom a lot of money over the years. You guys shouldn't be struggling. I paid her every month. On time. In full."
"I wasn't asking for money." Essex's eyes are fixed on his shoes, and like Ellis's, there's some sand on them. Ellis's eyes are fixed on his father. "You can be a real asshole sometimes, you know that?"
Essex looks back at his son, "Ellis, listen..."
"No." Ellis looks at his father: tears in his eyes and his voice cracking with emotion, "Why couldn't you have just come to one?"
"One game. That's all I wanted, you know, I just wanted for you to be there."
"You know I had to work."
"That's your excuse for everything."
"What do you want me to say?"
"Just say you didn't want to come."
"Did your Mom brainwash some idea in your head?"
Ellis laughs, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Essex doesn't respond; he just looks down at his shoes, for a moment, then looks back up at Ellis. "She always asks if I text you, if I call you, if I make sure you're doing okay." Essex doesn't say anything. A cricket, somewhere in the woods near the river, chirps rhythmically. The water gently touches the sand. "Dad just say it. Just say you didn't want to come."
"Ellis, do you not understand that I have to raise EJ, Sumi, and Emerson too? Do you not realize that? I can't just make time for one of your games."
Ellis shakes his head with anger and disappointment. A tear slips down onto his cheek, but he quickly wipes it away. "You know, I was thinking the other day."
Essex looks annoyed, "Yeah."
"I was thinking about what would happen if you died and how I would feel." The moonlight shines on the river. Somewhere in the woods, a firefly moves freely. "And it hit me that I wouldn't care if you died." Another tear slips out of Ellis's eye, and again, he quickly wipes it away. The moonlight wraps around Essex's face. Behind his glasses, his eyes are filled with water.
Ellis looks down at the sand; he can't seem to face his father, "In the years I've known you, this is probably the first time you've seen the real me. You've known me for eighteen years now, and this is the first time you've seen the real me. How sad is that?" Ellis looks like he's about to break down with emotion; he's trying his best to keep his composure. Essex is hurt even though he's trying his best not to show it. "The, uh, the person you would see in the summer was a version of myself I would manufacture whenever I saw you." Ellis, still looking down, starts to kick the sand, "I don't know Dad. I'm just tired of it. I'm just tired of pretending like I care, because I don't. And I feel like you don't either."
Ellis stops for a moment; he takes another deep breath to keep his emotions in check. He continues to kick the sand, "And I'm not mad at you, I'm just upset that we're both going on pretending like we care about each other. If it weren't for Mom, I never would've spent time with you for the summer. I never would've called you, even though you never answered. And whenever we did talk, it was just small talk. Whenever I would try to spend more time with you, you always had work, and if I'm being honest, I was mad at you for that. I still am, but now, I just want to let this go. Our relationship is so surface level. It's not even worth the time." Ellis finally looks up from the sand and looks his Father in his eyes. Ellis looks for something, maybe an apology, maybe regret, maybe remorse, but he looks right past his father's glaring emotion.
Essex just looks at his son, speechless; his eyes still filled with water, "Oh, I... I..."
"I mean, if you weren't biologically, my Dad, would we even be talking with each other right now?" Ellis takes a deep breath; this breath is another desperate attempt to contain his feelings. He looks his Dad in his eyes, "I'm doing okay without you. Really, I'm fine." Another tear slips down Ellis's cheek, but this time, he forgets to wipe it away. "I just don't want you to pretend anymore."
Essex shakes his head: his feelings hurt, his eyes move from his son. Essex struggles to keep it together, "I didn't know you felt like that." Essex's eyes are on the river. It looks like something he'd dream of. Somewhere in a space of its own. A little piece of heaven.
Ellis's eyes red. His voice still cracking with emotion, "I think I've got to get back home. Mom might be worried." Essex shakes his head.
"Yeah." Essex, like his son, is close to losing it. He's just one word, one truth, one memory away from melting into a puddle. They walk off the shore and back to the car. The katydids, the crickets, the frogs, and the river fill this moment with their song. Ellis walks a little farther ahead than his father. Essex splits his glances between the back of Ellis's head and the ground. His eyes are filled with regret.
Ellis gets into the passenger seat, and a second after he does, Essex gets into the driver's seat, starts the car, and drives away. As Essex drives down the interstate, and the orange glow from the tungsten lights lining the road seep into the car, Ellis stares out of the window, "I really want to major in English."
Essex splits his attention between Ellis and the road, "One more time Ellis. I... I didn't hear you."
Ellis looks at the lights lining the road, "I don't want to be a business major. I want to major in English."
"Oh okay. You know, I'm going support you no matter..."
"Dad, just stop please," says Ellis without moving his gaze. Essex continues to drive, and after some time, they finally pull into Ellis's driveway made of gravel, lined with trees, lit up by the moonlight. Essex puts the car in park. Ellis unbuckles his seat belt, and they sit in silence for a moment.
And in this moment, Ellis would tell his Father see you later if he thought he would, and he'd tell his father that he loved him if he did. But Essex and Ellis only share a quick glance, an awkward handshake, and a heartbreaking smile; both doing all of these things eerily similar to each other; both trying to hide their emotions that are waiting to come to the surface. Ellis closes the car door, waves goodbye, and walks inside his house. Essex puts the car in reverse and drives away. And somewhere along the river, the crickets, katydids, and the frogs continue to sing, and the moonlight continues to shine, beautifully.