Status: work in progress

In Retrospect

Playing Adults

His name was Julio.

I met him about two weeks after I’d dropped Elijah back off with his mother. Naturally, a bout of depression hit for the first week, and I threw myself into work the second. By the end of that week, I was burnt out and cranky—I shouldn’t have gone out, bypassing a knock on David’s door, but there I was, standing in the middle of a club, body sandwiched between hoards of others, none on the sweat on my skin my own. In all my devotion, I was one nudge away from heading to the bar for my first drink in over a decade.

And then he started to dance with me.

He was tall, a little chubby, cute. His skin was a warm brown, obscured only by a few small tattoos on his hands he set on my waist. He appeared like an angel to a farm boy in the middle of the night, studs in his ear and nose glinting under the strobe lighting. I wrapped my arms around his neck, not wanting him to get away.

I kissed another man for the first time that night. I kissed Julio, pushing up onto my toes for a moment. I pulled away, shy, when I felt his hands on my ass. He only laughed against my temple, telling me his name and that he needed a smoke. He asked me to go with him and I did, an embarrassing shake to my hands as we cut through the bodies and made our way outside. When he eventually noticed, I told him I was cold and he offered me a draw from his cigarette in return.

“I don’t smoke no more,” I told him. “Or drink.”

“Wild one, huh?” he said, a cheeky grin on his face. “So what are your vices?”

“Coca-Cola and In-N-Out’s Double-Double burgers,” I said, making him laugh. I dropped my gaze to the floor, to his shoes, and worked my way back up to his face. He was still smiling. “I’m just waitin’ for it to all catch up and do me dirty.”

My diet might have been terrible, but I had started to go to the gym. It seemed to have some adverse effect, however, and someone at work had commented that I was looking a bit sickly. It was getting near winter and I wasn’t going out as much, was what I told them. I went home that evening and looked in the mirror; I’d always had a bit of an issue with the man staring back at me, not quite six foot and clinging to my baby fat until I was in my mid-twenties. After that I’d gotten slim, then fit, filling out my jeans in a way that always had Maria landing a subtle smack to my ass.

In the previous week, David had charmingly said I looked like I’d developed a penchant for doing crystal meth. He could get me some, if I wanted, he tacked on at the end, then disappeared again. Valentina was staying over. I still hadn’t asked if the baby was his.

Julio didn’t have a problem with the way I looked. On the contrary, he made a point of emphasizing how handsome I was, culminating in a rather juvenile make-out session against the wall of the bar. I stopped it there, though. My mind buzzed at the disappointment that clouded his features.

Julio ran his tongue along his bottom lip. “Should’ve known you weren’t that sort of boy,” he said, then dug out his phone from his pocket. “Can I have your number?”

God, the last person I’d given my number to like that was Maria.

“Sure,” I said, smiling like mad.

In the following weeks, I learnt a lot about Julio—not least that he was only twenty-one, which, as I feared, caused a painful resurgence of insecurities. David said I should be flattered, completely unaware of my dilemma, but he didn’t understand. It was more than just our age difference that was the problem, it was that I had a not-so-ex-wife and three kids, and he was so young and free, always talking about going out with his friends at the weekend.

We went on a date to a coffee shop one day, where I had, arms flapping, told him it was completely alright that he’d forgotten that I wasn’t allowed to drink tea or coffee. They did do some really nice, albeit irritatingly healthy smoothies—the same ones those bearded androids training for the apocalypse at my gym swore by. God, I hated kale and everything it stood for.

“Do you want to come over to mine?” Julio asked me afterwards.

I tried to bury myself in my jacket, hoping the up-turned collar might hide the redness beginning to stain my face. I was like a lovestruck teen stood outside that coffee shop, the winter wind swirling around us and lifting the ends of Julio’s scarf. My answer came as a joyous nod and overenthusiastic grab of his hand.

I spent the entire evening with Julio, cooped up in his room until his mother came home. Her arrival startled me away from him, head previously nestled against his chest. He made a grab for my wrist, but I’d already gotten to my feet, hand in my hair and panicking. I didn’t know why I felt like that; chest full of that searing dread when you know you’ve done something wrong and are moments away from being caught. I knew, logically, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Subconsciously, however, I hadn’t quite climbed above the teachings of my church like I liked to think I had.

“Hey,” Julio said, joining me in standing, grabbing me by the shoulders. His palms were warm, the heat sinking into my skin and comforting. “Chill out, babe,” he added, bringing me into his chest where I wanted nothing more than to bury myself deep.

I met his mother when she walked through the door into Julio’s room. She made a small noise of surprise and I turned, backing myself into Julio’s chest. His arms linked over my abdomen, keeping me safe—or from running off, I wasn’t quite sure which.

She was a short, stocky woman with glossy black hair and an air of authority. I could see the resemblance to Julio in the thick pout of her lips and flat nose. Searching her face, I decided she couldn’t have been much older than I was.

“Hello,” she said, hand still pressed to her chest from the shock. “Who’s this?” she asked, eyes shifting over to Julio.

“Mama, this is Brandon, the guy I mentioned,” Julio said, emphasizing this by giving me a quick squeeze. “Brandon, this is my mother, Dafne.”

Sparing myself the indignity of a handshake, I smiled and nodded instead, feeling myself go stiff against Julio. She kept on looking at me, from head to foot, and I’d never wanted the ground to open up beneath my feet so much. This was worse than meeting Maria’s parents for the first time, although for slightly different reasons.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I blurted.

As I turned out, it wasn’t. I knew straight off the bat that she didn’t like me, no matter how much Julio tried to tell me otherwise. Luckily—and rather embarrassingly—she set me straight pretty early on, catching me in the kitchen getting a glass of water in the morning after I’d stayed over one weekend. I jumped as she came shuffling in, wrapped up in a big white housecoat and fluffy slippers. I croaked out a tired hello, but it was met with deaf ears.

“Why do you still wear your wedding ring?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

I choked a little on my water, wiping my mouth as a little escaped. Since the day I’d left, I’d never taken off my wedding ring. I felt naked without it, lost. I ran the edge of my thumb over the underside of the band.

“I—”

“Seems to me the makings of a very confused and uncertain man,” she said. I gaped, speechless. “Let me tell you right now, Brandon, I will not have you messing with my son’s head. Goodness knows what state you left your wife and children.”

“You—you have no right to talk about my children—”

“I do when it concerns my own,” she snapped, taking a step towards me.

Julio stepped in to save me then, but the embarrassment was too much for me to stay. I walked home quickly, battling the cold and angry tears. I sat alone with the lights off when I got there, head in my hands as I tried to remember how to breathe, the ache so sharp in my chest.

Thank God Maria phoned that night. It was just to talk about Aaron’s birthday and Christmas, what we’d be doing for each. Her voice soothed me, but I felt a little murky inside for talking to her when I’d been ignoring Julio’s calls all day. She caught on pretty quick, just like she always did. I didn’t want to cry again, so I pulled the hair at my temple to distract from the pain on the inside.

“It’s nothing,” I lied when she asked.

“It’s not nothing. Brandon, please tell me. You know I-I still feel—”

“I met someone,” I told her, “and I’ve already made a right mess of it.”

There was a short pause. I imagined Maria on the other end, breath stuck in her throat, mind in a haze. It probably wasn’t something she thought she’d ever hear me say, and in that moment, I wouldn’t have held any grudges if she’d slammed the phone down.

She didn’t, the saint that she was.

God only knew what I’d so without her.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” she said gently. There was a creak as if she were holding the phone in a viselike grip. “What’s his name?”

“Do you really want to—”

“Brandon, what’s his name?” she asked, sharp, cutting me off.

“Julio. His name’s Julio.”

Against my better judgement, I allowed Maria to tease out more information—more than she wanted to hear, but kept going after anyway. By the end of our phone call, it felt like a punishment, like a confession before God. My wedding ring burned against my skin.

Not wanting to be alone with my thoughts any longer, I sought out David in his apartment, standing anxiously in the living-room as he rolled cigarettes on the coffee table. I wanted one. He raised an eyebrow up at me, fingers halting. Usually the first to lead me astray, he seemed unwilling, pausing for a long moment before offering one out to me. It was small and flimsy, so unlike the Parliament smokes I’d had way back when.

“That bad, huh?” David said as I took a drag. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, Valentina’s gone back to Texas to be with her mother when the baby comes.”

I dropped to the floor in stages, then reached over to tap the ash from the end of my cigarette. “It’s yours then?” I asked.

David dropped his gaze to the table. If it had been any smaller, I might not have noticed the subtle nod of his head. Right away my heart lurched, a sick feeling beginning to form at the back of my throat. I wanted to reach out and comfort him, but he didn’t seem like the type of man on which that would work. Instead, I sat in silence until he spoke again.

“I was gonna try this time. Real hard.” He shook his head. “Fuck, dude, what kind of man doesn’t know where his own kids are—doesn’t know his own kids. The last time I saw Ben, I got him a Bulls jersey. He doesn’t even like basketball!”

Therein lay my greatest fear; not knowing the men my boys would become, stuck with the image of them that I’d left with. How long could I keep all this travelling back and forth from Las Vegas to Salt Lake? How long before I had a life of my own to deal with that I couldn’t just up sticks and leave? How long before they boys started to resent me for leaving? How long until a new man came into Maria’s life and took up the mantle of father and husband? How long before my boys became strangers?

Or maybe I would be the stranger. Aaron was still so young. What if he forgot about me.

“You can still make it right,” I said. My hand was shaking badly, so I stubbed out the cigarette. “She didn’t ask you to go with her?”

He was quiet. I knew the answer.

“Why the hell didn’t you go? I thought you were gonna try?”

David scoffed. “And be that far away from Ben? No way, man. I made my decision. At least I can’t disappoint her this way.”

“Her? A daughter? You’re having a daughter and you’re just gonna stay out of her life forever? Jesus, David. That’s not fair on anyone. Everyone deserves to know who their parents are, and you deserve to be a part of her life.”

“I really don’t,” David said, and for the first time in our friendship he seemed to be wallowing in more self-pity than I was. Unfortunately, I had no answer to it. He sighed, rubbing at his temples. “It’s just better this way, Brando. Like I said, I’ve made my decision.”

I sunk further to the floor. I had a few decisions of my own looming.