I closed the binder and ran my hand over the cover. “Why now, Dad?”
He rubbed at his eyes. His hair was grayer than I remember. He’d aged in between my visits home. He looked like my grandfather did, and I had to remind myself that he was now a grandfather.
“I’m sorry that it’s taken this long to be completely honest with you, Sam,” my father said. “My excuses won’t erase or explain our actions, but I promise you that at the time, we thought we were doing you a favor by keeping her illness a secret.”
He reached over and flipped open the binder. He pointed to a date at the top of the page. It was the August before my freshman year of college.
“The first appointment where we heard the word cancer,” my father said. “Just days before you left for school. Of course, we hoped and prayed it was a fluke, that a second opinion would change everything.”
He turned to another page: two weeks later. “It didn’t. The prognosis was bad. She started chemo quickly.”
I remembered. I was busy navigating the campus, meeting new friends, going to parties, taking tests. But I knew that something was wrong at home. Every time I called she sounded sick. Every time she spoke into the phone, she sounded weaker. Things happened so quietly and slowly that when I came home, it just seemed normal for her to spend most of the time in bed, or for her and my dad to go out for hours and her to come back looking exhausted.
I sat there with my father for hours as we shuffled through the binder and he filled me in on everything. I heard more than a person should ever hear about chemo and losing hair and vomiting blood. But I’d asked for it, and he was finally giving it to me.
It took two and a half years for the cancer to eat away at my mother. They only told me right before my junior year, when it was impossible to hide it anymore. I knew there was something wrong – she was sick all the time and her skin and hair looked wrong. When they finally told me, I was so angry at the secrets they kept that I wanted nothing to do with either of my parents. I stayed away from them as long as I could.
My father put the binder away in a file cabinet when we finished and came back to where I sat.
“Part of the reason for not telling you was that we were in denial, I guess,” he said. “We thought we could handle it, cover it up and cure it before you ever needed to know.”
He shook his head and shrugged. “We were wrong.”
I sat anchored to my chair. Now I had the facts, but I still wasn’t happy. The weight of anger and resentment still fell on my shoulders.
“Okay,” I said, finally standing up. My father looked up at me, waiting for some sort of absolution.
“Okay,” was all I could muster. “Okay,” I repeated once more.
Then I went upstairs.
Keri knocked on my bedroom door at 6:15.
“Your dad let me in,” she said.
“Shit,” I said, sitting up in my bed. “I think I fell asleep.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I – I’ll be down in a second. I just need to change.” I took a good look at her. She had some shiny thing in her hair to pull it away from her face, but it still streamed around her shoulders. Her dress was blue and so was a tiny purse she carried. Her shoes were those heels that I never could imagine her wearing in high school. The look suited her.
Keri nodded once, but her eyes held concern. I probably looked like I was run over by a steamroller.
I put on a clean, pressed shirt and a nice tie. I changed my jeans to a less wrinkled pair. Casual but nice, not looking like I was trying too hard. I’d spent years crafting the “not trying too hard” look. I ran my fingers through my hair and splashed water on my face to chase the sleep away.
I checked the note again – my strange tasks for this weekend.
Breakfast with dad on porch
Lunch with neighbor in piano room
Dinner with girl next door on pier
“These dumb errands,” I said, crumbling it into a tiny wad. The tasks hadn’t given me any clue to the identity of the note-writer and it hadn’t done anything to improve my weekend. If anything, I had wasted my entire day leading up to the reunion performing the first two tasks. The final task was dinner with Keri on the pier. I would get it over with, leave town and never think about the notes or the note-writer ever again.
I went downstairs. Keri was sitting with my father at the kitchen table.
“Pizza sound good to you?” I asked her, avoiding my father’s eyes. She nodded and stood.
“Bye Mr. Lancey, we’ll see you later,” she said. My dad nodded without speaking. Keri glanced at me, but I turned away. She followed me out the front door and to my car. She said nothing while I started the car and lowered the convertible top. She was silent while I steered out of the neighborhood.
“Okay, what’s going on?” she finally said. I shrugged and shifted gears, picking up speed now that we were away from the residential roads. “You and your dad are normally pretty quiet, but you were both downright shifty tonight. You wouldn’t talk to or look at each other. You’re acting like you were conspirators in some heist or something.”
“Nope, no crime,” I muttered. “Where’s the best pizza?”
“Luigi’s,” Keri said. She folded her arms. “You’re not going to tell me what’s up?”
I focused on the road. “Not Villa Pizza?”
She shook her head. “Luigi’s,” she repeated. “Off Route 34. Okay, you don’t have to tell me now, but if you keep acting like we’re carrying WMDs in the trunk of your car, I’m going to bring it up again.”
I swung the car into a hard u-turn. “Villa is better,” I said. Keri shook her head and sighed.
“What?” I said. “Give it up. It’s none of your business.”
She swiveled in her seat and stared at me, her face a storm of anger. “Pull over,” she said.
Her voice was icy enough to make me follow her instructions immediately. I pulled the Corvette off to the side of the road. We were on a two-lane road, empty except for trees and more trees bordering either side of the lane.
“This is where you’re wrong, Sam,” Keri said. Her words were spiked and pointed. “You are my business. I’ve known you since we were born and maybe we weren’t the best of friends all the time, but we’re forever friends. We’re the type of people that can always rely on each other. I know your past – I know you ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day in elementary school, and I know how much it hurt you when your mom died. There are things that happen to us as kids that mold us into the adults we become, and not only do we know each other’s things but we were there when they happened. So don’t tell me that something is none of my business.”
She unbuckled herself and pulled herself up so she was sitting on passenger door. She swiveled herself around and stepped out onto the street. She turned around to face me once more, “And you’re also wrong about the pizza. Luigi’s is much better.”
She started to walk. There was a forest of trees behind her.
“Keri,” I said, tired of this day, this weekend. “Get back in the car.”
She shook her head. She took a few more steps in those crazy high heels. She wasn’t going to get very far.
“You’re being so stubborn.” I tapped the accelerator to pull beside her. She continued to walk without looking at me. “This is like that time in sixth grade that you refused to drink the milk in school because you wanted the Board of Education to invest in a cow farm. It’s ridiculous. You can’t walk to the reunion.”
She stopped and turned to me. “You’re proving my point. You know that I’m stubborn because of something that happened in sixth grade.”
My cellphone rang. It was Freddie. I sighed and picked it up, still staring at Keri. She rolled her eyes.
“What’s going on, Freddie?”
“You on your way to the reunion, bro?”
“Yeah, I’m working on it.”
“I cannot believe you,” Keri said. “I can’t believe you’re taking a call.”
“Who’s that?” Freddie said.
“My neighbor,” I said. “We’re supposed to be getting dinner and then be on our way to the reunion.”
“Unbelievable,” Keri muttered. “It’s like you always have something to prove.” She began to walk again. I kept the Corvette at a steady, slow pace beside her.
“It she hot?” Freddie said.
I sighed. “This is not really the time, Freddie.”
“Is she mad or something?” Freddie said.
I paused long enough for my silence to give him the answer.
“Let me talk to her,” Freddie said.
“No way,” I said.
“No seriously, man. I’m extremely charming with the ladies. I can smooth things over with just a few simple sentences. Let me work my magic.”
I held the phone out to Keri. “My friend Freddie wants to talk to you.”
She stared at me for a second before grabbing the cellphone from my hand. “You are a piece of work, Sam,” she said. “When are you going to start living your own life? When will your flashy cars and moronic friends stop mattering to you?”
She looked at the phone in her hand. I could hear a tinny voice coming from the speaker. Freddie’s magical words.
She made a face and turned toward the forest of trees behind her.
“Keri, wait,” I said. Too late.
She wound up and tossed the phone into the darkness.
“This is the crap that doesn’t matter, Sam. Get it?” she said. “It’s time to start focusing on the stuff that does.”