“Mama, mama, you should have seen Papa. He was so amazing. Everyone loves him,” Alicia smiled as Hope burst through the doors, followed by Chris, Amy, Mandy, her partner Sarah, and bringing up the rear, Jon. He stared at the floor nervously.
All day, she had been regretting how last night went. She had chickened out. Plain and simple. And she knew that she had hurt him. Waking this morning to discover that during the night, their bodies had become entangled, looking into his sleeping face, she had fought back the need to touch him. To caress those scars. To take him into her arms and body and reassure him that everything would be alright.
But fear of another rejection like in the desert that night, the time ticking away on the clock, and the need to get ready for work had all stood as legitimate excuses. All of which she regretted now. She forced a smile.
“I’m sorry, Jon. In all the excitement yesterday, I completely forgot. You and Hope mentioned that you were talking to her class today, but I never found out about what?”
Chris and Sarah answered for him, high-fiving as Sarah shook her hips, and Chris did a bit of a wheely in the limited space between the tables. “Get your freak on,” they laughed and sang as Mandy shook her head. Amy and Hope giggled.
“Actually, I wanted all the children to learn about being different. About understanding and accepting those who are. Especially those who won’t make the commitment ceremony this weekend. So, I asked Sarah, Chris, Jon, and a few others to come and talk to them. Jon was a last-minute addition, thanks to Chris.”
Their friend, Chris, smiled, “But the star of the show.”
Hope beamed up at her father. Alicia got the distinct impression that he was blushing, but the scars made that a bit more difficult to tell for sure. “Congrats, Jon.”
“Can we have ice cream to celebrate?” their daughter finagled.
“Just one scoop. It will be dinner time soon,” Alicia smiled as everyone rearranged the tables and chairs, pushing a couple together to accommodate such a large group and making room for Chris’s wheelchair at one end.
Alicia busied herself preparing the ice cream and pie for the adults as her mind tried hard to come to terms with the latest surge of jealousy. She was glad that Hope was bonding so quickly with her father. And she knew that Jon needed their little girl just as much as she needed him. But it left her feeling distinctly alone. On the outside looking in.
And whose fault is that? She had no one to blame but herself. It seemed she had mishandled this whole situation. From the way that she just dumped the news that he had a child on Jon’s lap so suddenly. To her shocking proposal. Spilling the beans like she had yesterday in front of Hope. And most certainly the childish way she had run from Jon when he wanted to talk last night.
She felt tears stinging her eyes. It seemed that was all she did of late. Cry. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. Lifted the tray and forced a smile as she faced the small group of friends, the only people in the diner during this mid-afternoon lull between lunch and dinner rushes.
“Pie and ice cream to celebrate,” she declared as she began to pass the dessert plates and bowls around the table.
“I really shouldn’t,” Sarah looked at the plate with a slice of pie topped with vanilla ice cream like wives looked at their Marine husbands returning from a year-long deployment. “A girl has to watch her figure.”
“Then hand it to me, sweetheart. I’m eating for two,” Mandy rubbed her hand over her distended abdomen.
Sarah’s hand covered her partner’s, “Well, sugar, I suppose just this once, I can sacrifice myself for you. Don’t want you putting on any more extra pounds than you need to with Junior.”
Mandy chuckled as she bent and placed a tender kiss on the dark red lips of one of her partners, “I thought that might be the case. I’m sure that Steve will forgive us girls this one weakness, don’t you think?”
“Well, I won’t tell him if you don’t?” Sarah winked her fake lashes.
Alicia felt those tears returning as she watched the women. Would she and Jon ever share that kind of camaraderie? Tease one another? It was a far cry from the polite tension that seemed to arc between them now and undoubtedly different from the torture of the previous night.
She tried hard not to be jealous of them. She knew only some of what they had been through, what they were still going through. She hated prejudice and small-minded people. Love was love in whatever form it took. She would not be jealous of them for having the courage to take a chance on that love when she had lacked that same courage.
She met Jon’s gaze across the table and tried to smile as she picked up the tray to go back into the kitchen and hide some more.
“Aren’t you joining us, Alicia?”
Jon wanted to throat punch Chris again. Though it was not his friend’s fault that he had botched things so horribly last night. He should have gone to bed and been asleep before Alicia even got home. That would have made their first night in the same bed easier. Whatever had made him push the issue?
He could see that she was looking for some excuse, but Hope was jumping up and down. “Yes, Mama. Papa can tell you all about today.”
She nodded her head and smiled down at their daughter as she took a chair next to Sarah, across the table from him. “I’d like that,” she said as she met his gaze with a tentative smile. He tried hard not to read too much into that smile.
“It was nothing, sweetie,” he demurred.
“Nothing?” laughed Sarah. “He was just the star of the show. If Chris giving a couple of kids a ride around the classroom in his chair was not enough, Jon let them touch his scars. How’s a girl to follow that? You tell me.”
Jon shook his head. He had to admit, he learned more and had his own prejudices challenged more by the woman than he ever had. He was still trying to come to terms with the word woman. While she was a stunning one, knowing that Sarah had begun life as Mark had frankly blown his mind.
But Miss Mandy was right. What this world needed most was understanding and acceptance of differences. Hell, greed, hubris, and fear of those who were different was the reason he had spent his whole adult life fighting.
Listening to the man, no, the woman, talk about what it had felt like growing up. Knowing that you were different. Feeling as if something was not right. Not being like the other little boys. Not liking the things they liked and certainly not liking girls. All the little boys had identified with that bit of it.
But when Sarah spoke about sneaking into her big sister’s room to try on her clothes and make-up, about how her father had found her there and beaten her, the room was silent. But with the flair of a Hollywood star, she had shrugged her shoulders, smiled, and boasted that now her sisters came to her for fashion advice.
Jon had laughed along with the rest of them. He admired the way that Hope’s teacher was standing up for what she believed in. Personally, with her unusual relationship. And professionally. He was glad that he had gone today, proud to be a part of such a collection of ‘freaks’ as Chris and Sarah called them. In addition to Chris, Sarah, and himself, there had been a young blind man with his service dog and a slightly older woman who was deaf.
But besides Sarah’s story, what had surprised him the most was when Mandy had confessed at the end her own differences. She was autistic. She struggled each and every day with sensory overload from the fluorescent lights in the classroom. She sometimes got distracted by the sound of traffic outside, and every single day she battled social anxiety on the way to school. Only her strict routine and the loving support of her partners helped her to face the challenges. But they were all worth it, she said.
No, this day had definitely been enlightening for him as much as his daughter. And looking around the table at this diverse group of people, some of whom he knew were becoming his friends, he felt for the first time since that horrible day that he belonged. That his life meant something. That he had some purpose left on this planet.
Wrapping his arm about his little girl sitting next to him, he bent over and kissed the top of her head, “Thank you, Hope.”
“What for, Papa?” she brushed her hand tenderly across his scarred cheek.
“Just for being you. Hope. And for taking a chance on loving me,” he pushed the words from his throat that was clogged with emotion.
“How could we not love you? You’re my Papa. The best one ever.”
Alicia could not breathe. She fought back the tears again as she watched the exchange between her little girl and her father. If the lie of omission bothered her, it was nothing compared to their daughter’s heartfelt honesty, ‘How could we not?’ How simple life was when you were a child.
She felt a gentle squeeze and looked down to see Sarah’s perfectly manicured hand wrapped about her dish-water chapped one. “It’ll be alright, sugar. Love always is in the end. And I should know. You’re bringing him on Sunday, right?”
She nodded, “We wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“You know Steve, and I appreciate all the support that you, Chris, Noah, and Kacey have given our girl this year? This whole thing with the school board is harder on her than she lets on. And with the pregnancy too. Well, I just wanted you to know that we’re here for you too if you need us.”
Alicia smiled and squeezed her hand in return. “Thanks, I appreciate that. But I better be getting back into the kitchen. Get ready. Won’t be long now until the dinner rush.”
Sarah laughed, “Oh, this is going to be good. Both of you trying to run and hide, the way our Steve did. Well, my money is still on love. You can’t hide from that shit forever. Owww…” She turned to Mandy on her other side, “What you do that for, darling? It hurt,” she pouted as she rubbed her shin.
“Watch her potty mouth around the children,” Mandy whispered.
“Or ya’ll tell Daddy? Oh, I’m so afraid.” Sarah winked at her partner.
Alicia blushed; she did not begin to understand the complexities of the relationship between Mandy and her two partners. But she recognized love when she saw it. And wasn’t that all that really mattered? Or at least that was what the book that Mandy had recommended to her claimed. Nothing Done In Love by some New Age guru from L.A. who had not one but two husbands.
Looking across the table, she watched Jon and Chris talking. His arm was still casually wrapped around their daughter as she colored and chatted with her friend. All that might be fine. She certainly was not the type to judge Mandy and her partners or Kacey and hers. But how the hell did they manage? Just one man was proving difficult enough for her.