Alicia knew this was her chance. The first one that she had had in the weeks since Jon showed up and perhaps the last one she would have for who knew how long. Of course, Alison knew the truth about Hope’s father, the no-strings-attached Marine that had miraculously appeared on the very night that her Abuelita died and disappeared before dawn. But how did she tell her the truth?
The kitchen was clean. She had sent Carlos, her night cook, home half an hour ago. It was only the two of them as they scrubbed down tables, put up chairs, and refilled all the condiment bottles, ready for the morning.
Alicia jumped when Alison placed her hand on her shoulder. “Go ahead, spill it. Whatever has been bothering you lately. I think I know, anyway.”
She shook her head as she looked into her friend’s compassionate blue eyes. “Think you know what?”
“Jon is Hope’s father.”
The words hung like specters in the silence. Alicia grasped the back of the chair she had been cleaning. It was all that kept her standing. She should say something. But no words formed in her addled brain. She could not even move her head that was weighed down like lead.
Alison smiled and pulled out the chair behind her. She guided Alicia into it. “It was the only thing that made sense.”
Alicia finally found the strength to nod at her friend.
“So, what are you going to do about it? When is the wedding? DeShaun will be finishing high school in six weeks. You know he wants to spend the summer traveling before college starts in the fall. I’ll move on when he does.”
That broke through the fog; Alicia shook her head, “No, this is your home, Alison. It has been for seven years. And this does not change that.”
Her friend, who at forty-five could easily pass for thirty-something, smiled wanly. “It does, Alicia. You need a fresh start. A chance to form a family. Hope needs her father.”
Alicia reached across the table; her hand covered her friend’s as she heard the pain in those words. “You know, your car breaking down here was the best thing that happened to me.”
Her friend forced that smile as she looked up into her eyes. “I don’t know what we would have done without you.”
She squeezed Alison’s hand tighter. “Or I, you. I could not have kept this place running those last few weeks of my pregnancy and right after Hope’s birth. And without this old place, how would we have survived?”
“You’re my friend, more than an employee. Hell, you’re more like a partner. So, no more talk about you leaving. We’ll figure something out. Just like we did when Hope outgrew my room, and we had to remodel the attic for the boys.”
“Alicia, this is a man. Hope’s father. You need your space. Some privacy. Maybe DeShaun and I should move out now?”
“No, no way. Besides, I don’t even know what’s going to happen.”
Her friend chuckled, “You’re going to get married. You’re gonna burn up the sheets with your still plenty hot Marine. You’re gonna make more babies. Give Hope a half dozen brothers and sisters, for sure.” She turned her hand over and squeezed Alicia’s instead, “You’re going to live happily ever after.”
Alicia felt the tightness in her throat as unshed tears burned her eyes. “It isn’t that simple.”
Alison gave her a lop-sided grin that somehow reminded her of Jon. “Of course, it isn’t. Nothing worth having ever comes easy in this life. But it is what is going to happen. I know these things. I promise.”
How could she make her friend understand? Hell, she did not understand herself. She had practically thrown herself at the man who had been her fantasy lover for seven years. And he wanted a marriage in name only.
“I wish. But even if, you don’t have to move. I mean, I’m hoping that Jon will move into my room.”
“What do you mean, ‘hoping’? Of course, he will. Once you’re married, that is.”
Alicia shook her head as she lost the battle with those tears, and they slipped down her face. The story just poured out then. The two women, united by the bonds of friendship and single motherhood, sat together as they had over so many other challenges for the past seven years. They sat and talked. Talked until Alicia began to see a way forward, until she was filled with Hope for a new beginning.
Only one thing still bothered her. No matter how much she argued with her friend, she could not get her to agree to stay. In the end, Alison had dropped her head and whispered, “I can’t, Ali. I need to move on.”
Her friend lifted her head then and met Alicia’s gaze with tear-filled eyes. “I have had this feeling for months. That when DeShaun left, I needed to as well.”
She squeezed Alicia’s hand again, “But I was worried about you. How you would manage without me. I mean, like you said, this is more than just a waitress job. Who would pick Hope up from school? Who will take out the spiders when you scream? Who would listen when you need to talk and hug you, tell you it’s all going to be fine?”
“Yeah, well, I’m still not sure that Jon is up to the job.”
“He will be. I know it.”
“So, you say, but I’m not convinced. Besides, it won’t be the same. I’ll still need my best friend. Hell, you’re the big sister I always wanted.”
“And you have been a miracle for the boys and me. When I left Derrick, it was on blind faith because I knew the next time he lost a game and got drunk would be my last beating. I could not leave the boys alone with that man. But I knew we couldn’t stay at my brother’s for long. And I had no idea what I’d do next.”
“Yeah, well, you’re overqualified for a waitress. You could have gotten a job as a reporter somewhere. Done loads better than this,” Alicia waved her hand around the diner.
Alison shook her head and smiled, “Better than this? No way. I’ve loved our time here. With you and Hope.” She sighed and looked down at their hands still clasped together on the table, “But, as I said, I’ve known for some time that it is time to move on.”
“But where? What? Where will you go, what will you do now? What about Damien and DeShaun?”
“The boys will be fine. I always said Derrick was worth more dead than alive. I just could never bring myself… But thankfully, he did not shoot it all into his veins before he ODed. He left them enough money to get through college and still have a bit. If they’re good to it anyway.”
“Yeah, but that won’t help you. He cut you right out of his will after the divorce. So, how will you survive?”
“I’ll figure something out. I have to do this. I just know it.”
“That ‘know’ it?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Do you know where?”
“Alaska? But it is huge. And cold. And wild. Where will you go? What will you do?”
“I’m not sure exactly. But I know that something has been drawing me there for months. But I couldn’t uproot DeShaun so close to graduation. And, of course, I was worried about you and Hope. But I don’t have to anymore. Jon is here. So, tell me, have you done the nasty? I mean, that walk in the desert the other night was awfully long?”
Alicia shook her head, “No, I mean, not that. We kissed. Well, I kissed him. But he insists that this marriage is in name only.”
“Hell, did he lose that too?”
Alicia had to laugh. “No, at least not from what I felt in his jeans that night.”
“Oh, do tell.”
How like her friend to be so blunt. It was one of the things she loved the most about Alison. She was certainly going to miss her. But if this indeed was one of her friend’s ‘knowings,’ there was no doubt the woman had to go.
“Nothing much to tell. We are at an impasse. Jon insists that we remain celibate.”
“And you still want to jump the man’s bones? I’m putting my money on you. I give it another week tops before you have him in your bed.”
“Well, right now, we should finish up here and head home. He said that Hope didn’t even stir when he put her to bed. But I’m sure that he wants to get back to his hotel and get some sleep.”
“Now, where’s the fun in that? Sleeping in a hotel or burning up the sheets in your bed? Seems an easy decision to me,” her friend laughed as they surveyed the dining area.
“Looks like we’re almost finished to me. You count out while I clean the counter, then we can head back. But I say invite the man to spend the night. What you got to lose? You ain’t had none in seven years.”
Alicia laughed, “I could say the same about you.”
“Who knows, maybe that’ll change. Maybe we’ll both get lucky.”
Her friend’s words echoed in her mind when they got home to discover Jon sleeping on her couch. It was not quite her bed, but it was a start. At least, he would wake under her roof.
Like father, like daughter, she thought as she removed his shoes, lifting his feet and legs onto the sofa. He did not even stir when she lifted his head to put a pillow under it. Or when she tugged the quilt about him.
Only when she bent and kissed his scarred forehead, “You’re a good man, Jon Tyler. And you’re going to make a good father and husband too.” She pronounced wishfully as she turned and escaped down the hallway, lest he wake to see the tears in her eyes. If only…
Jon was running a bit late today. So, Chris was already waiting at the chain coffee shop where they had arranged to meet. He had woken on Alicia’s couch. His daughter was staring down at him with a huge grin, dancing from foot to foot and exclaiming his name. Alicia was trying to get her ready for school, and Alison had already left for the diner.
He had offered to take over the task for her. Get their little girl ready and off to school so that Alicia could go to the diner. At first, she had been reluctant; he did not even know where the school was. Jon made the excuse that in a town this small, everyone knew such things. But the truth was he had gone by there a few times to watch as Hope played with her friends during recess. He had missed so much.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?”
“I spent the night at Alicia’s.” Jon had not meant to say anything, but the words just tumbled out.
“Wow, that’s fast. Maybe I should be asking your advice,” Chris replied as he brought the paper cup to his lips. “Docs say I should go light on this shit, but hell, it’s the elixir of the gods. What’s life without coffee?”
“Just let me grab some, and we can chat.”
What he really needed was an excuse, some time to get his thoughts together. How much did he want to share with this man? Sure, they were both jarheads. They shared the bonds of being… Even his mind stumbled over the word. He still could not bring himself to say…disabled. But what other word was there? Injured? Impaired? Different? None of them were any better.
He placed his order. The place was pretty busy, especially for the post-lunch rush. But these places always seemed to be. Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned percolator or even a drip coffee pot? But these days, it seemed everyone had to have some posh-ass shit with flavors and cream. Not him; coffee was coffee. And it should never be iced.
If only other things were that simple. He still was uncertain what to say as he took his paper cup with straight black coffee and joined the other man at the table. Maybe he should just listen.
“Sorry, I was late. I had to run back to my hotel to shower and change after I took Hope to school this morning.”
The other man chuckled, “You don’t need to say anything more. Not even my best drill sergeant voice will get Amy moving in the morning.” But there was a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he said it.
“It did not help that I didn’t know where anything was.”
The other man nodded, “It must be tough. Finding out you have a kid this late.”
Jon’s mouth dropped at those words.
“Sorry, Alicia and I talked a bit yesterday at the park. She told me the whole story. I thought you knew.”
Jon sighed. So much for worrying about what to share with the man. “So, what did she tell you?”
“The no-strings thing. You showing up at the diner the other week. Not knowing what to do. How Hope has been jealous of Amy because she has me and Noah now. And…” He paused.
“Did she tell you she asked me to marry her?” Jon stared at the paper cup, his voice little more than a whisper.
“Yeah, she did. She thought I might have some insight into…”
“Into why I want…”
“Yeah.” An awkward silence hung between them for a couple of minutes as each made a show of drinking their coffee and avoiding the subject they had come here to discuss.
“So, do you? Have some grand insight into why I want a marriage in name only?”
“Because you’re still being an asshole and haven’t dealt with your shit yet.”
Jon wanted to throat punch the other man. What did he know? Except that was just it. He did know. Or at least had to deal with something similar.
“Decided you can’t throat punch a cripple yet?” The man smiled.
Jon shook his head, “The jury’s still out on that one.”
Chris laughed, “Good cause I can still kick ass. Or at least I’m relearning how to.” The other man met his gaze, “There’s loads of things I’m having to adjust to. Including the fact that I can’t fuck anymore.”
Jon was very glad that he had swallowed his coffee. Otherwise, it might have spewed across the room from his mouth and his nose at the man’s painfully honest words. He, on the other hand, had no comments at the moment.
“Yeah, that’s taking some getting used to. But you know, as my grandma used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Or, in this case, a pussy.”
Jon felt the heat rising in his face at the man’s words. This took locker room bragging to a whole other level, and he still was not comfortable enough to speak.
“My dick might not work anymore. Thanks to the bullet that shattered my spine. But my tongue, fingers, and that drawer full of toys that Kacey had collected in her decade as Marine wife, who rarely saw her husband anyway, make damn sure that I keep a smile on our little lady’s face when Noah isn’t around.”
Chris paused, “Want another one? I sure as hell need another. Fuck, we should have met at a bar for this chat. Caffeine isn’t as good as liquor for this talk.”
“Yeah, you’re right there. What you havin’? I’ll get them.”
“My legs and cock might not work anymore, but I can still manage to grab a couple of cups of Joe. Let me guess, straight black?”
“Is there anything else?”
“Nope. Nothing beats it. Except maybe Jack or Jim. But I promised myself, Noah, and Kacey that I’d stay away from that shit. And I’m clean for almost a year now.” He shook his head covered with long, surfer blond curls that were liberally sprinkled with grey. The man might talk like a Marine, but he did not look like one.
“But sometimes…” He paused and looked off for a long moment. “I’ll be back with those coffees in a couple of minutes.”
Jon watched as the man navigated his wheelchair around the tables and chairs strewn about the coffee shop. But more than that, he observed the face of the other customers. Their looks of pity, and the occasional disgust, was something he was more than familiar with.
The man’s words had shocked him. To say the least. Though why he was not sure. He knew from his own time in the VA that spinal cord injuries could cause… Damn, he was having trouble with words today. Impotence. Erectile disfunction. He tried to imagine what that must be like for the man, especially in a relationship like…
What had Alicia called it? Poly? Polyamory? Polyandry, that was it. The idea was way beyond his comfort zone. The thought of sharing her with another man, any other man, would drive him insane. Then, again, if he wanted a marriage in name only, what had she said? About it not being fair. Was it? Was it wrong to expect her to wear his ring, carry his name, and not…?
“Here you go, as strong as they make it. A black eye, two added shots of expresso.”
Jon took the cup from the man and brought it to his lips. He knew he was stalling for more time, but his mind was still trying to work through the complexities of Chris’s situation…and his. “Wow, that shit is strong,” he exclaimed as the caffeine hit his senses.
“Yeah, I’m breaking all the rules today. The docs say no more than one cup of coffee per day. That shit is hard on the kidneys. And since I also pee in a bag, I gotta be careful of those too.”
Was he ready for this kind of honesty? “It can’t be easy.”
“I don’t know. Is it any easier looking like a character from a horror film?”
Jon once more considered throat punching his new ‘friend.’ Fuck, with conversations like this one, could the man be considered that? “I guess,” he finally answered.
“My grandma used to tell me, ‘I thought I had problems because I had no shoes. Until I met a man with no feet.’”
“Your grandma is just a wealth full of wisdom, ain’t she?”
“Was. She died when I was a teenager. I ended up shuffled from one foster home to another after that. Until I graduated high school and joined the Marines. But yeah, she was. I can’t tell you the number of times I think of some dumb saying she told me growing up.”
Jon saw the moisture glaze over the man’s eyes. “Hell, sometimes I think she was the guardian angel that kept me from dying that day like Thomas.”
“Do you ever…” the words were out before Jon could stop them.
“Ever wish it had been me? That I had not made it? That I had been the one to die that day?”
Jon nodded his head slowly.
“Every day, several times a day at least, for that first year. I even told the nurses once or twice just to leave me be. To let me die.”
Jon nodded at the memory. He could remember a few of those times too. When the pain, physical and mental, had been too much to bear. “And now?”
The other man smiled, “Not for a single minute. Not even on my worst day. I am so fucking thankful to Nan, or her god, or whatever the fuck is out there that I am alive. Alive to watch Amy grow up. Alive to be there for Kacey when she needs me. Alive to fulfill that promise Noah and I made to Thomas.”
He patted the wheels of his chair, “Life’s good now. Even if my legs or dick don’t work. My brain does. My heart too. And I can love and be loved by some fucking amazing people. And that is all that really matters in life.”
“You know, the funny thing is I have more love in my life now than I ever did before. I love my Nan to pieces, but that old bird was not the type to go all soft. She took me in because my Mama was a drunk. She made sure I had three meals a day, went to school, and church on Sunday. But I can’t remember her ever telling me she loved me or hugging me.”
“When I fell, it was the old ‘big boys don’t cry’ thing. Like I said, I love the woman. And I know she loved me too. She was sixty years old, and she didn’t have to take me in. She sacrificed not just her golden years but money she did not have to raise me. But that is not the kinda parent I want to be to Amy. Or the new baby that Kacey’s having.”
It was a day of surprises for Jon as he did sputter his coffee this time. “Congratulations?”
“This one is Noah’s. But we’ve already decided to have one more in a couple of years. That one will be mine.”
This time Jon managed somehow to keep from spewing his drink, but he was not sure how as he swallowed it and his shock at the man’s casual words.
“Don’t worry; I’ll save you the gory details on how that one is accomplished. You don’t want to know.”
Jon laughed. “What? There are some intimate details you don’t share with strangers?”
“You aren’t a stranger. You’re a brother. You know that. And do you think it is easy telling another man that your dick don’t work?”
“For what? That my dick don’t work? Or for being an ass? Listen, I get it. I understand. As the saying goes, ‘been there, done that, own the t-shirt.’ That’s probably why Alicia came to me,” he sighed as he met and held Jon’s gaze.
“The thing is, there comes a time when you gotta man up. We’re fucking Marines; we know that. We been trained for that shit. Surrender is not an option. Even if your dick don’t work or your face looks like hamburger. It’s what in here that counts.” His fist pounded his chest.
“So, explain to the man whose dick don’t work, why you don’t want to use your perfectly serviceable gun to keep the woman you love and the mother of your child smiling? Cause I’m really dying to hear this one.”
“You wouldn’t understand. It’s not the same.”
“No, it’s not the same. I can’t fuck. You won’t. But for what it is worth, man, here’s what I do know. You’re right. Fucking ain’t everything. But the real problem is you’re still trying to protect yourself. You’re trying to do the ‘right’ thing by your woman and little girl. And kudos for that.”
“But let me tell you, from personal experience, you can’t do it. You can’t take care of them while you keep yourself hidden off and protected. It never works.”
“But what if?”
“What if what? What if you’re not good enough? What if you’re so damaged that they can’t love you?”
Jon’s heart stopped. That was it — his deepest fear. The man had said aloud the words he could not bring himself to face. “Yeah, what if they can’t love me like this?” Jon whispered the truth.
“Now, we’re getting somewhere. First of all, if Alicia didn’t care, she would not have bared her soul to me yesterday. Begged me for some insight into how you feel. And oh, I don’t think your woman knows. The fact that my dick don’t work ain’t something we banty about for just everyone. But, yeah, she cares. Fuck, if you ask me, the girl’s in love with your sorry ass.”
Jon was once again surprised at this revelation. The idea that Alicia loved him was the stuff of fantasies. His dreams. Not something he would even allow himself to consider as a possibility. But it was not just that…
“I just don’t want to be an embarrassment. To either of them.”
“Worried that some blond surfer dude or hot-ass new recruit gonna steal your woman away?”
“Can I get a break here, dude?”
“I’m sorry. The thing is, I do know exactly how you’re feeling. It is not easy to face our fears. We’ve been trained to ignore them. To tough it out. To act in spite of them. But that isn’t always the answer. Like I said, I spent eighteen months in rehab, and my mind was more fucking shattered than my spine. I snuck out to buy booze. I stayed drunk most of the time. I tried to hide. Hide from what I had become.”
“Then, one day, Noah showed up. I was really drunk that day. Hell, the doctors were about to throw me out on the streets; I was causing so much trouble. He poured coffee into me. He physically dragged my ass into the shower, a place I had not been in days, maybe weeks.”
“And he told me more truths than I was ready to face. Then he took me out of there. Put me up at his place. And every day, it was the same. Showers and truth. He made damned sure I could not get alcohol either. I hated that mother fucker. I wanted to kill him for what he was doing.”
“I even tried. One morning in the shower, I got so angry when he would not just leave me be, let me drink myself to death. I took a swing at him. He took a couple of punches. Then he picked me up, shook me, and said, ‘I’m not giving up on you. My friend is in there somewhere, and I fucking want him back.’”
“I just shrugged like it didn’t matter. He got so mad then that he left me there. Naked in the shower. It was fucking cold. I had no choice. If I wanted to make it, I had to apply all those things they had been trying to teach me at rehab. It wasn’t easy. But somehow, I managed to dry myself off, get dressed, and into my chair.”
“And for the first time, I cried. I really cried. I thought that I had finally done it. That I had pushed the one person that cared about my sorry ass away. And I didn’t know what I’d do then.”
Chris paused as he stared out the window. Tears tracked unchecked down his cheeks. The silence stretched for minutes as both men lost themselves in memories.
“But I hadn’t. That night, Noah came back. And he brought Kacey and Amy with him. He had been on my case that we had a promise to keep to Thomas. What he had not told me was that he was doing just that. He had been checking in on them every fucking day.”
“Noah seems to have it all together. He goes to work every day. Took care of me. And was there for them too. Everything we think a Marine ought to be and do. Except it is all a fucking lie. The number of nights that I lay in bed and listened to him scream in his sleep.”
“And Kacey? She was drowning herself in work. Her little girl and her job. She had bottled all her pain and anger tightly inside of her. She refused even to admit they existed. Duty. That was all the two of them knew.”
“But not Amy. Do you know what the first thing my little girl said to me was? ‘Oh, your chair is so cool. Can I have a ride?’ She thought my wheelchair, the thing I hated most, was cool. All she wanted was to ride in it. Can you imagine that?”
Jon nodded his head, “Yeah, the first thing that Hope said to me was, “Does it hurt?” But how do you tell a child every minute of every day?”
“You don’t. It’s our job to protect them. To preserve that innocence for as long as we can. And to cherish each blessed moment of it.”
“But what if…”
“What if the other kids are mean to her? What if she gets bullied because her daddy is a freak?”
“Do you know how to pull your punches?”
His new friend shrugged and laughed, “What’s the point? The hard shit needs to be said. And being the cripple means that nobody is gonna punch me for doing it.”
“Don’t count on that.”
“Good. I could use a good tussle. You know I took up judo. I am working on my black belt now. Yeah, wheelchair judo is a fucking thing. And it rocks. I’m even considering trying surfing again.”
“How do you do it?”
“Well, there are a couple of different options…”
“No, not surfing. Being so positive. How can you…”
“How can a man whose legs and dick don’t work being so fucking happy, you mean?”
“Yeah, that,” Jon chuckled.
“It’s easy when you have the love and support of amazing people like Noah, Kacey, and Amy. Oh, I still have my moments. Especially when someone assumes that I can’t do something, but it’s getting better. I usually just smile, thank them, and explain that I can do it myself.”
“Sorry about earlier.”
“No problem, we’ll get there, dude. Cause I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to have a new friend who can truly understand what it feels like to be different. Even if we aren’t exactly the same, it is shared ground.”
“Yeah, it is. Like your Nan said about the man with no feet.”
“Or in this case, the man with no working dick? So, are you at least reconsidering that crazy shit?”
“It isn’t that exactly.”
“You’re worried about being naked with a woman. I get that.”
“Are you a fucking mind reader too?”
“Nope, but I’ve met a couple of those in my day. You’re just painfully obvious, dude.”
Chris brought his finger to his temple and closed his eyes, “Oh yes, I see. You’re worried that Alicia will be turned off by your scars. That she will compare you to the man she knew back then. That it won’t be the same.”
“And completely accurate?” His friend met his gaze, “It won’t be. Hell, it wouldn’t be even without the burn scars. Shit, what Noah and Kacey share isn’t the same as what she and I do. The thing is that love doesn’t work that way. It’s not about comparisons. It’s about being and accepting just what is.”
“Both Noah and I know that Kacey will never love us the way she did Thomas. And that’s cool. Love is miraculous. The more you give, the more you have. But you gotta learn to give it. I had to learn to give and receive it. And I know that ain’t easy either. But damn, am I glad I did, I still am.”
“So, how did you do it? I mean, learn to love.” Jon was not the type to share confidences. But this man had bared so much of his soul and history. Didn’t he deserve the same? “That night was the closest I have ever come to love.”
“And that makes you even more worried that things will be different?”
Jon nodded his head without meeting his friend’s gaze.
“That’s a long story. And we need to be at the school for the girls in a few minutes. We can talk more while they play in the park. But I’m on the clock today. Kacey gave me a real tongue lashing for keeping Amy out so late on a school night yesterday.”
Jon nodded and began to clear off their table, but Chris took the tray from him. “I’ll get that, dude.”
Jon smiled and nodded as they made their way through the growing crowd to dump their cups in the trash and head out for their girls. Their girls? The words had a nice ring to them. And after this day, Jon felt more Hopeful than he had – ever?