***J. T.’s apartment, Montrose***
J. T. flipped the pancake. It was one of the few things he knew how to cook. Not that they would starve over the weekend. Josefina had shown up yesterday, not long after he had gotten back from picking up Jeb at the hospital. She had cooed, pinched, cleaned, and cooked. She made chicken enchiladas for dinner and brought mole and tamales for the freezer. No, they would eat well this weekend.
The question was – what else did you do with a teenager? J. T. might have been a father for over fourteen years, but he had little experience being a parent. He probably would do slightly better with Laura. At least when they were little, things were as simple as taking them to the park, letting them run and play while he worked on his laptop. But a teen?
J. T. smiled at the slightly ruffled version of his son that stood at the end of the hallway, peering across the living room into the kitchen. Jeb looked like he was still more asleep than awake. Was fourteen too young for coffee? Oh, fuck it. Who cared? “Want some coffee?”
“Hell, yeah, I’d kill for an expresso.”
“Sorry, nothing that fancy on offer. Just plain stuff from our used drip coffee maker,” J. T. poured a cup. This one said, ‘Sarcasm – Just one of the many services I offer.’ It seemed to fit Jeb. After living a lie for a quarter of a century, J. T. was fucking keeping his rainbow all to himself.
Jeb took the cup with a half-smile, “Mom said I was too young for coffee. So, I’d sneak off to buy it before class.”
J. T. nodded as he plated up a couple of pancakes and reached for the bacon. “No, Dad, if that’s for me, no bacon. I’m vegetarian. Mostly vegan, but I can cope with a bit of egg and dairy.”
He frowned, remembering that his son had pushed the enchilada around on his plate last night. He had thought that was because Jeb was upset, but now J. T. realized that he had devoured the rice and refried beans. “Does Josefina know?”
“No, I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“You aren’t any trouble, Jeb. But if we don’t know these things, then we can’t support you.”
“Are we talking about being vegan or gender non-conforming, dad?” Jeb chuckled.
“Both, and anything else, too.” J. T. inhaled deeply; he had no idea if he was doing this right or not, but all he could do was treat his son with the respect, dignity, and acceptance that he wished he had received. And that began with honesty.
J. T. poured himself another cup of coffee. It tasted better in that rainbow mug. When he got paid, he’d see if he could find others for the office. He reached for the bacon, “Do you mind?” He looked over his shoulder where Jeb was already seated at their small table with the mismatched chairs.
“No, dad, you follow your conscience.”
J. T. grabbed extra bacon; even then, it looked like there would be enough for a BLT for lunch. It was strange; for the first time in his life, the son of the illustrious Marianne Buford Walker Tyler had to consider things like not wasting food.
He would have to speak to Josefina, if Jeb wouldn’t. He was confident that the woman would do anything she could to accommodate the boy. Hell, if she stuck around when she learned he was gay, what was a little vegan on the side?
He sat his plate on the table and pulled out the other chair. Once he was seated, he looked across the table. Jeb was laughing at something on his phone. “Would you mind putting that down for a moment?” The scathing look that he got in response had him adding, “Please.”
“Whatever.” But Jeb slid the phone next to his plate.
Shit, the phones! They were on a family plan. Also paid for by the trust. Except for his work one, of course. He hoped that his mother would forget that one, or more likely Mitchell. Maybe it would be too difficult to alter the plan on short notice. He hoped so anyway. At least until he got paid again. Damn, his list was getting longer by the moment.
But right now, and from here on out, Jeb was his top priority. All of his children, really, but there wasn’t much he could do for Laura or George right now.
Time for some of that honesty. He sent a prayer to the universe. His new therapist, the same Kaitlin woman he had met at his brother’s wedding, assured him that even if he wasn’t so sure about the whole god thing, there was nothing crazzy about sending pleas out to the universe or whatever, whoever was out there.
J. T. had been surprised that the head of the Danvers Foundation still did counseling, but Kaitlin said that he was a special case. When he had frankly told her that no major donations would be forthcoming from the Tylers, she had laughed and said money had nothing to do with it. That was certainly a new concept to him, and he had said so. That had led to one of the most enlightening therapy sessions of his life. One he was still processing.
In the next session, they needed to tackle this parenting thing. Because J. T. felt distinctly over his head here. “I’m going to be honest with you, Jeb. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing here.” His son’s eyes widened, and he spewed coffee out his mouth and nose. “Are you okay?”
Jeb coughed and wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin that had been exceedingly cheap in the thrift store. Laura said that it was also good for the environment. Another thing that had never been on J. T.’s radar. “Yeah, dad. You cussed. You never cuss. You say that using words like that shows a lack of intelligence.”
He winced at how much like his mother that sounded. “Yeah, well, I’ve changed my mind. Sometimes a good old fuck is the only thing that will do.” Jeb’s laughter made him realize too late how that sounded. Inappropriate would be his mother’s word. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I wouldn’t know about that. I might be G-N-C and uncertain of my sexual orientation, but I am still a virgin. Just so you know.”
J. T. felt even more over his head now. He had not meant for this conversation to go down those roads. Though he knew he needed to be more proactive about such things than his mother had been. But right now, he just wanted to establish basic ground rules. “Good to know, but we can talk about that another time if you don’t mind?”
Was that a knowing smile on his son’s lips? “Let’s be honest, Jeb, I haven’t been much of a father. If I had been, then none of this would have happened.” The boy started to shake his head, but J. T. held up his hand. “No, it’s true. I should have been around more. I should have known what was happening.”
It was tough to look Jeb in the eye and admit the truth, but his son deserved that and so much more. “I knew that your mother had a drinking problem….”
“Alcoholic, dad. My mother is an alcoholic.”
J. T. blew out a long breath and met the hurt, angry stare of a fourteen-year-old with more integrity and honesty than he had. Looking into the eyes of the human he had failed, he swore he would do better. He just hoped it was not too late to salvage a relationship with Jeb. “Yes, your mother is an alcoholic. And she needs help.”
Jeb smiled and nodded as he continued, “I know I let you down. I let all of you down, even your mother. Probably especially Priscilla. I wish I could go back and change so much….”
Jeb dropped his head, his shoulders tightening, “But one thing I know, for all my mistakes, I don’t regret you or your brother and sister.”
He held up his hand, “I mean it. I might have regrets about the how but not the what, or I guess the who. What your old man is trying to say is, I have no fucking idea what I’m doing here. How to be a parent. Or much of anything else. I’ve spent my whole life living a lie, focusing on my career, and doing what I believed was the ‘right’ thing. And in the process, I’ve failed you and the others.”
“You do realize that the one you’ve failed the most is you, right?”
“How the fuck did you get so smart?” J. T. was genuinely floored by his son’s insight. But more so by the fact that his fourteen-year-old saw things more clearly than he did. It was a sobering revelation.
“So if you feel like that, how about you trust me? Not set up a bunch of rules, dos and don’ts, and your beloved schedules. But believe in me as a human being capable of making good decisions. How about instead of trying to go all dad on me, we try being friends?”
J. T. was floored by the very concept. It went against everything he had ever been taught about parenting. Not just from his mother’s example and the church’s ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ shit, but society as well. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Definitely, one he needed to talk through with Kaitlin, but that wasn’t until Monday. What did he do until then?
“So let me clarify here. That means no bedtimes? No rules about how much time you spend online? Or even the content?” Jeb nodded, “But don’t I have the responsibility as your father to keep you safe?”
The way Jeb lifted his eyebrow was as much an answer as the yellow-green imprint on his cheek and the narrow dark circles peaking under the sleeve of his t-shirt. Maybe his son was right. What made him think he had the right to any of those things when he had failed to keep Jeb safe in his own home from the woman who was supposed to love him no matter what? Yeah, he needed to suss this one out. “I’ll be honest, Jeb, this friends thing is way outside my comfort zone.”
He watched his son deflate, disappear and withdraw from him. “How about this? Let me talk it over with my counselor while you’re in school Monday. Would you be willing to have a family session with Kaitlin if I can arrange it?”
Jeb shrugged silently. “I’m not saying no. I just need to get my head around a new idea. I need to talk this through with you and someone impartial to mediate.”
“You know you sound like a lawyer, right?”
He held up his hands and chuckled, “Guilty as charged.” But he was glad to see there was a half-smile back on his son’s face, even if it weren’t the genuine one from earlier. Could he do it? Surrender that kind of control to a child? What would people think? Hell, what would his mother say? Okay, so that was one mark in its favor. But it wasn’t just Marianne Buford Walker Tyler to consider. How would social services see such a radical parenting philosophy?
“Okay, so I’ll speak with Kaitlin on Monday while you’re in school and arrange it.”
“I’m not going to school.”
J. T.’s immediate reaction was, ‘like hell, you aren’t.’ But Jeb squelched that with an unforgiving stare and wave of his hand towards the fading but still visible bruise. “Since my school doesn’t allow boys to wear makeup.”
Yeah, he was way over his fucking head with this parenting shit. Hell, he wasn’t even sure he knew how to be friends. Since he had betrayed and hurt the last true friend he had. Shit, his life was fucked. Except for the smart, strong young man across the table from him. How the hell had he gotten so lucky?
“What? Why are you looking at me so funny?”
“Just thinking how fucking lucky I am to have you for my son.”
“Whatever,” Jeb shook his head, picked up his plate, took it to the sink, washed it, and put it into the drainer.
“So, what do you want to do this weekend?”
“I thought I’d just hang out in my room and game online. I mean….”
J. T. did some quick calculations in his head. The bank assured him that the transfer of his salary was in plenty of time. He would have to do something about the car situation at some point, but he had discovered by talking with Josefina that the bus which stopped out front was only a block from his office. That would do until he could decide what to do about it. Yeah, they should be alright. Even if he did need to purchase more groceries, things for a vegan.
“How would you like to go to the mall and buy your own makeup?”
The shocked but broad smile on his son’s face was answer enough. But J. T. was pleasantly surprised by the arms that wrapped around him from behind, “Thanks, dad.” He wondered if they could find any clothes in that thrift store that Jeb would like.