She wasn’t sure what burned more, the hot sun that blazed down on them, or the look of smug satisfaction on his face. What had she really seen in him? Was it really the alcohol-fueled stupor that led to this moment? She found herself questioning every rash decision made that led to this particular point in time. Again, her reasons for returning eluded her – she had been drawn back for something – but the anger she currently felt didn’t quite make those reasons obvious.
Michael, sensing the tension, had gone still. His grip on his mama’s hand was fierce, and she tried to reassure him by squeezing back. He snaked his other arm around her legs, and automatically she bent down to pick him up and hold him closer, to comfort and reassure him. She didn’t know how to do these things; most of her parenting had come automatically as she navigated the world of single motherhood. Her parents were far too old and into their retirement to really offer much support. She simply knew that her child needed reassurance, so she gave it however she could.
He had seen the little exchange, and his son’s reaction. He watched as she cuddled him, holding him close, almost as if putting his little body between them. The look on his face was inscrutable – he watched them, feeling alienated from their bond – and wanting to say or do something right, he reached out to his child. She took an automatic step backward, and the child buried his face in his mother’s neck, almost flinching at the thought of this stranger’s touch.
She didn’t mean to react quite so coldly, but something told her that if he touched Michael, and tried to get closer, this trip would be more difficult than any she had ever dealt with. [But then why are you even here, if not to acquaint son with father? – her conscience scolded her even as she tried to maintain a distance.] His face showed surprise, and a flash of anger that was swiftly replaced with a tight smile. He raised his hands as if in surrender. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He probably meant her.
His words broke the tension, and she suddenly found herself mobile again. “Not a problem.” She set Michael back down on the sand, handing him his flip flops to protect his tender soles from the very warm beach. She bent to pick up their few things, attempting to roll up the towel, then giving up and slinging it over her shoulder. Once again, Michael reached for her hand – a surprise, considering he was often trying to wriggle out of her grasp.
As she held her son’s tiny hand, she felt something in her stir. Before she could change her mind, she offered him an invitation to grab something to eat. Somewhere new, and thus neutral – would be the best setting to sit and talk. He eagerly accepted, and they walked to a deli that had not existed seven years ago. Silence reigned until they had finally sat down, with Michael happily ensconced in a grown-up chair, sipping on a smoothie. After the distraction of tending to him, she finally had to face the father of her child.
He had sat, watching her sit Michael down, soothing him, ensuring he was comfortable, placed an order and finally settled in for herself. She was the picture of efficiency, a mother who was used to pulling her weight alone. Not for the first time, he felt a pang of regret. He regretted the numerous children he had scattered around his country – he regretted not having been part of any of his children’s lives, yet, somehow, he felt they were better off without him. Now watching Anna and Michael, the little tight unit they were, and how efficient she really was, he felt like the outsider looking in.
Conversation could not start up. Every time he felt like speaking up and saying something, he would think and rethink, until he finally gave up and simply sat and watched them. There were a million thoughts running through Anna’s mind, including the ever present question, “Why?” So she asked him, “Why?” He looked confused, as though there were any number of reasons for such a question.
“Why did you walk off and not come back that day?”
“Oh. That.” The napkin that held silverware was slowly shredding under his hands. The pile grew and grew, while he silently looked anywhere but her. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know why you walked away after I told you I was pregnant?” The look on Anna’s face was incredulous. “I was ready to give up everything at home, and I was going to stay, so we could be a family…”
“I know. I’m sorry, but I’m really not good at that.”
She knew that now, and even though she had braced herself for it, she still felt disappointed. Deeply disappointed in the fact that her child’s father was irresponsible and couldn’t offer any admirable qualities to Michael. Well, perhaps the ability to hold a mean tan. “You’re not good at ‘that’? You know, I knew nothing either…but I was willing to try.”
“You’re a good mom. I’m watching you and Michael,” he smiled at the young boy engrossed in his melting smoothie. “You are doing a better job than if you had stayed with me. Trust me.”
Anna didn’t realize that she wanted answers – every fiber of her being had rebelled at her coming back. Especially with Michael. Perhaps this, the bald-faced truth from the culprit himself, was what she had been avoiding yet seeking all along. She had no need for him, financially or emotionally. Her son was better off not knowing that some poor excuse of a man was his father. Or did he?
“I came back thinking that if you saw him, you would…” She trailed off. No, she really didn’t want to make him a big part of her son’s life. Not really. She wanted him to have this memory of a man, a stranger that Mommy knew. She knew that the hard questions would be coming sooner or later. “I just wanted to be sure that you saw him, and that he has an idea of you, and what you are like. I think.”
Their paninis arrived, and thankful for the distraction, she set about feeding her little boy bits of bread and meat and melty cheese. He held on to his piece of sandwich, independent once again. “I really am not sure why I came back.”
“I am glad you are here, and I can see my son.” He had hardly put thought to the girl he walked out on all those years ago. In fact, seeing her out on the street had been the first time he had thought of her at all. The first few months after he walked away, he had busied himself with other distractions. When the fishing and guiding was good, he got caught up in the party scene, spending his money at the bars. There had been other women, far too numerous to recall. He did think about her around the time she should have had the child, and he had wondered idly if she had terminated it, or if she had gone ahead. Selfishly, he had hoped she did decide to keep their child. Something in him felt how wrong it was to abort.
“I am sure you never even thought of me until I saw you earlier,” she said, half smiling. There was just nothing left between them. Even a child would not be able to bridge the gap that had existed long before he had been conceived. There was just no future in someone who had lived his life expecting not much more than a few dollars in his pocket, a warm body to have at night, with no responsibility the next day.
Michael tugged at her shirt, anxious to head to the bathroom. Anna got up, not bothering to excuse herself, focusing on her child’s needs. He sat and waited, wondering what else he could say; wondering what she wanted to hear, and knowing that whatever it was, he wasn’t the one to tell her. He put a few dollars down to pay for his food, got up, and headed out the door. He did not look back.
A week later, the plane pulled away and soared into the air, heading straight for the fluffy clouds high in the sky. Beside her, Michael wriggled under the restraints of the seatbelt, moving this way and that, eyes round with wonder as the island below grew smaller and smaller.
She hadn’t been surprised to find the empty table after they got back from the bathroom. What had surprised her was the disappointment she felt, that familiar emotion from so many years ago. But in the end, it was expected that the man who never offered support in the beginning could not be expected to do so now. Their remaining days were full of salt water, sand and sun, with a few renewed acquaintances getting to know her boy. It was as it had always been since that fateful holiday seven years ago: Anna and Michael.
As she saw the island’s southern portion finally disappear from view, she wondered if she would ever make it back. Closing her eyes, she left that lingering question up in the air, amongst the clouds, high over the Caribbean. For now, she was with her main man, and they were heading to the only home they had ever belonged in.
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