Dancing with Ashley is wonderful, for the three and a half minutes it lasts. It's perfect, it's paradise, just like it's
supposed to be. But still, deep down, I'm glad the song's not any longer than that, because I'm so tired and everything aches
(my hand my mind my face my heart) and I just want to go home.
She understands that, I think, because as soon as the music ends she steps back and squeezes my hand and offers to walk with
me down to the principal's office to use the phone. I tell her it's all right, I can walk home, but she thinks I should have
Joey come get me. And she smiles so sweet that I agree. Maybe I even decide she's right.
She sits on the steps with me till Joey pulls up, but slips away when he parks the car. "Call me in a couple days," she says
with a smile, heading back into the school. And I don't try to stop her, because I really am tired and it's going to take
everything I've got to calm Joey down .
He's all in a panic about my tear-streaked face and bruised hand, and it takes a few minutes for me to get a word in. I tell
him I had a little freakout, that he'd been right about feelings needing a chance to get out, that I was okay and could we
just go home? And the back of my mind is expecting him to do what my dad would've done and harp on me for twenty minutes
about how he was right and I was wrong and had I learned a valuable lesson about listening to people who knew better, and
what was I thinking making a fool of myself in public? I can hear it in my head. I'm ready for it.
But he just puts a hand on my shoulder and steers me into the car. "Let's get you home and into bed," he says, sliding behind
the wheel. "You need some rest. We'll worry about the rest of it in the morning." And the ride back to the house is quiet.
Joey is not my dad.
That's the thought that comes to me while I'm lying there in bed, staring up at the ceiling, too tired to move but unable
to sleep. I knew that, obviously; that's why I'm here in the first place. My dad and I couldn't live together, and besides,
now he's dead. Of course Joey isn't my dad.
But he's not my dad in other ways as well. Deeper ways. I'm tired of doing all this thinking in the dark with nothing to
hear but my heartbeat. I throw the covers off and slip downstairs, get a glass of water and sit down at the kitchen table.
I cast a longing look at the TV, but no, I don't want to wake up Angela. Or Joey. At least from here I can see cars passing
by, once in a while. I can watch fireflies through the window. I don't have to think.
But I'm thinking anyway.
It was a relief to get out of Dad's house. Coming here was like finding a little sanctuary. And Joey was a part of that,
along with Angie and the ghost of my mother that lives in her face. Was that what I was looking for, when I came here? Her?
She isn't here anymore, not really. There are traces of her, suggestions, but nothing real except my little half-sister.
And the living proof of her choice.
I press my palms against my eyes until I see stars, then even harder until the stars fade into red waves. She chose Joey
over my dad, and then I did the same. And the other night I did it again. Three times rejected, my father drove away and
died. Did I do that to him? Did repeating my mother's choice not once but twice destroy him? Oh, God, what did I do...
There are tears running into my hands, dripping down my wrists and falling to the table top. I hold back the sobs to sniffles
and coughs. Better not wake anybody. What would I say? "Joey, my mom and I both decided you were better and so my father
had to die"? I can't say that. It doesn't even make any sense.
I am not afraid of Joey. This is simple, this is true. He doesn't get angry with me very often (it takes visible force of
will sometimes, I can see it), but even when he does raise his voice and shout and rant (he's only human), I'm not afraid.
I don't panic, I don't flinch. One time I did, more out of surprise than actual fear, and the sick look on his face when
he saw it stayed with me for days. He doesn't want to be that man, he doesn't want to turn into my father, and I don't know
how to explain to him that he doesn't have to worry. He doesn't have it in him anyway. That's probably why my mother chose
him. Why I chose him.
"Craig?" I jerk upright in my chair, blinking my sore eyes until I can see Joey, standing at the foot of the stairs looking
at me with worry in his face. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," I say, coughing around the thickness of my throat, blinking even harder to try to clear away any lingering tears.
"I just couldn't sleep."
He glances up the stairs and then over at me before crossing the room slowly to sit down in one of the other chairs. "You
need to talk?"
I shake my head, biting down on the inside of my lip and willing myself to be strong, damn it, be a man, Craig, you've done
enough crying tonight. Joey deserves to get some sleep, don't go bawling on his shoulder. But my body isn't listening and
the tears are spilling out again, running down my face while a whimper escapes my lips. Like a little kid. Like a dog.
God, how pathetic.
But he doesn't look like he thinks I'm pathetic. His face holds nothing but sympathy and concern and then he's opening his
arms, drawing me to him, rubbing my back and murmuring softly in my ear while my tears soak into his shoulder.
Something clicks in my brain and I start to cry harder, abandoning the effort to keep my sobs in check and letting them come
out as strangled half-howls against his shirt. Because I'm realizing something wonderful and terrible, all at once, and I
don't know what to do. Terri was right; I love my father. Of course I do. I love him for the man he should've been, and
sometimes was; I love him for bringing me into this world and taking care of me for fourteen years.
But I love Joey too. Joey, who had nothing to do with bringing me into the world but cares about me anyway. Joey who let
me into his house nine months ago, a scared and messed-up kid who he didn't owe a damn thing. Joey who's a good guy, right
down to the core, who I'm not afraid to let have his arms around me like this, because I know he will never ever hurt me if
it's in his power to prevent it.
And God, it feels like I'm betraying my dad all over again. That's why I'm crying; because I'm finally realizing that yes,
truly, when I chose Joey, I was right.