Scenes from an American Diner: A Story in 26 Parts
of us have had our lives touched in some way by the disease of
addiction. Be it a loved one, friend, family member or even ourselves
no one is immune to the impact of this devastating illness. This story
is dedicated to all of those people, especially the ones who have found
recovery through the 12 step fellowship.
Ted waved excitedly, he couldn't help it. He'd been so sure just a second ago that it would never happen. But then he caught the look on Cole's face and it chased the smile away, took the life out of his wave.
Cole spotted him and moved in his direction. It was a slow, deliberate pace and Ted half feared that any moment he would turn on a heel and walk out. He held his breath as he approached the table, as if afraid to spook him. But he looked less like a nervous woodland creature and more like a stalking predator, eying him as he weaved through the tables with a constant dark glare.
He seated himself across from Ted in the booth and Ted exhaled silently, trying to force his heart to slow. He watched his son with intense curiosity, but avoided meeting his gaze directly. Mentally he assigned sources to the physical landmarks of his face.
The high, slanted eyebrows were the trademark grace of his late wife. The large brow mirrored his. The jawline the firm, straight edge of his father's side. The slender ridge of the nose her mother's side. But it was the eyes that always got him, the same as hers. As if looking into him, beyond the surface, ignoring any attempt at covering or downplaying the harsh reality of his actions. He'd hated those eyes when they watched him and he wished nothing more than to avoid them now.
"We must not shrink from anything," his mind chastised. This was what he had wanted, this was what all the phone calls and letters and months of persistence were for. Just this moment. He pulled his head upwards and met his gaze.
"Thanks for meeting me," he said, and forced a smile. It felt uncomfortable and retreated from his lips almost as soon as he put it there. But he held Cole's gaze with the softest face he could muster and waited.
Cole stared him down, as if trying to break him, then suddenly looked away. "Didn't have much of a choice, was getting more letters from you than circulars. Wouldn't be much room left in the mailbox by the time you got done with it."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Ted said, sheepishly.
"So what the hell do you want?" he asked, turning to look at him with a snap of his head. This time he didn't look away but held the glare until Ted looked away, like a submissive animal.
He remembered what Stew had said- don't ask for anything, don't expect anything, just give him the space to talk. "I, uh, I'm in this program- uh... there's these steps you take to try to be better and I..." Now he wished he had prepared something, just an idea of some words. Something, anything more than 'uh'. Just keep going, he told himself.
"I have to make amends to the people I've wronged so I just wanted to ask you here to tell you that I'm sorry." There, he'd said it. The words had come out of his mouth and the sentence was logical and concrete. It had started.
But Cole said nothing and the silence intensified the sound of Ted's heart beating in his eardrums. Sorry- what a useless, insignificant word. As if that came close to the depths of his destruction. He imagined bitter, acrid words forming in Cole's mouth and waited for their impact, his muscles tensing involuntarily. But still he said nothing and he couldn't help but peak at his face to see what was causing the delay.
Cole had pursed his lips in slanted sort-of way, as if his apology were chewing tobacco and he were holding it between his cheek and teeth, letting it sink in. He wanted desperately to say something, to beg him to talk, but he waited. He kept reminding himself to breath.
"And what brought this on?" he finally asked.
Ted opened his mouth but closed it before making a sound. How to explain years of recklessness and waste? How to sum up a lifetime- Cole's lifetime- of hurtful living? How the hell to try to explain what his bottom looked like, let along to do it in a way that didn't sound like he was bucking for sob story of the year.
"In the program we call it being sick and tired of being sick and tired, if that makes any sense. Just... giving up." Again, he held his breath and then released it in one slow exhale.
"You know I hate you, right? Cole asked.
It wasn't what Ted had expected. He hadn't spat the words at him and he wasn't staring him down now- his expression looked as if he asked a far more innocuous question, like "Can you pass the ktechup" or "Do they have pancakes here?" And he realized it wasn't meant to hurt him, not really- it was just a statement of fact.
"I know that," Ted said. "And I earned that. And I know there's nothing I can do to make the past not happen- I can't give you your childhood back, I can't make it right. But I just wanted you to know that I know that- I am aware of my actions. And anything, whatever I can do to-"
"To what?" Cole interrupted. This time his eyes were wide and angry. "You weren't a father back then so you want to be a father now? Now that I don't need you anymore? Is that it?"
Ted watched his son's face and the pain he saw there nearly tore him apart. It ached in his chest with a heaviness he thought he'd never be able to lift, especially not with a few broken words. But he was sick of feeling that way every time he thought of his son, and that unwillingness to continue living like this is what drove his next move.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the coin he'd been turning around in his fingers the whole time and placed it face up on the table. It was his one year anniversary coin and the triangle carved into the mold caught the glint of the light. Cole grabbed it as if it were a bug, slapping his hand down on it and pulling it off the table. He looked at it, turned it over in his hands. Ted couldn't read his expression, which he took as a promising sign.
"So what, you're a coin collector now?" he asked, a wry smirk hinted at through words rather than by mouth.
"Sort of," Ted said, and smiled.