I haven’t shared fiction with you in a while, have I? Here’s one you’ll likely find in my third collection of short fiction. Yes, another book is coming. Call it a spoiler. Share your thoughts about it in the comments, won’t you?
Enjoy your Friday and have a bon weekend.
The envelope sat on the picnic table next to her half-eaten blueberry muffin from that morning. Upon glancing at the sender’s name, his stomach dropped. He wasn’t in the habit of reading her mail, but privacy paled in comparison to the name in front of him. He pulled the letter from the envelope.
I need to see you.
Gripping the iron chair for balance and the need to feel something firm and concrete—unlike the jelly that seemed to now permeate his body—Desmond continued reading. A plea to see her just once, to make amends. He swallowed thickly and placed the letter back into the envelope. Glancing at the muffin, he wasn’t surprised at the loss of her appetite.
The next morning, he watched as she quietly moved around the house, her demeanor unreadable. She occupied herself with her usual weekend routine of household chores: cleaning, dusting, vacuuming. He entered the kitchen from the patio just as she was approaching the sink. “I’ll take care of the dishes,” Desmond said. There were a few plates from their breakfast.
“You just mowed the lawn. I can do them,” she replied.
He smiled at her. “Let’s do them together.” With that, he pulled over a chair and sat next to her, as the sink had been modified to allow her to reach it from her wheelchair. “I wash, you dry.”
Liza gazed at him. “Deal,” she said, ruffling his hair.
While they washed, both silent, the contents of the letter ran around in his mind. He wondered how to reveal that he knew about it. But he wouldn’t have to wonder long.
“My father found me. He sent me a letter,” she said as she slowly dried a plate.
He didn’t reply, waiting for her to continue.
“He’s sick. Lung cancer. He wants to see me.” She looked up at him. “Tell me what to do.”
His heart thumped painfully. Every inch of his being wanted to do just that, to tell her to refuse to see him. But nothing about that desire was right or fair. “I can’t,” he said, gazing at her. “The decision is all yours.”
“What would you do?” she pressed.
“I really don’t know.”
“I don’t believe that,” she replied, suddenly reaching over and decorating his chin with a handful of soap suds. “You always know what to do.”
“Hey,” he mildly protested, returning the favor by piling suds on both sides of her face. It was a playful respite from the conversation at hand. He welcomed it, however brief it would be. And sure enough, as her laughter dissipated, he knew that they were quickly back to reality.
“I don’t know how to feel, Des,” Liza said quietly. “It’s like opening a door I’ve closed for a long time.”
Desmond nodded. “I know.”
“There’s no way I’d let my wife…” Rich Mooney shook his head, unable to finish his statement, and took a long swig of beer.
Desmond turned his empty glass around and around on the table, his mind a jumble of emotions and thoughts. While Liza napped at home, he had slipped out for a drink with Rich, his good friend and neighbor. Naturally, Rich quickly became a sounding board for Desmond’s present quagmire.
“The fact of the matter is, the guy doesn’t deserve anything from Liza,” Rich finally continued.
“Don’t you think I know that? But he’s her father.”
“I get that, Des. But father or no—he ruined his daughter’s life. Period.”
It was easy for Rich to carve the situation in simple black and white terms. He was the outsider looking in; the visitor to a situation that was older and far more complex than he knew. In the end, he knew that no opinion or thoughts on the matter, not even his own, could usurp whatever Liza decided she would do.
Later that night, as they both lay sleepless in bed, Liza released a long sigh. Desmond knew then that she would see her father. He wasn’t sure how he knew, how he understood, but the certainty of her decision was as plain as the ceiling above his head. “You’re not going by yourself,” he whispered, tightening his hold around her. “I’m going with you.”
Liza peered up at him, her eyes moist with tears. “You’re not angry?” she asked.
Desmond shook his head, nearly out of breath from the idea that he could ever be angry with her. It was impossible, even when they argued, to be angry with the woman he loved more than he could truly comprehend. “Never,” he firmly assured her.
Liza’s mother, however, had a far different reaction to learning that her daughter planned on seeing her father. That Monday morning, as Desmond sat in the usual LA morning traffic on his way to the office, Kate Harbor’s raised voice, on speakerphone, filled the confines of his car.
“How can you allow this, Desmond?” she cried. “That man is a monster. You’re pushing her into a room with a monster.”
For the past several moments following her phone call, he had remained silent as Kate expressed her outrage. If anything, he had surmised, her outrage was warranted. He shared it. Accordingly, there was no need to speak or to verbally agree to the feelings they shared. But the idea that he was forcing his wife to do this—Desmond needed to speak. “Kate, you need to understand that this is entirely Liza’s choice,” he interjected.
“It doesn’t matter. You should stop her.”
“I’ll do no such thing.”
“Your daughter is a grown woman, Kate. You don’t have to agree with what she’s doing, but you need to find a way to understand.”
After some silence on the other end, Kate cleared her throat. “I don’t think I can,” she whispered, her voice coated with emotion.
“But you have to try,” he replied softly.
Walter Harbor resided in a group home in a suburban neighborhood about 3 miles outside of New Haven, Connecticut. It was a stately three-story house that easily blended in with the other properties on the quiet street. A week later, as they sat in the car, Desmond watched his wife gaze at the house, her demeanor expressionless. Nevertheless, as she clutched his hand tighter and tighter, the fact that she experienced a range of emotions was indisputable. He leaned closer to her. “How are you?” he asked.
Liza shook her head. “I wish I knew how to answer that,” she replied, drawing in a prolonged breath. She then turned toward him. “But it’s now or never. I’m ready.”
Nodding, Desmond opened his door and made his way toward the backseat on the passenger side. He pulled out the wheelchair and positioned it firmly on the sidewalk. Opening her door, he carefully lifted Liza from the car and into the chair. As they headed toward the front door, he stopped himself from urging her into the opposite direction.
Perhaps more surreal than inhabiting a room with his wife’s father, a man he had never met or cared to, was watching him weep without feeling much sympathy for him.
Walter Harbor cried until the coughing fits that were a symptom of his cancer took over, turning his sobs into spasms that shook his frail body. Desmond watched from the corner of the room, mostly unmoved. He was solely interested in Liza’s side of the experience. For her part, Liza sat by the side of the bed and quietly waited for the coughing to subside until her father grew somewhat calm.
“I’m sorry,” Walter muttered, wiping his face with his hands.
But almost immediately, fresh tears streamed down his weather-worn, hollow cheeks. “Seeing you—you’re so beautiful. I just—” He paused and held up his hand. “I’ll end up crying again. I’m glad you came, Liza. You’ve done really nicely for yourself. Your life, everything.” Walter nodded toward Desmond but didn’t look at him, which had been the case since the two had been shown to his room.
“Thank you. How did you find me?” Liza asked.
He grinned. “One of the guys from the force knew a private investigator, so I called in some favors. I was surprised that you left the East Coast. Thought you’d be a New York girl for the rest of your life.” He paused. “Is your mother—is she close by, in case you need her?”
“She’s close by.”
Walter nodded. “Good. I bet she wasn’t very happy when you decided to come see me, huh?”
“Can you blame her?” Desmond interjected, unable to stop himself from speaking.
Liza glanced at him. He mouthed “I’m sorry.” She smiled wanly and mouthed “it’s ok” in response.
“It’s understandable, yeah, her being mad about that,” Walter murmured, still not looking at Desmond. “I deserve her anger. I deserve your anger, Liza Marie.”
She shook her head. “Dad, I’m not angry with you. I stopped being angry at you a long time ago.”
He peered at her with wide, watery eyes, willing her to go on.
“I knew you drank too much. I knew you were sick. Deep down, I don’t believe you truly wanted to hurt Mom and me.”
Walter shook his head. “I went crazy that day, Liza. I never, ever meant to hurt my family,” he said fervently.
Her father was racing upstairs with a knife. After already hitting her mother, she knew he was going to kill her. Eyeing his left hand, which held the knife, 10 year-old Liza Marie Harbor ran up behind him and jumped on his back. She willed herself to be strong and to hold on tight. She was going to knock the knife from his hand.
Get off me, Liza, he threatened.
No! You won’t hurt Mom!
Without another word, he forcefully pushed her back, causing her to plummet backwards. When she finally reached the bottom of the staircase, sharp pains ran up her legs and her backside. She screamed for her mother until, strangely, the need to close her eyes came over her.
“You did hurt us,” Liza said simply. She leaned over and took her father’s skeletal hands in hers. “It was so hard for Mom and me, for so long. But 25 years later, Dad, I can only forgive you. I forgive you for everything.”
Desmond felt his chest tightening. A hard ball began to form in his chest; it was a paradox, this hard, tight ball, made up of rage for a man who he felt didn’t deserve forgiveness and heightened respect for the woman who had just given it to him.
Walter began to weep once again. “You can’t walk because of me,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry, my darling. I’m so, so sorry.”
Desmond nearly rose to his feet. He ached to condemn Walter’s tears. He wanted to refute his apology.
Liza tenderly rubbed her father’s hands. “I accept your apology,” she said softly. With that, she leaned over and kissed her father’s forehead. “Be at peace with yourself, Dad. You’ve made your amends with me.”
Desmond shook his head, unable to stop trembling. Yell at him, he silently begged Liza. Be angry with him.
“You’ve made your amends me with me,” she repeated to her father, as if in response to Desmond’s silent plea. “Thank you for giving me life.”
Walter Harbor nodded slowly, gazing at her, his eyes brimming with tears.
Liza then turned toward Desmond. “We’re ready to go,” she announced. Her wide eyes, so much like her father’s, seemed to implore him to do what he struggled to do—to stand up and leave without another word to the man who painfully and irrevocably changed her life. Coming here was one thing. But Liza had to recognize that to leave without a word was too much to ask of him.
She held out her hand. Please, her eyes seemed to entreat.
Desmond stood up, his attention directed on his father-in-law, a man who couldn’t even look at him. But eventually, his attention was pulled toward the woman he loved, who waited for him with her outstretched hand. With a deep breath, he approached her and claimed that hand. Without looking back, Desmond pushed her toward the door.
He froze at the sound of his name. Slowly, Desmond turned around. Walter Harbor’s eyes were intently fixed on his. “You keep taking care of her,” he said.
She takes care of me, he wanted to reply. However, he merely nodded and departed the room with his wife.
They sat in the car, still parked by the group home.
“How could you forgive him, Liza?” he whispered. “Help me understand.”
“If I could, there are so many things in life I would have chosen to do. Have children. Dance at our wedding. So many things. But I had the power to choose this time, Desmond. And I chose to give my father something he’s never experienced in his life: peace of mind. That could only come from forgiving him.” She paused. “It was what I wanted to do.”
“But he took your choices away when he…” His voice caught in his throat. “When he caused your accident.”
“Yes, that is true. But without that wheelchair, I wouldn’t have accidentally rolled over your feet in Lecture Hall the first day we met.”
Desmond looked up at her, both taken aback and moved. Her words elicited the vivid memory of that day in college. He was still convinced that he had fallen in love with her on sight.
Liza beamed, smiling at him. “I choose to focus on that,” she said, “the effect rather than the cause. The effect was you. In the end, that’s all I choose to care about.”
From the beginning, he realized, this entire matter had been about choices. And he wasn’t about to take that away from her.
One Reply to “The Choice.”