Life Just Got Real
AJ (Allison Josephine) Smith
Life is about change. That’s what my father used to say, as we’d stand on the edge of the bayou, fishing poles in hand. “Life is like the water in that stream, always rushing past, always moving, different moment to moment.”
I thought this was his way of telling me to enjoy the stillness of those quiet moments we had together, shoulder to shoulder on the solid bank. But now, I don’t think that’s what he meant at all. I think he was trying to warn me that life could change, just like that. That currents could shift, and suddenly I could be headed in a direction I never imagined.
Well, the current has shifted, that’s for sure, I think as I search my bedroom floor around open boxes and crumpled piles of newspaper.
I call to Mom and my brother Micah. “If anyone finds my keys or my red Converse shoe . . . I’ll give you something, though I don’t know what since I can’t find anything. But it will be worth it.”
Across the room, my black Lab looks up with hopes that I’m searching for his leash but then drops his head back down onto his dog bed as if I’ve really let him down.
“When I get home,” I say, as I pick up a sheet of bubble wrap.
“Maybe in here.”
It’s Micah’s voice but somewhat muffled.
“Where are you?”
There aren’t a lot of places he could be, so I head toward the living-dining-kitchen combination in the tiny cottage that has become our new home, sort of.
Mom peers over her laptop from her perch at the kitchen counter. “I haven’t seen them,” she says. Then when she looks at me adds, “Um AJ, darling . . . you aren’t wearing that, are you?”
She has that wrinkle in the space between her eyesbrows, as if the world is coming apart due to my wardrobe choices.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I glance down and bite the inside of my lip to hide the subtle pleasure that Mom has noticed. My look today was supposed to be a statement.
My brother rises up from beneath the kitchen sink with a wrench in his hand and looks at me, then grins. “Looks good to me. Or she will if she finds that other shoe.”
Mom frowns and then hops off the bar stool and grabs a potholder. She reaches into the oven and pulls out a pan of baked French toast—my favorite breakfast. It’s almost enough to make me feel guilty, except I know it’s her attempt to make up for what happened last night.
I glance down at my T-shirt that says “Chuck & Sons Auto Repair,” my favorite jeans, one red Converse, and a gray sock on one foot. No one says it, but we all know the reason behind my clothing choice, or at least T-shirt choice.
“I just think, well, first impressions are important. This is a very
nice school and it’s a blessing you were admitted. And we aren’t in Louisiana anymore,” Mom says.
Micah and I share an eye roll before he disappears back under the sink. I give Mom my widest fake smile. “I’m well aware we aren’t in Louisiana. We’re in the land of glitzy cowboy boots and perfect hair. I think my outfit will be a refreshing change.”
My brother chuckles and peers out from beneath the sink. “Now, AJ. You can’t go around talking like that. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next country star now that we’re here.”
All right, I have to admit, that makes me laugh, even though I’m not exactly in the mood. I am so not country star material.
“There’s a lot more to Nashville than that,” Mom says. “And there are more opportunities here than back home. I know it’s a big change, but it’s for the best . . .” Mom’s voice drifts off, as if she’s too tired to try convincing my brother and me.
And she’s got a lot of convincing to do, especially after the bomb she dropped last night. We had been here only a week and were just starting to get settled, when—bam! just like that—everything was changing again.
Our video call with my other brother Noah, Micah’s twin, had been going so well—almost like old times—even though Noah was just transferred to a military base in Germany. Noah was telling us about buying a pair of lederhosen and how his German friends had asked him to stop yodeling, since that was a Swiss thing, not Bavarian. Micah and I were telling Noah about the glitzy city people we’d seen in downtown Nashville with their black glasses and designer jeans that even men wore so tight we called them painted jeans instead of skinny jeans. I noticed Mom getting all twitchy, and at first I brushed it off as her missing her son and being worried about the war zone he might be sent to. But her foot kept tapping, and she breathed in and out like someone about to dive underwater.
“Mom, are you okay?” I asked. My brothers, one beside me and one on the laptop screen, turned their attention toward her.
“Um . . .”
Mom begins sentences with “um” when she isn’t sure of what she’s about to say. Our laughter and joking died down pretty fast, and we waited. I almost chuckled at the serious expression on Noah’s face as he leaned closer to the screen from the other side of the world. Then I saw Mom looking as nervous as she did when she told us we were moving to Nashville, and all humor completely dissolved. What was she about to tell us? The last serious news had changed our lives forever.
“Is something wrong?” Noah asked via video call.
“Um, no, no, not at all. Nothing wrong.”
Not a good sign.
“It’s just . . . um . . . Micah and AJ already met my friend, Charles Worthington.”
She turned to the laptop screen and leaned in. “Remember, my friend I told you about? He and his son helped unload some of the boxes over the weekend, and Charles gave me a lot of advice before we moved up.”
“His son was super annoying,” I said with a laugh, hoping to lighten the moment. But Micah gave me an elbow to the ribs, and Mom’s face showed she most certainly didn’t agree.
“They helped us out, and we should be thankful,” she said.
I looked to Noah on the laptop screen for help and then blurted out as a joke, “What, you aren’t dating him, are you?”
Mom’s face flushed to crimson. The boys and I didn’t move.
“It’s a little more than that. I know this will come as a shock, but we’ve known each other since childhood. We were quite close until I went to college and married your father. A few
months ago, he found me on Facebook when he heard I was moving back. All of it has been a shock to me, too.”
“A social media romance? Really?” I heard myself say. Daddy would have told me to apologize for being disrespectful, but this wouldn’t be going on if Dad were still here.
“Wait, what is happening?” Micah asked with a strong undertone that helped Mom just blurt it out.
“Charles proposed. And I said yes, but we won’t get married for a very long time, there’s no rush, we have no plans yet. I still can’t believe he asked me, or that I said yes.”
Our faces must have reflected all horror and no excitement whatsoever. That’s how I felt, anyway.
“Nothing is going to change, so none of you have to worry.”
“Nothing is going to change? Everything is—” I said, but Micah interrupted me.
“Is this for real?” Micah looked as confused as I felt.
“AJ. Micah,” Noah said from the rectangular screen on the counter. His steady expression was a new one, probably honed from boot camp and a year as a soldier. “This is where we say congratulations.”
“But, but—Daddy hasn’t been gone even two years,” I said. Someone had to say it.
I hoped one of my brothers would back me up. I knew they’d hatched a plan to take care of Mom and me with Daddy gone. They were twin brothers who’d never been apart. They always planned to join the Marines after two years of college, when they could go in as officers. They planned to finish getting their degrees after their service.
Then after Dad, my brothers came up with a different plan. Micah stayed working at Daddy’s old auto shop, even after the new owners took over, while Noah enlisted early and sent money home every month. College was no longer mentioned.
“I know how long he’s been gone,” Mom said in a whisper. “I know every day that he’s been gone.”
Our video call ended very soon after that. What more could be said? Just like that, Mom was ending everything. Life as we knew it was going to change, again.
Now I watch Mom dish up thick squares of doughy baked French toast as the room fills with the scent of cinnamon and baking bread. My stomach growls. Mom has always been pretty; everyone says so. Her light hair and stunning blue eyes weren’t passed on to me. I have Dad’s chestnut hair and dark hazel eyes. In so many ways, I’m nothing like her.
I love my mom, but I don’t understand her. With Daddy, everything was easy. We had the same sense of humor—we’d laugh at most everything—and I knew his moods without having to ask or wonder. It hasn’t been like that with Mom, and the idea of her marrying Charles makes the least sense of anything she’s ever done.
Charles is nothing like my father. Besides, any man who goes by the name of Charles, instead of Charlie or Chuck like Daddy, just isn’t someone to know, let alone marry. For that matter, how could Mom marry anyone with the same name as Dad? Charles works in an air-conditioned office and drives a luxury car; his hands look as if they’ve never seen a callus or blister in his life.
Dad’s hands were rough with scars and calluses and stained from auto grease. Dad worked hard every day, yet always took time for the little things. He loved a good sunrise just a tad more than sunset. On road trips, we’d play a game where we’d try naming an engine size by the sound it made. And when we went out for peaches-and-cream snow cones, he savored each bite like a man enjoying his last meal. I’m still convinced he had the best bedtime story voice of any father who ever lived—even friends who stayed overnight agreed.
So this morning I put on one of the T-shirts Dad ordered for his shop that says Chuck & Sons Auto Repair. Wearing it makes him feel close again and shows where my allegiance remains.
“Hey, looking for these?” Micah says after moving his toolbox off the counter. “And didn’t you say you’d give something to the person who finds them?”
He holds up a set of keys and tosses them to me. I catch them easily and rub my thumb and index finger over the lucky silver dollar coin. The coin belonged to my grandfather, then passed to my father, then to Noah, who made it into a key chain. When Noah left for the military, he made me the caretaker of his beloved Jeep and the lucky key chain.
“Yep, I owe you, something great. Soon.”
“That doesn’t sound very promising,” Micah says.
I catch Mom glance at my shirt again. Her expression says she’s seeing something she wants to forget.
Dad promised that when I turned eighteen, he’d add “Daughter” to the shop name if I promised to do the great things he was sure God had planned for me. As a child, I’d cry if anyone said a girl couldn’t work in Daddy’s auto shop. He called me his little grease monkey, and Mom was constantly upset at the dirt and oil on my pink frilly outfits. But in junior high, school and church activities filled my evenings and weekends, and I didn’t have as much time to hand Dad tools or lean under a hood to study the twist of hoses and parts that wove an engine together. I just assumed no matter what I did or where I went, someday that name would be there: Chuck, Sons & Daughter Auto Repair.
I thought we had forever.
“You don’t have to start school today,” Mom says and sets two steaming plates on the counter for Micah and me. She gets
some plastic flatware from the counter, since we haven’t found some boxes quite yet. “You can start on Monday instead.”
“Well . . . I’m a little concerned I’m getting behind,” I say as I move toward the gooey breakfast.
My brother shakes his head to keep from laughing. School is the worst excuse I’ve ever used, but after Mom tried to salvage last night with cheerful stories about how Charles promised to come over today to help unpack boxes and hook up our washer and dryer—though my brother is perfectly capable and most certainly more experienced with a set of tools—I knew I needed to get out of the house. That’s when it became essential that I start school ASAP.
“That’s very responsible of you,” Mom says. She’s trying to sound cheerful, but not succeeding. She pulls a jar of syrup out of a simmering pot on the stove and sets it down with the pot holder by our plates. Now I feel more stabs of guilt, but not enough to make me spend the day with Mom and Charles.
I gobble down the French toast, good as it is, but with starting a new school, I need to get going. I need to get my class schedule and figure out where everything is before the campus is packed with tons of people all staring at the new girl. I’ve never been the new girl before.
I do another quick search through the house and find my missing Converse between Mom’s art and history books, which are stacked precariously on the floor. A sense of being adrift washes over me. Mom would be leaving me in a different way than Daddy did. But she’d be leaving me all the same. My brothers are twins, so they have each other for life. I’m the one who seems lost, the misfit. And soon I won’t have a home at all. Charles’s house will never be home to me.
Would Dad be sad knowing the girl he loved since their
freshman year of college was marrying someone else so quickly? Would he feel sad that we sold his auto shop and moved to Tennessee, and all that was left were the T-shirts he bought us just months before he died?
No matter where we live or what we do, I can’t leave Daddy behind. I’ll wear his shirt every day if that’s what I need to do to show Mom, Charles, or anyone else that Daddy is with us always.
“Bye, Buck-boy. We’ll walk tonight,” I say, bending down to give my dog a good rub on the back that gets his tail wagging.
“I can come with you to meet your counselor. Charles isn’t coming for a while,” Mom says as I enter the kitchen on my way to the door.
“It’s okay. Having my mom walk around with me, as a junior in high school . . . now that might make a bad first impression,” I say with a smile. She nods and chuckles.
“Hey, no dents in Noah’s baby,” my brother says as he dishes up another helping of French toast.
“And don’t you break any cars,” I say, tossing back a line Dad used whenever he left the guys at his auto shop.
“What do you know about it? Have fun at your fancy-schmancy school.”
Before I walk out the door, I go back and give Mom a quick hug. She clings a few seconds and grasps the back of my shirt like a life raft, and then breaks away.
“I love you, Sweetie. I will pray you have a good first day.”
“Thanks, Mom, and thanks for the French toast. It was really good.”
The cold morning makes me shiver as I crunch across the frozen ground toward Noah’s black Jeep. I’m starting a new school in a new state in the middle of my junior year. It is also a
Wednesday—who starts a new high school on a Wednesday in February?
I’m usually as optimistic about life and tough times as Daddy was. He never seemed moved by adversity. So as I drive down the cold country road toward town, I conjure up some hope that today will be just fine and that somewhere there’s an end to this displaced feeling. But despite my little mental pep talk, I can’t help wondering, What if I never feel like my old self again? What if this is how I’ll always feel?